Sunday, December 13, 2009

Build It And They'll Destroy It

I guess it starts with boys at pre-school age. The need to build a structure of some type. Call it a fort, tee pee, lean-to, cave, or a hut. We started with the couch cushions and blankets. Making our own special fortress to an imaginary place seemed like an inherent need in all boys growing up in our area.

By the time I was out of the primary grades, I had taken my fort building to a new level. Several of my friends and I had converted an old shed into a Club House, Complete with sheets for curtains. It was a place to hang out when the weather was lousy, which in Northern Ohio, is a constant six months of the year.

Fast Forward to 7th or 8th grade. Fifth Street Park became the location for the ultimate in Fort Building. The park was about six square city blocks, but seemed as big as Yellowstone to our little gang of Hellions. Away from the playground, the park emptied into a narrow valley covered with trees, Brier Bushes, and those damn bushes with the brown burrs on them that stuck to absolutely everything, including your hair.

We had graduated into Master Builders in our opinion. We developed different techniques depending on the materials we had at hand. Lumber, nails, and tools were often "borrowed" from some body's father's workshop. Our group was a democracy on deciding how to build a structure. Any conflict was settled by majority rules. Location was decided by drainage factors, often without too much thought into it.

The main design we used was a combination of half below ground and half above. We would start with everyone bringing a shovel and digging a pit all day. Usually, we quit at about four feet deep or when we hit a humongous rock that we couldn't remove. On top of the pit, we would build walls and a roof about three feet high. The large support beams were made of 2 x 12 scaffolding, "Courtesy" of a construction company up the street. We complimented the interior with carpet remnants and furniture that was put to the curb.

We had rules that helped hold us together for the common good: 1. You had to have helped in building or contributed material in order to enter the fort. 2. No girls were allowed inside. Not that we were "He-Man Woman Haters", we just knew that it would bring trouble if anyone knew we were letting girls hang out there. 3. No skipping school and staying in the fort. We didn't want the police or others looking for truant kids in our place.

Because we were building on public property, had no permit, of course, were using some material that was obtained without permission, our structures lasted until the city workers found them and destroyed them with a back hoe. Just like a Beaver who's dam is wrecked, we would build another one. Using past experiences, the new one would be an improvement on the previous one.

When most of us were about fifteen, we built what many considered the ultimate in Hang-Outs. This place was built completely underground. About twelve feet square and eight feet deep, we even "carved" chairs into the walls and had a 55 gallon drum with vent pipe for a stove in cold weather. The roof was covered with one-inch plywood that was covered with sod, so you couldn't even tell it was there. It seemed like every guy in my class was involved in that project.

As fate would have it, one of the boys broke our rules in a BIG way. Not only was he playing Hooky, he had a girl in the Fort. He was "caught in The Act" by the police. Our "Taj Mahal" of Hang Outs was torn apart the following day. Before the Back Hoe moved in for the Kill, a local TV station came to the scene and filmed the fort inside and out. The reporter actually focused on what a marvel of construction this place was, not The Den of Delinquency it had become. We were so proud!


  1. This is so cool! I'm surprised you didn't grow up to build your own log cabin or something!
    When kids played without an adult in charge, not as part of an organized program, they learned how to solve problems, work together, and get stuff done. Great skills, and what makes us an awesome generation.
    My brother said once that when he was young there was no organized community baseball. You just gathered up a bunch of kids of all ages and put together two teams and played. When there was a dispute, you solved it or the game was over. So you were highly inspired to just solve it. Sometimes you didn't get your way and sometimes it wasn't fair, but you learned that it's not the end of the world and the game goes on.

  2. How great, Tom! What a cool story of childhood fun. I am very impressed with your method of burying or partially burying your forts into the ground. My friends and I never did that... ours were always built up in trees and we usually fought over the best "room with a view" - albeit just a branch or a little platform - that had the best view of the Seattle's Puget Sound.

    I think it was cool how you even had a furnace of sorts. I know we can't even explain why, but it was so awesome to hang out as kids back then in a place we had built with our own hands. Not even really "doing" something, but just being a part of something bigger than ourselves!

    Thanks for another glimpse back into a great part of our youth! Long live childlike ingenuity!