WWII vet weaves twigs and memories into unlikely sanctuary

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Without Glen Lee, a patch of land off Mountain Creek Road would be nothing more than a creek culvert and a thicket, the edge of an access road between parking lots or a collecting ground for discarded bottles.

But Lee set foot on the ground and changed it. In the years he's come to this spot, the 88-year-old has shaved enough wood and bent enough tree limbs to turn it into something worth noticing.

To employees at the nearby liquor store, the Burger King and the Dollar General who watch him come and go, to the people who drive by and sometimes stop, Lee's open-air house of twigs embodies a wild sort of mystery.

And Lee, called just the "stick man," is talked about more as legend than reality.

What kind of mind could make thousands of little branches stand and stay standing? What kind of mind would undertake something so tedious, so large?

Few know where he comes from or where he goes, and he doesn't ask anyone to look, to pay attention to what he has made. He enters in the mornings with a coffee and a newspaper, fiddles for a few hours, then walks away.

"We don't have any idea about him, but he's talented, that is for sure," said Donna Buckman, a cashier at Vintage Wines, who watches him from the store's window almost every day.

Glen Lee is about 5 foot 3 and gaunt, with cloudy blue eyes. He wears steel-toed, black military boots and a leather driver's cap and hunches when he walks, leaning in to secure unsteady steps.

But when he tends to his wood, when he finds it and piles it and stacks it and blends it together in his fortress, he feels like a young man again.

He moves a log twice his height and slams a clenched fist against his stomach and his biceps.

"I did this all myself," he said. "I'm strong."

For four years, this has been his routine - pay a visit to the stick house, then walk to Burger King. Twice a day he'll sit at the fast-food restaurant, drinking coffee and telling war stories about his time in Germany, where he says he slept on a cold forest floor, dodging gunfire and hiding from the enemy during World War II.

He often repeats himself, so many people avoid him. Others are more patient. They'll sit still while he shows them the tattered U.S. Army discharge paper he keeps in his wallet, or unfolds the picture he drew of himself as a cowboy.

"He's really nice and generous. ... He just always talks about the war," said Ashley Appleberry, who has worked at the Burger King on Signal Mountain Road for four years. "Before he started working on [the stick house] it was just a whole bunch of woods and swamp. He's built an amazing little maze."

The shack, the fortress, the house - whatever you want to call it - is where Lee hides from the still-vivid memories of his 40 months as a rifleman in the infantry, where he remembers how he once worked as a carpenter and home builder after his return from the war to Chattanooga and even owned his own home.

Inside his creation, he tries to remember playing among the trees with his father as a boy.

"I had a big house I used to live in," he'll repeat again and again. "Most of my family has been builders."

The stick house began when he took a razor knife to a few fallen tree limbs. The trailer park where he lives with his son was fenced off from the woods and covered in gravel. So he liked to wander off into nature in the mornings and made walking sticks that he used as he wound along nearby Mountain Creek.

The creek led him to the spot where he started to build, just under a mile away. Every morning, he carried new walking sticks there, dozens of them, hundreds of them. Then he started to clear the brush.

He used red string to tie some branches, but most of the frame was held together through cross bracing, stick supporting stick.

And somehow the house held together.

Even February's burst of 60-mph winds that ripped dozens of trees from the ground around the city didn't topple the architecture.

Still, inside, it feels fragile. Whole sections, several feet deep in crisscrossed sticks, lean to the right or left. When the wind blows, the structure compresses and creaks.

Lee enjoys the solitude, the gasping limbs, the birds. Green buds are appearing now. The spring rains rush through the creek bed.

"It's peace and quiet down here, like you're being in another world," he said.

Lee doesn't talk about the stick house to his family - his son Duane, his daughter-in-law Robbyn or his granddaughter. He hasn't told them about his plan to expand the left wing of the structure. He hasn't bragged to them about the empty plastic bottles he buried in the ground that crack to warn him of intruders' steps.

Robbyn Lee said the family doesn't go to the stick house.

"We went down there once," she said. "And we didn't think it was much."

Still, others marvel at what Lee has done. And more people are stopping at the stick house now, walking through its corridors. A few weeks ago, Chattanooga City Judge Russell Bean sat with Lee for an hour, Lee said. Recently, a group of city workers stopped and went inside.

Buckman, watching through her store's window, worries about the attention. She's seen the stick man sitting beside the creek, alone and seemingly happy with his creation.

"To think someone spent that much time, I am fascinated," she said. "I hope they don't tear it down. I just hope."