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The Tree

August 5, 2011

In 1951 I was eight years old and in the third grade at Chandler Elementary in

My 3rd grade class photo. That's me, 2nd row, 2nd from left.

Sherman Oaks, California, a ‘valley boy,’ I guess. The post-WWII construction boom was well underway and the oldest houses in our neighborhood were no more than five years old; we’d moved into ours in 1949. They were perfect Malvina Reynolds houses: little boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all looked the same—the house across the street from us was identical to ours except that it was laid out as a mirror image. But they were affordable and were quickly gobbled up by war veterans and others who now found themselves part of the growing post-War middle class.

Like pretty much every other kid in the rapidly expanding suburbs, my friends and I walked to school every morning, Chandler Elementary being only six or seven blocks away. About halfway to school, on Hazeltine Avenue and sandwiched between two blocks of homes under construction, was a small orchard of walnut trees waiting, dreading, its turn.

In the middle of the orchard stood The Tree, one that was strangely out of place, towering above all the other trees, a Gulliver among Lilliputians. I imagined that the orchard was still there because The Tree, powerful in its majesty, was the orchard’s Protector, daring the men with their chainsaws and bulldozers to step foot into its territory. Whatever the reason, The Tree stood there, regal and proud.

A curious thing about The Tree was that for all its hugeness, the fruit it produced, a soft, lavender berry, was tiny, the size of a marble. It seemed to me contrary to the natural order of things. Elephants produced large baby elephants; whales, large baby whales. For me, the mismatch between The Tree and its fruit added to its aura. And we ate the berries. They weren’t real good and they weren’t particularly bad; we ate them because we could.

The Tree was very special to the boys at Chandler, drawing us like pigeons to popcorn: it represented the supreme tree-climbing challenge. If tree climbing were an Olympic event like diving, The Tree would be given the highest degree of difficulty. Because of this, it was our regular after-school assembly ground: every boy who could, gathered there in order to test or show off his tree-climbing prowess. Notebooks, school books, papers and empty lunch boxes were carelessly tossed to the ground, joined by jackets, sweaters, gloves and caps in winter. The older boys went right to it; we younger ones, aware of the pecking order, waited until they were up before we started. Meanwhile, we regarded The Tree with awe and a strong touch of anxiety at the challenge awaiting us.

Over time, unwritten rules had evolved, turning efforts at climbing The Tree into a ritual, bonding us all into an unspoken brotherhood. The first challenge we faced just getting up to the lowest level of branches. These were out of reach, too high off the ground to simply jump up and grab one. One of our rules, though, was you couldn’t give or get help. No boosting someone, no reaching down and pulling them up. It was an on-your-own, do-or-die struggle and woe to the boy who showed up with hammer, nails and planks with the thought of making a ladder up the trunk. We had too much respect for The Tree to allow that to happen. We didn’t think of it as such at the time, of course, but climbing The Tree was a sort of minor rite of passage: If you needed help doing this, then you weren’t ready for it.

Yes, girls came by to see what was going on and that was fine so long as they didn’t interfere. The question of whether or not girls should be allowed to climb The Tree never came up. For one thing, in 1951 girls just didn’t do things like climb trees. And in any case, all the girls wore dresses, making it a moot point. I can’t help thinking, though, all these years later, that there must have been at least the occasional girl who came by and watched enviously as we met, or tried to meet, the challenge of The Tree, all the while believing that she could do it and wishing for the opportunity.

Once a boy reached the lowest crotch in The Tree he faced his second challenge. Here were two large limbs that branched outward while the main trunk continued up into the foliage, limiting the view of what lay above. The two limbs offered ample climbing opportunities for those who were content with having made it that far. The real challenge, though, was higher up the trunk.

Over a period of time the older and bigger boys, using ropes to haul up tools and wood, had assembled a network of platforms, perches and guide ropes high, high up in The Tree. Once up there a boy could move around fairly easily and safely as long as he was careful. But getting up there took strength, determination, and, above all, guts. No “little kid” had ever made it up there because by definition, once you were up there, you were no longer a little kid.

After the first crotch in The Tree it was a pretty simple thing to go up several more feet. There were branches and stump ends from limbs that had fallen off or been cut off. But then you reached The Tree’s greatest obstacle, the one that separated the big boys from the little boys. There was a stretch of trunk that shot several feet straight up over our heads, uncluttered by any branches, handholds or toeholds. Nothing. In addition, this part of the trunk was smoother. Shinnying up the first section of the trunk you at least could turn the natural roughness of the bark to your advantage. Up here you had to cling, and cling hard, with your arms and legs while you shinnied up. The Tree’s only concession to us was that the trunk was smaller around this high up and you could grip more of it.

Even though no physical help was allowed, it was okay to pass on tips and directions. For example, boys were told to start on the side of the tree away from the street because it was easier. Move to the right going up the first stretch of trunk because there were cracks and crevices, handholds, not visible from the ground. Then, when a boy was faced with that final shinny up to glory and manhood (or, at least, big-kidhood), the advice was clear and simple: Keep your eyes open but don’t look down. Focus on the trunk in front of you or above you.

I’d been up to this make-or-break point many times but had never gathered the courage to attempt the final stretch. On this day, though, I was going to tackle it. For me, it was like venturing to jump off the thirty-foot high-dive platform at the Sherman Oaks War Memorial Pool, another test I’d not yet passed. As with The Tree, I’d been up to the platform any number of times. I’d even gone to the edge and looked over but I’d always chickened out and gone back down the ladder. I’d been up to this point on The Tree many times but had always headed back down, never making the attempt.

I quickly and easily made it to the first crotch, impressing the younger boys who had tried and failed or hadn’t even tried yet. The smooth straight stretch of tree trunk loomed above me like Jack’s beanstalk, disappearing into the foliage seemingly miles overhead. Pike’s Peak must have looked like this the first time Mr. Pike laid eyes on it: difficult, dangerous, foolish even to attempt the ascent.

I rubbed the palms of my hands hard on my pants, then slapped the trunk a few times, as I’d seen the older boys do. I had no idea why they did it, I figured it was just part of the ritual. I didn’t want to get up there only to be told I didn’t slap the trunk so I’d have to go back down. (Later some of the boys told me they did that in order to bring more sensitivity to their palms and fingers; at least, that’s what they claimed.)

I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around the trunk, my feet still planted solidly on a branch that angled past the main trunk, making its tapered way up and out of sight. I gripped The Tree as hard as I could with both arms, hard enough to imprint my shirt buttons on my chest. Next came the leap of faith that allowed me to remove my feet from their safe haven and join my arms in clinging to the trunk. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I started to shinny up, afraid to relax my vise-like grip on The Tree. My eyes were tightly closed (in spite of the advice I’d received) and I could feel my heart pounding in every part of my body and my mouth was dry from fear.

As I struggled to make upward progress, my arms and legs began to tremble uncontrollably from the exertion. I couldn’t even guess how far up I’d gone, not with my eyes closed. A foot? Several feet? Then I made two mistakes: I thought about having to make the even scarier return trip down the trunk and then I opened my eyes and looked down. That was it. All of a sudden down was a whole lot more inviting to me than up and I started sliding back to where I’d begun, my feet anxiously kicking about, looking for a secure foothold. I found one and finally relaxed, my body leaning against the trunk. Part of me was angry, frustrated, disappointed: I hadn’t made it up. But another part of me recognized that I had made the attempt. I hadn’t finished, but I’d started and there would be other days, other attempts. The Tree had won the battle, perhaps, but not the war.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. NRJ permalink
    August 5, 2011 4:40 pm

    Boy, that is certainly a Dave shirt you have on! At least, I assume you are the “towhead” in the second row from the bottom and not the buzz-cut toughie in the second row from the top. Did you ever win the battle and make it to the top of the tree? And how about the 30 foot dive? There are many questions here, my friend, and they need answers…

    • August 6, 2011 3:32 pm

      The rows aren’t nice and straight but, yes, it’s the second row from the bottom. Never made it to the top. The Tree, along with the orchard, made way for more ticky tacky houses. Did finally take the plunge from the high-dive, tho.

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