Early in life I was already making significant contributions to the Beautiful Absurdity. I brag, but wouldn't you? I was a champion, and the sport was glorious. In communion with the laws of physics, or flouting them, I soared like no other child had ever soared. Except for my sisters — they also soared. But we were robbed! Not a single gold medal came our way, as the officials at the Olympic Committee repeatedly failed to sanction our sport. Scandalous as it may sound, it's possible that nobody informed them of its existence.
My dad had no idea what he was setting in motion when he put up a rope swing for his kids. I'm sure he imagined no more than an occasional push in one direction, but for such a mundane entertainment he went through a lot of trouble. The oak tree next to the cottage was very tall, and the lowest possible branch was not in fact low at all. Years later he explained his trick: he made a loop at the end of the rope, woven with wire and wrapped with some sort of black tape to stave off wear. Next he tied a rock to a string and threw it over the branch, then used the string to pull the rope up and over, then threaded the loop, etc. The seat was cut from a thick board, with a hole in the middle for the rope.
So he pushed us. The rope was long, and we were small, and my dad was big. It was nearly as fun to witness the terror of one of my sisters as to experience it myself: to climb onto the swing and grip the rope close for dear life, to be pulled backwards uphill, to be held there against gravity in anticipation, then to be thrust forward in a heart-pounding shot for the stratosphere (that is, up to the low-hanging branches of a neighboring tree). I suppose it could have been dangerous, if we had fallen. But why would we have done that? Nothing bad ever happened. Except for that one time. And that other time.
My older cousin Dave was the first victim. Being a teenager, he was a lot heavier than us kids. My dad pushed with all his might, and as Dave flew up toward the branches the rope snapped and he came crashing down. Luckily he wasn't injured (much), but after that my dad was forced to make changes. Any other dad might have said "no more swing!" but our dad thought "I need a better rope." Soon the original rope was replaced with thick woven nylon, "the kind they use on ships!" he explained, with added enthusiasm about how many thousands of pounds it would hold. It was almost as if he had been wishing for some excuse to use this kind of rope all along.
The other mishap came later on, when my dad pushed my big sister Kelly right up into the branches where a yellowjacket's nest was coincidentally under construction. It's a wonder she didn't let go when she was stung, but as I remember it she held on screaming all the way down. After that, however, I don't remember anything bad happening to us with the swing — only to other kids who tried to copy us.
Our dad couldn't be around push us during the day, because he was very busy at his office pushing around words like "fiduciary" and "depreciation". We could push each other, but the thrust of one scrawny child was too anemic. I remember sitting out there alone, my little-boy legs dangling, my toes just barely reaching the dirt as I struggled to get some motion. Just the sense of being freed from the ground was entertainment enough. But it wasn't long before we were using the tree to push against with our feet. You can imagine how this progressed: popping out and back at first, growing more circular in time, then adding a spin. Oh yes, a spin! But that was kid stuff. The real action started when one of us tried taking the swing up behind the tree.
The oak tree was on a slope next to the house. The downhill and facing sides dropped away, but you could stand on the uphill side, so if you took the swing up there and mounted it with your feet against the tree, you were in a position to launch — which was all fine and fun, except in seconds you would be returning bodily toward a granite-hard trunk. If your feet were not out in front of you it was going to hurt. So the first stage was learning to land feet-first: to not over-spin or under-spin; to glide out, losing sight of the tree but tracking where it was, coming round again with a confident scruff of your tennis-shoes on the hard corrugated bark, and your knees bending to absorb the impact. If you didn't immediately push off again, however, you would fall away and your energy would be lost. And even if you did push perfectly every time, your circles would grow smaller and weaker. No heroic huffing-out-loud push would ever get you back to the launch spot. You could only get back to a place below that on the face of the tree and your momentum would soon ebb away, because you were a little kid, and you were not all that strong. Eventually you would have to get off and walk the swing back up to the top again, whereupon a sibling would spring out to yell "my turn!"
Wouldn't it be nice, we thought, if we could sail all the way around to the back of the tree, and pause there, then push off in the reverse direction at our leisure? This was easier imagined than done, however. It required more than strength and longer legs, though both definitely helped. Swing technique was all about the folding or extension of your various limbs and torso in combination: fully extended was slow to the point of losing control, while fully-folded (hands grasping the rope to your chest, head tucked down, legs bent all the way under you) was how you span fast (fully-extended was actually more frightening, because to pull yourself upright again meant pulling inward, which caused a jerky acceleration of your head). But that's still too simple a description: the subtlety came in the form of small partial foot movements, the tucking of one leg before another, the timing of a lean, the height or spacing of your hands on the rope, and so on. We all knew these little things were relevant, and knew exactly what we were up to, but we didn't have much of a vocabulary for it that I can remember. Certain moves required extreme precision or they just didn't work, while the rest was delicious improvisation, the focusing of fundamental energies with our bodies as we corkscrewed through the air.
A couple more summers of growth and practice got us all the way around, and because in this position the rope had begun to wrap, we could walk further around and bounce on our feet for added gymnastic effect before pushing off again in the opposite direction. As you can well imagine, the angle of your push-off changed where you landed on the other side: too straight would shoot you away then ram you back hard at the face of the tree; too wide sent you out elliptically, returning sideways at a too-shallow angle. From both sides, but especially from the downhill side, a correct push-off required a specific series of movements: falling sideways, keeping your feet close to the tree by pulling in your knees to match the distance, then pushing at just the right moment as you passed (pushing too late sacrificed thrust). Provided your aim was correct, you would fly around in a perfect arc and land like a bird on the other side.
Now the competition for the most spins heated up. Had a visitor from Child Protective Services come up the driveway during one of these days, he or she would have surely seen an unattended child blurring though the air at the end of a rope, exiting a spin just before impact, occasionally hitting the tree sideways and dropping off mad. To rack up spins you had to fold up as quickly as possible, yanking in your legs against significant centrifugal force, your brain and your eyeballs sloshing as you counted the spins out loud. And you had to just know when to unfold or SMACK! The world record, as far as I can remember, was thirteen spins (when I was thirteen years old), but more than one sister also claimed that number. In any case, nobody ever did fourteen. That would be nuts.
But fast spinning was so vulgar. Also literally sickening. We soon got over it. The really beautiful stuff came when we invented the double push-off: to thrust backwards before falling sideways and pushing again. The added momentum sent us sailing clear around the tree, the rope twanging on the bark as it wrapped. Now we could fly around past the back-side to the front-side beyond where we had begun, in either direction. This was in fact safer than before, since we were no longer heading straight back at the tree; the main risk now was not flying wide enough and getting wrapped between the rope and the scratchy bark. But we soon learned to avoid that, so of course we made things harder: now we learned to spin inside-out, even from behind the tree. My favorite routine was to alternate clockwise and counter-clockwise: to go all around the tree with elegant clockwise turns, then do an inside-out hopping maneuver to return in a counter-clockwise fashion to the other side.
In the surviving home videos of me swinging, I am already 6' 3" tall, and it shows in the clunkiness of my spins. But I remember being 5' 4" for quite a long time before I shot up during high school. It was in that period that I was the true swing hotshot. I remember lasering though the air. It's possible you are mumbling to yourself that I am exaggerating, that the swinging wasn't really that impressive. Well of course it's all as I remember it (which is really the point of this), and childhood memories make everything larger. But I do recall what happened to visiting kids who tried to copy us. Of course when they arrived I would always be on the swing pretending not to see. "Oh hello there," my bearing seemed to say, "I didn't notice your car coming up the driveway — I was too busy tearing a hole in the universe." Naturally the kids would come running over and ask to try, but in seconds they would find themselves rotating out of control, their legs flailing in a desperate but futile attempt to right themselves, yelling "oh no!" before thunking sideways onto the tree trunk. Most gave up after a few bruises, afterwards watching from a distance with the forlorn look that kids have when someone else gets to play with the cool toys. But they were lucky, if we compare to the other ways that kids tended to get hurt when they visited our property.
As we grew older, swinging became our meditation. At odd times any one of us could be seen outside through the kitchen windows, drifting through the air in a trance (or honing a particular move). On the swing, you were only you: your calloused hands gripping the rope, the air rushing through your hair, the world rotating from your center, everything nonessential blurring away with each spin. And we really needed this. Everything that happened on the swing was under our control while nothing otherwise was. In a more negative light, it was one more way for me to be absorbed and solitary, and for any of us to avoid yet another lecture about the real world. Then at the end of the summer we would leave, and I imagine our dad, on his way out to the car, walking past the motionless swing every morning: through the fall, through the winter, through the spring. But in another way, when I think back on it now, the swing and what we did on it was the perfect distillation of childhood: the close, creative relationship kids can have with the physical world, and the things they will do if you leave them to their own devices which remain threaded though their identity their whole lives. When I see how little freedom most kids have these days I feel profoundly sad. So it's not only that I'm positive that I or any one of my sisters could hop on that swing any time and rip a move; the swing was a sort of source code for self-invention, for a wildness we claimed for ourselves. The adults could only watch from the house.
A complex statistical calculation done by one of my brain cells reveals that approximately 1,543 similar rope swings have existed in the USA alone, but a cursory search of YouTube came up empty. I have no doubt that other kids have also flown at the level of inside-out corkscrews or beyond, but on the other hand I kind of don't want to see them be even more awesome than we were, because I like to think of my childhood as unique.
Memories of the swing have become especially poignant since the house sold. I shudder to imagine the new owners cutting down that tree, but in any case I've often wondered what it would take to replicate the swing, to build "Swing 2.0" (that is, for those not lucky enough to live near a big tree on an open slope). Besides the wide space needed to fly in circles, you would need a sort of trunk (perhaps made of metal with corrugated 'bark' panels?), which itself would be quite large, and a platform for mounting the swing before launch. But the biggest challenge, or at least the biggest stumbling block, would be the 'branch' for the rope. I've imagined Swing 2.0 being set up in a parking lot next to the side of a building from which a metal beam would stick out high above (in version 3, the beam would be adjustable for the size of the kid/adult). If you ever build such a thing, I will be happy to come try it out. Just make sure the rope is at least 2,000-pound-test.