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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

Anybody Up There?

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On warm summer afternoons I like to stand in my driveway and look at the trees. As a kid I spent quite a few hours up there in the habitats of birds and squirrels. Now, on any given day of June, July or August, I wonder how many kids in America are heading toward the high branches?

Reliable statistics are probably impossible to compile. From my personal observations it seems like tree climbing is one of those childhood activities that's been pushed aside by newer trends and is fading away, like playing with jacks.

My tree recreation phase began when I was around six and continued for about five years. Some of it was low level work among plum and apricot trees behind our house, but at some point I got enough confidence to tackle the massive oak that spread its canopy over half the front yard.

One hefty limb, about nine inches in diameter, had a nice level segment about twelve feet off the ground. A few boards nailed side by side made the seating arrangement somewhat more civilzed and provided a slight feeling of additional safety.

Being elevated to a position that is literally above other people is, in a small but significant way, empowering. I got lots of satisfaction from the simple act of looking down on passing cars, pedestrians, and everything that was happening at ground level.

My peers and I also had role models who showed how exciting life in trees could be. I'm thinking chiefly of Tarzan as portrayed by Johnny Weissmuller. His movies were shown on TV frequently during my formative years and the scenes I liked best were the ones showing him traversing the jungle by swinging from those conveniently located vines. They were always within easy reach and seemed as durable as a circus trapeze.

Tarzan had no fear in the trees. In the real world, I knew danger was lurking on every ascent. Most adventures come with a risk factor. I only fell once but it was memorable. My foot slipped while coming down from the oak and I went airborne. The drop was about eight feet and I escaped injury by landing on my side. A fellow climber was nearby and saw it happen. He said, "You looked like Superman, with your arms straight out, except you were flying backwards."

My enthusiasm for tree climbing declined after 5th grade and stopped completely when I advanced out of elementary school. Priorities change, free time becomes less plentiful, and branches that can support little kids are less forgiving to larger, heavier visitors. A teenager losing his balance on a high perch is one of the crucial plot twists in A Separate Peace. I sometimes wonder if that book was included on our junior high reading list partly as a subliminal warning -- "keep your feet on solid ground unless you want to end up like Phineas."

At the house where I grew up, the old oak is long gone. But somewhere in America, I think there must be another tree with a really strong branch that would be a perfect spot for me, even at my advanced age.

If I were going to write a story about this subject I would have my character embark on a quest to find that special tree. At the end I would succeed, only to discover an adventurous little kid already occupying the spot meant for me. The kid looks down and asks, "Is there something you want?"

And I would say, "Yes. I want you to stay right where you are, get comfortable, and enjoy the view."