Thirty Feet Up

Random Tree House - MedA special house in a special time
There are times when a memory comes rushing forward from a special time and place deep within us. When that happens it can be both startling and exhilarating. That happened to me recently and I'd like to share it with you. The memory is over forty-five years old and, at least for the moment, it's as clear to me as it was while I was living it as a small-town teenage boy.

Growing up in rural Lake Stevens during the 50's and 60's was like growing up as Opie Taylor in Mayberry, complete with your own Aunt Bee. Everyone knew everyone else and there was a good chance that at least one or two of the neighbors was going to be a cousin. That was exactly the situation in our neighborhood, as my mother Laurel and her sister Melba somehow managed to marry the men of their dreams and raise their families in homes that were right next door to one another.  Melba and Joe had three children and my parents, Laurel and George, had five. Both houses were simple structures, one pushed forward and one a bit farther back on identical half-acre lots - neither home being particularly modern. 

But that doesn't mean that our homes weren't special. They were very special. I remember thinking, during all the years that I lived there, that our house was so much bigger than it actually was. It had to be... it was packed full of so much love.

I could tell you about the two-seater out house, the chicken coop, the clothes line, or the old - and later the new - free-standing garages, but those details will have to wait for another time. This memory, and thus this story, is about another house.  A house that was handcrafted and that became a special sanctuary... a sanctuary thirty feet up.

Vision - Passion - Sanctuary

Being the only boy, and middle child with four sisters, had it's ups and downs.  It seemed to me that I got an unfair share of the chores that required a little extra work, but the good news was that I didn't have to wear hand-me-down clothes or compete with sibling brothers for the things that are important to a boy.

One summer, my Uncle Joe, was dismantling his old and no longer used chicken coop. I don't remember too much about the project that took the shed apart - just enough to know that I was involved as the disinterested laborer because my mom told Aunt Melba that I'd be happy to help. If I remember right, my good friend Marc, who lived across the street, was volunteered to be a laborer too. In any case, it wasn't long before we recognized a tremendous opportunity.

Not far from the the pile of weathered planks and two-by-fours that we were pulling nails from and stacking, were three tall, thick cedar trees. The trees were growing in a way that can best be described as a triangle with two on one side and the third about ten feet away. Years earlier, someone (presumable Uncle Joe), had gone to a great deal of effort to limb the trees from the ground up and installed a beam between the two trees that were farthest apart.  Hanging from the beam were two heavily braided ropes with a well-used and time-worn swing attached.  

But it was the beam that I had my eye on.  If somehow, we could get another beam to the same elevation in the trees and complete the triangle, we would have everything we needed to construct a perfect platform for a treehouse. Never mind that they weren't my trees and it wasn't even my yard. I saw an opportunity that hadn't existed before. I guess you could say it was an early example of seeing beyond the obvious - an edge -  a vision of sorts. 

Marc saw the opportunity that was in front of us too. We had to make it happen. But how?

BINGO! We needed my cousin Ivan.

Ivan was Joe and Melba's six or seven year old son, who frankly had been more of a nuisance than helpful during the nail pulling project. Until now, we tried to get him interested in being anywhere other than where Marc and I were busy. But now we needed Ivan to want a treehouse as much as we did - because Joe could never say no to Ivan. If Ivan wanted it, Joe would help us get that beam installed and coach us on the construction of the tree house.

To make a long story short, the plan worked. Ivan did what it took to convince his dad that a treehouse in their backyard would be a wonderful addition to the property. The second beam was installed and a thirty foot extension ladder was put securely in place. Joe gave us permission to use the wood from the old chicken coop that we had been pulling nails from. That was when the labor turned into a passion. That was when the work became fun.

It took several days of measuring, sawing, and pulling the two-by-fours up to the beams so that we could nail them into place as a floor.  When that was done we learned a little about framing walls, leaving room for a window, building a trap door and that all important "upper deck" where a very scary but very fun lookout would be built.

I don't recall just how long the construction steps took.  It might have been most of the summer.  But when it was done we added a few conveniently discovered road signs to the outside for decoration and began what would become years of hanging out in our very special place. And Ivan, as luck would have it, turned out to be afraid of it up there. How perfect was that!

When sharing this memory with Marc recently, he recalled the secret clubs that we created with my cousin Debbie, the numerous trips to Warren's (the corner grocery store) for the essential "sleepout snacks" consisting of Shasta pop, Cheetos, red vines, pixi-sticks, and those cool little wax tubes filled with tasty juices. He also remembered trying to bravely spy on the girls in the neighborhood when it was dark and they'd forgotten all about us - something I'll deny if asked about what we were hoping to have seen!

What I'll remember most was the sactuary of the tree house.  It was our place. The place for great boyhood friends to go night after night during our summer breaks and just be boys. 

Marc and I included our best friend Gary Johnson who always made us laugh with his great sense of humor. We found room for Billy Weis who had that all important house on the lake. And Dale Schwarzmiller stopped by on ocassion so we could have have the entire "backyard basketball league" (a game played on a five foot high hoop that made us all feel like Wilt the Stilt) assembled for a tournamemt.  When there was just no more room for another mummy bag inside the treehouse walls, we moved upstairs to the lookout. Where only the most brave would agree to sleep through the night with only a rail to hold them in.

Whether it was listening to long distance baseball on transistor radios, nervously laughing at the pages of that forbidden Playboy, or just planning the next day's adventure - the treehouse was all ours and it was special. 

Built with passion, purpose and love, the treehouse was a very memroable part of our teenage years.  My parents have both long since passed away and I've moved and lived in more houses than I can count. 

But Aunt Melba is still right there. In the same house, sitting forward on the half acre lot in front of three trees with a swing that hangs below a very special tree house.

I need to go visit her.  And get some pictures of that memory making boyhood sanctuary.