Tree House

TONIGHT we burned the last of the tree house. We sat and watched the dancing flames in our fireplace and I remembered the infamous day the wrecking crew moved in and reduced the grand old dame of a tree to a heap of dismembered limbs, wall-to-wall carpets, and plastic tile.

I had envisioned a far more dignified end for it. I thought someone would call out, ``Timber!'' and it would fall to a quick and merciful death. I had no idea it would be taken down piecemeal with the rude whine of chain saws reverberating throughout the countryside.

My husband told me later the woodcutters didn't appreciate my calling them hit men. He pointed out that we were just as responsible for the dark deed as they were. ``After all, we're the ones who hired them.''

It was a time of mixed emotions. Parents were relieved. Builders - whose construction sites had been plundered by tree house dwellers all summer - were ecstatic. Teen-agers were devastated, and smaller fry were philosophical about the whole thing.

You might say civilization caused its ultimate downfall. Its position as a lone tree on the edge of a soybean field made its future uncertain even before the encroachment of a subdivision. My husband had already threatened it with mayhem if it tore off one more tractor exhaust pipe, snagged one more disk, or damaged one more combine header.

Oblivious to such dire warnings, it fluttered its graceful branches, and nearby neighborhood children clamored over backyard fences and staked their claims like youthful explorers.

The younger children came first. They took possession of the lower limbs and built an amazingly sturdy lodging with nails and lumber confiscated from the site of a home under construction on the next block. Dissension set in almost immediately, however, and some of the dissenters moved laterally into different quarters. Later a few malcontents sought higher elevation.

As the community took shape it became attractive to a more sophisticated group. Older boys and girls eyed the topmost branches and soon laid claim to the portions of the tree designated off limits to the younger children by concerned parents.

The early arrivals - the Mayflower set, so to speak - strongly opposed sharing their newfound territory, but they took into account the size and age of the interlopers and wisely resigned themselves to coexisting in a state of d'etente.

My husband, the reluctant landlord by virtue of its being his tree, was elected by acclamation to serve as a one-man planning commission and grievance committee. He was later conscripted to act as mediator between rival factions, and he often acted as judge and jury in decisions involving charges brought by irate home builders against unquestionably guilty tree dwellers.

One of the carpenters stopped him on the street one day to vent his wrath. ``If them kids don't quit stealing my lumber, I'm gonna call the cops!''

As the season wore on the tree increased in population. Individual houses became masterpieces of architectural ingenuity. New additions were planned and tacked on in sometimes precarious positions. Sides went up, porches were added, and the penthouse boasted wall-to-wall carpet which looked suspiciously like the carpet in the model home on the corner. Pillows, chairs, tables, and a double bed mattress were laboriously hoisted onto upper floors by primitive pulleys. Running water was temporarily utilized from a garden hose when the crow's nest caught fire one day, and with the use of heavy-duty extension cords, electricity was installed by early fall.

At night the tree looked like a brilliantly lighted Chinese restaurant. (Christmas tree lights in the crow's nest were a fillip.)

With the addition of electricity, owners of electric guitars could practice their skills, and soon the quiet of the countryside was shattered with the unmistakable sounds of heavy metal.

That summer the tree house condo was the ``in'' place to be. Kids from other neighborhoods toured it enviously. Fortune smiled on it. When a severe windstorm swept through the area one evening, ripping off rooftops and turning over utility sheds, the tree house dwellings remained intact. Its tenants attributed this to divine Providence, but one of the woodcutters said there were so many nails attaching the boards to the tree that nothing short of lightning could have dislodged them.

The tree obviously enjoyed its elitist status. It swayed and preened outrageously. At night it waved its brightly lighted branches in time with the pulsating sounds of Top 40 tunes, and the Christmas tree lights twinkled merrily.

Then as suddenly as it had risen to glory it began to fall on bad times. A seedy element was attracted to it. Informers from the Mayflower set reported questionable activities going on in the penthouse. Parents complained about the noise, and contractors complained about missing construction materials. Finally a group of concerned citizens met with my husband, and it was decided that for the good of the community the tree should come down.

At first I opposed this measure, but a number of incidents caused me to have second thoughts. A few carelessly dropped tools narrowly missed vulnerable noggins on lower levels. Local law enforcement officers began to monitor the comings and goings of the residents of the penthouse. There were rumors of broken limbs - human - from falls.

I could see its days were numbered.

It was duly mourned and it will not soon be forgotten.

I wonder sometimes if, in years to come when city streets spread across the broad field, some parent - maybe even a former occupant of the penthouse - will stand with a child, point to a spot of concrete, and muse: ``I think it was about there. It must have stood 70 feet high (tree house trees increase in height in retrospect) and it had running water and lights.... I wish you could have seen it....''

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