Friday, October 22, 2010


ONE SUMMER AFTERNOON we built a rope swing with an old Firestone tire we’d dug out of the creek bank. We had to toss a line over a branch about a mile up in the sycamore tree on the west side of the house. Didn’t get it over at first. Had to tie something on the end of the rope so we could get the heft to fling it over.

First we tried a smooth, old river rock with a big, fresh chip in one side that had just been plowed up out back in the orchard. Every couple of tosses the rock slipped out of the loop we’d cinched around it. Once it hit Vanella – Nilley we called him – on the side of the head and he went home crying.

Switched to dad’s hammer, which I’d snuck from his workshop. A beautiful, old, leather-handled Estwing. Grip worn to a shine from years of various around-the-house jobs. Dad came pedaling home – rode his bike to work: we only had one car – and told us that wasn’t what the hammer was for. We rightly figured he meant crow bars, vice grips, pipe wrenches, hand axes – just about anything else that could be found in the shop – as well.

There was this galvanized metal bucket out back of the house that mom used exclusively for hauling ash from the Franklin stove out to the orchard. I swiped it from where mom kept it. We tied one end of the rope around its bail.

Muster, another kid from the neighborhood, said we should fill it “this much” full with water. So we did. Old Musty swung the bucket like the pendulum on the cuckoo clock in our dining room, back and forth. Back and forth. Each time a little bit further. Soon he was making great, sweeping circles with the water bucket at the end of the rope.

Then, using this magical boy judgment that some kids possess, he let the rope slip and race through his dirty palm at just the right instant. The bucket rocketed skyward, arcing and clearing the branch on the very first throw and falling to earth with the water exploding out of its busted bottom when the bucket hit the ground.

Soaked hurrahs were sounded all around. And slaps on the back. Musty was a genius! A real whiz!

Nilley, by now, had come back – a red bandanna wrapped around his forehead – and stood a distance away at the property line leaning on the white rail fence.

Both ends of the rope were in kid hands. While I tied the muddy, black-side-wall Firestone to one end of the rope, Calvert, a kid from next door, shinnied up the great sycamore tree and wiggled out on to the limb. He hoisted up the other end of the rope, did a couple of wraps with it and tugged on it a couple of times. Finding things secure enough to suit the mind of an experienced boy of ten or eleven, Calvie dangled his legs off the limb, found the rope with first one foot, then the other, slipped his butt off the branch and descended the rope hand over hand.

The once derelict tire now hung about two and a half feet off the ground and since Nilley looked so forlorn but so interested, Calvie waved him over. In the gathering dusk, he enjoyed the first ride.

I DON’T THINK WE USED THAT ROPE SWING for more than the waning hours of that summer day and a little bit of the next. To be sure, we spent more time engineering the swing than we ever did riding it.

We get together now, the fellows of that industry – except for Nilley: AIDS overtook him five or six years back. The rest of us, Calvie and Musty and me, we get together and drink beer and smoke cheap cigars. Proving we’re big boys now.

We talk about good jobs and bad politics, failed marriages and lingering loves. And tell a few jokes. Never have talked about building the swing in the sycamore tree. Hell, I may be the only one who even remembers the whole event.

I keep meaning to ask Calvie, when I see him, why – if he could shinny up a tree to secure a dangling line to a branch about a mile up in the air – why we had to dedicate an otherwise perfectly fine summer’s afternoon to trying to toss that damned rope over the tree limb in the first place.

But by the time I remember the question, the party’s broken up and everybody’s gone home.

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Church of the Open Road Press

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