Quest for the Perfect Fort pt 4

This story begins with an introduction and is preceded by parts 1 – 3. Please read other parts first in order to understand how I got in the predicament I find myself in as this part begins.  Description of our neighborhood and early quests are in previous parts. Thanks in advance for reading.

Part 4

We had found, decked out to perfection, and were enjoying the ultimate fort. The spot was way beyond any expectations for boys who were ten to twelve years old. And here I was stuck like a hog between two fence slats. Jammed between unmovable concrete, both above and below. Stuck! Unable to get out. Unable to be pulled back in.

The guys behind me were getting really upset now. It must have dawned on them that there was only one way in, and only one way out, and I was blocking the way. Chris was in front of me and trying to get me to relax. I could hear him, but I don’t think I understood what he was saying at that point. My mind was in such a panic that for a moment, I couldn’t even see him right there in front of my face.

Chris could see my panic and knew I was in trouble. He gave me a light smack on the temple to get my attention. He started telling me to relax, that he would get me out. I couldn’t think. I was in full panic mode. How could I relax! I was stuck! I couldn’t move in, and I couldn’t get out!

The guys behind me were pushing harder now and I still wasn’t budging. Usually when the person would pull, it would slim me down enough that I would slide through. Chris started trying to talk to the guys on the inside, trying to get us all working together. Chris told me to take a deep breath and then blow all the air out and they would push and pull at the same time. I understood the logic. The only problem was that I couldn’t, or didn’t feel like I could draw a deep breath.

As I would breath in and my chest expanded, I would feel the pressure of the concrete falling in on me. The pressure had my head whirling and the fear was going up with my blood pressure. The panic had me dizzy. It felt like my head was going to explode. My breathing was too rapid to be able to exhale.

My chest hurt, my back hurt, and I could feel the edge of the concrete wall biting into my groin. It was starting to hurt, starting to throb like something was wrong. The pain was worse when they would push hard. The wall was digging into my groin, pressing on my pelvis.

They tried to pull me all the way over to the apartment side of the opening. The opening was a bit wider on that side. I still couldn’t move, but at least the extra inch gave me the room to breathe in, allowing me to breathe out, and that, along with Chris’s reassurances, helped me to relax a bit. I was able to slow my breathing and stop hyperventilating.

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Oh shit! Trying to type this is getting me dizzy and I know my heart rate is out of control. I have tried to write this part at least five or six times before and have to give up. This is the furthest I have been able to go before giving it up. I think it would be a good time to schedule some therapy. Thinking of moving further trying to remember my panic, makes me start to feel the same panic.

As I said before I interrupted myself, the pain in my groin was getting worse on every push. I could feel the difference over on the apartment side of the opening, but it still didn’t allow me to move. But it gave me the room to start correct breathing instead of panic breathing. It didn’t seem like I was moving forward or backward. My pants were being pulled down with all the pushing and pulling, but they couldn’t get over my hips because of my belt. My belt felt like it was digging into my pelvis, almost like a dull ax blade pushing up under me out of the concrete.

With all the pushing and pulling, my jeans were stuck like they had been so many times trying to get them over my shoes. But this time it was my hips that were keeping my pants in place. With every push, the pain got worse. And then it hit me; I realized why I couldn’t move. My belt was causing the problem.

The buckle must have gotten caught under the lip of the concrete cap as I was first sliding into the exit. It must have doubled over, and  almost doubled again, rising up into my groin.

The belt styles at the time were wide leather belts with over-sized western buckles. I had found a large Colt 45 Revolver buckle at the Montgomeryville Mart and even though I didn’t like guns, had to have that buckle. It was almost four inches wide by just shy of three inches tall. It featured a bucking horse and the Colt logo with  lettering inside the opening of the large C. It had well defined lines and had a rounded shape, but with sharp angled corners.

My belt buckle must have caught on the wall. That was why it was digging into me and had me stuck. The belt had to come off. Maybe if my pants came off I could slide out. I started yelling to Chris, saying “My belt, my belt, my belt is stuck!”.

It took a bit for Chris to understand what I was saying in my panicked state. He thought I was going back into panic mode because I was all amped up again. As he got me to calm down again, he understood what I was saying and he yelled over my shoulder that someone had to take off my belt. He explained the buckle got caught on the wall.

I heard the guys behind me laughing and that gave me a bit or relief. I don’t know when my friends realized that they were stuck in an underground hole, but I realized that we were all in trouble in one of the first ten thousand thoughts that went through my head. I heard George say “I ain’t touching nothing!” “You can go ahead and pull his pants down, I know you always wanted to get in his pants!” I can only imagine the scene behind me; Jeff punching George and wrestling for a bit because that was what they did every day. At least it gave me something to think about other than that I was caught between two immovable slabs of concrete.

I heard the commotion come to an end behind me and felt someone sliding past my legs and tugging at my pants. And then I heard cursing.

The problem they encountered causing the cursing was discovering the effect of the belt jamming, and with all the pushing and pulling to get me out, the belt had twisted and wrapped. My pants waistline was now covering over the belt, not making it easy to get free. The fact that it was under my body, pinned to the top of the wall by my weight made unwrapping the belt extremely difficult.

Whoever was trying to free it was having a painful time, especially with my body in the way. It must have been very awkward for them because they had to get their head down between my legs to see what they were doing. All I could feel was them tugging at the waist of my pants and a head and shoulders moving right beside my groin. It wasn’t the least bit funny for me at the time but makes me chuckle now thinking back on the event.

I could hear some mumbling behind me and felt someone grab both of my legs and lift while Jeff forced his body under mine. He pushed his shoulders into my groin and lifted my body all the way up so that my whole back was touching the underside of the sidewalk. Either George, Mike or Gabe tried to reach into my pants, struggling to unfold the waistband, to get access to the button and the zipper. I could feel the tugging and the struggle they were having trying to get to the buckle. With no room to maneuver and with unmovable concrete below, the only movable space was further into my groin.

When they finally got the buckle in their grasp, I could feel them pulling and twisting from position to position. I could feel them trying to get enough leverage to push the buckle up into my gut so it would unfold. The longer it took, the more anxious I was feeling.

The “what if’s” were starting again. I could hear my friends talking behind me but I couldn’t understand them most of the time. But I sure understood the sound of failure in the “FUCK” uttered right before they dropped me down and left me hanging on my own.

Jeff, George and Mike were talking excitedly again and I wished I knew what they were saying. They couldn’t get the buckle flipped because they couldn’t get the leverage to push it up into my stomach and spin it at the same time. There wasn’t enough room for two sets of hands and two people were necessary to do what they knew they had to do.

Chris was able to hear them better than me because he was outside facing in and I was stuck, facing out. He understood what they needed and told them that he would run home and find a hook to slip under me. The hook would catch the buckle and then they could yank it from behind while the other person pushed and twisted it up into my gut.

This sounded right, but the thought of Chris leaving, the only person not trapped inside ramped up the panic again. Thousands of panicked thoughts were pouring through my head. What if he didn’t come back? What if he didn’t make it home? He could be hit by a car! He could fall and hit his head or any number of things! What if… had me!

I could feel the concrete pressing into my chest again as my breathing started getting faster. I don’t know what I would have done if he left my sight. The whole time he was telling me everything would be fine, assuring me that if they had to, he could go and get help, and I needed constant reassurance.

I am pretty sure it was Mike that remembered that we had a rope hanging from the back wall with a hook on the end. We used to hang our collection of cigarettes, playboys, and any booze bottles we needed to stash in the next buried section. It was one of the extra precautions we used since Eric knew about our fort. One end of the rope was tied to the last piece of rebar and then draped over the concrete footing and our bag of goodies would hang on the S hook safe and secure.

Waiting to hear something going on behind me was excruciating. Chris continued to reassure me that they would have me out soon. The pain of the damn buckle jabbing up into the bone above my junk was really bad now that all my weight was back on the concrete below me. The couple minutes of waiting seemed like an endless time in hell.

After what seemed like an eternity in my confined nightmare, they lifted me up again. They pushed me against the ceiling, and I could feel hands sliding between me and the ledge. I could feel the hook placed into position on my waistband. I tried to visualize what they were doing as they were preparing to try and spin the buckle so we could get the hell out of here.

Even I laughed when Mike said “I guess we won’t be out tonight after dinner because we are definitely late now!”.

I knew when they had the hook firmly place because the pain level went up a notch. The hook was now on top of the belt buckle and digging into my skin. They did the countdown and at once. Chris pulled from outside. Jeff pushed me even higher into the ceiling. George, Gabe or Mike used their hand to push the buckle up into my gut, while the others started yanking on the rope. They pulled the buckle until it made a full turn and was now only a single wrap away from being clear.

The hook had to be reset. The guys counted again, the next pull came, and they were able to free some of the material wrapped around the buckle. It didn’t take long after that to get the buckle free and get my pants down around my ankles, and out of the way. Chris coordinated the effort, and on the count of three, allowing me to take a breath in and exhale, a push by whoever was holding my legs, freed me from my predicament, and I made my hellacious exit from our fort.

It wasn’t a pain free extraction, however. Sliding out without the protection of my pants caused some deep scratches on my upper legs. I had a major pelvic bruise where the buckle lodged into my skin. But, I didn’t care a bit.

I was embarrassed by the fact that I got stuck. I had already begun thinking that I was now one of the outcasts that had to be on the outside, instead of being in our awesome fort. Over time, everyone would have trouble getting in and out; we were growing kids after all! But I was never going to be on the inside again. It hurt to be out!  That thought hurt so much more than the bruises and raspberries on my legs.

You have to be fascinated by the way a preteen brain works. Instead of being grateful that I was able to get free and didn’t have to wait for the police or fire department to come and free me and my friends, I was pouting. Instead of having to deal with the embarrassment of having to be rescued because I was too fat to fit through the opening, I was obsessed with the fact that I could never get back in. Part of me wished that we would get caught and lose the fort. That way we would all lose the fort. But those thoughts didn’t last long. Thank God I got out!

What if we had to be rescued? What if Chris had run home and his mom wouldn’t let him out without telling that his friends were in trouble? Cops would have been everywhere. Fire trucks blocking Easton and Tyson with lights flashing. The whole neighborhood coming to see what all the excitement was about.

I could see the headlines in the local newspaper: “Fatboy rescued after trapping friends underground”. Not to mention having our parents find out about the fort, all I could think about was that I was now fort-less.

After about a week of having to sit in the outside area while my friends sat inside, we discussed digging a side entrance. We knew that once we did, the chances of having a secret fort were in jeopardy. But the realization that we were all getting larger meant there was a countdown clock ticking on the usefulness of the fort anyway.

Not only would there have to be a change in the shape of the hill which would be noticeable to anyone with any observation skills, but now the insulation of the dirt would be reduced. We thought about all the ways we could camouflage the entrance. We thought about finding a nice wide bush that would hide the hole we would have to dig. We realized that these options may work in theory, but did not have a chance in reality. All the areas in front of the apartments were the same. Landscaped cutouts on each side of the paths to the apartment entrances were all uniform. How weird would it look to have a single bush beside the sidewalk?

Too weird to work!

We thought about this for a while and talked through all the different ideas. We had been through a couple different situations in other forts where our openings were boarded up and once that happened, we were out of luck and knew our fort was gone. But that gave us an idea. What if we made an opening in the side and then capped it with an official looking board with posts that looked like they were placed there by the township? Would we be able to find a township work sign that we could take and use for a cap to our hole that could be removed while we entered and replaced?  Would that work?

If we dug it out and put in the plywood sign and watched what people did when they went by, and saw that no one gave it any thought, we could be in business.

At that time in our young lives, we were able to go all over the place on bike and we kept our eyes out for things that would work. We looked for other sites that were boarded up, but most of what we found was either too large or would be too obvious if we removed the sign. Little by little, my friends would go in the fort and began to dig away the corner of the wall right beside the support.

What I didn’t know at the time, was while I was stuck in the entrance, blocking the only way out, Mike and Gabe had begun the process of pulling out the rebar and hard wall used on the apartment side of the fort, trying to start digging themselves out. We used the same process of digging out the dirt and transporting it out of the fort on trash can lids and used that dirt to build up the next section down. That part of the plan was easy. We had to find a workable sign and we would be set.

Looking back, I have to say, we were very resourceful kids.

We were at Wall Park one evening watching my father’s softball team play a game. He was the manager of his old bar team. He was a superb pitcher, but his back did not allow him to play any more. Instead of watching, we were exploring the creek bed that surrounded the park. We had been there a couple times and had found drain pipes that were almost tall enough for us to walk upright that carried water from the street and from the neighborhood behind the park. We always explored around there and used the hidden spot to smoke a cigarette or two while the game was going on.

Roslyn Park had the same drain pipes and at both parks, the pipes went all the way to the other side under the field, with multiple branches heading toward different blocks. We knew the Roslyn pipes well, using them to get from place to place without being seen. One tunnel went all the way to Roslyn School, which was almost half a mile up the road. I can’t believe some of the stupid risks we took.

There was a path along the water’s edge at Wall Park that followed the stream down toward the ice skating rink. We usually walked along the path and checked out the different tunnels along the way. It was a fun way to spend the time. When we rounded the turn in the hill, there was a bunch of yellow warning tape wrapped around trees and posts sunk into the hill with signs posted on hammered in fence posts, warning of unstable ground ahead.

It looked like contractors were dumping dirt and boulders down the hill to extend the park and change the path of the creek. We went up the new slope, taking our time, not wanting to fall into the water and not wanting to get too muddy. But, as soon as we saw it we both knew we had found our sign. There was no way we could throw the sign in the back of my dad’s car, so we would have to figure out how we would get it home.

We didn’t get the sign that day. We planned on riding bikes to the park on the weekend. We told everybody what we found and we brainstormed about how our plan would work. After much debate working through the issues, we decided we had enough problems with the apartment building super already. We couldn’t risk getting George and his mother evicted by digging up the ground and placing warning signs that would bring the fort to the attention of the apartment management. Having a danger sign might do that.

We went back and forth again and again about how to proceed. I was the only one using the fort that we knew of that couldn’t fit, but everyone wanted me included, especially me. We decided to dig out the rest of the hole and find boards that we could put up against the wall of the fort and try to camouflage the board on top of the hole as much as possible.

The way we positioned the dugout area did not make things too noticeable. Instead of digging out into the grassy area beside the sidewalk, we dug the hole sideways along the side of the support wall. There was a vapor barrier between the opening and the dirt of the hill. There were pieces of rebar placed every six to ten inches which supported the vapor barrier on each side, and a piece of hardboard wedged against the re-bar. A few of the rebar were already loose or taken out from when I was trapped.

We were always able to see the hardboard on the inside and my friends had no problem breaking away a section near where we were digging. We worked hard at pulling out the last three pieces of rebar but left the heavy vinyl. I was able to work on the outside re-bar while the guys worked on digging out the rest of the dirt leading from the side of the support wall to the side of the hill.

We created a gap a little wider than a foot between the wall and the hill. With the black vinyl still in place, it was not very noticeable that the area under the sidewalk was an opening. We had a board we could wedge into place on the inside to keep the material from flapping.

It was difficult to do all the work that we had to do without notice. We were careful when we had to do the outside work where we were visible from the apartments. We also had to keep an eye out for the train station side, and anyone walking up or down the sidewalk. What we could have accomplished in an hour or two, took us a couple days.

Little by little, we created an opening I could fit through that was not an obvious entrance. The way it was dug, it didn’t look dangerous or like a sinkhole. By keeping it close to the wall, it was almost hidden from view when walking on the sidewalk in front of the apartments.

The only places it was a noticeable hole was while walking down the sidewalk above and leaning on the railing to look over the side. The other place it would be obvious would be if a person in one of the second floor apartments looked down while out on their balcony. Even then, with the black vinyl in place, people would have to really look to see our hole. Even from the positions above, there was no indication there was access to under the sidewalk. It almost looked like a purposeful drainage ditch.

Our work wouldn’t fool the super if he did a close inspection, but we had a shot at continuing to use the fort at least a while longer. We were very proud of the job we did and could only hope for the best!

After we got everything done the way we wanted it, I tried the new entrance, slithering my way through the gap and into the hole. Getting in was easy. Getting out was much harder. I could get in by bending sideways and sliding down into the hole. Getting out was a whole different angle and my body had to bend in a way that was not so easy. Fighting up the incline instead of sliding down the hill was difficult.

Doable, but difficult. The last thing we or I wanted was for me to get stuck again, especially since it would be in plain view this time. It looked like we were going to have to shave a bit off the top part of the incline after all. It also looked like we better start planning on finding the next new fort

What we didn’t know while this was going on, was that Eric was continuing to use the fort. We also didn’t know he almost had the same experience of getting stuck in the opening trying to get into the fort. He had freed himself, but was afraid to try it again. He was glad to see that we made a side entrance.

We always took extreme care entering and exiting the fort. Now we were even more diligent, knowing how exposed the side exit would be. We always had someone leave through the wall exit first to make sure the coast was clear from all eyes. The apartment was the most important, but we always checked the sidewalk and the parking below. Eric wasn’t so smart.

He and the girl from apartment 15 were in the fort fooling around. When they were coming out, they looked up from the hole and saw Cindy’s mom looking down at them. They were caught outright. They had been playing Truth or Dare in there by themselves and it led to stripping and touching, They were dirty all over, and under, and Cindy told all.

Cindy’s mom told Eric’s mom what they were doing. Eric told about our letting him into the fort, and told her we knew Cindy was in the fort and that a bunch of us were in there with her too.

Eric was a great liar. Some of us were in the fort with Cindy. But it was a technicality, because we caught her and Eric in the fort much earlier and kicked them out. Eric also told of our threats to beat him silly if he told anyone, which got George beat silly by his mother.

Of course the parent phone chain went white hot. Cindy’s mom was threatening to prosecute all of us for corrupting her poor little girl and took her daughter to the doctors to see if she had been raped. It didn’t matter whether we had been in the fort with them that time or any other time. Our parents didn’t care if we were lying or Eric if was lying. We were all in big trouble!

Cindy’s mom contacted the apartment management and they boarded up the side entrance that we worked so hard to dig out. It wasn’t the wasted sweat labor that was so infuriating, but the wasted care we put in digging an unnoticeable hole. The fort wouldn’t have  stayed hidden for long, we knew that.

Already, there were wear and tear marks from us going in and out. And God only knows how much Eric was using the fort that we didn’t know about. All we cared about was that we were once again fort-less. All the time and excitement that went into this perfect fort was now wasted.

In our minds at the time, the work we put into this fort was wasted. But, it is now almost forty-five years later, and this period of our youth is still a crystal clear memory for me. I don’t know how many times I have tried to write this and gotten to the point of entering the fort and had to stop due to panic attacks. The thought of being between the concrete of the opening and being stuck was not something I could think about without starting to hyperventilate.

Looking back on how we used to wiggle through that one foot opening, if it was even that, and be so at home in the underground space still amazes me. Thinking about how perfect we thought this fort was and how excited and proud it made us, goes to show it was anything but a waste.

The apartment super kept a close eye on the area afterward to make sure we didn’t use the fort. I guess everyone thought the only way in was through the dugout entrance. Little by little, we stripped down the fort, bringing everything that was waterproof to a new area we found a block down the train tracks. It was our plan B spot, where we would go when people were around that we didn’t want in our real fort. Or, it was perfect if there were too many people to fit under the sidewalk.

The area was a plateau to a hill that sloped down to a set of sheds  no longer used. The cemetery office was in front of the two sheds. The hill sloped on the other side of the plateau down beside the tracks. The hilltop was covered with a clump of pines with a clump of bamboo growing in the center. Even during a heavy rain, barely any rain made it through the brush. Some did, so for the time being, some things had to remain behind in our old fort.

For the moment, we had a place to go, we were out of sight. Hidden was always better than the alternative. It was time to explore again. The cemetery, which was on the other side of the street from our pine and bamboo hideaway, was now to become our primary search area.

To be continued

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