Posted on November 30, 2018
by Steve Janowick

There was always one in every neighborhood.  That kid who was just a little…off.  

I mean, the social constructs of a large neighborhood in the early 80’s were actually quite complex.  There was an order. A hierarchical structure that existed and often dictated a kid’s status. It certainly wasn’t based on wealth or the lack thereof.  Hell, everyone in Northbrook was just scraping by in their shotgun-shack rowhomes. It was more of a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ type scenario, and parents simply were not a variable.  Kids roamed the streets unsupervised all day and every day. If you were tough, cunning and resourceful, or had a big brother who was, your rung on the ladder of our little micro-civilization was much higher, your life a lot easier and, most importantly, you commanded respect.  

It was Lord of the Flies played out daily.  A sociologist’s dream.

13-year old Billy Reed, unfortunately, lived on the periphery-the sidelines of our community playing field.  He was an introverted, weird kid who was the bi-product of even weirder parents. When he wasn’t getting his weekly ass-kicking for some snide remark to one of the older kids or for dropping the ball in a pick-up football game, he was off by himself in the woods using the sticks, branches and any loose materials he could find to tinker and build whatever his obsessive mind could imagine.  I can still vividly remember feeling some empathy toward Billy. Even feeling sorry for him. He was the neighborhood outcast. I knew he had a screwed-up family life and that his alone time, and the rudimentary things he built during it, were therapy to him. It was his release. Hours upon hours just roaming our woods like a pint-sized, pioneer Rain Man working out his demons.

But it all changed the summer day a local construction company building a new community center decided to dump all their unused lumber into a gully in our woods.  Loads and loads of it along with other discarded hardware and supplies deemed as junk. A month later, our baseball game was interrupted by the enthusiastic screams from one of the older kids who’d gone into the woods to fetch a foul ball.  “Guys, come check this out! You’re not gonna believe it!” He vigorously pronounced.

He led the group along the path and down into the gully where we all stopped dead in our tracks at the sight we were seeing.  Billy was hammering away on what was the beginnings of the most bad-ass tree house we’d ever seen. A one floor, A-frame, fort wedged perfectly between a couple Birch trees and two foundational pillars he constructed.  The plywood walls even had cutouts for windows and the entrance was a hole in the floor with a rope ladder leading up. It truly was a spectacle.

After we caught our collective breath, we waited to see what Kenny, the alpha of our group, would do.  His reaction toward the fort and Billy would dictate how we’d all react. Needless to say, we spent the rest of that summer together finishing up that hideout-sweating it out every day.  Decking it out with an old carpet and lawn chairs we hocked from our yards. We had a couple of ratty sleeping bags and several flashlights strewn from the roof. And, more importantly, we had one more full-time, permanent member of our click.  

I ran into Billy Reed a couple weeks ago at, of all places, a Home Depot.  He was a well-adjusted, family man who was making his living as a respected contractor in the construction trade.  We had a few laughs and shared a few memories about the old days. About that summer when we built, with our own sweat, grit, and ingenuity, the coolest fort ever.  About how that build changed us and what it taught us.

And I could only shake my head when, during my checkout, a father and his awkward, young son in front of me were paying for their pre-fabbed, plastic, ready-made treehouse.

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