Off Hours: A fort of one's own

By Brian Cox

Editor, Legal News

The best fort I ever built was underground. It was fine work and might, for all I know, still be there undetected like a long-abandoned bomb shelter.

It took my brothers and I many hot summer days to excavate the dirt, which we initially undertook as an alternative to boredom, determining simply to dig the biggest hole ever. At some point, despite our youthful optimism and indefatigable energy, we realized that while we had dug a substantially large and deep hole, it was unlikely given the hardening clay that we would be able to dig the deepest hole ever without upgrading to some serious earth-moving equipment.

With dirt-stained, sweaty faces, we stood around the edge of the hole looking into it, wondering, I’m sure, what to do with a really big hole once you’ve finished digging it.

One of us (I like to think it was me) suggested turning it into a fort. We immediately recognized the idea as sheer genius and dashed home to bring back scrap plywood and two-by-fours. We covered the hole with sheets of plywood and covered the plywood with dirt, leaving a small, cleverly disguised entrance that required us to crawl through on our bellies. Once inside, though, you could stand up.

We stocked the fort with survival equipment such as candles, canteens, a couple pocketknives and peanut butter. We held an initiation ceremony, I remember, that involved passing your hand through a candle’s flickering flame, and I remember arguing over whether somebody’s hand had passed through the flame or over the flame (I think we made them do it again to be sure). We took a vow of secrecy, a vow I am only now breaking more than 30 years later.

I recalled that remarkable fort of my youth recently when I spent several hours on a Sunday afternoon constructing a simpler and, admittedly, safer fort for my 8-year-old daughter and her friends. They were looking for something to do and I said, “I don’t know, go build a fort or something.”

“Will you help us?” asked my daughter.

It was not how I had planned to spend my Sunday, but I stood up and said, “Why not!” and outside we went. I marched them over to the woodpile. We would build a log fort, I had decided.

What I had not thought through was that most of the logs were too heavy for my daughter and her friends to move. So I hauled them into position, stacking them to create three walls, while the girls watched and squealed at every sighting of a potato bug or centipede.

When I finished stacking the logs, the plan was to bridge the walls with long sticks to form a roof, but the walls were too high for the girls to reach, and so I took on the responsibility of laying branches and strips of bark across the top while the girls gradually wandered off to play school on the back porch.

I next scrounged up a pair of tarps that I draped over the stick roof to keep the rain out and over the front to create a flap entrance. I stood back to admire my handiwork. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. I lifted the flap and stepped inside. It was shadowed, the way a fort should be. I felt hidden and protected. I imagined no one knew I was there. I could have my lunch out here, I thought.

I called the girls to show them the finished fort. “Cool!” they cried as they ducked under the tarp and looked around.

“This could be the school,” one said.

I almost objected. I had built a fort, not a school.

“It’s pretty small,” said another.

Small? There were four of us inside, and only one of us was slightly hunched with his head brushing the roof. And if they wanted something bigger, more time than an hour on a Sunday would be necessary.

“It could be the bathroom,” said my daughter.

Whoa, whoa, whoa there. I had not built an outhouse. It was a fort. We were supposed to be taking a blood oath, not discussing plumbing possibilities.

My daughter and her friends rushed off back to the porch, the fort forgotten for now.

I went inside and made a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Then I took my fare to the fort, sat on a log and ate my lunch in secret. It wasn’t the same as when my brothers and I had apples and slices of bread with peanut butter underground, but it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.