My dad had gone to town and left me in charge of the barn. I was in seventh grade and on Christmas vacation. Dad and I had cleaned the gutters together, now he was off to the mill in Middleton to grind feed for our cows. If I had been younger I would have begged to go along. On this day I was proud to stay behind and finish the morning chores by myself. I was feeling grown up.
I climbed the chute into our haymow. I threw down four bales of straw and four bales of hay, which landed with thuds almost 30 feet below. When I climbed down, the dust and chaff still hung heavy throughout the barn. Suddenly, the sweet silence was shattered when the large sliding front door to our barn flew open.
Silhouetted against the bright December sunlight was a stranger, a hulk of a man with broad, square shoulders, looking like a block of concrete standing in the doorway. His big round head sat atop, like a bowling ball snorting steam as he stepped inside.
“Hebby?” the figure yelled, as it tried to make out who I was through the haze. Though my dad’s name was Hubert, those who knew him called him Hebby.
I shivered out, “No, he’s not here.”
His steps were heavy as he shuffled along our concrete barn floor, fresh white barn lime crunching beneath his big black work boots. As he got closer and took shape through the dust, I could see he had eyes, a nose, and a mouth . . . but no hair. The man was bald. Totally bald.
“Where is he?” he asked impatiently.
I was too shaken to lie. “He went to the mill.”
“When will he be back?”
When I said “a couple of hours,” he looked around the barn and then stepped closer to me. I felt like a molehill next to a mountain as he eyed me.
“What’s your name?”
He continued to pry. “How old are you?”
“Twelve, huh. I remember when I was twelve. Got any girlfriends? You’re a good-looking kid. Bet you got lots of girlfriends.”
The stranger didn’t wait for an answer. Not that I had one. He turned to study our barn some more. “Well, tell Hebby, Nick stopped by to see him.”
I was relieved when he turned toward the door, but then he stopped, jerked his head toward me as his eyes squinted over his left shoulder. “You know I helped build this barn. Remember to tell your dad that Nick was here. Don’t you forget,” he said as he yanked the big door closed behind him.
When I told dad that Nick had visited and described him, dad knew who it was and told me his last name. He had been one of the workers when the barn was raised in 1941, five years before I was born.
I never saw Nick again, but many years later I read his obituary in the paper. He had left behind kids and a wife. He sounded like a loving father, brother, and son, not like the guy I remembered, who had left me shaken almost a half-century earlier. It may sound silly, but when I read about his death, the fears that filled me as a scared kid came rushing back. I gradually felt relief as I realized that he was gone for good. He was dead. He wasn’t be coming back.
But while prepping the barn for my 70th birthday party, he reappeared. I was deep-cleaning the floor and there, faintly etched in the worn concrete in one of the mangers where I had fed cows hundreds of times, was Nick’s name. In 1941, he had scratched his first and last names into the fresh concrete, so there was no mistaking who was looking up at me.
My first thought was to destroy it, cover it with a smear of fresh concrete, so I wouldn’t have to see it again.
But I didn’t.
I realized erasing his name there wouldn’t erase Nick here, in my memory. He’s as much a part of this old barn as I am, just as he’ll always be a part of me. I had grown up enough, finally, to live with that.
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.