Down the Road

My oldest brother claims he tried to attend Woodstock, but I don't believe him. In August of 1969 we lived in rural Illinois, and Randy was only twelve. He would never have made it to the junction of Route 6 without being noticed; anyone could have seen that a freckle-faced kid with a buzz cut and a makeshift headband needed an immediate ride home in a pick-up truck.

There is further proof: all the photos taken of him during Woodstock are at the county 4-H fair. He may have failed at hitch-hiking, but he was a blue-ribbon winner at showing his horse, Misty. Dad had bought Misty for all of us to ride, but I was scared of her. It seems silly and unreasonable now, because I love the smell, feel and grandeur of a beautiful horse. But I was very young when we had Misty and was witness to a terrible event.

A family was visiting us, old college friends of our parents, and we children were expected to play with their children. Young David was my age. He was pale and dorky, and I stayed away from him. This made his visit dull, so my father offered him a little ride around the yard on Misty.

He set David in the saddle and showed him how to hang on. But, as my father later put it, Misty "took off a little faster than expected," and before my father could catch the reins, she trotted under the clothesline. David was immediately decapitated. I was sure of it; he fussed for such a long time. I was hiding my eyes, picturing his slitted throat. Later my mother scolded me for not even coming out to have iced lemonade with our guests before they went home. There were no snicker-doodles left, either, so all in all it was a very bad day.

Years later, at the University of Illinois, I ran into David. I had seen many cute boys on campus, but unfortunately David was not one of them. He was still pale and, I'm sorry to say, still a bit dorky. But to his credit, he told me he was off to seminary to become a Lutheran minister. They wear collars in that denomination, and so it may just be that Misty gave him a head start in his career.

With the exception of my horse experience (or lack of), I was and am a loyal farm child. Of course, so is my brother. We recently had a heated debate with our parents about the barn.  Mom and Dad thought it had become unsightly; they wanted to tear it down. We were up in arms; I wept, and Randy argued with all the passion of his thwarted Woodstock days. We had memorieswe protested, and in the name of all that must be salvaged in this crass, urbanized world, it was unconscionable to delete a barn. For our parents, it was a matter of safety and maintenance costs. And they rightly pointed out that, since their offspring lived hundreds of miles away, we were hardly around to help take care of it.

We had to grant that the barn isn't terrifically interesting from the outside; as barns go, it's pretty nondescript. But inside, there are hand-hewn beams with the original chisel marks; there are old hooks where milk pails were hung; the top plank of one stall is worn into a polished curve from the broad neck of a workhorse leaning over for a treat. The main problem is location. Unlike other barns, it doesn't sit back and preside nobly over house and yard. It sits between the house and the road. It's a view-blocker. Apparently great-great grandpa Otto thought the county road would be laid east-west; unfortunately the township changed its plans after he had dug his foundation, and the road ran north-south, just eight feet from the barn, parallel to its long side.

In our family feud, I didn't bare my real motives for wanting to save the barn. It was its very position, blocking the view of the road, that made it romantic. There was a boy I dated in high school who drove twenty-five miles across the county to come fetch me for a movie. I had all the symptoms—palpitations, preoccupations, stabbing pains—of deep love, and was always ready early and watching out the window for his car.

What I could see from that window was the interstate bridge. I-80 was just three hundred yards from our door (two hundred from the end of the barn), so our blacktop road passed over it. A visitor's car would crest the hill; you spotted it there; it would head down and then be briefly hidden by the barn. Then it turned into our driveway and its tires crackled over the gravel until it came to a stop.

Saturday nights I watched for the boy's car. It was winter and already dark when he came, so I would see his headlights first. There was no more thrilling sight in the world than those headlights on the bridge. They descended; they disappeared. Long, long seconds later they reappeared. Then the slow turn into our yard, then him standing on the doorstep and me already wondering about a kiss at the end of the night. When eventually this boy stopped asking me out, I thought I was demolished.

Our arguments saved the barn. But now I feel a new sadness. I've realized that over the decades, my parents have stood at that window countless times watching for their children to come. The rebel teenager. The troubled college student. The newly engaged pair. The first grandchild. The one who kept saying, “Maybe next Christmas.” A car to look for at the top of the bridge with its lights on in the dark, so close to home and yet, for a time, disappearing. Finally the blessed sight of that person walking towards the front door, which was already being held open by my father's hand.