Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, August 06, 2007

Climbing Trees

by Jeffrey S Savage

On Saturday mornings my dad and I have been training for a half-marathon which will be held toward the end of this month. Most of the run takes place in a cool green canyon, but the last couple of miles are on a bike path with almost no shade on the baking asphalt trail. The sides of the path are bordered with tall grass—golden brown at this time of year—and lots of scrub oak. The aroma of dry grass and fragrant oaks always reminds me of growing up in northern California where large gnarled oaks trees drop acorns by the bucket-load, and where the grassy fields are all dead by the time school lets out.

In particular, I’m reminded of an oak tree I saw for the first time when I was seven years old, the summer before I started second grade. We had just moved from Antioch to Pleasant Hill. Our house was situated at the end of a long, steep hill near an orchard of walnut trees that has long since been replaced by expensive townhouses and apartments.

As a newcomer, I was riding my bike around the neighborhood, when I came across two boys about my age. I don’t know that I ever really achieved “cool” status as a kid. The closest I might have come was when I was a junior in high school and made the lead in my high school play. But by second grade, the only thing I had achieved was the height of dorkiness.

Imagine for a moment a kid so skinny even the smallest shirts hung off his scrawny shoulders like a sail on a windless day, revealing scabbed elbows and huge bony wrists. Put him in a pair of black Converse high-tops with the soles flapping and the laces always dragging on the ground and tied in several places from breaking when he stepped on them. Add a pair of cardboard-stiff jeans and a dirty white tee-shirt with the Batman logo on the chest (not the new movie logo but the old red and black one from the TV series.) Now give him a pair of thick black glasses that seem to dwarf his face, and for good measure a patch over his “good” eye to supposedly fix his lazy eye.

That was me.

As I rode my Scwhinn up beside the two boys and skidded to a stop on the gravel driveway, they eyed me up and found me wanting.

“You a new kid?”

“I nodded.” As if I didn’t look lame enough, I also had a very scratchy voice at the time—think Froggy in the Little Rascals. So I tried not to talk more than necessary.

“What grade you in?”


For a few minutes we danced the ritual dance of preteen boys. Comparing notes on who lived where, what sports team we each favored, whether of not we had the same teachers, what TV shows we watched. All accompanied by much kicking of rocks and spitting on the ground.

Finally the two of them glanced at each other, and the bigger one said, “We have a club.”

“Yeah?” That seemed promising.

“But you can’t be in it.”

Okay, maybe not so promising after all. “Why not?”

“You haven’t climbed to the tree fort.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t exactly sure whether this was an invitation or a statement of fact. If they were inviting me to their fort, that was a good thing. But something about they way they looked at each other gave the feeling it wasn’t going to be as easy as that.

Back then every kid had a fort. It’s something I think is severely lacking in most kids today. Sure they have video games and computers, cell phones and MP3 players. They might even have those playhouses you buy at Home Depot and build over the weekend. But there is something about homemade forts, whether they are dug in the ground and covered with plywood or nailed out of two-by-fours in the fork or a tree, or even put together out of boxes and tarps tied together with rope. They are hot and sweaty and dirty and full of bugs, and are just about the best place to be when you are under ten.

“It’s up there,” said the shorter of the two, a kid with curly red hair that hung over his ears and a face that reminded me of the kid on the cover of Mad Magazine—but with a mean streak.

I followed the direction he was pointing and for a moment my heart stopped beating and turned to a cold painful lump in my chest.

I’ve always liked climbing trees. Even now when we go camping, my kids and I look for the tallest pine tree to climb up. It was one of the happiest moments of my life when my daughter came home with the insides of her elbows scraped and needles in her hair from climbing the neighbor’s pine tree when she was five. I about gave my mom a heart attack when I was no older than three or four and called down to her from the tippy top of a redwood in my grandma’s back yard, swaying back and forth like a flag in the wind. But this tree was different.

For one thing, the trunk curved this way and that as if it couldn’t decide exactly where it wanted to go. For another thing, the boards were old and splintered and several of them hung crookedly with missing nails. It looked to be easily seventy-five feet high from my vantage point, though it probably wasn’t half that. And it had several ominous looking knot holes that might have hidden any number of nasty surprises. Nailed at the very top of the tree, on a branch that looked half dead, was a tiny wooden structure.

“You have’ta climb to the top if you wanna be in the club,” the redhead told me as his big friend folded his arms across his chest and nodded.

Craning my neck to look up at the impossibly far away structure, I went through the pros and cons in my head. They weren’t very complicated. If I tried to climb to the fort I would probably fall and die. If I didn’t climb, these two boys—who I didn’t even know, and didn’t like what I’d seen so far—wouldn’t be my friends.

“Okay,” I nodded slowly. "But you go first."

“Huh unh.” The big kid who seemed to be suffering from some kind of allergy wiped his nose on his sleeve and shook his head. “We already climbed it. We built it. You have to go by yourself or you can’t be in our club and we’ll tell all the other kids in the club you’re a chicken.”

Even at seven, the idea that these two had actually carried the boards to the top of the tree and nailed them there didn’t seem very plausible. But their logic was implacable. Climb the tree—risking life and limb—and have friends, or chicken out, and have them tell all the other kids in second grade I was a baby. The idea that they hadn’t actually climbed the tree themselves—that they were either too scared to try or had more sense—never crossed my mind.

I looked up at the top of the tree again to the tiny fort there. It looked about the size of a postage stamp. “I’ll do it later,” I said, trying to retain some self dignity. “I have to go home now.”

“Chicken. Baby. Baby chicken!”

I honestly don’t know whether it was their names or the desire to win the friendship of these two obnoxious little boys that got me moving. I’d like to say I told the punks to get lost. That I’d go make some better friends who might actually care about whether I got hurt or not. But somehow I found myself standing at the base of the tree pulling myself up on the first rung.

As I reached carefully for the next board, they stood behind me making clucking sounds and pretending to cry. “What’s the matter? Too scared?”

The cracked boards were every bit as loose as I’d imagined—the bent nails that held them into the trunk of the oak, coated with a thick layer of rust. Every time I reached for the next rung I was sure it was going to come loose in my hand, sending me tumbling backward into air and down to the hard packed dirt below.

About twelve feet up, I checked to see how much further I had to go. Since I’d started my climb, the wind had picked up and the oaks braches swept at the cloudless sky in a dizzying sway. All at once I didn’t want to climb any higher. I’d live with them calling me a chicken. All I wanted was to feel solid earth beneath my feet.

I was reaching down with my left foot—feeling for the board below, when something ricocheted off the back of my shoe. A blur of gray chipped at the bark only a few feet from my right hand and something hard and sharp cut into my calf.

“Can’t come down till you reach the top.”

“Stop that!” I shouted. I tried to scurry back down the way I’d come, but a flurry of rocks whizzed through the air around me.

“Cry baby! Call for your mom.”

With no other choice, I climbed several more rungs, trying to get out of the boys’ reach. I don’t honestly remember much about the rest of the climb, except that it seemed to take forever. With my face pressed against the rough bark of the oak tree, tears dripping down my cheeks, I moved from one ancient-looking board to the next.

At one point I realized the only way to get to the next rung was by putting my hand into one of the basketball sized knotholes that had frightened me so much from below. In my mind I was sure there was something inside the hole that would attack me—wasps, bats, spiders. Whatever it was, it would knock me from the tree as surely as a nail coming lose under my feet.

At once I thought back to an experience I’d had when I was only a few years old and my cousin and sister had talked me into putting my hand into the hole of an old stone fence behind our house. There had been something in the hole, something alive and breathing. I’d been scared to death when I’d felt movement beneath my fingers but it turned out to be full of kittens a mama cat had given birth to a few days before.

“Let it be kittens,” I whispered. “Please let it be kittens. Not spiders or bees.”

It turned out the knothole was empty after all, and I kept climbing, not daring to look up or down. It wasn’t until I reached for the next board and found myself grasping the edge of the tree fort that I realized I’d made it all the way to the top. A dizzy array of emotions washed over me. Relief. Triumph. Joy. I’d made it. I was part of the club. The kids who’d thought I was a baby would have to tell everyone I’d climbed to the top of the tree without chickening. All the other second graders would be suitably impressed.

Pulling myself up into the fort, I clung to a narrow limb and turned around to share my victory.

No one was there.

The kids who’d I’d been so intent on impressing—who’d promised to let me be part of their club—had left while I climbed to the top of the tree. As I sat on the splintery little structure, swaying back and forth with the wind, I realized the whole thing had been for nothing. I had worked so hard to get to a place I didn’t even want to be, to impress kids who were never worth the effort and didn’t care about what I’d accomplished.

I’d like to say I came away from that experience a much wiser person. That I tucked an acorn into my pocket and anytime I thought about doing something purely to impress someone else, I looked at my acorn and chose a wiser path. Unfortunately I have been guilty more than once over the course of my life of taking a certain job, saying a certain thing, or buying some unnecessary item because I thought it would impress other people. And usually when I reached the top of those particular trees, I realized I’d climbed them for nothing.

But every once in a while I look at people who seem to be having more fun than me and realize I don’t want to be at the top of their tree. It might be the perfect place for them, the view might be better, the air clearer. But I’m usually happier with my feet set solidly on the ground, surrounded by people who love me without me having to prove myself to them. And then I’m reminded of my tree, and I think that maybe my climb wasn’t completely wasted after all.


At 8/07/2007 10:37 AM, Blogger Candace Salima (LDS Nora Roberts) said...

Great story, Jeff. You should write that into a children's story, hire an illustrator and get that published. Lots of good lessons in it. Thanks for sharing it.

Ah, the beauty of childhood the idiot things we do, right?

At 8/07/2007 11:56 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

I agree with Candace. That would make a great picture book.

At 8/07/2007 12:28 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Wow, I'd never thought of that.

At 8/07/2007 2:06 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

Vote number 3 for the picture book. Fabulous story.

At 8/07/2007 2:32 PM, Blogger G. Parker said...

Picture book! lol

At 8/07/2007 11:47 PM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

Oh Jeff, what a wonderful story well told! It took me back to my youth, climbing trees, throwing rocks, having rocks thrown at me, building forts. Wow!

Yes, I was a tomboy, and I'm quite proud of it. It gives me a unique perspective into the male mind and mystique, good for a writer of Westerns.

At 8/08/2007 2:22 PM, Blogger Josi said...

Awesome story--I agree it would be a great picture book. I grew up with Forts we'd build and rebuild in the field behind my house. I need to go scrounge up some old tin roofing and plywood so my kids can build some for themselves.

Great story

At 8/08/2007 5:28 PM, Blogger Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Just what we need---Jeff to take over yet ANOTHER market. Tee Hee!

At 8/08/2007 6:37 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Love the story. Are you bringing it to critique? LOL.

At 8/09/2007 9:32 AM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

Awesome story Jeff. I am another vote for the children's book :)


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