Fort Mentality (Part 2)

I think back to all the forts I had as a kid.  When I was six or seven my dad nailed a platform into the fork of an apple tree and hammered some two-by-fours on the trunk for a ladder. I added plywood walls and a shelf for comic books and it was the perfect tree house. Many summers my sisters and I made forts out of clearings under bushes, bringing in some small chairs and peanut butter sandwiches to make a living space. On rainy days a blanket draped over the dining room table made for a luxurious hideout, furnished with the cushions off the couch. Even the most simple structure: tying together high grass to form a tepee to sit in, brought a secret joy at having a place of one’s own.

My neighbor Tod had a fort for a while, a wooden handmade camper top removed from his step-dad’s pickup truck and deposited in the empty yard next door.  It was painted pink and was only slightly better than Tubby’s clubhouse in Little Lulu.  His dogs, Dobermans, had a tendency to use the camper as a landmark when they were doing their business, which made for a stinky fort.

But the best fort of all was inspired by superhero headquarters, as well as by the Monkees and a short-lived Saturday morning TV show called The Kids From Caper.  The house where I grew up was on the edge of the town. Across the highway began the suburbs, but on my side of the road were mostly commercial buildings, a few spare houses, and empty fields.  Next to our house were two vacant lots.  Our immediate neighbors used to have a small house that felt like setting for a Dorothea Lange photo, but it was struck by lightning one rainy night and burned to the ground. Beyond that was an abandoned house with a plethora of detritus out back.  The yard held a rusted tractor from the 30’s, a couple discarded lawnmowers, threadbare car tires, miscellaneous derelict building supplies including a pile of asbestos tiles, and a structure that used to be a combination chicken coop and horse stable.

In the logic of childhood, since no one appeared to own the property we assumed it was available for exploration.  I spent hours digging up odd bits of machinery and equipment from the yard.  The wire chicken cages were intriguing, large enough for a chicken, but too small to climb in.  It was my neighbor Tod who got the idea of using the asbestos tiles as throwing stars, with a satisfying result when they shattered on impact with the side of the house.  I imagine that Tod got bored and left after the stack was gone, but I continued to explore the barn. I discovered that by standing on the wall of the stall I could pull myself through a hole in the ceiling into the empty hayloft. It was the perfect spot for a hideout, second only to a secret cave in a hidden mountain.

Pretty soon I had the place spiffed up.  The upstairs was my hideout. I swept out decades worth of dust, and replaced the hole with a trapdoor made from cut floorboards and a couple spare hinges.  The roof was mostly complete, but a decayed bit of tarpaper and shingles provided an opportunity to mount a home-made periscope crafted from plastic tubing and some mirrors. It gave a 180 degree view of the neighbor’s burned down house and yard – a perfect spot for spying on any intruding evil villains, or my sisters if they showed up.

I hauled up some chairs and used hammer and nails to make shelves for comics, the Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, and a Boy Scout first aid kit. I made my own version of a the Baxter Building’s communication by bringing in some Realistic brand walkie-talkies and a crystal radio built from a kit.  To complete the crime lab I put together a fingerprint kit: an ink pad, some typewriter paper, a makeup brush and some baby powder. The best feature, in my opinion at the time, was the burglar alarm. Purchased from Radio Shack, I adapted it to mount on the trapdoor so it would go off whenever the door was opened. I rigged up some fishing line to enable the alarm whenever I left the fort.

I don’t remember how long I had the fort, probably only a couple months. I do remember more than once bringing friends to it where we’d share a tin of sardines on Saltine crackers, or maybe some peanut butter sandwiches.  It was my middle-school creation of a super-hero team’s headquarters: crime lab, communications center, security system, secret passageways, and, if you count the tractors, even some vehicles.  My team wasn’t so much of a team as a series of guest-stars, but it was still fun.  Most importantly, it fulfilled my need for a headquarters, a base. It was a place of my own, my fortress of solitude, my cave, my domain over which I had control.

Click here to read the exciting conclusion

Click here to read Fort Mentality - Part 1