A few weeks ago, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I drove down to Florida to visit my father and his bride at their Winter Digs. They’ve got a place about an hour north of Tampa, one of those high-falutin’ new developments carved out of a landscape of sand dunes and mangrove swamps. Where once was raw, sweaty country now stand hundreds – no, thousands – of neat, attractive dwellings, a horizon-to-horizon carpet of Spanish tile roofs. This was no latter-day Suburban Desert, however; the developers had the foresight to leave some of the natural surroundings intact.
As we walked around the neighborhood after breakfast, we saw quite a few beautiful trees. Some were massive hulks, draped in skeins of Spanish moss; others were broad, with branches that spread out almost horizontal to the ground. Some of them looked like good climbing trees, and that observation set me to reminiscing about my Snot-Nose Days. Childhood, that is.
Back in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, it was our practice to take long vacations in South Florida, there to visit my mother’s family. Our maternal grandparents, you see, had migrated from New York to Florida, along with so many other fellow New Yorkers. At first it was a two-household setup, with summers spent on Long Island and winters in North Miami Beach, but eventually the southern home won out, taking over as the permanent pied-à-terre. A few years later, my mother’s brother Phil moved south as well.
And thus it was that, every winter, my mother would fly down to Miami with my brother and me, to be joined after several weeks by Dad. After another week or two of leisure, we would all fly back home. Well before the airlines thought about concocting their byzantine reward schemes, back in the days of four-engine propeller-driven airliners in which the New York – Miami run took over four hours, we were already frequent flyers.
Over the years, our vacations grew shorter, shrinking from four weeks to two and shifting from winter to springtime; in the early 1960’s, we also began weaning ourselves away from the airplane. Eventually, we would make the annual trek entirely by car.
To me, the Annual Florida Pilgrimage had several attractions:
- It was the only chance I had to enjoy the exotic Coke-meets-prune juice taste of Dr Pepper, which, at the time, was not distributed in the Northeast.
- It was a chance to loaf for several weeks, the only nagging distraction being to keep up with homework assignments from school. The tacit agreement we had with our school was that we were given the assignments in advance; if we kept up with the work, we would not be reported as truant.
- It was an opportunity to enjoy the Best Climbin’ Tree on the planet.
There were several kids roughly my age that lived on the same street as did my grandparents. I recall spending many of my carefree vacation days with two boys in particular: Philip and Stewart. Their last names escape me after all these years, but no matter: the thing to remember is that Philip lived right next door to my grandmother’s house, and his backyard contained the Climbing Tree to beat all other Climbing Trees. Huge it was, with a canopy that filled the entire yard – it must have been fifty feet in diameter and forty feet high at its apex.
What kind of tree? I have no idea. It was some sort of monstrous Tropical Flora that did not grow in the New York suburbs. A banyan tree? A pandanus? Who the hell knows? All I knew was that it was large, leafy, and well-supplied with sturdy branches that intertwined and spread out widely from the thick trunk.
Every morning, Philip, Stewart, and I would convene in Philip’s back yard and begin our Sylvan Adventures. We’d grab the lower branches and swing ourselves up, navigating our way amongst the long horizontal spans of the lower limbs, gradually working our way up to the upper reaches, where the limbs became thinner and we could see patches of sky through the thick curtain of foliage.
It was a rare opportunity to grab a crotch and not get slapped for my presumptuousness.
Tree-climbing teaches many valuable lessons, and those who do not learn them suffer mightily. Be sure the limb you stand on is sufficient to bear your weight. Always have an exit strategy, for once you have made the ascent, you must eventually make a descent. Do not overreach, attempting moves beyond your capabilities. These lessons, of course, would find more general application later in life, but in those youthful days, they sufficed to keep our bodies and limbs whole.
We would spend whole days circumnavigating the great branchy bulk of that glorious tree. I can still remember the feeling of accomplishment when I had ascended as far as it was possible to go, to a perch which afforded a view of the neighborhood from a lofty height. I can remember sitting in the shade of that mighty canopy, with the sultry Florida breeze reduced to a cooling whisper. And I can remember the sweating, frosty glasses of lemonade Philip’s mother would give us when we took a break from our arboreal explorations. Those were sweet days.
Towards evening, I would trudge back to my grandmother’s house only to listen to an endless litany of how nasty our tree-climbing activities were. The filth! The bugs! You’ll get a rash! Horrified and revolted my grandmother may have been – and Mom, as well, most likely – but between them they had enough common sense to know that, yes, it was messy, and yes, it was hazardous to the Compleatly Inept, but that it was also an essential part of being a kid. Something that could not, should not, be denied.
Denial, alas, is all the rage in today’s Nanny-World. Climbing trees is a Fundamental Activity of a healthy boyhood, yet it’s an activity sadly absent from the lives of so many boys nowadays. Concerns about safety, liability, and little Johnny getting a skinned knee have eliminated tree climbing from most kids’ Life-Curricula. What do you expect, in a land where Monkey Bars – deathtraps! – are the modern-day Playground Passenger Pigeon?
This is a shame.
It’s a shame because so many of today’s kids will never know the joys that we knew, back in those hot springtime days in North Miami Beach.
Dr Pepper and a climbing tree. What more could a kid want out of life?