Out of the crawlspace, into the tree house

When I was little, my older brother and I would spend hours tunnelling into the piles of snow at the end of our driveway. This was back when we regularly got snowfalls of 17 feet at a time. Or something like that. I was a lot shorter then. And less metric.

Andrew was (and is) a designer, so our snow forts tended to be elaborate and well appointed. He was management, I was labour. This may be faulty memory, but I remember one particular fort we could stand up in. It had a bed and a table, a sink maybe, possibly running water and a working snow pinball machine! Or maybe just the bed. But it was definitely a sophisticated snow cave. Until the bad kids in the neighbourhood came and wrecked it.

But really I think the thrill of snow forts was being in that tiny space. Without getting all Freud about it, for a kid, a confined space is a break from the everyday wide-open vastness of pretty much everything in the world besides himself. The confined world is the child’s world, where no adult can follow, unless they risk severe cramping.

Andrew and I had other spaces. In our bathroom (six people, one bathroom; these were savage times), there was a laundry hamper we could squeeze into during a rousing game of Hide-n-Seek-n-Socks.

But behind the bathroom hamper was a wall panel for a dark crawlspace that allowed access to the pipes for the bathtub and shower. And when I say “crawlspace,” I mean “clubhouse.”

Everything I know about international espionage I learned from this book.

Andrew and I could squeeze into that space and, armed with a flashlight, manage to pull the panel shut behind us. That was about all we’d do in there. Maybe we’d look at comics (including a very cool but borderline inappropriate 1966 James Bond Annual). Climb the wall framing. Shine the light around. Sniff the mildew. That was about it. But it was our space!

At one point, my brother posted a magazine article in there about the impending arrival of Comet Kahoutek, which was hyped to be one of brightest comets to pass Earth’s orbit in centuries. This was in 1973, so I would have been 7 or 8 years old. In my mind, I somehow transmuted the harmless (and ultimately disappointing) Comet Kahoutek into a cataclysmic, life-ending Earth-pulverizer. I don’t know where I got this idea but I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame my brother.

(Sometime later, I half-heard someone on the radio talking about 1984, presumably in relation to the novel. I convinced myself that 1984 was when the world was going to end. I was old enough to calculate that I would have just finished high school but not old enough to have ever heard of George Orwell. Imagine my relief.)

Was the crawlspace a science lab? A post-apocalyptic bunker? An especially damp spy headquarters? Or possibly none of the above. The excitement, I think, was due to being not just in an adult-free space but in a sort of alternate universe inside our house.

(I also used to stumble around our unfinished basement staring at a mirror pointed at the rafters and imagining I was walking on the ceiling. I was the youngest; I spent a lot of time alone.)

Eventually, Andrew and I abandoned the crawlspace. Maybe we outgrew it physically and imaginatively. Later, we had a tree house, which, again, my brother designed while I contributed by way of pestering and hanging around. This tree house was no confined space. It slept three people easily. It had a trap door, windows with sliding shutters, even storage spaces perfect for comic books and earwigs.

There was also purple shag carpeting, so clearly we had a thing for mildew.

Eventually we abandoned the tree house too.

Maybe it isn’t just the confined spaces that appeal to us as children but all the spaces we can escape to, away from the world of parents. It starts with a blanket fort, graduates to a crawlspace, climbs up into a tree house and eventually moves out altogether into the world and a new strange a life of one’s own.

Next thing we know, we have our own kids, and it’s back to snow forts – digging human-sized holes in snow banks, wiggling inside that frozen cocoon with its otherworldly sound and light, lying there under that roof of snow. Until your kids yell, “Dad, it’s our turn!”

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About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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27 Responses to Out of the crawlspace, into the tree house

  1. I’ve never gotten over the thrill of huddling in a fort. I still love building blanket forts with my kids. Whenever we move and look at a new place, I’m also interested in the closets and whether I could fit a desk in there. I would take a small cozy office over something big. Having wide-open spaces is nice at times, but I do think there’s something in your theory about the uncertainty of vastness in contrast to taking some time in a confined, more defined world.

  2. List of X says:

    I was a late start, apparently: my last snow fort (a pretty elaborate one, with 6 foot tall towers and 4-5 foot walls, but no inside conveniences) was built in 2015, and last year I graduated to a tree house – well, it’s on the ground but it’s made of trees (logs) so I think that should still count.

  3. pinklightsabre says:

    Dig that lots, but maybe I like what I like to write myself, and this rings of some of that, that looking-back rumination thing with a touch of philosophy or psychology. And cats, too. Cats like those confined spaces. Womb-like maybe. Or maybe, cats just fucked up like us. I recall using the box from a refrigerator to do whatever in, just having a space I go inside and become anonymous, unseen. And now, we have blogs. Cardboard boxes to hide inside.

  4. mikedw says:

    That crawlspace thing? Instant claustraphobia. Where I come from we never had enough snow for caves. The little we got was wet and slushy, and you really don’t want to lie down in that. No treehouse either – small garden, no trees, lots of vegetables. Deprived childhood, obviously, – but healthy.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      “What fun we had with parsnips,” he recalled.
      Seriously, I think whatever you did as a child is tinged with nostalgia. We used to have gravel shoulders on our street before they put in curbs. I remember playing in that dirt with toy cars, making roads, etc. and having such fun. Dirt, man. Dirt.

  5. Lex Leclerc says:

    This is good writing, mon ami. I love the idea that the world of children is in some way about freedom within confinement. Désolée: I’m getting “all Freud” about it.

  6. gavinkeenan says:

    Snow forts ruled when I was a kid in the early 60’s. Like you, I graduated to crawl spaces and later the “attic” of our home. The artifacts to pour over, the thrill of lying secreted in silence while eavesdropping – in the literal sense, on my parents and older brothers. No wonder I went to work for the CIA when I grew up. Watch your Samsung…..I am.

  7. Kalama says:

    Nice…they say humour comes from our darkest moments…imagine how many clowns are usually drunkards in this world

  8. We had the 6/1 bathroom configuration as well. We should form a survivor’s support group.

    Do you still have that Bond Annual? If you don’t and want to take a trip down crawl space memory lane, copies are available on the interwebs. I checked.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      And yet one bathroom never fazed us. I think people (by which I mean “we”) bathed less back there, more the Sunday night bath type crowd.
      I’m pretty sure it’s still in my parents’ house somewhere. I’m curious to know if there were many others.

  9. “(Sometime later…Imagine my relief.)”

    This paragraph doesn’t work. We’re creeping around in crawlspaces and then we climb out and start down a path of building excitement towards the end of the world…aaaand we’re abruptly back to crawlspaces. There isn’t even an apocalyptic, yet humorous, tie-in at the end of the post to justify it.

    The paragraph before it canvasses cataclysms just fine–we learn about the comet, we take a trip through your fevered little seven-year-old brain, you blame your brother with a twinkle in your eye and deftly bring us back to the “we” of the story, it’s all very tidy. An additional sidebar of one boy’s navel gazing is out of place in a punchy story line about two. Leave it out, preserve the flow.

    I’ll see your copy editor and raise you an editor. (drops mic)

  10. uncleclyde says:

    Just found you today, courtesy of the WordPress feature “Search”, where it seems a person doesn’t actually have to search.
    Lovely post; I’ll see what else you’ve got.
    1) it is always right and righteous to encourage teens to drink. Tons. A gallon of Tanqueray for each and every one.
    2) Snow forts are wonderful and elder brothers suck. I oughta know, I have 2.
    3) All comets are destined to destroy Earth and kill us all. When I’ve read in the paper that Comet Bimblamboolewicz87A4 is gonna pass within 356,413 miles of Earth…well, I’m never fooled. What’s really gonna happen is, it’s gonna hit me right on top of my pretty head. I understand, I really do.
    4) I walk on the ceiling. All the time. Gravity is not real, and, NO, I’m not being sarcastic.
    5) Earwigs are the True And Only Manifestation Of The Real Great Satan. In other words, the ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran have always been wrong; deluded about that. Anyhow, earwigs are even more repulsive than potato bugs. I don’t carry around a hammer though I should. But, if I did, there would be slaughter: hundreds of flattened corpses of earwigs in the obscure places where earwigs always show up.
    6) This post ends sadly. You have kids? Oh, gee whiz, I’m so sor…
    -Robert

  11. shoshana5000 says:

    I love your examination of the small space thing. The affinity seems to be timeless and without a gender leaning.

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