The Death-Defying Great Tree Race… Graveyard Tales

Incense Cedar tree in Diamond Springs California graveyard
Now looking old and spooky, this is a photo of the 75 foot tall incense cedar in the Graveyard that I first climbed in the early 1950s. Pop built us a tree house on the lower limbs. It has been long since removed.

Two incense cedars dominated the Graveyard that was out our backdoor in Diamond Springs. 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. But 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 crawl 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 spread out before me. I could see our school, and the mill where my father worked, 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 top sway and stirred my imagination about the far away ground, I figured I was as close to Heaven as I would ever get. 

I could see the whole world. All of Diamond spread out before me. A few years after my first ascent up the tree, I borrowed my father’s camera and climbed up the tree and took photographs of the surrounding country. I think this might have been the first photo I ever took.

By the time I finally made it to the top, Marshall had more grandiose plans for the tree. We would build a tree house on the upper branches. Off we went to Caldor, the lumber mill where my dad worked as an electrician, 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 close 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 fort in the Graveyard that bothered him, or even that we had borrowed his tools and nails without asking. He even seemed to ignore the liberated lumber. His concern was that we were building our fort 60-feet up in the air 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. It was more like a pirate hideout than a Robinson family home, however. Hidden in the tree and hidden in the middle of the Graveyard, it became our special retreat where we could escape everything except the call to dinner. It also became my center for daydreaming and Marshall’s center for planning mischief. He, along with our friends Allen and Lee, would scope out our forays into Diamond and the surrounding country-side. 

A view of the tree today taken from near the house where we lived. Now, imagine 8-10 year old boys racing up and down this tree as fast as they could go.

And finally, the treehouse 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. Death-defying is an appropriate description. 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 losing my grip. 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 Mother’s parents 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 monkey. Each limb was memorized and an optimum route chosen. Tree climbing muscles bulged; my grip became iron and my nerves steel. Finally, the big day arrived and 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 the eighth grade. 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. As a two pack-a-day, sixteen-year-old, cigarette smoker he wasn’t into tree climbing, but how could he resist a challenge from his little brother.

Off we went. Marsh didn’t stand a chance. It was payback time for years of big brother hassles. 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, at the tree house. His sense of humor was minimal. Back on the ground, his bruised ego demanded that he challenge me to a wrestling match and I quickly pinned him to the ground. It was the end of the Great Tree Race, the end of big brother dominance, and a fitting end to my years of associating with dead people.

Next Monday, I leave the Graveyard and head out to explore the Pond and the Woods. Both were magical places that deserved their capital letters and added to my love of nature.

NEXT POST:

Wednesday’s Blog-A-Book from my Peace Corp Memoir: In the fall of 1964, I return to UC Berkeley and find the campus on the edge of revolution.

31 thoughts on “The Death-Defying Great Tree Race… Graveyard Tales

    • Ours was basic but precious, if I can use that word. Like yours it was a great place to play and escape to! I forget, were you raised in England or France? I’m thinking England, but…

  1. I love this post so very much Curt. These three sentences, “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.” made my eyes get teary. Nothing is ever ideal, but your stories of childhood sound close to me.

    • There were the rough parts growing up, Sylvia. But early on, the outdoors became my go-to place for play— and escape. We were ever so fortunate to be raised where we were and have parents who were willing to let us wander. My father was a good man. Thanks much. –Curt

    • Thanks, Ray. Appreciated. My father was a good man who had somehow put off getting married until his late 30s. We were probably enough trouble to make him yearn for his single days.
      I don’t know whether you were raised in an urban or rural environment but I expect that you will agree that it was an age in which parents lacked the paranoia that modern parents have about letting their kids wander and learn about life, sometimes the hard way. And it was magical. –Curt

  2. Our son has carried on the tradition of building imaginative, incredible treehouses for the boys at each house in which they have lived (military lifestyle makes that a challenge but he makes it work!) . My favorite….the pirate ship built between 2 trees! Peggy

  3. What a wonderful story of every kids dream Curt. It reminded me of some silly club I made, vaughly but I can’t remember now… dream or reality… hmmm.

    Boy, that is a wicked looking tree made for boys with dreams for the future turning at least one into the mountain man you are today. Great pic of heaven from that tree. Love the race, the pin and I can imagaine the grin on your face. Fun story! 💖

    • I suspect your climb is a reality, Cindy, and not a dream. It’s the type of experience that is important for a child, filled with adventure, a touch of danger, and a sense of accomplishment. Definitely not silly, whether it is ten feet up in a tree or 70. 🙂
      I just wrote to Annika, that looking back as an adult, all sorts of symbolism could be applied. But certainly climbing the tree involved, focus, being in the moment, and confidence…
      The grin would have been ear to ear. No wonder Marsh was pissed. 🙂 –Curt

      • So lovely said and poetic Curt.
        Yes, it are these moments that make us who we are, give us the fortitude to denfine ourselves and challenge ourselves to find the best we have to offer. You’re so right, no matter how far we climb, it’s that we climb inside of ourselves and grow in the end.
        Lol 🤣🤣🤣 those cigarettes couldn’t have helped him. Hopefully, the pin and the grin, knocked some sense in him. 💖🙏

  4. Curt, what an amazing first every photograph and not as vertigo inducing as your writing of the view from the top of the tree!😀 You and your brother led a wonderfully free childhood but I’m glad your father made you both see sense and to build a grand tree house lower down! It sounds fantastic and just perfect! I loved your description of the final battle of the tree race between you and Marshall — intense and as fresh as if it happened yesterday! Terrific writing! 😀

    • Thanks much, Annika. The tree was a special place when we were growing up, obviously embedded in my memory banks. I suspect all sorts of symbolism could be applied. Certainly climbing up and down required ‘being in the moment.’ 🙂 –Curt

  5. You’re making we want to go tree climbing- great story, Curt!
    I had a graveyard next door, too, and my first paying job was mowing it, but the row of cedars was too low for a tree house (though there was some climbing…) I’m glad you won-and survived-the great tree race!

  6. Oh this was so much fun to read. What a playground you had. I wish there was a photo of the treehouse, but your descriptions of all the shenanigans put me there well enough.

    • In this day and age of digital cameras, I’m sure that there would be a hundred photos, Alison. Or more. 🙂 But I’m glad I was able to capture some of the spirit of the tree. Thanks. –Curt

  7. Excellent story. I never had access to a tree house, but climbed a few trees as a kid. I can’t say I ever achieved monkey status.
    These days, some overprotective type would probably report your parents for child abuse.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed your story and it so reminded me of one my late hubby wrote up about his younger days:

    “Ike Hewitt, the Pentecostal preacher who preached at Mom’s funeral drove up from L.A. to visit. Dad and Jean were in Manteca and had been gone all week. It was the weekend. Ike had his wife and three small children, plus the prettiest little blonde babysitter I had ever seen. She was about 14 years old and it was instant love for Keith, Loren and myself.

    So, being boys, we started showing off for her benefit. We had a large rope hung in the top of a fir tree about 80 feet from the ground. The rope was about 90 feet long, so about 10 feet from the end we had tied a knot. We would climb up another tree about 80 feet in the air and hang onto the end of the rope and jump out going hand over hand until we got above the knot, so as not to hit the ground. We had to climb very fast. Keith and I were taking turns, but Loren was afraid.

    After about 2 or 3 turns we thought we had the blonde really impressed, so we looked around for her. She and Loren were off somewhere not even looking at us. So much for our daredevil love making. Needless to say, after they left Loren caught hell…”

    He was the guy I met in Placerville and married many, many years ago. He was as much of a story teller as you are! 😉

    • Ah, what we used to do to impress young ladies. 🙂 Fun story, and I’m pretty sure it has a moral to it. There was more than one young lady I tried to impress in my youth growing up around Placerville! –Curt

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