Every two or three weeks for the last 10 years, retired truck driver Dave Manson has been getting up early, throwing on some work clothes and leaving his Langley house to drive west along Highway 1 to the Surrey overpass.
He makes the turn to get on the eastbound lanes heading back toward Langley, then pulls over just west of 192 Avenue where the freeway makes a small bend around Charlie’s Tree, the centuries-old Douglas Fir that became a roadside memorial to Canada’s fallen soldiers before it fell down last year.
Manson will spend two hours or more cutting grass, chopping down encroaching bushes, looking after the flags that fly on the site and other maintenance.
He says he started taking care of the site because of how run-down and overgrown it had become.
“I drove truck by there, day in and day out,” Manson says.
“I just got tired of looking at it, and I knew the history behind it.”
In 1919, to honour all of Canada’s fallen soldiers, First World War pilot and flight instructor Charlie Perkins planted ivy around the base of the centuries-old big tree, located on the Perkins family farm at the time.
In an interview with Black Press, Charlie’s son, Larry Perkins, said his father had a passion for flying, forming the B.C. Aero Club with some like-minded young men who pooled their money and brought a “rickety old plane” up from the States to practise and learn on. Later, they built their own plane.
When the war came, Perkins became an instructor.
“Because dad had a smatter of what it is to fly and the rudiments of flying, he was put into the Royal Flying Corp (as a flight instructor in Ontario) because there wasn’t a Canadian military flight.”
Perkins acted to preserve his tree during the 1960s, when plans for the new Trans-Canada Highway would have run the freeway right over the tree, lobbying then highways minister Phil Gaglardi to bend the route around the memorial instead.
The eastbound curve in the road remains to this day.
Though the story goes that Charlie sat in front of the tree with a shotgun in an attempt to save it, his son said that was not the case.
“There is absolutely no truth to the report that dad sat in the chair with a shotgun when the bulldozers came. He wasn’t that type of person.”
As someone familiar with the story, Manson was bothered by the fact much of the tree was obstructed by overgrown bushes.
One day, Manson pulled over and found a small marker on the site from a local Royal Canadian Legion to explain the significance of the tree. He looked up their number and phoned to say he planned to clean up the site.
“I talked to the Padre (at the Legion), told him what I wanted to do and he said, ‘God bless you, my son’.”
Manson returned and attacked the bushes with a “chopper” and went after the crab grass with a weed-eater.
“I tamed it a bit.”
Besides the freeway, the tree had also survived an arson attack by vandals that saw it topped, leaving just the main trunk.
It was not in the best of health, Manson says.
The ivy surrounding the base likely caused the trunk to rot, hollowing the tree out, Manson says.
“Its days were numbered.”
So when the tree fell in the summer of 2016, it was not a surprise.
READ MORE: ‘Charlie’s Tree’ crashes down on Highway 1
It came down hard, blocking two eastbound lanes of Highway 1 while crews worked for hours to remove the splintered wood.
Some of it was left next to the stump, as a reminder of what used to be there.
It could have been a sad end to the story of Charlie’s tree, but by then, Manson had allies.
Before the tree fell, it had attracted the interest of a group of Lower Mainland historical preservationists with a just-do-it attitude similar to Manson’s.
The Friends of Old Canada Society, a Surrey-based registered non-profit, has a history of seeing a thing that needs doing and just doing it, fixing up overlooked historical sites by repairing cemeteries and placing historical markers to commemorate little-known vents.
Its mission statement describes it as a “volunteer, not-for-profit group helping promote and preserve smaller Canadian history, which often gets forgotten and lost between the cracks.”
One of the Friends who lives in Fort Langley, Peter Van Der Zalm, said they were thinking putting a stone marker at Charlie’s tree might be worth doing.
But before they did that, they needed to talk to whoever was looking after the site first, and that turned out to be harder than expected.
“We wanted to find out who had the site” Van Der Zalm says,.
“We talked to all the Legions. Nobody knew.”
Then, one day, Van Der Zalm was driving eastbound on Highway 1, when he spotted Manson, in bright yellow foul-weather gear, working on the memorial site.
He worked his way back, pulled over and introduced himself.
“That’s the first time we ever met” Van Der Zalm said.”
Before the tree fell, the Friends, with the support of Manson and the Perkins family, were planning to put up a stone marker at the site.
When the tree fell, the project was expanded to include replacing the fallen Douglas Fir.
And so, in mid-October, some of the Friends descended on the site with a backhoe.
Over several days, they smoothed out the uneven ground around the stump, poured concrete to support the marker and a flag and scooped out a space in the stump of the fallen tree, where they planted a new Douglas Fir.
The chest-high granite marker says (in both official languages):
“The ivy planted at the base of a giant Douglas Fir on this site was a memorial to North American WW1 Royal Flying Corp pilots. The pilots were trained in Canada and the United States by lifetime British Columbian Charlie Perkins, the man behind the memorial.
“It was total volunteerism at its best,” Van Der Zalm said.
The Friends aren’t done with Charlie’s Tree.
Van Der Zalm says they want to add a QR code to the monument so visitors can use their smartphones to access online information about the site.
They would also like to put together funding for a documentary about the tree and its resurrection.
Dave Manson, meanwhile, continues to make regular visits to Charlie’s tree.
He cannot say enough good things about the Friends and their can-do approach to upgrading the site.
“They just did it,” he says.
“It’s quite a change.”
He is sure Charlie Perkins would approve of the improvements, with the 100th anniversary of his tree just a year or two away.
“The old tree never made it, but there’s a marker (and a new tree) now.”
Manson has kept a note in a plastic cover that was left after the tree fell down last year.
“Although your “Charlies” tree has fallen .. you all still stand tall in our hearts! May each and every veteran be proud of their service and those that have fallen. Rest in peace. Bless you all.”
“Nice,” Manson says, as he hold it up for a photo, then gently puts it back on the base of the stone marker.
- files from Black Press