Engineering, marine biology and art projects kept these youngsters occupied through the long days of summer so long ago
I sat cross-legged on the tingling grass, my hands laid palms up on my lap so the warm sun and cool breeze could work their salve on them.
I had just chopped down another slim poplar and now my brother, James, worked at cutting it into pieces. On this day, we were into the second week of building the fort.
Earlier that July, bored and restless, I decided to go for a walk in the pasture. As I headed out, James caught up with me.
“What can we do today?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I thought I’d go for a walk in the pasture and see if I can find something out there.”
“I’ll go with you.”
The pasture gave us our own private playground where we spent many summer days exploring and playing. We enjoyed nature around us and reveled in our adventures. On that day, near the banks of the dam we saw a poplar tree leaning over, clasped in the arms of its neighbour. A storm had left us a gift that sparked James’s imagination.
“We can cut down other trees and lean them against it. We can nail them on. We can call it our fort.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said.
“I’ll go home and get the hatchet and hammer and nails,” he said.
“Be careful Mom and Dad don’t see you,” I reminded him.
Our parents wouldn’t approve of us having the tools, so every day we snuck them out of the old red garage, careful no one saw us. When we had the fort big enough to shelter them, we left them out there, making sure they were covered against dew or rain.
As I sat with my palms turned up I watched the bees and dragonflies. The clear, pungent fragrance of fresh-cut poplar added to the cleanness of the air. A crow sailed overhead, cawing out its lonesome strain. Busy sparrows in the branches overhead twittered like gossiping old women working at their chores. Far away, a meadowlark burst with joy.
We talked in soft voices as we worked. We had no need for louder tones in this peaceful spot. The poplars laughed low in whispery voices, their leaves twirling like copper pennies on strings. The water in the beaver dam rippled in low murmurings and the duck family prattled around on the water, dabbling after water bugs and gabbling to each other in their funny, croaky voices.
Once we saw a whole family of toads on their bumpy journey to new homes over the dam to the slough beyond. We stopped our work to watch — a parade of so many undisciplined soldiers — all heading in the same direction, each marching out of step with his neighbour. Jump, bumpety, hop, jumpety. We laughed.
Although we felt pride in our accomplishment, we learned the cost of our project. Blisters grew on our hands from gripping the tools hard enough to take effect. Our backs and arms ached from bending over a new-fallen tree to cut it in pieces. The hatchet wasn’t very sharp, forcing us to swing it with all the strength our nine- and 10-year old arms could muster.
Surveying our progress, we thought we had quite a nice shelter. James lay on the ground and put his head inside. Looking up for a minute, he pulled out. “Have a look,” he said.
The bumpy, twisty poplars left large holes even though we fitted them together as tight as possible. Some spaces gaped big enough for our hands to fit through. We decided it needed clay to fill in those spaces. It scooped like pudding from the banks of the dam, its smoothness cooling our sore hands and this work became our favourite activity.
We enjoyed the work more than the product. We loved the warm, quiet spot next to the dam, backed by the poplar bush, and we felt pride in our accomplishment. Full of purpose, our labour among nature’s people was our pleasure. Once finished as much as our puny muscles allowed, we lost interest in it, too old to pretend anymore and our attention turned elsewhere.
On later walks through the pasture, we came across our old fort and always took a good look, noting how nature reclaimed it, and remembering those warm and pleasant days when we built it.
Today we’d be called free-range kids but at the time, we just thought of ourselves as farm kids having fun with whatever came our way and almost never told our parents. Their days kept them occupied with seasonal work: haying or harvesting for Dad and gardening, canning, and sewing new school clothes for Mom.
It took us two or three weeks to finish our fort. We left in the morning, came home when Mom called us for lunch, and went out again for the afternoon. We never told anyone what we were up to and no one asked. If we had told one of our parents, in all likelihood they’d deny us the fun because of the danger of using the hatchet. As long as we turned up for meals, no one wondered how we spent our time.
I was the only tree climber of the family. Between the house and barn grew a variety of trees in a moderate semblance of order: huge black poplars dotted the yard, a row of Manitoba maples bordered the lane, the ever ubiquitous caragana hedge stood behind the house, and a group of small elms abutted the garden. My curiosity with birds led me to climb many different trees to see if eggs or babies reposed in a nest.
The black poplars offered perfect climbing prospects that I couldn’t pass up. Some presented low branches to get me started and off I’d go, one at a time, looking for the next branch to take me as high as I dared. What a gift if a bird lighted on a branch in the same tree. I’d sit quiet and still, smiling to myself if someone walked below, never looking up.
If the wind blew as it almost always did, the swaying of the tree I sat in gave me a modest ride. If the wind blew with ferocious speed, I didn’t tempt fate and stayed on terra-firma.
Once, while sitting in the fork of a tree during a strong wind, my leg was pinched between the trunk and the branch — not hard enough to injure me, but it taught me to respect both wind and trees.
My parents sometimes saw me in trees but never knew how high I climbed or of my adventures, and I never told them in case they forbade me from continuing.
I’ll never forget my surprise to see my mother coming out of the house carrying a hammer and pail of old nails. Work with tools quartered firmly in Dad’s domain so this sight stood out as a true anomaly. She hurried out, sizing up a group of three trees and said, “that would make a good treehouse.” I stared in disbelief. Had hell frozen over?
She put her things at my feet and went to Dad’s junk pile in the bush behind the garage, returning with boards of moderate length. “Find me straight nails in that pail,” she ordered and we set to work.
It seemed to take a matter of minutes for a floor to take shape with a hole in one side where I later climbed into my treehouse. She then attached walls and a ladder of three short boards nailed to a trunk. My amazement in seeing her use a hammer and the ease with which she planned and built it superseded my delight in having a real treehouse.
She then retrieved a wooden box that once held Christmas oranges and nailed it inside one wall. “There,” she told me, “you can put your doll dishes in there and it will be your kitchen cupboard.”
I felt very special that day knowing she had gone to all that trouble just for me and I spent many hours in that tree house at many of the forms of play that enters a child’s head. Looking back, I wonder if she really did notice at least some of my outdoor play and tried to give me a distraction from climbing trees before I injured myself.
I did injure myself in a tree one day and got no sympathy for it. James joined me and we were thick in our adventure at a time when the rest of the family were away somewhere. While climbing, I noticed a dead branch and a fleeting thought came to me that I shouldn’t put my weight on it. Our imaginations occupied us and we talked as we climbed.
But as we descended, I forgot to avoid the dead branch and let myself down on it. With a crack, it let go. I was quite high up and another branch caught me across my ribcage.
In one sense, I was glad the branch stopped me from crashing to the ground, but it knocked the wind out of me and a terrible pain stung across my ribs. I moaned and managed to tell James I had to go inside because of the pain.
Our family returned and Mom entered the kitchen first. I met her and told her what happened. The pain still burned my ribs, making me wonder if something inside me had broken.
I guess my timing was off. Mom walked past me, appearing not to hear me, wearing a serious face. My sisters and Dad then entered also wearing the same sober expression and ignored me standing there. I knew from past experience that something had happened to upset my mother and this was not the time to tell her any more bad news. I never told anyone about my injury. My ribs hurt for about a week and I never learned what upset my mother that day.
Our play didn’t always involve risk-taking. One summer, we became interested in our local aquatic life and caught tadpoles with a small aquarium net bought at Fisher’s Department Store, dropping them in jars of water from the same place. Mom told us to feed them wheat germ. Some lasted long enough to develop legs before we let them go back to the gully where we caught them. While poking around in the water, we noticed snails and scooped them up into our jars. Not as interesting as the tadpoles, they still entertained me for a time, watching them open their little mouths for the wheat germ. I soon let them go again.
After Dad had the two dugouts built, we realized the banks offered nice clay and we scooped it up in an old pail to take it under the trees in the yard. We had an old wooden table under the trees where we sat on old chairs or a bench to make our creations. When the sun dried them hard, we took out paints and decorated them: little dishes, vases or sculptures.
On other walks in the pasture or down the train tracks, we collected different flowers and took them home to press in a big book. If we remembered to take them out a couple of weeks later, we glued them in a notebook and labelled them. Often we forgot about them and they surprised us by falling out during a school assignment in winter, a reminder of past summer days.
Even though it was the summer holidays, I never tired of books and enjoyed the interesting ones our mother bought and put on shelves in our living room for either her use in preparing lessons for school or for us to look at. The Books of Knowledge and World Book held the most interest with their beautiful pictures of the nature or of other countries.
In spite of our mother wishing to educate us through a variety of reading material, we learned not to sit in the living room while availing ourselves of the books or magazines she supplied for us. Sitting in the living room put us in the position of sitting ducks. If she saw us there doing nothing (in her view), she’d give us one of the many errands she kept running in her head. If we wanted to read, we’d take it upstairs to our room. Out of sight, out of mind goes the expression and we learned the truth of it at a young age.
Summers brought freedom for us kids and lots of work for our parents. We enjoyed the liberty to do what we wanted without parental supervision (or their knowledge) and they made use of time alone to get as much work done in as short a time as possible.