By Wendy V. Smith (February 2011), revised and edited with memories from Wayne L. Smith (May 2016)
Every year my cousins from Buffalo, New York, came for a visit and the summer of 1964, when I was 8, was no exception. While Sharlene and I spent time playing with dolls and baking in my Easy Bake Oven, Phillip and my older brother Wayne did target practice on tin cans at the horse barn with his rifle. Yes, he was 10 and he had his own rifle, which in itself was not unheard of within farming families. Yet even Wayne was surprized at how that rifle ended up in his hands.
The milk house was a dilapidated building right beside our farmhouse where, in my grandfather’s day before refrigerators, the milk was stored to keep it cold. I never went in there much. In my memory, it was low into the ground; danky and creepy which likely made it enticing for Wayne’s inquisitive, exploratory nature. Now I wish I had have gone in as I may have found a long-ago treasure like the barrel of a small .22 calibre rifle, for that’s all it was when Wayne found it. He remembers sitting on the wooden stand that surrounded the pump behind the house that filled the cow’s water trough, while Grampa Smith showed him how to carve a new stock handle for it, so he could keep it…and fix it… so he could shoot things with it. And when Dad didn’t take it away, it was like Christmas in July!
And then another one of Wayne’s dream was about to come true. About 1 kilometer south-east of the house in the forest, there was a huge old sugar maple that Wayne had grown quite attached to. This maple stood alone and had grown very bushy and wide so that it looked like a big green globe from a distance. It’s large forks branching out from its trunk made it a perfect destination for a tree house. And with Phillip’s help, Wayne could make his dream come true.
The boys spent hours pulling wagonloads of building supplies up to this tree including boards from an dismantled horse stable Grampa had build and torn down decades ago. The maple’s three main tiers stretched out at least 10 to 12 feet from the trunk. The large branches of these tiers were perfect for wedging three logs in a triangle to act as the floor joists about 18 feet up the tree. The bushy branches also were perfect for saving Wayne’s life, breaking his fall when he slipped and fell in the building process.
From the farmhouse, we could hear the echo from the hammers and saws. Uncle Phil, who was my Mom’s brother, and Dad went to check on them several times and reported they were doing a great job.
Security was a prime factor in the construction. You needed to climb two ladders to get to the tree house. Once you climbed the first 12’ wooden ladder, you had to step to the left off the top to get your foot on the first step of the second 6’ wooden ladder, which ended at the trap door in the bottom of the tree house, which could be locked from the inside. The attachment at the top of the first ladder worked like a hinge so that the rope attached to the bottom of ladder, which was looped over a high branch and then tied to a nearby tree (just high enough so that I couldn’t reach it!), could be pulled and the ladder could be raised or lowered like a draw bridge.
So, as you can guess, I didn’t get into it very much especially after Sharlene and I showed our eagerness to redecorate by adding curtains to the window. In my mind, this little house in the sky was an amazing thing – a storybook fantasy come true. I would be like Snow White living in the forest.
The following is a dramatic reckoning …
Off we all went that first time when Wayne and Phillip were showing Sharlene and I the new tree house. Buster bounced ahead of us across the yard, past the pump and the cow trough, through the gate into the barnyard, past the horse barn and up the hill into the forest. Finally, after what seemed like a very long walk, we arrived at the sugar maple.
“Look,” said Phillip pointing up. “Look up – way up there!”
Sharlene and I strained our necks to look up through the branches to see the bottom of a huge tree house.
“Wow,” I gasped. “How do you get up there?”
Wayne walked over to a rope that was tied to a neighbouring tree and untied it.
“Step back,” he said as he let the rope slowly slip through his hands lowering one end of the 12-foot ladder. Phillip went up first then shouted down for us to start our ascent. Sharlene and I gingerly made out way, step by cautious step, up the ladder, nervously side-stepping to the second ladder.
“Don’t look down, Sharlene!” Phillip warned his little sister. As my head went through the trap door opening, it was immediately obvious that the boys had put a lot of work into its sturdy floor, solid roof and big window.
“Can we play up here today?” asked Sharlene. “We could put curtains in the windows.”
“And we could bring up cups and saucers and have tea parties!” I added.
“And a little table could go right here,” Sharlene pointed to a corner.
“I could pick some daisies and put them in a jar to go on top of the table.” Sharlene and I were very excited.
Wayne and Phillip looked at each other. “Sure,” Wayne said. “But you’ll have to go home and bring food back.”
“Yah!” I squealed, so excited at the thought of eating inside the tree house.
“We’ll go to the house and make sandwiches and bring them back,” offered Sharlene.
“Yeah,” said Phillip. “And bring some grape Koolaid too.”
Sharlene and I couldn’t believe how nice the boys were being.
About an hour later, we were back, pulling a wagon filled with egg-salad sandwiches on freshly baked bread, a pitcher of grape Koolaid, chocolate chip cookies still warm from the oven and some apples from the crab apple tree. We also brought a bag of playhouse plates, cups and saucers.
“We’re back!,” called Sharlene. “Lower the ladder.”
“OK, look out,” called Phillip. The ladder came down slowly.
“You girls stay down here while we carry everything up,” said Wayne. “The ladder might break with too much weight on it.”
Once the wagonload of food and supplies was up in the tree house, the ladder was quickly pulled up, revealing a newly made sign – “No Girls Allowed!”
“Hey!” I shouted. “Lower the ladder so we can come up.”
“No girls allowed,” shouted Wayne.
“What?!” I shouted.
“Phillip, you lower that ladder or you’ll be in trouble,” said Sharlene.
But all we could hear were the boys’ laughter in between mouthfuls of egg salad sandwiches.
“Come on Sharlene. Let’s go tell Mom. Come on Buster!”
“Gosh, Wendy,” said Sharlene as we headed back down the hill. “They‘re being so mean. Golly!”
It took everything I had inside not to say all the curse words that I had heard Uncle Emmett say when the tractor broke down. Mom and Aunt Marian had watched us making the picnic with a feeling of foreboding, so they weren’t surprised when we arrived back so soon, upset and hungry.
The boys had planned a sleepover in the treehouse, but because of their bad behaviour, they weren’t allowed. However, the next day, ours parents relented. The boys made several trips with the wagon filled with supplies including sleeping bags, flashlights, comic books and snacks.
When night time arrived, Uncle Phil decided that he should go up to the tree house to check on the boys to be sure they were safe. He was very quiet because he didn’t want the boys to know he was checking up on them. When he arrived at the tree, he could hear the boys talking and laughing. How great it was to hear these cousins, who were only able to see each other a few times a year, getting along so well and having such a great adventure together.
Uncle Phil had an idea to put a little extra excitement into the boys’ adventure. He turned the flashlight off and began to scrape it against the tree trunk. The carefree chatter coming from the tree house ended.
“What was that?” a whisper broke the silence.
“I don’t know. I heard it too.”
“I don’t hear anything now.”
Uncle Phil scrapped the flashlight against the tree again.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a bear.”
Uncle Phil’s plan was working. He scrapped more and then to add even more excitement, he growled.
“Holy shit! It is a bear!” There was shuffling in the tree house and then…. BANG! Wayne’s rifle fired and Uncle Phil heard the bullet hit the ground next to his foot.
“WHOA! WHOA! HOLD YOUR FIRE BOYS!” Uncle Phil shouted.
“DAD?” Phillip called.
“Indeed it is son. Hold your fire Wayne.”
It had not occurred to Uncle Phil that Wayne would take his new rifle on the overnight adventure.
As a U.S. Army Medic, Uncle Phil had lived through tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam but this was the closest a bullet had come to ending his life. That being said, this is a story that Uncle Phil liked to tell many times and thank goodness, it’s a story that everyone can still laugh about 50 years later.