There was a Madrona tree in the little wood next to the little cabin on the beach at the south end of the island. The year was sometime in the very late 1970s (Carter was president, and while the Police and the Cars were fresh in the popular mind, no one here had yet heard of the band U2). The island was Bainbridge Island.
Out-of-towners reading might usefully be reminded that Seattle is not on the West Coast per se. It lies ashore of a large inlet, a network of saltwater channels that we natives call the Puget Sound, which is connected to the open sea by the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. Bainbridge lies directly across the Sound from the city, a half-hour ride by ferry. At that time, it was still a sleepy, rural island.
I was fortunate in my teens to have not one but two friends with ties to the island, one whose family lived there year-round, right on the water at Fletcher Bay, and another — my friend Kip — whose own father had grown up on the island and whose immediate relations still had homes there. I’ll tell you about the first family some other time. I met Kip in what we then called Junior High (yes, we capitalized it), and he and I clicked right away, possibly because we came from different worlds. My dad considered himself lucky to have gone to college, and we lived a pretty frugal life for Bellevue (my dad once said he would never have settled in Bellevue if he’d known what the town would become). Kip’s family was of old Seattle pedigree and full of Ivy League grads, and now that I have the perception of advanced years, I can compare the Bainbridge homes to the Cape Cod summer cottages of the Brahmins of the northeast. Even their in-town domiciles had that well-loved, slightly run-down charm that old wealth tends to adopt as a means of diverting attention from itself. When I went over to Kip’s and we raided the fridge and I looked up and saw curls of old spaghetti noodles hanging from the ceiling I felt extremely privileged. A special guest of the blue-blooded, a friend of kings and queens.
By our high school years, as soon as one of us got a driver’s license, we were spending weekends at Kip’s Aunt Diggs’ summer house — we called it the cabin — south of Restoration Point. We took lots of root beer and tortilla chips, usually also a big tray of freshly baked fudge brownies (Who made these for us? Thank you!). I think we subsisted on these things alone, because I don’t remember eating anything else. There was no TV, but we played in the woods and made fires on the beach and stayed up all night listening to Styx and Supertramp albums, or crawling up dry creekbeds with flashlights. Once or twice our younger friend Mark came with us. One night we discovered an old Navy signal light in the cabin, and shining it out of the upper back window into the woods away from the beach a game occured to us: while one of us stood at the window and swept the property with this “searchlight” the others had to get from point A (say, the big tree on the right) to some point B over on the left, diving behind trees and rolling in wet salal to avoid being “hit” by the patrolling beam. For teenagers who were not particularly rebellious and yet still craved unsupervised time away from familiar surroundings and the fetters of social custom, the island represented freedom.
We filmed several movies on the island, one of the better-crafted ones at Aunt Diggs’ cabin. I forget its title and I have nothing to view the old Super 8 film with (it’s still in its canister in my garage), but it was about a man (me, at about age 16) who is shipwrecked on a deserted island. We thought it very funny that when the narrator says “I built a crude dwelling out of bits of driftwood and other items I found washed up on the beach” the scene cuts to Aunt Diggs’ finely crafted little house. A mysterious and supposedly menacing character (Mr. Jones, played by Kip) shows up on a dark night, and after as many Peter Weir-like metaphors as we could tease you with (firelight reflecting ominously in Kip’s glasses; a chess game Kip wins; etc.), Kip finally brings the fear home by trying to crush my skull with a big stick. He misses and I run, suddenly recalling, the narration tells us, that years before my shipwreck I had been a contestant on a game show in which Mr. Jones was to track me down and kill me within a certain time frame. He corners me and I am spared only by the fact, which is announced over the radio in my cabin, that time for Mr. Jones has just now run out, and that a consolation prize awaits him back in the States.
We didn’t always stay at Aunt Diggs’. A few houses down the beach toward the point, Kip’s grandparents still lived in the Big House. The Big House was old and full of nifty turns and built-in bookcases and big old armchairs, and looked out at the Sound across a big lawn. There was a smaller house called the Cottage behind the orchard, back away from the beach against the wooded hillside. We stayed several times in the Cottage, a knotty pine paradise with the main-floor rooms at odd angles and a loft bedroom where the hot sun would wake us up through the window on summer mornings. Kip and I were hiding in separate closets during a game of Hide and Seek that had gone into a protracted state of “all parties hiding and none seeking” when the long-awaited sophomore release by Boston finally hit the airwaves on the stereo playing in the living room. We both heard it and wanted to jump out exclaiming about it, but neither of us was willing to bust our great spot. When I hear Don’t Look Back I am suddenly once again sitting in the dark cubby next to the fireplace in the Cottage, my eye watching the crack of light at the door, my ear listening for the sound of a floorboard being stepped on underneath the multiple-guitar onslaught of Boston’s next smash hit.
As for the Big House itself, we didn’t sleep there, but I do recall a pancake breakfast there once. Kip’s little sister Margaret had brought her boyfriend Fritz to the island. We all liked Fritz. He was athletic and good-looking and fun. He said no one could eat more pancakes than he, and so we all started stuffing blueberry pancakes down our gullets. As others fell off and pushed away their plates, I pursued him relentlessly and kept him digging, though both of us tried to project an air of calm as though we could do this all day. Kip and his siblings cheered us on. Fritz was less than a half-cake ahead of me when I finally set down my fork, threw up my hands, and gave the You’ve Bested Me Sir belch. At that, Fritz nearly collapsed and said if I’d taken another bite he’d have had to toss it in. Margaret and Fritz eventually parted ways, but as far as I know Fritz retains his title.
But I started to tell you about the Madrona tree, didn’t I? One year, the whim came into one of our heads (or both simultaneously the way it happens with ants and bees) to climb up the trunk of the Madrona tree in the woods. Its lower bole grew mostly upright but as it rose above the high undergrowth of salal it angled to the side, so that if you could but reach the first branch, you could shimmy up quite a ways. I don’t remember how we did it, but we managed to get ourselves to a spot about twenty feet up into this tree where several large branches formed saddles and crotches, where we could comfortably sit and carve our initials in the soft green wood under the ruddy paper underbark. We did this at least two years, maybe three, in a row. But after Kip went off to college we stopped going, and eventually Aunt Diggs and her husband added on to the cabin grandly (yet tastefully) and made it their permanent abode. It was thereafter not the kind of place college boys were invited to housesit in, leaving, as we were wont to do, marshmallows between the cushions on the furniture.
It may be getting late in the week to add my song of gratitude for the beautiful weather we had here Saturday, but I insist. The experts called for a sunny day and not terribly cold, the first such forecast in a very long time hereabouts. Kip and his wife Ami had planned a trip to Seattle for Easter weekend with their kids, and after checking with his Aunt, whom I had not seen in about 30 years, Kip invited us to join them for a short visit to Aunt Diggs’ place on Saturday morning.
Almost as soon as we arrived Aunt Diggs indicated the Madrona tree, still standing even though nearby development had shrunk the woods it stood in considerably. She seemed almost as eager to know if our carvings were still up in that tree as Kip and I were. I didn’t even know she knew about them. She and her husband had always been away when I was there, and I had only met her a handful of times upon other occasions. Kip and I and Mara waded into the salal to approach the tree, but in the intervening years it seems that some wild thorny vines — they actually seemed like wild Rugosa rose canes — had become entrenched throughout the little wood. I managed to get to the base of the tree only to discover there would be no way to climb it without a rope for throwing to the first branch ten feet up, which may in fact be how Kip and I did it back in the Dreamtime.
It was disappointing. I had entertained ideas of showing you the old weathered carvings of our initials that had awaited our return all these years, these decades. And the opportunity won’t come again, I’m sure. But I had to let it go. Still, some things never change: by the time I got out of there I was bleeding from dozens of scratches and nearly exhausted, just like when we used to pump ourselves full of root beer and Doritos and go fling ourselves into the outdoors.
It was great to see Aunt Diggs again and to spend time with Kip and Co., although both of our parties had sick and/or irritable kids, so I didn’t get as many photos as I’d have liked, and none of all of us together. Still, we were able to catch up a little and enjoy each other’s company as we lunched with Aunt Diggs on her deck.
After feeding Millie I loaded her into a carrier strapped onto my chest and wandered down to the beach with her to see where Mara and Angela had gotten to. I spied them far down the beach, two figures in the breezy sun bent low, one bigger one smaller, seeking out colored beach glass to collect. Angela doesn’t often these days get to spend uninterrupted time with Mara, especially outside, and seeing them beachcombing together made me feel a special gratitude to Kip and to his Aunt Diggs for once again extending to me (and now to mine) the benefit of his family’s tenure on this little piece of paradise in the Sound.