“All we can do is breathe the air of the period we live in, carry with us the special burdens of the time, and grow up within those confines. That’s just how things are.”
—Haruki Murakami, Abandoning a Cat
I’d been stuck up in the ash tree for probably half an hour, looking down and trying to decide how best to get myself out of the situation, before my dad came out. I was six, and I’d dragged our ladder from the garage, leaned it against the tree trunk, and climbed up, not realizing I wouldn’t be able to reverse my climbing moves to get back down. So there I was, half-squatting in the crotch of the tree where its big trunk split in two before splitting into more and more branches, finally topping out 35 feet above our grassy backyard in the town of Red Oak, Iowa.
For whatever reason, I had really gotten into tree climbing that summer of 1987, pulling myself up into every one in our yard, a few in the neighbors’ yards, some at friends’ houses, and any that were on public property and had a low branch within reach of my little arms. Occasionally, I’d grab a rope or two that my grandpa had “borrowed” from the Emmetsburg Fire Department and use them to hoist myself up higher. At some point, I must have complained of pain in my arm or leg, because my mom took me to the doctor, and the doctor took a look and prescribed a few days off from climbing trees. For a couple years, there was always a kid at school who’d broken their arm falling out of a tree, but I had somehow avoided catastrophic injury. Thus far, anyway.
I imagine my dad had been sent out back that day by my mom, who was trying to finish cooking dinner. You know, Please go get your son out of the tree or we’ll have to start eating the lasagna without him.
So there we were, him on the ground, me up in the tree, too scared to jump all the way into the grass, too heavy to jump into my dad’s arms (which honestly probably would have broken something and put him out of work for several weeks), and unable to get back onto the top of the ladder. We threw ideas back and forth for a while, him moving the ladder out of the way, then putting it back, but I was frozen. My feet were maybe seven feet above the ground, maybe slightly higher, but from my vantage, it looked like 20.
Finally, Dad just calmly said, “Bud, I can’t do anything for you—I think you’re just going to have to jump.” I said OK, and then he turned and walked into the house.
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