While building a tree house with his father, the author at twelve begins to understand the politics at play in the backyards of his suburb.
One Saturday in August 1962, perched high in a maple tree in our backyard, I handed my father a nail. We were building a tree house. I was twelve. My brother Hugh, who was about to turn nine, stood below us on the ground, sending boards up with a pulley and standing clear in case we dropped something.
Across a little lane, I could see the remnants of Tom and Bill Butz’s tree house. The Butzs’ backyard sloped downhill away from ours so their tree house was below us. Beyond their parents’ house, I could see all of West Lafayette, Indiana, spreading out toward the red tile roofs of Purdue University. Tom and Bill were older than me and had already left for college, but most of their tree house was still here. It was a pretty good one, especially considering they had built it by themselves—two small stories, simple platforms really, the first maybe six feet off the ground, the second a few feet above that. It had no fencing or roof. You couldn’t sleep in it. Ours would be better.
Most of our plans were still on paper that first afternoon, however, and I didn’t know if we’d even finish framing the floor that weekend. Twice I’d asked my dad how long it would take, but he’d told me to be patient, that it was more important to get it right, so I’d stopped asking.
Looking back on it now, I wonder if my dad wasn’t being a little bit competitive, too. Tom and Bill’s father was Earl Butz, the Dean of Agriculture at Purdue and as such, my dad’s boss. He was the same Earl Butz who would become Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture. Though he was a friend of agribusiness who argued that “food was a weapon” and farmers should “get big or get out,” he helped Nixon win the farm vote. After Nixon was forced to resign, Earl worked under Gerald Ford. Though it wouldn’t be long before he, too, was asked to resign. On a plane home from the 1976 Republican National Convention, Butz was sitting in first class with Pat Boone, Sonny Bono, and, unfortunately for him, John Dean. Boone, always the earnest teenager, asked him why the party of Lincoln couldn’t win Negro voters. An honest answer would have acknowledged that the Republicans had written off blacks after LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and were now pursuing a Southern strategy based on racist code words such as “law and order,” “forced busing,” and “states’ rights.” Instead, Butz joked, “All the coloreds want is tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” Dean, whose testimony had done Nixon in three years earlier, was on assignment for Rolling Stone. He reported the joke, and a few weeks later, Earl Butz was out of the White House and on his way back to Purdue.
All that was yet to come, but my dad’s relationship with Earl Butz was already, in the early sixties, long-standing, personal, and complicated. Earl had been his major professor in graduate school and then hired him as an assistant professor. We also attended the same church as the Butzs and it was usually there that I saw Earl and his wife Mary Emma. Their exchanges in the foyer or church parking lot intrigued me. My mother was a liberal and liked to tease Earl, try to get a rise out of him. “Oh, Earl, you don’t mean that. You’re just mad Kennedy’s in the White House and you aren’t.” Dad, on the other hand, was professional and polite, though sometimes, I thought, too deferential. Later, I’d hear from others that he sometimes disagreed with Earl at work, though I suspect Dad picked his battles carefully.
I wonder if my dad wasn’t being a little bit competitive, too. Tom and Bill’s father was Earl Butz, the Dean of Agriculture at Purdue and as such, my dad’s boss. He was the same Earl Butz who would become Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture.
“That’s solid,” Dad said of the floor joist we’d just finished, “but I think we better cut another long one for over there, and maybe a short cross piece to connect these two.”
We’re never going to finish, I thought. I wanted to be done laying floorboards so it would start looking like a real tree house. If we didn’t finish today, that would throw us into tomorrow, which was Sunday, and then Dad would probably invoke his no-work-on-the-Sabbath rule, and before you knew it, we’d still be framing next week. I was ready to have my friends over so we could read comic books in the tree house, stage water balloon fights, and sleep out all night.
But Dad was the boss and after he’d checked his measurements, we climbed down the ladder, joined Hugh, and headed back across the yard toward the basement, the lumber, and the table saw.
The high whine and unforgiving blade of my father’s power saw scared me, but with deadpan instructions, he’d insisted that I learn how to use it. “Keep the board straight or it’ll jump up and bite you. Hold your hands wide. You may want those fingers later in life.”
Fortunately, the tree-house boards were too big for me to cut. All I had to do was hold the long end of each one level while my dad guided the shorter, marked end through the blade. “Remember,” he said, “slow and easy. You just hold your end of the board. I’ll set the pace.”
Hugh stood on the other side of the room, his fingers in his ears. My dad reached under the saw and flipped the toggle switch. The loud whine of the spinning blade reverberated off the concrete walls, turning shockingly shrill when board met blade. It was like being inside a jet engine.
My dad built the table saw himself. Its frame was made of wood and the saw itself was powered by a motor he had salvaged from a worn-out washing machine. He’d made it when he was remodeling our old house on Sylvia Street, putting in two sleeping rooms and a bathroom on the third floor so student renters could help pay the mortgage.
I knew where he had learned how to improvise and salvage like this. Every summer, I went to my grandparents’ farm in Missouri for a couple of weeks, tagging along while they did their chores. My dad always called his parents’ place “a beef and pork operation,” but the term “operation” seemed grandiose to me even then. I loved staying there and doing the things he had done when he was a kid—gigging frogs, fishing the farm ponds for bluegills and bullheads, shooting sparrows with the same little twenty-two-caliber rifle he had used, and helping my grandmother gather eggs from the chicken coop—but sometimes the whole place felt as if it were held together by #9 baling wire, hard work, and more than a little luck.
Once, at breakfast on the farm, my grandmother asked me how I wanted my eggs. Earnest and self-important, I replied, “Over well with the yolks broken. Can you do ’em like that?”
She laughed and said, “I think so. I’ve made them that way for your dad for thirty years.”
A summer or two before we built the tree house, my dad and I made a cage for my two pigeons. We put the cage in our backyard just outside a garage window so that in winter we could run a heavy orange extension cord out to it and keep a forty-watt bulb burning so the pigeons stayed warm. The floor of the cage was made of the same wire mesh as the sides and top so I could hose it out when it needed to be cleaned.
Our backyard also had a high jump pit, a rope swing and a row of tomato plants. Dad liked to keep tomatoes. I think they reminded him of his mother’s garden. August evenings he’d go out back with a saltshaker to eat them off the vine and smell the crushed leaves on his hands. He’d pick a tomato, bite into it like an apple, and, after swallowing, always say the same thing: “This is as fresh as they come.”
It was past the cooing pigeons and the pungent tomato plants that we toted what I hoped would be the last two floor joists of the day.
From my perch in the tree, I could also see the Sandersons’ backyard next door. James and Louise Sanderson’s youngest daughter, Julie, was a year younger than me, and her brother Scott and sister Abby were, respectively, four and six years older. Despite the difference in our ages, Scott and I were good friends. He was small for his age, but, like me, loved sports. We played endless games of basketball in my driveway and staged our own two-man track meets on the sidewalk out front. But Scott and I were the only real link between our families. Abby baby-sat us occasionally and taught us how to play solitaire, but our parents didn’t really have much to do with each other. Louise was cool and distant; Mr. Sanderson was a nice enough guy, but not around a lot. I think he respected my father professionally, for he was also a professor at Purdue and his specialty, Applied Statistics, probably helped him appreciate my father’s growing reputation as an economist, even if Dad was just an agricultural economist. Louise, on the other hand, stayed trim playing golf and kept her distance from my mother, whom she likely dismissed as just another Book-of-the-Month-Club intellectual. The Sandersons drove a new Oldsmobile convertible and belonged to the Country Club.
Their backyard was divided into two parts by a retaining wall built out of railroad ties. The upper level was a nice lawn, big enough for croquet games. A second-floor deck that extended almost the full length of the house hung out over a patio that adjoined this upper part of their yard. French doors opened onto the deck from their family room. On it were a glider, several deck chairs, a chaise lounge and a round table with an umbrella—their version of a tree house.
I was reaching into my apron for another nail when we were shocked by a voice from below that was not Hugh’s.
The area beyond and below the retaining wall, though wilder than their croquet court, was not as wild as any part of our backyard with its underbrush, Tarzan swing, and cage of filthy birds. A small stream lined with chunks of granite trickled through this lower section, and next to the stream the Sandersons had put in a putting green. It was only a little larger than a living room floor, thin in spots and still kind of weedy, but a putting green nonetheless.
Up in the tree house, my dad wedged himself between two trunks so he wouldn’t fall. When he hit the first nail, the sound rang out across the neighborhood—loud, metallic, and shocking. He swung a second time, but the sound was wrong. He had mis-hit. The nail was big and thick, a spike really, but it bent. Dad sighed, flipped the hammer and placed the claw so as to pull out the nail. He tossed the useless nail down to Hugh. I knew better than to say anything. I handed him a fresh nail.
He rolled his shoulders and I could hear his spine crack in a couple of spots, like knuckles. He sighed and started in on the next nail. His concentration was fierce, but it was not enough to overcome the fact that he was tired and working with a short swing, and after a few hits, he bent this nail, as well. As he pulled it, I looked at him but got no eye contact. His sideburn was wet with sweat and plastered flat. There was a spot of eczema on the back of his neck, just at his hairline. He was in his own world in that moment, more focused than ever on doing this right. I handed him a new nail. Bang. Bang. Bang. The hits were true and the nail was home. I was reaching into my apron for another one when we were shocked by a voice from below that was not Hugh’s.
“Whatcha you doing up there, Charley?” The voice was male, adult; familiar, but not.
It was James Sanderson, as composed and placid as a TV dad. He was in topsiders, khakis, and a burgundy knit shirt. His hair was neatly parted and his glasses had tortoiseshell frames. His arms were folded across his chest and he was craning a little bit in order to get a good look at us. The pose suggested he’d been there a while. His question was friendly enough, but it was pretty obvious what we were up to.
My dad pulled himself right side up and turned, like he was doing a sit up. He blinked and reached a finger behind his glasses to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. He’d been caught off guard. Then, he focused down to the ground, down at Mr. Sanderson, and spoke: “Oh, I’m just trying to get this damn thing up.”
I had heard my mother’s uncles swear. They were big, beer-drinking German dairy farmers, and I had heard them swear in my father’s presence and I’d even seen him appreciate, perhaps even envy, their swearing, but I have never heard my father swear. Never.
“Damn thing?” I thought. What is he saying? This is our tree house. This will be the best tree house in town. “Damn thing.” How could he say that?
I stared at him, but he wasn’t looking at me; he was looking down at Mr. Sanderson and smiling. It was an awkward, sheepish smile, a smile that was meant to look nonchalant, but was not. Up here, up close, I could see a twitch near his eye. The effort and concentration my father and I shared a moment before were gone.
It was as if these “Country Club” people, these people who drove a new Oldsmobile convertible when he drove a six-year old Chevy station wagon could see him for what he was—a dirty faced kid who fished farm ponds for bullheads and sold gooseberries at a stand by the side of the road.
“Tree house, eh?” asked Mr. Sanderson.
“Yeah, the boys say they’re ready for one. This seemed like the place to put it.” Dad fished for his handkerchief.
“Quite a job,” said Mr. Sanderson. Then, he unfolded his arms and hitched his belt a little bit.
“Yeah, more work than I thought it would be,” said my dad, “but we’re about done for today.”
“Well, I was watering some flowers and heard you. Just thought I’d see what you’re up to. Good luck up there. See you later, boys.” Then he turned and headed across our yard toward his own. My dad and I watched him as he passed the Tarzan swing without seeming to give it any notice. Then he moved out of the shadow of the oak tree into the late afternoon sun. All he was doing was walking home and yet to me, his back seems full of rebuke.
It would be years before I began to understand the awkwardness in my dad’s smile, to unlock the reasons why he might have been willing to say damn in front of his boys. They had to do with marking himself as an adult after having been caught hanging from a tree like a kid, but it was more than that. Mr. Sanderson’s presence cast a spotlight on our backyard, the way throwing a dinner party makes you notice the smudges on the light switches or the chips in Grandma’s china. We might have disagreed with the Republicans whose backyards adjoined ours, but they could still intimidate us. There was always in my dad, even later when he worked in the Carter White House or represented the United States at international conferences, a hint of self-doubt that I don’t think he let many people see. It was as if these “Country Club” people, these people who drove a new Oldsmobile convertible when he drove a six-year old Chevy station wagon could see him for what he was—a dirty faced kid who fished farm ponds for bullheads and sold gooseberries at a stand by the side of the road so he could buy his first rifle, a little single-shot twenty-two.
My dad wedged himself back into the fork in the tree and situated himself the way he was before Mr. Sanderson surprised us. I handed him the last nail. He banged it home in five quick strokes, and we headed down the ladder to wash up for dinner.
As we walked across the yard together I registered everything in a new light. I was only twelve and I didn’t know all that these backyards symbolize, but I registered the differences.
In the bare spot under the Tarzan swing, the exposed roots of the oak tree have been polished by thousands of sneakered feet. The leaves of the tomato plants hang wilting and brown in the late summer heat. The tomatoes themselves are swollen and split—Big Boys, Early Girls, Beefsteaks. The pigeon cage, with its galvanized wire, gray and leaden, and its wooden frame of salvaged, mismatched wood, stinks in the shadows. Under the cage there’s a splattering of soggy bird shit, and in the cage two pigeons blink and watch us as we walk by.
Ned Stuckey-French’s essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, and American Literature, and have twice been listed among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. He is the book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and an assistant professor of English at Florida State University.
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