In the late 1960’s, my parents purchased their first home in Saginaw, Michigan. The home was located on Woodward Drive, near Alpine Street. The backyard stretched out to the property fence that run abreast the railroad company’s property. The yard had a sandbox, small garden, swing set and many shrubs. Near the back, approximately ten feet from the fence, stood the cherry tree. I don’t remember where it came from; it could have been here originally, but I vaguely recall Dad planting it. The tree stood about eight to ten feet tall. I remember blossoms and cherries on the tree.
Beyond the fence, many shrubs of various kinds and sizes grew sporadically along the railway. These shrubs sometimes grew too close to the railway, forcing the railroad company to spray them to control their grow and keep them at least twenty feet away from the railway. At some point, they began using a new “more safe” chemical to help reduce the amount of regrowth. Unfortunately, the spray was either over-applied or over-effective, killing some trees in people’s back yards along the tracks, including our cherry tree.
I remember Dad struggling to keep the cherry tree alive, but unsuccessfully. In an attempt to make the best of it, Dad, removed most of the limbs from the tree leaving a carefully pruned and shaped skeletal form, then, to protect the wood from the elements, he painted it remainder auburn red. Within the bare branches, Dad constructed a platform frame of two-by-fours and a floor made of plywood. This platform was approximately three by six feet. On top of the platform was constructed an A-frame fort, inspired by a vacation spot we occasionally visited on Sanford Lake. In the center of the floor was a small hole to allow access to the interior of the fort. Dad attached a half-dozen or so rungs, made from leftover chunks of two-by-two lumber, to the trunk of the tree to allow ascent to the exclusive retreat. A window at the rear allowed casual, relaxing views of the passing railroad cars. I would venture to guess the platform was only four feet off the ground, but it seemed a mile in the sky to me.
This became my hideaway. I would spend hours in the tree by myself or with neighborhood friends. I remember neighborhood friends coming to play under the tree and in the fort. Tommy Wagner, Billy and Troy Young, Candy Staples, Andy Yacks, Sharon White and others, would come by and play cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, and other games in and around the tree. We would design complex schemes to defend the fort from foreign invaders, like my little sister. It would act as a house, fort or hiding spot. With Tonka dump trucks and loaders, we completed “massive” construction projects at its base. The tree offered concealment from water-hose attacks. It protected me from hurled projectiles “inadvertently” left on the rail tracks. First kisses. First cigarette. The shadow of the auburn-painted cherry tree contained many roots of my growth and maturation.