Quest for the Perfect Fort, part 5

This story begins with an introduction and is preceded by parts 1 – 4. This is the conclusion of the story. Please read other parts first in order.  Description of our neighborhood and early quests are in previous parts. Thanks in advance for reading.

Part 5


Part 5

Now that we were older, we were spending a lot of time walking the train tracks, seeing who could stay balanced on the rails the longest. Hillside Cemetery was large, running from Roslyn to Ardsley. The tracks were the back boundary. Wherever we fell off the tracks, we would head into the cemetery and walk back through the gravestones.

Considering how lousy my balance has been as an adult, I was surprisingly good at walking the rails. The trick was keeping your eyes focused on a point twenty to thirty feet ahead. For me, looking down was instant fall. We all got pretty good. It is close to a mile between the Roslyn train station and the Ardsley station. There were times that one of us would stay on the rail for the whole distance. It always sucked when we would get well down the rails and a train would come and we would have to give up the game and run into the woods.

There were houses on one side of the tracks and the woods of the unused section of the cemetery were on the other. Most of the way along the tracks, there was a hill on the cemetery side covered with brush and various vegetation. In between, were deer paths we used to get between the trees and bushes, getting up the hill and away from the tracks. We had plenty of opportunity to find a path between the time we would see the train and it being close enough for the train operator to see us.

We got to know the area pretty well and would usually try to make it to the best path to get off the tracks. One of these paths opened onto a flat area that had great tree cover and the brush around it was very dense. We would hang there sometimes to sit and smoke a cigarette or waste time.

I have come to accept that there is always a force pushing us toward changes. That Fall, as we were entering seventh grade, and beginning to explore the area down the tracks, new bus stops were assigned by Abington schools.

Instead of the drop off at the corner of Bradfield and Tyson, George, Jeff and Mike started getting dropped off at the corner of Custer and Edgehill. Chris usually had after school activities or he would have been on the bus too. Andy and Albert were dropped at this stop too since it was close to their houses. We started spending much more time with those guys in their neighborhood.

At that time, St. Luke’s was dropping us off much earlier than my friends. I had enough time to go home, get changed, mix up a couple rum and cokes or whatever booze my dad got as gifts, and walk up to meet my friends at their bus stop. Around the same time, George started smoking pot. He would do his thing, and I would drink a rum and coke on the walk to the bus and share the other with Mike on the walk home or to wherever we were hanging out. George and Andy would blow a joint while we walked, and we were ready for some after school fun.

We were doing the track walk one day with Andy, who lived in one of the houses on the other side of the tracks. No train was coming, but we got to what had become our common path and took it up to the opening to sit and waste some time. Andy spent a lot of time in this part of the woods. When we talked about trying to build a new fort in the woods, he reported there were lots of kids in the area, and the spot we were in, was quite well known.

He asked if we wanted to see his favorite spot. We were glad to. We went back down to the tracks and walked a bit further toward Ardsley and he chose another less obvious path up through the brush.

The thicket was very dense at this spot and we could see a path heading away from the tracks that led to a mud pond we had found coming from the other direction. Instead of taking this path, he turned parallel to the tracks. We followed Andy as he crab-walked his way through the thick forthincia growth seeming to go on forever. There was also some sort of sticker bush that we would never have tried to navigate. The stickers looked dangerous. But there was plenty of room to get under without getting caught by the thorns. As long as you didn’t put your hand on the ground as you made your way through, the path was safe.

The brush opened to a grassy area surrounded by heavy walls of vines hanging from low tree branches and other growth. Andy was over six foot and skinny as some of the vines growing nearby. Years later when I read Don Quixote, I had to laugh thinking how the descriptions reminded me of Andy.

In what became Andy’s classic pose, he put his left arm out and up, his right arm out and down, almost like a windmill, and with his goofiest look, asked what we thought of this spot. It was perfect!

This spot became our new obsession. Andy and Albert both used to join us at the sidewalk fort from time to time, and both became active in making this hidden spot our new home base. It was much closer to their house than to ours. They had great resources in their neighborhood to get plenty of building supplies. The person who lived almost across the street from Andy, and a few houses away from Albert, was a contractor. He always had leftover materials in the trash. We were able to get plenty of pallets, cut sheets of plywood, old windows he had replaced, roofing materials and plenty of framing materials. We dragged it down the tracks to the opening. We could see it all coming together before we ever pounded a single nail.

I’m not sure if it was Chris, who designed the plans for our new fort, but I remember looking at the drawings of the fort with great excitement. It didn’t take long for us to have a pit dug, the pallet floor set up, and the first of the the framing in place. It was so much fun hammering and cutting and building. Before too long, we had plexiglass windows in place and a roof over our heads.

The pit we dug was close to two foot deep, so when we built up the sides and sloped the roof, we had a four foot high area that was close to a hundred feet of living space. We found some dark green paint and took care to not have anything shiny exposed. We used pine branches and vines to make the fort almost invisible unless you happened to walk through the hanging vines into the center of the area.

After all the forts we had in the past, whether they were hideouts or the fort under the sidewalk we were always sure they could never be topped. We had to admit though, building this fort had a whole new level of perfect. There were no leaks, we had protection from rain and wind, a window on two sides, hidden compartments in the walls and in the floor, airflow under the rafters to vent the smoke, a door we could lock, and the cherry to top it off, we built it ourselves. We worked together as a team and built a cool, functional place.

The only problem was protecting our ownership. There were starting to be gang troubles in our area in the early seventies. Roslyn and Ardsley were at war and we were from Roslyn, hanging out in Ardsley. The Ardsley gang hung out in the cemetery and around the Ardsley train station. We were young enough to not get jumped, but the tension was all around us. Abington High School was made up of kids attending from Roslyn, Ardsley, Glenside, and Cresmont. We heard about the gang fights almost every day.

I went to St. Luke’s from first through eighth grade and usually took the bus to and from school. I was the third from last house in the parish. St. Luke’s was in Glenside, and the ride home went from Glenside, through Ardsley, and to the border of Roslyn. Some of the kids on the bus had older brothers that involved in the gangs of both Glenside and`Ardsley. Some of the crap I had to put up with on the bus because I lived across the border, was abusive. But older, bigger, and holding the numbers, meant I had to put up with it and keep my head down. And looking back, what seemed like abuse at the time was no big deal in the scheme of things.

George, Jeff, and Chris went to Roslyn Elementary and then Huntington Middle school. Andy and Albert were from Ardsley, and also went to Huntington. We spent lots of time together talking about how to stay neutral when all around us, people were choosing sides. We were still young enough to escape notice, but we talked about the territory issues all the time.

We were always careful of our tracks going to and from our fort. We tried to circle around and come from different directions as much as we could. We met a whole group of new friends on those blocks of Tyson, and little by little, more people were sharing our fort with us. Steven and Eileen went to school with me at St Luke’s, and her friends joined us, or we joined them, and the fun of new friends outweighed the need for secrecy.

We got a couple of good months out of this fort before its discovery by those not our friends. Once that happened, territory rights were against us. The kids who found it were bigger and older; a whole gang of them. We did the next best thing when we realized our fort was lost. We demolished the place. We broke or ruined everything we could. Pallets, cinder blocks, plywood and windows, smashed and scattered the best we could.

We built the damn place!  There was no way we were going to let a bunch of goons take our place because they were older.

The end of our love, and quest for forts, coincides with the end of our grade school years. The Spring and Summer of 1974, so much changed. Hormones were definitely a driving force. There’s something about Spring that gets the juices flowing. The change in girls from overdressed with coats and sweaters, to new spring outfits, showing off the new growth of budding womanhood was not missed by this group of thirteen or fourteen year old guys. You can’t blame us for no longer wanting to hide out in the woods when so much beauty was popping out before our eyes

Songs have a way of acting as history markers. So many songs play, even thirty plus years later that bring me back to a specific spot and time. So many songs from that year bring me right back to that time of change. Whether it’s Steve Miller’s The Joker, David Essex’s Rock On, any Grand Funk, or even Rufus and Tell Me Something Good. I slide back to the best parts of that year. And Tubular Bells By Mike Oldfield gives such a full mind of memories. Not only from seeing The Exorcist, but getting high in the cemetery and laughing at the dancing windmill that was a wasted Andy.

That summer was punctuated, and marked in my memory by the song “Seasons in the Sun”, by Terry Jacks. It was a corny, sad, stuck in your head earworm that brings back memories of hanging out at the Byrne’s pool. It marks the real beginning where the search for girlfriends replaced the search for forts.

Eileen’s cousin Michele visited for part of that summer and George had a serious crush on her. If George had his way, and he usually did, we would have hung out there everyday. Eilene, who as a young girl was a victim of harsh teasing at school by boys and girls alike, me included, had become a very pretty teen. Seeing her and her friends, and her older sisters in bathing suits, made us not mind hanging out with them one bit.  

Steven, who was a few years younger and in my sister’s grade, hung out with us and was a pretty funny kid. Catching a buzz and watching him tease his sisters and cousin, their chases throughout the house, getting yelled at by his mother always made us laugh. It made this short bit of summer, a very memorable period of our growth from kids to teens. For the next couple years, Steven was a fun part of our group and because of his size, he took Eric’s place as the designated instigator.

With Steven and Mike and his wacky sense of humor, even boredom could be fun. One of the things I will always remember Steven for is a game that could only be called “Twenty Years from now”. We would see someone walking down the street or hitching a ride, or sitting and waiting for a bus, and someone would start with: ‘there goes John twenty years from now, hitching a ride from seeing his parole officer, heading to an AA meeting’. I wish I could remember some of the more prophetic jabs that were not far off our eventual reality.

It was a great time waster and we got to get in some nasty digs on each other in a light-hearted way. We had plenty of ammunition to shoot at each other as we made the exciting transition from boys and girls, to adolescents.

We were getting to be teenagers who no longer cared about most of things that used to drive us. We had now outgrown the parking lot that used to be the Parton’s house. As we grew, a home run went from over Chris’ fence, to Chris’ yard being the outfield. We were starting to break their windows or shingles, and sometimes we were clearing the house all together. It was still a great spot for street hockey, and touch football, but our baseball days on that field were done. We still played sports and still liked to hang out and do nothing, but instead of finding places to hide out, we wanted inclusion. The more people we met, the more fun we had.

As you grow, the face of fun changes. We always took great pride in having the best forts. Now our fun was getting more complex. Girls, music, booze and drugs were looking better and better, and the old simple fun of finding the perfect fort was a childhood memory. A childhood memory that still thrives and lives on in this mind. So much pleasure, and growth, associated with something kids nowadays rarely ever experience. For me, that is a very sad thought!


When I began to go through the panic attacks while writing this, not able to place myself inside the fort without having physical reactions, I went back to look at the old fort under the sidewalk. It helped me to gain perspective on what we thought and felt at the time. The structure of the supports are now showing age; rebar exposed where concrete used to be. The walk from the train station parking lot to the base of the steps leading down from the street, walking below the sidewalk, the same as we did when we found the fort, brought back so many great memories.

The apartment buildings that were almost new when we were kids, are also showing their age. The shape of the hill beside the fort has worn away quite a bit but the hill looks to have been extended at least ten feet. Erosion and a re-grading of the hill have changed the setting quite a bit. The area outside our fort that we began digging  away with such excitement when we first discovered the place, is now almost at ground level.

The section below where we used to enter is now pretty similar to how the original entrance area used to be. What is strange is that the area where we dug out the side entrance is now eroded away. It is open enough to get in and out. Right where we wanted to put a bush to hide the entrance, grows a bush; the only bush in the whole area. A bush planted exactly where we wanted to put one to add concealment. I find that kind of ironic!

I made my way under the sidewalk, up to the point where I had to crouch down to move forward. Seeing the actual opening that we used to climb through; such a small space, made my panic real, but much more manageable. Seeing the fort, viewing the opening and remembering the excitement, instead of seeing the space in my memory, allowed me to get through the writing of this story.

Now that I see it with grown up eyes, I doubt the opening is even a foot high, even on the apartment side. The curb side seems to have settled quite a bit, and can’t be six inches. Even though I had to rush through the parts while being caught in the opening because of hyperventilating while typing, revisiting the place gave me a clear vision of how it felt being stuck. Little by little, I was able to add descriptions and flesh out the panic I experienced.

Getting through thinking and writing about how it felt being stuck between two pieces of concrete, was powerful. Feeling my chest unable to expand as my breathing ran out of control, tried to return with each writing. The fears running through my mind as panic overtook me, were as strong as ever. I had to rush through, with the most basic of thoughts, hoping I could add more next time. I couldn’t even do that before visiting the site.

The biggest problem with adding onto the stuck part is, most of the time, I edit and write on the train. I have to laugh at myself. I would get to the stuck part, start feeling the heart rate increase, and my breathing change, and all of a sudden, I have to stand up and move my arms and legs a bit. Almost to prove that I am not trapped. I can only wonder what the other riders thought.

The physical response to any confined space, whether I am in it or even reading about it, has been getting more intense as I age. There have been a couple times I’ve freaked out when I am reading a good book, and the writer takes a character through the chest constricting experience of being stuck in a tunnel or having a cave collapse. I am right there with the character. Being trapped, fills my mind with my own experience. I can feel the concrete above, pressing down, the concrete below cutting into me, holding me in place, keeping me in the vice-grip of panic.

My mind makes my body jump up and move, whether I am reading in bed, in the cafeteria, or sitting on a train. After a few of these experiences, I realized it was important for me to write this story about being stuck.

I learned the hard way during the MRI how powerful and how deep we can bury our panic and fears. Lying on the table in the tube with my hands extended over my head, pain shooting through my back and spasming through my shoulders was the beginning of realizing how claustrophobic I had become. When I got out of the MRI and found out that I had to have it done again because I moved too much, real fear set in. I had to have it done!

Leading up to the second MRI was horrible; practically terrifying. But the actual procedure was not as bad. Being able to have my arms at my side made a world of difference. Piping in music from the beginning, I was able to use my calm breathing and relaxation techniques to get through the test.

Years later, I had to have a stress test for my heart to try and pinpoint a breathing issue. In between the second MRI and the stress test, I started having these physical effects from reading about enclosed spaces and realized my claustrophobia was getting worse. The stress test used an open machine that only enclosed the chest area. I could see all around me. The device was only eighteen inches to two foot wide and circled my midsection, stopping to take scans from different angles. Open or not, it still had my mind running crazy.

The thought “I can’t move” was, and is, enough to send panic through my mind and start me losing control. I even had a panic attack sitting in a window seat on a plane. Not confined; just not able to get up and move!  I hear all these news stories of people panicking while flying and I can identify with their plight. I will never sit in a window seat again; an aisle seat for me please!

But the best and most unexpected thing that came from going back to the old fort under the sidewalk wasn’t seeing how it looks now. It was great being able to once again look through the opening of the greatest fort a kid could even dream of having. Peering through the tiny opening into what we thought was a huge area gave perspective. Remembering how much this place meant to us, the work and fantasies that filled our twelve year old minds, and seeing what I now saw, gave me the biggest smile.

The difference in the size wasn’t the only disparity between what I remembered and what I saw. The walls and ceiling, which we enjoyed marking with chalk and candle or lighter soot, were now decorated with neon orange and hot pink spray paint. It turns out that at least one other generation of kids found and used our fort after us.

Kids are still kids, and boys will continue to be boys!  And what was once the perfect fort will continue to be a perfect fort for someone. Eventually, some other group of kids will find the space under the sidewalk and feel some of the same excitement that we shared when it became ours.

Here was proof video games haven’t wrecked our kids after all!


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