I was off work the last week. No trips to the beach or cabin in the woods, not that kind of time off. I spent the first four days in the hot Midwest sun taking apart the play set that my dad, father-in-law, and I put together in May of 2005 for our kids. It was one of those contraptions that had two swings, some bars to climb on the side, a little covered porch with a climbing rope, faux rock climbing wall, and an upstairs fort with a slide for a quick escape.
I remember it being kind of a pain to put together, mainly because I’m not the “put-it-together” type of guy. I’ll pay extra to have someone assemble items at the store. I’m lazy that way. Or, my wife would put things like desks, shelves, and the like together. She’s better at following instructions written in five different languages than me.
But on this occasion there was no one else to put the play set together. My parents bought the play set for our kids, a mere two months after our third was born, our son. At the time it was going to be just my dad and I assembling, but my wife asked her dad if he’d want to help. It’s been 17 years, but I’m pretty sure there was grumbling going on between my dad and I. As it turned out that third set of hands was a big help. This thing was not light, and my dad needed all the help he could get since it was just me out there being my usual helpless help.
Once this monstrosity of playground action was together I had big plans for the corner of the yard it was sitting in. I wanted to put down edging and cover the ground in weed out, then cover it in pea gravel. You know, just like an actual playground. We’d put up a nice little fence, and have a stone sidewalk leading out to the “Hubner Play Area”, as I’d titled it in my brain. Of course maybe we’d plant some bushes as well along the little fence. This would be fun stop USA for our kids years to come.
So only a portion of that happened. Instead of edging we got some rounded 4x4s to surround the corner where the play set lived. We did put layers of weed out on the ground and covered it in pea gravel. No fence or stone sidewalk ever happened. None of that really mattered, though, because regardless of what little details we could have added to the play set or what didn’t ever come to fruition, the kids loved the thing.
Hours and hours were spent every spring, summer, and fall swinging, climbing, hanging out, snacking, playing with friends, and using their imagination on that giant hunk of wood. I remember coming home from work in the afternoons and heading to the backyard and pushing our two youngest on the swings. I never did much talking, just listening as they laughed and yelled “Higher!” I’d hear about the details of the day since they were both still at home, too young for school and preschool. Our oldest would have friends over once she was in elementary school and they’d gather at the play set swinging and laughing. There was a group of neighbor kids that would assemble in the Hubner backyard as well, playing in the sprinkler on exceptionally hot days and then messing around on the swings and having snacks in the fort.
Despite the lack of all of those fancy details I never got around to doing, the play set did its job. It offered a place to hang out and goof off when there was energy and imagination to burn. Much like the play set I had as a kid, a much simpler version made from rusting white and green metal, but still it provided a place to hang out and get lost in the back and forth of the summertime swing. The play set was a gathering spot; a ground zero for a long, hot summer day. One that may begin at the swings and slide, but maybe it ended up on a bike riding trails in the woods, Star Wars action figures in the front yard by the trees in front of my bedroom window, or with a glass of soda in front of the TV watching Underdog, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Spiderman ’67.
For the past few years the play set in our backyard had taken a decline. Boards weakening, strength waning, and kids getting older losing interest. It had become a carpenter bee sanctuary, which could prove frightening to kids swinging. Nothing worse than giant bees appearing from holes above your head when you’re deep in swinging mode. One of the steps up to the 2nd floor snapped a few years ago, providing even more “adventure”. It was showing its age, much like the rest of us.
With our youngest being 17, it was time to say goodbye to the “Hubner Play Area”. We rented a 6 yard dumpster last week and from Tuesday afternoon to Friday afternoon I was in demolition mode. With my son’s help, we started taking chunks apart, bit by bit. Much like 17 years prior, except instead of my dad and I assembling, my son and I were taking apart. Unscrewing, sawing, prying, and then burning, the play set was deconsructed rotting board by rotting board until it was no more. Only a few minor injuries were sustained, and lots of smoke inhalation. All in all, it came down much smoother than it did going up.
It was bittersweet. Lots of memories came back to me taking the set down last week. Mainly pushing the kids in the swing after work, and in the winter when we’d get big snow storms. We’d shovel out from underneath the swings and the kids would swing in full-on snow gear. I also remember how fun it was to look out the kitchen window and see a group of sweaty munchkins laughing and playing some made up game on the spot with the play set as home base.
In the process of taking it all down we found an old elementary school chair that the kids played with. It was hidden behind one of those square plastic cube things that pre-schoolers play on. It had a slide that was not attached anymore. Besides the chair there was a plethora of play date’s past with push toys, a dump truck, and even some little kid fold-up chairs. Anyways, that school chair had a Mullberry tree growing through it. The tree grew onto the chair, holding it in place. My son said it reminded him of the movie Annihilation. You know, the sci fi flick where things were forming into mutated versions of themselves? Like an albino alligator with shark teeth, or plants and people forming as one? Anyways, the chair becoming the tree or tree becoming the chair put my son in mind of that flick. It was strange, sad, and kind of beautiful.
The tree seemed to be holding onto the past, not wanting to let it go. In a way, kind of like me. I see the kids getting older so quickly, that sometimes I just want to hold onto them and lock them in a holding position, just for a bit. Just a little longer. Or better yet, go back to those early days and push them on the swing for a time or two more. Listen to their crazy stories as I pushed them in the summer sun, inching them a little closer to the blue skies above. Me, tired after a day at work and wanting to just sit down in my chair in the living room and catch my breath; at the same time hoping I never forget how that moment feels. No matter how much my feet are barking and my lower back is screaming, I’m the engine that’s driving these kids into the stratosphere, reaching closer to the clouds before they tumble back to earth. Only to be shot back up once more by me.
My feet were barking nearly everyday last week, and my lower back screaming, too(more than it did 17 years ago.) And it reminded me of those old days, when that play set I was tearing down was new and fresh, and when the kids were young and rowdy. And life was a little easier. Maybe not instructions in five different languages easy, but easy compared to nowadays.