Boys and Forts
One of my favorite things as a boy was building “forts” in the woods with other boys. Not sure now why we called them forts because they were not fortified in any way. They were structures we liked to go into and just sit. If they were in trees, they were “tree forts.” If they were holes in the ground with boards over them covered with dirt, leaves and pine needles, they were “underground forts.” The ones we built in wintertime were “snow forts.” None of us ever thought to question the label.
I suspect we boys were biologically programmed to build forts and were happiest doing so, just as Labrador Retrievers are happiest when they’re retrieving. Sitting in classrooms with teachers trying to program us to be “nice” like the girls would make us crazy. Building forts was not the only thing we did and I’m not sure where the notion came from. It was usually around this time of year - when summer was ending and school was beginning. I suspect it was instinctual. Cold weather was approaching and we felt like building a shelter, so we did.
We’d use available tools and materials. In suburban Boston during the fifties and sixties lots of houses going up, so we would prowl job sites and ask carpenters if we could have their scrap wood and bent nails and they always obliged. It was great fun to straighten out the nails, carry materials into the woods and start building. Tools we borrowed from our fathers, with permission or without. Hammers and saws were all we used really and the fathers were off to work all day so we would raid their workbenches. I'd borrow a hammer and saw and return them to the workbench before my father got home from work. Sometimes I’d forget though and leave them at the “fort.” If he should go looking for his tools that night and not find them, I’d be in trouble.
The numerous forts usually ended up getting wrecked by groups of older, bigger boys or boys from neighborhoods on the other side of a thousand-acre swamp. We’d journey to the site one day and find it destroyed, speculate on who may have done it, and plot revenge. If it was the boys across the woods, we’d seek alliances with older boys in our neighborhood for protection or retaliation.
My sisters and their friends played house close to home while we were building forts in the woods. Sometimes they’d rake pine needles into rows outlining rooms and make beds for their dolls. They were obeying their instincts too and got satisfaction from playing out their fantasies day after day. Often they’d try to entice us to play with them and pretend to be fathers in their “houses” but we weren’t interested. We’d only agree to when they blackmailed us. We’d play house with them for a limited time if they promised not to tell on us for something we did that they found out about.
As I reflect on it now, we were all playing out our inherent inclinations and there are corollaries in the larger human story. A concise description of human history might outline, for example, a series of periods when we built things, interspersed with periods when we wrecked what we’d built. If we extended the building periods and shortened the wrecking periods, it could be considered a measure of civilizational progress. Men generally built villages and cities while women bred, nurtured and maintained households in them. Men fortified their towns and cities and defended them, successfully or unsuccessfully, against assaults by other groups from other regions. Sometimes the assaults were preemptive attacks on potential enemies. Sometimes they were naked grabs for wealth and power. There were also occasions when men would seek alliances with other groups for defensive or offensive purposes.
It was similar with us boys and our forts. After a while they didn’t get wrecked very often, and that was probably because we were becoming the bigger boys, and the ones who had been the destroyers had grown up to discover cars and girls. Not too many years later, they settled down to play house for real.
Eventually, so did we.