Oliver Gothic (Rememories 9)

When I was around 9 years old my mother read about something called “Tree House Camp” in the local paper, noticed that it was very close to where she worked, and enrolled me for the upcoming summer “session”.

The picture in the ad looked like it might have been a still from The Swiss Family Robinson. The elaborate wooden chalets and walkways between them, all suspended in some type of forest canopy that looked like none of the wooded areas I’d ever seen in my neck of the…um, wooded areas…did raise some suspicion. Something about it reminded me of the disgusting jar of briny water that sat on my bookshelf, the one that was clearly never going to transform into an adorable family of “Sea-Monkeys”.

But like any kid at my age, the dream of inhabiting a space among the squirrels and birds, separate from, and above, the ground-dwelling adults—it was all intoxicating and drowned out any alarm bells that my (and I’m assuming my mother’s) better judgement should have set off.

We arrived the morning of the first day to a fallow field on the outskirts of town — overgrown but decidedly flat and tree-less. My mother, who I’m sure was late for work and had very much intended to drop me off with little more than what you would call a rolling stop, decided she needed to park the car, get out, and ask someone the question that was on both of our minds: “Where are the fucking trees!?” 

“See over there? Them trees popping up just beyond the horizon? That’s where the ‘camp’ is. We own all this land but this here spot is the closest we can get a car for dropping off the kids.” “Ah, ok,” my mother nodded, “makes sense”. 

“Does it?” I thought, as we began the long walk through the weeds and as I watched my mother’s car disappear over my shoulder. As she waited for a break in the traffic to pull out, I was quickly calculating if the distance I’d walked so far was already past the point of no return, alongside how furious she’d be if I bailed. Too late. As she made it out onto the road, she looked back, saw me looking at her, and gave a chipper little toot on her horn that I found unconvincing. I knew I was doomed.

“First thing we gotta do is clear this brush…” handing me a machete, “so we can get to them trees and get to building.” 

By mid-June, when this was all happening, the heat and humidity in southern Illinois is brutal, even in the morning. Inhospitable. Even to a dumb kid who was decades away from being softened by “central air-conditioning”. Which, by the way, was something I often heard my folks discussing as something they would be able to afford once I got a job and left the house or went away to college. Again, I was 9.

So I definitely remember being way too hot. But the rest of my memory of this episode is muddy. And, although it has the distinct weight and knurled texture I associate with trauma, I have almost zero direct images attached to this short chapter in my life beyond the initial drop off and my preteen mental confirmation of a swindle.

Basically, the con was to get a bunch of kids to clear some land. Kind of ingenious, really. Diabolical even. And when you consider the fact that they had charged our parents for our services as opposed to… oh I don’t know…PAYING ANYTHING AT ALL, you begin to clearly see some real Mark Twain-type scoundrels.  I mean, if you weren’t around in the mid-seventies, let me tell you kids my age would mow a football field-sized lawn with a push mower for a couple of bucks. Happily! So, again, the people who concocted this whole scheme were some grade-A sociopaths.

Oddly, I also don’t remember much about the other kids. I don’t think there were many of us. I have a vague memory of us all mirthlessly holding our implements: hoes, rakes, shovels, hatchets, saws, machetes, and scythes, like the cast of Oliver crossed with American Gothic.

What I do remember is that this was the last time my mother ever made an effort to push me out of the nest. I know she felt bad when she picked me up, sunburnt and angry, later that afternoon.

So I ended up going to work with my mother a lot that summer. She worked at a cabinet place and I’d spend the day pretending I lived in the display kitchens and bathrooms. Sometimes I’d climb around on the massive rolls of carpeting in the warehouse. But that activity usually ended with my eyes burning and itching, watering, turning red, and sometimes even swelling shut. Mom said it was the chemicals they sprayed on the carpeting to make it “safe”. She thought I might be allergic to them, because it didn’t bother her. But I also didn’t see her rolling around on it.

When we would leave to go home that summer my mom would often swing by the site of the “Tree House Camp” just to see what kind of fun I might be missing and if there were any actual tree houses being built.

We never saw any.