The promise: To build a tree house for my son Spencer before his fifth birthday.
I would like to mention up top here that this was not my idea – but the wife’s. She’d been looking at web sites and books with schematics and decided that she would take off the week of Easter, essentially Spring Break for the masses, and we will build the tree house.
The beginning of my tree house boot camp started on Saturday, March 26, 2005. My wife and Spencer drove to a lumber store in Burlington, NC, because it was significantly cheaper than the local Lowes or Home Depot.
My wife is all about the discount.
When they returned, Spencer ran in to tell me of how the wood fell out of the truck and that “people he didn’t even know” helped them pick the wood off of the highway. Yes, I just said HIGHWAY. My wife and son were one of those people – the kind who spill lumber out of the bed of a truck. Shortly thereafter, I ferried 60 pound bags of cement to the backyard and hauled whatever timber was needed at the moment off the back of the truck.
In the blink of an eye, my wife darted off to rent a two-person auger. Boy, did we feel sore the next day. But shit if we didn’t get some holes burrowed and 6” x 6” x 12’ posts set.
We finished framing the tree house, fastening lumber with lag screws to the pine trees which acted as the back of the tree house. Since we don’t have much in the way of tools, we borrowed a power drill and some drill bits. Outside of that, our circular saw, a hammer, and a pair of vice grips do the bulk of the work.
Day One was over and we were spent.
Sunday, Day Two, began at the crack of dawn. The kids were fed breakfast, coffee was made and by 9 a.m. the family was outside and construction continued. 5 ¼” x 6’ x 10” decking boards were placed as flooring. By now it was apparent that our thorough measuring wasn’t all that thorough: some angles weren’t straight and some lumber wasn’t level. We were well on our way to building a tree house of Dr. Seuss proportions.
Midway through the day, my hands became to sore – the hammering of ten-penny nails and screwing 2 1/2” screws into planks with a shitty drill bit took its toll.
We broke for the day at dinner time.
Monday found rain in the forecast so I attended a business meeting most of the day and it turned into a day of much needed rest; a day to recoup our energies and step back and take in what progress had been made.
Tuesday began much like the other days: the kids got fed the coffee brewed and then off to the backyard to work amongst the backdrop of whirring saw blades, buzzing drills, kids hollering and us screaming back at them. The agenda called for putting up the 6’ x 6’ sides, slapping up railings made with 2 x 4s and placing the balusters. The balusters mimic the look of the deck in our backyard and also function as a safety element prohibiting the kids from falling off the sides. As dusk arrived, the yard was cleaned of its construction litter and the tools placed back inside, because the next day was Spencer’s birthday and for that we spent the night at Wrightsville Beach.
Wednesday morning slogged by because we couldn’t leave too early since check-in time at the hotel wasn’t until after 3 p.m. We packed clothes and organized toys to be used as distractions for the kids during the 2 plus hour drive to the beach.
The wife was behind the wheel and we were somewhere east of Raleigh. She came upon what appeared to be an unmarked police car. He sped up and she followed him. Then he slowed down and got behind a car in the right lane. My wife did the same. He broke out of the right lane and sped up. Again, my wife followed suit. Finally he settled back into the flow of slower moving traffic in the right lane and with that my wife made the executive decision that the unmarked car is not a cop after all but probably just some business man. She zoomed past him in the left lane.
Moments later she cried out, “Dammit! It was a cop.
I turned around to see the red and blue blinking lights. I started to search for the registration in the glove compartment.
“Ma’am,” he said. “Do you know hwy I pulled you over?”
“I was doing the speed limit,” my wife snapped back.
“Ma’am,” he said emphatically. “Don’t argue with me! I haven’t written a ticket in over four years but I still could if I wanted to.”
The cop is obviously angry. He lectured her about safe driving. “Especially with children in the car,” he said.
“Ma’am,” he said sternly. “Please drive safely.”
The rest of the car ride to the beach is done in silence.
The beach was fun. The weather was great, the ocean water was predictably cold, but the pool was heated. Spencer did double duty going from beach to pool to beach and then back again to the pool until late in the evening. We attempted to eat dinner out by our youngest Cole was restless at the dinner table so we retreated to the room and ordered room service where we sat and ate as we looked out from our balcony to the beach, the waves and the horizon.
We ordered The Incredibles on pay-per-view and collectively snuggle in bed. Despite all the hype I’d heard about the movie, it barely kept my interest - or anyone else’s for that matter – and consequently drove the whole family to sleep.
Sunrise came too soon.
We hit the breakfast buffet, tackled the beach and pool one more time, than headed back home. Once home the car was emptied and it was back to the business of building a tree house. A couple of hours were put in tinkering before we shower up and the babysitter arrived. The wife was on vacation after all so a nice dinner between the two of us was a must.
Friday - Day Four of proper building if you are counting - came and we framed the roof, built a ladder, and attached a slide. The wife had second thoughts about putting on a tin roof because it cost too much so she settles for a blue tarp. I balked at the blue tarp because it didn’t appear very safe – the tarp wasn’t going to break the fall of a pine tree limb. So the roof situation is rethought and it is decided that the tarp with go and the tin roof will stay.
Saturday came and we now had a tree house in the backyard. But it was raining and the yard was all tore up from all the lumber and saw dust and still muddied from the previous rain storm earlier in the week. Our goal to finish in time for Spencer’s birthday party on Saturday was achieved only nobody was going to get to enjoy it since it was pouring down rain.
We kept the promise we made by building the tree house in time for his party. But it wasn’t an easy task.
And another lesson in the world of parenting was learned: never make a promise you can’t keep.
*A version of this essay originally appeared in Raleigh's The Hatchet.