Tag Archives: barn

Holding the Bag

My memories are of two mansions: the first is like a movie theater; the second is more of a tomb. Memories of the first type are similar to movies, stories played out visually through time. Memories of the second kind are without sight, sound, or time—that is, they are naked, raw feelings.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

A very early memory is the story of the combine. I was perhaps three and a half (maybe four and a half) when I rode with my mother to the oat field where my dad was combining, probably to bring him some drink. I believe I can recall the grasshoppers jumping ahead of my feet, the heat of the midday August sun, and the smell of sweet oat straw tinged with the pungent volatiles of green weeds. I know I can remember climbing onto the combine frame and walking along it, holding onto supports.

It was not an old combine at that time. It was an International with its own engine to drive the machine even though it was towed by the tractor. The engine was that of a smaller tractor, like a Cub, but it managed the machine and was mounted forward on the frame.

Not all memories of my farm boy days are pleasant. It’s just that the pleasant ones are easier to recall.

As I walked along the frame, I grabbed onto things to support me. I remember grabbing hold of the engine breather tube, the straight vertical tube that brought clean filtered air into the engine. I do not remember grabbing the next straight vertical tube, the exhaust pipe.

There is a gap in that movie.

The next thing I recall is sitting on my mother’s lap in the house with my hand completely wrapped in gauze, wondering why.

It is a blessing that our subconscious minds that store our movie memories can be so effectively edited. Some things should be forgotten.

But they are not really forgotten. They are stored in the tomb, that timeless dark and silent place where feelings go to never die.

There are some movies in my library that are not so positive, though. They just are not the painful trauma like grabbing a hot exhaust pipe.

Later, when the season came to get into the fields, I loved the work, the smell of tilled earth, the clarity of the job and the sense of power and accomplishment. But, I was the youngest and often sentenced to serve my time in the barn. My job was the routine of chores rather than the thrill of the till. I didn’t like that.

When we bought these new “automatic” milking machines that required special thorough cleaning that required tedious detail work, it fell to the youngest. I still don’t like doing dishes.

And then there was the oat bin. Once each week we would take ear corn from the crib and oats from the granary to the mill in town to have them ground into meal with some additives, special feed for the milking cows. Once a week somebody had to shovel the oats into a gunny sack. Once a week the youngest got to hold the bag open while somebody older manned the shovel.

And I never seemed to do it quite right. To this day, I take great offense at being told I am doing something wrong when I am really trying to do it right. I do not like being left to hold the bag.

No, this was not traumatic. In fact, it is quite humorous in retrospect, just one inconvenience of being the baby of a farm family; there are many inconveniences, but there are far more blessings being the youngest.

I have a lot of childhood memories, mostly good or great. Yes, I know the mind recalls the good memories in preference to the bad, but still—I have a lot of good memories.

One of the things that bothers me about Vietnam is the nagging feeling that my memory is incomplete, that there is one particular conflict I am forgetting. That leads me to believe that there was something significant about that experience, something that I filed away in the tomb rather than the theater library.

But, as to my farm boy life, my memory is robust and remarkably complete. That tells me that my childhood trauma was limited, indeed.

I was a lucky boy.

Heart and Soul

The heart of a dairy farm may be in the barn, but the soul is in the soil, and my ego is grounded in both. Status of a farm boy is embodied in chores, and mine included duties inside and outside our barn. Rites of passage became new chores requiring greater skill and more responsibility.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

My dad was a dirt farmer. I say that with pride of the narrow meaning of the term: a man who farms his own soil, land he owns. That was a big deal in our family. Mom and dad only bought that farm a year or so before I was born. Before that, they were share croppers.

I never knew my Grandpa Barnes because he died when Dad was about fifteen. Being one of the younger children of a family of twelve, my dad went to live with older siblings until he was old enough to find a job as a hired man, a young man working on a farm for room and board plus a few dollars. It was many years before a WWII need for farmers provided opportunities for sharecroppers to buy farms with little money down.

Dad never let go of that land. He was still spending summers there and working on the farm when he was seventy-eight. One brother lives in the house and our other brother and I help out a little every summer. There is a spiritual umbilical cord none of us wishes to cut.

We grew up in that barn and on that land—we might as well grow old there, too. We learned to work, to take care of livestock, to till the land, and to care for each other on that farm. One fear I have never had is the thought of being homeless. And, when I think about how I became me, I think about that farm.

It was a proud moment the day I graduated from scraping the barn to sweeping it. Scraping then became the chore of the younger boy my mom cared for during the day while his widowed mother worked. I was no longer the baby. Soon, the two of us could scrape, sweep, and lime the barn. There is real pride in viewing a clean barn aisle you created.

I carried a soup can with kerosene through the garden, one of my earliest memories. My job was picking the potato bugs off our potato plants and dropping them into the can. Killing is a part of gardening, a part of farming, and I gave no thought to it. It was my job.

Planting was more fun. Mom would hoe a small fresh hole in the soil Dad had tilled, and I would drop in the seeds. We planted a lot of garden that way and I never tired of it. Many years later I did the same with my daughters. Once when they were teenagers, I kept them both busy at the same time running the hoe—a two row planter.

To this day soil calls me. I hurry home to our land in the north woods to plant garden in spring. It isn’t for the harvest, because we frequently leave before the season, but for the planting. It’s funny how those childhood things remain so important so long.

But, they were important. We lived on the products of that barn and garden. It was survival, but it was so much more. It was security and comfort and reality. When I was young, it was all I knew. When we wanted popcorn, we went to the back room and got some ears of popcorn, shelled them into a pan, winnowed them in the breeze on our porch, and then went to the stove. And before we could get that popcorn from the back room, we had to till the soil, plant the seeds, hoe the weeds, pick the corn, and dry, husk, and store it.

It was the same with almost everything we ate. Even the apples and peaches we bought were canned or pickled for winter. Maybe it seems like such a life is tenuous or even dangerous, depending upon your own hands to grow your own food, but I see the opposite. It is freedom: freedom from want, freedom from fear of scarcity, and freedom from dependence upon uncertain times.

Yes, I think that has a lot to do with my view of the world. “A country boy can survive.”

If he has land. And family. That is security.

I find no wonder that people without land and family get scared and angry, get mean and crazy. Especially when they cannot work to earn money to buy food they cannot hunt or grow. My heart and soul have never had to live that fear. I was a lucky boy.