I stood silent on a mound of crushed pink, brown, and white granite rocks, oblivious to the sharp edges pushing through the soles of my cheap rubber flip-flops.  Even the oven-like heat of the early Arizona summer ceased to hold my attention as I gaped at the full-grown tree in front of me: a mesquite, dense with miniature fluttering leaves.  It boasted a multitude of sturdy brown branches that wound their way out from the trunk like distributary streams from a river.  Right in the middle of it all, an arm-less saguaro cactus over six feet tall had grown up in between those branches, hiding the bulk of its towering frame in the mosaic of brown and green.  I could hardly believe my luck – the mesquite was perfect.

mesquite 1

I was 10 years old and my new favorite pastime was climbing trees.  I had already conquered the scrubby palos verdes in my front yard and at the nearest park, easily scrambling up their pale green, slippery trunks.  Their branches were often so low that I could hold on to them with my feet still touching the ground, but I would lift my legs up sporadically and swing back and forth until my arms gave out.  The palos verdes had begun to bore me.

I had walked down the street to the desert-scape golf course by my house in search of bigger trees; I preferred to crunch along through the rocks next to the sidewalk instead of staying on the smooth concrete.  When I rounded the corner just two blocks away, I came face to face with the graceful mesquite.  After admiring it for a few minutes, I ran toward the base of the trunk.  The climb was going to be painstaking, but my ever-analytical mind mapped out my path as I went.

The nearest branch was high enough that I had to jump to grab hold of it, before swinging my legs up to grip it more firmly.  From this upside-down position, I used my whole body to squirm my way around until I sat upright on the branch.  After clambering up to the next highest branch, then pulling myself up one more, I found myself in the heart of the tree.

I stood up on the branch and put a hand on the trunk for stability, gauging the obstacles.  I had already encountered one, which came in the form of its jagged bark – much rougher than that of the palos verdes I was used to.  Red stripes were already visible on my hands and legs, but I hardly noticed.  Two-inch thorns jutted from the mesquite’s smaller branches, guarding its delicate leaves.  As long as I stayed on the thicker branches and watched where I gripped my hands for balance, I would not have to worry about being stabbed by those suckers.  Finally, the rounded head of the arm-less saguaro peered at me from its fortress of mesquite leaves and branches, tempting me to approach.

mesquite 2

I smiled.  This was my realm now, and I needed to name the beautiful welcoming tree.  I was convinced that the mesquite was a she, and that she was much older than I.  I remembered the name of a Civil War-era folk song that I was learning in my beginner’s piano class and decided it was perfect for my new companion: Aura-Lee.

Whenever I had a free moment, I would run in my flip-flops from my house to the golf course and scramble up Aura-Lee after saying a quick hello.  I would invent games for myself like “How High Can I Climb Before I Feel Dizzy,” or “How Fast Can I Run from This Branch to That Branch Way Over There,” or even “How Close Can I Get to That Cactus Without Falling On It and Dying.”  I imagined that while I was running and hopping breathlessly from branch to branch, the mesquite was watching me amusedly and chuckling.  Disney’s Pocahontas had Grandmother Willow, and I had Aura-Lee.

mesquite 3

One day, I was sitting on one of the higher branches and leaning my back against the mesquite’s trunk, taking a momentary rest from my wild games.  Suddenly, I noticed a couple walking towards my tree from the golf course.  I hurriedly leaned forward, wrapped my arms around the branch I had been sitting on, and pressed my torso down onto it so that I was less visible.  I pulled my legs up behind me and rested my toes against the trunk, fighting for stability.  The couple stopped under my tree to talk.  I have no recollection of what they were saying – all I can remember is the feeling of my heartbeat thudding against the tree branch.  I was so terrified of being seen in my secret territory.

They must have felt my wide-open eyes boring into them, because they abruptly turned around and looked up at me in surprise.  I didn’t budge, but I didn’t look away either.  This was understandably unnerving, so they speed-walked away whispering, “Who let that kid hang out up there alone?”  But this just proved how little they understood; I was not alone.


P.S.  This piece was originally an exercise written for a class I’m in called Advanced Creative Writing – Nonfiction.  Since the majority of my creative energy is being funneled into that class right now, several of the assignments (the ones I like!) will probably show up as blog posts for the next few weeks…

Photos courtesy of:




Stories My Dad Told Me

Dad photo

This man in disguise happens to be my father.

When I was a kid, the idea of my dad as a child was almost incomprehensible.  I often wondered if the man I so admired had ever been a youth, or if he had simply skipped ahead to mature adult existence. But ever so often, my dad spills some details regarding his very real experiences growing up in Santa Cruz, California, and the image I carry of him as a youngster gradually becomes clearer.  He rarely gets through one of his stories without chuckling at the memory, so I share a few choice selections here in the hope that they will garner some chuckles from you as well.

(I) Not Your Average Breakfast

It was a sunny Saturday morning, and my dad, his parents, and his siblings were gathered in their kitchen to enjoy a family breakfast.  Everyone was involved in the preparation: pouring orange juice, passing out plates, frying bacon, and checking on the homemade bread baking in the oven.  After all the food had been distributed, the fam took their places and began to dig in.

Dad quickly finished his allotted portion of bread and got up to get another piece from the loaf warming in the oven.  He opened the door and carefully reached in to grab one big slice.  But, as he pulled out his selection, the top of his bare hand made contact with the oven’s heating coil.  INSTA-BURN!

He froze, staring at the small black burn mark.  A slight odor of singed flesh reached his nose, and his stomach began to churn.  “Daaaaaaaaad….I burned my hand….what do I do?”

Grandpa looked up from his plate for a second, advised his son to put the hand under cold running water, and returned to his breakfast.

Dad teetered over to the kitchen sink, feeling queasier by the second.  Clutching the countertop for balance, he managed to turn the sink faucet all the way to cold.  He slowly extended his hand towards the water, but in doing so, he caught sight of his wound again.  It was too much.

Out of the corner of his eye, Grandpa saw Dad disappear behind the countertop as he slipped to the floor in a dead faint.  “Very funny, Dave,” he intoned, figuring it was just the latest practical joke.  He reached for his orange juice.  Then he heard Dad’s head bouncing on the tile floor.

The burn healed in less than a week, but the impressive goose-egg on Dad’s head was visible for quite a while longer.

(II) Boys and Fire

The family’s house in Santa Cruz was high in the mountains above the Pacific Coast, surrounded by a forest of redwood trees.  To Dad and his older brother Tim, the forest served as the perfect backdrop for their adventures.  Every day, the two would invent new games and challenges for each other using the stimulating landscape.  On this particular day, the game was especially exciting – it involved setting fires.

Having snagged a box of matches from the house, the brothers busied themselves with collecting handfuls of dry leaves and twigs, which they assembled into small piles on the forest floor.  They stood in front of the first pile, grinning with glee, and Tim handed Dad the matchbox.  He struck a match and dropped it onto the pile, mesmerized as the dry material ignited.  After waiting two seconds, he quickly stamped out the fire with one foot.  It was so exhilarating!

They began to take turns lighting and stamping out fires.  But this was a game, and games have rules that must be followed.  In this case, there was one rule: on every turn, wait just a little longer to put out the fire.  It was a fierce competition.  Tim would wait 5 seconds before stamping out the flames, then Dad would wait 10 seconds on his turn, then Tim would take it up to 15!  When the waiting game began to get old, the boys started over with larger piles.  Mounds of charred sticks and leaves dotted the forest floor.

The boys wordlessly agreed that this was their best game yet.  Neither considered that they might ultimately create a fire too large to be put out with tennis shoes.  Which is exactly what they did.

The last pile (of course it was the last pile) was the biggest, and they had dared each other to wait just a leeeeeeeetle bit longer to put it out, longer than all previous attempts….  But when the pile continued to blaze after about a minute of frantic stamping and jumping and dirt-throwing, the brothers recognized their grave error.

They ran back to the house to grab an empty gallon jug from the garbage, which they filled up with water from the hose and lugged back to the miniature inferno.  Dad frantically turned the jug upside-down over the fire, and they watched miserably as the water fell onto the flames in small, useless plops.  It was like trying to fly a kite by coughing on it – utterly ineffectual.  And also stupid-looking.

Dad and Tim were at a loss as they gaped at the spreading fire.  They knew they only had one option left, but they were quite reluctant to pursue it…

Inside the house, Grandma heard a knock at the back door.  That’s strange, she thought.  No one ever knocks at the back door.

Her confusion quickly turned into apprehension when she opened the door to see her two sons standing side by side, eyes wide with fear.  “Why did you knock??” she demanded.  Her dismay, upon looking behind the boys to see flames leaping up through the redwoods, is best left to the imagination.

For Dad and Tim, no chastisement was necessary – facing the firefighters who showed up a few minutes later was punishment enough.

Thanks for the stories, Dad 🙂