Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dad and The Wawona Tree

Jesus "Chus/Jess/Pop/Dad" Puente

My Dad, Jess Puente (1924-2016), loved to tell stories. When one lives for over nine decades, one tends to accumulate a variety of tales to tell about people and events both witnessed and experienced, historical and mundane, confirmed… or not. One of my favorite stories of Dad’s was his account of setting and achieving a very specific lifetime goal.

Though born in California, Jess spent his youth in Spain. His schooling was cut short following the death of his father and he had to work to help support his family as a laborer on farms and properties in the Basque region. His life in “the Old Country” was difficult but one of the things that motivated him to get through those hard times was the fact that he was a U.S. citizen and that he would one day return to the nation of his birth. While that certainly was an important goal for him, it’s not the goal that this story is about.

(Not the photo Jess saw as a boy... far as I know.)
As a boy, Jess saw an old photograph of The Wawona Tree in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. A 2300-year-old giant redwood that had a tunnel carved into it’s base in 1881 for the ecologically questionable purpose of attracting tourists to Yosemite. The photo is said to have depicted an old-fashioned automobile passing through the artificial tunnel.

I don’t recall where Jess saw the image. Perhaps in a book, newspaper or a magazine. Maybe it was an old postcard. At some point, he described this image to someone and declared, “Someday, I’m going to go to this tree and I’m going to drive through it with my very own car.”

Imagine, if you will, a malnourished, poverty-stricken, semi-orphaned, uneducated child-laborer—an indentured servant for all practical purposes—in mid-twentieth-century Spain making such a bold claim, based on a chance viewing of a novelty photo of a tourist attraction in another country on a different continent on the opposite hemisphere of the planet.

Unsurprisingly, young Jess’ stated goal was met with derision. Considering his circumstances at the time, it probably didn’t matter who he shared this obvious daydream with. His family would most likely have been preoccupied with more practical matters—like aspiring to just Level 2 of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If his friends and/or co-workers had similar fantasies, they probably kept them to themselves. The people who retained the back-breaking services of my father and others like him weren’t likely to think of their servants as little more than bipedal beasts of burden who couldn’t conceive of personal achievements beyond working toward their next meal or a relatively safe place to sleep.

Despite this negative reaction, Jess never lost sight of this goal. Of course, he had to get back to the United States first—which he did at the end of World War II. Sometime after returning to the U.S.—and bringing his family back with him—Jess bought a car, traveled to Mariposa Grove in Yosemite and drove right through The Wawona Tree, making sure to block any traffic behind him long enough to immortalize his accomplishment in a photograph of his very own.

(Jess, his car and The Wawona Tree, circa 1950… I guess.)
One would think that proving wrong the naysayers of his youth would be a satisfactory place to end the account but Dad liked to add an important epilogue to his story of triumph. He could not resist pointing out the fact that everyone he told this story to could never accomplish the same goal that he had set for himself as a child in Spain.


In 1969—after a particularly heavy snow storm—The Wawona Tree fell over. Sure, there are other trees with tunnels cut into them, but none of them are the one that young Jess Puente vowed to drive through in his very own car at a time when the odds of even making it out of Franco’s Spain alive were pretty much stacked against him.

(Jess had nothing to do with the fate of The Wawona Tree... far as anyone knows.)