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Sun, Oct. 20

It's spring, a time to talk about boys, bugs and tree houses

It seems that boys have a rough life. We are continually maligned and falsely accused.

Because I had sharp eyes, I was always finding neat stuff. Most of the time, my mother didn't say anything; however, on occasion she would accuse me of finding something that never really was lost. Then, I would be required to return it to where I found it.

I felt she was being unfair, but she told me she wanted whoever lost it to have the chance to find it.

Obviously, she had never heard the phrase, "losers weepers." That's the code of every boy.

There was one time when I was inspecting an "abandoned" storage shed next to the neighbor's house and I discovered two old cardboard boxes full of really neat stuff. One was full of old helmets left over from the war - World War II - and the other was full of gas masks. I learned later that they were for civil defense or something.

Anyway, I took one gas mask and one helmet. It was metal, painted white with a broad brim.

One of my friends saw me playing with them and immediately had to have one. Following my directions, he was ready for war.

I have no idea how my discovery got out, but before long, I had most of the boys in my neighborhood in my garage.

I guess they looked like an army of ants as they ran across the street to the neighbor's house and walked back carrying their newfound treasures.

We gathered in the old wooden garage behind my house, and with masks and helmets on, proceeded to form a club. I don't know what we decided; it was awfully hard to communicate with those gas masks on.

We concluded our meeting, and everyone carefully hung their masks and helmets on a nail on the wall, and we broke up to pursue other matters of interest. I went into the garage later to get my mask and helmet and discovered that they were all missing.

Someone apparently had stolen them. Not to be discouraged, I went back to get another, but discovered that someone had stolen them, too. How could anyone be so cruel?

That was my only attempt to have a club. My older brother, Larry, had one once. He and some friends had built a room at the back of the garage. I wanted to join, but they would not let me. Brothers can be pretty mean.

Our family had moved into the house on Madison Avenue a year earlier. It was a large brick house built in the early 1900s, and originally part of a winter estate. There was another large brick house adjacent to ours, and the brick carriage house that serviced both houses had been closed off on our side. The properties were separated by a six-foot-high fence.

The previous owners had made few, if any, changes to the house. The rooms all were large, with 12-foot ceilings, wooden floors and tired plumbing. I think my dad looked forward to the challenge of fixing it up. As a boy, he had wanted to be a carpenter but somehow wound up as a glazier, fixing windows for a living.

Although I don't remember a lot about our other house on 17th Street, I was excited to be moving. One memory that stands out concerns a tree house that my brother and some of his friends built in our backyard. They spent days building it, and I remember crying because I was too little to climb the steps that had been nailed to the tree.

The project was short-lived. Our next-door neighbors, the Williamses, had a man come out and tear it down and trim the limbs that hung over onto their property. Apparently, some limbs or lumber had fallen into their yard during construction.

This was the same Mr. Williams who began screaming at a man who was walking down the sidewalk and had pulled a leaf from one of the trees that lined the street.

Having an eccentric neighbor always makes life more interesting.

I think I fell in love with our new house immediately. The front door opened into a long hallway. My sister and I used to scuff our feet up and down the carpet, and then touch the phone to see what kind of electric shock we would get. I think that was my first science experiment.

In the center of the house was the small foyer. In the ceiling was a trap door leading to the attic. Later, after my dad had torn down the old garage, he used the lumber for a floor for the attic and had set up a ladder for easy access.

That was great. I found an old carpet, and laying it over the wooden floor, I had a great place to set up my electric train. I spent countless hours up there, playing with the train with the Lincoln Logs I got for Christmas one year, and with my brother's erector set.

It's fun looking back and remembering all of the things I saw and did.

I was a naturally curious and inquisitive kid, and I wanted to know what was going on. Being friendly and outgoing, I had no problem walking into a garage or building where men were working and watching what they were doing.

I was seldom chased out. I found that they often were happy to have someone to talk to, and would take pride in showing me what they were doing or explaining what they were trying to do. I was always eager to learn, even though I sometimes learned more than I wanted to.

One time I saw a neighbor working on the brakes of his car. I found this interesting and wandered over to see what he was doing. As I walked, I saw him struggling to connect a brake spring with a pair of pliers. We were talking about how uncooperative the spring was and how it would be easier if he had the right tools, when his wife walked out to check on him.

She began telling me how her cat had destroyed her new davenport. I had no idea what a davenport was, but I did know about cats.

I discreetly said nothing about what to do with the cat. The advice would have been a reflection of my father, who did not care for cats, although at that point, she might have been receptive to such advice.

Not wanting to hear more, I left them. I can only guess the brakes were fixed. A while later, I noticed the car was gone.

Another time, I wandered into the dairy, and after watching the milk being measured into bottles and cartons, one of the workers gave me a carton of milk.

A freight car of watermelons was being unloaded and I watched, fascinated, as the men passed the melons and stacked them in a cooler. I was tickled pink when they gave me one, but then had a real struggle trying to get it home on my bicycle. That really wore me out.

I think what I learned was that people don't feel threatened by a kid, and they liked the chance to show off or explain what they were doing.

As an adult, if I tried half of the stuff I did as a kid, the cops would be out in a minute. Being a kid is great. It's too bad we have to grow up.

I love collecting stuff. I probably got that from my dad; he loved collecting stuff, too.

At one time, he had a great collection of whisky bottles, all empty, as well as beer cans from all over the country. He would go on a trip, and arriving home, my mother would be embarrassed to hear his luggage gurgling.

I got a stamp album for Christmas one year. I really enjoyed it, but if I wanted stamps, I would have to buy them. No one I knew ever got letters from exotic places like Spain, France or Africa.

I had better luck collecting insects. I would go out with an old Mason jar and catch bugs. Then following the illustrations in the insect book I had, I would carefully pin them and mount them in a cigar box. I had the best collection of grasshoppers, beetles, ladybugs, moths and stinkbugs on the block.

That's why, when my grandson started showing an interest, I was happy to help out. After all, I was an expert, at least in my mind. I helped him build a nice box to mount them in, and let him go. He was doing pretty well until he and his brother decided to build a fort.

He hasn't totally given up; there are still eight or 10 bottles on the back porch with specimens waiting to be mounted. Maybe one of these days, he'll get around to it. I usually did.

I wasn't much on forts, but I did like a tree house. I built one in a tree in my backyard. It wasn't so much a house as a platform about eight feet off the ground. There was barely room for two people, but that was OK.

I would spend hours up in the tree house, daydreaming. I loved to daydream. I never talked about it, even after I read the story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Maybe it was the name of the book; it made me even more self-conscious.

I never liked my name. I felt a guy's name should be strong. I mean look at some of the famous Walters: There's Sir Walter Raleigh on a can of tobacco, and Walter Pigeon, a milquetoast kind of guy.

I wasn't really a loner, but at times I enjoyed being alone. I would sit up in that tree and have great adventures. I would travel to Mars or to the jungles of Africa. I could fly through the sky or chase Indians or bad guys across the prairie.

I have to admit, though, that my daydreams often included me being seriously wounded and being cared for by a beautiful nurse.

My folks never had a lot, but they did instill in me a love of reading, and I guess I can thank them for my wonderful imagination.

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