Growing up wasn’t hard to do. Making it interesting wasn’t either. Being the youngest of seven brothers, athletics was the premier means of adolescent occupation, but believe it or not, even sports became only a medium of boredom during the four season course. Baseball was obsolete during winter and playing it in the rain isn’t any fun. Football was always around just like the mail service. You played it in the rain, snow and sleet, but sometimes, concussions, or the desire for more than sports forced you to choose a different avenue of interest. We chose to build a treehouse.
You can only climb a tree so many times without wanting to do something else with it. Therefore, fabricating a shelter out of it seems like a bright idea. Much like building a common house, a tree house consists of a combination of many items, but the easiest is the tree. Since it usually resides on your parents’ property, taxes aren’t required, and anything you do to the tree is only perhaps reprimanded by the owner’s inspection. As long as the branches remain intact, and the roots continue to dig towards middle earth, we were allowed to have our way with the tree. The tools (however many hammers your father owns or has borrowed) are provided at minimal cost. Necessary wood was equally cheap because most of the bums or bindlestiffs seeking shelter in the field behind our property would leave behind their makeshift shelters when hearing the train sing from two miles north of our neighborhood. The nails, however, depending on who you were working with, were at a premium. Without exception, I was the sole reason our treehouse project was never completed.
GTC: Gannon Treehouse Construction
My brother, Greg, the boss and chief executive builder, could and can build almost anything. He’s an artist. Give him four toothpicks, and just by snapping them in half, he will creat eight of them. Sincerely, he was quite a sculptor, whether it was redefining the art of making sandcastles at the beach, or taking a rivet set and providing the support for a skyscraper. So, we had that going for us. His only problem was hiring help. Sometimes, his heart is larger than his fraternal brain. He’d hire two of his younger brothers, Tom and me, for minimal pay (promising not to beat you that next day if you obeyed his orders was his only form of currency, and that was fine with me). Tom, only two years Greg’s junior, unlike me, wasn’t much of a nuisance. He really didn’t want to be a part of Gannon Treehouse Construction, but the laughs during the process of building might be worth it for him to stick around the construction site. (Solid material used to mock us later in life.) The only thing Greg required from Tom was to keep his chemistry set he received on Christmas nowhere near the tree. Greg liked to build things. Tom liked to burn things. Me? Six years younger than Greg and wanting to be a part of anything my brothers did, I was desperate to join. Reluctantly, Greg would agree, and would kindly respond to my unmerciful begging. “Ok. Ok. Just don’t screw anything up.” Only Greg used a synonym for the word “screw” I was told not to repeat at the age of five. Tom informed me I might not want to use that word while in our real house. The entire team might pay for it.
We also had the gang of neighborhood misfits wanting to participate in one form or another, or merely spectate. Tom was placed in charge of these yahoos. By placed in charge, this was a unique way for Greg to demand Tom “keep them busy so they don’t talk to me or make ridiculous suggestions.”
We had our friendly neighbor “hood”, Chavez Chavez, who was pretty brainy, but could also easily get on Greg’s nerves by explaining why some of his procedures were more of the Tarzan nature than cutting treehouse edge. Greg referred to Chavez Chavez as “Nacho Man”.
There was Doty Bug, our resident nerd who didn’t wish to help, but merely asked Greg to leave room at the lowest branch for an office. This suggestion was recognized with a phony smile, and then quickly forgotten.
RamJoe would show up in fatigues and action figures spending his recreational time drawing war plans in the dirt with a stick next to the tree. He was of no use at all, and Greg had no qualms with “accidentally” booting any of his action figures out of his way. “Get your $%@#ing dolls out of the way, you nutless jarhead!”
Some street toughs would randomly drop by on their stolen bicycles and make comments or ask questions about the progress. “Pretty cool. When do you think it will be finished?” Code for “Can’t wait for the finished product. We haven’t vandalized a tree for quite some time.”
The street toughs would come and go, but the former idiots would remain for Tom to keep busy. A shrewd businessman since birth, Tom could make just about anyone do just about anything for his own benefit. He’d set up competitions just for his own amusement, and keenly win as though he was playing with house money. Taking RamJoe and Chavez Chavez aside, he’d somehow get them to argue about who could climb to the highest branch of the tree, knowing it would place them both in danger. “RamJoe thinks he can climb higher than you, Chavez Chavez. What do you think?” “No freakin way. This gringo couldn’t climb his way through one of my mom’s tacos.” RamJoe, whose father was an ex-marine and part time bigot, would take the bait and say something like, “you could only beat me if there was a burrito at the top, Nacho Man.” The nine year olds would go back and forth until they were ready to fight before climb. Then, Tom would stop it before fists began to fly and make it interesting for himself. “Whoever loses has to go and buy two sodas from 7-11 or find a couple back at your house if you don’t have any money. One soda is for the winner, and the other is for me. You see, if either one of you gets injured, since it’s on our property, we could be responsible. So, unless buy me a soda, I won’t let you climb.” They didn’t bat an eye. They did scratch, claw and climb, and no matter who was the victor, Tom always ended up with a pop. These were the little things Tom did to maintain his status as a foreman. In the background, you could also see it entertained our boss as well. Just to keep Doty Bug out of the way, Tom would always have him referee. Spitting contests, burping contests, whatever it would take, Tom would sucker them into competing for a stick of licorice, some bubble gum or a Slurpee. Someone was always pissed, and Tom’s belly was always full.
The GLB: The Goofy Little Bastard
Amidst all of these shenanigans, or “Tomgannigans” if you will, I was left for Greg to deal with, leaving a proper dilemma. The difference between those other fools and me was that even though I was useless, I wanted to be useful. This presented a problem for Greg, because he knew this was nearly impossible. So, when I approached him, before I could say anything, he asked me a question using one of his pet names for me. “What do you want, you goofy little bastard?” He used this term affectionately for me until about the age of thirteen. Then, I think I just became a big goofy bastard.
I just looked at Greg sitting on his makeshift scaffolding consisting of some rebar, two by fours and and an old backboard. When he knew I was looking for something to do, he took off his hat, placed it on a nail he had hammered into the tree and looked around. Then, he pointed at a hammer sitting in the dirt below him and said, “Go hammer something, but do it over there.” As specific as those instructions sounded, I thought there was room for modification, but I didn’t say anything. I did, however, notice something. I looked at where his hat was hanging, and then I looked at the rest of the crew. They were all wearing hats. Therefore, each of them would need a nail to hang their hat. I knew I wasn’t capable of much, but I could hammer a nail into wood. Not wanting to get in Greg’s way, I thought I’d wait for him to go inside for a snack before I’d follow through with my initiative. Killing time, I decided to watch Tom “Dictator of the Dimwits” perform some of his mental magic tricks at their expense. I also headed inside for a snack and while inside, dropped by my room as well as others’ rooms and it seemed like all I could see was a blizzard of hats. Then, I looked in some closets. Hats hats hats. Storage room. Hats. This tree was going to need more than just a few nails to accommodate all these hats.
In those days, hats were very important to me. They still are. (Recently, one of our neighbors made fun of me for having, according to her estimation, more than fifty thousand baseball hats hanging in our laundry room.) Back then I felt each hat, if one of them paid a visit to our treehouse, should have its own personal nail. I remembered seeing nails littered all over the area surrounding the tree, so I didn’t think it would be an issue. It certainly wasn’t an issue for me.
As I passed through the kitchen, Greg brushed me aside and headed for the refrigerator. I knew he’d be here for awhile. It was my chance to work without interruption, distraction, or intimidation. Hammer in one hand, one hat on my head and another in my free hand, I headed for the tree whose foundation was at an an angle on our property and didn’t allow a clean view from any window in our house. Filling the hat in my hand with as many nails as possible, I began climbing and nailing. When I’d run out of nails, I’d climb down, reload my hat, and head back up for more banging. I even created a special spot of hat hangers for the street toughs who would inevitably drop by to vandalize the house of lumber. With only three nails remaining, I looked up to admire my work. As a child, I knew there wouldn’t be a disappointed soul in the neighborhood if they wished to hang their hat anywhere on our tree. Looking back, it probably looked like a medieval weapon used by a giant in a spooky fairy tale.
Speaking of giants, my brothers eventually finished their sandwiches and headed back outside. I stayed there waiting for not just their approval, but their praise. When Greg stopped in his tracks at the base of the tree, he looked confused. He then looked at me with my hammer. His odd look at me made me drop the hammer. As usual, if I smelled anger, I’d look to Tom who may lend a hand in my favor. Tom’s look was more of horrified amusement. He wanted to laugh, but was a little afraid that may land him in hot tree sap as well. I looked back to Greg. Carrying the same expression, he managed a quick and dry, “huh.” When anger was teetered at its most explosive edge for Greg, he commonly did this. “Huh.” Leaning over, Greg picked up a hammer and used its opposite side to pry one of the nails out of our tree. The nail came out looking like elbow macaroni. “Huh.” Tossing that nail aside, he attempted to pry another out. It snapped like those toothpicks I was referring to earlier in the story. “Huh.” He almost fell down trying to pry the third one out, because the flat side of the nail folded like a cheap umbrella. “Huh.” Tom couldn’t hold it any longer. His gut was busted. Dropping the hammer, I could only wait or run. For some reason, perhaps frozen with fear, I waited. Greg simply walked away slowly, and we didn’t see him until we had to go to bed. When Greg wishes to destroy something or someone, luckily for me, he just walks away. I slept in mom’s room that night. We played football the next day.