The boy in the builder.
Away above it all!
By Kevin Crites Owner of Crites Contracting of LA
My boyhood Taj Mahal was set in an apple tree. It was the summer of 1963. We had five acres, and the apple tree was in the perfect location on the property. It had a solid trunk and four strong branches that sprouted wide to form a solid base for the floor of a treehouse. I had envisioned it for some time, been bugging my dad for quite while to help me build a fort in that tree, and he finally relented.
Dad went up to the phone company equipment yards and got one of those giant spools that they use to coil up cable. He hauled it home in the back of the dump truck and took it apart, which yielded an eight foot diameter round “floor”, and a lot of other usable lumber.
He then hooked a log chain to the big circle and connected it to the bucket of his backhoe, setting it right into the crotch of that apple tree. Sledged it level, spiked it into the branches with some 20 penny nails and said: “The rest is up to you.”
For weeks after that, I was obsessed with the all-consuming notion of creating a haven in that apple tree. I scoured the neighborhood for pallets and any usable wood. The gods of providence smiled upon me, because about three blocks from my house, a demolition was commencing. A nasty old gin smelling slop-shoe road house bar called “The Knotty Pine” was being razed.
I would sit and watch the men tearing the building down and make mental notes of which pieces I would cart away after they called it quits for the day and left, affording me the opportunity to raid the site and efficiently yield the fruits of my day-long reconnaissance. I had a respectable pile of scraps after several days of pillaging, but then, the Holy Grail of cast-off future treehouse material emerged:
A set of stairs.
They had led to the basement of the old joint, and were pulled out and tossed on the top of the debris pile intact. I hoped against anxious hope that they would not be broken apart by the workmen, and my prayers were answered. I enlisted the help of two stalwart friends and we dragged the stairs back to my arboreal job site.
They were the perfect fit (well, in the eyes of a ten year old boy maybe) and became the grand staircase that led from the ground up to my circular soon-to-be mansion in the sky. No makeshift ladders for me, I had actual stairs leading up to my pad.
I spent the next few weeks building, adjusting, hammering and nailing until I had something that resembled walls and a roof. Fueled by the occasional apple plucked from a branch so as not to waste precious time walking to house for sustenance.
Over the next couple of years, that tree fort was my favorite place in the world. I spent many a summer night up there wrapped in a sleeping bag with my ever present shepherd dog Heidi at my side to ward off apple thieving possums.
I dreamed of ways to expand the structure and maybe even add a second level. Making an inventory of the other beer joints in the area that surely needed to be slated for destruction, supplying me with even more materials and doo-dads for my lofty perch.
In the winter, my comrades and I would defend our tower to the last man as the German Army advanced across the snowy cornfields intent on annihilating us. The Krauts were always handed a sound defeat and we never lost a man. Unless some or all of us succumbed to the lure of the hot chocolate that was always available in my mother’s kitchen just yards away.
These Hershey-inspired temporary retreats and desertions were embarrassingly all too common. Even the most battle hardened troop could not resist going AWOL at the prospect of whole milk generously laced with chocolate syrup simmering in a copper bottom Revere Ware saucepan on the stove in a warm kitchen.
Teenage years gave way to other interests, and the old fort fell into disrepair, but still stood as a monument to, and reminder of, easier times when goals could be met and dreams realized with just a sunny day apple tree and a pile of scrap lumber, some tools, and a pocket full of purloined nails.
Life never again offered such simplistic clarity.
In the summer of 1972, I got a letter from my mother telling me that the apple tree was struck by lightning and nearly split in two, taking the decrepit abandoned remains of my once precious sky lair to the ground.
I was a long way from Ohio that summer and not in a place where I had a proclivity to recall boyhood memories. When I came home on leave a year later I was 20 years old, and not much remained of the ten year old boy I was when I built that fort.
I sat at the spot where the old tree once stood, pondering the forlorn stump, and thinking that if I was very lucky, wherever life took me, I might once again experience a few days or even just a few hours that would be as happy as the ones I spent in that tree.
That is all.