Most summers my son and his family visit us in Santa Fe from their home abroad. This year they have a longer than usual break which means that we can actually undertake a project which has been a fantasy until now – the building of a fort.
Roberto has been the supervisor and engineer. We all had a hand in the design which maximizes reuse: an old wooden ladder was cut in two for access to the landing and the top floor, and the round top of a telephone wire spool serves as a landing. The rest of the lumber was all found on the property thanks to Roberto ‘s instinct to hang onto materials just in case.
It has been a great project, involving higher math, safety tips, and experience at the helm of power drills and saws. Today I asked the two carpenter apprentices their ideas about the word “fort.” What did “fort” mean to them? After much thought, one came up with the word “security,” a place where you can be safe. I questioned him “safe from what?” I got the all purpose response “whatever.” Later in the day I asked his brother the same question and he responded: “Like a castle sort of, with walls around it, and big gates, a place where you can defend yourself from ….whatever.” Animatedly he told me about forts that he made with furniture and pillows at his friend’s house, and how they threw things at each other and if they hit someone they could put that person in a jail attached to their fort.
My son reminded me of the forts he and his brother built in the house, and outside, too, by hammering boards to three trees that were close together. And of course if it snowed the first thought was not to make a snowman but to build a fort and lob snowballs at your enemies.
I thought of my family and forts. For my sons and grandsons building forts was an essential part of childhood. It was in their genes. They were digging deep into a cultural past to build that place of security, that place from which to defend. Forts were a powerful force in the history of the west, symbols of domination, outposts on the road to colonization. The good guys defended the fort; the bad guys attacked it.
Of course, those are my genes as well. But I am aware of another, more personal, connection to forts of the iconic west.
I recently learned that my great-great grandmother was held in a fort in the mid-1800s in northern Minnesota. She was Lakota and Ojibway and probably widowed thanks to the US cavalry. I have been thinking about her a lot lately, wondering if she had shoes, if she could keep warm, if she was hungry, if she was abused, if she cried at night, if she found any pleasure behind those walls. And I wonder how she felt about the fort. I suppose she could have felt safe there, safe from attacks from other tribes. My guess is that she wished for her relatives, the bad guys, to break down those walls and free her to return to her people.
And what if they had? Would I be here today, building a fort with my grandsons, climbing to the top, scanning the horizon? There is a thread that connects those forts, and for me it is important to know that thread and to treat it with care and respect.