Sunday, April 25, 2010

Falling Through the Ugly Tree

You ever heard that expression used to explain some person’s ugliness? They fell through the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

I’ve not only heard it – I’ve lived it. I may not have been the ugly tree, but I was, most certainly, the person falling through it.

I've been warned against posting this, and I'm suspecting these words will do nothing more than expose my stupidity ... But I don't care. So, here goes!

It was the Fourth of July weekend in 1976. I remember it so well because, not only was it our Nation’s bicentennial, it was the same year I crashed my sister’s bicycle racing my best friend around a soccer track before a game. That little incident, by the way, left me wearing a stupid kind of butterfly shaped contraption around my shoulders for months while my collar bone healed. The little bicycle racing stunt had broken my collar bone in three places and given me my second concussion. The first concussion was the result of the actions of the weekend I’m describing now.

It was a wonderful time in my life. I was at that precious age where I could enjoy all the great rock music of the day without the burden of really understanding any of it. It would be a year before the first Star Wars movie play in the theaters, bringing seriousness, direction and control into my life. It would be even longer before I was exposed to the movie “Heavy Metal” and “Lasarium” the laser rock show with Pink Floyd accompaniment shown at the Seattle Space Center, again changing my life and sending me into an ever-quickening downward spiral that ended a few short years later in a quick eviction from my apartment and enlistment into military service.

I’m sure the eviction from my apartment would have been even quicker if my landlord hadn’t made me clean the blood off the floor and the butter off the ceiling before I left.

But I digress. So, there I was, in the prime of my youth and enjoying the hottest summer in years and the biggest patriotic celebration I had ever seen. Everything in our family worth doing was worth doing while camping. My parents would have us all packed up by Friday night and we would spend the weekend living out of a trailer, sucking in smoke fumes from the fire and listening to my wonderful Uncle Bob’s crazy laugh. Sometimes his laugh would set off a chain reaction and set the whole campground into laughter. Although I’m not sure they were so much laughing with him as laughing at him.

My Uncle Bob’s laugh sounded like a goat caught in an electric fence or someone trying to imitate machine gun fire. He never held back and the sound of his laughter could probably be heard for at least twelve miles on a clear day – and the sky was very clear that weekend.

I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed camping as I was in my “Grizzly Adams” stage. This was the stage in my life when I actually thought I was Grizzly Adams. For those of you who don’t know, Grizzly Adams was a show on television about a man wrongly accused of some crime that’s never really mentioned, who escapes to live in the wilderness. He grows a beard and befriends a grizzly bear and has many wonderful adventures as a mountain man with a bear as his only companion. Hey, at least it was better than “Flipper!”

I do remember my sister not enjoying camping as much as myself or my brother – or anybody, for that matter. She was a couple years older than us and entering those teenage years where one can lose social status through such primitive living. I just don’t think it was very impressive for her friends when she would say, “Hey, wanna go camping this weekend?” I’m pretty sure the response was in the form of another question such as, “What? Are you crazy?”

Anyway, we were all camping somewhere near Lake Chelan on the Eastern side of Washington State. This was not our normal camping spot. Our normal camping spot was at Lake Osbourne (which I found out later was not its real name) in the Hamma Hamma region of the Olympic Mountains. No, I didn’t type it twice; the name was actually Hamma Hamma. Just up the dirt mountain roadway from our lake was the Wicky Ticky, where we hunted Elk in the winter. I’m sure that by now, you can see where my weirdness stems from. And yes, I’ve even been to Forks. It’s just like Stephanie Meyers describes in the Twilight series. Although, the sunlight never “Shone greenly through the trees” for me while I was there.

By nine in the morning, my brother, and cousins and I had already scrounged up something to eat, played in the campfire until we were banished from the area, and had moved out into the wilderness to explore. We walked along one side of a dirt road trying to stay under the shadows of the tall pines along the sides. The morning coolness was giving way to the full blistering heat of summer. It was probably eighty degrees but we were already in our summer attire of cutoff shorts and tank tops – but we still wore our leather boots because we were, in fact, little hillbillies. Eighty degrees was plenty hot for the Northwest.

It was along this roadway that we spotted a tall stump standing alone and carved into the steep canyon. We could see Lake Chelan to our left and below us, but thought we could get a much better view if we were to climb to the top of the stump. So we shimmied up the stump and huddled together on a flat spot on top where it had been cut.

The view was beautiful. We could see nearly the entire waterway below us. Although the stump was only about five feet high on the roadside, the ground seemed to fall below the other side about thirty feet. It was ok; we weren’t smart enough yet to have developed any reasonable fear for our lives.

Now, we all noticed – nearly at the same time – a large pine tree growing about five feet away on the canyon side of the stump. The top of the pine tree was about level with us as we sat atop the stump. Of course, it took us about two seconds to start daring each other to jump from the top of the stump to the top of the tree. Remember, the ground was about thirty feet or so below on that side of the stump.

I must digress here once more to say that my brother was a little over a year older than me and about twice my size. He was bigger, braver, less emotional, and stronger than me and I hated it. He seemed to have a way of pushing me into things I was fearful of doing. He seemed to have no problem taking chances. I was more thoughtful in my actions. I know that now, but at the time it was known as being a … well, uh … some part of the female anatomy.

I did get my licks in once in awhile though. I once convinced a number of our neighborhood boys, along with my brother, that we could safely jump off the roof of a storage building we had somehow managed to climb, and use umbrellas as parachutes. Really, I just ended up convincing myself and went first to prove it would work. It didn’t work, and it was quite painful.

There was no way I was going to allow my big brother to jump into the top of that tree and take all the glory. There was no way I was going to suffer through the laughing and name-calling for the entire weekend because I was afraid to jump.

Without warning, I stood on the top of the stump and flung myself through the air toward the top of the pine tree. For that brief moment, I felt like I was flying. I was completely free, like a flying squirrel with the wind over my face and nothing but the glory and admiration of others in front of me. I would be a hero among boys. My actions would go down in the boyhood history books as the most daring and death-defying of all.

I landed perfectly into the very top of the large pine and grabbed hold of the thin branches for all I was worth. The treetop swayed against my weight and bent nearly ninety-degrees before snapping and sending me, once again, into the wind. But this flight was short-lived. I was still holding onto the top of the tree in bear-hug fashion as I made my quick descent. It felt like I was hitting every single branch on the way down and it was probably a good thing as it decreased the speed at which I fell to the ground thirty feet below. Unfortunately, it increased the pain of the fall. As each branch slapped into my body it felt like I was hitting the ground over and over.

When I came to, my brother and cousin had already gotten off the stump and climbed down the hill. They stood there looking at me, wide-eyed as I was surely unconscious long enough for them to think I was dead. I was still holding onto the top of the tree that I had broken off and rode all the way to the ground. The pain did not actually start until I tried to move.

The two boys somehow managed to get me back to camp where everyone gathered around me in a form of triage discussing what they should do with me. By then I was getting sick and losing the hotdogs I ate for breakfast, all over the campsite. The group came to the determination that I had suffered a concussion, treated me for shock by laying me on my sleeping bag and placing a pillow under my feet. My brother and cousin had to pull watch over me in shifts so I wouldn’t go to sleep.

I obviously got better and even remember watching the fireworks from my spot in camp. I recovered quickly, probably eating everything in sight within the next couple of days. The camping trip was a bust for me though, and the only thing I had to look forward to for the rest of the summer was playing soccer with my little league team with my best friend, Erik Carlson.

The moral of this story? The lesson? I don’t know. I just felt like rambling.