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Cherry tree, Washington

Cherry tree, Washington

Stateside with Rosalea

By Rosalea Barker

One of my daily rituals is to look at DIP on - the San Francisco Chronicle's on-line site. Day In Pictures is a little slide show, chosen by the Chron's photo-editors, of the pix from around the world and the nation that are on the news wires. Three pictures caught my eye last Friday: the first was of a young girl bent over in grief at the funeral of her uncle, who'd died in Iraq. I don't recall which branch of the US military he was with, and wouldn't want to do his memory a disservice by guessing it. The main point is that it was a very simple picture of very ordinary people here in the US coping with the reality of war.

The very next picture was of an Iraqi man bent over in grief at the bedside of his niece in a hospital. The right side of her face and neck were covered in bloody lacerations as the result of being caught up in the reality of war. Both photos were shown with no comment other than the place and time and the family relationships involved. The slide show then went on to its usual fare of cute pets and pretty sunsets interspersed with other hard news photos.

The third photo that caught my eye was of a couple sitting under a cherry tree in full blossom in Washington DC. The stunning ferocity with which those trees are blooming at this moment also made them the camera's subject on the Sunday morning magazine programme on CBS. Of course, "cherry tree" and "Washington" go together like "apple" and "pie" here in the States, so I was prompted to look up 'Our Country's Founders: A Book of Advice for Young People' to better aquaint myself with why that should be so.

This book of advice for young people was published in paperback in 2001, and is edited by William J. Bennett, who says in his introduction that it is, "in large part, a book of advice for how to be a good citizen and a worthy member of civil society. The advice comes not from me but from the men and women who founded this nation, our Founders." One of whom was George Washington, whose most famous utterance was "I cannot tell a lie."

Turns out, according to Bennett, that we don't know if Washington ever did actually say that, but his biographer, Parson Weems, made it part of the story. You see, six-year-old George was given a hatchet, and having exhausted the possibilities afforded by the pea-sticks in his mother's garden, he decided to try it out on his father's beloved cherry-tree "which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it," according to Parson Weems.

When his father asked who killed the cherry tree in the garden - again according to Weems' fanciful telling of the story - George looked at his father "with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, and bravely cried out, 'I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.' " To which his father replies that he's glad George cut the tree because he's paid his father for it a thousand fold, by showing he is brave enough to tell the truth.

"Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

I'd like to leave this little story at that, but I've missed out one of the vital elements in Weems' tale: at the time of his confession, George Washington had the hatchet in his hand.

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