t the very front of the small house we owned in Washington, D.C. two score and some years ago, a majestic pine tree grew with hundreds of broad branches whose tips rose high above our slate-roofed home. In my do-not-disturb, only-child mind, they must surely have extended to the moon, if not beyond.
In such a dark and dense domain, one which parents could not penetrate, dressing-room transgressions paled and thus were voided. Mint was the scent I swore by.
Climbing up the thick branches along its sap-sticky trunk, I’d struggle to keep pace with my two cats, who scrambled like tiny cheetahs to daunting heights. I’d see their eyes in the evening moonlight, as if daring me to come visit them on the moon or Jupiter or whatever realm they’d reached.
All that stood in my way was fear, and perhaps my defective human construction, lacking claws and the kind of lithe bodies that allowed my cats to propel themselves upward like organic rockets. I envied them their grip and daring.
One night in a long-ago summer when I could not sleep, a problem I called wishful thinking instead of insomnia, since I did not know what insomnia meant and wishful thinking sounded like what happened when you didn’t sleep and spent that pre-adolescent time scheming instead,
I climbed from my bedroom window along the ledge on a well-rehearsed path that eventually took me to the slate roof, where I could tilt my eyes toward the stars and imagine communicating with spacecraft and assorted alien life forms that at the time thankfully did not include girls. All the while, the cats were asleep in their basement abodes and my parents locked up in their bedroom that contained two single beds. When someone asked me if I’d ever played games on my parents’ marital bed I thought they were referring to some sort of special bed equipped with games, perhaps even pinball machines, that for whatever reason my parents did without.
But that night the slate roof and stars were not enough. I wanted access to the Jupiter of my cats and this time was determined to set aside my lack of claws.
So I slid down from the roof, snuck back into my bedroom, and made my way so very silently to the front yard (I had memorized the wooden stair steps that squeaked, so my parents would be none the wiser for this extraordinary exploit about to unfold).
I do not know what time it was but the summer moon was large and gave what seemed like a guiding shaft of light, making all the large lower branches of the tree very clear.
So I began to climb. I had hatched a plan based on the simplest of ideas I thought all great climbers swore by: never look down. I didn’t.
Instead, I kept climbing through the rich thicket of small and large branches, snapping only a few and feeling enormously confident, if not noble. After 20 minutes or so I made it to a near-Jupiter level branch that snapped the second I placed my right foot on it. I slipped and caught another branch. All was well.
I continued, as if determined to make it to another galaxy, the moonlight my guide, until I committed a fatal error. Admiring the jagged surface of the silver moon, I by chance looked down into the beam it shot to the ground.
I was not in cat territory. I was well beyond that. I was, in fact, just a few branches from the top of the tree.
And in that moment I was stricken by total terror.
Going up seemed dangerous, trying to get down even more so. I was stuck in the outer reaches of the green solar system and there I remained for hours, too miserable to make even a sound. Hours passed. I became thirsty. I thought of those explorers who had tried to reach mysterious places only to never be heard from again, the cryptic last entries in their diaries suggesting they might have gone mad.
This is when I started sobbing. I was a boy stuck atop a tree without descent-enabled paws and claws.
The sobbing turned into something of a howl, until finally my father appeared at the front door, apparently determined to hunt down whatever wounded animal he thought was stuck before our house.
When I screamed down to him, still weeping, he vanished, which made me think all was lost forever and I would never grow up to see a virus terrify the whole of the human population.
Until the sirens came, and with them the fire department, and with that department a husky man who rose up through the tree cat-like, encased me in his larger-than-life embrace, and spoke three poetic words I’ll never forget: “Don’t worry, kid.”
I was returned to earth. My father apologized profusely to the fireman in charge, who said, “This usually happens with cats, not kids.”
I wanted to explain the cat connection but the looks on the faces of all involved, my mother included, suggested I’d better say nothing. My cats did arrive on the scene, a bit late, and seemed jointly to scowl at my arrogance.
My father put me to bed, though it was nearly light, and said, “Never do that again.”
I swore and pledged and promised and for a while behaved like a more normal only child, talking to squirrels and studying up on marital beds.
Your adventure days are over, I tried to tell myself, and it worked—until I learned about the magic of matches, a story I’ll save for the next full moon.