Philadelphia, PA – Early 1970s
As a kid, we all loved our toys. Toys were our stuff. Toys were exclusively for kids. Parents had no use for them. When I misbehaved my dad would take things away from me. No TV, or take away certain toys. To me, this made no sense. I loved TV and toys, but without either of them, I always found something else to do. I had just as much fun with found items or making stuff. I could be just as happy with nothing as long as I could go out and play in the big lot at the end of our street. It was full of rocks, weeds, and bushes.
At the far end of the lot was a solitary tree that we fashioned into somewhat of a treehouse. It was just a few long two-by-fours we found and stretched across a few of the limbs to make the ledger boards. We drove a bunch of nails into the limbs and then placed any boards we could find for the floor. It didn’t have any sides. It was simply a platform about 20 feet off the ground. We found some shorter bits of wood and nailed them into the trunk so you had something to grab onto and put your feet on to climb up and down to the platform above. It stood at the edge of the lot at the top of an embankment that led down to the railroad tracks.
Sitting in the treehouse just felt good. You were with your friends and safe from anything approaching on the ground. It’s an ancient feeling that washes over you. I’m sure primitive man did the same thing to escape ground-dwelling predators. It also gave you an advantage over your enemies. We always kept a box of rocks up there in case we were ever invaded. No one’s going to attempt to take your fortress if you have potentially lethal projectiles. We never needed them, but it was comforting to know you had them, just in case.
In Carl Sagan’s book, The Dragons of Eden, he stated that there was a theory that when you’re in your bed at night and just about fall asleep, you sometimes feel that sudden jump. He thought that it was a primitive mechanism that was in place to stop us from falling out of the trees as early hominids. When you’re a kid, it seems to occur with greater frequency but could be a long-lost survival safeguard. But as children, we just loved to climb up on things. Old instinct? Maybe.
We’d built many forts over the years when we were kids. We kind of liked having several places we could go to hang out whenever we were wandering in the woods across the railroad tracks. Numerous little campsites that were exclusively ours.
One day, we were back in the lot. There was a fence that went all the way around the Peerless Steel factory back there. There was the fence, and along it was a dirt path. If you walked about thirty feet along the fence, at the edge of a hill was suddenly a small fort built there. It had almost appeared that it had gone up overnight. We were a bunch of 9 and 10-year-old kids. It had four walls and a roof. On the ground were pieces of old carpet so you could sit down. It was better than anything we’d ever seen. We figured some bigger kids had constructed it. We knew that older boys would go back the tracks at night and drink beer and smoke weed. It was the only place to hide in my neighborhood. It was a nice community, but full of watchful eyes. So they must have constructed it at night. Of course, being the curious boys we were, we went inside and hung out.
Such a primitive thing. A small tribe finds shelter in a place made by bigger more advanced beings. Empty beer cans and bottles littered the area. We would collect the bottles and cans and take them down the embankment to the railroad tracks below so we could set them up and play target practice with them. The trackbed was full of grey stones. So there was an endless supply of ammo to throw at the bottles and break them.
One afternoon we were sitting in the fort and a big kid appeared at the door. It startled us all and we were a bit intimidated by this formidable figure. He told us the fort belonged to him and his friends. We immediately told him we meant no harm and would vacate the premises immediately, but he sensed our fear and respect and told us to keep an eye on it for them. Of course, we accepted the job. We told him we’d clear all of the trash out so if there were any cops or railroad detectives around they wouldn’t find anything. When I think about it now, the older guy seemed like a man, but when you’re 10, a 16-year-old looks like an adult to you.
We played back in the lot and on the railroad tracks all the time. It was our place. No parents ever went back there. Think about how different things were back then. Today most children have organized play in sporting events and teams. They have video games that would have seemed like science fiction to us in the 70s. They wear all sorts of protective gear just to ride their bicycles. We had none of that. It was just your young hide against the elements. There were plenty of injuries back then. Who would let their kids today go play back in a vacant lot, wander through the woods, and play on railroad tracks? You’d be labeled a neglectful parent. But we loved it back there.
About a mile south, there was a church at the top of the hill where Levick Street crossed over the railroad tracks into Cheltenham. Behind its parking lot was a vacant lot. Sort of a landfill. It was just tons of broken rocks and cement that created a cliff on the edge of the woods. We moved some of the rocks and cleared a small enclosure we could get inside to call a fort. It was fun to dislodge giant stones that probably weighed 800 lbs. with our feet, and push them down the side of the hill. There was a certain triumph in being able to collectively move and object of such weight as kids. The joy of watching the boulder roll down the hill like it was all happening in a Road Runner cartoon. Once a space was cleared, we’d claim it as one of our many forts. The Rock Fort was born. We had found some boards and covered the small shelter so it had a roof. Of course, we’d carve out a hole in the dirt wall for the fireplace. My friend Michael had found an old rack from an oven in the trash and we shoved it in the wall over the fire pit. One morning my friend RJ, showed up with an open box of frozen Canadian bacon. I had never heard of that but I was willing to try it. We stuck the patties onto whittled sticks of wood and held them over the fire in our little fort until they sizzled. They were quite good actually, and we felt like true mountain men that day. I wondered if RJ’s mother ever noticed them missing from her freezer.
Another style of the fort we had back then was to dig a hole in the middle of the woods. We would carve out a space about eight feet square and maybe three feet deep. We’d take pieces of the roof from a broken dugout from the ballfields above the woods to make our roof. I liked the idea of corrugated fiberglass. It was sturdy enough to stand on and any rain could be channeled and runoff during inclement weather. We’d find bits of old carpet from people’s trash and line the floor of the fort. As I said, it was only three feet deep, so you had to lie down in there. I used to love the idea of being in my little Bomb Shelter Fort. It felt safe in there. You could smell the soil in the air of the place. That rich dark clay smell of the earth around you. I would lie on my back in there with my friend and we’d read digest editions of the old EC Mad comics. These were in paperback and black and white reprints of the old comics before there was a Mad magazine.
We’d cover the corrugated roof with soil, rocks, and leaves so the fort was completely camouflaged. No one could see or find the place unless you knew where it was in the woods. It was comforting to have my back on the carpet knowing the only thing below me was the Earth itself. No wooden floor. No basement or foundation of a house. Just dirt. If I lifted the old bit of carpet under me and kept digging long enough, I’d hit China.
We had a bunch of forts back them. We always had the treehouse, that was ours, but sometimes we’d venture away down the path past the big kid’s fort, and just hang out behind a big mound of dirt on the side of the railroad tracks. There were plenty of trees and it was just a chill hiding spot.
We called that hangout spot The Dirt Fort. Beyond that about thirty feet away was a lower area that was a nice flat piece of land under a single big tree. We called it The Flat Fort, and let the girls have that space. Of course, they always want to do the cool stuff that boys came up with, so we sublet that bit of real estate to my sister and her friends.
These weren’t forts per se, they were just little spots by the tracks we liked to hang out in.
One day there was a group of us down in the Flat Fort. I think it was me, my sister Janice, Margie, her brother Michael and my friend RJ. (I think!) We were all just hanging out chatting when this man wandered up. He looked like he was maybe in his twenties. He was skinny and had a t-shirt on and a pair of shorts and sneakers. We greeted the stranger, and he asked us if we had seen anyone else around the area. We told him we hadn’t. The first thing I noticed about him was how his eyes darted about when he spoke. Nobody I knew did that when they spoke. He stated that he was looking for his friends with whom he was out jogging. I was thinking who would go jogging back here by the railroad tracks? Bad place to twist an ankle on all of the irregular ground. He asked again if we had seen any of his friends because they were wearing shorts like his. Then he proceeded to pull down his pants. He had what appeared to be underwear on, but left his shorts down around his thighs and kept talking. We were all getting pretty weirded out at this point and told him again we hadn’t seen anybody else back here. We had him outnumbered, so he pulled up his shorts and moved on.
We all immediately left the area and went straight home and told our parents. I’m glad the incident didn’t go any further and the guy just seemed odd and maybe just what he did in front of us was enough to satisfy his whatever. But after that, the mothers forbade the girls from going down there anymore. Just the boys. Kinda sucked because we didn’t mind having them around that much. But it’s funny how just the girls had to stay away. Like young boys couldn’t get molested too? I’m just glad nothing happened.
There was one other similar incident once when my friend Michael and I were just hanging out on the corner of Magee and Hasbrook Aves. I don’t remember how old we were but we were pretty young. We were both sitting in a wagon. It was right on the corner near our houses. Some guy rolled up on a motorcycle and stopped to chat with us. He seemed cool and we liked his bike. I don’t remember what we were all chatting about but at one point he asked us if we wanted him to pull down his pants. We immediately knew that was weird and got the heck out of there. He rode off but we went and told Michael’s dad about it. We never saw that perv again either.
Can’t be too careful out there, kids.
Part 2 of Back the Tracks will publish next Thursday.
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