— Woody Allen
Actor, writer and comedian
(b. Dec. 1, 1935)
An untold number of years, perhaps decades, have passed since climbing my last tree.
In boyhood, I did what boys do best. I climbed trees and lots of them. I can’t remember ever falling from one. Maybe that’s why I kept climbing.
Somebody once told me it’s human nature to repeat those adventures in life at which we are successful. Sound reasoning. That somebody was a smart fellow.
In the growing years, I had no fear of trees. The bigger the better, I always told my elders. Those same grownups, much the wiser than this tree-worshipping lad, always offered sage advice during my ascent.
“Ricky, don’t you fall from up there!” came Mom’s reminder from below.
Had I been a child fond of hickory switches or Dad’s leather belt, I might have responded, “Would you rather I fall from down there?” Punk kids say punk stuff to their parents in the height of overconfidence. It’s a wonder I ever made it to adolescence.
And then, there was always Dad’s wit. As I monkeyed my way up one limb after another, I could always count on my father’s encouragement.
“Rick-Rack, I’ll be over here choppin’ wood when you fall,” Dad would advise. “Just crawl on over an’ I’ll help you up.”
“OK!” I gasped, while bear-hugging a branch thicker than my torso. At that tender age, I recognized facetiousness. I just couldn’t spell it.
The beloved voices of my late parents returned 50 years later on this Saturday afternoon in midsummer as I stood below the giant maple in my backyard, peering up toward the clouds at the brown leaves of the dead branch that had tormented me for months.
Not exactly lost in the canopy’s surrounding sea of green, this disgustingly lifeless limb had broken away from the tree trunk during a spring storm, but instead of plummeting to earth — as such dismembered appendages are supposed to do — it became entangled with other branches, and here it rested seemingly miles from the ground. In anatomical terms, it stood out like a sore thumb.
Frustrated at seeing it every time I looked up, I plotted my action. It was a simple strategy, really. Just climb the darned tree and shove the cantankerous branch to its inevitable doom.
Step one was getting to the bottom limb. Its reach from the ground was twice my height. I considered making a vertical jump like in my basketball years, but the only good from that would have been a vision of chuckles from the neighbors.
Not to worry. This is why God, and Lowe’s, gave us 8-foot stepladders.
After retrieving mine from the shed, I found that balancing the fiberglass tool of trade was half the battle on the slope we call lawn. And, I probably violated the ladder’s top-step rule, but no safety managers were in sight and OSHA has little jurisdiction in backyards.
With a heave and subsequent ho from ladder to tree, I straddled the lower limb and postured myself in statuesque form much like TV viewers of long ago would have expected from the Lone Ranger atop Silver. Scouring the limbs around me, I found no trace of Tonto — just an edgy squirrel a few branches over whom I dared to try and knock over the ladder. Obviously a rodent with little game, he instead scurried higher into the maple.
“Coward,” I muttered.
By now understanding why my build was unfit for cowboy ways — the crotch was hurting, OK? — I precariously made it to my feet, balancing like an Olympian while bumping my head on an unseen limb above. It was a painful thump, but on this day I was man — a burly man focused on one target: the ugly brown limb.
Using old “Tarzan” and “Jungle Jim” movies as my standard, I looked from branch to branch, testing a few for strength with one hand while bracing ... for continued life ... with the other. Determining a path probably never traveled by anything with two legs, I launched into the climb in a fashion worthy of K2, yet just shy of Everest.
By loose calculations from below, the dead limb above lay somewhere just south of the stratosphere. It was difficult to see from within the tree’s interior because of all the vegetation. So I kept the faith and journeyed on, and up.
In true voyager form, I bumped my head thrice more, the last of which drew blood. It served only to deepen my resolve. A bruise here, a scratch there and one slight slip of the heel reminded me of the mortality of man. Hugging this maple with a degree of affection previously reserved for only my wife, it was then I saw an angel and her set of lovely white wings through the foliage. Later, I was to realize it was just a goose flying over the treetop from a neighboring lake.
But it inspired me to climb further.
Only when I looked down again did I grasp the full meaning of misstep. The grass seemed small from this view. And the house needed new shingles. The top of our minivan was splotched in white by unthinking birds and a neighbor six yards down was riding a toy mower.
With the arrival of my first nosebleed, which actually was just a runny nose from ragweed allergies, I figured I was high enough. A couple of clouds were within arm’s length and that pesky squirrel was now looking up, not down.
Peering about, I grimaced. The ugly brown limb was nowhere to be seen. Its disappearance defied accepted logic. One minute it was there. The next it was gone. So I looked down, and there it was. I had climbed too high. Because its ugliness was veiled by the thick greenery, I had passed it by.
Descending four limbs, maybe five, I came eye to eye with my prey.
Grabbing the gnarled, broken end with one hand, I shoved. It didn’t budge. Repositioning to improve my leverage, I tried again — a little movement, but no surrender.
Wrapping both arms around a higher limb like Cheetah, I kicked the stubby end with my tennis shoes. I kicked and I kicked and I kicked. Gasping for air — oxygen was scarce at these heights — I rested. So did the limb.
And then it happened.
Hearing the rustling of leaves, the sag of wood, and the crack and pop of peeling bark, I checked each hand grip and both footholds. All were secure so the noise wasn’t mine. Looking ahead, I watched in fascination as the offending limb drooped, slid and then plunged — all the way to earth. The full sequence, which lasted only seconds, came in a celebratory, slow motion.
In quiet fatigue, I sighed. Yet it was a manly sigh. Mission accomplished. Task complete. All was made right in this kingdom of man.
Reality then smacked man right across the forehead like a V8.
He still had to get down. And the ladder was gone.