The Barn

WHILE I HAD A BIG FAMILY, MA'S WAS HUGE. We had six kids in our house, but she had nine in hers, which meant that I had lots of aunts, lots of uncles, and more cousins than I could name. Even if I could name them, I never knew which cousin belonged to which aunt and uncle. Except with Aunt Kittie and her family.

She and my uncle had a small farm, just across the border, where Uncle OJ and Jerry raised hogs and planted wheat, corn and soybeans. Ida and Katie-Ann tended the chickens. Little Walty even had a job — he kept the barn cats fed. (“But not too well fed,” quipped Uncle OJ, “or they won’t want to eat the mice.”)

Jay-Bird and I spent summers on the farm where we melded seamlessly into Aunt Kittie’s family. It was a fun change for us to get up before dawn to slop the hogs and feed chickens, to water and weed the vegetable patch, to collect eggs. While there were plenty of chores to do, once they were done, there was plenty of time to play.

The barn was our favorite spot for hide-n-seek. It had zillions of places to hide — horse stalls, pigsties, the pump room, the tool shed, and haylofts. We could climb into cubbies, lay flat on roof rafters, or bury ourselves beneath bails. We played hide-n-seek from morning chores until evening chores, and, after dinner, we played some more.

One afternoon in the late summer our hide-n-seek game took a turn.

Uncle OJ and Jerry had harvested the wheat, so freshly mown bails rose high in the haylofts, reaching the roof. That same day they brought in twenty acres of soybeans and had taken them to Morenci to the grain elevator. But storms were rolling in at the end of the day and Uncle OJ didn’t want to risk getting them wet, so he stowed the final gravity box of beans in the barn.

Maybe it’s because the barn looked so different that day, with its new mountains of straw, and the gravity box standing where the combine normally did. But something caused Jay-Bird, who was hiding, quiet as a mouse in the hayloft, to change the game. Without warning he jumped out of hiding and grabbed the heavy rope that hung from the rafters. He screamed, Tarzan-like, and swung through the barn’s gaping rafters, sailing over the gravity box, flinging himself feet-first into the hay on the other side of the barn, where he landed, cackling with glee!

“Did you see that?” cried Ida, stepping out from behind the rusted corn shucker.

“I’m next,” shouted Katie-Ann, her head popping up from behind the horse trough. “C’mon, Danny. You, too, Ida. We all getta try!”

My cousins clattered up into the hayloft. But I stayed next to the gravity box, weighing my options. I wasn’t sure I even liked Tarzan. What if I couldn’t keep my grip on the rope? What if I fell through the air rather than fly through it?

“C’mon, Danny,” goaded Jay-Bird. He was a year and a half younger than me and had his training wheels off his bike long before I did. “Are ya chicken? Beeee-yaaawwk! Bee-awk, bee-awk!” he mocked, flapping his arms about like a headless banty. My cousins doubled over laughing.

That did it.

I started up the ladder, not daring to look down, but determined to show them that I was no yellow-belly. Nearing the top, I heard another Tarzan scream as Katie-Ann sailed through the cavernous barn, landing on the other side. She flung the rope back to Ida, but Jay stole it from her and catapulted himself back across the void, landing next to Katie-Ann.

“Not fair,” cried Ida. “I’m gonna tell!”

“Baby,” yelled Jay, as he flung the rope back to her.

Rope firmly in hand, Ida let loose and streamed through the dusty barn toward the others, yodeling for joy. She pitched the rope back to me, but I missed it, not wanting to lean too far over the edge.

“I’ll get it,” called Katie-Ann. (She was my age and my favorite cousin. We were going to be married someday and live happily ever after.)

“I wanna do it,” demanded Walty as Katie-Ann returned with the rope.

“Nope. You’re too little,” countered his sister.

“I am not,” he protested, snatching the rope from Katie-Ann. He hurled himself out of the hayloft. But the rope went in one direction and Walty went in another.

Walty!” screamed Katie-Ann.

Four mouths gaped as little Walty plummeted toward the barn floor. Our hearts stopped. We couldn’t breathe.

There was a Walty-sized thump. Time froze. Then hysterical chortling rose up from the gravity box. Walty landed, unharmed, in the soybeans.

“I’m next!” exclaimed Katie-Ann, relieved. She launched herself toward Walty and the beans.

“These people are nuts,” I thought, my fists clamped firmly round the rope, my legs like rubber.

“C’mon, Danny! You can do it,” shouted Katie-Ann.

“Chicken!” mocked Jay-Bird.

I filled my lungs with air and held it, checked my grip, then shot myself across the barn, exhilarated, leaving my fear behind. (Well, most of it anyway.)