When I was a small boy, the hayloft of the barn was a quiet, mysterious place to spend an afternoon.
If I was up in the hayloft alone, the only sounds would be the movement of a few feeder calves in the lower part of the barn and the faint chirping of sparrows sitting outside on the roof. Periodically, I’d hear the sudden clamor of baby barn-swallows begging to be fed. That meant that one of the adults had arrived with an insect to be dropped into one of the bottomless, gaping beaks which ringed the edge of the dried-mud nests.
With those muted sounds for a background, I would lay on the fresh, clean-smelling bales of hay or wheat straw and watch silent motes of dust drifting hypnotically through the shafts of sunlight from the windows. Peace of mind, so elusive in middle-age, was easy to come by at the age of nine.
When neighbor children came over, we’d spend hot summer afternoons scaling the cliffs of straw bales or swinging across the “canyons” on a rope tied to the steel rail in the roof ridge. At that age, being busy swinging, scrambling and climbing, I gave little thought to the history of the barn.
It had been built shortly after the turn of the century by my newlywed grandfather, who hauled the lumber via horse and wagon the eight miles from Columbus (Nebraska) on the gravel road that was Highway 81. For my grandparents, the barn was an important as the house. The western third of the barn provided a sheltered area for milking cows, the center section housed the indispensable and valuable “horsepower” of the day, and the eastern third was a home for feeder
calves. The hayloft served a dual purpose. Aside from keeping hay dry through the winter, it served as a dance floor for threshing parties.
“Nearly everyone played a musical instrument in those days,” my dad told us “and at the parties they’d take turns playing music and dancing.”
With the coming of automobiles and tractors, the barn began to play a lesser part in the family’s activities. Machine sheds sprouted and horse stalls stood empty. The horse collars and harness, once so carefully tended, dried and cracked under layers of dust. Trips to dance halls in town took the place of neighborhood barn dances. By the time I came along and was old enough to play in the hayloft, many of the original functions of the barn, along with my grandfather who built it, were just memories.
As I grew into my teens, my role in the hayloft underwent changes. I still spent hot summer days up there, many times with the boys who had been my cliff-scaling playmates. But now we carried balehooks. Shirtless and sweating, we cursed the choking dust and oppressive heat as we built new “mountains” of bales. We got through those days with youthful endurance and a non-stop stream of joking and talk about girls.
During the last full summer that I lived at home, one young lady accompanied me up to the special place in the barn. Again, it was a warm summer afternoon, a Sunday, swallows flitting in and out, feeding their young. The rest of my family was gone for the day and an impromptu party, centered around a keg, carried on in the farmyard while we climbed the stairs to the quiet solitude of the hayloft. Later, when we came down from the loft, brushing hay from each other’s clothes, a few knowing grins and comments greeted us. Pure speculation on their part. Twenty-fife years later, the girl is another memory, along with the barn dances and cliff-scaling expeditions. (I wonder if she remembers the hayloft?)
Now, the youngest of my own three children looks for litters of kittens in the same barn, but before long she’ll be out of the nest too, like the 80 generations of barn-swallows that were hatched there.
The paint is largely gone, shingles are missing, the weathervane leans askew, and the barn is mostly silent and lonely. Does it miss the fiddle music that helped hard-working pioneers celebrate the end of harvest? The laughs and shouts of seven-year-old explorers? The fresh, clean smell of a girl’s hair on a warm summer day? It must. And if it could, I think the old barn would smile, remembering all those special moments.
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The author: Harry Cockson served in the Corps from Sept. 1966–Sept. 1968, with Whiskey Battery 2nd Bn., 11th Marines in Vietnam 67–68; Hill 63, BLT 3/1—Cua Viet River, Camp Carroll, Ca Lu. After that BLT went to Phu Loc, then An Hoa. In February 2007, Harry retired after 32 years with the Nebraska Public Power District. Click to view then-and-now pix of author.