I held tight to the pole-like tree as it swung wildly as I threw my weight back and forth to give it a wide arc. Swinging fifteen feet in the air, I did my best to target one of my friends on a nearby trajectory. These new tree sprouts were barely larger than a fist-size bamboo stalk but were much more flexible, allowing us to attack and laugh manically while twisting like three-dimensional dodge-ball gladiators to avoid being kicked back.
Things were going great for our group of pint-size warriors, until we heard a loud CRACK, and one of the sprouts changed the whole game. Each of us paused and thought some version of, “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 any early gray hair by omitting any accounts of our more risky adventures. What happened in the hills stayed in the hills.
We were also blissfully unaware of the notion of private property rights. If trespassing into fields was somehow wrong, my friends and I missed the memo. We particularly regarded the many nearby small ranches as semi-public areas, open for exploration, wild fruit harvesting and never-ending groves of trees just waiting to be climbed.
This glorious day, after finding our favorite plum tree nearly fruit-less, we finished off the last plums and proceeded over the hilltop and down into the next field . The field was both peppered with and outlined with giant, ancient, eucalyptus trees.
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 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.
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. Scattered about the field were a number of eucalyptus formations we had never noticed before, but today we did – and saw a chance for a new level of fun.
The field owner had, maybe eight years before, cut down some trees, leaving wide platforms of level stumps, some almost five feet in diameter with root systems that were very much still alive. As it turns out, cutting down a eucalyptus tree is only a signal for it to throw out a few dozen sprouts all around the trunk edge. These new baby trees quickly, almost as you watched, grow into tall poles of slippery, flexible wood.
“Hey guys! Check this out. It’s like a cage in here with bars all around the edge.” This was kind of cool – for a few minutes.
Then we made a much better discovery. “I bet we could climb them. They’re just like poles.” In minutes, we were all up different sprouts about fifteen feet off the ground and very close to our buddies on their sprouts. This was much more fun indeed.
Our climbing broke off lots of smaller branches and any leaves we touched were crushed, releasing waves of redolent eucalyptus scented vapor into our clothes and the air around us. Within moments, everyone within 4+ square miles downwind was breathing easier due to our spontaneous and therapeutic creation of natural Vick’s Vaporub. “No thanks needed ma’am. As kids, we’re just doing our jobs.”
As we played, the God of young boys sent a breeze, causing the sprouts to sway us back and forth. This was better still. “Hey, this wind is pretty cool!
I think it was Mike who then held on tight with just his hands and really got his sprout swinging by whipping his legs legs back and forth. “Whoa! This is great! Look how far I’m swinging!”
This quickly escalated and resulting in our group swinging back and forth about fifteen feet off the ground with hoots of rowdy pleasure. “This is AWESOME!” How could it be any better? Well, by learning to steer your sprout over to where you could kick your buddy of course!
“Hey! You did that deliberately!”.
“You are so dead Wilson!”
“In your dreams Jimmy!”
Now we had six inverted pendulums swinging back and forth, with small howling warriors trying to score kick-contact points. It was amazing fun.
Could it get any better? Oh yeah! 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 wider swing, which gave us many more opportunities to nail our buddies.
I don’t remember who found out first, but someone got a surprise when his sprout cracked with a loud “uh-oh” grade slap.
The rest of us stopped 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 his scream would have been matched by jettisoned body fluids when his sprout cracked down where it met the original trunk. He started screaming as wed all realized that his ride was not coming back up.
Instead it was slowly – with more cracking and tearing sounds – surreally slow – yielding a bit more to gravity before settling further towards the distant ground.
It was only seconds before we all realized that this eucalyptus sapling, 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. For all the fear it put into our friend, it actually lowered him to the ground gently, before tearing away completely and leaving him standing wondering, “Wow – what just happened?”
As he touched down, comfortably landing on both feet, the remaining crowd up in the tree tops went wild – cheering and yelling versions of, “That was so cool. I have to try it too!”
Since no one had ever thought of doing this before, we also realized. “No one could have ever done this before! We must be geniuses!” and within seconds our gang of newly minted brain-iacs were trying to get our sprouts to give us the same ride. The boy who blazed the trail was back up another new tree as fast as he could climb to try and repeat that 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 death-defying ride back down to the ground – which soon started to work.
The God of young boys is sooo good and we were in young-boy heaven.
We perfected finding the right height from which to start our swing then confidently hanging on and cheering as each young tree broke, slowly tore itself from the stump and trusting it to always, carefully take us to the ground.
It was nature’s own testosterone-fueled thrill ride. With only a slight fear of death (or worse – the possible discovery by a parent) a controlled fall from twenty feet up and not a safety rule or restricting adult anywhere in sight; it was a beautiful thing.
There were several other stumps about the field with new growth, so we had enough spouts for an hour worth of rides. But like all treasures, there were a limited number of suitably sized sprouts. We had enough to master the art, but once spent they could not be reused. Soon, that next new one was getting tough to find and at one point, those remaining were either too small or too big to deliver the desired ride.
Regrettably, we finally concluded that we had run out.
But suddenly — it hit us. We knew how to get a few more rides. Remember – we were geniuses! The remaining young trees were too strong for one boy, but “Guys, all we have to do is double up two to each sprout. With more weight, we’ll be able to break lager sprouts.” Duh! Basic physics saves the day again.
Since grammar school gladiators easily forgive past battle enemies, we quickly teamed up 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 more sprouts lowered heavier teams to the ground; each ride, a thrill 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 one and were 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 young trees 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, I somehow realized how to make it work by simply jumping aboard their ride. 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 made this even more fun, I quickly found enough of a foot hold to leap over to join that other team. The difference was immediately apparent. We had much more control and our ride went much further out 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 hurtling to the ground much too fast.
The only way we knew how to get down was to trust our ride, so we did. We scrambled to prepare for impact but held on to that dead branch for 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 finally asking if we were okay – such jerks!
We were still alive and remarkably, no fibulas or tibias were broken – amazing enough and not one of us needed trauma counseling – not one!
But finally, we really were:
Completely out of plums,
Hoarse with screaming,
Out of precious eucalyptus sprouts,
Probably out of time (the sun was setting) and,
Clearly running low on luck for the day.
We saluted the noble copse of eucalyptus trees who gave so much all for our epic rides but the sky 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