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.
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!
Filed under: 70's, Guys, Humor, Kids, new england, Nostalgia, Stupidity, Writing | Tagged: abandon, building, carpentry, climbing, crazy, dangerous, haunted, Kids, no more tree forts, old, pine trees, tree forts, tree houses, woods, Writing |