Army brats build forts. We run in bands through the woods to the parking lot construction for the chapel on Fisher Hill. We gather at the sides and corners of a stack of PSP-Pierced Steel Plank.
“You ready?” Someone says, maybe all of us at once.
We nod and grab a handful of steel off the top. Metal cutting, edge bruising, and we ox-grunt the ten feet of grooved punched steel plank across the construction puke—that pinkish brown chunky dirt and concrete spread the engineers have put down flat for the parking lot’s base.
We’re only halfway there, and the new kid says, “Too heavy.”
We ignore him, grunting and hurting. He’s new. It always takes a little time to adjust.
“Not much more.” Someone spills the lying words. It could have been any of us, even me. The steel has fused what’s real into one splendid burn of fuel up the hill. We have become the air shudder in our lungs, part of the ache in the bones in our fingers.
We’re into the woods, and we’re free, sun and leaf shadow in wild rug patterns, and I can see the world-architecture in the space between the trees, the broken wrists and curled fingers of the dead bough drops; I can see it in every flaking cellulose brick of pine bark, and up into the canopy a hundred feet above us, catching the Pacific air, green-needle smoke plumes over a thousand stacks of sylvan industrialism.
Then it’s raw meat and birdsong. The steel rings in our hands. Eighty pounds and a quarter-mile and our fingers are cut and cold. The forest sings around us, summery and visible, enough to trace the sun in wood dust and the crisp wings of last autumn’s ghosts.
An itch in my throat, and I know we’re here. We smell the sweet taste of new grave dirt, incense cloying forest rot where we’ve shoveled out deep channels and one broad room for our underground fort. We plant the steel plank across the center of the main room, and the new kid’s had enough, takes two heavy breaths to say goodbye, and he doesn’t look back, going home to his haunted house.
We don’t look at each other. We need three more planks for the roof. We go, and we don’t look back. We finish our fort at sunset with two tunnel doors into the earth. We crawl inside, sand in our teeth, and lose our way. Someone says we need candles. It could have been any of us—except me. I say we need potato chips, but I could have heard the hunger in someone else.
Army brats live in haunted houses. Even our house is haunted. It’s in the twenty layers of paint, most of it the Army’s standard interior white. It’s in the floor varnish, but not in the wall-to-wall carpeting because that’s ripped out and replaced before the house spirit has a chance to sink in.
You can feel the spirit of a house soon after you move in. You’ll feel the shouting arguments of prior residents, the hate one spouse felt for the other, and so much of the spirit is made of the whispered secrets, the lies of siblings, wishes for warm seasons, and the rage of children at the quicksand universe. The house spirit feeds on the feelings within the walls, and mothers the household, you hope like June C. and not Medea.
Houses have long lives. They say some of the old clapboard ones along Funston have been there since the First World War—or before. I heard that General Pershing lived in one, but his house burned and the spirit was lost. And everyone knows the brick barracks were put up before the Civil War. A lot of house spirit growth in that amount time and turnover and layers of paint.
Houses on army posts move at a different pace, they grow old quickly. A hundred families moving through them, another coat of paint after each, plumbing upgrade, you go back far enough and you get fancy conduit running the walls when the world went from gas lights to electric. But it doesn’t take that long to wake the house spirit—or make one.
Some houses hate, but most do what they can to smooth the sores and make your asthma medicine taste better. Ours have always been generous and caring, but I’ve been in houses with mean spirits. The house spirit grows out of our lives, taking pieces of each of us, the pieces we wouldn’t miss anyway; they’re weavers of sorrow and shouts of rage and birthday parties with names you won’t remember a year from now. The house spirit remembers them for you.
Army brats see the Lost Dogs. Some pets run away from disruption. Here’s what disruption looks like: your dad gets orders, and you’re going to be stationed overseas at a post nine thousand miles away. You turn the nails in the window frame to keep it shut. You lose your place in the world, your borrowed chipped Mahogany desk from the FMO, you lose the memory of people you knew last week, and your house has an echo that’s never been there before. The moving truck comes, a big flatbed with pine crates and yellow nylon straps, and then you lose—in a saw-rip of packing tape—your dog Tooly, a fog white West Highland Terrier. Tooly runs away from disruption, and you never see him again; you’re on a plane to another continent, watching the tops of 32,000 foot clouds through the bleed of ice forking along the windows.
Tooly’s joined the Lost Dogs.
We see the Lost Dogs, fur matted and wild in the woods, pack organized, a single file march through the deep shade, a Siberian Husky in the lead, the alpha in some kind of canine Dirty Dozen that includes a feral muddy-eared Basset Hound and even Tooly with a cracked collar and the rust jingle of bone-shaped tags.
We climb trees so the Lost Dogs won’t eat us, and they run past, looking up, showing their teeth.
The Lost Dogs find our fort and eat all our potato chips instead.
It’s late in the year and there’s an officer’s party, men in dress blues, most women in gowns, but some in uniform. A dance on water, and a soft wind that lifts the petals of some flower with the scent of something out of time. A long smooth stroke of a painter’s brush, with a bold color—and on the stark background of a different era.
It’s like something we don’t do anymore, like hire coachmen for carriages or signal the butler when it’s time to serve dinner.
It’s like the hole in the floor at one end of the dining room. First thing we asked about when we moved in. In some of the houses the mechanism still worked, a button from a long time ago when the man of the house could tap with his foot and call in the butler from the kitchen or pantry. Our house was made for maids, too, and the house spirit tells us stories about them.
The room in the attic my brother and I share was originally designed to be maids’ quarters. The walls are short and angle with the roof, and it takes up the whole top floor. It has a claw-footed tub in the bathroom and from the window has the best view of San Francisco Bay.
The house spirit shows us the dawn.
Army brats—the sons and daughters of officers, get away with murder. We plot the death of a real world and build acres of scale modeled hills and barrens in the attic space, with tiny milkmen and lichen trees and HO train tracks—all lit with bare bulbs hanging from the rafters. We cherish lawless paths to the neighboring attic, squeeze through the bends in pipes, lick the dust from our teeth, and swallow the building of it in our throats.
Our railroad spread in the attic is true, but we don’t know what it means, and we can’t decide what it’s to become, a new world, a mirror, a Dali shape of a world bent and curled.
The house spirit tells us to wash our hands and spit, and we acknowledge her with a sniff and blink our eyes, making the mixture in the sink. We sort it and we stir it right. Just as long as we don’t forget the armchair and the chemistry set with index card recipes for incendiary fun, the good kind of invisible ink, and freshly healed self-destruction.
Army brats learn from fireplace archeology. Time is the square door in the basement wall, and there’s just an old slide latch keeping us out of the dark. So we bring flashlights and claw hammers because we’ve left the shovel in the woods with our underground fort.
We climb through the portal that leads under the house, breathing through our shirts—pulled up over our faces to filter the dust and ash. Someone throws the light above us, and we’re in a cavernous room, inside the heart of the house, where all the burned gray of countless winters is shuffled, collecting in heaps below the bricked ash chutes from the fireplaces above. It’s like a time machine going back to 1911. We dig and finger sift the mounds of cinder and softest powder.
Someone finds an ear.
Nearby, a short leg. Then the rest of the face of a ceramic calico cat, painted browns and big dark eyes staring, a smear of charcoal along one broken edge. Someone says it’s old, very old. Others doubt it. We keep looking. It’s not about the age of the thing. It’s about finding all the pieces and putting them back together. It doesn’t take us long to find a base with Made in China painted in shiny black. It’s a girl’s coin bank in the shape of a cat.
And then we know the house spirit has guided us here because that girl wanted her money so bad she broke her bank and buried the pieces in the ash pit in the heart of the house. We wipe our faces and put down the hammers and wonder what she bought with the coins in that bank.
Later, I’m still coughing dust in my bedroom and I turn up the radio to hear that Billie Joe MacAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. . . again.
Hinge-shudder and the punch of the doorknob into the wall, and my sister enters in gatecrasher gaud, demanding I turn the music down, and I wonder if machines can shed tears, or if I should have thought that a long time ago when it would have made a difference.
I swivel the knob away from Mississippi, because my sister once gave me The Hobbit, about people who live in underground forts like ours under the floor in the forest. Some of the story’s about going underground and finding wonderful things, but mostly it’s about homes and where to find them and how to get them back once you’ve lost them—and all of their homes are below the ground. But theirs are different. We all build walls and holes for doors into our forts, but they built homes.
I wake in the middle of the night, and walk down the empty second floor hall with the long blue rug, through bands of moonlight, and think of rage and wraiths and nothing at all. Nothing real. Without the house spirit, very little of the world seems to be.
Cold comes through the curtains, and I feel the Potomac River and two years younger when I press my hand against the glass. Young enough to cross the foot bridge, not on the surface, but along the water pipes underneath—a fifty-foot drop and I’m not scared, and then it opens up on the way home, getting lost in the woods and crying. We vacation in Hatteras and a Hurricane takes the shingles off the roof and changes our lives. The wake of the storm leaves another world–too clear and bright for the one we left behind.
But it doesn’t last. We move again. . . and again.
Walls of brick and a leaking basement in Virginia and cows loose in the yard in Idar-Oberstein, the dull ring of bells in the morning. Trains through East Germany and soldiers along the tracks who don’t want to play guns.
We lived in Fontainebleau for a year and a half, but so long ago, even the house spirit can’t spark the images in me.
House spirits talk to themselves, and pass our records and store our memories. The spirit moves on and makes me remember the apartments in Springfield and the nightcrawlers in the mud at the edge of our yard. That didn’t stop us from climbing the fence.
We built a tree fort high in the trees on the other side of the fence. The platform was there, nailed in good, the work of the previous generation’s scrounging for wood. It’s what the house spirit wants me to see, not the absence of my father—he’s in Viet Nam, and my brother pointing at every airplane overhead and asking if daddy is there.
I remember other houses but never a home.
We dig through the sand behind the house, sifting our fingers through shells of high caliber rounds blunt and rusty from 1903. And that night the house spirit tells me of Sergeant Morris from St. Louis who trained soldiers for the Spanish-American War, but feared the sea and never saw the moon through palms or luminous fish in Pacific schools. He lived for the bark of powder-heavy rounds. Climbed the lightning high and died. Never saw the 45s knock anyone down.
Sitting in the sand, we tell our own stories, and the house spirit helps us remember them—when Doug Lloyd dropped a lit firecracker into the abandoned oil tank, standing on the rusting top, arms in the air and shouting, and hoping it would blow him to victory.
We talked about that fire in the barracks on Christmas Day—that delayed the opening of presents well into the afternoon, and the escapees from Quentin who decided to hide among heavily armed and organized soldiers on a post mostly forest, instead of passing through to Market or Geary or Fulton. Yes, they were caught.
We talked about weather and Alcatraz, and how most of the post was nothing but spirits and graveyards and eucalyptus trees with tops in the fog and a view of the bridge.
But that’s the way we want it to be, and just to prove it, we go home to our haunted houses.
Rolling and coughing and I can’t breathe. My mother spoons out the opaque yellow asthma medicine with an ice cream bribe, and I refuse. Not a pint of blue bubblegum can get me past that ooze in the spoon that looks like old foamy pus, and in your mouth it’s like licorice gone rancid.
In the end, it is the house spirit who soothes and shakes the restriction away, she takes my taste for half a minute—and I let her, enough to get the medicine down, and let’s me breathe another day.
Our underground fort lasts a year, and then we long for open sky and the smell of resin, and when we leave, no one looks down. We make a fort in the pines, and the house spirits help us find lost tools and two-by-fours, a place where our food stash will be safe from dogs, but not the birds.
Jumping well is required when you spend time in the trees. We dare each other into the tips, and look for our shadows and sway with the breeze. The fog pours in and we plan the rest of the day, a disaster at the theater, and after eight, Creature Features on Channel 2.
It’s getting cold and it’s time to get down.
We hold the branches with sap in our hands. We drop and spin and hang from the highest, but somehow a jump off a four-foot wall breaks my toe. We catch the matinee later, and I make myself sit through three hours of Towering Inferno with my bones aching. About as much fun in those velvet seats as our run-in with the ushers during Jonathan Livingston Seagull. That was us causing trouble.
Army brats get bored easily.
I limp home, and it just gets worse. Our neighbor used to be a surgeon for the Army football team, and orders a foot soak of ice water. I’d rather have the fractured bone pain.
The house spirit tells me to sleep and I dream of flying in the comfortable seats of a commercial aircraft and our appointments next week for shots that prevent things like typhoid.
By the time we’re thirteen, we’ve filled all the pages of our immunization books.
So, we get our orders to move—and we leave behind the right pieces of our spirits.
There’s traffic and we’re riding tight in our seats through a new city, under a sky like the inside of a pumpkin—late afternoon with the sun slippery orange coming through low clouds. We arrive on the other side of the world three hours before we left, some weird shift in time that messes with my head, and I lean against the warm glass and wonder about building forts: have I outgrown them, what kind of materials will be available here, how tall do trees grow.
I hear my mom talking about a nearby Naval Air Station and a big Air Force base a little bit further—because everyone knows the Navy and Air Force will have more than any PX or commissary we’ll have.
We unload at Building 780, temporary housing while they arrange our permanent temporary housing. I don’t wonder if our house spirit will be kind, because most are—I think that’s what they’re for. It’s just part of the house, and we’ll give to it what it has taken from so many others before us.
The house is the spirit that heals you, the house makes you whole, the house shortens longing, closes wounds, tube-feeds you when you’ve forgotten how to eat, and softens the hard edge of the stairs when you fall down them. The house spirit is there because no one has a home. Army brats build forts because we never seem to learn what a home is on our own.
Spread the word!