It was the summer of 1968 and I was 11 years old. I had been pleading to my parents non-stop to let me build a tree house in our backyard. The major obstacle to this request was the fact that the only trees in our backyard were puny 10-foot peach trees. They actually looked more like overgrown shrubs than trees. Beyond our backyard fence was an alley and directly across the alley was Seely’s gas station. My dad pointed out what was painfully obvious, to everyone but me, that there were simply no trees in our backyard—or even our front yard for that matter—suitable for a tree house. I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted. My best friend, Paul, had a tree house and I wanted one too.
My dad proposed that we build a tree house without a tree on stilts. (Oh hell yeah!) We, (and I use that term loosely) built a 4×8 plywood box elevated off the ground by four six-foot posts. Even better, the tree house was built behind our backyard fence. We painted it green and I art-directed my dad to hand letter “The Green Hornet” on the front of the tree house. It was completed within a few days and it was an immediate hit with all the kids in my neighborhood. My friends and I lived in that tree house all summer. We slept in it too. We crammed our sleeping bags in it and had sleep overs every night for the first few weeks.
Since we hadn’t painted the inside of my tree house, we decorated the interior walls with found objects such as license plates and orange plastic-molded horse shoes from Gulf gas stations that promoted their “No Knocks” premium gasoline. That summer, the Tigers were in first place and on their way to win the World Series. The Green Hornet and Laugh In were everyone’s favorite television shows. Bumper stickers were everywhere it seemed with slogans such as, “Go Get’em Tigers,” “I’ve Got a Tiger in My Tank” from Exxon gas stations, “Verrrrry Interesting,” “Here Come Da Judge” and “Sock It To Me Baby” from the TV show, Laugh In.
Somebody placed a bumper sticker on the inside wall.
Someone else suggested that we cover the entire inside of the tree house with bumper stickers. Everyone agreed that it was a cool idea, but we would need a lot of bumper stickers. We all knew where to go; the brand new McDonald’s hamburger stand on 24th Street.
In 1968, people drove to McDonalds, ordered food from a take-out window and ate their hamburgers and French fries while sitting inside their cars. And, while they ate, we peeled bumper stickers off their back bumpers. It was a perfect set up. New bumper stickers arrived as empty bumpers left. We parked our Stingray bicycles in the field next to the restaurant and placed the freshly-peeled bumper stickers on our long-banana seats. After our bicycle seats were full of bumper stickers, we returned to my tree house and plastered them on the walls. We turned around and peddled right back to McDonalds.
Peeling bumper stickers required stealth and speed. Once a car pulled in, we only had about 10 minutes, at the most, to make our haul. We were chased more than once by angry drivers who discovered us behind their cars, so we worked in teams. One person was a lookout and the other person was the peeler. Most cars backed into the outside spaces which allowed us to peel their stickers from the safety of the grass field. However, every now and then, a really unique bumper sticker such as “Visit the Mystery Spot” or “See Rock City” would show up on a car parked in the center of the lot and that’s when it got a little dangerous. Other motorists could see us stealing the bumper stickers and they would get angry; even if it wasn’t their car. However, the real hazard of peeling a sticker in the center of the lot was the very real possibility of getting run over. At one time or another, everyone of us had had a close call. And, it was actually a bragging point.
This time it wasn’t a close call.
I remember hearing Paul Miner scream. We all popped our heads up from behind parked cars like prairie dogs. There was a car stopped in the middle of the parking lot. Paul’s leg was under the car. A man was trying to help Paul who was still lying on the ground clutching his leg and still screaming. His bicycle tire rim was bent beyond repair. His bike seat was full of bumper stickers. We all stood like gawkers, not knowing what to do. One of the adults must have gone inside to call the police because we could hear the wail of an approaching siren within minutes.
Minutes later, Paul was placed on a gurney with retractable wheels and slid inside a large-white station-wagon ambulance with a rotating-red light on the center of the its roof. Very cool.
The police officer placed Paul’s bicycle in the trunk of the police car and asked us kids where Paul lived. Greg, Paul’s older brother, offered to take the bicycle home for his brother. Uh-uh. Nothing doing. The police officer insisted that he return it. He questioned all of us about how and why Paul got run over. (Wasn’t it obvious?) I answered the cop’s questions and ratted us out in the process. I’m sure I told him everything in detail. Stickers. Bumpers. The tree house. The works. And that was it. We were released with a very stern warning not to peel anymore bumper stickers at McDonald’s because we could be run over and killed—just like Paul had been nearly killed. We all agreed. The cop scared us pretty good. Then again, we would have said anything—ANYTHING—not to be reported to our parents by the police. And we weren’t. Ha! Too cool.
Still, the news about Paul spread among the neighborhood parents very quickly. After a quick scolding, life returned to normal. However, half of the tree house still needed to be wallpapered. The memory of the stern police officer’s warning was still very fresh in our minds. Ronny—always the thinker—remembered that the police officer had told us not to return to McDonald’s. Aha! That was our loophole. A half-mile down 24th Street was a brand new Kmart store with the biggest parking lot in the whole world. And it was ours for the taking. The wallpapering project continued without an incident.
A day later, Paul returned a hero sporting a bright-white cast as hard as a rock. Again, very cool! Paul was a lucky kid. His leg cast extended from just below his knee to his toes. In fact, his bare toes stuck out of the cast. We took Paul to my tree house. I brought out my Magic Markers and we covered every inch of Paul’s cast. We wrote our signatures and messages from our favorite bumper stickers, “Go Get’em Tigers,” “I’ve Got a Tiger in My Tank,” “Verrrrry Interesting,” “Groovy” and “Sock It To Me Baby.” Paul wore his cast for the rest of the summer like it was a medal.