A few weeks ago, the well-meaning father of two toddlers constructed a child’s fort in his front yard, using oversize boxes he’d hauled home from his job at a downtown flower shop. There were crenelated walls, two towers tall enough for an adult to stand inside and a kiddie slide protruding from one end.
A day later came a notice from the city: Remove the fort within 15 days. Or pay a $125 fine.
“It sounded big and scary and imposing,” he said. “I was irritated for about an hour. And then I laughed.” He decided to leave the fort up until the last day.
But not before posting a copy of the letter on Facebook, hoping for a few “likes” among friends.
“ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDIN ME!!!?!” he wrote. “We build a completely awesome box castle in our front yard for our kids to play in and we get a notice from code enforcement?!? ‘Waste material or junk,’ it says … what about totally awesome fun zone … what a joke!!!
Within 24 hours, it had been shared more than 1,000 times. And that was only the beginning.
Trentelman’s post began trending, then went viral. The Internet took his story and ran with it. With abandon.
Social media are always in search of the latest “new” thing. But if you’re so unlucky to fall within their sights, Trentelman said, crazy, unpredictable things happen:
Gross inaccuracies. A stolen message. Political pontificating.
He soon fell down a rabbit’s hole of insane Internet discourse, with right-wing bloggers using his experience to rail against official overreach – big bad government picking on innocent kids. But they’d gotten things wrong.
Among the mistaken assertions: Police showed up at his house with guns. The city tore down the fort on its own. A judge demanded that it be razed.
“The Internet is so agenda-driven, there’s no telling what will go viral,” Trentelman said. “People shape them in any way they want.”
Trentelman, 37, a florist with ponytailed hair, long beard, eyebrow ring and a T-shirt that says, “I make awesome kids,” played Internet detective. As he arranged a bouquet of flowers in his shop before Mother’s Day, Trentelman described how he tracked down the authors of erroneous posts to give the facts.
But he couldn’t put out the fire. After the Internet site BuzzFeed picked up the story, reporters began calling – first the local Standard-Examiner, then the Salt Lake Tribune and others. TV cameras invaded his yard. Radio talk-show hosts called to invite the father on as a guest.
The story appeared as far away as Britain and China. He received emails from well-wishers offering to pay the $125 fine. A Facebook page, “Support Jeremy Trentelman! Cardboard Fort Campaign in Ogden,” was created, with people urged to build their own box forts in solidarity with the dad.
Columnists opined from Washington, and he was nominated by one website for “Father of the Year,” held up as a poster boy for civil defiance, an angry parent prepared to fight City Hall to the bitter end.
The problem: Little of it was true.
Trentelman fought back, writing a letter to the local paper. There was no front-yard war in Utah, he said. City officials even stopped by his house to voice their support. Mayor Mike Caldwell said he was glad to see that kids these days still wanted to play inside a cardboard box.
Trentelman said he was no longer miffed at the code enforcement official, saying the man had a thankless job. But he took offense at the Internet comments that portrayed Ogden and its officials as yahoos.
“I am saddened by some of the vitriolic comments,” he wrote. “Please be nice to my city and its inhabitants.”
The roller-coaster ride wasn’t fun anymore, if it ever was. “I told my family, ‘This is ridiculous. And I’m not going to play anymore.’”
His wife, Dee, put it this way: “We wanted to jump off the crazy train before it pulled into a station where we did not want to be.”
But there was one more media platform they hoped would set the record straight. Fox News had called from New York City. They wanted the Trentelmans, with 2-year-old Story and 3 1/2-year-old Max, to build a box fort outside its studios in Manhattan.
Their fame preceded them. As they erected their new fort near the corner of 48th Street and 6th Avenue, a passer-by shouted, “Are you the Utah family?” Pictures were taken.
On-air, a host drummed the now-familiar beat of civil disobedience. “They tried to get me to express outrage,” he said, “but I wouldn’t go for it.” He called the city’s actions “silly” but didn’t denounce them as a threat to personal liberty.
Trentelman’s father, Charlie, for years a columnist for the Standard-Examiner, accompanied the family to New York. This might have been a topic he would have written about for an Ogden audience. But global news?
On a flight from New York, Charlie Trentelman occupied a middle seat next to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and asked him whether he’d heard about the Utah box fort. He hadn’t. But the man on the other side of Trentelman had.
“So, there’s still hope,” the elder Trentelman said, that the publisher of the New York Times “has other things to worry about than a box fort in Utah.”
In the end, Jeremy Trentelman never took down his creation. While the family was in New York, a hard rain turned the castle to mulch.
Friends hauled it away.