Tree-mounted rope let kids get into the swing of things


When I was a kid we had a rope swing. I’m not talking about a skinny little 10-foot rope, prickly and hard to sit on, like the sad and neglected ropes I see dangling from small trees around town. Also not like the too-thick, heavily-supervised ropes we used to have in school gyms. No, this rope swing was ideal in every way. From the smooth feel of the white rope to the perfect size of the knot for sitting or standing, our rope swing was peerless.

My dad and older brother hung the rope from a high, sturdy branch of one of our sycamore trees in the parking strip of our house on Pearson Street, near Whitman College. It was at least 30 feet long, hanging from about 35 feet up. It was easily higher than the roof of our two-story house, so it had a long, smooth trajectory from our porch out over the patio almost over the street. Because of its length, the ride was slow and lasted for usually three big swings — the initial exciting jump, followed by a slightly shorter return and ending by one slower swing back toward the middle of patio.

Sometimes we would put a ladder in the tree so we could jump out of the crook in two branches several feet higher than the porch. My dad and brother were in really good shape, so they could leap off the porch in a reverse arc and after about three periods of swinging could grab the crook of the tree and pull themselves right back up in the tree. But, my dad reminds me, they had to be in good shape to get to that point.

Our neighbor, Mark Pengra, had seen them actually doing this feat of landing up in the tree, so when his dad, Jim, was trying out the swing, Mark said, “Land back in the tree, Dad.” Jim Pengra was a physics professor at Whitman, and his answer to Mark was simply, “You can’t add entropy.” In other words, it was impossible. But Mark knew better. He’d seen it happen, but he also knew better than to contradict his father.

On special occasions — days when we had no school or obligations and when the weather was beautiful — my dad would bring out the tall ladder. The excitement! He would lean the ladder against the house, allowing us to climb up the second story, step out onto the eave of the porch roof and leap onto the rope. Now this was a big swing! A huge swoop with the rope beginning in the form of a J but straightening smoothly into an arc across the patio toward the opposite end of the patio. No matter how many times I did it, I never lost the thrilling feeling of having my stomach drop out from under me. Oh, how I would love to do that again.

The house is no longer in our family. My dad sold it right after I graduated from high school. I took a friend by it recently, and as I was describing the rope and the sycamores, I stepped backward toward them, expecting to feel the tree. Instead I stepped into nothing. The trees were gone, replaced by baby trees that may someday grow big enough to have enormous rope swings of their own.

I still miss that tree, but when I see other sycamores around town I am reminded of it.

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native and mom to two small children. She can be reached at


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