This is the story of some boys, some ghosts, and one big treehouse.
Back when I was eight years old (and for many years after), one of my close friends was a kid named Paul. His family lived at the edge of a subdivision, and behind their house was a stand of thick, old-growth forest. We kids went back in those woods and did all kinds of stuff.
Among our woodsy adventures, we constructed innumerable forts out of limbs and tires and cardboard and just plain junk; we "cleared" a hiking trail (i.e., we crudely hacked off some branches to form an irregular, semi-usable path); and, after some years, we made a wider trail and attempted to engage in BMX racing. Our races usually ended with someone crashing into a tree. We didn't care.
And, of course, we had the Treehouse. Paul didn't have a big treehouse. He had a HUGE Treehouse.
Paul's dad had built the treehouse in a gigantic old oak tree behind their house, just in front of the line where their yard ended and the woods began. I vaguely remember that a standard-model treehouse existed in the same tree prior to this deluxe version, but the big one was finished right around the time I started hanging out with Paul. My clear memory begins with the grandeur of The Treehouse. (We spoke of it in italics, always.) It was big enough to hold about 20 of us. (We never tested it to the limit. I don't think any treehouse is meant to hold 20 boys.)
The treehouse was more or less octagonal. As a kid, I never paid attention to whether it was a true octagon or irregular; I just knew it had eight sides. In any case, it was shaped so that you could get a view in any direction you wanted. Facing one way, it was Paul's house and the houses in his subdivision. Look to the left from that position, and you saw the forest's edge stretching off. Beyond, towering over everything, was a line of those big high-tension electricity pylons. One of our childhood rituals was daring each other to climb a pylon and grab a wire. Nobody did. We were crazy, but not that crazy.
Look off to the right, and you saw the forest edge trailing off, and beyond that was the highway and a bunch of highway-strip businesses - used-car lots, burger places, et cetera. Finally, directly behind the treehouse: woods. Just the woods. The trees back there were remarkably thick, in my memory. They were a mixture of hardwoods and good old Southern pines; it was the dense green pines that gave the impression of deep woods. It was easy, camping out in the treehouse, or just being in the treehouse after dark, to imagine things in the woods... back there, in the dark.
The treehouse was accessible via an iron spiral staircase - the same type you see in upscale houses with a second-floor solarium and a butler's pantry and all that crap. We didn't live in upscale houses. But we had the spiral staircase. Paul's dad had obtained it from a scrap-metal brokerage. The cool thing about this spiral staircase was that it had a big section of the railing missing, about halfway up. (I hope Paul's dad got it cheap.) The gap wasn't truly dangerous, as long as you had good footing and balance; but climbing or descending it gave us the illusion of doing something life-threatening. As you might guess, dares by the score were made concerning this missing rail - "Betcha won't jump off!!" "Yeah? Watch this..." It was a rite of passage.
The staircase entered the treehouse through a trap door cut in the flooring. The trap door was also cool - we knew we could lock out unwanted invaders and various lowlifes, such as girls. Not all of us wanted to lock out the girls. Some of us thought girls in general were okay (that was my ideology), and others of us thought specific girls were okay, such as Lucy from two blocks away, who could hurl a mean belch. Our gender-political debates notwithstanding, no girl ever entered the treehouse to my knowledge.
We made lots of stuff happen in the treehouse, like reading comic books, and throwing water balloons, and examining leaves, and... making magic, pure and wild and sweet.
Days in the treehouse were crazy and full, a blur of entries and exits. It was a touch-station on our circuit through the neighborhood. Twilight up there was surreal - headlights proceeding along the distant highway, fireflies dancing rather suddenly in our upturned faces... phantasmagoria. There were times when we got to see dawn in the treehouse, too, at the end of campouts; but the memories are muffled and cracked. Dawn is for grownups, trudging to work. Boys don't get up at dawn, not by choice. Unless, of course, you stayed up all night, and dawn is your bedtime.
Night in the treehouse. Now, that was a different realm.
We saw night in the treehouse most commonly when we camped out up there. I vividly remember camping out up in that treehouse. It was so cool.
Typically, a campout involved four or five boys - sometimes as many as seven, and never less than three. I slept over with Paul, and he slept over with me, just the two of us; but that was nearly always indoors. One-on-one sleepovers entailed other agendas, like watching bad horror movies on late-night TV and raiding the fridge at 2 a.m. for popsicles. Treehouse campouts were accomplished in groups.
We'd arrive in different stages, riding our bikes over to Paul's as soon as dinner was over and evening chores were done. The best times were summer vacation, although we camped out on late spring and early autumn weekends as well. The nice thing about summer camping was the late-evening sunsets. Lots of time to do stuff.
We didn't follow a set behavior pattern until after dark. Upon arrival, each kid would throw his sleeping bag up to the deck (it was a small mark of dishonor if you couldn't heave your sleeping bag into the treehouse from ground level), and then go off to do whatever mischief awaited.
But sundown, and then dusk, and then night, came, as sure as creeping death. We would climb the iron spiral in the gloom, usually getting in some playful pretend-shoves around the missing-rail section. We would mess around up in the treehouse for a while, yakking and wrestling and throwing sleeping bags around. Always, there were trips down the spiral for various important errands, like retrieving thrown shoes, or making sure our bikes weren't being sabotaged by any older kids (they never were, but it pays to be alert).
There was food. Of course there was food. We were boys! Pure junk, of course. One staple was the ingredients for S'mores (which we actually turned into S'mores only on the rare occasions when we built a campfire - fires being prohibited by Paul's parents, since they tended to scorch the yard.) We also ate Ritz crackers by the double handfuls. Ritz crackers served a dual purpose: they were great as food, and they were also great when crushed to crumbs and dropped down your friend's back, inside his T-shirt, or down inside his underwear in the back. I had a pile of Ritz crumbs dumped inside the front of my underwear on one occasion, courtesy of friend David. In order to get rid of the debris, I had to strip from the waist down. Which may have been David's goal, for all I know...
There was lots of other food, too. One memorable item that we procured from time to time was a package of what were called "cocktail weenies". They were miniature hot dogs, around 2-3 inches long and 0.5 to 1 inch thick. We ate them raw. Nobody talked about it directly, but the word "weenie" invariably produced giggling. (Draw your own conclusions.)
A particularly sacred ritual was peeing off the edge of the treehouse. Not uncommonly, this took the form of a contest to see who could arc his stream the highest and/or farthest. We all lined up in formation, got out our weapons, aimed, and fired. One or two kids held flashlights to illuminate the proceedings. "Highest" was a dangerous game, because the highest arc was nearly vertical, and the slightest miscalculation, or the least breeze in the wrong direction, gave the perpetrator a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. "Farthest" was safer; but at night, determining distance by flashlight was difficult - invariably, most kids claimed victory, and invariably, that was eventually okay.
Finally - after midnight as a rule - we'd calm down and ease into the next phase: storytelling.
Not all storytelling involved ghost stories; but those are the stories I remember. There was a ritual here, too. Or more accurately, two versions of the ritual: sitting up, or lying down. Sitting up meant leaning with our backs against something - either the tree trunk or the deck rail. The deck rail was the more daredevil position. On Paul's treehouse, the deck rail consisted of eight vertical supports - one at every corner of the octagon - and braces connecting the supports in an elongated X-shape. There was room for a kid to slide off the treehouse deck under the bottom of the X, and fall a long way to the ground - accidentally if he wasn't careful (we were), or deliberately if he was foolish (no one was).
Often, though, ghost stories happened lying down. We'd roll out the sleeping bags - next to each other, or in some geography that kept us close. Always we kept away from the edge. We talked brave, and dared each other concerning heights; but nobody wanted to go over that edge - not in his sleep.
There was always debate about who would go first. Nobody especially wanted to go first, but nobody minded either. Ultimately, someone commenced: "Okay, there was this guy, and his girlfriend, and one night they wanted to go to lover's lane and kiss and stuff; and..." Or: "There was this old, old house out near the edge of town, and nobody lived in it, and nobody had even been in it for years and years, and it was supposed to be empty - but everybody knew..."
The stories themselves were mostly predictable, and familiar to any American boy of that era (and maybe boys everywhere in any era.) The escaped convict with a hook for a hand. The haunted house with the tapping-noise from the roof. The disappearing hitchhiker. The kids who accepted a dare to spend the night in the cemetery.
Other stories we made up on the spot, as we went along. Probably the majority of those misfired, when the teller ran out of plot-ideas partway through. But a few connected, and made our skin prickle.
As the night wore on, and the land around grew quiet, the stories got scarier and scarier. And we got more and more nervous. We knew, of course, that they were just stories... but you never knew for sure... that old graveyard with the bloodstained crypt seemed awfully nearby...
As it happened, there were screech owls living in the woods. Every once in a while, an owl would let loose in the middle of the story, and we'd all jump about two feet straight up, from a sitting position.
There was one other type of story. This story was invariably the last story told on any given campout, because it was guaranteed to scare the hell out of you. You always got your last handful of Ritz, or your final cocktail weenie, or took your last piss off the deck, before this story. After it was over, you weren't going to get out of your sleeping bag. When this story was over - or sometimes before - you might feel the urge to burrow deep into your sleeping bag, shutting out your view of the shadowy post-midnight landscape, because you were afraid of what you might see.
This story didn't have a name. That made it worse, somehow. I guess if we had named it, we might have come up with something like this: "The Face in the Woods".
The details varied according to who was doing the telling. Sometimes there was a lost child whose doomed spirit had outlived his body. Sometimes it was an old lady with vengeance on her mind, although her flesh had long since decayed. But the central idea was always the same, and always clear, unmistakable, and vivid. It was a malignant glowing green Face that appeared, hovering, evil, after midnight, in the woods... the very same woods that touched the back of Paul's treehouse.
By a certain point in the story, regardless of previous positions, all of us had edged around so that the woods were not at our backs. No one actually looked out into the deep blackness. But no one wanted to be taken by surprise.
Sometimes the Face had a hand. Just a single hand. And never mind the anatomical incongruity. A face with a hand was frightening, no matter how it was configured. That hand was apparently attached to an extraordinarily long arm, because it was capable of reaching out of the woods, all the way into the treehouse... and letting its fingers slowly walk across the cold dead wooden deck... until it found what it wanted - the warm living body of a boy in a sleeping bag... and it wanted one boy, in particular... oh, yes, it did...
By the end of the story (which, predictably, featured a sudden lunge by each of us at the kid in the next sleeping bag, with ensuing shrieks), we were done with storytelling. We had raised the fear-stakes to the point we couldn't play the game any longer. There were a few feeble post-story attempts to joke around or lighten the mood, but they fell flat. Instead, we were four or five or six small shapes inside our red or blue or tan sleeping bags with plaid linings, seizing onto the comfort of the known and the familiar while the night flooded all around us, mysterious and holding menace.
Of course we all went to sleep, eventually, but I have no idea how long it took. For me, it was a while. And it was no different when I was the Face-storyteller (as often seemed to be the case.) I scared myself quite as thoroughly as I scared everyone else.
Surprisingly, I don't remember any nightmares among our circle. Maybe the story was a catharsis, and worked the fear out of us before sleep. Or maybe I was just a sound sleeper, and never heard the screams.
Dawn came without us noticing, usually. The treehouse faced south, the woods were to the north; and this was usually summer, with the sunrise well north of due east on the horizon. So it was midmorning before the sunlight got past the treeline and hit our faces (or sleeping bags, for those still burrowed.) Sometimes after waking up, we began another round of play - heading into the woods, which were completely un-mysterious in the light of day, to build more forts, or whatever. But most of the time, we were a little bushed, and headed off to our respective houses. Even with youthful energy at our disposal, staying up till 3:00 a.m. will take its toll. And night-fear will take its toll, lingering the morning after.
I remember my most memorable Face-story experience; and it's my most poignant memory today, although it was unremarkable at the time. That was when our friend Jeff brought his little brother Donald, seven years old, along. There's a world of difference between seven years old and nine years old, in terms of fright-tolerance. I remember seven years old, and those fears - and I now look back and I'm thankful I was there at nine years old, to help.
Donald was happy to join the big boys that evening. He enthusiastically joined in the early-nighttime fun, peeing off the deck and throwing shoes. But when ghost-storytime came around, he got shook, quickly. He became visibly scared during the ordinary old haunted-house stories. When the Face came, he couldn't take it. Donald happened to be sitting next to me, with Jeff on his other side, during storytime; and halfway through the Face story, he turned and buried his face against my T-shirt. He didn't sob, but I felt his hot tears. I hugged him, and held on, as the story concluded.
Later that night, I woke up to the touch of a hand, then an arm, down against my side. (I was too asleep still to imagine the Face's hand and arm, fortunately.) It was Donald, creeping into my sleeping bag. I moved aside and let him come in, and we slept together the rest of the night, him holding me around my waist. Just a scared little boy in the great big night, and an older boy to comfort him. The others laughed at us when they woke up; but I didn't mind.
We did other stuff up in the treehouse from time to time, a few years later. Very different stuff from Faces in the woods. My friend David, the kid who dumped Ritz crumbs in my underwear and got me to strip, later got to see me strip (and vice-versa) for a different reason. And Paul, of course, as the owner of the treehouse, was there...
I remember one of those later times, when my mom dropped me off at Paul's house with my sleeping bag and stuff. As I got out of the car, she said, "I hope you give them some fabulous scary shivers." (My mom could be a little theatrical, in a soap-opera sort of way.) But her words struck me, and gave me a queerly guilty feeling (in both senses of "queerly"). My immediate thought was, "Yeah, I'll make 'em shiver... it's gonna be fabulous..." And I felt guilty; because I knew her words assumed I was a still-innocent little boy, and in fact I was going to do very un-innocent things with my friends up there, in the dark, and they would reciprocate.
Sex was awesome and fun. But so were ghost stories, and falling asleep with innocent fear the only thing making me tingle.
A number of years ago, I went back to visit family, and had occasion to drive past Paul's subdivision. I went down the street on impulse, to check out what had changed. Paul's house was still there, although Paul and his family had long since moved elsewhere. The treehouse was gone. So was the oak tree containing it. So was the woods. Gone, completely. A newer subdivision stood in their place. I sat a moment, my car engine still running, seeing the past run out, like colors down a drain. Then I turned and left.