Looking out through mother's back porch sliding glass door I can see out over the woods separating our backyard and the backyard of the houses on the next street, in the Birmingham, Alabama suburb. A good two hundred yards of dense wooded area, losing a relentless assault by kudzu, makes the view of the houses across the way easier to see. Twenty-six years ago, however, the kudzu-free wooded area completely obscured the view of the houses, giving the appearance of an endless forest. My backyard had a twenty-foot area of a nice trimmed lawn slopping downward. Bordering the yard from the woods was a five-foot high stone wall. From the wall to a creek running through the center of the woods, the slope dropped more steeply. Then, after the creek, the slope rose to the houses on the other side. In these woods, my childhood friends and I defeated the Germans, explored uncharted jungles, built the best forts, and got sick with our first cigars.
In the late summer of '73 my best friend Ken and I were bored. It seemed, to a pair of eleven-year-olds, that we had done all there was to do that summer. Standing on the stone wall in my backyard throwing rocks in the woods at a stump, we discussed our dilemma. Looking up at a tree, fat and tall, growing at the wall, I confidently proclaimed without having any idea of how, "We could build a tree house!" Maybe because of Ken's shyness, but it seemed I was always able to talk him into anything. We decided to try to make this the tree house to beat all tree houses. An old oak tree big enough to hold the mansion we planned on building had no branches for the first forty or so feet. To reach the limbs, we devised a plan to throw an old ski rope with an attached stone over the lowest limb. This seemingly easy task took us most of the day and yielded a big knot on Ken's head and a broken clay pot of my mothers which we discreetly disposed of. Finally, after getting the rope over the limb of the tree we noticed the handle. Our grand plans of a tree house were immediately overshadowed by the spontaneous achievement of creating the ultimate swing.
Taking hold of the handle, I decided to make the first test. Pulling back a good ten feet from the wall, I made my run. Right before the wall, I pulled up my legs and just cleared the edge and out over the woods I flew. At the height of my run I looked down. Oh my God! I must have been thirty feet in the air. It WAS the ultimate swing! Ken, after seeing my success, got brave and backed up to the edge of my back porch stairs. His run was a great deal higher than mine was. Handing the rope to me with a sly smile, Ken was familiar with what was to come. I yanked the rope from him and grinning back, we knew the competition was beginning.
The next week saw our little competition grow to new heights of daring. Up the stairs of the back porch we went. The further back we started our run, the higher we got over the woods. We were getting up to sixty feet at the height of the run. At eleven years old, the gravity of our situation was the furthest thing from our minds. We got to the edge of the porch. On one of my runs, the back pocket of my jeans tore away on the edge of the stone wall. The grass in the area we passed over the wall was worn to a dirt patch. Now, a large pair of Mule work gloves was needed to hold on through the fast runs. Higher and higher we flew.
Getting a ladder from the basement, we proceeded to the twenty-foot high roof. Even to a pair of young daredevils, this was frightening. Looking down, my heart was in my throat. I could feel the sweat from my palms in the gloves. This time I didn't get a running start. I simply held on for dear life and jumped. With the world breezing by, my butt scraped before the wall sending a cloud of dirt in the air. Flying out over the woods below with my eyes tightly closed shut, it took all of my strength to keep my gloved hands from slipping off the handle. The weight of the swing made the tree creak loudly, like a loud moan. Feeling like I had been out over those woods for an hour, the momentum slowly stopped and returned me to the wall. Prying away my hands, I keep my joy of surviving to myself and proclaimed my record to beat. With a look of fear as he shielded his eyes from the sun, Ken looked to the roof and started up the stairs.
Looking out from his high perch for a moment, like a condemned criminal facing his execution, Ken prepared for the scariest moment of his young life. Off he went! It was then that I felt the gloves on my hands. Swoosh! Ken flew past and out over the woods. The momentum pulled with such force, his small sweaty hands slid off the handle as he had started to swing upward. In a horrifying arch that seem to last for ever, Ken flew for a few seconds before dropping down into the overgrowth. Out of my line of vision, I heard a loud thud then silence.
Jumping out from the wall, I ran as fast as I could to where my best friend laid. Having to pull away bushes and vines, I made it to Ken's limp body. Without checking his pulse or any other means of examining him, I convinced myself he was dead. I sat in fear on a fallen tree trunk and cried. My mother heard me crying and came out onto the porch and called out to me, "Gregory?" "He's dead!" was all I could answer. My mother gasp. She knew we were playing in the back, but, for the sake of her nerves, preferred not to know what we were up to. Then, suddenly, I felt a weak hand on my foot and jumped out of my skin as I screamed. Ken, in a raspy voice, told me he was alive and tried to sit up but had problems using his arms. I helped him to a sitting position against a small log he had been laying across. The reason for Ken's problems with his arms became painfully clear. Landing an a small log, his forearms were both broken to give the strange appearance of second elbows. With a child's diplomacy, I said, "Oh, man! Ken, don't look at your arms." Of course he did and with his eyes rolling back in his head, immediately passed out again. Mother took control of the situation and told me to get Ken's mother who lived across the street. After seeing mother's reaction, I realized the severity of the situation and was hesitant to tell another adult, for fear of blame. Before I could object mother turned to call the paramedics. I reluctantly went across the street.
Ken, throughout his childhood, was a walking accident. Even at eleven, Ken had already broken his arms twice his leg once and had a multitude of stitches. Many of these injuries I witnessed if not caused. I ran up the three steps to the familiar front door and rang the doorbell. With my head held down and in the most angelic voice I could muster, I confessed the days event in breathless, lightning speed. Ken's mother took the news surprisingly well. In retrospect, I guessed the many injuries before were good training for such emergencies. She calmly picked up her purse and followed me to our house. The final diagnoses for my best friend was two broken arms and a broken collarbone. And after lying on several poison ivy vines, Ken had the worst case I had ever seen. For six months he had two homemade coat-hanger "scratchers" sticking out of both arm-length cast and couldn't even go to the bathroom without help.
The sound of screaming chainsaws shook me from the memory. The storm last night brought the grand tree down. "Gregory, you know that was the tree that the swing was in?" my mother said as she walked up behind me. "Really?" I responded, feigning ignorance. The old tree lay across the backyard and softly leaned against the ease of the house, barely bending the gutter. It looked as if it had fallen asleep, like its tired four-foot wide trunk was just too much for the old oak and he was resting for a moment.
The tree gave me an excuse to call my childhood friend and reminisce about those crazy days. We have grown apart, lately, as many childhood bonds do. Ken has a family of his own, now. After two girls, Ken and his wife finally had a boy. He's five, the same age as we, when we first met. As the conversation wound down and we talked of the many reckless things we had survived, I sensed apprehension in Ken's voice and realized my old friend was thinking of what nerve-racking adventures his own son would have. "…His own son!" I repeated in my head. Wow, I can only imagine what Ken was contemplating. At the forefront, I bet he is hopeful that he won't meet a friend like me until he gets his own insurance.