Quest for the Perfect Fort pt 2

This story begins with an introduction and is preceded by part 1. Even though this part of the story is fairly complete, much description of our neighborhood and early quests are in part 1. Thanks in advance for reading.

Part 2

Now that we were eight or nine, we started to have a bigger interest in sports. We played little league baseball and my fantasies started to focus on being a professional baseball or football player. We started playing pitch and catch or playing football more and more and thinking about forts less. The Parton’s were more into basketball and soccer. We played that with them, but we were much younger and the older brothers played very rough, never taking it easy on us.

One day we were playing soccer, which at the time was still considered a pussy game, and playing against the big kids almost cost me an eye. Steven Parton was coming toward me kick dribbling the ball and I was playing goalie. He kicked the ball and I watched it getting closer, following the path, not understanding that the spin was making the ball turn and drop. I thought I would swat the ball away but the ball hit me flush in the eye.

If the ball had been inflated to the proper level, it would have bounced off without injury. But the ball was only half inflated and when it hit, the force of the kick knocked me silly and caused a partial detachment my retina, and hemorrhaged my pupil.

When my mom looked at my eye, she didn’t see any problem, but because of my discomfort, she brought me to the emergency room.  The doctor told her it saved my eye. The hemorrhaging of the pupil would have ruined my vision if not treated immediately. I was hospitalized for almost a week, I had to keep on my back with blindfolds covering both eyes.  What I remember most was the warning by the doctor. If I ever wanted to play ball or anything that required sight, I had to lay as still as possible, stay calm, and keep both of my eyes covered.

He explained that the eyes worked together and if I had one eye not covered, the other damaged eye would move in unison with the eye I was using. They had to keep my eye movement to a minimum.

I followed the doctor’s orders and stayed as calm and quiet as I could. The only times I peeked was when the boy in the bed beside me was watching Batman and Petticoat Junction on the hospital television. If I rolled over at the right angle, I could see out of the corner of my eye. The dressings were not taped where the bandages met the nose. I couldn’t resist!

It was torturous afterwards wondering if I ruined my vision and any shot at a baseball career to watch a couple TV shows.

Before discharge, the doctor reinforced it was very important I take the winter off from sports and any activity that required running. He told me if I could stay away from any more damage, I would be ready for the beginning of the little league baseball season. This was a powerful incentive.

A lot changed while I was out of commission. One of the biggest things was the end result of sitting around every day watching television, doing word searches and putting together puzzles. Since I was not out running around like I always did with all my friends, I got fat. When baseball season rolled around, I was able to see fine. My eye healed and my vision returned to 20/20. Unfortunately, I was so out of shape that it affected my confidence and I had a horrible season.

Part of my failure was being overweight and out of shape. I also went from being one of the best older kids on the team, to being out of shape, and one of the youngest now that I was in the nine to twelve age group. It was a tough adjustment.

Jeff and Chris were now best friends, spending lots of time making models together, and the Partons were moving. That was horrible news. There were not that many kids in our neighborhood and we were losing two girls and an older boy who taught us a lot of bad things that we thought were cool. At least we got to see their house get torn down. And the future would bring a great spot to play baseball, football, and hockey. Not that we appreciated the fact at the time.

Shortly after the Parton’s moved, things changed a lot in the neighborhood. Jeff and Chris went to Roslyn Elementary and I went to St Luke’s. By the time I got home from school, Jeff and Chris were usually already deep in play. They both liked cars, models, and trains, and would spend hours playing Hot Wheels on the dirt piles in the back of Chris’ yard. They set up a series of roads, hills, and jumps to play with their cars, using scenery from their train setup to fortify their fantasy. The only thing I liked about Hot Wheels was crashing them and stealing them.

As much as I enjoyed certain fantasies, playing characters in stories, I didn’t get into what they were playing and I was having less success getting them to play baseball or ride bikes. Not having the Partons around made a big difference. Bobby and Linda were older and never around now that the Parton’s were gone, and a lot of times I was feeling like a third wheel with Chris and Jeff.

I was never so glad to hear that a new family had moved in down the street from Jeff and couldn’t wait to meet a new boy our age.  Meeting George was not the way that most friendships develop.  But, George was not like most kids.

I was playing more and was going through another growth spurt but I was still a chunky kid. And I was very sensitive about my weight. It used to piss me off when my mom would buy me clothes and I would have to wear chunky sizes. And who would ever call a brand for chunky boys Big Yank?

This day, I was on my front hill pulling weeds and not the least bit happy about it. It was one of those chores that I hated that had to be done a couple times each Spring and Summer and again in the Fall.  The front hill had recently been dug up to replace the sewer line. Erosion was washing the ground away and only weeds would grow in the deep shade of the large poplar tree growing beside the steps.  Even hostas wouldn’t grow on this part of the hill; just weeds.

As I was standing there, sweaty and dirty and frustrated, this little kid was riding his bike down the street, zig-zagging from side to side. He rode past a couple times and on his third pass he said “what’s up fatso?” I was shocked that this little punk, three or four years younger than me, already on his way to being fat, would call me fat. I was so surprised that I stood there staring, with my mouth hanging open in shock. And then he circled back around and started snorting like a pig.

I started chasing him down the road, him laughing, me cursing, and saw him ditch his bike in front of the apartments and run into apartment 7. I cursed some more and went back to my house and started weeding again.

A couple minutes later, the kid started riding back up the street with another kid who was obviously older, although not much taller. It was his brother George. George told me to leave his brother alone, that I should pick on someone my own size, or he would kick my ass. This made me laugh since George was much smaller than me but seemed to be the same age. I threw down my gloves and went down to kick his ass. I told him as I made my way down the hill that I would have left his little brother alone if he didn’t call me a fat pig and start snorting at me.

George wasn’t there for an explanation; he was there for a fight. He started circling me in a fighting stance calling me a big pussy, and  stuck out his chin and dared me to punch him. He would weave in and out, trying to get close but staying far enough away that I would have to charge in to hit him. We were both waiting for our opportunity, measuring each other and punches would be coming soon.

George kept dancing around me like he thought he was Mohammed Ali, well, Cassius Clay at the time. I could tell he was an experienced fighter by the way he was trying to get me to rush him, goading me into punching him on his offered chin. And of course I had to take his offering. My timing was perfect and so was my aim.

I hit George flush on the chin with a right hook that lifted him off the ground and sent him flying. Eric screamed and jumped off his bike on my back and I flipped him over onto the neighbor’s car and turned to go after George, but he was sitting there laughing. He reached out his hand to me to help him up, jumped up with my assistance. He patted me on the back, complimented me on my punch, and introduced himself and Eric and invited me down to his house so he could get some ice for his chin. From that day on, for the six years, we were best friends and stayed friends longer than that.

I later learned that using Eric as bait was George’s modus operandi.  He would often send Eric to start some trouble so he could pick fights. To be honest, it became a regular Friday night thing at Winter Sport skating rink. George would point out a group of kids our age and send Eric to skate into them or slide in front of them.  They would get mad at Eric and we would come to the rescue.  Sometimes we kicked ass, other times we picked on the wrong crew, but it was always a blast. Years later, little Steven Byrne would take Eric’s place as our instigator. Hey, when something works…  

George was a big mouthed kid with strong opinions. Right from the start, mocked Jeff and Chris for playing with cars in the dirt instead of playing sports and looking for ‘something fun to do’. As I mentioned, Jeff was older than us and most of the time would prove his strength by kicking our ass at King of  the Hill and punish us while playing football. Sometimes he and I would get into fist fights and we each won our share, especially when I went through a growth spurt.

George was your typical little guy with no fear and challenged Jeff all the time, and most of the time got his ass kicked. But that only made him get in Jeff’s face more often and many times Jeff paid the price of facing down the little guy.

We used to play Rough House football in the backyard beside Jeff’s, where it was usually one against three. The running back against the defense, with no blockers.  Rather than try to avoid tackles, George would run right into the tackle and try to pound you to death. He would put his head down right into our chest and try to knock us backwards even though we had twenty pounds on him.

The kid had no fear when it came to physical pain or facing off with others. He did fear trouble though. He was full of warnings when we would go shoplifting or looking for trouble. We would poke fun at him for being a chicken and do things like put rocks and poles across the train tracks to get George nervous. But if it came to a fight, George was out front, usually trying to fight the biggest guy on the other side. His ferocity was scary!  

I have to admit, I enjoyed having George around to balance out the power in the group. Jeff and Chris still were close and George and I were close, but now we had a group of four that were together most of the time. Jeff and Chris could go build models or play with trains while George and I would hang out at his house or at my house and get to know each other. Then we could get together and play ball or bomb buses or trains with apples or snow balls, depending on the season.

George was not very popular with Chris or Jeff’s mothers.  Because he was so loud and abrasive, he stood out to adults and was easy to blame for any trouble that our group found. which was kind of ironic, because most times we found trouble to tweak George.

Jeff and I would dare each other to do things like egg houses, or put things on the train tracks, or walk into Kiddie City and walk out with large items like football uniforms or street hockey goals. Of course, this was before door scanners and security cameras.

It used to piss George off when he would catch the blame for something that was my idea. Mrs. Calhoun didn’t like George so he wasn’t welcome at Chris’s house. She was very puritan and George’s language was unacceptable to her. My mom and dad enjoyed George, and he was always welcome at my house.    

Not too long after George arrived, Mike and his family moved in three houses down from me. Now we had a neighborhood again. Mike had older brothers that were already in high school and had a sister close to the same age as us, and a younger sister the same age as my little sister.

Mike was a year younger than us and we started hanging out with Mike trying to find out about his sister. She was already well developed and had long, thick, flaming red hair. We all wanted to check her out; especially after seeing her in a bathing suit. Peggy enjoyed most of our attention, but never hung out with us when not at home. She was a smart girl!

Mike was a strange fish! He saw the world from a whole different perspective. Many times after he first moved in, we would go over his house and he would be sitting on his back wall with a rubber mallet, pounding ants to smithereens. I asked him why he was pounding the ants, thinking he was releasing anger. He said it wasn’t killing the ants that he found attractive, but the reverberation of impact from the rubber mallet traveling up his arms.

At least that is what I thought he said. Sometimes it would take a couple days of contemplation before I would get what he would say.  We believed he liked killing the ants too, but the bounce back did feel pretty cool. Mike added the right amount of bizarre to our group. You never knew when out of nowhere, he would start singing the Canadian National Anthem in his best baritone operatic voice.  He was quickly one of us!

When George moved into the apartments down by the train station, we now had a new area to hang out and new places to explore. We started hanging out at the church across the street from Jeff’s after the leveling of the Parton house. We also spent more time behind Jeff’s at the train tracks. When we ventured down to the train station or down to the apartments where George lived, it was usually with a purpose.

The apartment buildings where George lived were new construction. While under construction, we used to explore the dumpsters for anything that would be useful for our forts and hideouts. But that was the extent of our exploring. As I said, I had been recovering from injury and was not out riding bikes as much. Jeff and Chris were spending most of their time in the dirt hills in Chris’s yard or building models in his basement. But now we were back into all out search mode.

We found another basement window that we could crawl through into a small, empty building on the corner of Easton and Tyson. The building was only about 150 square feet. It filled an area between the apartment building facing Tyson and the building facing Easton. A three car parking area beside the building topped the rolling hill down to the tracks. At the back of the parking area was a window well we used for our access. The opening below the building was a dirt covered concrete foundation under the place housing the utilities, not a true basement.

There was a small, trap door leading up into the store. We tried everything we could to get the door open, but the hinges were not exposed and we were never able to get it open. f we had more time to work at it, we would have found a way to get the door open, but before too long, the building rented and that fort came to an end.  We were never sure how the owner knew we were using the area. Without any warning, the foundation window entrance was blocked off with steel bars and our search for a good fort continued.

We always had spots to hide out around the church. A stairway down to the basement door gave us some privacy but no cover from rain. We could always find ways in to open the door and hang out in the church basement and raid the refrigerators in the kitchen. We could climb up on the church roof and sneak into a window any time we wanted. But we had to be careful that Chris’s mom didn’t see us. We did this enough, but it was very risky for Chris as a member of the church.

For a while, we hung out in the basement of the apartments, and sometimes the storage rooms. These places were great for the winter, but they definitely were not private. We could sit and talk or flip baseball cards or any number of things and stay warm and dry. But games like Truth or Dare when any girls were around, or anything risky and fun was out.

A couple times we were down in the laundry room or in the connecting storage room playing spin the bottle, and people would come in to do their laundry, and get angry that a bunch of kids were in there. It didn’t take too long before we got chased out and told not to stay out. George got in trouble because the superintendent of the building told his mom we were hanging out down there bothering other tenants.  We had to find a new fort soon!

It was running from the laundry room one rainy day, after being caught again by one of the nosy apartment tenants who was going out of her way to catch us, that led to what we thought of as the greatest fort discovery of the ages. Forts don’t get any better than this! Some of our future forts, like the one in the cemetery, may have been more complex and were actually built by us. And the Barrow Gang house peaked our imagination like never before. But this fort discovery led to the greatest excitement in our young lives. It also led to one of my scariest moments, something that affected me years later. And led to some of the biggest trouble some of us ever found ourselves in.

The apartment building that George lived in ran parallel to Tyson Avenue and a second building sat parallel to Easton Road. They were both up on a hill above the train station. Easton road crossed over the tracks right beside the station at a twenty five to thirty degree angle, and graded on a pretty steep incline. Beside the road was a sidewalk that started at ground level to the left of the train station entrance. The sidewalk followed the incline of the road until it reached the side of the hill the apartments were built on.  Below the sidewalk were support walls every eighteen or twenty feet.

About halfway up the incline, there was a set of steps to allow people to climb down to the station, instead of having to walk all the way to the bottom of the hill. The distance from the sidewalk to the bottom of the steps was at least twenty feet. Behind the lowest part of the stairs, a group of bushes grew beside the support wall. After running from the basement, we ran and hid under the sidewalk and behind the bushes. We figured if we were being chased, there were many ways to run. From this vantage point we had clear visibility and could split up. And if no one did come to find us, we could at least catch our breath in a dry area.                          

Since Jeff’s house was two houses over from the apartments, right beside the tracks, we were down by the train station quite a bit. I’m surprised that we didn’t make our discovery before this, but as always, it takes a sequence of events to come to an outcome. I guess avoiding the rain that was getting harder, helped with this outcome. Rather than walking down the road running parallel to the tracks, or climbing the steps and walking up the sidewalk and back down Tyson Avenue, we chose to make our way up the hill by way of the covered area under the sidewalk.

As we made our way up the hill, the supports were a constant eighteen to twenty feet apart, but the distance between the dirt of the hill and the sidewalk kept getting shorter. We were approaching the property line of the apartments now. A chain link fence defined where the train station ended, and the apartment property began.

The hill beside the building was a steep falloff but the sidewalk still followed its gradual slope. As we came to the last area between the supports, we had to hunch over at about the halfway point. The space was getting darker and darker. The final four or five feet before the next support wall were almost underground. It was so dark that we could barely see the support wall.

I forget which of us had the lighter and went up to the wall to see what was in the corner. The level of excitement was already growing, because we could see the potential of a fort in any dark corner. If we could figure out how to get enough dirt to add to the hill and give us a couple more feet of cover, or if we could find a bush to plant beside the hill that would look natural, or both, we would be in business.

Before we left the area under the sidewalk, I ran down the hill and hopped the fence to the train station parking lot and looked up the hill to our new found fort in the making.  It was incredible!  There, in the shadows of the sidewalk sat four of my friends.   Sitting right there in front of me in this area below the sidewalk, they were hidden.  Standing no more than twenty five feet away in the middle of the lot, looking up into the corner, I could not see them at all. I wanted to jump and scream in my excitement, but I waited to get back under cover before letting my emotions bubble over.

After a bunch of high fives, each of us took a trip down the hill to check out the sight lines and sounds. We would talk and laugh to test how much the noise carried and the longer we stayed, the more this place felt like home. We had some work to do, some clearing out and leveling, to increase the size of the hidden space, but this spot would be worth every drop of sweat we perspired! Our level of excitement was climbing with every second we sat there and plans were already pouring out of each of us. It wasn’t until after dinner that we realized the true nature of our discovery.

That night, dinner seemed to take forever. Our family always sat down together for meals and if my mother saw that we were rushing to get done, she seemed to find ways to drag things out. We were not excused from the table until everyone finished their meal.  My sister and I each had our chores and mine was usually helping to clear the table and washing or drying the dishes.  I knew that if my sister was washing, I would take much longer waiting on her. I asked to be excused, jumped up and grabbed the plates and silverware, and started running the dish water and scraping the plates.

Doing this risked that my mother would see that I was trying to rush out but time was slipping away. The meal may not have taken any longer than any other night, but it seemed like it took forever. All I could think of was everyone getting tired of waiting for me and getting a head start working on our new fort.

We all agreed to meet back at Jeff’s house after dinner. We assigned who would bring flashlights and shovels and thing to use from our boy scout equipment to move the dirt. We all had the standard boy scout flashlight. It had a green handle that held the batteries, with the light at a right angle, and a clip to attach to your belt or pocket. I brought my folding shovel, Chris had a battery powered lantern and George had a collapsible bucket. Like the Boy Scout motto, we were all prepared. Jeff had a sheet of dark plastic to help block the light while we did the dig out, and to put down after we cleared out the space.

Mike wasn’t a boy scout, so he just brought his witty remarks and odd perspective.  We had work to do. We needed to find out how much light could be seen from the train station below and see how we could block the light so that we could use the fort after dark.

I wasn’t the last to arrive, but George and Jeff were first. Chris arrived shortly after me, with Mike right behind. We headed out the back of Jeff’s, down to the train station road, and over to the base of the hill below our destination. At the corner of the parking lot, there was a four foot high chain link fence that met up with the retaining wall behind the apartments. Where the fence met the wall, the height was only three foot and an easy step over and up.

The fenced corner was a good spot for us to make our climb up to the sidewalk. There were no windows on the side of the apartment building, except for a sliding glass door that had solid looking curtains. It was late enough that the trains only ran on the hour, the parking lot was almost empty, so there was no traffic to worry about. It was time to see what could be done to customize and personalize this place. Would this live up to our excitement and expectations or would it be another hangout to use until we found a real fort?

We climbed into the shadows under the sidewalk for the second time that day. Jeff spread out the plastic near the back wall and we sat to take in the space. If we could figure out how to enclose the area without making it obvious it was not natural, we would be in business.

Jeff began spreading the plastic, using smaller rocks to set the material in place above the opening, and dirt to restrict the lower part of the tarp to keep it from blowing. I was removing the larger rocks with George and Mike, trying to build a solid foundation for our dirt wall buildup at the lower part of the open space.

Chris took his flashlight and a shovel up to the corner, all the way in the back where the support wall met the foundation wall.  He began removing dirt from near the wall and pushing it down the incline to where we were setting the stones.  The soil was loose and dry. This made it easy to move.

At this point, the height by the support, from the dirt to the concrete ceiling was about two and a half foot. We had discussed and agreed that the ideal height would be deep enough that we could all kneel and still have headroom. We had at least a foot and a half of dirt to move and would use this soil to build up the open side and make a mound at the foot of the opening.

The supports were mortared stone walls with a concrete cap and a one foot concrete vertical block on either side of the wall. The design of the support created an opening between the cap of the wall and the base of the sidewalk ceiling. This created an opening about three foot wide by a foot high. While waiting for us to finish setting the wall we were building to hold the soil, Chris used his flashlight to look into the opening to the next section. He couldn’t see much so he stuck his head and shoulders in to look around. We were all focused on our own tasks, busy with our own progress, until we heard Chris’s muffled yells coming from the corner.

We all stopped what we were doing and went to where Chris was standing with only his ass and legs visible. We didn’t know if he was stuck or what. He kept saying “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” He removed his head, turned around and looked at us with complete amazement on his face. And like kids will do, we all got in each others way to try and see what he was so amazed by.

Eventually, we all got in line and Jeff was first to look through the support with his flashlight to see what was behind the wall. He turned around deep in thought and I got my turn to look. I scooted up to the wall and bent over, putting my head through the one foot opening. I moved forward so that my shoulders cleared the wall and raised my arm with the flashlight.

There before me, on the other side of the wall, was an opening that was like the one that we claimed as our new fort, but this one was completely underground. It was the width of a sidewalk, which was probably eight foot wide, eighteen to twenty foot long, and close to three feet of space between dirt base and the concrete base of the sidewalk. I reached down and the dirt on the bottom was soft, easy to move with my hand, and dry as sand. “Holy Shit!” was exactly what I said too! This was amazing!

Here we were thinking about all the things we would need to do to make the outside section work, and we have a section completely underground, with the potential for complete secrecy, no wind, no rain, the almost complete sound muffling of underground, waiting for us to climb through.

The sidewalk had a slight pitch toward the street, so the height at the street side of the support was slightly smaller than the apartment side. At its widest, it was no more than twelve inches from the underside of the sidewalk to the top or the support wall.  On the street side, it was closer ten inches.

Could we get in and out through the opening? That answer was all that stood between us having a great fort in the space we were digging out, and having the ultimate dream fort on the other side of this wall.

Gabe and George were the smallest. They both got in and out without any problem. Chris went in and came out. Jeff and Mike were tall but lanky and they were both in and out in an instant.  That left me. I was not quite as tall as Jeff but I was much wider. I had put on poundage when I had an eye injury and was still carrying it around my waist. I also had a pretty thick chest and wide shoulders to go along with my belly. I made my way in through the opening. It was a close fit. I could feel the concrete above me and below me as I slid through. But there was plenty of room.

We were set!

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who laid in bed that night, not able to sleep imagining all the possibilities of our new find. We all left the area ready to burst with excitement, looking forward to getting home from school the next day to work on our new fort.

It didn’t take long before we had candles, and flashlights and got to work on our new fort. We all rushed home from school, did our homework, hung up our clothes, doing all the things we needed to do. The last thing I wanted was to give any cause for my mother to keep me in. I took whatever I thought might be needed for the fort, and made our way down to the place we would spend the next bunch of months perfecting.

We began taking turns digging up dirt and using trashcan lids to get the dirt out of our underground fort. As we were originally planning, we used the dirt we dug out to build up the area outside the next section down. Even though we had plenty of privacy inside the fort, we needed more privacy getting in and out.

When we got down about a foot, the dirt changed from light and fluffy to a denser soil with more clay.  This consistency was much more compacted and we were able to get a nice flat bottom.  Even the tallest of us could easily kneel and have headroom.  We trash picked a nice carpet the next trash day. We found cinder blocks and bricks to make shelves, and little by little, we had all the comforts of home under the sidewalk on Easton Road. Our own little private, piece of the world.

And here is where the story turns from the creativity and joy of kids to one of those moments that you carry with you forever just below the surface. And then suddenly, you set off a trigger that brings back particular memories. Only then do you realize how much of an impact an event had on you. It also shows how foolish we are as kids and how good we are at blocking thoughts from our conscious mind.  Young kids live in the moment. The excitement of the here and now almost always overruled the fears of “what if?”.

                                              ——————-

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