Our lives might have been totally different but for the fire which destroyed our big old grey wooden barn and all the livestock and equipment necessary to continue on with general farming. The structure of our ancient barn with its hay mow, its granary, its silo, its cattle stanchions, and hog pen, its lean-to hen-house, its feed chopper, and its collection of ancient tools that hung from pegs on the walls, all lay in ashes and ruin the morning after.
When our neighbour John Lisko pounded on our door, just after the supper hour, yelling “Your barn is on fire!” our mother sprang from the table and ran to our grandfather’s house next door. We had no phone of our own at the time, and in her hurry Mom sprained her ankle on one of the spruce tree roots in the row between our two houses. Granddad, hearing her screaming from the yard to call the fire department immediately did so and alerted the neighbourhood party line to a fire, with one very long crank of the phone ringer. He only needed to tell the first person who picked up. They in turn told all the rest who came on the line, just where the fire was located. Moments later, the first of the neigbours’ cars and battered pick-up trucks arrived and men jumped out and went running towards the barn to try to help. Within minutes the volunteer fire department with their fire engine and pumper truck came tearing in as well. Our mother immediately sent us all up to our bedrooms, and as soon as one of the neighbour ladies volunteered to take charge of keeping us all safe inside the house Mom quickly hobbled outside to join our father and his father, our Granddad.
When we were young, our parents were always very careful to try to shelter us from what they felt would be too frightening or too difficult for us to understand. Mom was a big city girl, after all, who had never had a dog of her own, and whose mother had such a dislike of cats that she had never even been able to see kittens being born. Dehorning cattle, the breeding of the cows by a neighbour’s bull (“He’s at our place on vacation!” our brother Keith excitedly told everyone he saw ) or the birth of calves were all hidden from our view. Mom’s fear of us being traumatized by seeing some of the more earthy elements of farm life were part of the reason why we older kids headed off to our friends’ barns so often. Whenever any of them announced that anything that we were deterred from seeing at home was happening over at their barn we were on our way. Marsha and I had once seen black and white pictures in a Dutch manual on home childbirth, over at our friend Patsy’s house, but little else. When we finally got to view the live drama of the birth of baby pigs for the first time, as we leaned up against the old sow’s enclosure in the Derbyshires’ barn, we wanted to cover our own eyes at the sight! Birth just had too much gore when viewed in colour— and then there was the saddest of things we had ever seen, that little runt pig that just lay there dead.
Although we were protected from seeing the barn fire, and experiencing visually the terror of what was happening to those poor cows trapped inside, their cries could be heard quite loudly for a short while from the high upstairs window that faced towards the barn in Marsha’s and my bedroom. We stood up on top of a nightstand to try to see something more than the red glare reflected in the window glass, but could not, but the smell of smoke seeped into the room— even with the windows all closed against the cold. It clung to our nostrils long into the night when we finally crawled into our beds and fell asleep.
The following morning, we found out that, in the very middle of all the tragedy that we had just experienced, something akin to a miracle had happened— and if not a miracle, then at least a special mercy of the highest degree. It was at breakfast that our Mom told us that we should be very thankful that we still had a father. She did not tell us all the details, but just enough to cause us to pay close attention to adult conversations for a while until we had gathered together the details. Our dad had run to the barn door, located beneath the now-flaming upper walls, to try to get into the cattle enclosure on the lower level. He was desperate to try to release his faithful cows from their stanchions, despite the fact that the entire upper area of the barn was already fiercely burning. One of the earliest people on the scene was our neighbour Bruce Chisholm, who saw him standing at the threshold, ready to enter to try to rescue his much-loved animals from certain death. Bruce ran forward, threw his arms around our father and struggled to drag him back from the opening. Seconds later the tractor fell through the floor of the upper level directly in front of them, to the very spot where my father would have been if Bruce had not stopped him a few seconds before.
There is something to be said for good friends— for those who will stop you in your tracks if they realize that you are endangering yourself—those who will look out for you when panic or fear rule you and lead you into the dangerous places that you are driven to run to. It is a great blessing to have those around us to help us through life’s greatest trials, at times when we can not clearly see the danger ourselves. Bruce was that man for our father those many years ago, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
Later there would be a great struggle for my mother and father to totally rebuild our farm into a money-making operation, a place that could sustain them and us their eight children. Basically they were starting all over again.
They both still tried their best to shelter us from difficult things, but when Mom’s eyes streamed tears when she wasn’t even chopping onions, and Dad stopped whistling as he walked to and from the…well… there wasn’t any barn to walk to and from any more, or even any tractor. When he even stopped whistling when he was working on his truck, then neither of them could hide from us the thing that we were most afraid of—that they were afraid that things would never be alright again.
After the many components of the plan Dad and Mom made together, with the help of my mother’s family, started to fall into place, we were all on our way to a new beginning. It would be a rocky road we all had to climb together, but the climbing of it would make us all stronger. And that is how I happened to grow up on a tobacco farm.