If you were anything like me growing up, one of your main modes of play with friends was identifying your super secret hideout, or at least get busy building one. Some of these were out in plain sight—no one was duped as to where you were playing. But other times, you might have managed to find a nifty clearing under low-hanging branches of a tree, or a little wooded area, or an old structure. These hideouts were often unsafe, of course. And although you talked it up often with friends who weren’t in on the secret location, most people over the age of twelve didn’t care a fig where you were playing, as long as you were quiet and stayed out of their way. Hideouts were good for that.
When I was seven, we commonly referred to a special location, which we believed was known to only an initiated few, as a “secret hiding place.” We built ours along one side of our house, next to the swing set on top of a large cement platform that covered the septic tank. I know what you’re asking: where was the supervision? They were glad to stay cool indoors, absorbed in their own tasks. The children could climb trees, launch off swings, and build secret hiding places on the septic tank with panels of sharp tin roofing as long as they played outdoors. There might be a ruptured kidney here and there, but that came with the territory.
Building that hiding place was one of the most satisfying projects I had ever undertaken. I don’t know how it looked to an adult eye—surely ramshackle, perhaps not even really recognizable as a structure. Maybe it looked like a collection of roofing and other materials piled on the septic tank. But in my mind, I had created a building. I could enter and sit inside a structure I had assembled with my own hands. And sitting is probably about all we could do in that cramped space. Surely it was fragile—my parents not having offered me hammer and nails—and we must have baked in there under the tropical Thailand sun.
My fantasy of being a multi-skilled adult continued when I decided to plant a garden next to our hiding place. I knew nothing about gardening—but what was there to know? All you had to do was put some seeds in the ground, water them, and enjoy the neat rows of plants that would spring from the fertile soil. So I planted papaya and a few other seeds. It turns out that, probably given its location, that soil was fertile. I was surprised to find a fresh young papaya tree one day, right where I had expertly sown my seeds. I immediately argued with the hired house helper. She maintained that she had planted it. I knew it had been me—I was responsible for this slender, promising plant. My work would result in more green papaya salads at lunch. What else would one expect to happen when one had planted seeds?
Probably the strangest hideout was one I found with a handful of other girls’ dorm residents at boarding school. Having a shared secret location was a welcome break from the tension, bickering, and competition that comes when you put a ten pre-teen girls together for more than just an overnight birthday party. I don’t know how we found it, because I don’t remember straying from that contentious household very often. We must have been on a rare bike ride when we came to a gravel lot with several odd wood and metal structures of different shapes. Their function was utterly unknown to us. The best that we could do was guess that these had been parts of trains. But they were great fun to climb on—imagine an unconventional fast food play area, except with more potentially dangerous falls and with patches of tar or oil to look out for. Whoever ran such a playground would pay a high premium for insurance.
The place was actually not hidden at all, but we didn’t mind. We would often climb up on a long, cylindrical structure and let our legs dangle down into a compartmented interior. We could also jump down inside and clamber through the circular openings in the metal walls dividing the sections. We were quite inaccessible to those not experienced in navigating the place. One day, some friendly Thai school girls came to talk to us. We invited them up, and it seems like one of them had an incident, partly falling through some boards that had been laid across some of the opening that stretched along the length of the cylinder. A staff member at our boarding school, too, someone I didn’t know well, encountered trouble when invited up. If memory serves, he nearly ruined his clothes. While not up to the standard of innocent joy my septic tank hideout had offered, this industrial jungle gym was an intriguing escape from our daily squabbles over dresses, sticker collections, and who knows what else.
When our family moved to the States, I noticed that secret hiding places were “forts” in the local lingo, especially in Pennsylvania. Although I helped build some forts out of snow, the appeal of having a privileged hiding spot had mostly faded for me. I was on to other interests, like serious four square tournaments at recess, great sledding hills, and just coping with junior high. But when my daughters moved a large portion of their doll accessories into a passage between walls in the loft, I didn’t protest. Neither did I intervene when my younger daughter set to work in that tight space—organizing, putting in flooring, hanging up original works. It might be dusty, there could be mice. But at least there were no hazardous drops, and definitely no tar.