West End Tree House Mystery
As I haven't taken the time to write about anything education-related, and as I don't want to take the time right now to carefully craft a musing on literacy, music, my life, or current events, I think I'll once again post some writing from a current project, much as I did in l last month's blog about football.
What follows is the first rough-draft chapter of a middle-grade novel I am working on. With a working title of "West End Tree House Mystery," the book is part of my trying to write at least 1,000 words a day. It's also an exercise in writing first-person, a point of view I have not yet engaged in any of my books for children. Most of all, this project is an attempt to create a strong voice by writing about what I know best - my own life. And so I am mining my memories of growing up in the West End neighborhood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, circa 1975. I've been having some fun exploring and re-living those memories, many of which are fond and very vivid. Hopefully I'll have a book complete by this summer.
The 97-Year-Old Grandmother
“Come on,” Terry whispered. “Your slower than my 97-year-grandmother.”
We were making our way up the backside of the Second Level, heading for the top of the Third. Terry was in the lead, hunched over, his arms extended behind him, his gloved hands gripping the bottom boards of our stack of lumber. I, of course, was bringing up the rear. The boards were heavy and we had been carrying them for a long time. Now my left arm was on fire. A thousand tiny needles pricked my bicep, and my thumb had long ago gone numb. I shifted my end of the load to the right and the boards clunked softly.
On most days the air in the woods smelled of leaves and water and soil. But today I could smell wood burning. And something else. Cigarettes. To our right, beyond the tangled green thicket of maple saplings and honeysuckle, Drew, Scott, and Brian were partying at their tree house.
At the smell of cigarette smoke, my heart began thumping. It wasn’t the fast strong thumping you feel after you’ve sprinted for a touchdown in a pick-up football game or raced your best friend to the mailbox and back. It was the constricted, fluttery thumping you feel when you’re afraid of heights but you nonetheless find yourself climbing the ladder to the 10-meter diving platform, and when you finally get to the top, you can barely bring yourself to look down, let alone inch your way to the edge of the board that juts into nothingness thirty feet above a small rectangle of water that looks as solid as a slab of concrete, and then you are just standing there, paralyzed, frozen at the top of the ladder, clutching the hot-from-the-sun round metal railing, and you’re feeling weak and more than a little embarrassed because you are blocking the ladder and you can’t move forward and you can’t go back and the kids behind you are starting to call you chicken and wuss.
I didn’t really want to be here in these woods, so close to the big kid’s tree house that any one of them could have burst through the underbrush without warning, snatching me up, throwing me down, smashing my face into the dirt, and threatening to burn me with a cigarette. On the other hand, Terry and I really wanted to build an awesome tree house. And we had decided the only place we could do that was on the Third Level.
I couldn’t see Drew, Scott, or Brian through the trees and underbrush, but I could hear them carrying on, hooting and hollering. I could also make out some of what they were saying. It wasn’t pretty.
“Hey, why didn’t the toilet paper cross the road?”
“I don’t know, Scott. Why?”
“Cause it got stuck in a crack!”
“No it ain’t.”
“Yeah, it is. It’s stupid.”
“Well who are you?”
“Yeah, I know I am, but who are you?”
“I’m the guy who’s saying that joke’s stupid. Stu. Pid!”
“You’re just sore cause you didn’t think of it.”
“Geez, you think I’d take credit for a joke like…”
“Hey. Guys. Is anybody going to the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert?”
“I’m not. But I might if I get some money.”
“How much are tickets?”
“No they ain’t. They’re five.”
“No they aren’t. Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to talk right? And, no they aren’t. They’re seven bucks. I got the concert ad right here in my pocket. Look, it says Blue Oyster Cult and Lynyrd Skynryd, War Memorial, $7 in advance. So, in…your…face!
“Dude, don’t ever do that…”
“Hey, numb nuts, gimme a light, huh?”
“Who you calling numb nuts?”
“Oh sorry. Not you. I meant to call you butt breath.”
Terry snorted and I almost laughed out loud, even though my arm was about to fall off and my crazy-beating heart felt like it might explode at any minute.
“Let’s go,” said Terry, grabbing the boards tighter and stepping ahead.
We stumbled to the left, across a little stream, and then headed up the small rise that would take us above and directly behind Trio Diablo’s tree house. Trio Diablo. That’s what Drew, Scott, and Brian called their gang. It wasn’t a gang in the true sense of the word, like the gangs that cause problems in LA or Chicago or the ones in New York that sing and dance and snap their fingers. Trio Diablo was more like a clique. But no matter what you called them – gang, clique, goon squad – they were still a bunch of teenagers who loved to harass and humiliate Terry and me.
Just as Trio Diablo wasn’t really a gang, their tree house wasn’t really a tree house. Once, when Drew and the others were playing in a Little League baseball game, Terry hounded me into checking out their spot with him. To make sure that no one saw us as we climbed the hillside, we alternated between sprints, zig-zags, and hiding behind trees.
If you’re going to call something a tree house, then it’s got to be up in a tree, off the ground, accessible only by ladder or knotted rope. At least that’s what I think. So I wouldn’t call what Trio Diablo had built a tree house. It was a shack.
It squatted on the ground, big, bulky, and rectangular, with walls made from fragments of particleboard nailed to a rickety frame of two-by-fours. The shack’s floor was the ground. There wasn’t even a carpet. There was a roof, but it wasn’t cut to fit or nailed down in any way. It was just a bunch of plywood pieces layered one on top of another, with a ragged tarp draped over them all. The big kids must have stapled the tarp to the plywood, but the ends were loose and they waved and fluttered in the breeze. To me, the thing looked like a ramshackle Hooverville hut from the Great Depression, which I had just learned about in social studies.
“This way,” whispered Terry. The mountain laurel was thicker on the rise and this slowed our trudge to a crawl. Terry plowed right into middle of the laurel patch, the branches lashing about crazily in his wake. Whip! Whip! Whack! I dodged a few of the whipsters, but one caught me square in the face, almost knocking my glasses off. “Geez, you could put your eye out with these things,” I mumbled to no one.
We were almost at the top of the slope when my back began to itch. I scrunched my shoulder blades and rolled them back, trying to get some relief, and as I did the hammers in my duffle bag shifted. Clunk! Ting!
“Shh!” Terry glanced back at me, his brown eyes black beneath the bill of his camo ball cap. “You make more noise than my 97-year-old-grandmother wearing combat boots.”
An image of an elderly granny in combat boots, stomping through the underbrush, dress flying, dentures clacking, flashed through my mind. I stopped. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
Although I had ground to a halt, Terry was still tromping forward, bottom boards clenched tightly in his hands. When the planks in my hands were suddenly pulled away, the pyramid of lumber thunked to the ground and toppled over.
“What the heck? Of all the stupid … why’d you stop?” Now Terry was glaring at me, his mouth pulled tight in an angry line.
“The combat boots,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense. I mean, why would your 97-year-old grandmother be wearing army boots. That’s such a weird thing to say.” I grinned. “But it is kinda funny.”
“Who cares about my grandmother! We gotta get this wood to the Third Level. If my brother hears us, we’re goners. Do you have a death wish or something? Do you want to get beat up and tortured?”
The image of a granny in combat boots faded as an image of Drew giving me a chicken wing replaced it. That image was quickly replaced by another – me face down on the pavement of the school playground, Drew’s knee in my back. With a knee in your back and a 150-pound kid on your chest, it’s very difficult to breathe. Almost impossible. If you haven’t experienced this, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
These images got my stomach to churning. I was afraid of a lot of things – heights, the dark, Jimmy Gemm, my dad when he got angry, going to the junior high next year, those giant bug-eyed locusts that you’d sometimes find crawling up your arm when you camped out at night without a tent. But at the moment getting ambushed by Drew topped the list.
We scrambled to rebuild our pyramid of stacked boards, which wasn’t easy as we were on the side of a rather steep hill in the middle of a laurel patch, whose branches whipped at our eyes and clawed at our arms every time we moved. Below us on the Second Level, I could hear Brian and Scott laughing, and Drew yelling, “Hey Scotty Dog, throw another log on the fire.”
“Ready?” asked Terry.
“Yep,” I said.
“OK, we’ll lift on three. One… two… three.”
We straightened from our squat, balancing the boards between us, and pushed forward. Soon we were free of the laurel. I could see a relatively clear stretch of woods before us. In a hundred yards, there’d be distance between us and Trio Diablo and I’d feel much better.
Terry looked back to check on the load and I saw his eyes run the length of the boards. Then they moved from the boards to my face. I gave a nod. As his eyes continued past me, I saw them suddenly go wide in fright and I saw his mouth pop open in an O of surprise. He looked like a large mouth bass about to swallow a minnow.
“Holy crap, what’s that?”
I turned to look and we both dropped the boards. They fell with a heavy thud. Unfortunately, my big toe happened to be right underneath and before I could stop myself, I had let out a loud “OW!” It echoed through the quiet of the woods for what seemed like an eternity, and as it did, I wondered if down on The Second Level the Trio Diablo guys had heard it.
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I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.