THE BULLY AND THE FORT

 

Most Californians will tell you that they have moved around quite a bit. Mobility is one of the defining features of the state, and it affects attitudes toward lots of things. This is a post about just such a collection of feelings.

In 1953, when I was ten years old, I moved with my mother and father and my seven year old sister from an apartment in El Cerrito, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, to a small house that my parents found, in nearby Albany. At the time my father was stationed at the Navy base on Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay. As a Navy family, we moved around quite a bit. In this case, as often happened, we moved not because we had to but because my parents were in search of a better place. The rent for the house was only a bit higher than the cost for the apartment, and the house was rather attractive and in a neighborhood full of children, which ensured lots of playmates for summer, which had just begun.

Albany looking west from Albany Hill
Albany looking east from Albany Hill and the bay

The new house was a single story bungalow with a large front porch, exterior walls made of coffee colored stucco, and wooden roof beams and window frames painted chocolate brown. The front yard had a small lawn and flowers. There were hedges along each side of the house, and large honeysuckle bushes that gave off an incredible fragrance during both the day and the warm nights. The house had a large backyard with a lawn, bushes, flowers, and several big trees. A driveway led along one side from the street to an old, wooden, one-car garage that stood separately in a far corner of the backyard. The garage was full of junk and looked like it had not been used in many years.

California bungalows
California bungalows

At the back of the backyard, partly overgrown by bushes, there was a gray, wooden fence with a swinging gate that opened onto a wide, asphalt-covered walkway that extended, straight, for several hundred feet, parallel to the fences and bushes of all the backyards of the other houses. On the other side of the walkway, there were two tennis courts and, then, further along, the grassy playing fields of a large park that the city of Albany maintained for the neighborhood.

Typical East Bay park
Typical East Bay park

Because we arrived in our new house in June, just after the schools had closed for the summer, the neighborhood was full of children all day long. Along our street, and in the nearby park, my sister and I found it unusually easy to meet new playmates. We spent entire days playing Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, War, and Red Rover Come Over. The street was not heavily traveled. We could play baseball and kickball there. At night we often went to each other’s houses for dinner, then read each other’s comic books, traded baseball cards, or played each other’s board games. Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, and Sorry were our favorites.

Small_Box_Monopoly

Shortly after we moved to the bungalow in Albany, my mother and father both took on part-time jobs to increase the family income. My mother became a part-time secretary at a truck-manufacturing firm located in the industrial area of Berkeley down near the Bayshore Highway. She was home most afternoons to take care of my sister and me. When she wasn’t home, the families in the neighborhood watched out for us. My father was out of the house each weekday, commuting to the Navy base on Treasure Island, where he was assigned to a small ship that was making sonar maps of the bottom of the Bay and the ocean floor just beyond the Golden Gate. On most days, the ship remained in port and there was little to do. The Captain advised my father to use the spare time for naps on board and to help our family by getting an evening job. My father found work at a large grocery store called Park and Shop, a few miles from our house.

With the extra money they were earning, my parents were able to buy some things we all wanted. My sister got new toys and clothes. For my birthday I received a boy’s sized desk. My mother purchased a new table for our dining room, made of pink wrought iron with a glass top. My father got a car – a used, dark blue, 1950, two-door Ford convertible with a white canvas top. For all of us, there was a new television set. Looking back, I now find it interesting how much these purchases expressed the twin poles of my family’s values. On the one hand, we were striving to be settled. The desk, for example, helped me to feel focused, to have a space of my own in the bedroom I shared with my sister. On the other hand, we were eager to be connected to a larger world. The car, in particular, helped us to be out and about. We went out for dinner more often. We made more visits to our relatives. On pleasant summer evenings, we took spins around the neighborhood. We went to drive-in movies and to drive-in restaurants like Mel’s and the places that were the precursors to McDonald’s, where you could buy a hamburger sandwich for nineteen cents.

At home, I was not feeling secure. I had to listen to my parents argue. Their busy routines – my father holding two jobs, and my mother holding a part-time job and trying to manage the household at the same time — tired both of them and put them on edge. My sister and I had to put up with the bickering and find countervailing equanimity outside the house.

I discovered that the most efficient way to cheer myself up was to go through the gate in our backyard and down the walkway between the bushes and the tennis courts to the park.

For small children, the park had swings and roller skating or kickball or four square or marbles. Next to that were two sandy areas with poles rigged for tetherball. There was also a large grassy field where we could play football and baseball.

Kickball
Kickball

The park included a small building next to the play field, where you could borrow sports equipment, and where two recreation directors were on duty to keep order. There was a Ping Pong table inside where local teenagers liked to hang out.

Most of the teenagers accommodated my friends and me, but one of them did not. When he appeared, things changed in a fundamental way. His name was Eddie. He must have been around fourteen years old — too old to pal around with boys of my age, but too young to be accepted by the older teenagers. And he probably had not been able to find a circle of friends at any other place, or else he would not have ended up in our park exactly when he did. Eddie was a bully. He took pleasure in intruding into our football and baseball games and punching us when we didn’t run the plays exactly as he ordered. If we asked the park directors to intervene, he waited for us at the edge of the park and beat us up, one by one, when we were walking home. If we simply stopped our game and boycotted him, by going from the field into the building with the Ping Pong table, then he came in and stared sullenly. The older teenagers noticed all this but felt no obligation to come to our aid. Our parents, likewise, kept on the edge of things. “You work it out,” my mother and father told me one evening at the dinner table when I brought up the problem of Eddie. Their view seemed to be that, as long as there was no blood or broken bones, then the appearance of Eddie was a minor matter and might even be instructional.

Thrown back upon our own resources, my friends and I did what boys of our age would have been expected to do. We gathered together, one afternoon, in a grove of trees at a far corner of the park and held a secret meeting, during which we swore a blood oath to protect each other. We developed a strategy of defense that seemed to us to be infinitely clever. Our plan was two-pronged. First, we would station lookouts at each end of the park, each sentinel ready to run back to and alert the rest of us that Eddie had been sighted and was drawing near. Then, as part two of our plan, we would build a secret hideout, a fort, to which we could retreat, but from which we could also peek into the park to keep track of Eddie and re-emerge once he could not find anyone to bully and was gone.

As the site for our fort, we selected an area near the tennis courts where there were dense clusters of low-lying juniper bushes. Beneath two of the bigger bushes that were very close together, we began digging a hole that would, we planned, eventually be about three feet deep and about five feet across on each side.

We agreed upon a work schedule, and used only broken bits of branches or our bare hands. I am not quite sure why we decided not to use other tools. I do recall that we told ourselves that secrecy might be compromised if we borrowed anything from our parents. Probably, though, we liked the feeling of heroism that came from digging primitively.

Our strategy worked well for the first few weeks. We coordinated our play at the park. We proved to be skilled lookouts. We took turns digging and rotated our times under the juniper bushes in an orderly, cooperative manner. Even with only a little bit of the hole completed, we were able to hide from Eddie and leave him feeling so bored that he eventually drifted away and came into our world only now and then, for example when we were looking at toy soldiers we were hoping to buy at the local toy store or going to the movies with our parents.

The thing that continued to irk us, however, was the fact that our fort was not completed. As the threat of Eddie subsided, we became careless about arriving and leaving the park at the same time and we often neglected to take our turns at digging and just played. Then, too, there were days when it rained and none of us came to the park, and entire weeks when some of us were away on summer trips with our families. Day followed day, the summer vacation was soon at an end, school was about to begin, and our fort was only half completed.

To decide what to do next, we held another secret meeting in the grove of trees at the corner of the park. We discovered that our opinions were divided. A majority said we should just forget the whole thing, and declared that their decision was final. But about four of us were determined to continue. I think, as I look back, that some kind of fundamental dichotomy in human character must have been showing itself. One group was saying cut your losses, get on to other matters, don’t waste time on a project that is no longer needed. The other group was saying that we shouldn’t run away from our commitments, that flight can become a bad habit, that faithfulness is a principle to be honored, that it is painful to start building something and then walk away before the job is done.

I am certain that, for each of us that day at the second secret meeting, there were personal values, even as young as we were, leading each of us to the choice we made. I will never know what influences operated in the minds of those who were with me in their decision. But I do know, as I look back, what was causing me to act as I did. My family was getting ready to move once again. My parents had found an attractive apartment a few miles away, across the city border in Berkeley. In a few weeks, I would be in a new home, in a new neighborhood, again going to a new school, spending too many evenings at home listening to my parents argue. There was no feeling of permanence in any of these developments, and the fact that I could not counteract them made me feel powerless. I knew that my parents loved me. But I was facing one of those times in my young life when I needed more stability than I was getting. And now, presented by the oddest of coincidences, was the chance to affirm the presence of stability, both symbolically and materially, by completing, with sticks and my bare hands, the construction of a primitive, secret fort.

Over the next several weeks, each day after school, my three friends and I faithfully met at the juniper bushes on the edge of the park and completed our project — they for their reasons and I for mine. Then, one day when the fort was completed, we shook each other’s dirty hands and said goodbye and went our separate ways and left our fort behind to wash itself into the earth in the coming rains.

 

 

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