It was dubbed “Sutter’s Fort.”
I refer not to John Sutter’s Northern California compound, built in 1839 at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers. Rather, I speak of my 1954 version on Fairway Drive in Costa Mesa.
I was a 9-year-old fourth-grader at the Lindbergh School, and we spent considerable time that year learning about Sutter’s Fort and the subsequent California Gold Rush.
My 7-year-old brother, Billy, our 8-year-old neighbor, David, and I considered ourselves a “gang” — according to the conventions of the day. We lived in a block-long tract of new houses on Costa Mesa’s Eastside.
Living at the southern end of the block, we controlled things from the corner to about 10 houses up the street. Another gang of several boys ran the block’s northern end.
We “Southerners” decided we needed a fort. It was all about Southern identity and pride.
My mother was not about to tolerate a shabbily constructed citadel in our backyard, so, by default, David’s backyard became the site. Unlike our house, he had no fence surrounding his backyard, so we had 24/7 access.
We built the fortress from scraps of wood — and nails — collected from construction sites surrounding our neighborhood. We erected the “fort” — a clubhouse really — alongside David’s house, meaning that one wall of our garrison was an exterior wall of David’s residence.
We fashioned a long, low structure, based on the length of wood we were able to pilfer. We enlarged the fort several times during a period of many months.
I christened the monstrosity Sutter’s Fort — after the famous Sacramento stronghold I’d learned about in school. Billy and David were in the second and third grades respectively, so, frankly, they didn’t give a flying fig what we called it.
When finished, the fort was about five feet wide, 10 feet long and three feet high. There was abundant available light inside the structure because the boards making up the walls and roof were rarely flush, and cracks permitted ample luminosity.
We laid an old roll of linoleum on the dirt floor, and used a heavy piece of cardboard for the front door. To enter the fort, one merely lifted the cardboard and crawled in.
The low roof didn’t allow for standing inside, so we had to crawl about on all fours, and sit on our haunches. We held our gang meetings in the fort. I was president, and built a mini-podium from which I delivered periodic “State of the Gang” addresses.
The Northerners up the street soon found out about our fort and were green with envy. Occasionally, their commandos would attack while we were inside holding secret meetings. They’d assault us from a vacant lot behind David’s house, hurling dirt clods (while making explosion sounds with their mouths) at our structure. We felt perfectly safe as the clods crashed harmlessly against the walls and roof.
On one occasion, the Northern leader stole into the yard and tried to rip some boards off our fort. While doing so, he received a nasty cut from a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot. We felt justice had been served!
We occupied the fort for nearly three years, until the wood began to rot (we never painted it) and became termite infested. David’s dad, fearing that the termites would migrate through the wall into his family’s dwelling, demanded we tear it down.
We did so, reluctantly.
David’s father, quite a fine carpenter himself, graciously built us a much nicer fort that didn’t have cracks between the boards, and wasn’t propped up against the wall of his house. It also featured comfortable wooden flooring.
The new fort sat alone at the rear of the property. Though a fine structure, it didn’t feel at all like our original Sutter’s Fort. It lacked personality. Besides, it also served as a playhouse for David’s little sister.
Weeks after our fort had been demolished, I’d “moved on” with my life. By then I’d had my 12th birthday, and my interests turned to other things — like basketball…and girls.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.