I don’t think you’re normal if you did not, as a child, ever want to escalate a reasonable game of tag up into a good climbing tree. Well, my buddies and I actually did it one day with Rick Van Bebber serving as our leader du jour. Rick was an audacious and charismatic kid who often came up with ideas that took us to where too-much-fun turned into downright-dangerous. Thus we often made him our leader.
Grant School, on the west side of Petaluma, California, in its earliest days, had an amazing climbing tree right next to the parking lot.
That tree is long gone, but it was huge, had a reasonable access to young climbers despite someone’s attempts to cut away lower branches that we could reach. They left a fence post we could stand on to reach the lowest branch. It had wonderful, long horizontal branches we could bounce up and down on while howling and screaming like tortured animals.
We were up that tree constantly. We even had established paths that had names like:
- “the loft trail” because it lead up to the highest spot above this one-tree canopy, where the branch ends unfolded into a bed of thick comfy leaf covered nests where several boys could gather in council to discuss the challenges of society (apparently Beatles trading-cards were a huge threat to us in those days) or lean back and enjoy the panoramic views and suck up some downtime or,
- “the elevator path” consisted of a horizontal branch that you could step on to which would bend down under your weight to lower you along a vertical guide branch that also gave the rider something to hold onto for the (yes!) 6 foot drop, stopping when it stopped against a third horizontal branch. Stepping off allowed the elevator to snap back up to the position for the next ride down. We thought it was pretty cool.
One of the best things about this tree were the numerous branches that allowed a young boy to run out to some point that crossed near to another branch – so that boy could scamper about various trails, rarely going back the way you came.
We made it our business to thoroughly explore and know each path, trail and dead end.
So, in short, this tree was perfect for the day when we were playing some duller version of terrestrial tag, and someone (easily could have been Rick) had the brilliant idea of moving the whole game up into the tree.
In short order, we had moved our small herd over to beneath the tree and were streaming up that fence post, where only one younger kid (Jimmy, the famous inner tube pilot featured in a story bearing the same title) needed a push up to reach that first branch because he was so short, but within moments we were scrambling up and down and around the various branch paths, chasing each other – tagging, dodging and cheering others as we watched someone avoid a tag and screaming when we were avoiding being tagged.
We quickly realized that in this version of tag, trying to take shortcuts between actual branch crossings was not allowed and in fact, was enforced by gravity itself. So unless you could jump your shortcut – which even we didn’t often attempt – the rule of staying on the “paths” was strictly adhered to.
I do recall one path that was not working for me. The guy behind me was known to be very fast and would certainly catch me unless I went somewhere he would be afraid of trying. There was a nice thick leaf pattern out at the end of the branch I was on where you could not clearly see what was below you.
But I had tried this stunt once before – and it worked so I jumped into that thick leaf pattern and…
…rolled out the other side…
…apparently off of the branch …
…and fell out of sight for about 4 feet to where,
…there was a small but sturdy branch, that I grabbed to slow my fall enough to,
…allow me to twist and get my feet below me,
…and land safely on a large lower branch, from where I continued my escape.
I tried it and made it – and, predictably the crowd went wild as we always did when a great escape was accomplished.
My faster friend stopped short at the top where he had almost tagged me before I disappeared down into whatever was hidden below. He was not willing to try that path without further study. Gotcha!
Instead he went after smaller Jimmy, who was a great climber, but not known for making the best decisions. Jimmy chose to scramble out a path we knew would not take him anywhere useful. It was a dead end with no way to avoid being tagged.
The branch he chose was one of the lowest branches, about 13-15 feet above the ground and smaller than I would have chosen for a tag-dodge – but there he went followed by my fast friend who was very keen on making a quick tag.
Jimmy should have stopped and admitted that he was going to be tagged, but he was determined to be the bad example for a story, told years later by that guy who got away. Instead, he tried to go out to the smallest end of the branch and hang by his hands to stay as far away from fast-kid as possible.
Fast-kid approached carefully, being much wiser and not as willing to go out on such a small branch. He was reaching out to tag the nearest fist when the branch, as you must already expect, broke and dropped Jimmy to the ground while leaving fast-kid swaying safely above.
The whole armada of players went silent. Falling out of the tree was NOT part of the game. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and this was a high fall, even for polished tree climbers like us.
Was Jimmy okay…?
As the branch stopped swaying, we watched as Jimmy moved and groaned enough for us to know that he wasn’t dead, so Rick modeled the most sympathetic thing he could think and yelled to fast-kid; “ Hey – did you tag him or are you still it?” And, yes, it had to be Rick because he was our leader and everyone knows the leader owns all blame resulting from the fun. It’s a hard rule for young boy adventures.