Rays of sunlight pierce through the cracks of the barn creating a checkerboard design on the expansive lawn of the turn of the century farmhouse nestled among fields of soy, corn and wheat stretching as far as one can see in each direction. Each winter the fall’s condensation seeps into the cracks between the boards, freezing and pushing them apart with the persistence and patience of a continental plate, moving just a few centimeters each season. Ever widening gaps grow larger each year as do the rows of sunlight on the grass, allowing patches to grow a little faster where it hits. The overgrown trees, neglected for decades, shroud most of the lawn in shade, and keep the spring rain from reaching the sward causing an even more discordant lawn, with patches grown over and others nearly bare.
We all just called it “The Farm.” Settled outside a village so small there show no population tally under the only sign which announced its presence to those who passed. The farm was a place to escape the city – to look out upon the sea of olive green or light brown and admire the process that brings food to local stores which otherwise goes completely unnoticed. Grandpa lived in the old farmhouse alone. Although nearing the age of 80, he still stood tall with a wide grin and a growing belly. He tended a decent sized garden at the edge of the property, the harvests of which he was particularly proud. He never mentioned being lonely, but it was evidenced by the look on his face when the first visitors would arrive for our family gatherings and the small drop of the head as we pulled from the long driveway.
The farm was a place to escape the limitations and monotony of modern life – time slowed and the world lost its numbing complexity, there were no computers or tablets to distract; phones lost the signals beamed from towers too far to reach us. Those of us who had nearly forgotten a world outside screens and skyscrapers were suddenly forced to find a way to entertain ourselves. Our curiosity, usually curbed by the infinite information at our fingertips, was allowed, even demanded, to roam free and pull our bodies with it. We explored the terrain, climbed trees, built forts; we waged epic battles in our small Ardennes and herded the sheep Grandpa kept for supplemental income making sure to put out of our minds their final fate, even as they eventually moved to fork from plate.
The barn, which long ago began the slow dip towards collapse, was kept upright by shear engineering prowess, fighting gravity and harsh winters but gradually losing its former glory. Still, it provided a myriad of means for young’uns to stay engaged. We found small spaces between the haystacks and ceiling, crawling from one end to the other with just enough room for our tiny frames to wiggle through. It was the hayloft that provided the most fun, though. The large beams which made up the frame of the barn stood fortified in cement and attached to each wall, making a perfect balancing beam which we all eventually mastered.
Grandpa caught on to our fascination and rigged up ropes to climb, attached a ladder to the retaining beams allowing easy access to our gymnastic frolics. He shifted ropes and pulleys which formerly moved bales of hay around the loft to retrofit them into zip lines, carrying droves of children from one end of the barn to the other. While a horribly unsafe endeavor, the barn itself dangling dangerously close to catastrophic ruin, none of us were ever hurt badly. There was a spill here and there, but nothing a Band-Aid and Grandpa’s comfort couldn’t treat with ease.
Over the years the barn fell silent, no children echoing its spaces with oration and laughter. We had grown up, more interested in other advantages visits to The Farm provided. Grandpa’s refrigerators were always stocked with beer, vodka, tonic water and food – all cheap products purchased from discount stores or duty free at the nearest Air National Guard base situated just an hour away. Every once and a while, with beers in hand and lit cigarettes in our mouths, we would peer into the barn and track is slide towards earth. The bravest among us still willing to take the risk to gaze upon the former playing grounds, losing themselves in a flood of nostalgic nervousness complimented by the potential fatal accident one strong gust of wind away.
Grandpa still fared well over those years. His belly grew a bit and his face wrinkled more, a small patch of skin hung just slightly from his chin. Still relatively active, he tended his garden year after year, keeping the old farmhouse clean, but spending the majority of time in a warm basement seated in an old VA wheelchair, flipping channels between college football and Fox News. He kept his mind occupied, not wanting to replay the tumultuous events of his life. He had seen the best and worst of humanity – felt true love and real loss, gazed upon the dizzying world of the travelling circus and pulled salmon from the California seas. All but once he dodged surface to air missiles over Hanoi, and had to watch the North Vietnamese jungle come nearer and nearer as he floated towards its canopy. He felt the slight sting of high honors as they were pinned to his chest, saw the world flatten as his depth perception was taken from him and watched as his six young children grew, eventually bringing their own offspring to The Farm retirement afforded him.
He ignored the widespread bitterness old age tends to bring and chose, despite immense difficulty, to look on the bright side; to watch, like an astronaut floating hundreds of miles above the surface, as the world changed shape around him still keeping a keen eye on the horizon in front and behind him. A new generation reinvigorated the place; all carrying some of his genes and all attempting to live up to his familial reputation. It granted him a new lease on life, and gave a purpose often left unconsidered. For all of us he is the Colonel, the undisputed patriarch of a family which grows exponentially in size and touches each corner of the country, but ultimately lies in the old house situated on a small parcel of land nestled among the fields that feed us with a uneven lawn, beams of light winding through the cracks in the barn’s wooden walls which, like the man who occupies the home across the greensward, stands against the unshakable force of entropy remaining tall and proud.