The Man-Eating Tree
Our Special Forces detachment in Germany sent two teams of free fall military parachutists to teach that skill to the Jordanian Army. I was with them.
After the training was completed, the Army attaché organized a party for us in the embassy in Amman. Thither we went in civvies and on our best behavior. There in the garden we stood, balancing wine glasses and behaving with maximum propriety. But alas, we had the inevitable wild card in tow. We called him “Charlie Brown.”
He and two others were talking to an unsuspecting embassy wife who listened with rapt interest to tales well beyond the usual diplomatic banalities. Then Charlie Brown happened to take a half step back into a branch on a huge bush. With no warning whatsoever, Charlie yelled “EEEEYAHTTTT,” and whirled around into a karate on-guard crouch. Then he took a mighty slash at the offending branch.
“Oh my god,” said the unsuspecting lady in huge astonishment. “Please excuse me, ma’am,” said the seemingly mortified Charlie. “That was an instinctive reaction to a time down in Africa when I backed into a man-eating tree.”
“A man-eating tree? Really? How awful.”
“Yes ma’am, a man-eating tree. They grow down along the Congo. They try to keep that quiet. But one got a grip on me once, and, if I hadn’t known kung-fu and slashed the branch clean off, I’d have been a goner.”
With that, the two listening SF troopers had to turn away to suppress smiles. Other wine sippers looked on dubiously. The lady stood agape. So Charlie, on to a good thing, began to embellish the farce. “There were whole forests of such trees,” he explained. “Special self-propelled chopping machines had been developed to hack them back. But the machines were too few. A person had to be on perpetual alert down there,” Charlie went on.
Eventually, several listeners looked away and began to laugh aloud. The poor lady’s face began to turn red. “Oh, you people are mean,” she stammered, and turned away.
Ours was a whole new world of danger for her and she had listened in good faith to this unlikely new terror, but now the joke was over and none of us were happy to see her humiliated. One Green Beret brought her a fresh glass of wine. Another caught her eye, raised a finger to his ear indicating crazy, and tossed his head toward discredited Charlie Brown. For the rest of the evening our guys approached her in ones and twos and finally coaxed her into smiling again. I heard later that one of us had given her a green beret. I hope so. She knew not, but for that one evening, she had made herself one of us. She had reminded us to be our better selves.