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Kid’s Forts

June 21, 2012

For us kids, winters on the local farms could be a very boring time. Lucky for me, I was a reader, I could always bury myself in a magazine or a good novel but I never, ever liked Mad magazine. In fact, having nothing to do with what I always called “absurd humor,” I never liked the Three Stooges either. The winter rains would keep you indoors and when it wasn’t raining, the many fallow acres would be as muddy as hell, mud that made you tennis shoes or cowboy boots as heavy as hell. The winter was the time to build crystal radio sets, learn how to play solitaire and make eccentric contraptions with the erector set and Lincoln logs.
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As the rains subsided and ground started to dry out, and before the season’s first disking to turn under the tall grasses covering the fields, this was the time of the forts. We made forts in trees, in the barns but, most especially of all, we made these very elaborate forts in the fields. When you were eight or twelve years old, the wild grasses would almost grow head high. As the ground dried out, the combination of dark, rich earth and the tall grass would make for great dirt clods. You could grab just the right sized handful of grass, keeping the grass straight, and yank it out of the ground just so, so as not shake too much of the dirt out of the root ball. Once you developed your technique, you could lob a nice heavy clod maybe more than fifty feet with a long, under-handed swing. These guys could give you a hearty thump on the chest if they hit you, but they soared through the air pretty slow, trailing their dark green tails. You really seldom got hit, it so easy to dodge them. However, if a participant wasn’t paying ample attention, he might get hit square in the back and let out a little grunt. The others, on both sides, would congratulate the shooter with screams and yells, “Man, great shot, Whoa, what a hit, right on! gotcha’ big time,” and everyone would immediately reload.
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We would choose sides and pick out a lone sapling or a single high mustard plant and call it our “home base,” the thing that the other side had to capture to win our little war. We might have five or six “wars” it a single day. You could see tons of grass and dirt flying in big, curving arcs against the deep blue sky of spring. Laughter and screams would fill the air for hours at a time. No one got hurt and no one had to babysit. Your hands and clothes would get filthy but all that could be washed. As the oldest kids in a clan became more ambitious, they would realize that the larger clods actually made good building material, after all, you had all the elements of adobe here, dirt, grass and labor. Once this discovery was made, short walls would start appearing randomly in the fields. If there a batch of kids close by, you could see several of them darting and diving down for the protection of the little wall as other kids would be throwing the muddy clods at them.
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Then would come the next generation of ambition when the leaders of these dirt clod combatants would graduate to under ground forts. The one reality that no one gets if you didn’t actually grow up in this environment was that “small vegetable farmers” actually did everything themselves (that’s what they used to call us. What I think what they meant to say “small farm, growing normal sized vegetables, owners, but they just called us “small vegetable farmers” anyway). Except when in very extreme situations, these guys didn’t hire carpenters, plumbers, mechanics or sign makers, because they never had the money to pay these sorts of professionals. One way or another, they did this all themselves, usually with little or no expertise. Once aware of this simple truth, it makes it easier to understand why they threw nothing away. If something broke, wore out or was replaced, it wasn’t discarded but was put “behind the barn.” Everyone had a “behind the barn” space, even if you didn’t have a barn. Everyone one of these people earnestly believed that EVERYTHING would eventually be reused in some way or another. This is the ultimate in recycling. These folks definitely were not tree huggers it was just that they couldn’t part with good, solid raw material. And, as well, considering the timing, nearly all of them had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and no one threw anything away in those days. With this understanding, you must realize that building materials were very dear and were not to be squandered on play things. So, if you wanted to build an underground fort, whatever you were going to use to shore up the ceiling of your fort, it couldn’t be from anyone’s “behind the barn stash.”

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One of the most common sorts of materials for such purposes were fallen tree limbs. However, there were few orchards in these rich bottom land fields
The old farmers of previous generations had planted strong walnut trees between the roads and the orchards to protect the orchards from wayward vehicles. Like wise, they planted strong walnuts along the sides of the few storm creeks that ran through the small valley, to keep the banks from eroding. We called them storm creeks because they only flowed during and just after storms. None of them flowed naturally all year round. Luckily, one of the storm creeks ran through the back of our property and we had more than a half dozen walnut trees in our field. I would collect the long, stringy walnut branches and chop off the stout and real strong sections to use them for roof beams. We would criss cross the “beams” across our shallow pit, cover them with cardboard and then replace all the dirt clods we had stacked up before digging the pit.
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Essentially, this “fort” was invisible. We even carried several large buckets of water to the fort to soak the newly replaced clods so that the grass would continue to grow and flourish on top of our new hide out. As time went on, we enlarged the fort so that it had several “rooms” and a couple of exits. We scavenged a couple of grass mats for the floor. It was just getting too elaborate and it was still invisible from the surface. We were very proud, bringing kids over after school to show it off.
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In our little kid way, our fort became the talk of the our little kid town.
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One day I got home from school and my mom was in the back kitchen doing the laundry and as I entered she told me that Al wanted to see me, behind the barn, not looking up from her chore. A chill shot up my spine. Whenever you had to go “behind the barn” for a conversion, it was not good. That location was only used when the property owner wanted privacy. I left the house immediately. I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong. I started sweating under my collar. I was going over my last week’s activities in my head, trying to guess the topic of this surprise private conversation. Al wasn’t there. I grabbed an old prune box (bye the way, all prune boxes were old) and sat on it while I waited. After just a few seconds I heard a whistle. I looked round and saw Al half way across the field. He waved for me to join him.
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I ran over to him at a slow jog and saw over his should that his little caterpillar tractor and it’s disk rig were stopped right near where our underground fort was. About half of the field was freshly turned earth. He had started this year’s diking. Maybe he was impressed with the fort and wanted me to show it off to him. As I got closer to him I got the distinct idea that wasn’t the reason I’d been called to the back of the barn. I came up to him and asked what he wanted. He was obviously very perturbed.
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“Come here,” is all he said. He strode to the back of the tractor, looked down at the ground and put his hands on his hips. I followed and saw that several axles of the disk rig had tumbled down into the shallow pit and had broken some of the walnut limbs.
“If I had been just a foot or two closer, my tractor would have gone in there and it probably would have rolled over.”
He let this sink in and I didn’t know what to say. He lectured me on much it would cost to pull the caterpillar back to both its tracks. He told me to gather up all the kids and fill this thing up right now. He would continue his work on the other side of the fort and when we finished filling it, he would plow it then, too. And he wanted to it before the sun went down.
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I took off at a run and we had the pit filled within the hour. We all avoided Al for the next few days.
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A few months later, Al’s wife, Clara, told me that this sort of thing happened about every five or six years. The kids involved in the last fort/tractor incident would never dig another fort. But, as they grew older and gave up forts, the next generation would start getting the bright ideas all over again.
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Well, this never happened to Al again. There was no next generation of farm kids to dig up the field. Before they got the bright idea, this field was covered with houses and pavement and a whole new style of kid.
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