JIM DODSON: The Old Man And the Tree
I went to see Howard Troutman the other afternoon because he struck me as the very definition of optimism.
A few weeks back, Howard planted several hundred tiny longleaf pines on his land in Pinebluff.
"How many trees was it exactly?" I asked him as we settled down at a table in his cheerful den. Howard's wife Cecilia and son Howard Jr. joined us.
"Oh, I don't know, " Howard replied with a little smile. "I ordered 500 from the North Carolina Forest Service in Eastwood. It was about that, I guess."
On an ordinary news day, a retired farmer planting 500 longleaf seedlings on his land probably wouldn't challenge the economic crisis for room above the page's fold.
But Howard Troutman turned 100 years old in January. With the help of his son, Howard Jr., and daughter, Marie, he essentially planted an entire new forest of North Carolina's most fabled pine tree.
Here's more or less how the division of labor went. Howard Sr. prepared the 2-acre plots with his beloved Allis-Chalmers tractor, a 1946 model that's almost as mechanically spry as its owner. Howard Jr. made the planting holes with a device supplied by the Forest Service while daughter Marie popped the longleaf seedlings into the holes.
"I came along and tamped the dirt down with my foot just to make sure they were in good and snug," Howard explained.
"Why longleaf pines?" I asked him.
"Because they live a long time,' he replied. "And they make good pine straw. There used to be a lot of them around here."
Howard knows his pine tree lore. Before the Europeans arrived and began hacking them down, the longleaf pine dominated from East Texas to Southeast Virginia, covering 90 million acres of coastal plains in at least six states.
Moreover, for the first 5-12 years of life, a longleaf pine grows exceedingly slowly, resembling nothing so much as a tiny green fountain, then explodes robustly upwards and out for the next 150 years before reaching maturity. Some have been known to live for 500 years or more. A famous one reportedly still stands in Weymouth Woods, believed to be at least 400 years old.
That means it would have been standing there when Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope to the skeptical lawmakers and church authorities in Renaissance Rome. Only slightly larger when explorer Henry Hudson discovered Delaware Bay and the river that would eventually carry his name.
As great trees go, in fact, the longleaf is a dynamo of biodiversity and longevity, supporting everything from the nesting habits of the red-cockated woodpecker to the pitch and turpentine industry of Colonial America.
Its seeds and pine cones form a significant food chain for birds, insects and other wildlife. Plus, it's the only tree specifically mentioned in an official state drinking toast, which begins, "Here's to the land of the longleaf pine, the summer land where the sun doth shine "
Its only real threat is human beings. Over-harvesting, urban development and decline of natural longleaf habitat decimated most of the longleaf's original native populations, though several Southern states, including our own, have undertaken significant longleaf restoration programs.
Early Move to Addor
Which bring us back to Howard Troutman, retired farmer and active centenarian, friend of the longleaf pine -- the Old Man and the Tree, as I quickly came to think of him.
Howard was born in January, 1909, the year Admiral Peary reached the North Pole, construction on the Titanic began, and a Hackensack housewife became the first woman to drive entirely across America -- needing just 59 days in an open-topped automobile. So Howard knows a good bit about longevity, too.
Before he was knee-high to a young longleaf, Howard Troutman was also a dynamo of biodiversity. His father, Albert Preston Troutman, had been a teacher, farmer, postmaster and employee of the Belk Brothers of Charlotte when Henry Page of Aberdeen convinced him to purchase land in Addor -- then called Kiser -- and move his family to Moore County.
"I was two years old when we got here," Howard (whose middle name is "Henry," after Henry Belk) explained. "I had three older brothers and three younger brothers, plus one sister. I was the one in the middle."
At 18, Howard was driving the school bus in Aberdeen when pretty 12-year-old Cecilia Fiddner got on his bus. Her daddy was the express agent for the Seaboard Railroad in Aberdeen. Five years later, give or take, one pretty June morning, they eloped together to Bennettsville, S.C., where a clerk of the court married them.
"He looked at me and asked how old I was," Cecilia, 94, remembered. "I told him I was 18 -- well, maybe just 17," she blushed. "Anyway, he married us." She smiled wistfully at me across the table, perhaps seeing in her head that day she was a perfect June runaway bride. "It was a beautiful summer day, full of sunshine," she added. "We were very happy. We'd just run away together."
By that time Howard had two years at Wake Forest College under his belt. "I'd told my father I didn't want to be a farmer."
"He was originally going to be a dentist," provided his bride helpfully. "But he changed his mind."
"We came back here, and her father took me up to Carthage and deeded us two acres right across the road from him -- probably thinking he should keep an eye on us," Howard allowed wryly.
Hard Working People
So Howard Troutman became a farmer after all.
In 1939, Howard built the handsome white frame house on Currant Street Extension where they live today. He landscaped it, built equipment barns and storage sheds, and laid out a massive vegetable garden. He planted tobacco, which he harvested and hung to dry in his barns all by himself, then took off to market in Aberdeen when it was ready to sell.
Cecelia put up vegetables for the winter, and made cakes and pies she sold for extra income at the Woman's Exchange in Pinehurst. She also took an LPN course and worked as a nurse for a physician in Pinehurst for a time. They had one son, Howard Jr., and two daughters, Ruth and Marie.
"Those are two of the hardest working people you've ever seen," says their neighbor of half a century, Tom Howe of Aurora Hill Farm. "I think that's the key to their longevity. Howard could out-work any man I ever saw. He was a catbird, always on the go.
"When he got to retirement age, it was like he paused only to catch his breath. To this day, about the only thing he ever stops for is the six o'clock evening news."
Howard retired, at least in theory, when he reached age 65. That was 35 years ago, if you're doing the math, 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned from office, the first oil embargo happened, and a first-class stamp cost just 8 cents.
"I used to stop and think about the things Howard has seen in his life, the history he has witnessed," Tom Howe marvels. "He probably saw the first car before anyone else in Moore County, maybe the first airplane to fly overhead. He worked straight through the last century and he's working through this one, too."
"I quit growing tobacco and started growing small grain crops and raking pinestraw," Howard explained of his retirement years. "And I quit smoking even before the surgeon general said it was no good for your health. I figured that out on my own."
Two years ago, Troutman kith and kin assembled to celebrate Howard and Cecilia's 75th wedding anniversary. A lot of the same folks -- including the 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- came together again in January to usher Howard into his next century of life. "There was no presents allowed," Howard was quick to point out.
I asked Cecilia if she made the centenary birthday cake. She laughed. "Goodness, no. But it was very good cake. Tom Howe stood up and told all kinds of funny stories about Howard."
Then I asked her the key to a long and happy life. After all, she's only 6 years behind her longleaf pine of a husband.
"Eat good food," she replied, "go to bed early and get up early. Work hard and don't fuss too much. Enjoy every day if you can."
Since we were on the subject, I asked Howard the same question. He looked at me as if I might be seriously wet behind the ears. Then again, I'm almost half his age.
"Work hard," he said, and laughed.
Good answer for a fellow who still drives his Park Avenue wherever he wishes to go. Howard also does the grocery shopping and runs errands for his runaway bride of 77 years. He prunes his own shrubbery, too, and still rakes up pine straw.
Howard Jr. recently caught his dad way up a ladder cleaning out the rain gutters. The holes for Howard's famous tomato plants are already dug and limed in his spring garden. He expects to have another big crop this year, maybe some squash and melons too, more to give family and neighbors.
And then there's the pine trees, the longleaf forest he recently planted. Five hundred years from now nobody will probably have a clue how those trees got there.
"But in 10 or 12 years," Howard informed me, "they ought to be something to see -- producing some nice pine straw."
I didn't bother to ask the Old Man and the Tree if he expects to be around to rake it up. But I certainly wouldn't bet against him.
Contact Jim Dodson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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