Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Barns I Have Known

"Dad," he had once asked when he was a little boy, "what is a stable?"

"It's just a barn," his father had replied, "like ours."

Then Jesus had been born in a barn, and to a barn the shepherds and the Wise Men had come, bringing their Christmas gifts!
(Pearl S. Buck, "Christmas Day in the Morning")

Barns were a place of gifts in my childhood. Or, at least, they were gifts in themselves, though I'm sure I never thought of it in those terms at the time. Barns were places of work and play and discovery and injury and confrontation and mystery and meditation, for all of us older Fox children (but especially, or at least so it seems in my memory, thanks to the quite patriarchal home we grew up in, for us boys). That's gifts aplenty, don't you think? Well, I do now, whatever I might have thought about those reliable structures, those constant edifices, those musty and strange and delightful and dirty and smelly and disgusting and wonderful and scary and familiar storehouses of grain and hay and machinery and animals that I went into and out of multiple times a day from 30 to 40 years ago. Storehouses of memories, that's what they were (and, in at least one blessed case, still are).

Here are the ones that I remember, from the nearest to me temporally to the oldest.

The A-Frame Barn at Fox's Den

In some ways, I almost feel like this one doesn't count. After all, how can a barn that you saw built from the ground up, that you went into when it was brand-spanking new and you could still smell the paint on the outside, that you walked around and climbed on top of when the cement foundation was clean and the shingles running down both sides of the roof were still fresh and black and little sticky from tar--how can a barn like that be much of a surprise, a gift? There's no age to it, no discovery, no mystery--it's just part of the architecture of my memory of that time, a time of building a new place for a family still growing, but nearly, by then, entirely grown. The folks who can speak about the A-Frame best and most meaningfully are those younger than me, who found it waiting for them as they grew up: Stuart a little bit, but mostly Abe and Jess and Phil and Marj and Baden. Especially Abe, because, of course, this is the barn which tried to kill him.

Dad had the barn built behind the house, just large enough to store hay for the cows, with two stalls for milking, and a small enclosed pen in back for any calves. Daniel and I often speculated on the possibility of building a small door at the rear of the A-Frame's tiny loft, so as to enable someone to climb up the ladder and then cross through, out of the rear of the barn and onto the roof of the calf pen. We never did that, and so instead we would just clamber up the fence behind the building and pull ourselves up onto the roof of the pen--that, or we'd attach a rope to one of the branches of the tall pine trees near the barn--maybe the one that Daniel attempted to build one of his about five aborted tree houses over the years in?--sling it over the top of the A-Frame, and then, grabbing hold, walk while pulling ourselves up to the roof. (My memory is that Dad hated us doing this, because it damaged the shingles, but oh well.) Anyway, the point is that we would, one way or another, regularly find ways to get ourselves on top of the barn or at least the pen behind it. Then what would we do? Well, jump off, obviously; I mean, it's not like there wasn't precedent (see below).

So, long story short, at some point after I'd grown up and left home, the younger brothers (was Marjorie there? I don't know; the legends don't say) had come up with a variation of this time-worn activity that involved leaping from the roof of the pen behind the A-Frame, grabbing onto a rope hanging from a tree branch, and then swinging out over the gully which Dad, in his wisdom, had the barn built directly beside. I've no doubt it was great fun--up until the moment when the barn, obviously sick of these kids climbing all over it, conspired with the tree to cause the branch to break at the furthest extent of one of Abe's swings, resulting in his crashing down into the gully, tumbling all the way to the tiny creek at the bottom, and impaling himself on the branch of the fallen log. The story I was told--which I do not want any of my family to correct because this is how I REMEMBER being told the story thank you very much so shut up--involved a collapsed lung, a desperate prayer, a vision of heaven, and a life-saving rush to the hospital. Abe survived and, amazingly, considering that it had clearly demonstrated itself to be a death trap, so did the barn.

Of course, if it didn't kill us by luring us to outright injury, it could attempt to kill us through pestilence, heat stroke, or hypothermia. Seriously, the place had essentially no ventilation and no insulation, which meant it was hideously hot in the summer months and dreadfully cold in the winter. A small lake of manure from the cows stunk up the place from pretty much all of May through September, and then in the winter months we'd have frozen bovine urine making the milking stalls and feeding pen actually difficult to traverse. The long strips of flytrap tape were always clogged black with dead fly bodies by midsummer; it didn't matter how many we hung, because the supply of insects was endless. Stephen King would have had plenty of material to turn our slow trudges out to the barn for daily milking and feeding duties into a descent into horror, for certain.

To be fair, though, I never felt any of that, mostly because of the cows. I liked them; I would talk to them, commiserate about the heat or the cold or the stink or the ice or the flies with them. They would nod, moo, occasionally add silent comments of their own, and the conversation would continue. It was in this barn that Daniel and I witnessed our father's by-now mythological struggle with the Hell Cow; it was one frozen morning in the A-Frame where a cow slipped on the ice covering the milking floor and fell on top of me. It was from the small old transistor radio that Dad put up in the rear of the barn that I listen to Casey Kasem's Top 40 and sing along (badly) to the cows as a child (once I discovered radio, that is); it was with the cows that I tried out various debating strategies and arguments; it was while milking the cows with Daniel that we sketched out Dungeons & Dragons adventures that took on a life of their own. So, yes, I have many fond memories of the old A-Frame--after all, that was the barn I spent more time in than any other--but mostly because of what happened in it, not so much because of it, itself. For that, we have to reach further back.

The Red Barns at Ye Olde Fox Farm

If Americans have a stereotype of barns in their minds, then it almost certainly looks just about exactly like the barns which we older Fox children knew for two short, intense years in the late 1970s. One big, classic red barn ("Big Red"), with multiple stalls for animals, a huge hay loft, a broad front floor for grain, additional hay, and machinery, and a big sliding door in front. And then another, smaller barn ("Little Red"), with separate rooms, a mysterious attic, and an even more mysterious basement that could be accessed with a trap door in the floor. We loved it.

Honestly, we probably loved the doors the most. Not only did Little Red have the trap door in the floor, which gave access to some creaky stairs which took you down into a low-ceilinged, unfinished, dirt-floor basement, but Big Red also had a secret door, built into a wall and not visible unless you knew what you were looking for, that led to another set of creaky stairs which would take you down into another low-ceilinged, unfinished, dirt floor basement. This one was much smaller than the first, and was obviously a root cellar (which is what we used it for, storing bunches of potatoes from the garden down there, which we would, of course, promptly forget about, and then only remember months later, at which point we would open up the dirt-filled trunk in that cellar and be confronted with a small army of mutant potatoes, their ghostly white roots all growing pathetically upward). As for the first one, the one below Little Red? Who knows? It was probably intended to be another floor, but we imagined that it had been a designed as a way-station for the Underground Railroad (which, of course, passed regularly through eastern Washington back in the 1840s) or a meeting place for communists or rebels or some other group (it depended on whether we were imagining good guys or bad guys at the time). Once, when Mom and Dad were involved in youth leadership in our congregation, a huge spook alley was planned using our barns, and that whole lower level in the smaller barn was turned into a maze, with canvas walls stretching from floor to ceiling, and Uncle Chuck, revving the motor of his chainsaw (but the chain was off--or, at least, so I was told; I wasn't allowed to go through that part of the haunted house), wandered the maze, healthily scaring teen-agers to death.

Those barns were scary, honestly. They were old, and going in and out of them, tending chickens (which decided they hated Stuart, and would organize to attack him whenever he approached) and pigs (which all died one winter--what, don't they have fur to keep them warm during the cold weather?) and cows (we started our milking operations while living at Ye Olde Fox Farm, but my primarily memory was Daniel and Samatha squirting milk at me as I passed by the stalls carrying grain), could often be a little terrifying, but in a pleasant way, to an 8 and 9-year-old. Creaks and moans from the wind, loose floorboard whose location we kept forgetting (actually, Dad made good use of those loose floorboards during the aforementioned spook alley; he brought in an actual slaughtered cow from some ranch that the mill he ran sold feed to, laid it out over a loose, jostling floor board in Big Red, and then, while taking groups of teen-agers through, would get them to step on it, causing the bloody carcass to suddenly move), and of course cats creeping up on you all the time. Oh, the cats! I think I counted about 14 strays that had adopted the barns as their home. Some were nice enough, but a couple were positively feral, and seeing their eyes suddenly pop out at you from a dark corner of the barns freaked me out.

Mostly, though, we loved these barns. So many things to discover! Piles of old boxes, books, clothes, and knick-knacks, left in corners of the attic of Little Red or the loft of Big Red, weird moldy stuff dating back to 20, 30, 40 years before we were born. The dust motes that danced through the streams of sunlight that penetrated cracks in the barns' siding early in the morning or as the sun set. The huge indoor playground which Big Red essentially became for us: endless games of hide-and-seek, of building forts out of hay bales, of challenging each other to athletic contests. Most of those contests, admittedly, involved running and leaping off the hay loft, so you can see the roots of Abe's unfortunately incident right there. But leaping indoors, as dangerous as it obviously was (that was a concrete floor down there!), never resulted in any injury. Mostly we'd soar 15 or 20 ft. through the air to hand, tumbling, on piles of hay or grain--the latter being even better than hay, because the loose grain piles of corn grain would sink underneath you as you landed, and for a moment it was like you were in quicksand, though suffocation was never a possibility, and you always ended up smelling like molasses afterward.

Of course, I said "leaping indoors" above--leaping from the barns themselves was a different proposition. I jammed a rusty nail into my heel thanks to one such adventure, and Daniel actually landed headfirst in a bush that jammed a thick stem into the back of this throat. (Dad just yanked it out and all was fine, but remember this, kids: if you're falling headfirst in the direction of foliage that you're hoping will break you fall, keep you mouth closed.) So, sure, being around old barns that were always falling down as fast as we fixed them up could pose some dangers. Overall, my memory of those barns is filled with warmth. The Big Red became, in my mind, the Fitzgerald's barn from the Great Brain books, and I imagined I would build a high platform over the main floor, accessible only by roped ladder, just as J.D. and T.D. did. Maybe we would have if we'd stayed there longer. But by the end of the 70s our family was moving on, with a year in a barn-less suburban house before our construction of Fox's Den with the A-Frame. In the meantime, our barn experiences fell back on the oldest, and the first.

Grandpa Bill's Old Brown Horse and Grey Hay/Grain Barns

Unlike the A-Frame and Big Red, at least, which Google Map's satellite view tells me have been preserved as re-purposed over the decades, Grandpa's barns are either gone or stand mostly lonely and empty today. Perhaps that's not a terribly inappropriate fate. Grandma and Grandpa Fox are both gone; the horses, the alfalfa fields, the cattle, the corrals, the old colt-breaking pens, and network of wooden fences, the groves of pine trees: all gone also. The big open Grey Barn--where owls, crows, and pigeons roosted, where piles of hay bales and bags of grain reached up three stories (or so it seemed in my youthful mind), where cows and horses would gather to be fed on snowy winter days, where, like it was some sort of magnet, the odd detritus of decades of farm and milling work had been drawn (an old, empty Fox Milling truck, which we'd climb down inside; a dangerously appealing, unsupported, broken-down loading chute; more railroad ties than you could count)--is completely removed. The Brown Barn, though, is still there, surrounded by the remains of the once productive farm and ranch which it provided the center of, and beyond that the housing developments and pleasant lanes which now occupy the land. Talking with Phil and Jesse, I learn that you can still go inside. I hope it still smells the same.

That's the memory which most grounds me when it comes to the Grandpa's barns--the smell. Which is surprising for me, because I've long known that smell is probably the weakest of my five senses. Time must have something to do with that. The barns were there when I was a toddler, and a child, and a teen-ager, and a young man; they were always there with their odors, building up in my memory. At first they were a little unnerving: that's where horses which could bite and kick me were, that's where tractors that could run me over were, that's where Grandpa--he of the imposing height, the busy eyebrows, the beak-like nose, and the legendary reputation--worked! But then, as I grew, they were the places where I could work with Grandpa and Dad and my brothers, loading up hay from the fields, feeding the horses, tending our calves (after we'd left Ye Olde Fox Farm and before the A-Frame had been built), saddling our pony Sparky and taking him for a ride. They became comfortable places, places where I knew I could always visit and feel at home--but also places where the years before me and around me were always a haunting presence too, and the smell communicated that best.

I don't have the vocabulary to detail that smell exactly--but I could recognize it instantly. It's a horse smell, which is distinct from cows, to be sure (that one I can recognize instantly as well). But with the horses there is leather, oil, grease, varnish, sweat. Slide back the tall front door and walk into the Brown Barn and soak it in. On the right is an old, never-finished room, whose walls only go halfway to the ceiling high above, and thus one we could look down into from atop a stack of hay bales or from the hay loft: old woodworking machinery, sawhorses and tables, barrels of forgotten stuff, all covered in dust. But the smell comes most strongly from the left side of the barn, where the walls are smoother and stronger and go all the way up to the roof. The doors along the right side of the Brown Barn were where the real mysteries were to be found.

I open one of those doors, and the whole wall is taken up with saddles, stirrups, harnesses, and straps. The smell of leather and ointment, even if almost nobody was regularly riding any of the horses any longer, was strong: I learned early that pleasing odor can last for years. It was a dark room, with one window partly covered in dirt, giving a soft glow to the supple browns all around me. At some point I watch the film The Black Stallion, and the scene where Alec stumbles into Henry's old racing shed, looking at old photographs of him as a jockey and the headlines of preserved newspapers detailing his wins, became part of my narrative imagination every time I went into that space. The soiled  and worn gloves, the coils of rope, the extension cords with their rarely used lanterns attached: all were touched by that sensibility. The old stories about Grandpa breaking expensive Arabians for rich buyers, the fact that he'd actually served as part of a mounted posse in the 1940s, the way in which so many of the Fox clan, despite not having anything to do with horses for decades, all seemed to be tuning in to watch the Triple Crown races this year (and man, the social media firestorm which we generated with the news with each other!)...maybe it all started with us breathing in the smells of Old Brown.

Thinking back on all that, and upon years of hauling bales of hay by truck, or railroad ties by tractor, or following Daniel around after Grandpa had hired him to shoot gophers so as the minimize the change of livestock breaking a leg in one of their holes, or hiking between the two barns with Uncle Chuck as dusk descended, with him pointing out the hawks and owls either returning to or departing from the trees that stood tall over the pastures--well, it makes me appreciative. Deuteronomy 28:8 includes a promise from God to the people of Israel on the moment of their entering into the land of Canaan to claim that which they believed He had promised them: "The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to." In other translations "barns" becomes "storehouses" or "granaries," but it's all the same: they are the places where people living lives of agriculture and husbandry, lives tied to the land, do not, in fact, live and sleep--but they are buildings where they store all the fruit and gear and tools and rewards of their living and working, and they are the buildings where the evidence and blessings of all that is to be found. The Foxes are not, and haven't been for many years, a farming family, a family of cows and horses. But I blessed by the memory of them. And those memories, even if the barns themselves have been changed entirely or perhaps don't even exist any longer--they can last all the years of my life.

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