In the Hollow of an Oak Tree

March 17, 2008
By Daniel Robbins, Bedford, NY

I brushed off a pile of orange and yellow leaves, placed my camera bag on the ground next to me, and sat down on the wooden bench. Even though it was only October, a December wind lapped against my numb face, beckoning me to return home and enjoy a warm mug of hot chocolate. Nevertheless I remained, and as I surveyed the park, it seemed to be alive with the fervor of spring. Children elatedly chased each other around a playground, soccer moms power-walked with dogs flouncing at their sides, and a group of teens played a pick-up game of football on the meticulously manicured field in the distance. As I watched two young boys cheerfully dive into a large pile of leaves next to my bench, it occurred to me that this park would be easier to photograph for L.L. Bean than for National Geographic.
Even so, I scanned my surroundings for the presence of wildlife. It was to no avail. Geese, it seemed, were the animal kingdom’s sole representative in the bustling park. But who wants to look at a photographic exposé about geese? After all, anyone can pack a bag of last week’s stale bread, stroll down to their local park, and watch a myriad of undaunted geese come squabbling up to their feet for food. Nevertheless, I snapped a couple of pictures of the park, placed my camera back in its bag, and headed home.
The next morning I awoke to yet another uncharacteristically frigid day. As I regretfully rolled out of bed, I caught sight of the camera bag and hoped yesterday’s pictures would be good enough for my fastidious editor. I spent the rest of the day isolated in a darkroom, printing photos of the park and then placing them on the drying rack to be critiqued later. After a hasty evaluation, the pictures seemed to be mediocre at best, though I confidently reassured myself they would suffice. And after quick dinner break (a Starbucks Frappuccino and a PowerBar) I returned to the darkroom for a more thorough examination. Each picture expressed exuberant humans in their daily lives, but where were the deer, the frogs, or the birds, even the unwanted squirrel that ranks significantly above geese.
As I skeptically searched every picture from corner to corner, hunting for some sort of wildlife, I became more doubtful with each photo that I’d find anything. And when I picked up the final photo in the stack, I stared at the ground, depressed by another futile day of work.
But then my heart lurched. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. I spun around, accidently knocking neatly filed negatives and piles of books to the ground. I grabbed the last photo in the stack and stared closely at a hollow in an oak tree in the background of the picture. It seemed that a small tape recorder the width of a pencil had been discreetly tucked in the shadows of this hollow. Who would leave a tape recorder in a tree? My mind suddenly flashed back to a spring vacation I had taken a few years ago to Washington D.C. with my wife and two kids. In an overcrowded tour of the International Spy Museum, I vaguely remembered the guide mentioning that spies often use “drop-off points” to leave clues for fellow spies. I was invigorated at the idea of a clandestine espionage plot, and began to run to my car to return to the park. Why would a spy choose a park as a drop-off point? My mind raced.
I stopped, reprimanding my juvenile imagination for most likely transforming a thin shadow in the hollow of a tree into a tape-recorder. It was probably nothing more than a small snake, recoiling at the presence of oblivious humans. Nonetheless, it would be worthwhile to go back to the park just to photograph the snake as they do rank significantly above geese. And with a logical reason in store, I headed back to the park.

As I passed the bench I had sat on the day before, I could now clearly distinguish an object nestled in the inconspicuous hollow. I approached slowly, quietly taking my camera out of the black bag slung around my shoulder. As I came even closer, I realized a snake surely would have moved by now, recoiling at the presence of an intrusive human. The object, however, was no snake, but a pencil thin, metal recorder as I had imagined in the darkroom. I quickly glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, and reached for the recorder. My hand numbed as the cold metal rolled around in my palm. Millions of thoughts involuntarily swirled through my mind. Should I play the recording? Call the cops? Put the recorder back in the hollow as its owner had intended?
Against my better judgment I pressed play and listened. The quiet, hurried voice of a young man now emanated from the recorder, speaking rapidly in a foreign language as if giving instructions. As a photographer, I had travelled the world. And with the exception of a few key phrases such as “can I take your picture,” I knew no other language besides English. Nevertheless, I could easily recognize the standards: Spanish, Italian, French, etc. But this language was unfamiliar and unlike any dialect that had ever crossed my ears. I silently pocketed the recorder, and decided to head to the New York Police Department headquarters just a few blocks away.
Upon arriving, I explained the story to the receptionist at the front desk, who then contacted one of the NYPD’s translators. For some unexplainable reason, I expected a Sherlock Holmes-like man to come striding out of the elevator with a cigar hung limp between his lips and a magnifying glass in hand. But when the translator finally arrived in the lobby, his youth surprised me. I told the story yet again and then pressed the play button. As the recorder played, the young translator’s once rosy face now quickly paled. His eyes bulged and his jaw slowly dropped. He turned and ran down the hall towards the NYPD Counter-Terrorism Office. As I called out to ask what the matter was, it was too late. The translator was gone.

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This article has 1 comment.

Jessmkat said...
on Feb. 19 2010 at 11:39 am
Jessmkat, Winner, South Dakota
0 articles 0 photos 2 comments
Nice... A little slow to get into, but otherwise it's pretty impressive. Good work!

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