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Michael Ricci: Don’t wall yourself off when life gets difficult

As kids, we create our own make-believe environments; I believe these landscapes live through us as adults. My grandfather was a military man. Throughout his life, he dedicated 20 years of service to the Army. His service continues even today. His dedication played a vital part in my upbringing.

I loved childhood trips to Grandpa Ricci’s house, particularly story time. Grandpa would sit me on his lap and tell me his old war stories, talking with his hands like a painter working nonstop on a canvas. Through tone changes and enthusiasm peaks, he would paint events in my head. I took these stories home with me and lived them every day.

Zero seven hundred hours, I awoke as a child. I’d roll out of bed and head downstairs for breakfast. My mother would already be up, and a bowl of cereal would await me. As soon as the bowl was empty, this busy boy was buzzing off to play. First, I’d pull the cushions off the couches and set up the walls. Then I would grab a couple of blankets and hurl them over the top of the cushions. At last, the fort was complete.

Inside, these walls hugged me like a mother hugging her frightened child. They may have just been tan cushions, but to me they were a grayish stone, cold and hard enough to withstand damage. The blankets were knitted afghans with half-dollar size holes. To these blue eyes, they were camo fort tops like I saw watching “MASH.” Enemy planes couldn’t see me, but I could see them.

The fort was chaotic. Planes zoomed past overheard, the propellers screaming, “thump, thump, thump.” Gunners unloaded outside, “tic, tic, tic, tic, tic,” sounding like an old movie reel at the start of a feature. Lieutenants yelled, “advance!” or “retreat!” When gunfire became silence and the smoke cleared, we gathered our fallen and returned to base. It was lunchtime. My mom always played along, “General, your lunch has arrived.” She’d open the front flap and hand me my food. Nothing beat eating in the barricades. A long sigh followed the fruity Capri Sun flavor; the perfect way to end the morning’s battle.

Looking back, this fort had a huge impact on who I am today. When I was 12, my mother became sick. She suffered an illness like cancer through my teenage years, and died when I was 21. The heartache was unbearable, and emotionally I put up walls. Soon afterward I developed a drug addiction, isolating myself into a fort of depression. Next, I met a jail cell. This time the walls were real, and there was no retreating.

Throughout my journey, music has always given me inspiration. A hip-hop artist known as Fabolous once said, “God gives the hardest battles to the strongest soldiers.” I’ve fought and lost many battles in my past. But when I took down those walls around me, my life changed.

Over the last two years, I’ve won the war within myself. It’s simple. Don’t barricade yourself in and you can conquer anything. My mother is still the gasoline to my engine. Her memory is the drive I need to keep marching forward. When life gets tough, I remember the fort. And I remember her saying, “It’s time to take down the fort, Michael,” just like she used to say at the end of play time every day. Such a simple phrase reminds me to not put up walls. An open mind leaves you open to endless opportunity, and every day above ground is a victory.