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.”
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!”