The Battle At Fort Mike

When my older sister, Gina, became a high school junior, the house suddenly got very loud. It was time for her to declare her independence from everyone and everything, and that, apparently, cannot be accomplished with an inside voice.

She yelled early and often in a shrill, tenacious soprano that burrowed directly into my head at the left temple and ricocheted off the interior of my skull. (Once a noise like that gets inside your cranium, by the way, it’s very difficult to get it out. On quiet nights I can still hear a faint, echoing “IT’S NOT FAIR!” circa. 1981.) If Gina was the only one making unpleasantly loud noises it wouldn’t have been so bad; unfortunately she inspired similarly loud noises from my parents.

When those three voices filled the house in a hollering harmony, all I wished to do was go elsewhere.

That was when I began to take an interest in the woods.

Running along an elevated ridge along the border of my yard, the woods wasn’t vast – you could almost always spy a house in the distance no matter where you looked from within – but it did stretch and twist in a wide ribbon around the perimeters of dozens of neighborhood properties. I could walk a mile or more without ever having to slip out from behind the leafy canopy provided by thick stands of birch and oak. I was both close to the safety of civilization and apart from it. It was perfect, really. The woods was a place to have an adventure! (But a mild one.) It was a place to explore! (But not get lost.)

The woods was also wonderfully – almost impossibly – quiet. My breathing was easier here. My mind was sharp and uncluttered. The very act of walking in these woods made me feel resourceful, brave, and sort of manly. Even when the house was peaceful, I rarely missed an opportunity to visit — for just beyond that tree line was a better version of me.

The more I explored the woods the more the woods offered. I soon discovered that the presence of all those nearby houses had an unexpected benefit: When a basement was excavated, all the boulders the work crew dug up had to be dumped somewhere. That somewhere was the woods. Every new neighborhood basement resulted in a new network of superb climbing structures.

Rocks weren’t the only things dumped in the woods. In the 1980s, wooded places everywhere served as America’s unwitting construction dumpster. Everything from soggy drywall, to cracked bricks, to castoff lumber was hurled inside to be swallowed up by the underbrush and forgotten.

This is a sad chapter in America’s environmental history. To nine-year-old me, however, all this garbage was a gift from heaven. Ever since I started to explore these woods, my head became crammed with vague yet persistent thoughts about building a fort. Now I had the materials to do it. Less than a quarter of a mile from my house, I had my very own hobo Home Depot.

I decided that constructing a fort was important. I never came across anyone else up in the woods – not even a yeti – therefore the woods was all mine. A fort allowed me to stake a claim to the land and protect myself against invaders, antagonists, and other ne’er-do-wells.

Although a part of my brain acted as if the entirety of the woods was mine, a far larger, calmer, and more practical part of my brain knew that only a very smallish part of the woods was mine, so I made sure my fort’s location was within sight of my garage and the adjacent first floor bathroom window.

After much consideration, I chose the perfect building site — one that was ideal for someone who didn’t know how to build anything. It consisted of a low, rounded boulder (a built-in foundation) completely encircled by birch trees (load bearing wall supports). All I had to do was nail plywood to the trees to make walls and find something to attach to the rock to make a sort of flat-ish floor. I also had to figure out how to make a roof that wouldn’t leak.

Actually I had quite a bit to do and little idea as to how to do it. I was certain of one thing, however: The job would require lots of hammering. Hammering made me happy.

Dad’s hammer, on the other hand, did not make me happy. It had endured so much wear over its long and abusive life that the hammerhead was rounded instead of flat. So even if you connected with a nail head – which for me was almost a miracle – the hammer would still slide off and mar the wood. Or my finger. Dad’s hammer was rusty, too, turning everything it brushed up against (like marred wood or a swollen finger) a nice shade of Cheetos orange. The hammerhead also had this habit of wanting to slide off its spongy wooden handle, which made each swing slightly terrifying.

It was a real piece of crap, that hammer. This would have been a problem for Dad if he ever used the thing, but letting Dad loose with a hammer was never a good idea. Mom, the House Enforcer and the person who insisted that our nice things stay nice, forbid him from ever using it. As far as Mom was concerned, the contents of Dad’s toolbox was for historical and archival purposes only.

No matter. Building contractors didn’t just throw construction materials into the woods they also threw their old tools. Despite being exposed to the elements for years, the discarded hammer I found was much, much better than anything Dad owned.

My fort construction commenced in earnest. For weeks on end I dragged longish lengths of 2x4s and sheets of plywood to the future home of Fort Mike.

I fell over rocks and clotheslined myself between tight knots of trees. Poison ivy crept up my legs. Mottled, weeping scabs adorned my knees and elbows. Splinters and thorn scratches crisscrossed my hands.

It was a lot to endure, but all the pain was worth it once the woods echoed with the sound of my hammer. It was now the birch trees’ turn to suffer. I hammered the plywood into place.

Then I hammered some more.

And more.

And then some more.

Just when it looked like there was no longer a place left for a nail to go, I’d notice a wee spot of unmolested wood and my heart would leap for joy.

Every day I hammered. Some days I hammered new planks to the trees. Other days, I re-hammered things I thought were secure but fell down during the night. I never minded such setbacks because it resulted in more hammering.

The roof was a bit vexing though. Nothing I devised would ever stay in place for more than a couple of days, yet I remained cheerful and undiscouraged, trying new ideas and hammering new materials into place with unrelenting zeal.

One afternoon, however, as I assessed what was perhaps my 50th roofing attempt, my mind began to fog over.

This was unusual for me. The woods, of all places, was the one place where my brain was always sharp and alert.

Focus! I told myself. But I couldn’t – and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t.

Then I heard it: a faint, barely perceptible mumble.

bwrwrwrwbrw

I cocked an ear. The sound felt familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

bwrwrwrwbrw

Until I noticed the sound was coming from the house.

My house! Oh, no! It couldn’t be!

But it was.

Yelling.

I could hear yelling through the walls of the house, across the side yard up the hill and past the trees.

I couldn’t hear what was being yelled – I could hardly hear it at all – but now that I heard it, I couldn’t shut it out.

bwrwrwrwbrw

It was maddening.

bwrwrwrwbrw

My fists clenched. My head pounded. I had never known such fury. Here I was, building a home away from home to create an oasis from noise, and that very noise – that God-awful noise – had tracked me down like a hunted animal.

All of my work, my time, and my bruises, rashes, and gashes were for nothing.

I squinted at the house through a web of branches. The garage door. The first floor bathroom window. I frowned with such ferocity my jaw ached.

WHAM!

The suddenness of the noise startled me out of my mood. It was the sound of the bathroom window slamming open. As it did so, a tidal wave of furious words escaped into the yard.

“Open the door! Open this door!”

Also escaping into the yard, was my sister. With the agility of a trapeze artist, she leapt out of the window in a graceful arc, expertly avoiding the holly bush planted beneath it.

“Gina! Open this door!”

Little did Mom and Dad know that they were yelling at no one. Gina left the locked bathroom door and the wide open window behind as she loped up the ridge into the woods straight for me.

She paused to scrutinize my work.

“Nice clubhouse.”

“It’s a fort.”

She shrugged. “Whatever.”

The conversation over, Gina skipped down the path of boulders deeper into the woods.

A groan and ping of springs turned my attention back to the house. It was the garage door. Framed in the dark passage, dazed and furious like a hibernating grizzly that had just been kicked awake, was Dad.

He was too late to catch Gina. Even if he wasn’t too late he wouldn’t have been able to catch Gina. Dad couldn’t catch anybody. Years before, Dad broke both of his legs in a nasty fall. He has walked slowly and with a pronounced limp ever since.

But then the incredible happened. Dad — and his limp — began the quixotic journey up the ridge and into the woods! He was still very slow – actually slower than usual because his fused ankles didn’t make it easy for him to climb hills – but such was his determination. Dad was going to give chase!

It was awe-inspiring.

He nodded to me. “’Lo,” he said as he lumbered past. There was not a trace of anger in his voice, but he always used an abbreviated “hello” when he was winded, which he clearly was. If any race was going to test his endurance, it was this one. He grabbed a sapling to balance himself and continued his pursuit. “Show me you tree house later, ‘kay?” he suggested.

“It’s a fort.”

He turned in the general direction of where Gina had trotted away and hustled off as a fast as his legs would allow. Even with his back to me, he kept talking as if none of this was the least bit unusual. “Whose hammer is that?”

“Mine.”

“Looks better than mine.”

“It’s a lot better than yours.”

Dad knew he could never take the boulder-strewn path that Gina chose, so he opted for a flatter, less traveled, parallel route that forced him to squeeze between tight clusters of trees. His path was not much easier than skipping atop the boulders, but he had no other option – except to go back to the house, which was out of the question. He had made a choice to pursue Gina and, once Dad set his mind to something, he was all in.

As Dad began to make some meaningful progress down this newly blazed path, Gina double backed to the house, traipsing from boulder to boulder seemingly without a care in the world. Dad saw her coming but couldn’t do much; at one point Gina even allowed herself to get almost within grabbing distance. My sister and I rarely got along, but even I couldn’t help but admire her chutzpah. If Dad wasn’t trapped on the wrong side of a thorn bush he probably would’ve admired it, too. Dad and Gina had a tempestuous relationship, but they both shared a proud, rebellious streak. They respected each other.

Gina returned to my construction site, acknowledged her unconditional victory over Dad with a smirk, and trotted back down the wooded hill to the driveway and her ancient, white Honda Accord.

The asthmatic engine wheezed to life and she was gone.

Why Gina took that detour into the woods when she could’ve just driven away is anyone’s guess. It was useless to try to understand Gina’s thought process. Gina never needed a “why” to do anything. She just did things.

The chase was over. Without another word, Dad began his slow, steady trudge down the hill, through the garage door, and back to the comforts of civilization.

Once again I was surrounded by silence.

Once again my mind became clear and alert.

Armed with this replenished brainpower, I reflected on what I had just seen.

Huh, I thought. Gina was kinda nice to me. This was rare and, therefore noteworthy. She didn’t yell at all. Not at me and not at Dad.

Huh, I thought again. Even though Dad was mad and tired and ripped his pants on a thorn bush, he didn’t yell either.

Gina and Dad wanted to kill each other, but they were both quiet and civilized about it.

But why?

That was the question.

Were they self-conscious about bringing the argument outside where the neighbors could overhear them?

Not likely.

Were Gina and Dad, in their own peculiar way, acknowledging that the woods was my turf? That the rules for engagement were different here?

That was even less likely.

Then another possibility hit me like a rounded, rusty hammerhead. Perhaps Gina and Dad encountered something strange and unfamiliar these woods – something I, too, had discovered when I first visited this place. Maybe they discovered that under the canopy of these trees anger couldn’t find enough daylight to grow.

It was the only theory that made any sense. I thought back on the many, many times I injured myself in these woods. I didn’t get angry when I fell on rocks or banged my head or sliced open my hands.

Even when I first heard the shouting from the house, my rage, though intense, lasted for only a moment before it snuffed itself out like a flame in an airless jar.

I started my fort project to provide protection from the arguing. But I didn’t need a fort. The woods were my fort. All of it. And it did its job beautifully.

So if my fort wasn’t a fort, what was it? A clubhouse? A treehouse? Something else? I didn’t know.

But whatever it was, it needed to be hammered.

With a smile so wide it made my face hurt, I returned to my work, confident that my 51st roofing attempt would be the charm.

70 thoughts on “The Battle At Fort Mike

  1. I love this story…the woods, trees; your fort, a place of comfort!
    And Father God made those trees! In fact, He was comforting you, your dad and lady Gina(your sister). We can’t say He isn’t present with us because He is. Hammer on sir! Hammer on! 🔨🔨🔨

  2. Love the story, Mike. Brings back many memories of forts and backwoods exploration as a kid. We didn’t have a “hobo Home Depot.” We had an old chicken coop that served us well for years after we “fixed it up.” Thanks for the morning smile 🙂

  3. I can only imagine your frustration as you were building that fort (treehouse, nah, clubhouse, nope) and heard noise from the house you were so desperately trying to escape. The woods does have a calmness to it. Has Gina calmed down since then? 😉

  4. I could see this entire story unfold as you told it… you have great skills there Mike! It’s no wonder you have had the successes you enjoy. The turmoil must have been rich in your house. Nothing is worse than the scorn of a teenage girl. I have a daughter who is 28 and life with her could be hell sometimes, so I identify with your dad somewhat. However, I’m glad you found refuge in your woods. It is probably one of the reasons you have some sanity… I am also curious to what your sister is like now. 🙂

  5. This story doubled as a memoir, a meditative ‘the woods are our refuge’ piece, and a story that took me (and probably many of your readers) back to ‘our’ woods, our refuge, when we were kids. It’s easy to forget that time in our lives. You write about it so distinctly and succinctly that I’m there, with you, hammering away. As a girly girl, I never hammered in the woods (and really, Mike, how many do?), but many times I snuck out of the house (even though I didn’t have to sneak – my parents were always urging me to “stop reading and get outside!”) and walked a half hour to a thick forest. Looking back now, not a safe place for a 10-year-old girl. But I’d walk along the stream, talk with the frogs, chase the leaves blowing in the wind, and feel released from all that wasn’t right. I’d be free.
    Thanks for bringing all that back to me.

    • This is probably one of the finest blog comments I’ve ever received. Thank you, my friend. I am delighted to hear that my fort story brought back so many fond memories.

      As a young girl my wife also chatted with frogs. As for me, I prefer the company of squirrels.

  6. Girls! And s.i.s.t.e.r.s. Ouch. Such drama, but it doesn’t last forever.
    Glad you got to build a fort. Isn’t that every boy’s dream for whatever reason?
    Wonderful story, Mike. Sisters and drama happen. No more drama, right? 🙂

  7. “Hobo Home Depot’ is a great turn of phrase and yet only one of the many sharp descriptions/moments within your story.
    Your blend of humor, and reflection rivals great memoirs. Keep on writing.

  8. Having known your family since before they actually became “a family”, I thought I had heard every story worth passing along. WRONG! This one is a pure gem. From the building of your “retreat”, to Gina’s escape through the bathroom window, I felt like I was right there and seeing all the action through your eyes. Picturing your father chatting with you while pursuing Gina was priceless. Thanks for keeping me smiling.

  9. Ha! Rust the color of Cheetos and hobo Home Depot. Nice. I think you’re on to something. I, too, felt this way as a child growing up on a farm and having a woods only a stone’s throw away. Have you read “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv? I think your essay supports his theory, that today’s kids are suffering from “nature deficit disorder.” And perhaps there would be a lot less road rage if people spent more time in the woods. I suddenly feel the need to go hang out in the woods. Just schlepped my son and some of his classmates up to a campground, where they will spend the rest of the week with their teachers, hanging out in the trees and hiking. All of them have to “check” their electronic devices and do without until they come home. They really looked like they were enjoying being outside and in the trees when I left. Who knows? It’s dark, now, and it could be looking very Lord of the Flies at this point. The bliss of not knowing—and enjoying an empty house since my husband is on a business trip. The last time I was alone like this was—well, I can’t remember. Crack the bubbly and write. That’s the plan! Cheers!

    • I think you have something with Nature Deficit Disorder. Woods makes people better, smarter, more relaxed and more reasonable. In one of my favorite plays, “A Walk in the Woods” by Lee Blessing, a pair of diplomats do all of their most effective arms negotiations (and forge a strong friendship) in the in the middle of a Swiss forest.

      While mobile technology certainly contributes to the recent onslaught of NDD, I think the real culprit is the deer tick. Those buggers scare the daylights out of parents these days; as a consequence, kids are discouraged from woodland exploration. It’s a shame.

      I have not read Last Child in the Woods, but I think I will soon.

  10. I never did like loud arguments, yelling, and the emotions that went along with that. Nature has a calming effect on just about everyone. I once read an article by a man who proposed that if teenagers were spending more time outside, they’d be less likely to turn into the shooters we’ve witnessed in schools and theaters. He wrote that when he was at a crucial age and confused, he was introduced to the outdoors through some kind of club he’d joined and it had made such a difference for him that he sought to help other kids by now leading such a club. I don’t do it justice here, but it made a lot of sense.

    • I agree with that thesis. When teens keep themselves in small rooms staring at small screens, it’s easy for them to view their small problems as enormous ones. In the vastness and beauty of woods, however, it’s hard to hold onto petty gripes and grudges. The world is just too big to be preoccupied with things so small.

  11. The closest woods belonged to a private school, so there could be no hammering. I just wandered around pretending to be Aragorn. But my brother’s friends a few doors down from us had a big tree and a couple dozen old bricks, so we built and rebuilt that fort many times. We never did figure out how to make a parachute for GI Joe that would actually slow his fall and keep his limbs from falling off, alas. Good times!

  12. What a humorous story. I could just picture you hammering away. I used to escape into the trees to get away from family squibbles, so understand your need for quiet. Terrific story.

  13. Great story. Brought back memories. We had a tree by the curb. I would run, jump, and, using one foot to heave me up to the lowest branch, pull myself onto a branch and start climbing. I was so disappointed to see the new owners dug up the tree. It was such a good companion. Kids need self-made outdoor adventures like we had in the 1980’s (no, 1960’s and 70’s). They’re too disconnected from the world around them.

  14. I understand the hold the woods can hold. My parents have a long property with woods in the back (we keep finding bits of garbage surfacing from the ground from when it was used as the communal dumping ground so that resonated with me). It’s an oasis within a suburban landscape as in the summer you cannot see other houses or even my parent’s house. I go there with my puppy as she can run around and expend lots of energy chasing chipmunks and I just need to sit on a fallen log watching her. This gives me a chance to notice details in the underside of the tree leaves, the birds chirp, the tree stumps.

    You’ve clearly taken me to a happy place, Mike.

  15. I didn’t have woods but we had a field with a deep pit that we covered with sheets of plywood for a makeshift fort and we took over a dumpster area, sans dumpsters and using cardboard made forts inside of it.

    I didn’t really experience the joys of the woods until my late teens. Then I was hooked on them, camping often.

  16. Ahh, this story is so lovely… I spent my childhood in the woods too. My family moved a lot, but we were *always* on the edge of one forest or another, and I would traipse about gleefully in each one. I loved the part in your story about how anger can’t grow in the woods. There really is something magical about them that affects a person.

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