Thursday, June 10, 2010

What Ghosts Lie Within This Fort...

"Wait for it...wait for it," I tease my Durango full of kids. All four of them came with us to Whidbey Island this time--Lilli, Lauren, Chloe and Nicholas. My mom is beside herself with excitement to see all of them together for the first time. I am beside myself with anxiety that everything should go well this weekend. My family was about to get the Abundis experience as ten of us descend on their quiet home.

This moment, this anticipation has always been one of my favorite parts of visiting Fort Casey. The Durango winds slowly up the hill, through trees and past old military housing buildings--barracks and officers' housing and an old chapel. To the left, the tops of two great, rounded mounds run perpendicular to the road for several yards before plunging straight down again to the ground below. Their coats of well-manicured grass do nothing to disguise their inorganic shapes. "What the heck?" the kids ask.

"Just wait," I reply. I've only told them that Fort Casey is like Manchester on crack.

Finally, as we nose out of the trees and into the parking lot, Fort Casey spreads out before us--a diorama from another age. "Whoa!!" Gasps explode from the back seat, and I smile. I love sharing bits of myself with them--childhood memories that I've taken for granted.

But I feel a twinge. The great, grassy field that serves as a foreground for the Fort is smaller than I remember. Still, it is emerald green and slightly swampy from days of rain, and families play tag, catch and football in this wide-open space. That hasn't changed.

It's taken four cars to transport all fifteen of us, and as we park, kids pile out of various vehicles and embark on the same dash across the grass that I made so often as a child. There's a magnetic mystery to the hulking concrete buildings that lightens your feet and pulls you towards it. Or maybe it's simply the allure of a wide open space that begs to be raced upon.

Fort Casey rises abruptly at the far edge of the great emerald expanse.  The long, concrete bunker was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a third of the "Triangle of Fire,"a three-sided defense of Puget Sound against invasions by sea. Defunct before it could be used, the Fort now serves as a popular tourist stop for history buffs, adventurous families and bored teenagers.

As a child, and even as a teenager, Fort Casey terrified me. I would dread the annual field trip to the park, and would spend days trying to mentally convince myself that this time I would be brave. Its labyrinths of dank, unlit rooms spoke to me of death and decay, and my overactive imagination convinced me that the spirits of the dead still remained. In my own mind, this area had been used in war.

Today, the Fort terrifies me for a completely different reason. As children, we raced across the tops of the two story buildings, jumping over stairwells and dodging the sudden 20-foot drops to the ground below. Engrossed in our games of Capture the Flag and School Tag, we never gave thought to the risk of life and limb.

And as I watch Paul's children, their cousins and my nephew play in the same way that I had, my heart lodges itself firmly in my throat. Each time one of the kids ventures too close to a ledge or careens down a stairwell, my stomach wrenches and I panic a little more. Why did our parents allow us to play here, unsupervised? Did they not love us? How are we all not dead, or at the very least maimed?

Finally, I turn my back and force myself to trust Paul with the safety of his own kids. Now I understand why my mom would walk away as my dad encouraged her young daughters to clamber up the faces of jagged beach rocks and explore the edges of island cliffs.

The object of my fears is not the only change I notice. As my family and I walk across that once-endless expanse of grass, I realize that the face of the building is not the same as I remember. Half of it, and one of the watch towers, too, has been painted a drab olive green. As much as I wrack my brain, I can come up with no good reason for this defacement, and the disappointment breaks my heart.

And as we finally reach the stoic walls of concrete, I notice another discrepancy. The great gaping portals to the blackened rooms that once invoked such trepidation in my young mind are now sealed with thick metal doors. I'm quite sure that a piece of every child that grew up on Whidbey Island is trapped behind those metal doors. A piece of our history has been barricaded there--a piece that we are no longer permitted to share with our children.

I watch the kids play with each other and with their dads today, and I realize that they are making their own history. It's different from my own, but their world is different from mine, too. They're discovering Fort Casey--an amazing place that is half striped-grey concrete, half drab green; a place where they can run and explore the different levels, and speculate about what lies behind the mysterious, sealed doors. And maybe someday they'll bring their kids here, and they'll be disappointed that the Fort where they once ran with abandon is now barricaded sedately behind thick viewing ropes.

Yesterday, I told someone that people change, and we have to let them. I guess the same goes for places, too...


Erica said...

Thank you :) I need my dose of Heather's writing at least once a week, preferably more.

And just so you know, when my kids do "daring" things it scares the living bajesus out of me, too. Oh, and I haven't been to Fort Casey since last summer because me and the kids went and the field was covered with bees...yeah, I'm all set with that.

Anonymous said...

clap clap clap can you hear the thuderous applause that you have evoked? If not, you are not listening to your audience. Love you kid for what you have lived and what you share what you will live and what you will share!!!!!!!
Dad A

Heather said... guys make me feel special =D

Mom said...

Poetry. Pure and simple poetry.

Anonymous said...

I really love this blog!! You have a true gift and Im so lucky that you share this with us. It a painting in words. I look forward to reading more from you.