Fort Bo-Ga-Ko-Te-Za. That is the name the neighborhood kids created to christen the new “fort” – a collection of used plywood, tin, and old scrap material lifted from our parents’ garages and assembled into a shaky but relatively sturdy tent-like structure in the woods behind our houses. The name, of course, was an amalgamation of the first syllable of each fort builder’s last name. We thought we were so clever – young New York Times puzzle masters before we had ever heard of an anagram.
For the neighborhood kids growing up in the late 60’s, the fort was a representation of both our independence and ingenuity. We had a place to call home on those beautiful and endless summer evenings where it stayed light until well past 9 p.m., signaling we would not be called back home until darkness fell. Summer meant no school and an extra hour or two with our friends swapping stories. More important, we designed and built the BoGaKoTeZa sanctuary with our own hands. What a pleasurable reminder this was of our early team building efforts.
Growing up on The Hill, as it was commonly referred to, was an exercise in youthful utopia. In the 1950’s, many young married couples pushed slightly westward in the Chicago suburbs to secure an affordable home with a small piece of land. Most of the homes were similar tidy brick ranch structures with 3 bedrooms, 1 bath, a family room, and a 1 car garage positioned on a quarter-acre (or less) of land. The very rare split-level would occasionally interrupt the sea of small ranch homes. Situated behind the houses on our block were sloping dense woods where we would walk, play, and socialize for hours. Kids ruled the neighborhood. It seems that nearly all the parents were in their middle to late 20s, of Bohemian or Polish ancestry, and had several kids in tow. The neighbors at the end of our block had 6 children, and our next door neighbors – the “Za” in the name of our fort - ultimately had 8 children. We were the exception – Irish Catholic with a relatively paltry 4 children.
This was a period when kids went outdoors and played. Perhaps in the spirit of pre-video game suburbia, kids were forced to congregate, play sports, communicate, and learn from each other. Our backyard, like that of all the neighbors, and in stark contradiction to Robert Frost's admonition that "good fences make good neighbors", was devoid of a fence and represented an open invitation of friendship. The backyard, meanwhile, was never an appropriate advertisement for Scot’s Turf Builder. Instead, our backyard was an active child’s paradise, simultaneously torn up to construct a mini golf course, beaten down in straight lines where we frequently ran the bases, or shredded completely to accommodate a lawn hockey game complete with homemade nets constructed of wood and chicken wire. Perhaps the greatest news was that our parents would either help in the construction of the various backyard games or, at the very least, enjoy having all the neighborhood kids visit and play. Except when we would inadvertently destroy the same sapling that my dad tried to plant, year after year.
The Hill was not only a haven for kids. For some relatively strange reason (strange by today’s standards anyway), the parents all got along seemingly well, too. They were part of bowling leagues, social clubs, invitees for each other’s parties, and communal workers when the water well needed to be repaired. This was a group of young people who rarely had two nickels to rub together, but who always helped each other and pulled together in time of need. These neighbors never moved. To this day, 50 plus years later, there remains a handful of the old guard still living on The Hill. Our 40-year home tenure was probably the norm.
The Hill was also a place of great experimentation. Most of the neighbor kids had their first communal taste of alcohol or nicotine, represented in the form of a beer or pack of cigarettes surreptitiously pilfered from someone’s house. And many more kids had that first kiss with the neighbor girl. With the assistance of my best neighborhood friend, a girl with whom I enjoyed that first kiss, I even unintentionally lit my first and only forest fire. It certainly didn’t help matters that as the fire started to spread, we tried to “smother” the conflagration with dried leaves to the horror of the volunteer fire department. That’s a story for another time.
From a child’s perspective, we were engaging in exciting yet debaucherous and sinful activities that might forever condemn us to hell. Forty years later, it is obvious that these were innocent and perhaps even necessary steps in our adolescent development.
Fort BoGaKoTeZa lasted a couple of summers and in the end was torn down or died of neglect as we grew older. I can’t remember which. But I do remember the pride in its construction and the joy we all felt hanging out there. These were simpler days, forever gone, only to be pulled from our memories. I miss The Hill.