That summer, Nick had been with us just a couple of years. He was seven or eight and was raring to go. No more school and no more set bedtimes. It was bikes and friends and playing in the pool. The fall and return to school seemed so far off then. He was a living dream.
At some point during the previous semester, I decided that I’d build Nick a playhouse, a place where he and his friends could camp out overnight and play games in during the day. It should be his own, and he ought to furnish it or not depending on what his wishes.
And I wanted to be a dad who provided rich ground for a developing imagination. I wanted to be that guy, the one who let his son just play without fear of breaking things that belonged to someone else. I wanted to be the guy that let the son establish the boundaries for himself. Boundaries laced his inside world. The son should regulate his life outside.
So, yeah, building a playhouse for my son was a selfish endeavor.
Growing up, I never had a playhouse. I dreamed of one in our backyard. I had seen kids on television whose dads built them playhouses and thought, my god, that would be great to have a place I could call my own. My dad would have none of it, though I begged him more than once. You have a whole basement, he said. In fact, I had set up a corner of the basement as my own, with a rug, chairs, and a couple of tables I’d brought home from behind the store down the street. People were always throwing away their old stuff in the dumpsters there.
But a corner of a dark, wet basement wasn’t the same as a house, a place with rooms that I could mold to my needs, where I could disappear from disapproving parental eyes, where no one could store useless things in boxes. The closest I ever got was a treehouse Scott Ramsey, Frank Fluke, and I cobbled together in an old shingle oak in the undeveloped woods behind Frank’s house. It was glorious the couple of summers we used it. But it stood far away from my house. Plus, it wasn’t fun without other people, and Frank and Scott weren’t always free when I had time.
I told Nick that we would build him a “hut.” I don’t know when the playhouse got that appellation, but that’s the one that stuck.
When school ended, Nick and I scavenged for wood and other building materials. I had no plans. I had built two decks before and thought that the foundation would be just like a deck, but without gaps in the wood. I figured we’d know what we wanted when we saw it.
We scoured Craigslist for used lumber. We found a guy who had just demolished his back deck. He was kind of a freak. He set the wood set up on sawhorses in his garage. He had arranged the weathered wood in lengths and widths. His garage was so clean, you wouldn’t have a problem eating off the floor. We chose what we thought we needed and loaded in the back of the truck. The guy made a big deal about going around behind us, ordering what we left even a quarter inch a’kilter.
Our next trip was to the Habitat ReStore. We walked along the rows of windows and settled on a couple of sash windows with screens. In my mind’s eye, I had an idea how big The Hut would be by this time, basically, and 8’ x 8’ box with a pitch roof and galvanized steel sheets for a covering. Nick picked out some windows and I had to steer him to others that would be more appropriate for the size of The Hut as it was developing in my mind.
Along with a pre-hung door, we sidled up to the counter.
“Doing some remodeling?” the clerk said.
“More like fiddling around with wood,” I said.
Next, we had to buy what we didn’t get used. Eric, Nick’s friend from across the street, always stayed over at our house on the weekends. Eric’s mom would drop him off at his grandmother’s house on Friday afternoons, and she would immediately send him to us. Tay, Nick’s other friend from across the street, would often come over all day on Saturday and Sunday. One Saturday, we all packed into my little truck and went to the Home Depot. We had to get everyone work gloves and safety glasses. The boys also admired the hardhat that I wore for my construction job. We bought hardhats for all the boys, along with two 8’ x 8’ and two 8’ x 10’ corner posts we needed for The Hut and the concrete bases that would fit the ends of the posts. Pre-cut studs were cheap, so we gathered up a passel of them on our cart. We picked up boxes of nails, a couple of hammers, and a nail-puller (because I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to wood).
We started by framing, basically, a deck on the concrete corner foundations. I hung the 2” x 6” boards we got from the OCD garage man on an outer from of more 2” x 6”es. The four posts stuck straight up in the air, and wobbled around when we walked on the frame.
Kids don’t have a lot of wherewithal when it comes to construction projects. Nick, I think, understood what was coming together, but the other kids only had so much patience when it came to holding things in place. They did better trying to hammer nails and mark things up with measuring tape and pencils. I had to make them believe they were doing something important. They often sat around like guys I knew on the construction sites I worked on, leaned forward with their hands draped over their knees. After an hour or two in the sun, I made them lemonade or took them to the convenience store for pops. They ate quesadillas and hot dogs.
This went on for two months, several hours on the weekends. During the week, I wrote dissertation during the week and put in an hour or two, two or three times a week.
Slowly, it rose. The floor first with plywood planking. The walls frames came next, and finally the makings of a roof. We scavenged a set of 2’ by 4’ sheets of plywood from a trucker who used them for a short time in his trailers. They formed the walls.
I look at The Hut now and wonder how we did it. No plans. It took shape one scrap at a time, problems presenting themselves to be solved in the moment. I had no idea what I was doing when I set the windows or framed the door.
The kids flowed through the construction, so for them, there was no finishing point. They played on the platform and among the wall frames. As we insulated and paneled the place, they came and went. The only sign to the kids that it was completed came from the fact they could no longer wander through the framed walls. Once the place was enclosed, regardless of what I wanted to do with insulation and paneling, The Hut was good enough to play in. Only I knew when it was finally completed, or, rather, had reached the point where I wasn’t pounding another nail in it.
Nick and his pals used it quite a bit that first summer. He, Eric, and Tay played in it on the weekends, even when it got cold. I had no idea how much use of a playhouse is enough. But I remember that Frank, Scott, and I didn’t spend endless hanging around the treehouse. It was good enough to have it after it was built.
The Hut hasn’t weathered well. I never got the roof right. I didn’t frame it at all because I didn’t know how to. I just plopped a piece of paneling over the top and nailed galvanized metal sheets to it. They two pieces on either side would blow off in a strong wind. I weighed the sheets down with rocks and bricks, not a real safe solution. Water got in. We mistakenly made parts of the floor of particle board, which swelled and turned to powder. Layers of paneling hang lasciviously from the walls and ceiling. Big holes now look down on the ground below.
Last year, I quit putting the roof sheets back on after they blew off. By that time, Nick’s time with The Hut had largely come to an end. Tay stopped coming around. Eric’s grandmother died and he stopped coming over. The Hut stood out there alone, because, as I learned with the treehouse and my corner of the basement, these things just aren’t fun if you’re the only one using it. Sure, these play spaces are good for moments of solitary endeavor, but at some point, other people must be a part of what happens in the space.
I have determined the take down The Hut and free up the space on the terrace for a new fire ring and places to sit. I miss the fires we used to have out there before we built The Hut. The terrace is small, only room for a Hut and a little 10’ x 12’ plaza out front.
I asked Nick what he thought about demolishing The Hut.
“It was a good Hut, dad,” he said. “The best Hut. But the important thing is that we built it.”