When my son was born my mother gave me a gift that I came to treasure: “The Dangerous Book for Boys” by Conn and Hal Iggulden.
The book contains a series of activities meant to bring boys out of their comfort zone, to use their hands, and to some extent, their balls. I think my mother gave it to me out of concern that my generation is raising pussies. And she would know. She raised one herself.
Each chapter challenges you to build something and then have an adventure. I saw in this book the possibility of drawing out the rugged side of him and bringing some risk-taking into his childhood. We live in Venice Beach and it’s not the kind of area where you can just let your 10-year-old loose to explore (unless you really don’t like the kid). My son was experiencing more adventures on his PlayStation 3 than in the real world.
To be honest, I was hoping to get something out of the book as well. My father taught me no building skills whatsoever. When a light bulb went out he would call an electrician to “fix” it. We had no heat on the second floor for 17 years. I’m not making that up. I’ve always felt cheated of basic manly skills by his preference for the golf course on weekends versus rolling up his sleeves with me in the garage.
My grandfather worked for the electric company in the Bronx and had an extremely manly workbench in his basement with tools that looked Paleolithic. Heavy, thick hammers and pliers looked more like they were designed for torture than handiwork. His nuts, bolts and, screws hung in Hellman’s mayonnaise jars that had the lids screwed into the underside of a shelf above the workbench. It smelled like wood, metal, and ginger ale down there and it was my favorite place to hide out when I was little.
We bought a house about 10 years ago that came with a workbench and I saw it as our destiny. We opened the book…
My son spent an hour going through the book before landing on a tree fort. I nixed his first choices of a slingshot and a bottle rocket in favor of this project (plenty of time to harass the new neighbors later).
The structure had a simple, elegant design and seemed doable. We had a good tree for it; its branches spread open creating a foundation that would involve the roof of the house on one end and a set of monkey bars on the other. It was not as basic as we had first planned but it only made sense to connect these and have a solid floor.
Our lumber supply was more than we would possibly need because we had just renovated the house and scraps leaned against the side of our fence yearning to be sawed and hammered. Seemed like there would be no out-of-pocket expenses.
Then I realized we were light on tools, having only a screwdriver, a rubber hammer and one of those L-shaped wrenches from an IKEA shelf. We headed to Home Depot to pick up the basics. Some would say what happened next was overkill. We returned with a jigsaw, a rotor saw, a power sander, and a drill. The nail gun was on sale so it seemed stupid not to buy it, and the power screwdriver came free when you bought the ratchet wrenches. I was already imagining erasing my checkered past where I hung shelves at obtuse angles and bathroom hooks that tore from the wall under the pressure of a wet towel (forgot to factor in the weight of moisture).
We spent the next 9 days measuring, sawing, drilling, and hammering. The result was beyond what we first imagined. Four-by-fours held up a rectangular platform that could hold a truck. Testosterone was pumping and I felt as close to my son as I ever had. We needed more.
There was another branch projecting towards the neighbor’s house. My son correctly pointed out that it would have been a waste not to add on a balcony/ lookout tower. Also, as we installed the railing around the main floor it seemed like not that much extra effort to just put walls around it. But we had run out of wood.
The wood for the walls at Home Depot was cheaper than I expected so I got enough to also make a simple roof (and some corrugated plastic so the wood would not warp). It was obvious at this point that the kids would be spending a lot of time in there and it does rain in Los Angeles upwards of four times a year.
What was supposed to be a simple platform with a railing suddenly sprouted a second story, a roof and a lookout tower. Rock climbing wall to the second tier? Absolutely! What about turning that blue aluminum rod from the alley into a fire pole? Done.
Now that the structure was this fancy it occurred to us that we should not leave this tree condo open to the public. We put in a sliding door with locks on it. There were clearly going to be sleepover parties here and the kids must be safe.
Throughout the construction process my son insisted on using the power drill. He hung off a beam of the structure attaching a swing that would go underneath. We fought over who could wear the tool belt and made one more trip to Home Depot for the upgraded project. One day my son got some real splinters and wanted to take a day off to do homework but I cajoled him on as I allowed my own work to slide to the back burner for a while.
My wife finally snapped. She walked onto our work site and called for an end to the madness. We’d been ignoring the rest of the family, were way over budget, and had turned our cute little front yard into an elevated shantytown. We filed for a one-day extension and by the following afternoon laid down our tools.
It was done.
That night my son and his friend lay in their sleeping bags inside this architectural masterpiece and listened to me tell horror stories. They were about having to perform at Friday night late shows in places like Green Bay and New Jersey. Scary stuff.
Now that we’d finished installing this fortress into our Japanese maple tree it was time to move on. We opened the book again.
To be continued…