Sunday, December 9, 2007
Of the several small talents that come with having about the same bodily proportions as a raccoon, my climbing ability has served me best, and has taken me to the most beautiful and unlikely places: most unfamously (and since Alan Pike died, it no longer needs to be a secret) to the top of the Cornell clock tower with a pumpkin. But Pike, not me, should get ultimate credit for that. Somebody could write a Phd thesis about Pike.
It was the trees themselves which first inspired me to climb. I distinctly remember Grandfather Failing pointing at the
pines as they agitated in the wind over the camp at Lake Bonaparte and telling me that the trees waving around like that, caused the wind.
Maybe it was only something I told myself, or something the trees told me, anyway I believed.
But as to why.....considering that to just stand on the ground and look up at the flailing tops of those trees could cause me to shiver with fear..... why I would want to actually go up there, I really can't say.
We boys did some limb-to-limb climbing in the younger pines down by the garage and I was at a disadvantage there because of the long interval between the branch whorls, though I managed by rocking the limbs and springing off them to get up in the trees about as well as my brothers, who tired that only once. David's fall was stopped by the next set of branches, but he stopped climbing anything at all for many years after that.
I could get right up to the top branches of those garage pines. but it was hard to even get started climbing the bigger trees behind the house because they had no low branches. One of them biggest stood only a few feet from the back of the house, its rough trunk limbless to above the eves
I often watched from the bedroom window as raccoons with claws on their hands and on their handy feet, heaved themselves up the trunk and disappeared way up where the pine diverged into the sky.
It seemed to me that to run up a tree like a coon would be almost as good as flying. Back in Natural Bridge, I had already tried and failed at flying, with both cape and wings,
It did not escape me now that I already had certain raccoon characteristics. In fact, I had Daveys abandoned coonskin hat, with tail. All I lacked were the claws.
On second thought, there were some sort-of claws sort of available.
At that age my common-law brother David had a fascination with Indian armaments and war crafts He was always making bows and arrows out of saplings and green shoots from the gorge out back, and the bows were usually good for one day of shooting at tombstones and puff balls before the arrows were lost and the green wood lost its spring.
Soon after getting for Christmas a ten dollar baby jig saw meant for cutting puzzles out of balsa board, he had painfully sawed and roughly whiittled a bow from a pine shelf-board that didn't have anything sitting on it, and most recently he had sawed and whittled a bunch of bear claws. out of cedar shingles, He had hardened and blackened each one over a candle, then shined them up with candle wax and had strung a few necklaces; but there were plenty claws left over for several bears, so I took enough to stick out through all the toe holes I made in a pair of sneakers and out through the holes I had punched through some mitt ends with a ski pole.
I went to the big tree nearest the house out back and leapt onto the tree. Six feet up, the softwood sneaker claws broke and the mitts pulled off as I slid, then fell down.
Not a bad fall.I hadn't got as high as the bedroom window, but David heard my scratching down the tree, saw what seemed to be his claws ruined, and before I could even get the sneakers off, he pissed in my bed, which was handy there in the room with him, but hurt him more than me, because my bed was under his, and I usually spent the night in the bathtub anyway.
So I spent the night in the bathtub.
But by the next morning David was done being pissy, so we went down cellar
and, working together on a pair of someone's antique looking baseball cleats, drove roofing nails outward through the arches. Which we would hear about later.
Then we slit a pair of leaf raking gloves up the back so we could pepper the palms with more roofing nails.
David and I always got on better during those basement projects than on any of our adventures in the wide open spaces, often with some artifact of our basement design that failed in actual use and alienated us so much that he more than once came home alone, having forgotten that I had set off with him.
How do you forget your own brother?
Well the ready answer is that I am not his real brother (unless of course I am) but for what it was worth (it was my primary education) I entrusted myself to my multiply distracted brother, like I entrusted myself to the tossing trees: I was a fool kid believer, and I once in a while regretted an instance where I was my brothers fool, but I always escaped death.
David had a plan.
He cut loose a skein of kite string, brought down a clothes line, and brought out his new made bow. We went out back and around the fence to the parking lot of the next property where we could lay the string in loops the arrow could pick up, and he could be far enough back to angle his shot over the ridge. The pine board bow now had an actual bought string instead of a raw hide lace, and he had wrapped its ends with thread to match the paint rings on the new bought arrow.
He tied one end of the rope to the kite string, and the other end of the kite string to his new arrow.
Then he had me run back around t he fence and to the other side of the house so I could make sure no one (except maybe me) got hit by or stole, the arrow.
I ran; he shot the arrow, with string attached, over the house, and those bad things didn't happen. But I forgot to bring the arrow back around and David had to run back and get it.
Back under the big tree, I put on the hobnailed cleats and David belted the gloves at my wrists with skate- laces which weren't needed on Valerie's skates because it was summer. He tied the other end of the clothes line to my belt, and told me to start climbing when he tugged on the rope.
Then he went up stairs and grabbed the string from the opposite dormer window and pulled the rope over until it was taut, which was my signal to climb.
The steel finger nails and foot claws worked pretty well, but it seemed like his tugging on the rope was tending more to tear me off the tree than help me stay on it. However, I was launched, there was no turning back, and I moved up. If I was not exactly running in typical coon spirals, it was at least an effective, straight sort of scrabbling.
As soon as I got as far as the first limbs above the eve, David's tugging was tending all the more to pull me off the tree so I pulled my belt off.
I don't know what he thought when the rope went slack, but I proceeded limb to limb, up and up to where the big old pine top flared out like seven winds.
There I stopped. I squatted on the weathered remains of an old crow's nest. I was really really gone, far up, far out, and in deep.
Suddenly the wind came up.
Or else suddenly I noticed the wind.
Whichever..... I was carried even further away by the wild rush of it and I told myself afterwards that It was better than flying, and I sure didn't hear David when he leaned out the window and called my name, but not so loud as to risk calling anyone else's attention to us.
So his next idea was to run down stairs and outside, put a sock ball on an arrow, and shoot at me to get my attention, or to kill me off..... but he could hardly see me and he couldn't even get the sock-balled arrows much higher than the first limbs. So he tried without the socks. And I am damn lucky he broke the bow.... although I didn't even know it was happening.
I had been far away, but after a while my attention dropped to the horizon, and then to the town below, and the buildings around me, then I was running my eyes all over the roof below me and noticed the coon-size entry hole in the bedroom dormer.
And it was easy to see how they got there. I went out on the big limb over back dormer, the green bough bent but did not break, and it it set me nicely on the main roof ridge.
I straddled the ridge and sat for a while, watching people and cars on Osmun place.
Then a crow flew down from somewhere and sat on the man ridge not six feet from me and, very distinctly, said "Clara," then flew off.
I never found out who Clara was or heard from that crow again, though I have heard from a great many. But it doesn't seem to have been an omen, or any kind of message, just another of those meaningless things that makes the truth stranger than fiction
The slate roof was steeply pitched and slick footing, and the first tile I stepped on broke off.
And I have broken a lot of slates since. right then I sat on the ridge and I took off my spiked shoes and socks, put the gloves in them and set them,on the ridge.
And then I found it easy enough to move up the valley and along the ridge on all fours.....but as I moved to the South end of the house on the main ridge, I head a scritching noise and looked behind me in time to see my climbing gear descending.
About then the dinner bell rang and, I could smell hamburger meat loaf. It wasn't just an association: on the roof, you can always smell what is cooking before even the cook does..
I think David was going to just go down to dinner and say nothing, but I was pretty hungry myself and I was not going to try hugging my way back down the tree, so I went over to the the Northeast dormer and crawled in the coon entrance.
Although the smell of them was thick as soup, It September then and out of season for the coons to be there and I was able to move through into the main attic, but I think I loosened the plaster board celing some walking on the vermiculite insulation instead of the tops of the ceiling joists .
I had a hard time finding the hatch cover in that dark and I had to leave it ajar and drop seven feet to the floor, along with a peck vermiculite. Everybody was downstairs and didn't here me land or didn't think it was unusual, but David saw me come down the stairs, as he was coming out of the bath room but he didn't say anything about our adventure until he found the insulation on the floor when we went up to play ping pong. And then he got mad again, so I didn't tell him about the raccoon door , to say nothing about the wayward wind, or the one word crow. At least I was alive and he didn't pee on my bed.
With him standing on a chair and me on his shoulders, we got the hatch cover back in place, then we swept up and flushed the vermiculite down the toilet. Which is a whole other story.
I found my way eventually to many other roofs, and made there what little money I needed for twenty years and more. Being short, I was not just safer and more mobile up there than your ordinary ground-level carpenter, but also could drive nails without bending or kneeling, which has been the ruin of many misplaced ground workers.
I could get to, work on, and move around most roofs without scaffolding and, if I had to (and once I did) I could carry a bundle of shingles up the outside of a stone chimney.
I was pretty good, but still, I have to admit that from that first step from tree to roof at Edgewood Place, I was continually just plain lucky I didn't fall and die or worse.