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On Document Style: Building Forts

I’ve used today’s photo before, but it’s so adorable I just had to drag it out again. That’s not the only reason, of course. It’s also incredibly appropriate to the story I want to tell.

I don’t know if it’s readily apparent in that image, but we were building a fort in that photo. I think it was a snow day, but for whatever reason I was home with the family, and when Trish’s back was turned AB and I decided to turn the living room into a playground.

We used a couple chairs and a broomstick, a queen-size sheet and a couple heavy textbooks to hold the sheet out right. Trish caught us hiding in our creation, and snapped the image.

Annabelle’s had access to several fun forts like that. She’s got a big plastic play house out in the back yard — the kind you might remember from your last visit to a daycare playground, although the slide is missing — and when she goes to visit her cousins at Shannon’s place, she gets to play in an honest-to-goodness castle.

I didn’t have access to pre-fab structures like that when I was a kid — not at school, and certainly not at home. I made do, though. With fifteen acres of mostly-wooded land to play with, and a surprising amount of time completely on my own out there, I found my opportunities.

There was a huge boulder, probably a hundred feet long, thirty or forty feet across, and at least eight feet tall at the highest spot. My uncle Randy and I discovered it while out walking the trails on our property one time, and he said it would make an excellent outlaw den.

So we dug out a tunnel underneath it, from one end to the other, and built a cool fire pit right at the mouth of it. I’d spend hours climbing on the rock, crawling underneath it, or resting in its shadow and dreaming up outlaw stories.

Another time, way over on the other side of the property, Josh and I tried to build ourselves a clubhouse using the copious lumber readily available. We lacked such critical tools as foresight, planning, any degree of architectural competency, or…well, tools. So that got about as far as a leaky lean-to before we gave up.

I was committed to finding the perfect fort, though, and at long last I figured it out.

See…on the very back corner of our land grew this huge blackberry bush. Actually…it was probably really close to the same dimensions as the Big Rock I mentioned above. Every year in July we’d go out and pick bushels and bushels of blackberries, and the rest of the time we pretty much avoided that part of the property altogether.

One year while picking, though, I realized that the berries only grew on the very outside of the bush — that the bush sprawled over several hundred square feet, but we only made use of a tiny portion of it. Curious, I looked closer, and realized that only the very outside of the bush was even alive. Beneath a vibrant veneers a few feet thick was a dense, sprawling framework of long-dead branches.

And then I thought about digging that tunnel under the big rock, and realized how much simpler it would be to “dig” a path through the thin, brittle branches of the blackberry bush than it had been to dig through the hard clay under the rock.

It wasn’t quite as simple as I’d hoped, for a couple reasons. Mainly it was the thorns. Blackberry bushes aren’t quite as brutal as rosebushes, but they’re not far off, either. Carving a tunnel into a fluid mass of vicious thorns can be a dangerous procedure, and every branch I cut free had to be pulled out by hand. And, worse yet, every bit I missed got lost in the dust and leaves that littered the shadowy floor of my new cavern, so when I went crawling in on hands and knees, I came out all scraped up.

That didn’t bother me a bit, though. I was making a fort, after all, right? Every scratch reminded me what a great defensive structure this place was. Those thorns were my portcullis, my vats of boiling oil.

Eventually I wove together a mass of the cuttings, about the size and shape of a small shield, that I could wedge over the entrance to my tunnel as a makeshift door. It did wonders to hide what I was up to, too.

Oh, and I had to hide it. I mentioned my idea to Dad one time, looking for advice, and he strictly forbade me to start cutting on the blackberry bush. We all loved the annual yield of blackberries — the incredible cobblers, the jellies and jams, the syrup — Mom worked wonders with those berries, and Dad didn’t want me risking any of that.

I took that to heart, too. It didn’t stop me cutting — not at all — but it made me very careful wherever I went inside the belly of the bush. I watched for living vine, I carved my path through the thinnest branches and twisted and turned to avoid any trunks that looked thick enough to support significant weight from the top. I got caught in cave-ins a time or two — minor ones — and before long I understood the structure of the sprawling blackberry bush.

And from there I went wild. I spent most of a year on that project, and by the end I had three hidden entrances on our property and one escape route that opened right underneath the barbed-wire fence on our neighbor’s property. I had tunnels connecting all these entrances to a central chamber I could nearly stand up in, and two or three smaller side-chambers…and all of them supported by totally organic columns — untouched pillars where I’d avoided damaging the load-bearing trunks of long-dead bushes within the pile.

I’d sit alone, in my columned hall, and imagine myself a king in his throne room. It was glorious and, dangerous and bloody as it was, in its way it was far better than the pretty plastic toys Annabelle gets to play with. She’s got an imagination as big as mine, though, and in the end…that’s the bit that really matters.

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