1970 was the year I was never out of my tree
When the shower on the bottom floor landing began sprinkling water on my face I knew our project was complete. We had built a three-storey tree house, decked out with a cooking area, carpeted living room and water supply system.
Parents from Baradine came to admire it, the Australasian Post came to photograph and the four of us – Bimbo Kelly, Rusty Patterson, Oscar Purdy and Emu Emerson (that’s me) – came to make it our “adventure home”.
Oscar and I built on the design work of Bimbo and Rusty who, in 1968, spent days walking along the gullies of Baradine Creek in search of a gum tree big enough to cradle a tree house. Obligingly, there it was - a magnificent soaring red gum, its roots plunging deep into the wide shoulder of the sandy creek bed. At its back, over a fence, was a stand of native cypress pine trees – a perfect source of timber.
Designing the entire structure in their imaginations, Bimbo and Rusty selected the straightest pines for the structural beams, cut them down with tomahawks and used hand saws to fashion them into the formwork of the three levels.
Wearied by a year’s toil of bolting the beams into the gum tree, cutting and erecting railings for the balconies and starting the cladding, Bimbo and Rusty invited me to keep the project moving. By that time the first floor landing and the second floor living area were built, but not the balcony or the walls or flooring of the top floor. And the fit-out was but a distant desire.
My first job was to find, transport and erect the flooring for the top level, complete the corrugated iron roof and build the walls of the second floor balcony. First I needed to build a billy cart to carry the tongue-and-groove timber which I was to scavenge from the saw mill two kilometres away. Every Saturday, loaded with off-cuts of floor boards, I’d arrive at the dirt road side of the creek opposite the side of the tree house. Having built steps down to the creek bed and a 50 metre bridge across to the tree house, I slowly installed the flooring, roofing, an outside pit toilet, roofing, guttering, a tank, plumbing, shower and cooking and eating area.
Soon the bridge would be tested by a flash flood. Rain had fallen in the creek’s source country and on a hot, cloudless day I heard the gurgling of the approaching waters. Within minutes the dry creek had become a torrent but the bridge stood firm.
Bimbo and Rusty left it to me and, as I struggled towards completion, I was joined by Oscar. We found some underfelt in a store room in town and laid it as carpet in the second-floor sleeping area. We shot a top-knot pigeon, cooked it on the kerosene stove and I had a shower as we listened on my radio to Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline.
Life was grand. As 15 year-olds we’d been given permission by our parents to sleep overnight in our creation. As the sun set, swarms of mozzies arrived. Undeterred, we’d recalled that the smell of burning mosquito coils resembled that of smouldering cow manure – and there was plenty of that lying around the creek bed. So we gathered up a night’s supply of dry manure, placed it on a couple of leftover floorboards, got it smouldering and presto, the mozzies scattered. But our second floor sleeping area became too smoky so we climbed the stairs to the top floor and slept there. In the middle of the night we awoke to thick smoke. The manure had burned through the cypress pine planks, through the underfelt and through the floor with embers glowing in the hazy darkness. Fortunately for two country teenagers the floor boards had not yet burst into flame.
Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good. I’ve been inclined to believe they never would.
Oscar went on to play first-grade rugby with the Ella brothers for Randwick for more than a decade. He runs a furniture store in Canberra. I became a parliamentarian. What are the political lessons from our tree house adventure? None that I can think of. But Baradine 1970 seems so far away – the year of The Carpenters singing Close to You.
Bimbo and Rusty, if you happen to read this, I’d love to hear from you.
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