A Bridge Between Trees
Whatever Rich had been before, he’d never be again. We all dreaded that. But it took years to figure out as we struggled with the aftermath.
The summer between eighth and ninth grades, Rich, Pete and I decided to build a tree house…actually Rich did most of the deciding. Our families lived on Santa Barbara’s Calle Poniente where it dead-ended into rolling hills covered with wild oats and spotted with California Live Oaks. Two massive trees stood close together along a ridgeline, silhouetted against the sky.
“That’s where we’ll build her,” Rich said and pointed.
“Ah, come on,” Pete whined, “we’ll hafta haul everything uphill. We’ll be pullin’ stickers outta our socks forever.”
“He’s right,” I chimed in.
Rich countered, “We’ll be able to see anybody coming. We’ll see everything.”
“And they’ll see us.”
“I want them to,” Rich said. “This is our place and nobody can take it.”
Pete choked back a laugh. “That’s funny. Ya sound like you’re actin’ in some western.”
Rich grinned and drawled, “That’s right, I’m the Marshal in these here parts.”
We all watched Gunsmoke on TV every chance we got, lusting after Miss Kitty and making fun of poor Chester. We also knew that Rich was the Marshal and we his deputies. We’d known each other since first grade at Harding School and had tried projects before. The tree house would prove the toughest.
In the late 1950’s, Calle Poniente had three mini-fiefdoms: the bottom near Valerio Street belonged to a bunch of little kids; the middle section to John the paper boy, the Mexicans, and pretty Becky; and the upper end to us Three Amigos. We were older than the others by a year or two, a vast difference when you’re young.
Rich motioned us into his garage. “Look at this.” He rolled open a big sheet of paper across a workbench.
“What am I looking at?” I asked.
“Come on, Chet, your Pop’s a draftsman. You’ve seen blueprints.”
“You do this?” Pete asked, eyes wide.
“Yeah. Look, here’re the tree trunks, like you’re lookin’ down from above…the first level and the second…and the high deck in the other tree.” Rich showed us the details laid out in clear lines.
“What’s this?” I pointed.
Rich puffed himself up. “That’s the bridge between the trees.”
“Cool. But how’re we gonna get the stuff to build this thing? I’ve got nothin’.”
“Me neither,” Pete said.
“There’s plenty of scrap lumber at that house project on Marquad.”
“Jeez, a frickin’ block away.” Of the three of us, hulking Pete proved the most adverse to physical exertion.
Rich ignored him. “We’ll pick ’em clean…take only used stuff… they won’t care.”
“Yeah, but what’ll we take?” I asked.
“I know what we need.”
Suddenly, our lazy summer of riding bikes down State Street and watching girls bake in the sun on East Beach had been usurped by the tree house challenge, albeit an exciting one.
It took a week just to drag all the materials to our construction site. The most difficult hauls were concrete-stained sheets of plywood. We stored everything under the oaks and covered it with a tarp borrowed from my Dad’s woodpile. We did a lot of borrowing. We scrounged for nails and screws and used all of our fathers’ hand tools. By the second week we’d worn a path up the hill, the annoying stickers no longer a problem.
The tree house took shape slowly. We got fancy: cut up an old red carpet and lined each room; found some rolled asphalt roofing and covered our castle; nailed wire over the window openings to keep the squirrels, raccoons and birds out; and built a trapdoor in the first level floor and locked it with a padlock and hasp unscrewed from Pete’s father’s toolshed.
But the bridge between the trees proved the most difficult. We didn’t have long pieces of lumber that could span the twenty-foot distance.
“We’ll build it out of two or three planks,” Rich said as we stared at his sketch.
“I don’ know,” Pete said, shaking his head. “I ain’t gonna trust that thing.”
“What if we build it, ya know, in pieces,” I said, “a bunch of boxes nailed together?”
“You mean like some sort of box beam?” Rich asked.
I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
It took us a week to bang it together and a full afternoon to lift it with ropes into place. It rested on notches we’d cut into the oaks, maybe ten foot up. The bark proved tough to chop with a hatchet. It looked like gray alligator hide. And a blood-red layer of wood beneath the bark made me regret all the nails we’d driven into those trees.
Less than a foot wide, the bridge rose at a slight angle from one tree to the other. To help keep our balance, we strung waist-high guide ropes on either side – ropes purloined from Mr. Spezack’s boat gathering dust in his backyard.
When done, my Dad made me give him a tour of the place, including a stroll across the creaking bridge, and a climb to the high deck in the second tree, our very own crow’s nest.
“You boys did a good job nailing this thing together,” Pop said. “You be careful up here. When the wind blows this place will really shake.”
“Yeah, it’ll be cool. Don’t worry.”
All through August we moved our prized possessions, the things we hid from our parents, into the tree house: dog-eared copies of Playboy and Modern Man; two packs of Cool cigarettes and a Zippo lighter; a dusty bottle of gin from Pete’s father’s liquor cabinet; and a pistol with a box of cartridges that Rich found tucked away with his Dad’s Korean War stuff.
To get into the tree house Pete and I climbed a ladder, unlocked the trap door and pushed inside the first level room. But Rich usually beat us in by climbing one of the tree’s long branches that almost touched the ground. He’d move from limb to limb like a spider monkey, as if he’d been born in the treetops.
We used the enclosed rooms as our smoking/drinking lounges and reading library. But the high deck in the second tree became our favorite spot. From there we could look west into the setting sun and watch soundless waves break along Hendry’s Beach and the Hope Ranch Coast. We’d shoot the bull about our dreams of the future: high school, the after-school jobs we’d get, the kind of cars we’d buy, the girls we’d date and which ones might “put out,” a term we used with great confidence but with little understanding.
Through all of this Rich would get more and more restless, would break out in laughter, jump up and swing from branch to branch, dancing across the bridge and back as if powered by jet fuel. We’d give him a little sip of gin to calm him down. It didn’t help much.
Rich’s imagination just wouldn’t turn off. He talked about having parties in the tree house and inviting kids from school, about rigging the place with electricity so we could watch TV and stay overnight, about putting a telescope on the high deck to gaze at the stars and do things with girls. Pete and I listened to his wild ideas and let his passion carry us along, trying to believe that anything could be done if we just had the guts to try.
We’d saved the last of that God-awful gin for the final week of summer. Pete and Rich would start ninth grade at La Cumbre Junior High while my parents sent me to the four-year Catholic High School in downtown Santa Barbara. We swore that we’d all do stuff together, stay close and let Rich dream up new adventures.
We sat on the upper deck, legs dangling over its side, and sipped Beefeater from chipped coffee mugs.
“Hey, I know these guys–” Rich began.
“Ah Jeez, here we go,” Pete said, snickering.
“Shut up, lard ass. Let ’em finish.”
“I know these guys that made their own surf boards. They said they’d show me how.”
“Sounds cool,” I said. “But nobody I know surfs.”
“Yeah, that’s why it be cool if we did.”
Pete shook his head. “Come on, guys. Ya know I sink better than swim.”
We stayed quiet for a few minutes. Rich countered with a new plan. “Yeah, well what about us getting after-school jobs and pooling our money. Buy a car and fix it up.”
“I can dig that,” Pete said. “My Dad can show us how.”
Rich started to fidget as his excitement grew. “Yeah…we could keep it in our garage and–”
“–work on it on week ends. We’ve got two years ’til we get our licenses.”
“Paint it competition orange,” Pete said, “dago the hell out of it, with baby moon hubcaps and blue lights in the wheel wells.”
Rich grinned. “And tuck-and-roll inside. My sister’s boyfriend had it done in Tijuana, cheap.”
Pete and I stared into the sunset. I dreamed about cruising State Street with some bodacious girls in our cool car. Rich couldn’t contain himself. He climbed into the treetop and swung from limb to limb. He scooted along a branch that extended toward the opposite tree, and with a shout, dropped to the bridge below. He landed like a gymnast dismounting the high bar to stick the landing.
With a splintering crack, the bridge split in two and Rich fell. He tumbled end over end, arms flailing, and landed with a sickening thud on his back. Pete and I screamed and bolted to our feet. With the bridge gone, there was no easy way to get out of the tree. We shinnied down the trunk, scraping the hell out of our bare arms, and ran to Rich’s side.
He lay on top of a huge oak limb that we’d cut off, his eyes rolled back in his head, drool dripping from the side of his open mouth.
“Is…is he dead?” Pete whispered.
“No…see, he’s breathing.”
Rich moaned. His eyes seemed to focus on us for a few seconds before closing. But he kept breathing.
“What’ll we do?” Pete asked.
“I’ll stay here…go tell his folks…get an ambulance…he’s…he’s hurt bad.”
Pete tore off down the trail and disappeared into the waning light. I put my hand lightly on Rich’s chest, felt it rise and fall. The lower part of his body lay bent at an angle. He didn’t move. It seemed like forever before the sound of adult voices engulfed us. Pete gasped for breath and looked ready to faint.
“You didn’t move him did you?” Rich’s father asked.
“No..no sir. He hasn’t moved since he fell.”
“Okay…okay. Why don’t you stand back against the tree with Peter. The medics will need room to work.”
Rich’s mother knelt by his side, tears dripping from her eyes. She leaned forward to touch her son, crying hysterically. But her husband stopped her and they hugged each other, shaking.
I moved into the shadows, feeling scared and somehow guilty that our horseplay had caused this tragedy, as if Pete and I should have kept Rich from doing that stupid stunt. We were his deputies and we let our Marshal get hurt. Pete stood next to me, trembling, his mouth clamped shut.
In the distance, the sound of sirens approached. Every dog in the neighborhood howled. A new Cadillac ambulance arrived with red lights flashing. A patrol car pulled up beside it. The medics hustled a gurney up the trail, struggling in the sandy soil. With help from the cops they carefully lifted Rich onto the wheeled stretcher, strapped him down and headed off. Our friend, our leader didn’t make a sound the whole time.
By then, the entire west end of Calle Poniente stood in the street, staring. Pete’s and my parents huddled at the edge of the field. They came with the police and us boys to Pete’s house. It was after ten o’clock before the cops finished asking questions. Our accounts of the accident jibed, although Pete and I failed to mention the gin.
At home, Mom hugged me. I slipped into my dark bedroom, stripped off my clothes and slid between cold sheets, shivering. The image of Rich tumbling through the air flashed over and over behind my closed eyes. The sky turned gray before sleep and dreams took me away.
I slumped on the couch, munched Fritos, and stared blankly at the flickering TV. Mom stood over me, hands on hips.
“He’s been home for a week, ya know. You should go see your friend.”
“Yeah, yeah, I will.”
“Do it now. I won’t have you lazin’ around here all Saturday.”
“Cripes. Okay, I’ll go.”
Rich had came home the week after Thanksgiving. Pete and I had visited him twice in the hospital. The first time, the drugs slowed him down so much he could hardly speak. The second time, he put on a brave face until the post-surgery pain got too much and the nurses hustled us from his room.
I slammed the front door of our house as I left, mad at Mom for forcing my hand, but knowing she was right, which pissed me off even more. I crossed Calle Poniente and headed toward Rich’s house.
“Hey Chet, wait up,” Pete called, grinning. “Have you been over to see him?”
“No, have you?”
“Nah. Figured we’d do it together.”
“Yeah. Ya know…I’ve been feeling guilty about what happened.”
“If we hadn’t got Rich all excited, he wouldn’t have been messin’ around.”
“Yeah.” Pete went quiet for a moment. “But he got that way all the time. Wasn’t our fault.”
I tapped on Rich’s front door and Mrs. Kirkmeyer answered.
“Come in, come in. Richard is in the rumpus room watching TV. Go on back. He’ll be glad to see you.”
Her smile seemed pasted on, didn’t fit with the dark circles under her eyes and the crow’s feet. We passed through their house. Mr. Kirkmeyer looked up from his magazine and nodded but said nothing. I wondered if he too blamed us for the accident, for building that unsafe bridge between the trees.
Rich sat in a wheelchair before a color TV, the actors’ faces looking Martian green. A set of small barbells occupied an end table on his right, kept company with pill bottles, a pitcher of water and a glass, Kleenex, and a tiny bell. He looked at us and grinned.
“Hey guys, come on in.” He picked up a small box with buttons and pointed it at the TV. With a click, the damn thing shut off.
“Jeez, Rich, that thing’s great,” Pete said.
“Yeah, I can change channels, make it louder or softer, turn it on and off and not have to get up…not that I can.”
Pete and I collapsed into chairs on either side of him. His mother came in and laid a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the coffee table. “Thought you boys could use a snack.”
“Thanks Mrs. Kirkmeyer,” Pete and I said in unison.
“So…so how you feelin’,” I asked.
The smile faded from Rich’s face. He looked pale, with purple patches underneath his eyes. Yellow and green bruises decorated his bare arms. “Ah, ya know. Still gettin’ used to the chair and stuff. That’s why I have the weights, to build up my muscles.”
“Does it hurt?” Pete blurted.
“Can’t feel nothin’ below my waist. That’s why I have the bag.” Rich pointed to a plastic sack half full of urine hooked to the side of his chair. “And yeah, I wear diapers.”
“Ah jeez, man,” I muttered.
“When I get stronger, I’ll be able to change myself but I need more muscle ta do that.” He tapped a bicep.
“What’re the pills for?” Pete asked.
“The pain from where they operated gets bad at night…can’t sleep. And it sometimes burns when I pee. Take more pills for that.”
I felt relieved when Pete changed the subject. “I missed ya at school,” he said.
“You’re probably flunkin’ with me not there to give ya the answers.”
“Are…are ya comin’ back?”
“The doctors say maybe by Easter. Mom’s been getting all the books, homework and tests from my teachers…so I shouldn’t fall too far behind. Besides, schoolwork keeps…keeps me from thinkin’ about…”
The silence grew between us. But ole Rich could still draw us out. “How ’bout you, Chet? You lettin’ the priests push you around at Catholic High?”
We talked about teachers, girls in our classes, my new after-school job as a box boy at the A&P, making a whopping $1.25 an hour. None of us mentioned the accident and we wouldn’t talk about it until years later. But Rich started right back in with his overactive imagination.
One rainy day sometime after New Year, the three of us sat on Rich’s front porch and stared at the tree house on the ridgeline. Other kids from down the street had taken it over even though the bridge lay in pieces where we’d left it. I’d retrieved Rich’s father’s pistol and put it back in the locker where it came from, Mr. Kirkmeyer none the wiser.
“Remember when we talked about poolin’ our money and fixing up a car?” Rich asked.
I nodded. “Do…do ya think you can drive?”
“Maybe, maybe not. But I can ride with you guys…if we buy the right thing.”
Pete and I exchanged glances. “What do ya mean?” Pete asked.
“Look, I’ll need something that I can wheel my chair into, tie it down, and be able to see out.”
We stared at Rich blankly. “You got some ideas?” I asked, feeling that I’d invited a blizzard of words. I’d missed that.
“Yeah, check this out.” Rich opened a newspaper he’d been holding on his lap and pointed to an ad. “This would work great.”
Pete and I leaned forward to get a closer look, then broke into laughter. “You wanna…wanna buy a milk truck?” I asked.
We laughed so hard that Pete began to choke and I had to pound him on the back to get him to stop.
Rich looked indignant. “Yeah, a milk truck. It’s big enough to hold the three of us…and can haul a lot of weight.” He stared at Pete and dug him in the ribs.
“But a milk truck?” Pete said, still chuckling.
“Think about it. The Live Oak Dairy over on Milpas is always sellin’ their old trucks. We could buy one cheap and fix it up. They’re practically givin’ ’em away.”
“But…but a milk truck? What girl is gonna wanna ride in a milk truck?” I asked.
“We can paint it competition orange like Pete wants, with pinstriping. Cut holes in the sides and put in more windows so I can look out, get big fat tires with chrome rims, put glass packs on the thing, maybe even drop in a bigger engine. We’ll be the only one in town. And we can stick a sofa in the back if ya want.”
We left that day shaking our heads and giggling. But as promised, Pete and I talked with our parents. At first they laughed as much as we did. Then they talked with Rich’s parents. Less than two years later and after countless hours working with our fathers, our Orange Uttermobile sat in Rich’s driveway, ready to roll. We’d added a boss AM/FM radio, red dice around the rear-view mirror, and yes, blue lights in the wheel wells.
I got my license first. The look on the DMV guy’s face was priceless when I showed up for my driving test in the orange bomb. Our fathers had already put plenty of miles on the thing. They acted as juvenile as we did.
The truck included extra seats and a special tie-down spot where Rich would watch the world go by, chat up the girls we took to ball games, dances, and on make-out sessions off Camino Cielo. Rich never ran out of ideas for having fun while being careful to steer around trouble. But he also learned to trust our judgment, to lay back and enjoy life without trying to control it.
In two years the three of us split up: Pete to Fresno State to study Physical Education, Rich to Cal Tech on an Engineering scholarship, and me to UCSB studying Psychology, then to South Vietnam to practice survival.
But we never lost touch, celebrated each of our weddings. Rich expanded his parents’ house and moved in with them, with his wife and their two adopted Vietnamese children. The west end of Calle Poniente once again had another generation of little kids, the start of a new mini-fiefdom.
Rich died at 54 from renal failure and a bad ticker. We scattered his ashes under the oaks and the long-abandoned remains of the tree house. In my barn-like garage sits the Orange Uttermobile. It awaits its second life under the hopefully vivid imagination of the little boy asleep in my second wife’s womb. I start it up now and again to keep the Three Amigos alive.