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Apple Day was the best day on South Komensky Avenue

The older boys in the neighborhood climbed high up in the tree and shook its branches until it rained apples.

AP Photos

In memory of an end-of-summer tradition known to John Fountain and his neighbors on the West Side block where he grew up as “Apple Day,” this week’s column is an excerpt from his memoir, “True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope & Clarity”

An autumn wind blows through this old apple tree. My eyes have often massaged its variegated ruby red, yellow and green apples that dangled like Christmas ornaments from its branches for as far back as I can remember.

I have studied Mr. Newell’s tree next door for many seasons, from my bedroom window, from my backyard, or on idle afternoons from my porch when it was too cold to play outside. I have watched it in the cold dead of winter, when it has been warmed by sun or whipped by wind or rain.

And I am still amazed at its life and death, then its resurrection come each season.

The tree, with its wide brown bottom and sprawling emerald limbs, seems to have always existed. It is rooted in the middle of Mr. Newell’s backyard. But it is ours too. It belongs to the whole neighborhood: to me and to one of my best friends, Elvis…

To Mercury, J-Rat, Huckey and Big Head Ronnie, to my cousins Arty and Michael. To Blue Moon and his brothers, Horse and Jimmy Lee, to the Stuart boys — Big Mike, Lou, Rob and David — and to every other man, woman, or child who lived on Komensky or who hung out here with enough regularity to be considered a resident of the block.

A silver fence in the middle of a green grass sea has always shielded this apple tree here in the 1600 block of South Komensky Avenue on Chicago’s West Side. The fence wasn’t always so stark. Neither was life.

If the second-best day on Komensky was the Block Club party, the best was Apple Day.

My family and I lived only a fence away from Mr. and Mrs. Newell. Their names were Dewey and Bessie Lee Newell. But for we kids, every adult’s name was always Mr. or Mrs. Or Miss.

In addition to being president of the Komensky Block Club, Mr. Newell was the elder statesman. Sometimes that old man treated his flowers, fat green hedges, grass, and trees like they were human, especially his apple tree.

On some summer days, after it rained, I scooped up apples that had fallen into my own backyard. Mostly, we had to wait until that day at the end of summer when Mr. Newell invited the while block into his backyard.

On Apple Day, the older boys in the neighborhood, including Arty, who was two years older than I was, climbed high up in the tree and shook its branches until it rained apples.

I can still see Arty with his pearly, buck-toothed smile, grinning as he climbed higher and higher and higher, like Tarzan the Ape Man, while my friends and I and all the grown-ups stood around, baking in the sun with anticipation. The air filled with oohs and ahs each time the apples showered down.

“Arrr-daaaay! Shake it, mannn, shake it!” I screamed.

I was always half-afraid that Arty was going to fall and break a leg. In the end, he always climbed down, brushed himself off, and collected his share.

Much of what fell to the earth on those days got turned into applesauce, apple preserves, cinnamon apples, apple pies, and cobbler. Getting food from my backyard was something a poor city boy like me could really appreciate.

In time, Mr. Newell found it necessary to erect a wire-and-pole fence around his front lawn.

Later, he took to padlocking his front and back gates to protect the old apple tree as the Promised Land slowly disintegrated into a tarnished land where it was not clear that any of us or even our dreams would survive.

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