Right before Whiskey was slated to start middle school, my mom’s bff finally convinced her to ditch our possibly-haunted two-bedroom apartment and buy a proper house. We packed up the pink couch and the creepy goose and moved to a charming cluster of townhouses surrounded on all sides by a desert of collapsing greenhouses and abandoned farmland. It was desolate. There were tumbleweeds, and burrowing owls everywhere. One of the old greenhouses had a giant, decomposing, dead cat that we would check on, make gross-out noises over and then run off.
The one thing mom asked of us, before she left for work, was not to leave the house. It was a new neighborhood, and we didn’t know anyone, and it was probably full of perverts and serial killers.
It was summer, which meant long days of bad TV, and the two of us alone in a new house. We’d break something or kill each other if we stayed home, so when morning cartoons gave way to soap operas, executive decisions had to be made. Whiskey knocked on every door in the neighborhood until he’d collected several promising kids and two terrible ones.
This was the eighties, when packs of children still roamed the streets like wolves, looking to recreate all those “do not try this at home” moments from TV. The group of us rode endless circles on our bikes/skates/scooters/skateboards, looking for things to jump over. One day, half-feral from boredom, our little pack came across a pile of unattended lumber at what may or may not have been an active construction site.
“I have a great idea,” Whiskey said. “Let’s build a fort!”
Like most of Whiskey’s idea, it was the best one ever. First, we drew up plans. Then we abandoned those plans because math is hard and, while we had access to hammers and nails, no one would loan us a table saw and, turns out, it’s harder than you’d think to dig a proper moat.
We raided the scrap heap in the mornings, dragging what we could carry or sledding it on skateboards from the construction site to a big empty field that used to be a strawberry farm. We raided our own garages for nails and whatever tools weren’t locked up. Fortunately, we were kids, and far too dumb to notice what an impossible/dangerous task we’d undertaken. Over the next couple of weeks, we built the most amazing two story fort ever constructed by elementary-aged kids. There was a balcony. And windows. The boys did most of the building, to be honest. I brought what I liked to call “feminine touches.” I nailed up curtains. Stole furniture. Hung some art. Talked a lot of smack. All my specialties.
That fort was our life. Plans were drawn up to build a half-pipe with a drop in off the second story balcony. I repurposed some fabric and hand stitched a pirate flag. By the end of summer, we were pretty sure we would have the Winchester Mystery House of forts. Admission would be charged.
This is the point where I back up a bit to that first day when we collected that handful of good kids and two shitty ones.
The bad set was a pair of sisters, 11 and 8, with white blonde hair like the Children of the Corn. They were homeschooled. The oldest had bug eyes so we called her Bug-eyes. Their dad was a lawyer, and president of the homeowner’s association (Don’t get me started on HOA bullshit). Bug-eyes would tell her parents anytime we tried to have any unsanctioned fun at all. They liked rules, the bug-eye family. Still, it was a small neighborhood, not a lot of kids, so at first we tried to include the blondes in all our games. Unfortunately, Bug-eyes was fundamentally incapable of being cool. She once threatened legal action because we got her driveway wet in the middle of a neighborhood water fight on a ninety degree day. I don’t know how a kid can be that lame that early in life, but I pity her current coworkers, I’m sure she has some middle management position.
Back to the story.
So, one fateful morning, we ran out to the field and discovered our fort had been unceremoniously leveled. We stood there in shock, our dreams crushed right alongside our summer-home, but it never occurred to us that other kids had ratted us out. That is, of course, exactly what happened. Bug-eyes told her HOA dad and he tore the whole thing down himself, undoing weeks of blood, sweat, and tears. There was a notice in the next newsletter about trespassing and liability and blah blah blah. I hope they all got splinters – God knows we got our share building the damn thing.
Until that point, I’d always gone out of my way to be friendly to bug-eyes, who had a raging victim complex but also a lot of cool, expensive toys. But some people can only be happy if everyone around them is miserable.
Plus side, that girl had given us a new activity for the summer. Driving their entire family out of the neighborhood forever. Myself, Whiskey and the rest of his nefarious skateboarding clan made the Bug-eyes family a personal project.
It might not have been quite as constructive a way to pass the time, but it still beat daytime television.