The man paused to catch his breath. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his face to collect on the tip of his nose, tremble for the space of several heartbeats, then drop to the limb on which he rested astraddle, creating an ever increasing dark puddle on the rough oak bark. Climbing a tree was harder than he remembered. His abraded palms and scraped shins were testimony to that. But he had been twelve then, and now he was north of 60.
The air was still warm from the late afternoon September sun, but the first hint of dryness and autumn cool was noticeable, just like it had been when he was twelve and he and his father had hauled a few 2X4’s, some 1X6 planks, nails, and hammers into the enormous oak that dominated their front yard, spreading its branches into the neighbors’ yards on either side, out into the street, and back over their own house.
The horizontal fork, ten feet off the ground, equidistant from the massive, four-foot thick trunk, and the street, had been selected as the ideal spot. That afternoon a little platform, about four feet wide and six feet long with little two foot high walls on three sides, had been constructed, father and son working together, rare but not unheard of. There had been countless groundballs thrown in the backyard and untold pass routes run, but to build something together, that was different.
His father would surprise him again the following month, October, on a Saturday in mid-morning, by suggesting that after lunch they drive over to Ole Miss for a football game. Trips with his father, just the two of them, had been rare, and had never included a college football game, much less an Ole Miss game. The afternoon had been crystalline as only a sun-drenched October afternoon in Mississippi can be, the long, long, hot summer finally supplanted by autumn.
He had thought his father was a football genius with eyes that missed no detail: a flag was thrown in the offensive backfield and his father said “Holding”, then another was thrown during a punt return and his father said, “Another clipping penalty.” Only when the boy was older did he learn that nearly every flag in the offensive backfield was for holding and nearly every penalty on the returning team during a runback was clipping. Even then it did not matter; his father had played football and knew football. Practically everything the boy knew about football, and a lot about life, he had learned from his father.
He would see many more college football games, most with people other than his father, but this was his first and it still lived in all of its idealized, autumn-hued clarity, the precisely lined, emerald field, Ole Miss in crimson and blue, Vandy in black and gold, the rickety bleachers on the visitors’ side, the only seats available for walkups. Funny thing was, he could remember the mood and feel of the day as if the intervening years did not exist, but he not the score. Ole Miss must have won for the memory to be so wonderful.
His father was gone now, lost first to dementia, then completely gone, gone and buried, resting beside the man’s mother under a patch of ground so flat and grassy that it seemed improbable that it held their earthly remains even though he could clearly remember the sickening, hollow thump of dirtclods striking their coffins as the workers began filling the holes in which his parents now rested.
Rested, the man continued scooting out on the limb, gripping the limb desperately on occasion, the rope tied about his waist tugging gently, his goal in sight. The fork that was his destination was not as level as the one had been over 50 years ago, but the man knew how to correct that with shims. Settling into the fork, the man took hold of the rope that ran from his waist to the bundle of lumber and tools on the ground and braced himself. Hand over hand, he pulled the swaying, shifting load up into the tree and settled it across the fork, lunging for the hammer before it slipped from underneath the knotted rope, just as his father had done years before.
The treehouse had been the boy’s own personal retreat. As a man remembered the smell, the feel of Friday afternoons, no school for two days, homework deferred. Even as a man, some Friday afternoons felt almost the same. It was the smell, that first hint of dry fall leaves, that first caress of coolness in the air. It came back in a rush, unexpected, unbidden, welcomed, embraced, the feel of that last year of complete innocence when his world had been narrow, protected.
When he was twelve years old, he would race home from the junior high school – another transition being that sixth graders went to junior high that year – with the latest delivery from the Scholastic Book Services or a new treasure from the library tucked under his arm. Folding up an aluminum lawn chair, he would thrust his book inside, tie his rope to the corner of the chair, and toss the free end of the rope over the limb by the treehouse. Scrambling up the trunk, he would walk out along the broad limb to the treehouse, then pull up his chair and book and settle in among the leaves, leaves on the cusp of changing color but still holding onto summer’s green, a green now gone a little dull and tired, the long, golden rays of the setting sun slanting through them, burnishing them with hints of the colors to come.
It was peaceful, serene. The world passed beneath him unaware, unconcerned, just as it did today in the tree in his own front yard. The man pulled out the first 2X4, seven feet long, and laid it along the left side of the fork. The limb dipped a little at the far end. The man drove a 16d nail through the 2X4 and into the limb at the near end, grabbed a couple of 1X’s and scooted to the far end.
The man brought no level. Rather he decided to eyeball it like his father had done. There was a time for precision as practiced and taught him by his father, but there was an organic quality to a treehouse. It had to fit in and grow from the tree. Sliding the shim under the low end of the 2X4, he sighted along it. Level enough. He drove another 16d nail through the 2X4 and the shim and into the limb. Scooting back to the fork, he drove a couple of more nails to secure the 2X4.
The man was sweating again. The temperature hovered at that range that was absolutely perfect for a person at rest, but only at rest. A little exertion was all it took to start him sweating.
Dropping another 2X4 onto the right side of the fork, the man quickly and surely nailed it down. He quickly arrayed the pre-cut 1X6’s (all five fee long) across the fork on top of the 2X4’s.
They were new, yellow planks, not the grey, weathered ones, reclaimed from some other project that his father and he had used. As a boy he had never used a new plank, board, or nail. All had been scavenged from abandoned projects or repurposed, the nails carefully knocked straight only to frequently bend again when used. If nothing else, as a boy he had developed some pretty impressive hammering skills. At first the boy’s father had said he hammered like lightening. His momentary pride sank at the follow-up: You never strike in the same place twice.
Although true, It had been said in jest, not to be mean. His father had probably heard the same thing from his own father. The boy’s father had grinned, ruffled the boy’s short hair, and said, “Here, let me show you how.”
The man quickly lined up and nailed down the planks and was left with a mostly level, reasonably flat platform seven feet long by five feet wide. He imagined it was the same size as the one his father had built, but knowing childhood memories assumed it was larger.
The man stretched out lengthwise on the platform letting his drying sweat plaster his shirt to his chest while he stared up though the shifting leaf patterns, sun and shadow, light and dark. The greener tops of the leaves still maintaining some of their luster compared to duller lighter undersides.
Why was he doing all of this, building a treehouse of all things? The man honestly did not know. He loved his wife, even more deeply than ever, with a love too deep and committed to be attributed to habit or inertia. He had always been faithful to her despite the opportunities available to most men, having learned the difference between desire and love before he had met her.
His entire family, children, grandchildren, in-laws, nieces, and nephews were a never-ending source of wonder and joy to him. That he could be so loved by so many still filled him with amazement. He accepted it but could not understand it. Why him? He knew he did not deserve it but was thankful for it every day. No, that was not it.
But it could not be his job either. He had been reasonably successful in his career, remarkably so considering his frequent reliance on circumstance as opposed to actual planning. While his job was not perfect, he enjoyed it more than not, as much as any man wondering if he could afford to retire yet, and it paid well, meeting their needs with enough left over for the occasional indulgence.
No, it was none of those things. Maybe it was being nearer the end than the beginning. Maybe it was the loss of so many from those innocent days: parents, teachers, neighbors, Sunday School teachers, even contemporaries, people who had shaped his life, the last living touchstones with those days. The freedom and innocence could never be reclaimed, but faint glimmers like emotional memory washed over him from time to time. Like this afternoon.
Shaking his head and rising to his knees, the man laid the short 2X4’s on the deck and nailed the 1X6’s, three for each pair of 2X4’s, to them to create the kneewall (shinwall?) that would go around three sides of the platform. The boy’s father had thought that would be perfect: three walls with little 45% pieces tacked at the corners and longer uprights at the front joined by a crosspiece. And it had been perfect, perfect for the boy.
Sitting in his lawn chair with his heels resting on the corner of the low wall, the boy had read his first science fiction novel, Mission to Mercury. It was one of the last juvenile books he read, but it added fuel to the fire that the dawn of manned space flight had already lit in his heart and mind, a passion that ruled off and on for years, nearly but not quite shaping his career. He also read his first adult (in terms of not written for children as opposed to a euphemism for raunchy and steamy) novel, The Beasts of Tarzan.
No boy of his age and time had escaped the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the 1930’s and 40’s, and few enjoyed them more. That summer his mother had dropped him off at the hospital gift shop on her way upstairs to see his father who was recovering from routine surgery. In those days children were not allowed on the wards, and the lady who managed the bookstore lived only a few houses down the street from them.
Armed with an incredibly generous 50¢ and faced with a virgin field of comic books arrayed before him, he had eventually settled on the best four at 12¢ each. The problem had arisen as he approached the cash register. The revolving paperback rack had never in his short life caught his attention, but it did this day.
The cover had been mostly burgundy-colored, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS across the top, THE BEASTS OF TARZAN right below. On the bottom half of the cover, Tarzan, a monkey on his shoulder and a spear in his hand, had sat astride a bull elephant with an African warrior in the foreground. The boy’s eyes had never left he book as his right hand reached out of its own volition and set the comics on the glass cabinet on the other end of which was the cash register.
He had lifted the paperback from the rack and had begun thumbing through the book. This was not a Tarzan he knew. This Tarzan was both more sophisticated and articulate and more savage than M-G-M’s Tarzan. He had been transfixed. Inside the front cover there had been a list: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, The Son of Tarzan. The list went on and on, more than 20 titles. The boy had flipped back to the cover. Yes, plain as day in the top right corner, “Tarzan 3.” He had sensed rather than known that he had stumbled onto source material, and a wealth of it at that.
The decision had been difficult. The comics were a known quantity, not so the paperback. For the love of heaven, it had no pictures at all unless you counted the cover. Finally, fatefully, the boy had returned the comics to the rack and laid The Beasts of Tarzan on the shiny glass counter by the cash register. The man could not remember if he had four cents for the tax in his pocket or if his neighbor lady, the cashier, had covered for him. He knew that she would have. Neighbors did that in those days.
Slipping into the waiting room the boy had dived into The Beasts of Tarzan. It would take him a month to finish the novel. He had no idea what Stygian meant or what a denizen was, so he spent a lot of time with a dictionary. But the door to new worlds had been thrown open, and Burroughs introduced him to Africa, Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar.
The man smiled at the thought, memories coming unbidden yet welcome. He knew that if he rummaged around in the closet long enough, he would find that book, his name in cursive on the flyleaf with a ballpoint pen drawing of a loin-clothed Tarzan, one foot resting on a log, spear in hand, quiver and bow across his back.
The man rested, his back against the newly erected wall, his legs stretched out on the floor, ankles crossed, and listened. It was surprisingly still and quiet, little if any breeze, the leaves not even fluttering, very little birdsong. In the distance a dog barked half-heartedly, sporadically, and a solitary crow added its raucous cry on occasion. Then the man heard it. The most wonderful sound, children’s voices at play from the empty lot down the street, rising and falling, crescendo and diminuendo, words indistinct but emotions evident, laced with excitement: Tomorrow is Saturday, and we have not a worry in the world.
The man knew he could never reclaim that, knew when he started this folly that he could not, did not care. His muscles were tired. His wife would have dinner ready soon. He had called it supper as a boy.
But before that, he would climb down and settle into a comfortable chair in the living room with a tumbler of ice and a little bourbon splashed over it at his elbow. His wife’s soft, domestic clatter would drift in from the kitchen. She might even join him with a glass of wine. But until she did, he would look out through the French windows across the lawn to the tree and the tiny, plain treehouse, bathed in the light of the setting sun.
He would pick up his ereader, maybe pull up and read a little of Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars, hold on to the feeling, the illusion, a little while longer, knowing it was fleeting, temporary, maybe a little childish, not really caring.
He would climb down and probably never climb up here again. Maybe his grandsons would though. Maybe they would climb up and lay claim to the treehouse, ask him for some planks and some nails to add on to it, make it their own, make it special. That would be the best, the very best.