If only he were bigger.
This never happened to the big kids. They just reached up into the crook of the oak tree and grabbed the vine, then they let out their best Tarzan yells and swung neatly from one side of the ravine to the other. They landed on the bare spot their Keds had beaten into the earth, and grabbed a skinny maple with one hand while holding the vine in the other.
Whomever went first--it was always a race--would then spin and heave the vine back across the gorge to the next. Then back and forth they would swing all afternoon while Little Tommy was allowed only to watch. He'd plead and beg and scream but Tommy knew better than to cry. It would only prove that he was still a little kid and clearly not prepared to swing across the ravine on a vine.
"Am too!" he shouted. "Just gimme a boost. I'll show you."
He was the best climber in the family, always going higher up the trees than the others. He climbed the big evergreen in front of their house so high that he could lean toward the roof, bending the tree, and simply step off onto the roof. It was a great trick for games of hide-and-seek. Everyone knew to look in the trees for Tommy. But, upon reaching the roof, he could scamper all the way around to the other side of the house, where no one thought to look.
Tommy would use this trick to sneak around to his sister's bedroom window and peek in. This was especially fun when she had friends over and they changed out of their cheerleader uniforms.
Mom has always commanded--Mom didn't issue rules, Mom issued Commandments--that Tommy NEVER go into the ravine alone. So he didn't. He brought Queenie, the dalmation-shepherd mutt he knew loved him bestest of all the kids, and upon whom he could count not to rat him out to Mom.
"Goin' in the yard, Mom."
It was as simple as that. The kindergarden bus dropped him off at noon, and he had eaten a bowl of Campbell's Tomato Soup and a Peanumbuggerjelly sammich, which Mom always had ready for him in the kitchen. They chatted, which is to say Mom talked while he ate and drank his glass of milk. After lunch, Mom resumed her chores and pretty much left Tommy on his own. There was nothing on TV until the after-school shows came on at three o'clock, "Leave it to Beaver," and "Garfield Goose." So Tommy went into the yard with Queenie.
One day Queenie tore out of the yard after a cat and Tommie tore out after her and by the time the two of them had gotten back he was sure Mom would have called the Police and the Fire Department and the Natural Guard as well because he had been OUT OF THE YARD, which he was NEVER allowed to do. He tore back into the house panting to Mom about Queenie chasing the cat and everything, but Mom was too busy talking on the phone with Janet from Bridge Club and it dawned on Little Tommy that she never knew he was gone! All his life he had believed in the omniscience of Mother's Eyes, that she could see everything everywhere because every time he went into the cookie jar--he could climb up onto the counter from a kitchen chair--she knew about it before he ate even the first one!
He ran an experiment, just to be sure. He ran down to the corner and ran back, then marched in the front door like nobody's business and Mom's just sitting there in the living room watching one of those stupid shows where people were always kissing each other.
She didn't know!
He repeated the experiment a few times and discovered that she would holler out the back door after him at two o'clock or so. She would let him know it was okay to have a cookie--Mom had sort of a Winnie-the-Pooh idea of mealtime, with snacks every couple of hours--that would allow Tommy and Queenie plenty of time to run to the corner, cross the street and climb down into the ravine. It was just a short hike to The Vine, and all he wanted to do was swing across once. He'd have to swing back, of course, but that would be it.
The plan worked until they had got to the tree. He couldn't reach the vine without a boost. This was the part of the plan he was going to figger up when he got there, but now that he had got there he couldn't figger it up, out, in or sideways. He'd need a boost, and that was that. He tried to get Queenie to hold still, so he could stand on her back, but she refused. He remembered a picture of him in diapers riding on her back, he wearing a sash announcing the entrance of 1959. He must have been quite a bit smaller way back then, but even so, Queenie didn't look too happy about being ridden and probably wouldn't have approved had anyone bothered to ask.
He circled the trunk of the tree, awaiting inspiration. It was just thick enough he couldn't get his arms around it and shimmy up just a few feet to where it split into two trunks. He sat against the tree trunk and thought and thought and thunk and thought again. He scratched his fingers into the dirt and dug out a rock. He tossed it lazily into the creek at the bottom of the ravine, fifteen feet away. But instead of a kerspash, he heard a kerlunk. He stood up. Dead trees would find their way to the bottom of the gorge. This made it a simple matter for the beavers to bunch them up into their dams. So if beavers could arrange fallen logs, why couldn't he?
He set to work gathering logs from alonside the creek. It was slow going. He couldn't lift the really big ones that would be helpful. He'd make a pile against the side of the tree, only to have it give way when he stepped on it. Finally, he found a shorter log with big knots on it. By standing it on its end and wedging it against an exposed root in the ground, he could climb up the thing as one would climb a ladder. He soon made his way up into the V of the tree and scampered into it. He snagged the vine and eyed the landing strip on the other side of the ravine. Someone had hacked off the bottom of the vine, just below a bent knot, leaving an L-shaped handle. The boys would just grab right above that knot and pull their feet up and off they would go. Tommy arranged himself into the crook of the tree, preparing for take-off, when he figgered he had another problem. His little hands couldn't grab the vine!
Sheeesh! If only he were bigger.
He wouldn't be able to hang on to the vine with his hands. But he could hang on to it with all of him, hands, feet, arms and thighs From his perch in the tree he could wrap his whole body around the vine and just go.
He felt a tingle of fear and thrill from somewhere he had never felt before as he swished through the air above the rushing creek splashing against boulders. He was so busy hanging on he didn't realize he was facing away from the landing strip. As his swing peaked, he noticed the dead spot, the anti-gravity suspension in mid-air one feels on a swing set, just before heading back the other direction. Tommy was so excited to be on the vine flying through the air he didn't anticipate the gradual loss of momentum that left him swinging just a bit shorter each time across, the pendulum slowing until his swings in each direction didn't clear the rushing water below, with its boulders and its beaver dam and not a soft landing spot in site.
Soon he hung still and straight and secure enough to push on the knot with his feet until he felt safe enough to take stock of his situation. A tiny lean to one side started him on a slow spin, eyeballing his options. There was only a little patch of flat ground on one side, the take-off side, and that was occupied by Queenie sitting on her haunches. As he spun he looked down the creek into the late-summer foliage. There was a dead spot in the creek, a spot which he knew from soggy experience he could splash into without harm, but he could never reach it from the vine. He decided as he spun that his original destination was best. He merely had to begin swinging until he had momentum enough to deposit himself on the landing strip. The bigger boys could step right onto it, but he would have to drop off more carefully. His feet were where their hands were.
He would be well clear of the water. That was the important thing. He didn't want to hit a rock and get knocked out and wash away into the creek all the way to Lake Michigan. He needed to get off the vine and fast. The mosquitos had found him and wouldn't go away. He leaned one way then the other. The bolt of thrill and fear returned as he started to swing. Only now it felt more like fear than thrill. He smushed a cheek against the vine to scrape off a mosquito, and decided the rest would just feast until he was again earthbound. Queenie stood and cocked her black-and-white splotched head.
He rose high enough on the landing strip side to let go, but couldn't. The drop now seemed too far. What if he rolled down the crevice into the creek? His thighs were slipping and he couldn't hold much longer but couldn't let go. He wondered if he could slide down the vine to his hands before dropping, shortening his free fall. Maybe he could hold on to the bent knot at the bottom of the vine with his arms and hands. One foot slipped off and he started to slide down the vine just as he decided that sliding down the vine was a terrible idea. It was too late to change course. He couldn't climb back up. He would soon find himself hanging straight over the creek with no choice but to fall into the water.
He reached the end-of-swing dead spot on the take-off side and just let go, closing his eyes so that if a tree branch plunged through his guts, at least he wouldn't see it go in. Queenie yelped as he crashed into her. The dog dove out from under Tommy, leaving him on his butt looking out over the raging rapids in the creek below.
He scrambled down the ravine side as he saw the vine rise over the opposite side and begin to swing toward him. He grabbed a fallen branch off the ground. It was taller than Tommy, but skinny, with little branches reaching out of its end. He reached the branch up and allowed the Vine to nestle against it, capturing it before it would hang over the creek again, forever out of reach until one of the Big Boys figured out how to grab it. Tommy guided the vine back up toward the tree, until its L-shaped end nestled into the V in the oak tree. He figgered he better get home before cookie time, but what would be the harm of one more swing, now that he knew how to do it?
They found him around four o'clock, still swinging. He took breaks every so often, dropping onto the ground, grabbing his stick, catching the vine on its return trip, guiding it back up to the V in the tree, determining he'd better get home before cookie snack time, then deciding there would be no harm in one more go-round, and climbing again up his log-ladder. It was the dog, ironically, who had given him up. Mom had dispatched the three older brothers hither and yon in search of their little lost sib, and it had been a chore. He had always been the best hider. They'd had to check the attic, the basement, the yard, every tree in the yard, the roof. One of them had suggested leaving a Fluffernuter sammich on the back porch and just waiting it out, but Mom was not amused. Finally Kevin suggested they try the ravine, knowing that Tommy had discovered his hidden Playboy magazine under a rock under the bridge, and it was down there Queenie had noticed them and let out a stream of barking heard all over the neighborhood.
He was covered with skeeter bites, but otherwise unharmed and sent to bed after a bowl of soup for supper. Tommy's father just nodded gravely at the boy, who figgered it better to fake sleep than to face his father after an afternoon of panicked calls to the office from Mom.
Tommy heard him grumble about something happening one of these days but paid little mind. He considered waiting a bit and sneaking out the window, onto the roof, down the evergreen and back to the ravine, but thought better of it. There'd be plenty of time for that tomorrow.