Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Fort of One's Own

My brothers and I used to construct forts.  We built them using chairs, blankets, the sofa, the coffee table, baseball bats, towers of Lego bricks, Giant Tinker Toys and pretty much anything else that could provide any nature of support or shelter that we could get our hands on without tearing apart some other portion of our parents’ home and thus attracting more attention than we already were by occupying ninety percent of any given room with the fort, much to our parents’ chagrin.

The purpose of such forts was twofold.  First, it provided a venue to imaginative play.  The most memorable creation of my childhood was designed by our middle bother to look like a ship.  The bow jutted out in the front and he used a table in a stroke of genius to create a below-deck cabin complete with its own blankets and pillows where we seafaring folk could gain respite from the angry waves above.  We wielded pretend harpoon guns and hunted man-eating sharks and white whales that had taken our legs from us, unaware that we would one day seek revenge.  I believe this memory has a lot to do with Jaws being my favorite movie to this day.

The second reason we enjoyed building forts came after the exciting adventures of our imaginations gave way to quiet, over-tired reflection.  Kids always seem to want their own space.  If you were lucky enough to have your own room (my brothers and I cycled each year…you shared two years in a row, then got your own for a year) you had that space already.  You treasured it and made it unique via posters and knick-knacks on the dressers and shelves.

A fort, however, built completely with spare parts from around the house by your hands provides even more of one’s own space.  Until I went off to college, hanging out in one of our forts, reading a book or playing my GameBoy, was the closest thing I had ever experienced to living on my own.  It was liberating.  I felt free, tucked away under a blanket thrown over a few chairs in a three-foot by six-foot space where nobody could see me.

Eventually, I became older, in body if not in spirit.  As the youngest of my siblings, I ended up with my own room consistently when both my brothers went off to college.  I had a permanent fort and I was in high school and, thus, too cool for forts.  The building finally ceased.

When my wife and I started dating, her little brother was all of five years old.  He built a fort in my presence once and I looked upon the tiny blanket draped over two chairs with pity.  I disconnected from the conversation with my would-be wife and in-laws and disappeared with him for several hours to show him how to make a proper fort.

Over the years, I would construct many a fort with him. My middle brother being the architectural pioneer, I learned my best fort building from him.  I tried to emulate him during these sessions with my soon-to-be brother-in-law and pushed the envelope with each new creation.  The culmination of our efforts engulfed ninety percent of a spare room, which became spare when my brother-in-law’s own older siblings (including my wife) had gone off to college.  It included a full size bed, it’s mattress made of five thick comforters stacked together, which was far less cozy than the bed he actually slept on normally but was infinitely cooler to make up for it.  Its vaulted ceilings allowed my brother-in-law to stand inside it and me to kneel without pushing our heads against the sheet that was its roof.  In a revolutionary move, I used a smaller, discarded television with a built in VCR and ran an extension cord from his real room.  It fit perfectly beneath one of the support chairs and not only allowed him to watch movies in the fort, but once the Nintendo 64 was installed, he needed only leave the fort to eat and use the bathroom.  Even then, he sometimes convinced his parents to allow him to take his meals into the fort, which stood on its carpeted foundation for several months, much to my in-laws’ chagrin.  I still regret at times that my engineering skills were not adept enough to install any kind of acceptable bathroom facility, though not for lack of trying.

The reason I am fondly recalling my fort building past is because my sons recently erected a structure of which I am quite proud.

The roof was always the most precarious portion of any fort.  Even when using the lightest possible sheet, gravity would eventually cause it to sag.  Regular fort maintenance needed to be practiced.  It would be tightened and its edges placed beneath the heaviest of books (still the most use I ever got out of the Encyclopedia Britannica).  The “tent-pole” technique was not considered ideal because interior space was at a premium and could not be sacrificed for a post in the midst of it, which could also be accidentally kicked out of position during play, causing a dangerous cave-in.

My sons have developed a tactic for avoiding any such concerns.  Taking full advantage of both modern furniture construction and parental leniency, they took the firm, yet light mattress from a day bed and hoisted it onto the support structure of four dining room chairs (we have been sitting on the remaining bench and toy chest to eat meals for the past several day now, much to my lumbar region’s chagrin).  This creates a cave-in-proof ceiling over the main room of the fort, which extends above the couch (aka bedroom) and then opens into a covered patio area where a fleece blanket creates an awning effect with the help of some Nerf samurai swords.

It is quite impressive and really very roomy and comfortable inside.  It also shields the occupants from outside detection, which I discovered when I was the target of a Nerf dart onslaught after my boys were surprised to find me napping inside.

Thank goodness for the escape hatch they had the foresight to install in the opposite wall.

I’m so proud.

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