“Remarkable,” “unique” and “creativity at its worst” are words and phrases used to describe the fort. A structure so absurd it needed no specific name. It was truly the fort of forts. A massive conglomeration of random objects that validated the saying, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Naysayer’s egged it, while supporters planned school trips to witness it. Strange as it might sound, this unscrupulous pile of garbage has impacted my life more than anything over the last twenty-one years. In retrospect, the fort set the foundation for who I am today. Without question, the fort has honed my independence, passion for the outdoors and my thirst for adventure. While it met its demise during the winter of 2008, the friends, stories, and lessons learned remain.
There was a log pile under a large pine tree where my friend’s father split and kept wood for their indoor fireplace. However, Joe and I saw it as a playground and arranged the logs like ancient legos. We were five years old and easy to please. Having logs to stack and a nice tree to monkey around on was all we could ask for. The perennial structures came and went as the wood was inevitably burned during the cold winters. In order to seek out a more permanent and exclusive fort, we expanded into the tree. There we endlessly nailed up boards to create rooms or “lookouts” as we called them. The once innocent pine tree began to look like a mix between the Swiss Family Robinsons and a wayward beaver dam.
This was all happening during an interesting and innovative time for a kid growing up in America. The mid to late 90’s were full of memorable fads like pog, boondoggle, yo-yos and Tamagotchi pocket pets. The universe revolved around Nickelodeon, and candy warheads could be used as a form of currency.
Through it all, the fort never dwindled. Joe and I never really caught on to those mainstream fads. In fact, the emergence of electronics bored us to death. We would much prefer being outside, covered in sap, lounging around the fort in homemade hammocks. It’s not that we were outsiders. I still smoked candy cigarettes like a badass and could play four square with the best of them. We were two kids who had found their niche and were delighted to go along for the ride. Growing up in this lifestyle promoted a laidback outlook on life. I think not getting caught up in the small aspects of life can save people a lot of grief. The fort was a relatively short chapter in my life, but it came during a crucial time. I learned that the simple, seemingly insignificant components of life can be the most defining.
The fort brought forth my love for the outdoors and using my hands. I would have much preferred to hold a hammer as opposed to a remote or Game Boy growing up. Digging post holes, making homemade ladders and sawing wood were daily routines. Physical activity motivated us while raging ADD-fueled our relentless need for expansion. The walls were never thick enough and the tree forts never high enough. It was not a good day’s work without getting dirty and the best days were spent outside. I still need a certain amount of physical activity every day in order to feel satisfied with myself. Often I find myself in class gazing out a window, contemplating how to rescue a day spent cooped up inside.
This lifestyle also sparked a tremendous amount of creativity that I possess to this day. After all, accessorizing the fort was a full-time job as a kid. Equipped with a homemade U-Haul consisting of a radio flyer wagon hitched to my huffy, Joe and I would go around collecting junk. On a good day, we would beat the garbage pickup and our rival “Got Junk” collectors in order to reap the benefits. To us just about everything had a place in the fort and could serve a useful purpose. To our parents’ dismay, this included refrigerators, tackle boxes, old furniture, chains, golf clubs, etc. Sure it wasn’t the prettiest construction ever, but it came from the depths of our own imagination. Most kids were transfixed with Pokemon, obsessed with the product of someone else’s ingenuity. I am not saying I didn’t have a soft spot for products like Tickle Me Elmo, but the fort provided the best entertainment by far.
Looking back, Joe and I lived a remarkably reminiscent Huckleberry-Finn lifestyle growing up in the suburbs of Rochester. We were mischievous youth at their finest, resented by neighbors and applauded by our peers, rules were meant to be broken and buttons made to push. If there was no risk, excitement or challenge involved we weren’t interested. For example, we had no respect for roads or sidewalks as we would cut through yards, hopping fences. Climbing around the fort itself was a recipe for disaster as it resembled an overgrow game of Jenga. Sword fights were used to settle disputes and ding-dong-ditching was a right of passage.
Years later my sword-fighting days are long gone and I now prefer escalators to fence hopping. However, I would be lying if I said didn’t still have an underlying, fundamental quest for adventure, an internal drive to make every day somehow unique. I think deep down I fear routine and the idea of knowing what is going to happen each and every day. My organizational skills may be worse off, but this uncertainty makes for some spectacular memories.
The fort had an aura of purity around it. Here was a place that I could call my own and do as I pleased. Under the shade of that mighty pine tree, there were no worries or concerns. Fortunately, a simple twenty-second walk from the back door was all it took to reach this haven. I have gone through many chapters over the course of my life, but like a shadow, the fort always follows. Those candy cigarettes turned into Marlboros and the once cherished hot cider was substituted with cheap beer. Inevitably, all good things come to an end, and the great fort was no exception. Everything changed when a rebellious spark found its home in the thatched roof. The fort burned like the overgrown matchbox that is was. Fortunately, the friends, stories, and lessons learned remain.