Tree’s Eye View

“That’s crazy!”

This was put succinctly by one of the three of us as we stared up at the pine tree with a combination of awe, temptation and raw, unmitigated, pounding fear in our chests, thumping like a bag full of jackrabbits. We were kids and as such, mostly immune to things such as common sense and thinking about consequences from our actions. This however, stood over us like an enormous exclamation point of doom. The tree, nearly alone in the middle of a large cornfield, was flanked only by one or two others of shorter stature. None were close enough to touch it and even these mighty neighbors looked foolishly tiny next to the monster we had gathered around. Two hundred years ago, this would have been slated for a ship’s mast, for sure. It would have been back breaking work to get it to the water from its place in western New Hampshire, but back then it would have been worth the effort. In today’s world, it was the single, solitary support for the scariest, sketchiest looking and highest tree house I have ever, EVER seen. Even as a knuckleheaded kid, my brain was screaming, “NO!” and the top of its tiny, imaginary lungs and threatening to strangle me with my own spinal column if I put a single finger on the first rung of the ladder.

Actually, I was up against more than the simple urge to not fall to my doom. This tree house had several strikes against it and though not all of them were structural in nature, those particular strikes did tend to jump out at you. First, there was the most obvious; the height. Most of our tree houses, and we had many, were no more than fifteen or perhaps twenty feet up. The twenty footers were impressive when you got up there and made you consider the soundness of the construction just that little bit more carefully. The one we were looking at now was easily sixty feet or more. As I looked up and tried to gauge the height of the lower deck, I could actually watch the entire thing sway in the late summer breeze. I knew in the pit of my stomach what that must feel like when you actually got up there and the last thing you wanted was to freeze up when it was time to head back down.

The next problem that was presented was a fundamental one. It was a pine tree. Though we had all built forts in pines at one point or another, it was undeniable that they were the least desirable tree to pick. Not only did they ooze sap all over you and your clothes, but their branches just weren’t that strong. You couldn’t trust a pine. They might have been great for masts, but they stunk as perches for tree houses.

Then there was the ladder. Actually, calling it a ladder is giving far too much credit. What we were looking at was the poor man’s tree ladder. Two by fours, cut to about a foot in length and then nailed onto the side of the trunk snaked up its side and the thought of some kid, big or not, left me with a sense of awe. He (and judging on the foolishness of this endeavor, I think we can pretty safely assume it was a he) would have had to cling to the “rungs” that he’d already nailed up with the crook of his arm as he hammered on the next one with swift but careful swings of the hammer. It would have been risky for Spider Man to have pulled off. And speaking of pulling off… that’s all I could envision happening. These rungs were held on by nothing more than a few large nails, pounded into the side of a pine tree. It didn’t take an artist to paint a mental picture of one simply popping off as you clung onto it for the unexpected ride down. The tree fort had been there for as long as any of us could remember and the chances that the whole operation was rotten and ready to fall apart was an easy conclusion to reach.

All this… all these reasons not to go up would not have been sufficient to keep us from putting our tiny lives in danger. As a kid, you’re supposed to look fear (and common sense) in the face and jump, climb or do whatever death defying thing you’re hesitating to do anyway. Otherwise, the risk being branded a “scardy cat” or worse was very real to us and reputations like that are social death to a twelve year old. It’s gotten more than a few an all expense paid trip to the emergency room.

I knew we all didn’t want to go up, but we had to. Or, would have had to if it weren’t for one thing: the little kid / big kid Fort Hierarchy. There was a rule, unspoken but known by all when it came to tree houses. You did not ever, ever, ever enter the tree house of a “big kid.” It was a mark of respect and one that I never saw violated.

The cycle went like this. Little kids built forts on the ground. Anyone could walk through them and we did. It was to be expected. As you got older, you’d build your first tree fort. This was usually only just above arm reaching height and was rarely more than a glorified platform that collected dead leaves and the occasional own pellet.

Tree Fort

Then, as you got older, you would band together with others in the effort of building something grander. These affairs were usually fifteen to twenty feet up, had walls and a roof and some, even bits of homemade furniture. A few even became “super” tree forts, sporting glass windows made from old sashes, trap doors and even a bit of old carpet or ancient chairs. These were castles in the trees and I never heard of anyone braving more than a peek through a window or an open door, but even that was risky behavior. We had all seen how this played out in the movies and TV shows. The second we would have set foot inside to look around, the big kids were bound to come and catch us. It was a forgone conclusion! Nope. You just didn’t go there.

Later on, when the big kids moved away or went to college, the tree fort would stand abandoned and forlorn. They hung there like haunted houses in the air, turning green with rot as their structural soundness melted away. You never used them as your own. You couldn’t trust them and year by year, they slowly fell apart.

From this distance, we couldn’t tell the condition of this particular crow’s nest, but it didn’t look good. The boards that made the ladder looked long unused and some hung at a rakish angle. After the last quiet, “wow” from someone in the group, we looked at each other to make sure that we were in agreement and walked back through the corn to the edge of the woods in search of safer adventures.

I can still picture that tree and it’s little kid built, wooden nest perfectly. I could see it easily from the road every day I went to school and I always marveled that it stood there at all. Even the tree its self looked improbable. Then, one day, it was gone, tree and all. The land was sold and what used to be cornfield became suburbia. This brought other enjoyments but I always missed seeing that tree and fort, towering over us all.
I came home years later and deciding to take a walk through old and familiar woods, I made a discovery. Finding the remains of tree forts that I remembered building was no shock. It was the natural order of things. What caught me off guard was that there were no more being built. Nothing. No little forts in the brambles, no platforms in low branches. Just the rotting remains of boards that I had pulled into the forest my self so many years ago. Kids, it seems, don’t build tree forts any more. We were the last. At least there, we were.

In my yard, we have no tree big enough for forts, but we do have woods near by. Someday, if my children want it, I will happily supply them what materials I can and send them into the trees. It’s dangerous I know, but at least I don’t have to worry about that big pine. Out here on the island, the big ones were all cut down for ship’s masts a hundred or more years ago. Thank goodness!

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Building Up Steam

My son, Short Stack is really getting fun. He’s three and a half now, but a mature three and a half. He might even be clocking in at a wholesome five or six when it comes to being aware of the world around him and concerned with his impact on it. I can say with all chests puffing pride that he really tries to be a good boy and it comes naturally.

What his behavior and general demeanor means to me is that I can put things in his hands that most adults would never, EVER consider. Like, say… a two hundred and fifty dollar model train that was a gift to me from my grandparents over two decades ago. Now granted, he’s three and needs to be supervised, but I have no worries that he knows to be gentle and careful. As I carefully set the heavy locomotive in his tiny hands, the awe that spreads across his face like morning light, far out weights the risk of accidental train-icide and I am vindicated by his exaggerated caution as he turns it over to examine the detail.

Like most children who have access to oxygen and some form of video entertainment, my son has been thoroughly sucked into the world of Thomas the Tank Engine and this, in my opinion, is not even a mixed blessing. To be frank, Action Girl and I really, really, REALLY do not care for the little, blue train and his friends.

“Why?” you might ask, abject horror etched into you visage at the thought that I, could in some way dislike the deeply loved characters, created by the Reverend A.W. Audrey, and whom are known by name by most of the global population under three feet tall. It’s simple, really. They crash. A lot. With great regularity, actually. I’d have to guess that Thomas and the other engines spend roughly a quarter of their days getting pulled out of ditches, canals or other non-train friendly environments. Short Stack, being a little sponge in his own universe, has now taken to using his own little, wooden train set to stage various Casey Jonesesque mishaps, often with great enthusiasm and accompanying sound effects. I don’t mind action in play, but it’s rough on the toys, and I refuse to replace or repair anything smashed intentionally. Also, the locomotives in Thomas have a tendency to act in a way they refer to as “being cheeky.” To more accurately describe the behavior in American english, I’d use the words, “mean” and “rude.” These are not words I would use to describe my kids and i don’t appreciate the show modeling it for them.

Thomas.mean

I needed an antidote to Thomas.

When I was a kid, there was a fantastic toy store on Main Street, aptly named, “Toy City” and by happenstance, it lay directly between my grade school and the school where my Mother taught. After I had finished a fun filled day getting grilled on spelling, math, religion and penmanship (or my lack of), visiting Toy City on my walk to get my ride home was a huge plus in an otherwise academia infested day.

When you walked into the store though the old and ornate set of oak double doors, directly to your left was a glass case filled with beautiful and expensive electric locomotives, I was never a huge train fiend, but these things were a work of beauty. Couple that with the strange lust that most young boys have to control a toy without touching it, and it was enough to make me desperately want one of these jewels. They would gnaw at my brain and I never walked out of the store with out looking them over and dreaming.

My parents, taking in the less than subtle hints I handed out for some years, got me a starter set for Christmas and I happily assembled it and made my little locomotive pull long lines of cars in perpetual circles. It was basic, but it was fun and made me want to add to it. Add as much as I could! The problem I had was one of experience. I had none and my Father, though always enthusiastic to dive into a project, didn’t have much to lend on the topic of toy trains. I knew I had to find out how to build it all.

One day, my Father took me for a drive with the promise of seeing something special. We wound our way through suburbia and eventually pulled into an unfamiliar driveway. This was where I met Mr. Mellish, Bob, as Dad knew him. He was someone Dad knew from business and this man,… LOVED trains. As we all walked into his basement, and the lights came on, I thought I was seeing things. The entire space was filled… totally filled!… with one massive labor of love. The train layout was of such a size that it actually disappeared around the corner. The level of detail was mind blowing and working on it with Mr. Mellish would become my Wednesday afternoon ritual for the summer. Once a week, my father would drop me off after work and, happily munching on a sandwich provided my Mrs. Mellish, I would wiggle under tables to run wire for impossibly small street lights, poke up through access holes to install miniature trees and naturally, drive the trains! It was a train heaven.

My Father and I started a set in my basement as well, but sadly, it never really got that close to completion. With a draw like the set at Mr. Mellish’s house, it was hard to drum up enthusiasm for my own little sheet of plywood and I tended to save my train energies for the visits to my steam guru’s house. I did manage to build up a nice little collection of track, rolling stock (cars) and a few locomotives over the years, but they saw limited use in my own home. Eventually, they were boxed up and became part of the load of baggage that I’ve schlepped from living space to living space. Other than a few times when the box was opened to see just what the heck was in there, they haven’t seen daylight in easily fifteen to twenty years.

You can guess where this is going, can’t you? Tonight, after Lulu Belle had been put down in her crib with a bottle and roughly ninety stuffed animals, Short Stack and I ventured into the basement. On the concrete floor, I had set up the bits of track that I still had and hooked it all up to make a loop. The look on his face was one of pure joy. Within a few minutes, he had grasped how to run the trains and was happily and carefully sending them around in circles, complete with narrative as to what was going on. No crashes, no cheeky behavior. Just happy train driving.

After an hour or so, I broke the news to him that it was bedtime and we headed up stairs to get the evening abolitions out of the way. Once the stories were done and the kisses handed out, he stopped me before I could leave.

“Daddy?”

“What is it kiddo?”

“Will you go back down cellar and play with the trains?” His face was earnest and I wasn’t sure what the right answer was here.

“Um… I don’t know. Why?”

“Can you drive them while I’m asleep?”

This caught me off guard and I smiled. “Do you want me to?”

“Yah, Daddy! I do! And then I will play trains with you again tomorrow.”

After making my promise, I walked back into the basement and I tried to imagine it with a more permanent track set up. Nothing the scale of Mr. Mellish’s to be sure, but something fun. Short Stack seems to be thrilled that we have an avocation in common and I, for one, am not going to let it slip past me. It’s going to take some digging and shuffling to make room, but I’m willing to try.

Time spent enjoying life with my kids and getting the chance to play with some of my old toys is nothing to overlook. Besides, I might finally get to build that layout I always dreamed about as I gazed at my little plywood train table in the cellar of my childhood house. It seems that all I needed was the help of an enthusiast whom I was yet to know.

It just took longer than I expected for me meet him.

Visiting Family

As we walked through the cemetery, I made sure to take the time to stop and read as many names as I could. If present, I would repeat quietly the short inscription, often in verse, that adorned the stone, giving me some sense of the person and the loss felt by the family and friends. By now, those who had mourned the passing of these grandparents, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and children, would themselves have passed on long before the birth of any whom I would have met in my own life time. This was an old place.

The stones that draw me in the most are carved slate. For those who enjoy walking through old burial grounds in New England or for that matter, any of the thirteen original colonies, the slate stones are very special. Often found resting at awkward angles and appearing to be impossibly thin for their size, our colonial era forefathers preferred the stone as the markers for their loved ones. Later, they would change to marble and then on to granite, but nothing is quite as stately as slate to my mind. It also holds up far better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

The car trip we were on had been long and hot and though it’s a drive that normally takes me about two and half hours when I’m solo, with two small children involved and the need for lunch breaks and potty stops, we had managed to stretch it out to about four and a half thus far, and there was still an hour more driving time to go. When my wife noticed the farm stand coming up on the right, we decided to make just one more pit stop in the attempt to placate Short Stack and Lulu Belle with fresh produce and see if we couldn’t keep the peace during the last push to get our selves home.

As we pulled in to the dirt parking lot, my eyes went straight to the adjoining ancient cemetery. Carefully mown, tended and surrounded by what was obviously a home made but very well done, iron rail fence. The posts were fashioned from coulombs of granite of the type you’d expect to see used as hitching posts or pasture markers. Indeed, they might have been just that at one time. As soon as I had gotten the kids out of the car, the three of us headed right to the edge of the fence and then over it as Action Girl went in to look for provisions.

A lot of people find cemeteries to be creepy or sad and if they don’t actively avoid them, they tend not to see them at all. They just seem to skip by on their radar. Me, I’m a history junkie. Worse than that, I’m a hopeless romantic of a history junkie. I love graveyards and feel not only comfortable in them, but actually happy and safe there. It’s not a giddy kind of happy that an archeologist might feel when they find something significant at a dig, but more of a, “being amongst friends” kind of happy. Looking at the names on the stones, everyone there looks to be kind and calm to me. The foibles of errant emotions and untold past arguments and unkindness are swept away by inscribed words like, “Mother” and, “Only Son.” In rest, they are all good people, dearly missed.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love places like this as well. Since they have been able to walk, I’ve brought them to one of our local graveyards for some run around time. As I expected, they immediately headed off among the grave markers, voices squeaking and crouching down to hide. Short Stack, being an older, wiser three years old to Lulu Belle’s year and half, knows the rules for places like this. Running and playing is encouraged while showing the graves respect is necessary. He has at least the idea that each one represents a person in some fashion and even if he can’t completely wrap his mind around it yet, he does know that there are names written on them and will ask who they are. Lulu Belle is more into following him around and giggling at his antics rather than finding out who’s buried where.

The stones here go way back and the slate is still well defined and the names easy to read. This particular cemetery has been in use by the same families since the seventeen hundreds, all the way through to modern times and the stone types show the progression of the centuries. Sadly, as is often the case, the marble is nearly unreadable having stood up poorly to the increasing acids in our atmosphere and the salt spray from the nearby highway. This stone, favored by the people of the eighteen hundreds, simply melts away and a hundred years worth of family names disappears into the grass beneath our feet. Still, it’s a beautiful place and since the grounds are so well kept, I’m hopeful that someone knows who is resting here.

lydia littlefield

Action Girl’s return draws the kids to her like a magnet and strawberries are handed out to happy effect. We spend a few more minutes among the stones and enjoy our road side snack while we remark on the beautiful condition of this place as the kids meander about scarfing down double handfuls of berries, coloring their faces and hands with the warm juices. I notice happily that not a single stone on its back in the grass and that the bottom of each stone is unmarred by careless lawn equipment. Everything is as it should be and the names read like an unfamiliar family album. The Littlefield’s look to have started this plot and then the Grey’s were introduced and then the Winns. Other names begin as the stones get newer and the inscriptions act as lines on a family tree, announcing marriages, births and deaths, some even giving us bits of personal stories about those who are at our feet. I even find a stone with my daughter’s somewhat uncommon name on it. 1877 to 1977, she lived. Not a bad run by any account. If my little girl were old enough to understand, I would happily point it out to her. We walk along, putting this mostly unknown piece of our country’s history together with the names we find and I think about how spots like this are some of my favorite places to be. It’s quite wonderful, really.

The last leg of the trip is uneventful and the kids only squawk lightly about having to get back into a steamy, hot car. With the air conditioning on full blast, we continue on down the road. We’d be home soon after just one more stop to visit a party and be with some seldom seen family, including my children’s own Great Grandfather. It was interesting to be at the gathering after having looked into the past of another’s family and it helped me enjoy my self even more.

Some day, naturally, we shall all be gone. My hope is that at some point a young family might walk by my own clean, dark stone and read my name. Who knows, perhaps they will know me and will sit in the hot August sun for a while whilst they feast on fresh berries and enjoy the day. Who could ask for more?

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