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climbing past my prime


all but the cats write here ... to remember, to share, to mumble, to shout ... follow along by RSS or email if you like.

climbing past my prime


There's a thing or two in Bethany's last post I wanted to touch on.  But before I do I will tell you about my first attempt to remove the tree limb that Fynn posted about.  As a kid growing up in the woods I was a very motivated tree climber, usually in competition or emulation of my older siblings.  In my eagerness to be as adept as they, I often swallowed my fear of heights and took risks that on my own I would have stayed well-enough away from.  Fortunately for my brothers and sisters I was never hurt, for they would have been held responsible. 

The worst I can remember was racing my brother Nathan to the tops of two parallel pine trees behind our house.  I don't remember who got there first but I do remember being breathtakingly above the peak of the house with my feet on two bendy branches, and my little-kid fingers completely circling the skinny trunk.  It was terrifying and awesome!  I looked across at my brother maybe 12 feet away.  We grinned at each other.  Then very carefully he balanced, putting both arms out like wings.  "Look. No hands."  Well.  That was very cool. 

He quickly got hold of the tree again, and I was already positioning my feet to get the best balance.  To his credit, I believe he said "Don't try that!" but I was already putting my arms out.  "Look!" I said proudly, "No hands!", and then I fell.  Backwards.  Thankfully, Douglas Fir trees have a lot of flexible branches, and what I at first assumed was a freefall to my death turned out only to be a giant Paddy-Whack to having the wind pounded out of me. 

By the time Nathan climbed down and ran and brought my mom, my first breath was almost possible.  Nathan did get in trouble for that but the psychological effects were more punishing.  He was scared of heights for years.  My fear lasted a few weeks, I was too much of a show-off to let that get in the way. 

My desperation for recognition certainly kept me fit.  I was one of a handful who could climb the sailors rope to the top of the gymnasium.  I held the chin-up record for a year and learned to climb a tree with no branches, if my arms could reach around it.  Which brings me back to the subject at hand: it had rained for at least a week, here in Tennessee, and I had been gritting my teeth to get at cutting down this tree branch.  So when a grey twilight of no rain presented itself, I took action. 

The branch itself was as thick around as the trunk, but not so thick that a long reciprocating saw blade couldn't span it.  Keren and Bobby had no ladder, but my plan was simple: put the saw below the branch, shimmee 15 ft up the tree with an extension cord and holler for Bethany (whom I hadn't told the plan in my hurry to get it done before dark).  Bethany would tie the saw to the cord and I would hoist it up, plug it in, send the other end down to be plugged and begin sawing, while Bethany pulled the rope. 

I set up, put the cord around my neck and went to the base of the tree on the downhill side.  Hmmm ... this side added about 3 feet to the climb and was surrounded by thorny holly-like bushes.  No matter, I had a lot of determination built up from being stuck inside for a week.  Plus the tree was covered in ivy which should improve my grip, right?  I wrapped my arms around and made like a little dog on a big man's leg.  Shimmee, Shimmee, shimmee.  Pant, pant, pant, shimmee, shimmee.  This was hard goin.  The ivy was still pretty wet from the rain and maybe I should have worn sneakers instead of my dress shoes.  Shimmee shimmee shimmee shimmee.  I was about halfway to that branch and really starting to tire!  I paused.  This was much easier 20 years ago.  Maybe the tree was too fat?  I must look ridiculous to the neighbors, halfway up, just clinging here.  I should give up.  No!  I must go on!  I've got to be able to reach that small branch!

I mustered my strength and poured on the adrenalin, shimmee shimmee, shimmee, scrabble, scrabble, shimmee, shimmee, scrabble.  Did I mention it was 32 degrees out?  What with the wet ivy and the cold, my fingers had gone numb.  Shimmee, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, shimmee, shimmee, if I could just get my knee 3 inches higher (scrabble, scrabble, slip, shimmee, shimmee,) I could put it on that little branch, (scrabble, slip, shimmee shimmee scrabble) and give my groin muscles a rest from having to grip this slip shimmee shimmee ivy.  And I'd be within 2 feet of reaching the scrabble slip big branch shimmee shimmee slip shimmee shimmee.  Just 3 more inches shimmee shimmee just one more inch slip shimmee slip shimmee shimmee just 3 more inches ... it was at this point my body ran entirely out of shimmee and my fingers out of scrabble.  That was it.  All gone.  Arms and legs frozen in a position of defeat, I slowly slid down all 15 feet of my progress, to the thorns, and staggered away from the tree, hoping this was only a momentary lapse in my prime. 

As the stars of overexertion finished waltzing about the ballroom of my eyes, I found myself staring at the piled fence the boys and I had torn out a week before, and a plan came to me.  I would cut up 2x4's and screw them to the tree as steps, just as soon as I could walk again. 

Bethany mentioned taking a "shortcut" at the Ijams park, and she used the words "nearly vertical."  I assure you, this was no exaggeration.  Twenty years ago this was exactly the kind of climbing I reveled in.  Steep and rocky, but not unnavigable, yet fraught with real heart-pounding peril.  And there was Douglas, blazing a trail with his rock climbing skills, but more than that, with his very own bag of confidence.  There was Fynn, just like I was years ago, willing to try anything his brother could do.  There was Bethany, exhilarated to be off the beaten path, making our own way through a challenge.  I found myself in the strange position of Worry Wart at the back of the pack.  A catcher in the Rye.  A Father of kids on a dangerous path.  It wasn't a "Bad" feeling, it was a "Dad" feeling.  My first impulse was to abort the whole climb, but how could I extinguish all that eagerness?  My next impulse was to climb ahead and scout a path of safety but by this time Douglas was already doing that.  Lastly I realized trusting Douglas to lead in a situation of actual danger was what we both needed.  And he was marvelous.  We reached the top with only one minor slip of Fynn's left foot and new confidence for everyone.  We celebrated by splitting a pack of Reese's peanut butter cups, and bush whacked our way out of the bramble. 

Bethany suggested I might tell the story of the neighbor in the towel, but that tale of comic delight has turned tragic, and I'm leery of putting too much to paper, for fear of being disrespectful.  I will give it a shot, but that's enough post for now. 

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