Friday, January 25, 2008

The Tree Forts of Our Lives

Long, long ago, in a land not so far away (the far western suburbs of Chicago, that is), there lived a young girl called Emily (that’d be me) who loved, more than anything, to spend her days outside, exploring and hanging out with her friends.

Summer, fall, winter and spring: every season had something to offer. When the snow came, the plows followed, and they pushed great heaps of snow into small mountains behind my home, and I’d dig and pack and scrape them into ice fortresses. When the snow melted it formed rushing rivers in the gutters and trenches of my neighborhood, and I’d wade through them pretending to be an intrepid explorer, crafting small boats from tinfoil and sailing them through the rapids. In the summer, when school was over and there were no other obligations, I would team up with my friends to build tree forts all throughout town.

One fort went up in a tall, skinny pine tree in my front yard. Another was built in a nearby forest preserve. But the crowning achievement, a collaborative effort between a whole gaggle of local kids, was built in the most perfect tree fort tree ever, in the woods that lined the bike path separating an old subdivision from a vast wasteland that would soon be a new subdivision.

Me and my two best friends stumbled onto the initial construction of the fort one day early in the summer. Someone had built a very solid platform into the strong, supportive branches of the tree. We approached the thing in awe, admiring the sturdy design and thrilling over the future building possibilities inherent therein. And since the fort was on public ground—nestled into a thin strip of woods between the path and the new subdivision—it was, according to the unwritten rules of neighborhood kids, fair game.

Nearly every day that followed saw me and my two friends returning to work on the fort. In addition to our own additions—walls, ceilings, rope ladder, a pulley system for hauling things up the tree—we could see that others were also putting work into the thing. It was shaping up to be the very best fort in town, and it needed a name that reflected its glory. The three friends played on a cul-de-sac league street hockey team with an undefeated record, and so they decided to name the fort after the team: Fort Black Cat. The name was fierce, sleek, and totally rad: they loved it.

Some days, when my two friends were otherwise occupied, I would go to the fort on my own. Sometimes I’d work on it, adding a support board here or a spy hole there, but sometimes I’d just lie down on the floor of the first level (for there were three levels, you see), Walkman playing Bjork’s first solo album, eyes trained on the canopy of leaves and the blue sky overhead. I’d think about all sorts of things: the crush I’d had on my best friend for so many years, new songs lyrics for our punk band, how much junior high sucked and how much I looked forward to college, whether my mother would ever get well again, and how cool Sarah McLachlan and Ian MacKaye were.

Your typical rambling thoughts of an adolescent tomboy, I suppose.

I looked forward to those days as much as I did to the days when me and my friends would hide in the branches for hours, working, spying on passing cyclists, and waging guerilla warfare on other nearby forts.

These other, far less glorious structures were sprinkled all along the path. Some were the sole domain of the kids whose backyards they sat in. Others were similarly operated by a collective. None were as magnificent as Fort Black Cat. There was one fort, however, that had attained its own sort of mythical status, one not earned for its strategic location or expert construction, but for something that held far more power over the teenaged mind. It was known only as the Porn Fort, and its walls were covered with clippings from various pornographic magazines.

We had first discovered the Porn Fort quite by accident. We were out exploring the woods, looking for bits of trash that might be useful for our own fort, when the foreign base loomed up in front of us. It was two “stories” tall and built almost completely free-standing, one side simply leaning lightly against a very put-upon looking tree. The bottom floor was empty and unremarkable, save the small ladder that led up through a hole in the ceiling that let out into the top floor. It was a bit of design genius: there was no way to see the interior of the top level from outside, you had to climb up through the hole to get there, and as your head rose through the floor, your eyes were suddenly inundated with the fort’s impressive gallery of filth.

It would have been a far more popular place to visit had it not been for the foul tempered shitheads who watched over it like pubescent hawks. They were high school freshmen, and therefore far more imposing a foe than any of our fellow middle school peers might have been. So it was that our first visit to the fort was our last, both because its owners happened upon us gawking and threatened to kick our butts and because, about a month later, someone’s parents found out about it and tore it down.

But what did we need the Porn Fort for, other than to assuage our curiosities? We had Black Cat, and no other fort around could match it.

By the time summer came to a close, our fort had become the crowning jewel of tree forts, a real work of tree fort art, born of blood, sweat and a few tears. We were so caught up in the initial euphoria of the thing that, at first, we hardly noticed that it was becoming less fun just to hang out there. Building it had giving us purpose and drive, but now that it was finished, what more was there to do? We could sit inside and watch the bulldozers in the nearby field as they prepared the way for the new housing development. We could play cards, scare off other kids, and have little picnics. Eventually, though, the initial luster wore off, and as the school year began and then progressed, we just forgot to go out to the fort at all.

When winter had come and gone, and spring was beginning to drown the world in melt water, I realized how long it had been since I’d gone to check on the place and decided to go back. I rode my bike to the hidden path in the tree line, followed it over the low mound of dirt and into the clearing under the tree that held the fort—only there was no tree, no clearing even. The bulldozers had cleared the woods on that side to make way for the backyards of the new homes that had suddenly sprung up there. The fort was gone.

High school came and went with its usual combination of drudgery, drama, good times and bad times. My mother passed away. My band broke up. We moved to another state entirely and I started all over for two years before leaving yet again for college. I never built another tree fort, but I always thought about it. I still do. And someday, maybe when I have kids of my own or maybe just for my own shits and giggles, I will build another tree fort. And I will give it a totally awesome name, like Fort Skull or Fort Puma or something. Still, I’m not sure anything could ever live up to Fort Black Cat, and all the memories associated with its time. I’m not sure that I mind.

…for D. and A.


BluStaCon said...


I spent many years in forts myself. I still have permanent pine pitch stains.

JT said...

This makes me want to convert one of the storage sheds in my backyard into some sort of fort.

Emily said...

If I can inspire just one person to build a fort, I know I've done right by this world.

The Lost Albatross