A Thing for Swings A good strong tree (or even a rafter) plus some wood and rope are all Bill Anacker needs to spread joy and fun wherever he goes.

July 14, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

On the day before he and his wife are off on a motor trip to visit family in Alberta, Canada, Bill Anacker takes a trip across his house -- on a swing.

"Wheeeee!" cries the spry man wearing brown work pants, a T-shirt and a baseball cap that says "80 isn't old for a tree."

Clutching the swing by its single rope, Anacker leaps from a cedar-log stairway and soars across the sprawling, open interior of his octagonal cabin, a terrestrial tree house that appears to have risen of its own accord beneath a grove of towering chestnut and oak trees in northern Baltimore County.

"Wheeeee!" the man cries again. Eighty isn't old for Bill Anacker either.

Anacker's wooded home in Freeland has become a natural amusement park where children of all ages can take wonderful, gravity-defying chances on Anacker's 20 swings -- five inside, 15 outside. There are single-rope "Tarzan" swings, pancake swings, bucket swings, floating seesaws, bucking-bronco spool swings, group swings and less-daring "grandma" porch swings.

A self-proclaimed "ordained arborist," Anacker has evolved into a whimsical folk legend, a Johnny Appleseed of swings traveling from one wooded expanse to another around Maryland and the rest of the country, installing untold variations of the ancient staple of child's play.

Motivated more by joy than profit, he makes swings for modest fees, $60 to $150. As Anacker sees it, where there's a tree, there's fun. And if it were possible, he would put a swing on every tree, everywhere he went.

Anacker isn't the type to become overly introspective in his musings about swings. When you ask him to describe their appeal, he simply says: "It's delightful!"

It falls to Nathan Dunlap, his good friend and protege in the tree-tending and swing business, to probe the meaning of Anacker's good works: "It's a way of bringing into people's lives something that Americans are often missing. In general they are so busy, they have no real time to just simply enjoy the simple things of life, like getting on a swing and going back and forth and feeling the motion of the rope and the wind and the excitement of falling through the air as you jump off."

Anacker's swinging ministry began by accident.

Growing up in Baltimore, he was destined for a minor league baseball contract with the Orioles, but that providentially went kaput when he wrenched an ankle at Prettyboy Dam. So Anacker spent a picaresque youth laboring around the country, then returned to Baltimore.

There, in 1949, he founded A&A Tree Experts. Scampering fearlessly up trees, judiciously wielding a chain saw to prune dead and crowded limbs, installing cables to keep grand old timbers from splitting, Anacker cultivated a tripartite passion for nature, holistic living and God.

Eureka

Then one day, 30 years ago, a client asked him, while he was aloft, to attach a rope to a limb for a swing. The request had a profound impact on the man. It was as if the scary/wonderful sensation of flying rhythmically to and fro was the missing link in Anacker's spiritual cosmos.

Since that moment, he has preached the ecstasy of swinging. "The higher you go, the better the swing you get," Anacker instructs one and all, as if grooming his students for faith on a much more exalted and risky plane.

Anacker estimates that he has installed 100 swings in the Baltimore area this past year alone. He has built swings at the homes of friends and relatives around the country. The high-flying swings daredevils dote on at the Milford Mill Swimming Club in Randallstown are his. He frequently spots a home with kids and trees that beg for a swing and installs it gratis.

Anacker's own home is a panoply of ponderosa pine, tulip poplars and cedar timbers built in the late 1970s by him and his brother-in-law. Inside it, besides the Tarzan swing, there is a wide swing for two, a hanging hammock positioned to watch "Jeopardy!" a bungee swing and a climbing rope that takes the adventurous up to the rafters, where, say, at a birthday party, they might find treasure. All swings dangle from the cabin's huge central space, which combines kitchen, dining room and living room.

"We're swing-happy," says Anacker, who spent many days as a kid swinging from monkey vines and hunting for frogs in Baltimore's rural reaches. With his piercing blue eyes, gaunt face and spry posture, Anacker could pass for Cal Ripken Sr., minus the baseball legend's hard glint.

Treehouses

Anacker also builds spectacular tree houses with Dunlap, whom Anacker met in 1975 after he placed an ad in the Mother Earth News, hoping to find friendly folks to stay with on a cross-country trip. As Anacker remembers, the ad went something like this: "58-year-old, still climbs trees, likes kids and trees, willing to stay with people on the way to Ca." Anacker received responses from people in Georgia, New Mexico, other far-flung states and from the Dunlap family in Kentucky.

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