Childhood Development: The Key to Survival Shelter Construction


Building or constructing a survival shelter is easy for some of us…yet impossible for others. My childhood development put me firmly in the “easy” category.

Strangely enough, I didn’t think much about it after I got old enough to chase girls. Not until I’d gone through half a dozen decades of living did it all come back to me. In 1999, at the age of 55, I possessed only limited confidence in my construction skills, forcing me to choose a contractor to build the shell of a survival cabin in an off grid Montana mountain valley. Today, I wouldn’t even consider paying some other guy to build a structure of any sort, but for a while there I’d forgotten what I knew as a child.

Silly me.

Since I began doing my own building in 2009 in southern Arizona and publishing articles about the various projects, an occasional reader has asked how on Earth, in the most recent questioner’s words, I “got so good at that stuff”. In other words, was I born with it? Go to school for it? What?

He made me think, and I realized something. It all started in early childhood.

If you’re a reader in need of a survival shelter but have zero childhood experience in this area, don’t get discouraged. I do know seriously skilled survival shelter builders who started much later than I did, even on into their 50’s and 60’s. This is just the way it happened for me.

Only recently have I come to realize that my childhood years might have qualified as unique. That is, the combination of three specific factors working in my environment provided a highly complex, highly effective training ground, to wit:

    1. My two younger sisters and I grew up on a working cattle ranch in western Montana.

    2. Dad had grown up hard, the eldest of eight children, at times the one to hold the family together during the Great Depression years. He never finished high school, but he was highly intuitive, street smart, a genius with machinery when he needed to be, and an extremely hard worker.

    3. Mom had grown up a child of privilege, daughter of the head of the English Department in Eugene, Oregon. She obtained a Master’s Degree in English at a time when few females could manage that. She had book smarts, a sizeable dollop of common sense…but she was not particularly intuitive.

For many years, I described my parents’ relationship as “Two Worlds Collide”.

To a significant degree, Mom got first crack at influencing my childhood development–and without realizing it, she planted my feet firmly on the path to become an expert survival shelter builder.

She taught me to read.

Besides introducing me to the written word, Mom had books. Whole bookcases full of books. It wasn’t long before I’d absorbed the vast majority of their contents–though admittedly there were a few in the bookcase with the full length glass doors that were a bit too dry, even for me.

Both of my sisters are highly capable, college educated people…but I was the only one of us three siblings who promptly and forever became a bookworm, obsessed with reading, though less interested in nonfiction (by far) than I was in fiction.

At age nine, I came across a number of stories of the old mountain men who faced daily survival challenges in Indian country during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While reading, I lived with them as they moved and breathed–or held their breath while a war party passed near their hidden location.

One tale described a cache hidden right out in the middle of the open plains. The mountain man had needed to hide part of the pack goods he carried, both to lighten his load and to provide ready access to survival goods–weapons, clothing, jerked venison–should he be passing that way at some unspecified, desperate date in the future.

The cache was simple to construct, requiring only his belt knife and a shovel, both of which he had. First, he dug out a piece of prairie sod, careful to preserve it intact, and set it aside. Then he dug down into the earth, scooping out a bottle shaped hole, narrow at the neck, wider at the bottom. Every shovelful of dirt had to be hidden, scattered among the prairie grasses in such a way that no wily Injun or lowdown scavenger white man could ever spot it. When the hole was big enough–and just that–the pack goods went into the cache hole and the sod piece was replaced exactly where it had been.

The grass hid the now invisible seam. The only thing left to do was make sure he had the landmarks firmly in his mind so that he himself could find the cache again, and he was good to go.

I was inspired and decided to duplicate the mountain man’s cache hole.

Well…sort of duplicate. One fine summer morning when Dad was long gone on one or another of his many journeys to earn extra survival money to keep the ranch going, I hied myself out back of our log house, shovel in hand. Mom was used to me disappearing–though remaining somewhere around the yard, within shouting distance–for an hour or two at a time. Donna, at age seven, was well occupied with her own pursuits, and Harriet (age three) was with Donna.

Time to disappear.

We lived in the Clark Fork Valley of western Montana, not out on the eastern prairie, but by gum, we did have plenty of grass roots back there. I dug out the sod piece the author had described and set it aside.

This would be a cache hole with a different purpose, so I dug a bit differently than the mountain man had done. Below the sod, the access neck of the bottle narrowed even more, providing a lip at the surface. I found some scrap wood, a few bent, rusty nails that could be straightened (there were always plenty of those around), and built a lid that fit perfectly atop the ledge above the bottleneck, allowing just enough room on top of the lid for the sod piece to fit, cunningly perfect.

This wood-plus-sod lid, after being checked out from every angle, was once again set aside, and the body of the bottle was dug out, each shovelful of dirt being carefully scattered in relatively distant grass.

When I was done, I had a hidey hole, a survival shelter, large enough for a nine year old boy to fit into nicely. Easing myself down, I carefully lifted the lid and settled it into place above my head.

Of course, as I would realize much later, I had built a survival shelter identical to the “spider holes” used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, lacking only a hole through which I could get fresh air and see out. But that would have been a quick and easy fix.

Spider hole. Cache hole. Foxhole with a cover. Whatever.

Several times that summer, I used my cache hole, literally disappearing from the face of the earth for up to thirty minutes at a time. I loved it down there; the little survival shelter provided a sense of triumph and a sense of peace in equal parts…but there was a challenge, too.

It would only count in my mind if the hole was never discovered by any other member of my family.

To that end, I limited my forays, being careful to “dive down” only when Dad was away from home (because he was sneaky-intuitive, like me, and might discover my secret) and also when I was at least 99% certain neither my sisters nor my mother would be likely to come looking at an inopportune time.

Finally, some weeks later, I decided it was time to wrap things up. I filled the hole back in, replaced the sod without the wooden lid, and the adventure was finished.

I had done it. The cache hole had been a complete success and was never even suspected by any other human being.

My childhood development in the art of survival shelter construction was well under way.

My first survival shelter, constructed as a bottle shaped cache hole in the earth behind our log home when I was nine years old, was a complete success.

My first survival shelter, constructed as a bottle shaped cache hole in the earth behind our log home when I was nine years old, was a complete success.

A couple of years later, at age eleven, I determined to try my hand at survival shelter construction again. Oh, I called it a playhouse, and no doubt that’s how others thought of it–but I knew it was much more than that.

Since Mom might have looked at me crosseyed if I used any serious terminology to describe the structure, though…yeah, let’s call it a playhouse.

This was my first try at building my own above ground residence. The main ranch house (900 square feet of log home) had received new shakes on a portion of the roof, so getting hold of a few dozen used shingles was not a problem–and was, in fact, the inspiration for the structure in the first place. I already knew how to use hammer and saw, having cut my right leg (just a little) with a handsaw at age nine and also having been assigned to build a whole big batch of panels to keep the cows out of the haystacks at age ten.

Building a real building, though, involved a good deal of frustration here and there. Used, rusty nails that refused to stay straight under the hammer head’s ministrations. Boards (scrap, used) that ended up crooked as a dog’s hind leg after looking as straight as a laser line two minutes earlier. Hammered thumbs.

And more, no doubt, that I don’t recall at this late date.

Nonetheless, perseverance (sometimes called stubbornness) won the day, or maybe it was several days, and eventually the Shingle Shack was completed. It never leaked except through the doorway during a rainstorm, as there was no door. It had a dirt floor.

It was dark inside, though of course not quite as dark as it had been in the cache hole. I outgrew the tiny place within a few years. It scared me a bit, ’cause there might be rattlesnakes in there, waiting for stupid me to come crawling into my playhouse that was not really a playhouse, and thus into range of their striking fangs.

At that age, I had a real thing about rattlesnakes. As a result, I was never fully satisfied with the Shingle Shack.

But it was a start. My childhood development was continuing.

My playhouse that was not a playhouse, before shingles were added to the sides.  This was built when I was 11 years of age.

My playhouse that was not a playhouse, before shingles were added to the sides. This was built when I was 11 years of age.

Three more years went by, until I built my first true survival shelter masterpiece at age fourteen.

That summer, Dad had a good friend working for him in the hayfields, and that friend sometimes brought his fifteen year old son with him when he drove up from Missoula for a week’s worth of bucking bales. It was my second year on the mower, but miracle of miracles, an afternoon opened up occasionally that did not require my services.

One day, I decided to build another “playhouse”. It would be a real building this time, with a solid wood floor, a door with hinges, and even a window of some leftover translucent flexible fiberglass material (I have no idea what it was originally used for) that could not be seen through but did let in a good deal of light. The roof would slope toward the back and be shingled with rusty tin cans.

Obviously, it had to be big enough for two teenaged boys to sit inside with the door closed, allowing us to tell tall tales without being overheard by either adults or kid sisters.

To that end, I picked a reasonably level spot up near the north side yard fence, overlooking the garden and most of the yard but blocked from view of the house by the conveniently located woodshed. The footprint was 3′ x 4′. The seams were tight and surprisingly waterproof.

It all came together beautifully. No one on the ranch had seen a structure anything like it; not even the outhouse for the hired hands had rusty tin can shingles. It could have been lived in–not all that comfortably, requiring a grown human to curl up a bit to fit when lying down, but the door had a latch and the walls were comforting in a world of predators willing to take a bite out of unwary and unprotected sleepers.

Unfortunately, I knew it would lead to trouble. It was too well built. My father had many fine qualities, truly he did, but he also had a couple that sucked like a Hoover vacuum on steroids. One of those sucky traits was: He believed that anything he owned was his…and anything I owned was his, too. He didn’t claim everything, but if it was something he figured he could use better than I could, then you betcha.

One year later, with me not using the building much–at fifteen, I was way too busy to find time to sit around in a tiny building when there were chores and homework to do–he stole my masterpiece. Just picked it up with the lift on the tractor one day, hauled it across the yard and up near the granary, and set it back down.

It was strongly built. The move didn’t hurt it a bit.

He informed me that it would now become the ranch’s “salt block house”…and of course I got the honor of moving the 50 lb. blocks of Iodized Salt into their new, luxurious, waterproof quarters. The salt blocks were important; I couldn’t deny that. Cattle need them, and having a spare supply on hand at all times was an obviously good idea.

If you build it, they will come. If you’re not able to defend it, they will steal it.

But, with my childhood coming rapidly to a close (not that I ever thought of myself as a kid, really), it was clear that I’d laid in some basic survival shelter construction skills. Not until fifty years later, at the age of sixty-five, would I unwrap that skill set and begin using it in earnest to build the southern Arizona, off grid home we call the Border Fort–but the key work had been done. The ability to build survival shelters had been developed and stored.

The salt block shed, built as a "playhouse" when I was fourteen and appropriated for prosaic use by my father one year later.

The salt block shed, built as a “playhouse” when I was fourteen and appropriated for prosaic use by my father one year later.

January, 2014. I’ve grown a bit mellower with age, in large part because I’ve come to realize the loss of a material thing (even a survival shelter) is not what it’s all about. Instead, I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to develop some seriously advantageous survival skills at a young age.

Childhood development. You never know where it may lead.

6 thoughts on “Childhood Development: The Key to Survival Shelter Construction

  1. Yes, our childhood development has much to do with what we can do. I helped my dad build things. He had grown up on a farm, where his father built everything they needed. His father expected help from his children. They all had chores assigned to them and they included helping dad occasionally.
    If we buy a piece of furniture in a box, I am the one to put it together. I have the patience to put it together right and make sure it is square. They last much longer when I put them together. Dennis never learned to do that type of thing.
    When Katy was a baby, we bought two of those 6′ cabinets with locks on the doors. He needed something to put some of his treasures in, and I needed something my craft supplies would not disappear from. He rushed out to put his together with both boys helping him. A lot of cussing and frustration later, they hauled it into the house and out it in the corner. It was not straight and leaned to one side, lasting about 8 years.
    I wandered out the next day, with both boys. I had it together in about half the time, and we all had a good time. They both told me later that they learned more from me while we were putting it together. It was straight and lasted until five years ago, when he tried to move it by himself. He bear hugged it and it fell apart. I had always moved it and used two people, because I knew the fibreboard it was made of is not as strong as wood.

  2. That’s a great illustration. And yes, one does need to move fibreboard a bit more carefully than, say, something made of solid oak and bolted together. We still have (in the semi trailer somewhere, not yet in the house) a bookcase I manufactured in high school shop class some 55 years ago. Got it back from Mom’s house when she passed in 2002. It needs a bit of re-gluing at this point, as some of the joints are starting to get a bit loose, but it’s solid wood (pine stained a mahogany color) and still as serviceable, straight and true, as it was when the teacher, John Pozder, was showing us young’uns how to run a table saw without cutting off too many fingers.

  3. I learned to read the directions, when I was sewing. It helps a lot when you read the directions on those things. I used to sew and do crafts to sell. My boys would help themselves to scissors and pipe cleaners, leaving me without the things I needed to make money. I sold a lot of cloth purses back then. Dennis was disabled, but not getting much money, and for awhile, while they were getting my thyroid under control; I could not work. We needed a bit more money and I had a crafting talent.

  4. It’s always good to have a cash talent in one’s tool kit; that’s for sure. I always thought tooling leather might work that way for me, but except for a leather crafting class I took once in college, I never disciplined myself enough to make much of it.

    Except…hm. Maybe an idea for tonight’s post. We’ll see.

    I do read directions. Don’t always assemble a unit in the order the directions say, but at least when I deviate I know why I’m doing it. I really have known guys that fit the stereotype to a T, though, truly equating reading the directions with “failure”.

  5. Even back then you were a Ghost (or Fred) of all trades. I would imagine you were mighty proud of yourself. Your dad certainly thought your handiwork was solid and useful. How long did the shelter last?

  6. The salt block shed was still in use, waterproof, showing no signs of deterioration when I last saw it. I know it lasted until at least 1973, when my parents sold the original home ranch west of Drummond and moved to the Roundup, Montana, area, to pursue a mining interest Dad had in Musselshell County. They didn’t take it with them, so I don’t know its fate from that point forward, but it was built in the summer of 1958, so it was good for at least the next 15 years.

    In my early 20’s, I once built a fence around the back yard of a house my first wife and I owned briefly in Belgrade, Montana: Treated posts, with 1″ x 4″ fence boards run top to bottom in a sort of “weave” configuration, then painted. 32 years later, I happened to be in the area and stopped at a next door gas station, then slipped down the alley to eyeball my old handiwork. Except for needing a fresh coat of paint (badly!) and a couple of new boards (2 were broken), it still looked good.

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