Most of my childhood memories about playing are pictures of the outdoors. I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina from 1964 to 1974. I can’t remember exactly when, but sometime after my two younger brothers were born, around the time I was five, my dad had a pile of dirt dumped right between the driveway and the swing set. To this day my brothers and I can recall the hundreds of hours we spent on the “dirt pile.”
After some outdoor fun as a toddler with a tricycle, a running water hose in the back yard, and the most amazing device called a sprinkler that sprayed all those thin water lines (and you could even run through it!), the dirt pile became and integral part of life. I was in heaven playing on the dirt pile, or riding my bicycle, or climbing trees.
The dirt pile allowed me to use my imagination. I also got to control the story. Maybe the coolest thing was the strategic battles with those little green army men. Or maybe it was the largest dirt corporation in the world being run by dump trucks and bulldozers. Something about the dirt pile was extra special. I think it was because my hands were the creator of tales of grand adventure.
I got a “brand new” used spider bicycle (with the banana seat) for my 6th birthday. It didn’t have any training wheels, which were rarely seen in those days. I still have the picture of me sitting on the bike leaning against a pine tree to make it look like it was standing up. I practiced riding in the grass in the backyard at first. The swing set was beside the dirt pile, and about a twenty yard stretch of grass ran down a narrow yard that ended at the clothes line. On one of my early rides my balance was good, but I could not focus on steering at the same time, so I ran right into the clothes line pole. The trial and error and scrapes were so worth the reward.
I can remember it like yesterday. The exhilaration of that first real bike ride. There was nothing like the wind in my face. The speed was intoxicating. Then I was inducted into the bicycle fraternity of jumping. I could fly yards in the air off a makeshift homemade ramp. I was invincible. Somehow this surpassed the dirt pile. I could engage my whole body – feet, legs, hands, eyes, and mind – in creating an adventure that I lived in. The dirt pile was still great, but it just could not compare to riding like the wind at the speed of sound.
There is something in the human heart that longs for adventure on a growing scale. It wasn’t too long before my brothers and I began climbing every tree in our yard that we were able to master. We didn’t have a big yard. The family estate was a perfect compliment to the three bedroom, two bath house with partial basement. There was the persimmon tree. There were some dogwood trees. There were oak trees. You could climb part way up one of the dogwood trees and then cross over to an oak tree that you could climb a little higher on. Climbing trees gave a sense of freedom that even a bicycle could not. It wasn’t riding in the wind. It was viewing life through a tree, above the world, one with the wind, at peace with nature and people. Now I was ready. The dirt pile, my bicycle and climbing trees in my yard had trained me well for Mt. Everest – the sweet gum tree across the street.
There was this towering sweet gum tree. You know, the kind that has the little prickly round balls that fall to the ground (sweet gums). They were brilliant green in the spring and summer, and turned brown and died when they fell to the ground in the fall. The tree was barren in the winter, revealing its giant frame that could hold as many little boys as could climb up into its arms. The trunk was way too big to put my arms around. To climb it, you had to get a friend to hold their hands together to form a step so you could reach the lowest branch. Oh how sweet a climb it was after that. There were dozens of branches to stop on and take it all in. Every spot was marvelous. The pinnacle seemed about a hundred feet higher. Once you reached the highest branch you could still sit on, the world seemed so much smaller down below. You would sway a foot or two in the wind up there. It was only pleasure though. No fear.
It was always fun dropping (and throwing) the sweet gums from up in the tree. I guess the projectile DNA is hardwired into boys. One time some friends and I decided to see if we could hit a car as it drove by. My heart would race with every attempt. The game was on. And the fear of what would happen if we actually hit a car. Well, of course, we finally hit one. It skidded to a stop and the screech of tires about scared us half to death. A man got out and pointed up at the tree and yelled something. It sounded like the adult talk in a Charlie Brown television special (bwa bwa bwa bwa). I recall butterflies in my stomach as I was throwing them, followed by a gasp as I feared death at the hands of sweet gum road rage! But the driver decided not to climb the tree to get us. As the car drove away we all had a sigh of relief and started to retell the story to each other like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. We didn’t need to throw any more that day.
My soul was stirred every time I climbed that sweet gum tree. There were secret things I discovered up there . . . freedom from worry, the independence of a bird, the choice to pause and take in the beauty, the awesome power of nature. I was part of something a lot bigger than myself. It was like I had a part in the story. There did not seem to be any limitations on what was possible in this life. Did you have a “dirt pile”? Did you have a “sweet gum tree”?