When I was in elementary school, my older brothers built a tree fort. Actually, it was a rock fort, on an outcropping of ledge in the woods near our home. I seem to recall there was a tree, too, not only because it had a second story but because they called it a “tree fort.” I don’t remember them ever doing anything in the tree fort. Just building it seemed to be the point. The other point was that it was their fort, and not mine. And though I might have been able to go out and use it (when they weren’t home) I hadn’t been allowed to help build it.
So I built my own tree fort. Except mine was most definitely on the ground. And what’s the point of a tree fort if it isn’t in a tree?
So I built another one, this time with new best friend Tom whose family had moved in next door. Now “next door,” in our rural town, meant that when I walked at night, from the edge of the light in his front yard to the first glimmer of our front porch lamp, there was only about one minute of terrified sprinting down our dirt road beneath the darkness of the overhanging trees as I sought to avoid monsters, bears and boogeymen. Anyway, in the process of searching for a building site for Tom’s house, the contractors had dug some three-foot deep, four-foot long holes along the road between our homes. One of them never got filled in. So we built our tree fort over it.
Now the vast majority of holes in the ground are located on, or very near to, the ground. And this hole was no different. Meaning that this tree fort wasn’t in a tree either. That was OK, though, because we put a trap door in the floor, and covered it with an old rug, and that was cool! Our tree-less tree fort had a secret, underground hiding place where we could have hidden from my older brothers or his older sisters (if any of them had ever had any interest in coming to look for us).
That is, we could have hidden if it hadn’t been so creepy down there. But once we built the fort, and we each tested the secret hiding place, we never went down there again. There was no telling what was waiting to grab us if we opened that trap door. For that matter, I don’t think we even went into the fort again after building it. Having placed our on-the-ground-tree-fort-with-the-secret-dungeon in the woods along the road between our houses, we had inadvertently provided a hiding place for the evil beings who waited to grab us at night. So for the next several months, the walks home at night were even worse. Fortunately, one of our parents came along and tore the thing down one day. Though I couldn’t admit it aloud, I was relieved. There was enough to worry about on my mad dashes home without a dungeon in the woods just off the road. Besides, the tree fort wasn’t even in a tree.
I had to wait another 25 years before I would finally get my first real tree fort. I was married with three sons ranging from two to nine years old. We had just moved out of the village to a hillside woodlot. A wonderful thing about woodlots is that most of them have trees. Ours was no exception. One of the trees was a grand old black birch with three major trunks sitting on the edge of a small meadow out of sight of our house.
That was where I built my first fort. I got design input from my sons, and I even allowed my older brother to help. It was three-story tree fort nestled between the triple trunks. The first story was six feet up, and just big enough for one child to stand up in. The second was off to the side, another four feet higher, and big enough for two. The third story platform was a good 15 feet off the ground and large enough for a three kids to sleep in.
It was a good fort. Many hours were spent there. A father spending time with sons. Sons spending time with friends. Playing games. Watching bonfires. It even hosted sleepovers for my sons and their friends — though if my memory serves me correctly, some of those ended in the kids getting scared and returning to the house before midnight.
But it did have a design flaw. I did not take into account that three trunks of the same tree, each reaching high up into the wind, would sway by different amounts and with different rhythms. Over time the moving of the trunks against the nails in the boards damaged the tree and made it susceptible to disease. It lasted just over a decade and then the tree began to rot and die, and the fort was pronounced unsafe. A year later I cut down the tree.
Though not until after I discovered that the top level was also a decent hunting stand. On two different occasions sitting up in my sons’ tree fort I was able to harvest free-range venison with a doe tag during muzzleloader season.
Which is why this fall — even though my oldest two sons have gone off to college and my youngest is a high school junior and too old to need a tree fort built by his father — with the help of my friends John Curler and Louis Nop, I began building my fourth (and probably final) tree fort just across the meadow from the remains of the third.
Four decades after my first tree fort, I think I’ve finally learned from my mistakes. For one, it is not on the ground. It is 16 feet up. To avoid the risk of trunks swaying in the wind, however, I planted four cedar poles three and a half feet in the ground for the corner posts. At eight-by-eight, it is the largest platform I have had in any tree fort. And it has a metal roof over it.
On the night of Nov. 15, I plan to do something I’ve never done in any previous tree fort: I’m going to sleep out in it. As long as I don’t get scared, that is. If I do get scared, it’s only about a 60-second mad dash down the lumber trail back to the light of my driveway. And the other mistake I didn’t repeat this time: I did not build any dungeons on the trail back to my house where monsters and boogeymen could hide in ambush.