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 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.
I cocked an ear. The sound felt familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
Until I noticed the sound was coming from the house.
My house! Oh, no! It couldn’t be!
But it was.
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.
It was maddening.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.
That was the question.
Were they self-conscious about bringing the argument outside where the neighbors could overhear them?
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.