In the backyard there was a pine tree.
|Where I used to sit on the roof. The tree is marked with an arrow. The pool was not there when I climbed it.|
On the trunk, some branches had been cut off leaving protrusions that one could imagine as ladder rungs. Up about 12 feet there was a Y-shaped branch split that my neighbor, a guy a few years older than me, would climb up and sit on.
Just for reference, I was eight-years-old.
He would try to cajole me to come up.
“Aw come on,” he’d say. “It’s easy.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I don’t think my parents want me to climb up there and I don’t think they want you up there either.”
But if my parents weren’t home, he didn’t care what I said.
The bully kid a few doors down would come over and make fun of me for not climbing the tree. I guess it was a rite of manhood that my fear of heights was preventing me from passing. He was the kind of kid that would hit me in the head with a baseball when we played ‘running bases.’
So I as did then and do now, I stewed and ruminated until the whole issue got under my skin.
You ever see weightlifters psych themselves out before a big lift? I saw this guy on TV walking around the barbell shouting about how he was not going to let this weight ruin his day. And then he lifted it.
I was thinking the same thing about this tree.
I waited until none of the neighbor kids were around and gingerly climbed up the first few ‘rungs.’ That was easy – I’d done that before.
There were the last two larger tree branches and I grabbed one with both hands and went over on my stomach with an audible “oof!”
I had one more to go to the Y branch which was about a foot wide on both sides. I remember looking down. I remember thinking going up one more branch would be a lot easier than going down at this point. And then I could say I did it.
With one more heave, I did and sat on the Y branch with a sense of accomplishment. I imagined myself as the frog from the story that sat on the largest lily pad and “was the king of all he could see.”
That sense of accomplishment lasted about a minute. I looked down and all of the sudden the branches that seemed so doable going up now seemed so perilous going down. It was all a matter of perspective, another lesson I would learn that day. Looking up, the Y branch didn’t seem like such a high place. Looking down from it was akin to the observation deck of the Empire State Building.
So there I sat, trying to think my way out of this when the neighbor kid comes sauntering over.
“Hey you finally did it,” he said.
“Yep,” I said. “I made it.”
“So come on down and we’ll play catch,” said the neighbor kid.
“Ummmmmm . . . in a while,” I stammered.
“When,” he asked.
I looked at him and he looked at me and he knew.
“You’re too scared to come down from there aint’cha,” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“OK look, I’ll help ya,” the neighbor said. “I’ll stand here under the tree and guide ya down. OK first slide down and put your foot on that one branch.”
I did and then froze.
“OK, swing your other foot over to the same branch,” he said.
Yep, I was stuck with my legs doing the splits, ass-side up in a tree.
To make an excruciating story shorter, gradually, other neighborhood kids came over to gawk at my ass in the tree, each one alternating between giving me advice and laughing at me. One kid, I don’t know who, just said “jump – “you won’t get hurt bad.”
Oh, that was all I needed to hear.
Then my dad came home. He looked around at his son making a spectacle of himself in his own backyard.
“Geez-us-Christ get down from the tree already,” was the first thing dad said.
The neighbor on the other side came over. He went hunting with my dad.
“Well, well, well,” he said with that Southern Ohio drawl. “Your boy seems to be stuck in the tree.”
So he stood under me and offered some advice. I managed to get my other leg down and now my hands were on one branch and my feet on another. Next was the tough part. I had to bend down from here and squat to get my feet to the next branch down. After that, it was only the smaller rung-like branches and I was home free.
But if I squatted, I was afraid of losing my balance. I was already embarrassed and I felt falling would add more embarrassment and a broken neck. I’ve always feared the worst, as you know.
Eventually, dad got so frustrated with me; he stood directly under me and ordered me, as only a Marine can, to get down one more branch.
What I did was slither down vertically, shaking like a leaf in a, well, you know; doing a kind of half-sit until I was sitting on the lower branch. From there, I lowered myself and my dad grabbed me and pulled me to the ground.
Everyone had a good laugh and since the show was over, they left. I felt like Charlie Brown. I always wished Charlie Brown was real so I could commiserate with him.
I don’t remember what dad said. He wasn’t as mad as he was channeling a yet-to-be Hank Hill: that boy ain’t right.
I did the walk of shame back to the house.
On the last day at the house after selling it, I went to the backyard as part of my ‘goodbye house tour’ and took one last look at the tree, remembering that humiliation from 42 years before.
It’s strange how we forget so much in our single digit years and the things we remember are usually moments of joy and triumph mixed with moments of shame and pain. I guess that’s normal.
What isn’t normal is this: I believe that tree, in all its innocence, started me down the road to being risk-averse. I guess that’s the nice way to put it.
I never climbed a tree again and remained scared of heights. There are folks who get an adrenaline rush from things like skydiving, motorcycle riding, bungee jumping and so on. I will never know that.
How I got through the obstacle course in basic training is still a wonder to me. Extreme peer pressure and a screaming drill sergeant will do that. In like for Ft. Jackson’s Victory Tower, – a tangle of logs to climb and ropes to swing from, one of the drill sergeants saw the fear in my face.
“Hey you got one of your troops that’s looking a little too hard at that tower,” one drill told my drill.
I found myself on one side of the rope swing (over a net) and everyone was calling my name and it felt just like. . . you know. I had no choice — I grabbed the rope and jumped. I didn’t quite make it and my jaw hit the lower log post with a resounding ‘thwack.’ I ate out of one side of my mouth for a week.
I remember that moment as I looked at the tree, cursing it and myself. Thankfully, one only had to do the tower once. The ropes gave me calluses I still have on my hands.
The funny thing is when I get a real good dose of hypomania, I’ll take all kind of risks with relationships, careers and money. But I still will not take physical risks.
Some people wear their bruises, bone breaks and scars with pride. It is a sign they have challenged themselves and have no regrets.
I look at them and feel small and wonder what part of life I have missed.
I took one last look at the tree, sighed, took my wife’s hand and walked slowly back to the house and to the rest of my life.
Footnote: on this day in 1987, I shipped off to basic training at Fort Jackson, SC.Hua!