The year is 1985. You are 8 years old. Your street hockey game has been interrupted by a downpour, so you are sitting in your living room watching Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall. Behind Door #1 is a 25-piece set of Masters of the Universe action figures, including He-Man, Skeletor, and Stinkor. Behind Door #2 is an awesome 1985 Huffy Primus Pro BMX bike.
Behind Door #3 is a pile of assorted items: some used 2 x 4’s, a couple of dirty wooden pallets, a screwdriver, a hammer with nails, an old broken radio, and various electronic components. Most kids would consider Door #3 a “Zonk,” but my son Frank, eight years old in 1985, would have been overjoyed to receive such a prize. Oh, the things he could build!
In my last post, Kids’ Clubhouses and Hideouts—Part 1, I looked back at kid-built retreats of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the years of my childhood. For Part 2, let’s fast forward to the 1980’s, when my son and daughter were children.
When Frank was a child, he loved to build things—cranes, robots, crude weapons. “I liked building anything,” he concurs. “I built appliance controllers, a security system, power supplies, noise making stuff, motorized things, an XY table, lots of stuff using fans, etc.” And he built structures.
In the winter months and on rainy days, Frank and his sister Leslie built many a blanket . . uh . . . shelter. Frank recently e-mailed me, “I think we just called them houses” while Leslie e-mailed me, “I think we just called them tents.” According to Frank, “I had one in my bedroom that the boys used, and Leslie had one in her room that the girls used. I had mine stretched between my bed and the motor table and dresser. The blankets were wedged between the furniture and had heavy items put on top over the bed and table to keep them in place.”
Leslie added, “I think we primarily used Great-Grandma’s crocheted blankets and used the holes in them to connect to various objects.” Yes, primarily Great-Grandma’s afghans, but eventually Frank and Leslie’s construction led me to pull out every single blanket in the house, including the ones in the attic. My house looked like a homeless tent city!
In the summer, Frank, Leslie, and friends would play in the two wooded lots next to our house (until they were cleared out by our neighbor). Frank reminisced, “I cut down the weeds and made a hollow center that we could play in. A few times we tried to build a shack with concrete blocks and chunks of concrete that were dumped on the hillside, but there wasn’t enough concrete to really make anything that would fit a person. I built a small tree house at one point, really just a platform in the trees, but someone tore it down after a few days. Nothing we made ever lasted long.”
In our community, what once may have been called clubhouses were called shacks during my children’s childhood in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. There are woods at the end of our dead-end street, popularly called “the trails,” which extend about a half mile. Older kids often built shacks in there.
Frank tells me, “The shacks were usually built on the ground against trees to make the structure stronger and harder to knock over. Some were built in the larger, lower branches of trees. Most of them were made of discarded wood from the siding of houses, doors, furniture, construction debris, etc. A few of them had concrete blocks or bricks in the walls near the bottom.
The roof was usually a single piece of sheet metal, wood, or plastic trash, or they used fiberglass roofs that were stolen from somewhere (maybe those old pavilions in the cemeteries). No real doors or doorknobs, just sliding or hinged panels. No glass in the windows. Oh, and the signs would have been spray painted on and would have come with other graffiti type drawing. The shacks were usually destroyed by someone after a while, then later rebuilt. I never built anything in the trails because I knew someone would tear it down.”
Of course, all was not innocent inside those 1980’s/1990’s “clubhouses.” They were not all Wally Cleaver or Opie Taylor hideouts; even Eddie Haskell haunts would be tame in comparison.
From what I hear, the boys in the trails weren’t playing Tiddly Winks or doing their homework in there. Think more along the lines of 13-year-old Huckleberry Finn hiding from the Widow Douglas so he could smoke his pipe in peace.
So I know for a fact that there was still clubhouse/shack building among childhood friends in the 1980’s and 1990’s, at least in my neck of the woods. With so many stay-indoor kids proliferating in recent years, I wonder if there are many hideaways out in the woods, lots, and back yards of America as in years past.
Today my husband Frank and I planned to go into the “trails” to see if there were any shacks built. There used to be both wide and narrow dirt trails, well worn over the years, that kids traversed to explore, ride dirt bikes, and take shortcuts on their way to other locations. Today we looked for several of the old entrances, but the trails are all overgrown with weeds! If there are no trails, there are no shacks.
Well, one complication is that you can’t take your PC or Xbox into your abode unless it has electric sockets. Ah, but all is not lost. Your iPad mini and iPhone would work inside a shack, and there are even portable travel chargers in use now.
One of Frank’s favorite books as a child was Andrew Henry’s Meadow. Published in 1965, it is the story of a boy who loves to invent. When his inventions are not appreciated by his family, he runs away and builds a house of his own in a meadow. More kids join him, and he builds them each a unique home. If you want to see some unique child-sized “homes” and share ideas with your children or grandchildren, check out Andrew Henry’s Meadow on Amazon or at the library.
Another related book is Henry and the Clubhouse written by Newberry award-winning children’s author Beverly Cleary. Henry Huggins and his friends build a no-girls-allowed clubhouse with a top secret entry password, but one neighborhood girl, in retaliation, almost ruins his paper route—and his newspaper career. Share the book with your children or grandchildren, and maybe it will inspire a young architect to get outside and build!
Leslie and family are having a new house built right now in Houston. She and her husband have had most of the trees cleared from their back yard, but they have kept two that are close to each other for the express purpose of building a tree house for their two sons, ages 4 1/2 and 2. Hopefully, they will get the boys involved in its construction in some way. This should give them plenty of cherished memories of their second home up in a tree with brother and friends.
Have I convinced you that, with your help, some kid in your life would be thrilled to be the owner of a clubhouse or shack or hideout or tree house or boy cave or girl cave—whatever you chose to call it—perhaps like one you built back in the 50’s through 90’s? Are you bored? Looking for exercise? Looking to enjoy the outdoors before the dreaded winter doldrums claw their way back in? Babysitting the grandchildren while their parents are lounging in Aruba? Come on. Break out the hammer and nails. At least break out the blankets.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.