Spilled Milk : Treehouse Envy

I never thought when I started building my kids a treehouse that it would turn into a competition. A competition inside my mind -- the worst kind. What follows is the sad story of how two hot daddies got under my bark.

hot daddy /hät 'da-dē/ adjective + noun: the father of a kid at your kid's school, who, instead of aging, balding and gaining weight like you and the other dads, somehow manages to show up on campus looking like the Marlboro Man or worse, a Calvin Klein underwear model.

As any mom won't tell you, hot daddy sightings make trips to school more fun. They just do. Still, in spite of these occasional diversions, I sometimes wish they'd refrain from breeding. Their kids make my kids look bad.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's flash back to the sixties.

I grew up in South Carolina, on the edge of a small town in a new development oddly named Pitts Meadows. Oddly named because no Pitts families lived there, and there were no meadows, just lots of woods. Which made Pitts Meadows a perfect place for treehouses, great news for the explosion of kids moving in. Every May there'd be tons of new construction. When the workers would knock off around 5, swarms of us non-Pitts termites would descend, devouring every last scrap of wood we could steal for our treehouses.

This went on all summer. Deep in the woods, with no adults to supervise or tell us what not to do, we combined unfettered imagination with a staggering lack of skill to construct some of the most awesome, ramshackle masterpieces in the history of treehousing. Nothing was planned, nothing was level and, best of all, nothing was safe. Our treehouses were flammable, unstable deathtraps. And for good reason: we literally loved them more than life.

Somehow we understood that danger was a key element in the successful treehouse equation; where's the fun if there's no risk of backing into a nail, slicing open your leg or falling 10 feet and landing on your brother?

It was a different time. Safety issues never seemed to bother our parents -- as long as you made it home for supper alive with no visible signs of sexual molestation, they seemed content. These were the brave men and women who protected us from the elements by putting asbestos roofs over our heads, tucking us into bunks with no railings and driving us to school in smoke-filled cars where cigarette lighters came standard but seatbelts didn't.

Hindsight apologists will say no one knew the dangers back then, but I don't buy it. The pill was not yet in wide use and families had lots more kids. Nobody says it out loud, but it's pretty clear to me the asbestos, second-hand smoke, and lack of seatbelts were deliberate strategies for thinning the herd.

Back to the present. I'm now married with two kids and living in the Hollywood Hills. Living in the hills can be a challenge when raising children. Kids roll down hills. (See "Jack and Jill.")

When our first child was on her way, our real estate agent encouraged us to sell our house and buy something in a more kid-friendly neighborhood, code for a flat backyard and a fat commission for her. I'd worked hard for a house with a view of the Hollywood sign, and I wasn't about to trade it in just so my kid could have a yard that took all the challenge out of walking. So we kept our hill but dug a few holes, sank some posts, put in a retaining wall and voila: a lovely, level yard built into our existing hillside. And still, across the canyon, H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D, conveniently located for alphabet lessons.

A few years later, after our son was born, something strange began to happen. A pine grove on the hill below began... calling to me. It was almost like music. I would stand on our deck watching those five stately pines caressing the sky with their graceful, newly-needled branches, and I could actually hear a melody, a two-syllable lyric floating on its perfect, five-note chords:

"Treehouse. Treehouse. Treehouse."

Convincing James and Elizabeth was a snap; they were jazzed from the word "go." We discussed what they wanted, I sketched out our basic idea and we set about our work. Once the basic shape of the floor was framed and level among the five pines, I laid down the floor, and we were off and running.


2012-03-21-SMMarlboroManFinal.jpgThen it happened.

Enter Hot Daddy No. 1.

I had spotted him months before at one of our school's Friday-morning sings. Ruggedly handsome, a dark, silent, solid type, he bore a striking resemblance to the Marlboro Man. Beyond noting his resemblance to a cigarette ad, however, I had no feelings about him one way or another. Okay, maybe a couple. Until the night Kelly and I found ourselves at his and his wife's home for a school fundraising event. I had just finished admiring their kitchen re-model and art collection, when I stepped into their back yard and saw it: The Thing.

Rising 30 feet in the air, it was the most spectacular-looking treehouse I'd ever seen. There was a staircase starting at the ground and climbing all the way up to the main structure. It was so high in the trees it towered over their actual people-live-in-it house. I found myself attracted and repelled at the same time, the way I feel when I see spider or drive through Beverly Hills.

I knew I had to see The Thing up close. As I started up the treehouse staircase, my legs began to buckle. I tried to calm myself. "It's just a treehouse," I repeated over and over, under my breath. But it wasn't. I knew it and the treehouse knew it.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I entered the main structure, the house part of the treehouse. It was similar to what the kids and I had sketched out, with a flat, eight foot high ceiling and a real sliding barn door mechanism. Fine. Cool. I could handle that -- I was planning a pitched roof and three sliding doors. But it turned out that the main structure was just a preamble to the main event. The money shot was a catwalk jutting out and over the entire length of their backyard. It must have been 25 feet long, complete with cutouts that allowed branches to grow through, setting the perfect scene for pirate sword fights and Star Wars paternity showdowns.

I began to feel sick.

After we got home, Kelly paid the babysitter while I went downstairs and shook my children awake from their sleep: "Get up, kids. We need to talk."

"What's wrong, Daddy?" Elizabeth asked, rubbing her eyes. "Is it an earthquake? Did somebody die?"

"It's our treehouse."

James, five-years-old and groggy, just looked at me, confused. "It died?"

"Not yet, but it will if we don't up our game."

"What are you doing?" Kelly's voice and silhouette now filled the door frame.

"Just kissing the children goodnight," I lied. I hugged the kids, whispering in their ears, "We're being trounced. I need ideas by breakfast." With the image of the Marlboro Man's Thing seared into my brain, I got no sleep at all that night.

The next morning, I told the kids in detail what I'd seen. We spit-balled our new, improved treehouse over eggs and toast.

"We could splatter-paint the inside," said Elizabeth.

"Can we have a fireman's pole? I want a fireman's pole!" cried James.

"Who doesn't?" I agreed, jotting down notes.

After fielding a few more upgrades, I quickly drew a sketch of our new plans. When I was done, we all agreed the revision looked fierce. After dropping the kids at school, I drove to Home Depot to buy studs, where I ran into the real thing.

Hot Daddy No. 2.

I'd met him a couple of times. He's a nice guy, so nice, in fact, that he'd grown a scruffy beard to cover his flawless bone structure so that the other dads felt less ugly. It didn't work. His scruff was like Brad Pitt's scruff, a monumental failure, like trying to hide Michelangelo's David under a layer of Saran Wrap.

I said hello to Hot Daddy No. 2, we chatted about our boys and their progress with shapes, and he asked what I was doing at Home Depot. I told him I was there buying supplies for a treehouse I was building.

"No way, dude, I'm building a treehouse for my kids!" he crowed, showing a more animation than you'd expect from a Calvin Klein underwear model.

Because, you see, he actually was a Calvin Klein underwear model. Long before his son was coloring dinosaurs next to mine, images of Hot Daddy No. 2 in his CK briefs inflamed libidos across the land. News reports had it that in Arizona people actually burst into flames. His sizzling photos were everywhere -- magazine covers, bus shelters, multi-page spreads in Vanity Fair. For nearly a year he stood over a 100 feet tall on a Times Square billboard, smoldering at the gawkers below wearing nothing but a packed pair of tighty-whities and a naughty smile.

And now he was standing in the lumber aisle of Home Depot smiling at me, but the only photos I cared about were the ones he was showing me on his iPhone, photos of his treehouse. His Thing made the Marlboro Man's Thing look tame. It had a custom-built, spiral staircase leading up and around a tree trunk to architectural wonders so ridiculous I had to avert my eyes, fearing I would burst into flames.

The shame I felt was piercing.

I've always been good with my hands. I'm a man who can build things; it's a skill I'm proud of. I had set about doing a noble, classically American, Norman Rockwellian dad thing: building a treehouse for my kids. What are the freaking odds there'd be not one but two other dads in one kindergarten class doing exactly the same thing, only looking miles hotter while doing it?

After Hot Daddy No. 2 left in search of materials for what would no doubt become an escalator to his kid's treehouse media room, I called my husband to report this latest emotional indignity.

"It wouldn't bother me if they looked like Bob Vela or even Tim Allen," I unloaded. "But dammit, handy's all I've got. How the hell do they get to be handy and hot? It's not fair."

As usual, Kelly saw the situation for what it was and patiently clarified things:


"So what if they're hotter than you. Big deal. That's not what's this is about. What's really bothering you is the fact that their treehouses are hotter than yours."

Marriage is a cruel institution. He had nailed it with a high-decibal, pneumatic nail gun. Straight through my heart.

When I picked up the kids from school that afternoon, they took one look at my face and leapt for joy. Without my saying a word knew what was coming: a bigger, better treehouse for them.

Elizabeth: "Let's put in a loft! With bunk beds!"

James: "And a trap door! I want a trap door! And a swimming pool."

That was a year ago. We're nowhere near done, but in keeping with the times I'm happy to report we're officially underwater. On our treehouse.

I don't begrudge the Hot Daddies. They're both cool guys who, like me, are just trying to create something special for their kids. I have, however, subsequently learned a couple of things they initially failed to mention:

1) The Marlboro Man paid someone else to build his kids' treehouse; and

2) The Crotch of Calvin Klein owns his own construction company, no doubt has a crew of workers and will probably be contracting out the escalator.

And, I'm guessing, their structures are probably built to code, something I would never sink to doing. Building to code is fine for houses. For treehouses, never. It eliminates the key element in the successful treehouse equation: raw danger.

My kids understand this in their bones. Because our treehouse is located way down the hill from our house, you actually have to rappel down a rope to get there. The entire thing has been built one board at a time, with me hanging on to that rope for dear life, climbing down backwards with boxes of tools, cartons of nails and splintery plywood clutched under my arm. I'm never happier than when we're heading down there for another summer day's work.

When Kelly announced his plan to build steps leading from the back yard down the hill, to make access to the treehouse safer and easier, the kids' reaction was merciless and swift.

"No!" cried Elizabeth. "It's way more fun to go down on the rope."

"Yeah, no steps!" yelled James. "We like sliding down on our butts!"

Jack and Jill. I could not have been more proud.


(Full disclosure: It is established fact that my husband is the hottest daddy at school, and I'm not just saying that because he's sitting here watching me type this. Hotly.)

* * * * *

This post is the fifth in a series of Spilled Milk columns by William Lucas Walker that chronicle his adventures in Daddyland.


More Spilled Milk: