It seems like everybody has a story about how their dad abused them. Dad abandoned the family, screwed the maid in front of the kids, or got drunk and threw darts at the family pet. I felt left out of the club. MY dad was boring. He loved his kids, treated his wife like a queen, and he never EVER threw darts at the dog.
But when I thought about it hard enough, I realized that I too had a tale of paternal abuse. My dad didn’t have a drinking problem or a hair-trigger on his slapper. But my dad had a ladder.
This was no ordinary ladder. This was a monster: 75 pounds of slick metal and tall enough to reach the pinnacle of our two-story Victorian house. The ladder figured prominently into a number of my traumatic childhood experiences.
Not only did my dad have a gigantic ladder, he had an endless supply of chores that needed to take place high off the ground, an acute fear of heights, and an able-bodied son. Do the math.
Easily half of the jobs I did on the ladder required me to perch just above the step labeled “not a step.” The fact that I inherited my father’s near-crippling acrophobia didn’t dissuade him from sending me up the ladder. Quite the opposite. It amused him to see me white-knuckled, two stories high, desperately clasping the ladder with my knees and trying to drive nails with hands trembling like Michael J Fox after a quintuple espresso. “Building character” is what he called it.
The most fearsome character-building experience I can recall involved the ladder, a saw, and a walnut tree.
When you live in a hundred-year-old house, you have hundred-year-old trees. These trees are very tall. And my dad was particularly fond of his ancient walnut tree. I never understood why. We did not eat the walnuts. The only purpose they served was to make mowing the lawn more exciting. Accidentally roll the mower over one and it would pepper your shins with nutty shrapnel, or fly out whole at a thousand miles an hour.
Unlike a traditional walnut tree, with a wide, spreading canopy, our tree stood straight up like a telephone pole. The branches stuck straight out of the sides, like a child’s drawing of a tree.
The tree grew unhealthy as it assailed the seasons. The lower branches died, and it dropped fewer nuts in front of the lawn mower. This caused my father great consternation.
Dad got it in his head that the tree needed pruning. Extreme pruning. Character building pruning. The only way to save his tree, was to wait until the dead of Winter, then chop off damn near every single branch. (Like I said, my dad was a CPA, not an arborist.)
This job fell to me. The winter rain relented just enough that Dad considered it safe to prune the tree (well, not safe enough for HIM to climb up a wet ladder in the wind, but safe enough for his only son to do so). I wrestled the heavy ladder over to the diseased tree. I pushed and struggled until it was leaning up high against the slippery bark. Then I tugged the rope to extend the ladder to its maximum, terror-inducing altitude.
And that’s when I discovered the first problem. The tree was narrower than the ladder, so there was no good way to lean it. The rungs of the ladder were round and the tree had a round trunk. So no matter how I placed the ladder, it slipped back and forth easily. The weight of the ladder sunk its feet into the mud, and that was the only lateral support I was going to get.
I sighed, grabbed the saw and climbed with my free hand. Did I mention my fear of heights? Because it made the job a tad harder. Hugging the ladder with my whole body, while at the same time trying to lean out far enough to cut off a branch isn’t easy. Moving the saw back and forth hard enough to cut through a branch, but not so hard as to wobble the ladder ain’t easy either. But I developed sort of a rhythm.
When the blade was nearly though the first branch, I encountered the next scrotum-shrinking, butt-puckering, I-want-my-mommy-crying problem.
Anybody who has ever pruned a tree knows that when you cut off a branch, it doesn’t fall straight off the tree. No. When there is a little tiny bit of wood left holding it, the branch swings down and strikes the trunk of the tree (and any ladder that happens to be leaning against the trunk of the tree). And if you happen to be precariously balanced on the wobbly, wet, ladder of doom, the branch hits it, and the ladder feels like it is going to shoot out from under you. More than once, I dropped the saw when the branch swung into me, but I stayed aloft.
And so it went. Branch after God-forsaken branch. Saw. Swing. Crash. Pucker. Climb. Saw. Swing. Crash. Pucker. I exhausted my puckerer and drained my adrenal gland, but I finished the job. I don’t know if I built any character, but I pruned the living shit out of that Walnut tree, and I survived another encounter with Dad’s abusive ladder.
I can’t say the same for the Walnut tree. 18 months later, it was firewood.