I. The Problem
I don’t know how the treehouse idea got started. I never had one as a kid. Maybe it was a picture I saw. Anyway, a couple of years ago I decided Nick needed a treehouse. What kid doesn’t? Immediately, there was a problem. Our property is small. It has no backyard to speak of, just a brick courtyard. Some trees, but none that could support a structure large enough to hold a kid. What you really want is a private forest, I figured, like in the picture. This got me feeling down. A good dad would have a forest for his kid. Or at least a backyard.
There was another problem: a builder I am not. I did make a tugboat out of wood in first grade. It was about half a foot long. The paint came off on its maiden voyage in the bathtub. After that, there followed a long, dry spell. I am not trying to sound pathetic. There are only so many things a person can learn to do in this life. Wood, for me, is not one of them.
But I still wanted a treehouse for Nick. Sure, the one in the picture was overkill. But something. Nick had found a drawing of one he liked in The Dangerous Book for Boys, complete with instructions.
“That’s the treehouse,” he said.
The sketch seemed promising. But the instructions looked complicated to me, sort of like building your own space station. I Xeroxed the page and tacked it to the wall in the den, where it stayed for a couple of years.
“When are you going to build Nick a treehouse?” the drawing said, whenever I walked in.
“When I learn how to build one,” I said. “And when I get a tree.”
There were several breakthroughs, actually. First, a man in my men’s group, walking around the outside of my house once, had said to me, “Somewhere there’s a treehouse here. You just don’t see it yet.” This is the value of a men’s group. It sort of keeps you going until you find out where you’re headed.
Not a treehouse, but a platform on posts, built in the middle of trees. If I could get a platform, we wouldn’t need a tree. We could put a house on top of the platform. But where to put the platform?
A few months later, Nora and I hired a carpenter to build some shelves for us. (His name was David.) On the last day of the job, David came into my study to say goodbye. I shook his hand and began lamenting to him about the treehouse. This is a thing I routinely did with anyone who knew anything about wood. “Cry like a baby for what you want,” says the Talmud. David glanced out the study window, which overlooks a long, narrow corridor to the side of the house. About six feet wide, the strip was cluttered with hundreds of Nora’s terra cotta flower pots.
“The platform goes there,” he said.
It was the one place I’d never considered for the treehouse.
“It’s too dark and cramped.” I said. “Besides, my neighbor’s fence is too high.”
“The house will be higher than the fence. It’ll have light up there.”
The treehouse would also look out over my neighbor’s yard. This might have been a problem, except that my neighbor is a very understanding guy with two boys of his own, now grown.
I showed David the sketch from the Dangerous Book for Boys.
“Can you build that?”
“Something like it,” he said.
“Couple of grand.”
I thought hard. It was a lot of money. A good dad would build his own treehouse, I thought. And he’d build it with his kid. He’d teach that kid all about hammers and bolts and sandpaper, things every kid needs to know. I could do that, I thought. I could build that treehouse with Nick. Of course, maybe it would take three years and maybe Nick would have moved on to other things by then. And then maybe it would last six months before it fell down.
“How long would it take you?” I said.
III. The Build
A considerable amount of brush had to be cut away first. (Not seen in the photograph above because we’d already cleaned it out when that picture was taken.)
A few days later a truck deposited a large pile of lumber in our driveway. David arrived with a skilled co-worker (James) late that afternoon to cut the posts, dig the holes and pour concrete.
David took particular care with his level to make the poles precisely vertical. Here’s the result, a quartet of four-inch beams buried in two feet of concrete and rising 15 feet into the air:
The house and fences are crooked, but the posts are exactly perpendicular to the horizon, pointing straight up. A laser beam directed out the top of any one of them would arrive at the Corona Borealis supercluster, far outside the Milky Way, in about a billion years. Count on it. A beam traveling down from the other end would anchor in the center of the earth.
We let the concrete dry overnight.
The two were back the next morning. They had the platform, six feet off the ground, in place by noon.
The roof followed by sunset.
That night Nick and I climbed the rickety ladder to poke around.
“Not bad for a day’s work,” said Nick.
Walls, windows, door, and stairs followed on the last day.
The best view of the finished project is from my neighbor’s yard. Nick’s bedroom window overlooks the treehouse roof. It’s not quite like the picture in the book, but it seems to work for Nick.
Here’s the approach from our yard:
Looking over the balcony toward my neighbor’s yard. The notch in the railing preserves the tree branch.
View from the side window. I had to darken the camera setting to get the picture. It’s actually very bright inside the structure.
First day: Dinner in the treehouse with Nora and Nick. That night I hang a lantern and read to him from The Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, his current favorite.
Second day: Nick’s friend Jay over to inspect the work. Impromptu water fight ensues. Jay and Nick retreat to treehouse, firing down with squirt guns. I retaliate with garden hose, but they hold the fort.
Third day: “Do you name a treehouse?” Nick asks me. “Sure,” I say. I’m thinking something bucolic, maybe, House of the Wind. “I’ve got it,” he says, “I’m making a sign.” He’s a boy of his time.