The Fort

Illustration of father and son building fort
Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams
By Tyler Macdonald
When I was 8 years old, my dad and I set out to build a fort on the beach in front of my family’s summer home on Southport Island. We decided to use only materials that the tides had left on the sand and rocks — no two-by-fours, tarps, or screws from Home Depot. In the wake of every summer storm — the smell of rain still fresh on the trees and grass — we’d climb down to the beach and cast about for driftwood, tangles of rope, beat-up lobster buoys, and other flotsam, remnants of things that had been destroyed. In time, we learned exactly where to look: the tide pool where I’d played as a toddler became a veritable one-stop salvage shop, as did the rock crevice my friends and I liked to leap across, pretending to be Evel Knievel. After mornings of scavenging, my dad and I would break for peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and glasses of Grandma’s home-brewed iced tea, then return to the beach to figure out how to incorporate our findings into the emerging fort. We never had a plan for how it would turn out — we just improvised as we went, jamming thick driftwood posts into rock gaps, wedging cross members in the ends of split branches, moving stone after stone until, at last, we judged our structure complete.

That moment signaled the start of another summer of adventuring on the coast with my dad, another summer of layering new memories on top of old ones.

The fort extended out from the woods and rocks that lined the back side of the beach. Its wide entrance opened on a panoramic view of the Atlantic, and its patchy, seaweed-covered roof was just enough to keep the sun off our necks while we gazed out at the lobsterboats chugging in circles. Most of my childhood played out in a nice New Jersey suburb of New York City. The landmarks of my day-to-day experience were big houses, impeccably manicured lawns, and heated backyard pools — nothing for a kid to complain about, certainly. But then there I was, sitting under a seaweed roof, gazing out at the ocean and feeling as content as I’d ever felt. I wanted nothing more than to stay there, frozen in time: a boy and his father, in wonder.

For five years, no tide, wind, or wave could topple the fort. Summer after summer, we’d place bets while driving up from New Jersey on whether it had survived the winter. We’d throw open the car doors, peer down to the beach, and see the fort still standing. That moment signaled the start of another summer of adventuring on the coast with my dad, another summer of layering new memories on top of old ones. Always in the back of my mind, though, I knew that one year, the fort wouldn’t be there. And when I was 13, we pulled into the driveway and looked down the rocky bluff to find the fort, at last, in shambles.

I remember dropping to my knees when I saw it — I’m still surprised, eight years later, by how defeated I felt — and staring dejectedly at the twisted mess of rope, buoys, seaweed, and wood where the fort had stood. My dad put a hand on my shoulder. I felt my throat choke up, my eyes well with tears.

“It’s gone,” was all I managed to say.

My dad pulled me to my feet.

“It’s not gone,” he said, smiling. “It’s all right there. And can you imagine how much driftwood a storm that big must have brought in?”

We spent every day for the next week sifting through the debris and combing the beach like we had years before. We started remembering the nooks and crannies where potential building materials tended to wash up. As we worked, we remembered waking early and walking down to the beach to drag driftwood from the tall beach grass. We remembered levering huge boulders out of the way in order to level the floor. We remembered eating lunches with my grandparents underneath the fort’s patchwork roof, before the rocky path to the beach became too difficult for them to navigate.

We spent that whole summer reconstructing the fort. First, we restored it almost exactly as it had been. Then, we added on: a platform, to let us lounge above the rocks at low tide and above the frothy water at high tide; a totem pole, complete with hanging buoys and old plastic bottles. And we kept going. By August, the whole beach was full of beautiful new structures. Of all the happy summers I spent on Southport Island, I think that summer was my happiest.

As we raised up our fort for the second time, it crossed my mind that we could bring down our hammer and nails, our drills and screws, and build something that would last forever. We didn’t, though. To do so, we somehow knew, would have turned the project from play into work. And although it went unsaid, I suspect my dad and I both looked forward to the day when our fort would be destroyed again, after a year or ten years. Then, the morning after one of those familiar summer storms, we could wake up, savor the smell of the rain on the trees and the grass, and once again set about rebuilding.