I always liked to build things. One of my first memories is sitting on our basement floor with my older brother, “building” something with the miniature tools our parents gave us. I was hammering away on some piece of wood when my brother, across the room, asked me to toss him the hammer. I asked, “Do you really want me to toss it?”
He replied, “Yes.”
I said, “OK, here it comes,” and I threw the hammer. You guessed it. It hit him smack in the middle of his forehead. He screamed. Blood gushed out. I was shocked.
I ran up the stairs calling, “Mommy, Mommy!” Our mother was on the phone talking with a friend. I ran up to her yelling. She shushed me, saying, “Quiet, can’t you see that I’m on the phone?” Then she saw my brother running up behind me with blood flowing down his face and clothes. She screamed, hung up the phone, and rushed over to take care of the victim of my carelessness.
A few years later, my brother and I built a “boat” in our bedroom out of two-by-fours and planks. It really didn’t even look like a boat, but in our childish imagination, it rivaled the finest yachts on the seas. We were never able to test it out because it was so large it wouldn’t fit through our bedroom door. It was one of my first lessons on planning ahead, but it saved us from the sure disappointment of watching our master craft sink.
By the time I was in fourth grade, we had graduated to building a tree fort in a giant California oak in a large field several blocks from our home. Our plans for our fort mimicked the awesome structure we saw in the Disney movie Swiss Family Robinson. Our lookout was so high, we looked down on the tops of telephone poles. But we had a problem. We didn’t have enough wood to turn our dream into reality. So one day, my older brother pointed to a new housing development in the distance and wondered if it had any scrap wood. He directed me to go see if I could scrounge some up for our edifice. I walked over to the building site and noticed the workers burning some scrap wood. I asked one of them if I could have this (to me precious) wood destined for the flames. He directed me to the foreman. I patiently waited while the foreman talked with a small group of men. After he dismissed them, he looked down and asked me what I wanted. I told him that we were building a tree fort and wanted to know if we could have some of their scrap wood. He asked me where our fort was, so I pointed to the tall oak tree in the distance. He smiled.
My brother was shocked and worried when he saw a large dump truck approach through the field. His heart nearly stopped when the truck stopped right in front of the tree he was sitting in. Then the passenger door opened, and I popped out. I walked out in front of the truck, directed it to come a little closer under the tree, and then motioned for the driver to stop. My brother watched in awe as the dump truck’s bed raised up, spilling a ton of scrap wood below him. We spent the next several months converting that pile of scrap on the ground into a child’s dream house in the sky. We spent most of the summer living out our boyhood fantasies in the most awesome tree fort we had ever seen.
We were very proud of our masterpiece, so we insisted on showing it to our grandparents when they came from out of state to visit. Up to this point, our parents had never even seen our fort. We finally convinced our grandpa and our mother to come and see what we had built. We ran ahead, climbed up into our fort, and watched as they approached. Finally, they arrived and stood underneath the boughs that were home to our ecstasy. We watched as our grandfather looked up, up, and up. When his gaze registered the height of our tree fort, his head snapped to the side. He stared at his daughter and chewed her out: “How could let your boys do something so dangerous? They will die if they fall from way up there!” We were shocked. What was he upset about? We were secure. We weren’t doing any of those precarious things we’d done to build our fort. Worse, we never imagined that he would think he had the right to chastise our mom.
Later that night, our father, who never saw our fort and also never saw eye to eye with his father-in-law, pulled my older brother and me aside and told us that we had earned the freedom to build our tree fort because we were such reliable, obedient children. He just asked us to not let our six-year-old younger brother climb up to our perch in the sky. That day, I learned that obedience is the door to freedom.