Tree Forts in the 1970s

I turned 13 in 1972. It seemed lots of kids – I’m talking about teenagers – had tree forts. When I say “tree” fort, I don’t mean these were necessarily built on platforms up in trees. They weren’t necessarily tree houses. They weren’t built by parents. Some weren’t connected to a tree at all. Come to think of it, kids tended to say simply “fort.” But a fort was always in the woods.

A fort wasn’t always even a structure. If you took a board and leaned it against a tree, you could have a fort. That was probably the most rudimentary fort structure. No, wait – the most rudimentary would be some sort of tarp or cloth (burlap?) hung on or thrown over a rope, attached to a tree.

We were not living in a rural area where everybody had acreage. This was the suburbs, post-WWII suburbs, developments in their infancy. Lots of patches of woods, treed corner lots, glens and groves still remained in between houses, streets, and plats. No one really knew who owned these woods, so they were up for grabs. Any given patch of woods in between neighborhoods could be counted on to have a bike path carved through it. I’d bet these were created by the first wave of baby boomers, hacking through the “jungle” with their Schwinns and Raleighs and Sears Roebuck bikes.

No one cared if kids were hanging out in the woods, goofing off or smoking or doing God knows what. Adults were not known to venture in there to find out. If they had, I’m sure word would have circulated that some pervert had been seen hanging out in the woods. But I never heard of that happening where I lived.

In springtime of sixth grade, my friend Perry started talking about a fort she wanted to build in the patch of woods behind her house. As the school year approached its end, we drew up a succession of plans, each drawing more complex and ostentatious than the last. I tried to convince her that if you could build a fort, why not build several rooms with finished walls, and maybe even furniture? Finally, she got tired of my pie-in-the-sky plans and told me she was just going to have a simple, one-room, plywood fort. We didn’t talk about it after that, and I never saw the completed fort, if there ever was one.

In ninth grade, I made friends with Dave, a junior who was in band with me. He mentioned a fort he’d built in the woods, somewhere between his neighborhood and mine. I thought it was a little unusual, but not nuts, that a junior in high school had a fort. The guy was nearly sixteen at the time, almost old enough to drive. I never saw the fort myself, but I’m sure he had a crude structure there where he’d hang out after school.

My friend in tenth grade, Debbie, invited me into the woods between the school and her plat, a vast stretch of wooded land. A group of boys hung out there, one of whom was a boy I liked. I found out that some types of kids used the cover of the woods to do stuff – involving drugs, involving girls – that they couldn’t do out in the open. After that learning experience (no harm to me but I sure flirted with danger), I stopped cutting through the woods.   

All in all, I choose to remember forts as an innocent part of the carefree, unstructured youth we enjoyed back then.