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Jen was braver than all of us, so she was the one who actually made our tree the tallest in Lewis County. I went along and carried the saw. It wasn’t really like me, but I did it because the boys chickened out at the last minute and we had to do something about Napavine.
You might wonder how an entire girls’ basketball team could sneak into town under the noses of their biggest rivals, but we didn’t have a game that night and Napavine was playing a Class A school up by Olympia. So nobody was there to actually catch us.
My town of Hemlock, Washington, is named after a tree. Not after a famous American, not after an ancient city in Europe, but after a type of fir tree that resides on the same part of the earth we do. We make our living from the hemlock and a few others like it, but we don’t take the trees for granted like some people do. We’ve worshiped them for as far back as anyone can remember. That’s why we would risk life and limb to shinny up the wimpy Douglas fir that stands in front of the Napavine City Hall and lop six feet off the top so that our tree, the mighty Hemlock in front of our City Hall, would be the tallest in Lewis County.
What made it especially good was that our boys’ team was at a scrimmage in Evaline, so they all had alibis. And nobody would have thought to blame the girls’ team for such a boy thing to do. Girls in Hemlock weren’t expected to do much of anything. Maybe that’s why it made our team even stronger. It helped us jell as a unit, and I think it made us believe we could win it all. Our coach, Ms. Cochran, had told us we were headed for big things. She said that when a team gets as close as we had the year before and takes risks the way we had, it can only spell future success on the court. We believed her and took every opportunity to let it be known.
In fact people might have gotten sick of us marching down Main/56, weaving in and out of our line.
Jen, Freddie, Mavis, Lena, and I clapped and sang with every bounce. Some of the players from the boys’ team would yell at us from their cars, and it only made us bolder. It made us raise our voices so we were practically screaming through town. Mom said we sounded like an army drill regiment as we sang, “Go Jacks, go Jacks, go Jacks,” till our voices cracked like raspy old saws. Jen always brought us back on key. She was the team leader; we all focused on which way she was going to move. Being 6'1", I kind of stuck out in the middle of the pack, but that didn’t keep us from being smooth. We meshed together like we were all one body. We might as well have been. We’d been born and raised in Hemlock. Tree sap was the glue that held us together.
After the cutting we took our turns guarding the new tallest tree in Lewis County, to protect it from anyone who had a plan to make it shorter. We all smirked at one another. It was fun being the only ones who knew we had made it happen. When our shift was over, the boys’ team would take over for us. We’d slap their hands like it was a tag team wrestling match. Some of the boys suspected what we’d done, and I think they actually appreciated it. I know my brother, Benny, did. Not enough to give the girls any credit for it, though. Those were the good old days in Hemlock: things moved like they were supposed to. But that was last year. Things are a little different now.
I come from a family of tall people. In my town that makes you better at trimming the high spots on trees or playing basketball. Sometimes both. My dad, Buzzy Jacobsen, is one of those. He was a foreman at the Fostoria Mill and also known as the best damn basketball player to ever come out of the area. He’s 6'3" and the kind of guy who bowls you over. My mom, Merilee Jacobsen, is 5'11", but Grandpa Jacobsen always said the tape measure was off and she’s taller than that. Grandpa used to run the town barbershop, and I guess it was his job to size up the new prospects. We reached our peak in 1981, my dad’s senior year, when the boys’ team went to the State tournament.
But after that basketball’s future in Hemlock was looking grim. Mom says you could see all the boys in town lined up outside the barbershop, and not a one of them broke six feet. So when my mom and dad went on their first date the year after graduation, visions of a State championship just a generation away dazzled all the men in town. Grandpa gave them money to go out, and all the parents turned their heads the other way when Mom and Dad drove to the parking lot of the Fostoria Mill to get to know each other better. All that for the future of basketball. And people say arranged marriages happen only in other cultures.
I live in a desperate town. Just outside the town limits is a sign that Grandpa Jacobsen bought and paid for. It says:
Welcome to Hemlock
Home of the 1981 Boys’ Class B Basketball Ninth Place Finisher
Lots of small towns have these signs, but here’s the thing: There is no ninth place in Washington State high school basketball. My town made it up. There are only eight places. Sure they went to State, and they almost got a trophy, but they were eliminated on the next-to-last day and finished just out of the running. So there you have it. In my town all your hopes and dreams boil down to two things: hoops and trees.
Grandpa Jacobsen’s plan to produce a star player actually almost worked. On their first try Mom and Dad came up with a baby boy, my brother Benny, who was the smoothest, smartest, most confident player since my dad. In his junior year Benny broke my dad’s league records for scoring and rebounding. He led the Hemlock Lumberjacks to the brink of the State tournament, losing to Adna on a controversial call at the buzzer that the people of Hemlock still write letters to the editor about. That ref will never work the Western Lewis County League again.
Hemlock was all set for Benny’s senior year. This was going to be it—the year of years. Finally, all that hard work was going to pay off. My parents had already reserved a room for five nights in March at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, where the Class B tournament is held every year. We were good sports and braved a so-so football season. Then we rejoiced when basketball practice officially started in November. It was my junior year, and I was taking it all in. I was on the girls’ team, and we were no slouches ourselves. Under the expert coaching of Ms. Cochran, and with a little help from her assistant, Mr. Hobbs, we ended up winning eighteen out of twenty- six games that season, and I was the leading scorer.
The boys and girls practiced at opposite ends of the gym, and sometimes I stopped what I was doing just to watch my brother. It reminded me of a slow-motion shot of a racehorse, the way its muscles flex and stretch and gather together in a bunch as it runs. He galloped around the court like a thoroughbred. The first game of the season he scored thirty-two points, but he didn’t strut around pounding his chest like some guys would. He took it calmly and hit the practice court the following day, preparing for the next game. Benny was a pro.
That season the Lumberjacks won their first six games, including a big home win over Napavine. Benny was averaging twenty-eight points a game. The team was winning by big margins. The whole town was one big happy family. The first polls came out, and we were ranked seventh in the state. My dad and all his friends at the Jacobsen Barber Emporium were grabbing the boys off the street and putting them up against the doorjamb of the shop, checking to see if they’d grown any in the past few days. That doorjamb is filled with pencil marks and initials from clear back to the Stone Age. It was shaping up to be a guaranteed dream season. Then right after the New Year came the night of the Boistfort game.
The bleachers were packed, and everyone was screaming. People actually had to stand three deep by the stage next to the court in order to watch the game. It sure made the fire marshal nervous. That night we girls won our game by fifteen, and afterward the boys took theirs by an even twenty. My mom was hugging my dad, and a college scout stopped to talk to my parents for a few minutes after the game. It was a big night in Hemlock. But you can have all the fun and laughter and hope and promise in one second, and in the next second all those things can take wing and fly to someone else’s town.
After the Boistfort game, Benny and his friends drove around the back roads celebrating the big win.
Sometime in the middle of the night Benny said goodbye to them and started to drive home. What happened next would have made sense if Benny had been drinking, but there wasn’t a drop of alcohol in his veins. So it’s still a mystery why his car left the road at ninety miles an hour and slammed into one of those very same evergreen trees that our town is named after.
The wreck was discovered just a half hour later, but by then my brother’s life was over. And that’s when things started to change. For me and for everybody in Hemlock.
Copyright © 2005 by Edward Averett.
Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.