Daring determination and the ability to block out the fact that you just might get a whipping for even attempting it — that’s what it took to be the tree-climbing champion.
Oh, to conquer the highest branch of the big old maple tree! It seemed it was the thing to do when I was a kid. My sisters and I started with a little grove of lilacs that had grown with nice solid, low branches.
We earned our expertise there, low to the ground, checking each foot placement, weighing the give of each branch before committing to it totally, transferring weight. I remember feeling pretty dang remarkable.
There was an ugly scrub cedar that was my second climb. I tossed a book into the “v” of that tree and climbed up to it, excited by my singular plan.
Like a whole lot of what makes up a childhood, I found myself waiting for something to happen. Eventually, you just jump down and go find something else to do. There was a solidly-built cherry tree in the side yard that beckoned us next.
As the youngest of the bunch, I was too chicken to attempt to put a leg up on that one. The smooth bark of that straight tree seemed impossible in gaining a foothold.
I remember watching my older sisters conquer that one and thought they were amazingly brave to reach the top branches. One of my sisters fell from that tree, and not long after, it was cut down.
But, the most impressive of them all was the sprawling hard maple that shadowed our entire yard. There was a swing hanging from one branch under the canopy of that massive tree.
If you were daring enough to keep pumping while on that swing, your feet could touch one of the higher branches. It felt like an enormous accomplishment to push off of that solid branch.
No more climbing
We were told not to climb that tree. What more does a daring kid need to hear? It became a silent challenge.
Seasons passed, and we would eye that imposing monster of a tree. It was incredible in its scope, with huge branches reaching in every direction. We passed under it every time we headed out to do anything.
It might as well have been whispering, “I dare you. …”
We practiced on less imposing trees for a long time. There were hundreds of them to choose from. We might be out hunting mushrooms when someone would say, “That looks like a great tree. …”
And the challenge was on. Smooth beech trees, wispy willows, all of the imposing oaks, the dead gray tree at the edge of the woods with a hollow shell just our height, its shelter open to all sorts of game possibilities — those trees were our landmarks, and remain as much a part of my memory as the names of our teachers and friends.
Daring and skill
Good tree climbing required daring and skill. Some argued that climbing barefoot was the way to go, while most of us felt that the right tennis shoes were required for a good, steady foot grip.
Success was measured by the amount of daring it took to reach the summit of a new tree. One summer day, our parents away somewhere, my sister announced she was going to climb Massive Maple.
It would require a ladder to even start the ascent, since there were no low branches on which to grab hold. There was electric in the air, the realization that this dare-devil meant business.
We watched from the ground, holding our breath, as she put one foot on yet another, higher branch. The most frightening moment was when we lost sight of her, swallowed up by the enormity of branches covered with leaves.
“I made it!” we heard her yell. Our childish hope was that she could see all the way to Europe.
“What do you see up there?” I hollered. “Well. Um, a whole lot of leaves,” she answered with a tinge of disappointment in her voice.
We urged her to come back down before we were caught. When we spotted one sneakered foot descending that monstrous tree, we breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Holding the ladder, hurrying her along, we knew this was a day to be remembered, just between us. After years of anticipation, the monster had been conquered, and we couldn’t even brag about it!