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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Only the Roots Remain

Sometimes the shadow of grief is kind
like the shade of a tree
that still stands tall
in the back of my mind—
though in reality…

it’s gone—
struck by a bolt that rent its wood
in an early spring rain.
Grass hides the spot
where the oak once stood…
only the roots remain.
© Copyright April, 1996, Patterns of Ink

My mother still lives in the 14-acre woods that my family has called home for over thirty years. The first building we raised on the property was a barn, framed entirely with long stout logs we harvested from the land as we cleared it.

About twenty paces from the door of the barn stood a tremendous oak—with a trunk so large that my two older brothers and I could barely touch fingertips as we encircled it. The oaks in our dense woods grow tall in search of sunshine with no outstretched limbs but for the canopy far above. Of the hundreds of ancient trees on our land, this oak became a friend the day my father scaled eighty feet up into its branches and tied a long, thick hemp rope to a worthy limb.

The rope dropped down and hovered a few feet above the soft sandy ground. I was thirteen and Dave was fifteen. Paul was sixteen, and on the cusp of caring less about such things, but the day Dad hung the swing we were all amazed at the height he had gone in the tree and the long pendulum swing of the rope.

“Is this going to be a tire swing?” I asked.

“Better than that,” Dad baited, “You’ll see.” And he began telling us of a similar swing he and his brothers and all of their friends once had when they were teens. His explanation was more than a story; it was the beginning of a long tutorial on the art of rope swinging.

Within a matter of days, with Dad’s help and some left-over lumber from the barn, we built a large platform ten feet above the ground around the trunk of a hickory tree that stood about thirty-five feet south of the oak. The platform was framed in like a house and suspended from above. A ladder was used to reach the trap door in the floor planks. [We eventually learned to run with the rope away and then toward the fort to "kip" up without the ladder.]
It was impossible to throw the rope (as dead weight) to the platform, but when properly tugged as if ringing a church bell, the weight of the long, thick hemp arched like a drawn bow string and then re;eased at just the right moment. There was no "twang" sound, but the rope flew up the platform straight as an arrow, and the catcher would lean out and grab it. That’s when the fun began.
The first jumper would take the rope in his left hand and lean back as far as he could on the platform. Then, by simply lifting his legs in a “pike” position, he would glide out into the wind like Johnny Weissmuller [whom we all considered the truest Tarzan of all time. We heard his scream all the time on Bill Kennedy's "Sunday Showtime," a Detroit classic.]
At the other end of the rope’s reach, we would twist our body and come back feet first in perfect form. Upon reaching the platform, our feet lightly land with the flair of a trapeze artist, and we'd hand off to the next jumper.
As our grips and arms grew stronger we gained the reckless confidence of Weissmuller's jungle, and in our minds this pastime took on the subtle nuances of an obscure Olympic event. It also became a team sport. Often Dad was right there with us and every bit as good.

As we introduced more and more of our friends to the swing, we continued to break our own record of how many jumpers could latch on each time the rope returned to the platform. Imagine seeing 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 boys dangling from this rope—that’s no exaggeration—the record may have even been higher. The last to jump on could barely find an inch of unclaimed rope to grab as he leapt outstretched like a flying squirrel. Because I was small, I was usually that last squirrel.

We’d ride the hurtling clump of sweat and laughter until we could safely drop off one at a time without being pummeled into the dust. (As skilled as we all were on that rope, “gang dismounts” were avoided at all cost—think of eight guys slamming to the earth at about twenty miles per hour. It happened only once as I recall. Someone's face was in someone's armpit, and an eruption of laughter sapped all strength, and we dropped in a grunting tangle of limbs. Fortunately, we all broke each other's falls and not our necks.)

The swing was a part of our life for many years. It was something we never “out grew.” I don’t recall my last ride on the rope, but I had no reason to think I'd never see it in its place again. All I know is one spring when I was away at college, a bolt of lightening struck the oak with a crack that rattled our house.

After the storm, Dad went out to see which tree was hit and there at the base of our oak the ground was strewn with long strips of bark, and one side of the trunk far above was exposed from the blast. Of all the giant trees on our land... why our rope-swing tree? Dad called us in our dorm 600 miles away to tell us about it. Looking back on it now, I think he knew a chapter of our life had closed. Older people have that gift-- of seeing the life in chapters. Younger people see only pages and can't wait to turn them.

Somewhere in a shoebox, I have a snapshot of my dad up on his highest ladder painting tar on the bare wood in an effort to keep the tree alive. It took only a year to see that the tree had been harmed beyond hope in that storm. By the second summer, its branches were bare.

In the same box, there are other photos of Dad cutting down the old oak. It required the largest of his arsenal of chain saws. None of us who had known the tree were home to help, but my brother-in-law understood the significance of the event and took the pictures for us. Most of the tree was stacked for firewood (oak burns clean and long), but Dad set some aside for a secret task. (This fact alone confirmed that to him the tree and its swing was more than rope and wood.)Through the years that followed, he gave each of us [and eventually each grandchild] our names carved from the rich grain of that oak. always reminding us it was from "our" tree.

My father passed away in the spring of '95. [This Sunday, April 1, marks 12 years.] His death was sudden and unexpected like the bolt that took our tree. As I came upon the first year anniversary of his death, I thought of the many gifts he had in common with that oak, and scribbled down this poem to share with my family. Beyond them, only a small group of middle-aged “boys” who remember the feel of a heavy rope in their hands… would understand its meaning.

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Blogger SusieQ said...

What a fantastic story. I would have loved to have swung on that rope.

We have a huge oak in our wooded backyard. We have lost many trees to lightning over the years. I dread to think of how barren the woods will be if someday the lightning gets our grand old oak.

25/3/07 10:18 PM  
Blogger Lone Grey Squirrel said...

You had me mesmerized throughout. Great story. Wish I had a chance on that rope wing too. Sounds like a wonderful place to grow up in and a wonderful father to have. We grief because we love.

26/3/07 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poem made me think this was going to be sad then it wasn't at all until the end tied it together and then it was kind of happy sad.
Your blog has a way of doing that. I am not much for heights but would like to see that swing. I bookmarked here so keep writing.

26/3/07 3:20 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

It was not a "no girls allowed" swing, but few females were comfortable with the leap. We usually tied a stuffed burlap bag on the end of the rope and let them sit and swing that way and they still screamed. My sister and maybe three or four other girls went on it but never in a group. I have a feeling you would have swung--without the bag.
It's nice to know someone else has lost magnificant oaks to lightening. I wish I could find the pictures of it with the bark blown off. It was sad.

It was a wonderful way to pass weekends. We worked, too, but Dad like to balance work and play. I still walk those woods whenever I go home. You would like this post about it:
My Dad was more special than a person can know in real time.

You've hit the nail on the head about "happy sad" that's what I meant by "Sometimes the shadow of grief is kind." It's when you think back and part of you wants to cry but something wonderful takes its place. Thanks for bookmarking. Spring Break is coming up and I hope to get caught up on lots of writing.

26/3/07 4:46 PM  
Blogger Jody said...

I hope you do get that opportunity over spring break to do some writing. I always look forward to 'more of the same' from you. =) I guess 'more of the same' is kind of like that 'happy-sad' we took away from this post. You know I've got you bookmarked!

27/3/07 9:43 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

What great memories and such a special tribute to your dad! He evidently knew what fun could be invented by playing with a rope swing. Those same roots are the foundation from which your family grows strong today. You just can't beat good strong roots that last a lifetime.

27/3/07 7:10 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Two days until Spring Break. We need it more than ever. Our three day accreditatin visit at school is over. It went very well from our perspective.

Dad had a way of mixing work and play. My brothers and I spent our pre-teen to college years working weekends and school breaks with Dad. We cleared roads, built the barn, dug a 35 foot cistern well, and eventually raised the house. But no matter how much work there was to do, we always had time to play on the swing, skate on the creek, sled on the hill, etc. It gave Dad joy to keep us "busy" out in the woods. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

28/3/07 8:56 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

What a beautiful story. I was transported.

You must see the movie "Bridge to Terabithia". It was take you right back to your rope swing.


28/3/07 10:58 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Josie,I may do that, Charlotte's Web is showing at the cheap theater now. I'll look for Terabithia when it comes back there.
We've been buried in a school re-accreditation that just finished yesterday and it seems like I haven't done anything but that for a while.

29/3/07 9:45 PM  

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