I held tight to the pole-like tree as it swung wildly in response to my throwing my weight this way then back to give it a wide arc and did my best to aim at one of my friends on a nearby tree because the game was on and the six of us loudly proclaimed our attack on each other. These tree sprouts were barely larger than a fist-size bamboo stalk but were much more flexible.
The game was heating up some 15 feet in the air, as we learned to control our swing so we could attack with our feet the intersecting arcs of one another, hoping bruise a hip or rib as we flew by, laughing manically and twisting like a 3 dimensional dodge-ball game to avoid being kicked.
Things were going fine for all these pint-size warriors, when suddenly we all heard a loud CRACK, and one of the sprouts changed the whole game for one, now very scared young boy. The rest of us fell silent and as one thought, “oh no. . .”
During my grammar school years, we rarely told our parents the details of our daily activities. The nearby hills and trees were our version of Las Vegas so we spared our parents the gray hair the accounts of our days would have caused. What happened in the hills stayed in the hills.
We were also blissfully unaware of the present day notion of private property rights. If trespassing into fields was somehow wrong, my friends and I missed the memo. The many nearby small ranches were particularly regarded as semi-public areas, open for exploration, wild fruit harvesting and never ending groves of trees just waiting to be climbed.
One glorious day, after finding a favorite plumb tree fruit-less, we proceeded over the hilltop and down into the next field which gently sloped down towards a street too easily googled, so it will remain nameless to protect, well – us from prosecution. This field was peppered and outlined with giant, ancient, eucalyptus trees.
If you don’t know, eucalyptus trees are scary tall and very hard to climb. They have wide, virtually smooth trunks with thin bark that comes off in long curly sheets, with only a few branches useful to grammar school climbers. But by far the most impressive thing about them is their height. At maturity they can be over 200 feet tall, or about 40 times as tall as anyone in our gang. We weren’t scared of them, just respectful, and we had an unspoken rule about not climbing anything that could reach actual clouds.
For the sake of this story, you also need to understand that eucalyptus trees grow very fast. And fast growing trees are almost always soft and springy with lots of bend to them. This is not idle dendrology mind you, but is actually relevant to my story.
On this day, we found ourselves surrounded by these gentle giants and scattered about the field were a number of eucalyptus formations we had never noticed before. Today we did – and saw a chance for a new class of fun.
The field owner had, maybe 8 years ago, cut down some trees leaving wide platforms of level stumps, some almost 5 feet in diameter with root systems that were very much still alive. As it turns out, cutting down a eucalyptus tree is only an signal for it to throw out a few dozen sprouts all around the trunk edge that quickly, almost as you watched, grew into tall poles of slippery, flexible wood. At first we thought we discovered these cool cages of eucalyptus sprouts that you could squeeze through and then play on the caged platform. This was kind of cool – for a few minutes.
Then we made a much better discovery. By wrapping our legs around these much smaller trunks we could actually climb them like poles. In minutes, we were all up different sprouts anywhere from 10-20 feet off the ground and very close to our buddies on their sprouts. This was much cooler!
Then the God of young boys sent a breeze causing the sprouts to sway us back and forth. This was cooler still. Then we made it even more cool by holding tightly on with just our hands and got the sprouts swinging by whipping our legs back and forth.
Now, picture this; 6 grammar school boys, about 15 feet off the ground swinging back and forth on eucalyptus spouts. How could it be any cooler? Well, by learning to steer your sprout over to where you could kick your buddy of course – that’s how!
So now we had 6 inverted pendulums cycling back and forth, with small howling warriors trying to score kick-contact points. This was amazing fun.
Could it get any better? Oh yea! It got way better! Fast.
A strategy to avoid being kicked was to climb higher, because it would have been just wrong to go lower. And, up higher, we could obtain an even a wider swing radius, which gave us many more opportunities to nail our buddies.
I don’t remember who found out first, but someone got a surprise that, if had been me, I know I would have remembered so it wasn’t me, but someone’s sprout cracked with a loud “uh-oh” grade sound, that stopped the rest of us from swinging – mostly so we could watch. But the guy it happened to, well, good thing he did not have to go to the bathroom because the sound that came out of his mouth would have been matched by jettisoned body fluids, because his sprout had swung way out – and cracked loudly from down where the sprout met the old original trunk – and it was not going back up.
Instead it was – slowly – with more cracking and tearing sounds – creepy slowly – yielding to the greater force of gravity over a compromised sprout connection with the trunk and the weight of one very scared grammar school boy holding on for dear life as his sprout headed for the ground.
But it was the ultimate in cool because, the sprout, consisting of millions of those fast growing, soft eucalyptus fibers, was not breaking so much as it was SLOWLY – tearing itself from the main trunk below. That sprout, for all the fear it put into the boy, actually lowered him to the ground reasonably gently, before tearing away completely and leaving him standing beside his torn and grounded sprout.
As he touched down, comfortably landing on both feet, the crowd up in the sprout tops went wild – cheering and yelling that we had to do it too.
Since no one had ever thought of doing this before, we realized that we must be geniuses and within seconds our genius collective were all trying to get our sprouts to give us the same ride. The boy who blazed the trail for us was back up another sprout as fast as he could climb to try repeat the great ride.
Quickly the air above that old stump became alive, not with grammar school gladiators, but with prepubescent Evel Knievel’s violently swinging their sprouts out to their limit to duplicate that amazing ride back down to the ground – which the sprouts began to deliver!
The God of young boys is sooo good! We were in young boy heaven. There were several stumps about with sprouts about the same age and dimension around the field, so we had more than an hour’s worth of riding those eucalyptus sprouts for several hours; swinging back and forth, finding the right height from which to start our swing and trusting our sprouts to always carefully take us to the ground when they finally tore away from the stump.
For each ride, we of course announced our triumph over the sprout by screaming the whole way down. It was nature’s own thrill ride. With only a slight fear of death (or worse – the possible discovery by a parent) a controlled fall from 15-20ish feet up and not a safety rule or restricting adult anywhere in sight; it was a beautiful thing.
But like all treasure, even those that start in abundance, the sprouts of suitable size were limited in supply. We had enough to master the art, but once spent a sprout could not be reused. Soon, that next sprout was getting tough to find. The remaining sprouts were either too small or too big for the weight of one boy to start the needed tearing. We had to run out of sprouts before it hit us. We knew how to get a few more rides. Remember – we were geniuses! The remaining big sprouts were too strong for one boy, but there were 6 of us so we could simply double up. Duh! Basic physics saves the day again.
So we teamed up (grammar school gladiators easily forgive past battle enemies) and sent teams of 2 boys up each sprout to extend the fun, and it worked. Sprouts immune to one boy, were soon yielding to the weight of two and the screams of joy returned to the field as sprout after sprout tore loose and lowered its team of boys to the ground, each ride a treasure of danger and excitement.
But soon, again we exhausted the supply of suitable sprouts. My partner and I were failing to break loose a large sprout, almost close enough to touch the team next to us as they swung past trying to break theirs loose. It was not working. Both teams had even climbed higher so better leverage our body weights, but both sprouts were simply too big. Suddenly (which is how the best ideas often arrive) as that nearby team was coming back past us for another break attempt I knew would fail but I realized I could make it work by simply jumping aboard their sprout. My extra weight would break this large sprout loose, and a final great ride would be enjoyed by all three of us.
So with a great battle yell (which makes all fun, much more fun) I did just that. I quickly found enough of a foot hold to leap over and board that passing sprout. The difference was immediately apparent. We had much more control over that sprout now. It went much further than it had with just those two scrawny buddies of mine.
And when it got to the end of its new arc, it cracked and broke free, and the best ride of the day was starting because we were up so high. “Yowzah!”
But this time the cracking sound did not sound right. Something was different – even wrong. We were picking up speed way too fast – and the tearing sound from far below was silent. Instead of slowly tearing loose, this sprout fully broke away from the original trunk and was dragging us to the ground much too fast.
But the only way we knew how to get down from this ride was to stick with the sprout, so we did. We hung on to that dead-weight sprout the full ride down and crashed into the field. We came back to consciousness to the sound of our friends dancing around us and yelling how cool that ride had looked and asking if we were still alive – the jerks!
Well, clearly we were still alive and remarkably, no fibulas or even tibias were broken – amazing enough, but no one even needed trauma counseling – no one!
But finally, we really were:
Out of eucalyptus sprouts,
Out of plums from our safe old plum tree,
Probably out of time (the sun was setting) and,
Clearly running low on luck for one day.
We saluted the noble sprout who gave its all for that epic ride but the sprout gladiators were tired, satisfied and happy to be both alive and ambulatory – even if it looked more like limping.
It was time to head home and tell our parents that we been hanging out with friends and nothing particularly interesting happened – again.