When I think about it now, it seems completely ridiculous: a hole in the ground covered with boards and dirt and camouflaged with shrubs and leaves. At the time, though, away at boarding school during the 1940s, it was not only a marvel of engineering but also a home away from home for Phil and Dave and me.
It was way out in the woods - a secret - and we would go there on free afternoons. We'd spread out some carefully hoarded food on an old rug we'd found at the dump and put a record on Phil's wind-up record player: "Sing, Sing, Sing," by Benny Goodman, "One O'Clock Jump," or something by Harry James or Tommy Dorsey. By the light of a few candle stubs we'd imagine that it was Christmas vacation and we were in New York City nursing $2 sodas at the Three Deuces and making sophisticated conversation with young women who looked like June Allyson or Gloria De Haven or Rita Hayworth. But soon sand would fall in someone's eye, or one of us would knock over a candle, or sit up too fast and bang his head on the ceiling and knock loose one of the boards.
"Why didn't we dig this hole deeper?" one of us might say, or "Watch that record!" - Phil's refrain.
"The Hut," as we called it, was 6 feet by 6 feet by 4 feet high at one end. It was only 3-1/2 feet high at the other. Roots and portions of large rocks protruded from the walls. The floor was mostly sand and fairly smooth under the rug, but the entrance passageway was so tight that it collapsed a little every time we used it.
The Hut had taken more than a month to build. In spite of our complaints, we were proud of it. We were as pleased as could be with all its homey touches: the shelf Phil had fashioned out of a piece of roofing tin on which we stored food, magazines, candles, and matches. We kept the record player and the records underneath it. Usually only two of us went there at a time, though, as there was so little room.
The biggest problem was the sand. At first we were delighted that the ground was so easy to dig. But after a while, it didn't seem so easy. We decided to mound up the sand, even though that made The Hut harder to hide. As we dug deeper, the sand got very fine and white and the only way we could hold up one side of the Hut was to prop boards against it. Even so, the sand kept slipping through. We carried out buckets and buckets of sand over the next several months, but the Hut never seemed to get any larger.
I don't know what inspired us to build it. I have vague memories of Walter Pidgeon creating something like it in a movie In which he tries to shoot Hitler. Building the hut influenced us, though. When I read "The Wind in the Willows" years later, I identified instantly with Mole's love for his underground home. I envied Badger's opulent and well-provisioned quarters.
Other boys dug huts, too. There were several elaborate ones with connecting rooms that were tall enough to stand up in. Huts may have been something of a school tradition. But nobody talked about them much or knew where they were or invited others to visit. In a boys' school, where there is so little privacy, a hut - any kind of hut - is a snug refuge from the world.
Phil and Dave and I built the Hut during the fall of our 8th-grade year. Two years later, David and I and another friend constructed a log cabin not far from it, just off the trail to the ski hill. But that was very different. The cabin was purposely In the public view. It contained a stove and a cot made out of saplings. Though it was not much bigger than the Hut, it had two windows and a door. We entertained ourselves and others there with bacon sandwiches and hot cocoa.
I WAS reminded of the Hut when I helped my then-8-year-old daughter, Michele, and her friend Sandy dig a sort of cave/igloo out of a frozen snow pile one winter afternoon. When we were finished, we hung a blanket over the entrance and the two girls slept in it that night. They were so excited, digging it, and so snug later on, cocooned in their sleeping bags.
And they were so happy and sleepy at breakfast the next morning as they told us all about it.
I was pleased to find out. Spending a night In the Hut was something Phil and Dave and I had always wanted to do.