My grandfather built the barn in 1904, a decade was to pass before he built our grandmother the white farmhouse he had promised. He was a lucky man that she stayed, after all a promise is a promise. The barn was a wide shouldered gambrel, big timber in the mows, lesser wood thrown across for purlins and rafters. As a barn it reflected the shade of the pinery age just then past. When a few specimen trees remained and they were hoarded for the grand purpose of barns, whose timbers of rose-hued heartwood were to span the mow. This was an age of wood smiths, make that macro-wood smiths, the mortise and tenon joints of a chair or table extended and extrapolated to build barns. It was a modest craft, just on a large scale.
My father added on to the gambrel barn in 1946, the year I was born, Uncle Kingsley had come back from the war, together they built barn, it was a warm summer my father recalled. In whose long months he and Kingsley the Marine had a chance to catch up, to make peace again with the world as a soldier must. I do not know if my dad built the barn for the sake of the addition or to bring Uncle Kingsley back from where that war had left him.
In 1956 he did it again only this time a free arch barn added in line with the gambrel barn. The window at the peak of the old barn lined up neatly with the roof of that lesser barn and my brothers and I soon discovered this juxtaposition and were soon routinely climbing the ladder to that crow’s perch and out on the roof that neatly surveyed the east end of our farm. I never tired of looking across the field never mind seeing us on the roof gave our mother the willies and she said so. But that was all, she was wise enough not to forbid a thing, just tell us we were scaring her to death. So we were accordingly more careful, not out of personal caution, but as not to scare our mother. A subtlety of behavior that matters in adult life, that, we could not explain why, but had down the rudiments of the practice.
I came to love that barn roof, its perspective, the separation that it was from the ordinary life down below on the planet. This was many years before John Glenn and the Mercury astronauts focused the national attention on space flight but our sensation of low earth orbit was about the same. An odd discrimination comes with watching over a place. When watching from above I understood better why God existed, to have that overview, that historical nerve, the eternal perspective to see what comes next and how it all fits together, as means with some precision and not much fuss that something always has to die; as is a good lesson to gain from a barn roof.
Once I decided to spend the night on the roof, not telling my mother of course, never mind I would be very careful. I nailed the sleeping bag to the roof with shingle nails as didn’t do the sleeping bag any good, though it seemed a perfectly sensible technique at the time. As was my good fortune my bedroom was equipped with an alternate exit and entrance. I have since come to believe every kid’s bedroom should be similarly equipped. Mine was the TV antenna as went right by my window, I could climb up and slide down, I could sleep outdoors under the trees any night I wanted, sleep in the haymow, (many times), under the porch (once), chicken coop (several times) and in the barn to hear if the cows spoke in the English language on Christmas Eve (once); they didn’t.
I was a child in that dark age, before mercury vapor, when farmsteads had incandescent yard lights attached to the power pole with a big green shade and a switch that turned it off after evening milking. This was before advertising lights came with its wallow of neon glow from the village and there were not yet street lights. Taverns had blue rare-earth signs that advertised “air conditioned.” It is hard to believe we once advertised air conditioned now that every truck, car, tractor and Radio Flyer comes with air conditioning standard.
Ours was then a dark night, horizon to horizon it was dark. In that sleeping bag nailed to the barn roof I was no longer below the sky, instead half way to Sirius and Betelgeuse, not under the stars but amongst the stars. I was sleeping on the edge of heaven. If there is a view that fundamentally alters who we are and who we think we are, it is to look across a sky on a dark cloudless night. That better part of dark when daylight has moved to the far side of the earth, and the sky vault acquires a depth that is beyond the mere majestic, instead sensed as the volume of endless space rather than a two-dimensional backdrop. The child’s mind is untethered by such a gaze; humanity, all of it, the last thousand million years, becomes infinitesimal, a grain, a speck, and such a speck as to be downright scary. Your sense of Jesus and God is effected, heaven and hell, the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, dust motes against this measure.
I did not repeat this night on the barn roof often because there are only so many nail holes you can put in a sleeping bag. Besides the bag cost me three bucks at the surplus store and the chicken feathers were leaking out.