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This haymow holds many memories

(I wrote this nearly 20 years ago. Since we just celebrated again at the farm in Iowa, barn dance and all, this adds some more about all that.)

It is the day after. Nearly everyone else has left, and I am sitting by myself in the empty haymow of my dad's dad's once-huge red barn. I say once-huge, because it has in some mysterious way shrunk with my adulthood. The barn and I are alone; it with its emptiness; I with my memories.

The large red banner stapled to the side of the barn says, "Happy 50th Wedding Anniversary, Mom and Dad." Inside the empty haymow, high above me in the dimness, multicolored crepe-paper streamers weakly protest that it's not all over, this timely event that took 50 years to arrive. That last night's barn dance, complete with hundreds of friends, relatives, neighbors and a dance band, is still in progress.

Last night, with the evening's start, couples waltzed by on the haymow floor with a certain stiff attitude of patience in their posture. The evening was young. No reason to hurry. They paced their twirls carefully as they went round and around.

I thought back to the summer I was 7, and I and my brother and cousins couldn't eat the Sunday dinner quickly enough to get out into the freshly bale-filled haymow, where each tightly packed bale seemed to be stuffed full of the summer, magically captured. We would spend all the time we could building bale forts and secret hiding spots. The fresh warm smell of the new hay was our youth's perfume. Back then, all was magic and promise.

Last night, people continued to arrive, drawn to the barn dance to celebrate the anniversary of a victory over our only real enemy: time. As the dance floor began to fill with dancing couples, both the music and dancers began to change, with ever so slightly an increase in measure and note. Somehow, this crowd became aware that -- as with all else -- this night would not last forever.

I retreated to the safety of this haymow again as a young man, seeking its comfort from the jolting notice that I held numbly in my hands. It said: Your friends and neighbors have selected you to report to the nearest United States Army induction center. I spent that next hour of my life in this haymow, trying to recapture a 7-year-old's feeling of protectedness. I considered my options. None held magic. My brother had already been drafted. Everyone was talking about some place called Vietnam. Magic seemed in short supply, but still I lingered in the haymow, hoping some might appear.

Last night, this haymow-turned-ballroom finally filled with dancing couples, young and old. Was the band playing louder? Or did it only seem that way. Were the couples dancing more feverishly, now that they fully realized this night would end? Or did it only seem that way. Seem that way. Seem that way.

I remember coming home from Vietnam. I remember the forced fronts of normalcy that greeted me, at home, at church, in town. I remember the forced front that I gave them back. I remember the two black stars which my parents had placed in the front window, facing the road. The stars signified the ultimate donation: their two sons to military service. I remember picking up my brother at the airport, his year in Vietnam over, and I remember his eyes. Here I want to say that if we as human beings are ever given the sudden magical ability to delete one and only one entry from our list of memories, I would obliterate what my brother's eyes said about the end of childhood, the end of haymows full of summer.

I left for Vietnam three days later, full of the rock-solid certainty that, for my family, for me, for my friends and neighbors, our haymows were no longer enough to protect us from the future.

Last night, as the evening drew near its end, everyone danced. Children. Adults. The old. The young. Apprehension filled the air. Each person looked around and saw that something was ending. Each looked around at a haymow full of balloons and confetti and swirling couples and old friends and relatives not seen in too long. Each realized that here was the fire of an old magic, relit in this old haymow on this evening only, and that it was there for them, once again.

And oh how they danced! So suddenly filled with this invigorating knowledge were they. The band played like never before. People danced as they would never dance again. The air grew heavy with the evening's promise that here, in this haymow full of the lingering smells of summer, time had stopped. They were young again, and carefree.

Then I was home from Vietnam, and I was hiding once again up in this haymow, searching for my lost summers, believing that they were concealed in these bales of hay. My brother and I came home that summer to help dad bale some more of this magical stuff. We packed the barn with hay, all of us sweating joyously with the effort.

It is the day after. I am sitting alone in my haymow, writing this, simultaneously trying to say goodbye and trying to define what it is that I am trying to say goodbye to. Nearly everyone else has left the farm.

Dad just came up the stairs to find something. I know that he too feels that something is lost. He cannot see me, back in the shadows where I am. I can see him, and how hard he struggles to get his breath back, this man who has filled this haymow full of summer more than 50 times. I try to remember that to have done that should be a reason for joy. I try. I fail.

The many colored balloons droop down from the ceiling of the haymow, their posture sagging in the breathlessness of their old age. The crepe paper streamers no longer draw tight. They too are now old. The single row of straw bales against the far wall sits lonesome and empty.

My children are in the car down below, shouting for me. They want to go home. I rise unwillingly and make my lingering way to the door, fighting a great wave of reluctance to leave this haymow.

It is the day after summer.