Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Time Travel Tree: Vancouver 1963-1968

Trees were an important part of our childhood world in Vancouver, Washington in the 1960's. Yes, there was the big maple in our backyard, which held the treehouse that was our fort, but mainly it was a new neighborhood with only a scattering of adult trees. Maybe that's why we revered them so. There was a small grove of trees across the street, next to a family's house. That family had two older boys (and one my age) who were kind of rough. I fought them a few times. But under those trees, the middle boy pretended to eat a caterpillar, trying to gross-out we younger ones. This was one of those big, huge, spiny green caterpillars that they have in the Northwest, thick and sluggish with small bristling hairs. And as he held it on a stick over his mouth under the trees--in the shade of those trees--his older brother elbowed him, making the fat disgusting green caterpillar drop into his mouth, as he was pretending to do. That was funny. Not nice, but funny. He spit it out quick as anyone would who had a fat caterpillar drop into their mouths.
And thinking of caterpillars: About a block and a half away, on a stretch of empty lots, there was a weeping willow tree, or, the Caterpillar Tree. This was a tree surrounded by fields and then the main road (where the school was) on its back-facing side. And when we discovered this willow, of course we had to climb it. We--and I mean my three brothers and sister and the multitude of neighborhood kids--were all over that tree. Up in its dangly branches and feathery leaves we played tag and laughed and argued and discussed what kids discuss. (We had a really big weeping willow in Sioux Falls, in the Hilltop neighborhood, and when Father trimmed its branches we kids would make big nests from the weeping tendrils--but that's a different memory.) And then, one day, in the branches were these great nests of caterpillars. Maybe they're called bag worms. But they were caterpillars, medium-sized, orange and black and semi-fuzzy. And they lived in these thick webbing nests up in the tree. I mean, tons of them. And so--being kids--we had no revulsion of them and we climbed up there and reached into the webbing and took out great heaping gobs of these creatures. I don't even remember what we did with them--maybe put them in jars--but we took great delight in scooping these wriggly things up. And then, over time, they went away. Moths, I guess. And then, later in the year, they came back. While I lived there, those properties were never developed and that tree provided a lot of seasonal caterpillar harvesting . . . I do recall one day, some man walked up to us kids as we were jamboreeing in the tree and he was upset. he was angry. he told us to get out of that tree. That we were wrecking it. But, to our betterment, we argued back with him. We were just kids, I was not even ten yet, but we talked back and stood our ground. We didn't get out of that tree.
Then there was the Penis Tree. It was a block further up and a block further in than the Caterpillar Tree, again surrounded by empty lots. It was a pine tree--or maybe a fir--thick with green branches. However, at the bottom rung of branches, there was one branch that extended out further than the others. Thus, that was the tree's penis. It was Oldest Brother who came up with that one. And it was a source of great amusement among us. But it was also the tree we went to when we ran away from home. Yes, we did the classic run away thing as kids: Some parental/offspring argument caused us to secede from the family and we packed blankets and pillows and snacks and toys, putting most of them in the proverbial red wagon, and headed out. And we decided to camp at the Penis Tree. We set up camp pretty good. Father had said to us, as our revolt enfolded, "Okay. Good luck. I'll miss you." I don't recall what Mother said, but she did not stop us. And so, camp was set. We talked, enjoyed ourselves. Laughed once again--out of a multitude of laughs--at the tree's penis. And then night fell. And we marched back home. Nothing was said, but we didn't run away again.
But the most important tree--other than the Fort Maple Tree In Our Backyard--was the Time Travel Tree. It, too, was a pine (or fir). It was across the street in a lot behind the three boys' house. It was big, fuzzy, with strong branches that led down to the ground. I think Oldest Brother had been reading A Wrinkle In Time, or some such book, and that's how he decided that the tree could travel through time. Or, maybe he'd been reading H.G. Wells. Irrelevant. We were kids. Imagination was a powerful thing. And when we all clambered up into that pine/fir, rummaging our thin bodies into the center of the thick-needled tree, and when we began shaking it and screaming and making strange UFO noises, then we traveled back in time. We traveled to dinosaur times, years of Knights and Ladies, Kings and Castles, times of war, to Ancient Greece and Egypt, to last week--for all I remember. We would come down from the tree and be in this new/old world and then invent our own psychodrama to pretend our way through that pretend world, usually ending with a life-and-death chase back to the tree where we again shook and screamed and escaped oblivion by the skin of our baby teeth. But the tree was also just the main tree to hang out in--other than the Fort in the maple--where we discussed things and events, everything from God and the stars to school and the new Monkees episode on TV.
Ah, hell. It was childhood. Young childhood. Everyone had one. Just make an effort and remember. Remember long enough and, for one lightning bolt fleeting second, maybe you can feel it in your limbs and brain and heart, that wonderful soaring discombobulated blood-coursing lightness that was you as a child.

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