Islands In The Sky

One day the teenager next door came across a boon – a sheet of plywood. In those days such a thing was a problematic treasure. We had no way of cutting the thing, but it was there, huge and grand. Often we would use such things as the roof an underground fort, but we had just built a huge underground fort, only to have the parents make us fill it in again. I don’t know how long the teenager debated what to do with his treasure, but I do know this: once he made up his mind, we were his workforce, his day-laborers, his busy and willing hands. And us kids, he was our hero, the one who played with us, and we would do anything he asked, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be. Sure, he abused his power sometimes*, but we loved him, respected him, wanted to be accepted by him, and were all too willing to please him in any way we could.

It was mid-morning when he came over, and somehow or another, he managed to wheedle permission from my mom to build a tree house in our back yard. I don’t know how that went; I rather imagine he just asked my mom, “Hey, do you mind in we build a tree house in your back yard?” – and my mom, typically indoors during the muggier portions of the day, probably just said yes, trusting our safety to his common sense. Sometimes the parents trusted him a bit too much.

So the teenager herds us kids together and states his plan.

We are going to build a tree house. And not in just any tree, but in one of the towering pines – one of the unclimbable giants, those ones with no limbs for at least twenty feet up, covered in rough and scaly bark. And this particular giant is unusually devoid of limbs at the lower levels; we are going to have to haul that sheet of plywood to a span of branches over thirty feet in the air.

Us kids are dumbfounded as we eyeball this tree. It seems to rise on forever; too wide to get our arms around, not the first hand grip or footing anywhere, unless you count the crevasses of the friable bark, which gives way beneath the least amount of weight, or a clawed finger’s pressure. We look at him; he looks at us, and says, “Come on, let’s go get that sheet”.

So we all go over to his yard, and it takes a half dozen of us, huffing and puffing, to drag the thing along. The teenager has the front end, he’s lifted it off the ground, making our jobs somewhat easier – but this thing is heavy! I know my doubts grew with each step; me being only eight years old. The pine tree seems to grow right before my eyes, reaching unscalable heights. “How are we going to get this thing up there?” I silently wonder, running my eyes up and down the tree’s formidable length and eyeing the fork above. But as it turns out, the teenager has a plan.

“Ya’ll wait right here,” he says, also scrutinizing the tree and our small group. He can see our doubts, hear our whispered words. “I’ll be right back.”

So he goes into his yard, back into their barn, and disappears for awhile. Us kids, we approach the tree, trying to scale it – wrapping our arms around it’s girth, but we can only reach a third of the way around. We try to climb it, like rats trying to climb a slippery pole, but it’s obvious to us; something we’ve always known: these forest giants are indomitable; you aren’t going to get up one easily, especially not this one. The only one in the neighborhood that we’ve ever managed to climb is one across the road, in the front yard of our neighbor’s house, due to its unusually low pitched branches. And even then, it almost took one kid’s eye out when he had tumbled down. But there was nothing like being able to get there, all the way to the top – eighty some odd feet in the air, the tree softly swaying – suspended between the ground and the sky. To be able to manage to climb this one – I wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. The idea of having this platform in the sky, in my own back yard, seeing far and wide – it was too appealing to me, and to the teenager as well, I reckon.

Eventually the teenager comes back, with a pocket of nails, some boards – and a long, long rope. Going up to the tree, he begins to nail the boards on, forming a ladder. Up and up he goes, coming back down between boards to get more boards, nailing them on, one at a time. Us kids crane our necks, watching as he climbs higher and higher. Finally he reaches the outspread limbs, and throwing the rope over one, drops both ends to the ground. He climbs down and looks at us. I look at his ‘ladder’ as he takes one end of the rope and ties it around the sheet of plywood. The boards are almost haphazardly nailed on.

“Okay, I’m going to pull the rope,” he says, propping the plywood against the tree. “You kids are going to have to help me.”

So we all get on the end of the rope, and we pull. The ply sheet rises a few feet. We pull. The ply sheet rises a bit more. We keep on pulling – but eventually we can make no more progress. The ply sheet is catching on the ladder, snagging on the bark, and we are all gasping, hands raw from the rope, muscles sore from the constant pulling. It’s hot; the sun has come up full, it’s midday by now, and we’ve only managed to get that board about fifteen feet in the air.

“All right,” the teenager says, staying the rope with his body. “Ya’ll are gonna have to climb up there; help me lift this thing.”

And so we do. Like a swarm of ants we attack the tree, climbing up the rungs of the ladder. Some of us get above the board, others get down under. There are about six of us kids, up in the tree, and we begin to try again.

It was a Titan struggle; a case of many little Davids against a huge Goliath. Those above pulled and kept the board from catching onto the tree, those beneath lifted it with our shoulders, those on the side grasped and tugged with their free hands. So many times we almost fell! I remember almost toppling away, laughing at my brother, watching his legs tremble from exhaustion beneath the board’s weight; his embarrassed anger as he looked down and snarled at me. I had never seen muscles quiver that way, but it goes to show how hard this task was. By the time we got the board up to the branches, my own shoulders and arms were trembling as well. It was hot and exhausting work, with chips of pine bark falling in our faces, covering our half-naked bodies. As always, we were in bare feet and cut-off shorts, but our bodies were toughened and inured to pain; scrapes and cuts and bruises weren’t going to faze us, not in our attempt to please this teenage friend of ours, the one we loved who ruled us.

It was with great difficulty and peril that we finally got that board up there and balanced it across those outspread branches. Climbing out on one limb, toes gripping the bark; delicately balancing thirty some odd feet above the ground, pulling that board – inch by inch – like determined little monkeys, intent on our task, we gave little thought to falling, except when we’d teeter near destruction. Finally we had the thing in its proper place, according to the teenager’s instructions, and he climbed up, nails in his pocket, hammer in his hand, and secured the thing to the branches.

“Now we need to make some walls,” he announced, sitting up there with us puffing kids. “To make sure none of you fall off.” Those walls, I was to discover, were to hide another activity, but that is for another time.

So he goes down and gets some odds and ends of plywood – again from that mysterious barn – and brings them over. Like ants once again, we go up and down the ramshackle rungs of the ladder, bearing our burdens, while the teenager sits above, nailing them into place.

And then finally, suddenly it seemed: we were done. The afternoon sun, already dropping down towards the horizon, shown across our new creation. From the ground I could see it – small as a postage stamp way up there – a small boxy construction, with walls that were only knee high. It was the best we could do with the wood we had, wood being such a precious thing – but it looked like . . . well, it looked unlike any tree house I had ever seen before, or have seen since. In my grownup’s eye it resembles something more like a deer hunter’s stand, with those low walls and wide platform. You couldn’t lean against the walls; they were nailed onto the sides of the platform, the nails driven into the edges of the plywood. If you leaned against them too hard, they would simply give way and send you tumbling down. But they were there, and it was there, and we were all quite proud of ourselves, even if at the time we were too exhausted, dirty and sore to take much joy in our creation. That would come later, the next day, when we would start using this thing.

It was about supper time, for about that time – before we could climb up to enjoy our creation, my mom called us in. After she squirted us off with the garden hose we went inside, our minds full of dreams, our imaginations in the sky.

That fort would become the neighborhood attraction. Not all kids were allowed to go up there; many mothers rated the climb ‘too risky’. But my own mom, in her own way, was proud of us boys as well, for she let us go up there any time of day, and often my best friend and I would go up there to ‘do things’. What kinds of things I won’t say, not here, but this I do know:

It was the hardest work, the hardest job, that the teenager had ever assigned us. It wore out us slaves, the teenager’s servants, building that island in the sky. And today I know: I would of never let my own kids take such a risk, not in that tree, not doing those things. But at the time it was a wonderful thing.

Odd how times change. Or how we’ve changed.

I don’t think we ever considered the risk at all.