Friday, January 30, 2009

"The Shack"

The photos here are of a small building measuring about 4'x6' resting in the back yard of the place where I grew up on the east side of Indianapolis. It's a fairly innocuous little structure, too small to really be useful as a workspace or for serious storage or much of anything else except for it's original intended use: a playhouse.

My father built it for me when I was about eight or nine-years-old. My childhood friends and I had spent a number of damp, itchy, nights in small, smelly canvas pup tents and had built a number of makeshift structures in our backyards out of whatever we could get our hands on including a hodgepodge of wood for framing, cardboard boxes, and even on occasion old scatter rugs, which really got funky when rained on.

I voiced my desire for some kind of a clubhouse or "fort" to my dad, who at first dismissed the idea. Undaunted, I drew up plans for what would have been, if built, larger than some of the neighborhood houses. I conceived a structure which would be large enough to house around four fold-down cots, at least a couple of chairs, a table, a cook stove, and a ladder leading up to what would have been a small cupola for a "lookout." Dad informed me I was nuts.

A week or so later I spied my Dad pulling into the garage one evening with the trunk of the car ajar, the lid tied down with sisal twine. Protruding out the rear were four or five wood pallets he brought from his business.

My father was a partner in a small printing company. Paper was delivered to them on wood pallets. These pallets had well made 'two by' frames and the tops were solid 1'x8' pine wood planks unlike most skeletal type rough hewn pallets one usually sees today. Over the next couple of weeks, Dad appeared with more of these pallets, odds and ends of wood, and other paraphernalia. Through it all, he remained mute regarding his intended use for all this stuff.

One Saturday morning I arose to the sound of hammering coming from the back yard. I threw on some clothes and sauntered out to see what was up. My dad had laid out two of the pallets now braced together with three 2x6s vertically affixed underneath. This was the base and floor of my "fort."

Over the course of the next several days — evenings after dad came home from work and a couple more weekends — what ultimately became known as "the shack" took shape. Other pallets were fashioned into the walls and roof.

Small as it is, dad included a lot of detail. The structure has a nicely gabled roof and there are several windows. At the front there is a small window built into the narrow door and a fairly large window to its right. Additionally, there are two smaller windows on either side and two at the rear. The six windows on the sides and rear were hinged and could be opened. They were all screened. They even had outwardly-angled sills to insure proper runoff of rainwater.

If you look closely, you'll see there are two small hatches, front and rear, near the apex of the roof, which could also be opened to encourage some airflow. These were also screened. Gotta keep those bugs out. The interior walls were never "finished" but the floor was ultimately covered with linoleum.

As I noted, my father partnered in a small offset printing firm. All of the exterior "siding" is actually old litho printing plates Dad brought from work and then tacked on over the roof and all of the exterior walls. These "plates" are approximately 3’x3’ aluminum and zink squares - the kind of thing you can shake to make "thunder" sounds with, and the mishandling of which can slice you up pretty good. The only exposed wood is the door and the window frames.

You may also note that there is now a rather large, gaping hole near the bottom of the door. Time, and perhaps some abuse, has apparently taken its toll. Other than this, though, the shack appears to be pretty much as I remember it. There may have been a couple coats of paint added, but the damn thing is still there and apparently in tact after some 50 years, more or less. (I'm a fairly old fart.)

At first I was rather dismayed at the downsized version of my planned "fort," or whatever it was that I had determined it would be called. But my neighborhood friends and I quickly took to it and made good use of it for a number of years. We had several campouts.

Owing to its spacial limits, no more than three of us could sleep in it at a time, but that was quite enough. Usually, it would just be me and one other pre-pubescent neighborhood goof ball.

Dad even ran an electric extension into the shack from the adjacent garage so as to provide some light. We would sometimes plug a radio into it as well and listen to Dick Summer's Summertime, an evening rock and roll program on WIBC radio.

This show came to us "live" from Merrill's High Decker, a local Indy drive-in hamburger joint on 38th St. across from the State Fair Grounds. Summer broadcast from a small glass booth atop the restaurant spinning his 45 rpm golden wax. I remember feeling betrayed when he left Indy and wound up having pretty much the same gig on WBZ in Boston.

During those campouts we would eat whatever passed for junk food in those days and play cards or games or various versions of grab ass as young boys are want to do. On one particularly hot summer night, Dad appeared out of the darkness with an ancient, small, black electric fan that he mounted inside at the highest point on the front wall over the door. It felt great.

At other times, we would variously use the shack when playing cowboys, army, cops and robbers, or whatever. During humid midsummer days it was usually far too hot to really spend any time in it despite having the windows and vents open and the fan going. It was best used during the evening and overnight. Needless to say, there was no heat.

Of course, as we got older, the shack fell out of favor. It ultimately came to be used as storage space for perhaps a bicycle, a lawn mower, a birdbath, and a lawn chair or two.

My father died in 1978. My mother lived on until 1999, dying at age 92. She sold the house and the shack along with it in the early 1990s. A young couple purchased it, the girl expecting their first child. Apparently they separated and divorced a couple of years later. She moved away and the guy stayed. He lived alone in the house for a few years, but then contracted some type of disease or condition that ultimately killed him - or so said a neighbor we occasionally heard from.
Afterward, the house sat empty for a year or more. For a while it was apparently owned by an investor who rented it out, but then, he (or she) too, lost it. It once again sat fallow for several months. Happily, the home is now occupied. I don't know if by the owner or more tenants.

There's no magical ending to this tale. I've sometimes thought of inquiring about purchasing the shack and moving it to my home, but the logistics have always seemed too daunting. I imagine the thing weighs a bloody ton. At any rate, I've never had the money to spend on such an indulgence, and I'm not really sure what I'd do with it. I doubt that I would have any campouts.

The view I had of it the other day when I drove by and took the pictures was not close enough to really discern its condition. Obviously, the door needs work and another coat of paint appears to be in order, but otherwise it does look pretty much the same. I do hope that over the intervening years, some other kids have had a few campouts eating junk food, playing cards, games, and grab ass.

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