Why I Live in a Tent

Finding solace and shelter in the forts of our youth

| January/February 2000

Do you remember what being a kid was like? The freedom? The excitement over little things? The tingly feeling when you dared to do something you knew you shouldn't do? Like most folks, I can recollect certain aspects of my childhood and can sometimes, late at night, even feel that I'm back there again, studying a grasshopper in the alfalfa field or riding my metallic green stingray with the white banana seat up to the school grounds to run through the sprinklers.

But by far my most enduring memories are of the forts I built. What is it about kids and forts anyway? Why do children construct raggedy tree houses, blanket forts, and snow igloos? Do we share a basic need to make cozy, private spaces where we are free to be ourselves?

Whatever the reasons, I was hit especially hard by this primal urge. One of my earliest abodes was nothing more than a dirty backyard hole with a plywood roof. Most of the forts my brothers and I built were erected from makeshift scrap heaps of whatever we happened to run across. Soon after the dirt pit, we graduated to sheet and blanket tents, one of which we set aflame on a disastrous Fourth of July night.

Then in 1973 I came upon The Hobbit, and my life was forever changed. For the next 10 years I was haunted by its beginning: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

"It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats--the hobbit was fond of visitors. The best rooms were all on the lefthand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river."

I became transfixed by that hobbit house, and I found the rest of the book about battles with trolls, dwarfs, and dragons boring by comparison. I dreamed of that place and drew endless plans, hoping someday to build one just like it.

I was finally inspired to build my first hideaway soon after my junior high school shop class built a small log house. I sneaked my dad's smallest chain saw out and cut down about 50 small pine trees on a hillside high above our valley. Every spare hour I spent sawing, chopping, and nailing it together. By late fall the thing was standing--kinda wobbly, but standing. After much hand wringing I broke the secret to my family and they helped me finish off the roof, each carrying a wide board up the dusty trail. And so my dream was realized, a private getaway in the woods. A dry bed, a barrel stove, and a can of soup in the cupboard. I think I only slept there twice.

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