Sunday, June 19, 2005

My father, the hero

The treehouse went up twice.

My dad was responsible the first time, drawing the plans himself, hauling the wood, ladders and tools to our backyard, and spending the weekend suspended 20 feet in the air. He was building my second home, but I couldn't yet envision his ultimate goal. All my 8-year-old mind could do was marvel at this man’s until-now hidden talent.

I mean, this was my dad - he could coach a baseball team and grill a mean hamburger, but who knew he was also Tarzan, hanging from the limbs, building this perfect contraption that would hold me among the birds, squirrels and branches?

There were many games played up there, many nights spent under the clouds, and my pop culture-saturated imagination steered it in 20 directions at once. That treehouse was at once Knight Rider, the Millennium Falcon, the A-Team’s van, and a mysterious hideout invisible to all things female. It was my father's eye-opening worksmanship that constructed all of those things for me.

The second time it went up, my dad had nothing to do with it. He was asleep, and only the neighbor's screams caused his eyes to open. Rubbing out the bleariness, he pulled the curtain back to look down into our back yard. The treehouse, about ten feet into the forest, was brightly lit, the flames shooting toward the sky.

I was awake as well. Racing into the hall, I saw the top of my dad's head as it disappeared down the stairs. Following as quickly as I could, I ran down, out the door, and into the backyard to the forest's edge.

Our neighbor was standing there, holding a fire extinguisher but seemingly unable to move. He was frozen, with a fire-tinted glassiness in his eyes. His son, I would later find out, had been given permission to spend the night in the treehouse, but there was no response after calling his son's name. The lack of a reply had stopped his feet, and likely his heart.

My dad grabbed the extinguisher with the grace of a relay runner snatching the baton, and he sprinted up the treehouse ladder into the fire. I followed him to the first rung, looking up toward the violence. I began to climb. When you're 8, there are no thoughts of mortality or even danger; I can't remember my exact thought process, but I'm sure I believed I could do something, anything to help.

My face poked over the edge, immediately seeing the remnants of a charred sleeping bag and the fire still surrounding it. Before my eyes could focus, though, everything was suddenly engulfed in a cloud of white dust. The extinguisher's hiss pummeled my ears while its discharge entered my eyes, nose and mouth. I tried to climb down, but only covered a couple of rungs before my hands let go.

I fell, expecting to hit the ground, but instead I landed in my neighbor's arms, my eyes closed, my mouth coughing. While my father was working to save his son, he was there to save me.

"He's not here, nobody is up here," my dad said. The spray was still burning my eyes, but I looked up long enough to see the fire was out. My dad was a shadow, standing in the smoke, lit only by the few remaining embers and the stars behind him.

He reported down the good news, that a sun lamp had been left on, and the only victims were a pair of sleeping bags and the floor of my forest home. Our neighbor's son, it turns out, had walked to a friend's house, and was safe from everything but his parent's wrath.

That night, though, wasn't about what was lost. It was what I gained, which was perhaps my first impression of my father as a true human being. He was the coach, the architect, and now the hero, and I will never forget the pride I felt that night. And I count my blessings that I still see my father in exactly the same light, some 20-plus years later.

Happy Father's Day.

1 comment:

Riley said...

Great, sentimental stuff.