“I can climb that tree, Grandpa,” my six-year old grandson announced proudly to me yesterday. It’s a refrain I’ve heard frequently over the past week from the visiting six-year old. His three-year old brother has similar ambitions, if not abilities. Their father is building them a tree house in Tennessee. It’s the ultimate dream of all impassioned tree climbers.
I remember when my dad (Pop) built a tree house for my older brother Marshall and me in the graveyard next to our house.
I’ve posted earlier blogs about the graveyard’s jungle-like nature. It’s potential as a playground was impossible to ignore. Young Heavenly Trees made great spears for throwing at each other.
That game ended when we impaled Lee Kinser’s hand. Neither Lee nor his parents were happy about this development and our efforts to master spear throwing were brought to an immediate halt. But a greater challenge remained.
Two incense cedars dominated the Graveyard. From an under five-foot perspective, they were gigantic, stretching some 75 feet skyward. The limbs of the largest tree started 20 feet up and provided scant hope for climbing. As usual, Marshall found a risky way around the problem.
Several of the huge limbs came tantalizingly close to the ground at their tips and one could be reached by standing on a convenient tombstone. Only Marshall could reach it; I was frustratingly short by several inches.
Marsh would make a leap, grab the limb and shimmy up it hanging butt-down until the limb became large enough for him to work his way around to the top. Then he would shimmy up to the tree trunk, four to five Curtis lengths off the ground. After that he would climb to wonderfully mysterious heights I could only dream about.
Eventually I grew tall enough to make my first triumphant journey up the limb. Then, very carefully, I climbed to the heart-stopping top, limb by limb. All of Diamond Springs spread out before me. I could see the school, and the mill, and the woods, and the hill with a Cross where I had shivered my way through an Easter Sunrise Service. I could see the whole world.
Except for a slight wind that made the tree sway and stirred my imagination about the far away ground, I figured I was as close to Heaven as I would ever get
By the time I finally made it to the top, Marshall had more grandiose plans for the tree. We would build a tree house in the upper branches. Off we went to the Mill to liberate some two by fours. Then we raided Pop’s tool shed for a hammer, nails, and rope.
My job was to be the ground man while Marshall climbed up to the top. He would then lower the rope and I would tie on a board that he would hoist up and nail in. It was a good plan, or so we thought.
Along about the third board, Pop showed up. It wasn’t so much that we wanted to build a tree house in the Graveyard that bothered him, or even that we had borrowed his tools without asking. He even seemed to ignore the liberated lumber.
His concern was that we were building our house too close to the top of the tree on thin limbs that would easily break with nails that barely reached through the boards. After he graphically described the potential results, even Marshall had second thoughts.
Pop had a solution though. He would build us a proper tree house on the massive limbs that were only 20 feet off the ground. He would also add a ladder so we could avoid our tombstone-shimmy-up-the-limb route.
And he did. It was a magnificent open tree house of Swiss Family Robinson proportions that easily accommodated our buddies and us with room to spare. Hidden in the tree and hidden in the middle of the Graveyard, it became our special hangout where we could escape everything except the call to dinner. It became my center for daydreaming and Marshall’s center for mischief planning. He, along with our friends Allen and Lee, would plan our forays into Diamond designed to terrorize the local populace.
It also became the starting point for the Great Tree Race. We would scramble to the top and back down in one on one competition as quickly as we could. Slips were a common hazard. Unfortunately, the other boys always beat me; they were two to three years older and I was the one most susceptible to slipping. My steady diet of Tarzan comic books sustained me though and I refused to give up. Eventually, several years later, I would triumph.
Marshall was taking a teenage time-out with our grandparents who had moved to Watsonville down on the Central Coast of California. Each day I went to the Graveyard and took several practice runs up the tree. I became half ape. Each limb was memorized and an optimum route chosen. Tree climbing muscles bulged; my grip became iron and my nerves steel.
Finally, Marshall came home. He was every bit the big brother who had been away at high school while little brother stayed at home and finished grade school. He talked of cars and girls and wild parties and of his friend Dwight who could knock people out with one punch.
I casually mentioned the possibility of a race to the top of the Tree. What a set up. Two pack-a-day sixteen-year old cigarette smokers aren’t into tree climbing but how can you resist a challenge from your little brother.
Off we went. Marsh didn’t stand a chance. It was payback time for a million big brother abuses. I flew up and down the tree. I hardly touched the limbs. Slip? So what, I would catch the next limb. Marsh was about half way up the tree when I passed him on my way down. I showed no mercy and greeted him with a grin when he arrived, huffing and puffing, back at the tree house.
His sense of humor was minimal but I considered the results a fitting end to The Great Tree Race and my years of close association with the Grave Yard.