Some of my first childhood memories come from Torrejon, Spain, a small town outside of Madrid. My father was in the USAF, a member of the Strategic Air Command helping protect the world from the evil commies in the USSR and East Germany. We lived off-base, in a community of Americans that did not qualify for on base housing. The central gathering point for the kids of the neighborhood was The Tree.
I think it was an oak tree. It was large and it’s defining characteristic, and the reason it was so popular with the kids, was a wealth of very low hanging, very thick and sturdy branches. This was a tree designed for climbing, and climb we did. This tree seemed to have a safe occupancy level of about a dozen kids. I’m not sure the fire marshall would have approved, but I can’t remember anybody ever falling out and being seriously injured. I also don’t remember us allowing girls in the tree. This was back in the early 70′s and the whole equal rights thing had not reached us yet I guess :) I’m not a heights guy today , and I wasn’t back them either. Although I did climb the tree, I had to if I wanted to maintain my standing among the other 6-8 year boys, I think I stayed on the lower branches most of the time though.
This particular tree had another feature too. Some of lower branches extended over the fence and into the swamp. The swamp was off limits. It was not part of the military facility, and we were warned time and time again by our parents to stay out of the swamp. It was land owned by a crazy Spanish farmer who shot at American kids on his property. That was the story anyway. It was a dangerous place, inhabited by snakes and gypsies and all sorts of dangerous things. Of course, crazy guys with guns and mysterious gypsies are just the sort of things bored 7 year old boys are looking for. If they had told us the swamp was infested with girls we probably would have stayed away. As it was, we spent a lot of time in the swamp. We got in by climbing The Tree and jumping down on the other side of the fence. I don’t remember seeing any snakes or gypsies. I do have a vague memory of a shotgun warning, although I really don’t know if it actually happened, or it was the product of our over active imaginations. Probably the latter.
The big kids hung out at The Big Tree (our naming conventions lacked pizzazz). The Big Tree was off base somewhere, not accessible by foot or pedal power. The big kids used their mopeds to get there. The big kids had built a fort in the tree. As I remember it, it wasn’t much of a fort. It was a few planks spread between branches and a floor made out of scrap plywood. Ever once in a while, the big kids would let us come out to the The Big Tree with them. They gave us rides on their mopeds. This being the early 70′s helmets were for sissies. I remember the big tree being fairly remote. It wasn’t a good climbing tree at all. You really couldn’t do anything there except climb up to the fort, which of course was off limits to us little kids. We were just happy to be there. The big kids would climb up into the fort, have a smoke, and then we would go back home. It seemed so exciting at the time.
As I was writing this, the appeal of The Big Tree finally hit me. This was the early 70′s – smoking was cool. The big kids could smoke cigarettes on base all they wanted. I think the school even had a smoking area. I bet those weren’t Marlboros they were smoking at The Big Tree. Funny how that connection hit me 40 years later.