The Club members gathered in the treehouse, sheltered from the summer sun by the leaves of the large oak tree that cast shadows over their business meeting. The two-room treehouse was built around the broad trunk of the tree with recycled pallet material, two-by-fours, and exterior plywood. The names of the original designers and carpenters were lost in history. There was a plywood door hung on mismatched hinges with a gate hook latch, several window frames with no windows, and a roof that was designed to work around tree branches. The floor rested on pallets that had been screwed together, covered with plywood, and nailed to supporting mature branches about fifteen feet off the ground. Inside was an uncoordinated collection of child-sized furniture, storage boxes, wall mounted coat racks, and an ill-fitting cupboard that looked like it had been repurposed from a garage remodel.
None of the members knew how long the treehouse had existed since it had been passed down to succeeding generations of children in the neighborhood. The owners of the oak tree had only recently purchased the house on South 10th Avenue, and paid little attention to the dwelling hidden in the tree.
“Are girls allowed to vote?” asked Paul Fortman, eagerly raising his hand to be recognized. The question was raised because the two girls in the Club created a cultural change, and most of the boys were not sure how that was going to work out.
The President, Fred Stump, was the oldest member and was moving the Club in a new direction. He looked around the room and then at Paul. “We will even let them talk during meetings,” he said without answering the question. There was a round of laughter from the members, but the two Petosa girls sat impassively. They knew most of the other club members because they attended the elementary school in the same neighborhood. The Petosa family move to South 10th Avenue was only a few blocks from their old home, made with the intent of keeping the children in the same school district.
The ancient oak tree in the backyard of the Dutch Colonial home received only the briefest inspection before the purchase. Mrs. Petosa recalled the Realtor representing the sellers mentioned that their children were unhappy about leaving the treehouse. Shortly after the Petosa family settled into their new home, Ellen and Fern Petosa found a sign posted on the backside of the oak tree, next to the ladder, that read, “No Girls Allowed.” When the girls questioned whether the sign applied to them, Mrs. Petosa assured them they were entitled to use and explore the treehouse. That evening Mr. Petosa removed the sign.
It was the first Club meeting for the Petosa girls, and they were reluctant to do more than listen, especially to how Paul Fortman’s question about voting rights would be answered. When the laughter subsided, President Stump announced that the discussion that afternoon concerned how the Club could protect itself in the event of an attack. “Gangs are over there,” he said, pointing through the south window frame. The boys all looked through the tree branches at the hillside property across the railroad tracks that ran through town. “Our Clubhouse is going to be attacked if we don’t do something to protect ourselves,” he explained. He reached inside his backpack and started withdrawing tools. “I have brought these tools to make this place into a fortress,” he said, gesturing with his hands to the interior of the treehouse.
“Who is going to attack us?” Ellen asked without raising her hand. Initially, the President ignored her, but the members became quiet, and he realized they were waiting for an answer.
“People living over there,” the President said, pointing south again, “they are not like us, and we need to keep them out,” he continued.
“Do you know those people?” Ellen asked, pushing her glasses back from the tip of her nose.
“I know more about them than the cops know,” Fred Stump answered. “We need to protect our Clubhouse from them.”
“Fred, you don’t go to the public schools,” Ellen advised, now standing up. “How can you know people who are different from you and different than most of the people in our neighborhood?” she asked, adjusting her dress. She knew that Fred attended The Dexter Academy, a private school for boys located in the downtown area. The members were now looking at Ellen and then shifting their gaze to the Club President, whose face was starting to flush. Fred Stump was big for his age, chubby, better dressed than the other boys, and exhibited confidence to the younger members.
“We study these things at my school,” Fred replied to his interrogator. “Those people are just waiting for us to give up our rights and show fear. We need to dominate them now, or they will take over our Clubhouse,” he insisted. Hearing this, the members started nodding their approval. “The president before me did nothing to protect our Club,” he exclaimed. “In fact, he even played basketball with some of them at Kiwanis Park and showed them where our clubhouse is hidden in this tree,” he continued, pressing his argument.
Before anybody could ask questions about the allegations made by President Stump, Mike Nance stood and asked, “How do we make a fortress?”
The question was the opening the President needed for his next announcement. “I brought hammers, saws, crowbars, nails, and a tape measure. We need to cover the window frames, which is the first place they will attack. The door to the treehouse needs to be locked, so I brought a padlock. All in favor of protecting our Clubhouse, raise your hand.”
“Wait,” Fern demanded as she stood up. “What are you going to use the tools on? What are you going to cover the windows with?” she asked, looking at Fred. The boys turned to the President.
“And what is the rush?” Ellen added.
President Fred looked to a boy standing on his left and got the boy’s attention. The boy, Wally Lynn, stepped between Fred Stump and the gathered members. “I agree with Fred,” he urged. “I was at the YMCA last week, and I heard talk about plans some gang members have to come across the tracks. If we don’t do something, this Clubhouse will be turned into gang headquarters!” he shouted.
“Let’s take a vote,” demanded Sidney Miller. Ellen and Fern could see that the girls’ right to vote was not going to change things. They sat down at the small table where some of the tools were on display.
“All in favor, raise your hands,” the President instructed. It was over in seconds as all the boys raised their hands. The President did not bother to ask for a dissenting vote.
President Fred picked up a hammer and waved it in the air, “let’s get to work,” he said, then handed the hammer to Sidney Miller. The two boys walked to the south window frame, and President Fred instructed Sidney to cover the window with a piece of plywood board taken from the roof of the treehouse. Another boy came over with a crowbar and forced it between the wall brace and plywood roof material. The nails screeched as they started to release from the top of the wall. Sidney pulled a table over to the wall, stood on it, and began disassembling sections of the roof. When pieces of plywood fell to the floor, members would take them to the window frame for installation.
Ellen saw President Fred motion for George Gates to join him by the door to the treehouse. George followed President Fred across the room, where Fred removed a backpack that was hanging on a coat rack. He unzipped it, showed George the contents, and whispered instructions. George nodded, put on the backpack, walked to the door, stepped out to the first rung, and disappeared down the ladder.
The girls watched the remodeling project continue around them as more pieces of the roof were removed and converted into interior shutters over the treehouse window frames. When a piece of plywood was pried from the roof, another boy would drag it to a window to be inexpertly nailed to the window frame. Piece by piece, the sunshine stopped flowing through the windows and was replaced by shadows. The younger boys were trying to help and grabbed for the tools that bigger boys were using. The holes in the roof exposed tree limbs heavy with leaves that rearranged themselves within the now empty spaces between the walls of the treehouse.
“I’m going to get mom’s cell phone to take pictures,” Fern said to her sister in exasperation. She stood up and walked to the door of the treehouse.
“Where are you going?” Ira Pitt asked when Fern reached the door. Ira was in Ellen’s class at school and lived about a block from the home where the Petosa family lived before moving to South 10th Avenue. Fern did not answer him and started for the ladder, which consisted of eight boards nailed at intervals down the trunk of the oak tree. “Once you leave, you aren’t coming back,” Ira cautioned. The boy looked across the small room to Fred Stump for affirmation.
Unsure of what to do, Fern stood just inside the door to the treehouse and looked at Ellen, the older sister. A Club member who had been watching, Richard Moller, came to the door and asked Fern what Ira Pitt had just said to her. “He said I cannot return if I leave,” Fern repeated. Richard, who was a head taller than Ira, said, “Why can’t she come back?”
“I never said that; she is lying,” Pitt exclaimed. “All I said is that bringing a camera was not a good idea.”
President Fred came over to join the conversation. “Let it go, Richard,” Fred suggested. “Ira gets carried away at times. He meant no harm.”
Richard looked at President Fred for a moment and then shook his head. “Ira says the girl is lying. The point is not whether he meant harm; the point is he is lying. I heard what he said to her.” The three boys jumped as a large piece of plywood fell to the floor next to the table where Ellen was sitting. The nails in the plywood stuck in the floor where it landed. Seeing an opportunity to change the subject, President Fred instructed a boy who had a claw hammer to pull the nails loose and retrieve the plywood.
From another room, Wally Lynn yelled something inaudible over the din of the remodel work. President Fred excused himself from the conversation with Moller and went to find Lynn, who was working on a north-facing window frame in the second room of the treehouse. “We need more wood,” Lynn reported when President Fred entered the room.
President Fred looked around the room, surveyed the situation and agreed more wood was necessary to complete closure of the window frame. “Use boards from the ladder,” he advised Lynn.
“Good idea,” Lynn said and took a crowbar to the door of the treehouse where he examined the ladder. He hesitated, not sure whether to take the first board at the top or climb down to the first board at the bottom. After brief consideration, he climbed down the ladder to begin deconstruction. From the top of the ladder, Fern watched as Wally Lynn applied the crowbar to remove the bottom board from the oak tree. When the board was free, he was unsure how to carry the board, with exposed nails, and the crowbar, back up the ladder. And, now that the bottom rung of the ladder was missing, he would have to pull himself up to the second rung of the ladder to climb back up to the treehouse that was starting to resemble a fort. In a moment of ill-advised inspiration, the boy walked a few paces from the base of the tree and threw the board up and over the wall of the fort.
Fern watched the board with nails sticking from one side, fly up the wall in an arch and slowly float over the empty space where the roof no longer existed, and then drop into the fort upon the hapless construction workers. Unfortunately, the exposed nail side of the board caught Randy Honea’s right shoulder and stuck where it landed. The boy screamed, and Ellen could see blood staining Randy’s shirt as he desperately tried to pry the board from his shoulder.
The scream was the only thing that stopped young Lynn from completing a second toss, this time with the crowbar. Fern, who saw the damage done by the first careless act, yelled at Flynn to stop his assault on his fellow Club members.
Wally Lynn tucked the crowbar inside the belt of his pants, letting the curve catch the belt. Because he was tall enough, he was able to jump up the trunk of the tree to the second rung of the ladder and began climbing back up to the fort.
By mid-afternoon clouds were now blocking the sun, but the boys did not seem to notice. A breeze from the south was starting up, and the temperature dropped a few degrees.
The girls’ attention was divided between Randy Honea’s bleeding shoulder and Wally Lynn’s re-entry with a crowbar hanging from his belt. After Randy removed the board from his shoulder, he took off his shirt and tried to stop the flow of blood. Lynn seemed unaware that he had anything to do with the injury to a co-member and asked President Fred if there would be a need for another board from the ladder.
The Petosa girls had seen enough bleeding, received enough threats, and watch enough destruction to understand where this Club was headed. Fern said to her sister, “We don’t need to come back with a camera, I just want out of this treehouse, fort or whatever they want to call it.”
“We need to get out before they take any more rungs off the ladder,” Ellen agreed, pushing back her glasses, and led the way to the door.
As they got to the door, Richard Moller followed, offered an apology for the mess and said, “Randy threw his shirt over the wall; it may have landed in the tree, or it may be in your backyard. There is blood on the shirt. If you find it put it in a plastic bag, please don’t throw it away,” The girls agreed.
Ellen went down first, and when she got to the last rung of the ladder, which had been the second rung, she had to jump backwards to get away from the tree roots to find level ground. She waited for Fern and promised to catch her if she made an awkward landing.
Once safely on the ground, the Petosa girls looked up at the now unrecognizable treehouse and watched as Wally Lynn used his crowbar to start prying the top board of the ladder off the tree. As they stood by the ladder, Ellen noticed a new sign now replaced the “No Girls Allowed” sign that her father had removed. The new sign read “Members Only,” and Ellen realized the sign had been in President Fred’s backpack and had been placed next to the ladder by George a couple of hours earlier.
They Petosa girls could hear raindrops on the protecting leaves of the oak tree. As the board came loose and Wally stood up at the doorway, there was the sound of thunder. The girls ran for the house as the rain poured from the dark clouds that gathered over their town.