Heroic tree trimmer went out on a limb

07/10/2014 6:13 PM

07/12/2014 2:17 PM

A recent story in The Star told of the hazards faced by workers in the tree care industry — accidents that last year claimed 79 lives in this country. This summer, tree trimming accidents claimed three lives in our region.

One summer in the early 1950s, to earn money for fall semester college tuition, I found work with a Kansas City Power & Light tree trimming crew.

For me, afflicted as I am with acrophobia, climbing was out of the question. I was employed as a “grunt” — a ground laborer, gathering up cut limbs, loading them on the truck and passing up tools by rope to the real tree men working aloft.

I witnessed one day during that summer an act of courage beyond any I’d seen before or ever expect to see again.

The morning after a severe windstorm, our crew — a crew chief, a driver, two climbers and one other grunt like myself — answered the call to an emergency in a prosperous neighborhood known as the Country Club District.

On the property line between houses on two streets stood an immense cottonwood tree that had been seriously damaged by the storm.

The tree had two trunks, each nearly three feet in diameter. One stood perfectly vertical. The other leaned on a bit of a slant over the power line between the two properties. The force of the wind had partly split the two trunks at the crotch.

As we went back through the yard on one side, we could hear the threatening screech as the leaning trunk settled more and the split grew wider.

The problem was complicated. If that trunk came down, it would bring the electrical power line with it. And on the other side of the dividing fence — directly in the path of that fall — was a locked garage through whose window could be seen two luxury cars.

The owners were away on vacation, and neighbors had no idea how they might be reached.

Almost without any discussion, the senior of the two climbers pulled himself onto the leaning trunk and began making his way up the incline.

With every foot or so of his ascent, the split at the crotch gave another shriek. Those of us on the ground were terrified, but he continued to climb, dragging a heavy cable with him.

If that huge half of the tree had fallen, it would have taken him with it, probably into the electrical wire, certainly with grave injury. But, miraculously, it held.

He attached the cable as nearly as he could climb to the upper end of the trunk, and dragging it between houses out to the street from where we’d begun, we attached it to the truck as an anchor, and against all odds, the calamity was averted.

In a reasonable way, then, the limbs of that half of the tree were sawed off in manageable lengths, lowered by ropes to the ground and loaded by us grunts on the truck.

Nothing in that man’s manner afterward suggested he’d done anything heroic. But those of us who’d witnessed it knew.

In the 60 years since, every storm has freshened that memory. It is by such courage, and at such risk, that the homes of the rest of us are kept lighted and warmed.

For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.

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