One of the first new neighbors we met when we moved to Vista Park was Al. He lived on the next street and we shared a backyard fence. But that was no barrier to Al--he was quick to introduce himself over the six-foot fence one afternoon.
And he was quick to tell us about his Tree House.
It turned out that Al was a civil engineer, too. At the time, I was on the board of the New Orleans Branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Al had been on that board, too, and had served as the first elected president of the local ASCE almost 40 years prior. "Small world," as they say.
Now retired from engineering, Al can point to buildings all over the greater New Orleans area and say, "I worked on that project." Some large, some small, some famous, some infamous. One example: Al worked on the bomb shelter--the civil defense bunker buried in the dirt of what used to be the new basin canal.
And Al has worked on some prominent projects that are far from here, too. For instance, Al was the structural engineer for the US Embassy in Saigon and a sewerage treatment plant in Nashville, Tennessee.
Yet as many projects as he's designed or been part of, the one he seems to enjoy talking about most is the Tree House.
Standing about 12 feet tall in his backyard, the lanky structure isn't all that pretty at first glance. And truth be told, it isn't even a bona fide tree house. It stands on four telephone-pole legs with a green corrugated plastic roof and a single deck about 6 feet above the ground. The sides of the deck are fully enclosed to rail height. Access is through a trapdoor and a rope ladder. Inside, there are benches along two sides.
I will never forget how Al talked about that Tree House almost from the get-go when we first met over the fence years ago. He was proud--bursting with pride would not be too strong a description--of the backyard Tree House he built for his children.
The story starts in 1962. That’s when Al moved to Vista Park and soon after built the Tree House. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy came to town. And although Betsy battered houses throughout the area with winds in excess of 100 miles per hour, the Tree House stood tall. Well, actually, it did lean a couple degrees to one side, but otherwise no damage.
Not long after that, Hurricane Camille delivered hurricane-force gusts, too. Again, the Tree House withstood it all.
Al and his wife raised 3 children in that house: 2 boys and 1 girl. They all played in the Tree House at one time or another. According to son Mark, during his childhood the Tree House was everything from the ramparts of Fort Apache to the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
When Mark was about six years old, he and his dad spent a night in the Tree House. Well, almost. As Al told me, “We had sleeping bags, flashlights, root beer, cookies, battery radio, and I believe we lasted until about midnight before we went inside. Of course we pulled up the rope ladder and closed the trap door, so that lions and tigers could not join us.”
Those four poles lifted not only a minor structure; they hoisted the imagination of Al's children over many years of safe and creative play. And it has brought no small amount of joy to Al, too!
Fast forward to 2005. Hurricane Katrina whips through the city and undermines the levees near our homes. Al's children are all grown and on their own, although his daughter Jan still lives down the street from us. Their house flooded and in need of major repair, Al and his wife make their new residence north of New Orleans on the relative high ground of Pontchatoula. They put their house here up for sale.
But, as it weathered every hurricane before, the Tree House remains intact.
Al’s son Mark lives far from New Orleans now, but they were looking forward to visiting one day soon. Al wants to show his grandchildren the Tree House where their dad used to play. Katrina interrupted that plan. “Maybe some day,” Al tells me.
We demolished our house and what was left of the fence, too, so that now when we step out of the FEMA travel trailer, we see the back of Al's house and the Tree House. No surprise, my Precious Daughter wanted to go play in it. We hesitated at first, but I emailed Al and he granted us unlimited access.
Soon, our Precious Daughter was sweeping and cleaning and bringing potted plants up the ladder. The Tree House is now a regular feature of her play time. When her friends visit, they pack a snack and bring games and dolls with them up to the Tree House.
A few weeks ago, Al stopped by the house while our girl and her friends were playing Mardi Gras parade and throwing beads from the Tree House. I made Al pose for this picture.
And you know, now that I think about, I guess I understand why Al is so proud of that Tree House.