Looking for the tree house

G. Sam Piatt

There’s a popular TV show about a firm that builds tree houses for clients. The finished product is a bit more elaborate than the one we boys constructed during our days of growing up along the beloved Ohio River (not so beloved of late, as it rose to above flood stage, forcing Portsmouth and other cities to slide the flood gates in place, while towns with no floodwall saw the muddy waters creep into businesses and homes).

But it’s retreating.

Our tree house on the river bank was cradled in the arms of a huge tulip poplar about 30 feet above ground. It was built of every conceivable piece of board and driftwood with a tarpaper roof. Two-by-fours nailed to the trunk formed a ladder leading up to a trapdoor in the deck.

On the deck, after working up a sweat looking and baiting our trotline and placing the catch of catfish in a live box, we lay in the dappled shade and were cooled by a breeze wafting in from the river. We could peer out through the foliage and watch the paddlewheelers pushing their barges of coal along. Sometimes, when the water was up in the willows, the boats were so close that we could see the pilot light his cigar.

For the young Braves of those olden days, the tree house offered a place of security in an unsecure world. Half a world away, American boys, just seven or eight years older than us, were dying in the invasion of Okinawa, the last stepping stone to mainland Japan.

Plans were under way for the invasion of the Japanese homeland – an event that would no doubt cost the lives of thousands more young Americans and their allies.

Setting the trap

I crumbled crackers into the glass jug, screwed the lid back on tightly, and waded out to my knees and immersed the jug, making certain not to leave any air bubbles inside.

While waiting for the jug to produce bait minnows, we hooked on nightcrawlers and cast out, resting our poles in forked sticks pushed into the soft sand at the water’s edge, then sat down with patience on a log.

It was only 10 a.m., but already the heat from the sun shimmering on the river was making us wish for the shade of a tree.

“Wasn’t this about where the old diving tree stood?” asked John Vinson Euton.

“I think so,” I answered. “Where’d it go?”

“Same place as a lot of this bank, I guess – on down to the Mississippi.”

We remembered that just downstream from where we sat there once grew a grove of huge water maples and oaks. Sherwood Forrest, we called it.

There, the Beattyville Braves of old, posing as Robin Hood and his merry men, would tie ropes in the limbs and swing down and knock the sheriff of Nottingham and his guards out of their saddles, then grab the chest of gold from the King’s carriage.

After the high-level dams were built in the 1960s, most of those trees were felled by the eternal waters of the river, and the waves pushed in by the big diesel towboats eating the soil from around their roots. Floodwaters had stolen a big chunk of Farmer Matt’s bottomlands, too.

New maples and willows were growing back on the slope of the first rise, but there was hardly a tree big enough to accommodate a decent raid on the King’s carriage by Robin and his men.

“Friar Tuck and Little John are riding down together

With quarter-staff and drinking can and grey goose feather.

The dead are coming back again, the years are rolled away,

In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break if day.”

— From “A Song of Sherwood,” by Alfred Noyes

Looking in vain

Nor was there a tree large enough to shelter the tree house, which we remembered stood between the diving tree and Sherwood Forest.

We looked out across the wide river to the sandbar lying just downstream from the point where the Scioto River flows into the Ohio. That stretch of sandy shore once represented Guam, Iwo Jima, Corregidor, Bataan and Okinawa.

The six of us Braves would pile into the little red johnboat, the Reuben James, heavily armed with wooden rifles, cardboard bazookas, flame throwers and tin can grenades, then invade the Japanese strongholds.

John Vinson, the platoon leader who led the attack, was indestructible. He could be machine-gunned down or somersaulted by exploding shells, he quickly leaped up to fight on, leading us to victory.

A river chub

When I raised the minnow jug, we were surprised to find, in among the three dozen or so shiner minnows, a chub. We had not seen one on the river for many years. We used to catch them by the dozens on the river and take them home for our mothers to fry in an iron skillet.

If the chubs were coming back, then the river must be getting cleaner.

Two of the Beattyville Braves – Hobo Cooper and Dale Bailey – have died. That leaves the four of us: Richard Keith, in the Canal Zone; Gayle Sanders, in Surprise, Ariz.; and John Vinson and me – still kicking around the village waterfront, looking for the tree house.


G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619