Archive for Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Comment: Tree-house heaven

December 6, 2011

Harken back to the days when you were a kid. Being outside was fun. Heck, it was everything and more often than not messy.

But that was fun. Acceptable. It’s what we did. Messy meant jumping in the middle of a mud puddle with your clothes on. Messy meant scaling a giant dirt pile down next to the elevator but most of all being a kid meant messing around in the vacant lot next to the church.

Growing up in a small rural community of 50 hearty souls, this vacant lot was a fertile source of education as important as any classroom. It was our world of make believe, where we played, laughed, cried, cultivated our imaginations and learned to get along with others.

It was here, away from parental oversight, our values developed and we morphed from childhood to manhood. We didn’t even realize this was happening. We were just living every day in the present and having fun. This vacant lot is where we played football, pom-pom pull away, rollers, bouncers and flies, constructed forts, dug tunnels and built our first tree house. All the things our parents would let us do in our own yards.

One of our first tree houses was a real challenge. First, my brother, Albert and I had to select the best and tallest Chinese elm in the row north of the church. This tree had to sport a straight, heavy base limb, preferably the thickest one, to support our structure.

Living in a small, rural village, we had access to plenty of lumber. Dad had several piles blocked up in our big shed. There were also several abandoned barns that we raided to build our tree houses. We also built rafts and planes.

Before we began construction on our tree house, we made a wooden ladder up the side of the trunk. For this we sawed two-foot lengths of lumber and secured them to the tree with two nails. Add any more and the boards would split. We hoisted lumber for the platform of our tree house with ropes and secured it in a good deep crotch in the elm. On this first tree house, we didn’t stop with a simple platform but continued with walls that extended waist high.

Once finished, we proceeded to hoist all the essentials for our fort above ground. This included Red Ryder BB guns, binoculars, a tarp in case of rain, plenty of water and hand-picked fruit from our trees at home. Every once in a blue moon, we’d haul up an old galvanized bucket, fill it with dry twigs, build a fire and roast marshmallows over the flames. There was always a rope on the bucket in case the fire raged out of control and we needed to move it out of our tree house.

From our perch high above the mere mortals who walked some 25 feet below us, we lived our days in another world. One of our favorite activities involved bird watching. We loved seeing the robins and kingbirds carefully building their nests. We couldn’t wait to see the eggs the momma birds laid and patiently sat on until they hatched into the ugly, naked chicks.

We watched for hours as the parents brought wiggling worms to the chicks who ate everything dropped into their snapping beaks. Seems they never got enough. Ever wonder how many careers of future biologists began in a vacant lot? And while we tried to be there when the young birds flew for the first time, we didn’t always see their inaugural flights. We often wondered how many made the grade and how many were snapped up by marauding neighborhood felines.

One of the absolute best things about our tree house was the advantage it gave us for picking off the pesky sparrows which were the only birds we were allowed to shoot with our BB guns. We didn’t like them much anyway because they were such scavengers and ate more than their fair share of bird seed. The vacant lot in our little village was our ticket to an abundance of far-away adventures. We went on safari with Smilin’ Jack, tracked down Indians with Jim Bridger and battled at the Alamo with Davey Crockett. Just about anything we could think of we did as youngsters using our imaginations and the vacant lots.

Some days we did nothing at all but lie on our backs while looking up at the big sky of Western Kansas. Thoughts rolled through our minds like the passing clouds overhead. We didn’t want for much as youngsters in those days gone by. Everything we desired was right there in the vacant lot.

— John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.