During my Assumption summers in the middle of the hot and humid days between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next I had some incredible adventures. From the moment my brother and I were dropped off at my Aunt and Uncle’s to the moment our parents came to pick us up again it seemed like almost anything could happen. Our cousin Phil became like a big brother to both of us and gave us a chance, under his ‘supervision’ to do things, to try things my mom would have fainted or locked us up if she knew about.
I was a city kid even though we lived in the rural outskirts of our city and we were in a school system that was considered rural in those days. But time and again I proved I was a city kid, from my need to get a shower every morning (“before work?” my cousin wondered) to my prejudices about what was cool and what was boring. Once, when I was around 10, my parents took us to a country fair and put me in a ‘greased pig contest’ that mostly consisted of chasing a wee baby pig around a pen, in the muck. The piglet was greased to make him/her slippery and was terrified of all these short people chasing him around the pen. I just remember being terrified of getting dirty and looking stupid. I’d love to go into a greased pig contest now that I’ve embraced my inner nerd and looking cool has lost its appeal. Looking back there’s no doubt in my mind that some of my greatest risks were taken when, for a week or two, or an occasional visit I stepped out of my mild-mannered life and became Farm Boy.
Outback of my Aunt’s house, to the right of the long metal shed was the big, white, wooden barn. On the main floor of the barn that smelled like grease and hay and animals, I mostly remember pigs. Hogs. We’d go in and just look at them, followed by my cousin’s 3 legged dog and a parade of wild kittens that lived in the barn and lived off the scraps from our meals. They ate well. My aunt was an amazing cook and I don’t think anyone’s pets have ever been fed meals as good as the scraps from my Aunt’s kitchen. It wasn’t the kittens I wanted to take home though, more than once I tried to figure out a way to sneak a piglet back without my parents finding out.
Upstairs on the second floor of the barn, was where the real magic was. Whenever we visited my Aunt’s I couldn’t wait to get up there. You had to climb a wooden slat ladder from the main floor straight up through a hatch in the ceiling to get there. If you weren’t the first one up and you watched the person ahead of you you’d get a face full of straw as they crawled up into the hayloft. Every time I went up that ladder I was guaranteed at least one splinter. But it was worth it.
The hayloft was full of heavy, rectangular bales of hay, held together by rigid wire. For a couple little city kids it was like a giant room full of life size lego blocks. Sunlight seeped in through the boards in the walls and penetrated the loft as shafts of light through the big, square door high up on the south wall. Dust and hay danced in the beams of sunshine. On hot days, it was very hot in there and the sweat on your skin made the hay dust and small pieces of hay stick to your skin like you’d been tarred and feathered. But it didn’t matter. It was all about creating another world: a world of dark tunnels, secret rooms, booby traps (a favourite word for a 12 year old) and swinging across the room on the big, heavy rope hanging from the ceiling.
In my memory, the room was huge, too huge to have really been that big but it was plenty for us. We added to what Phil had already built there, Phil and maybe even his older brother Stephen as well. You had to be mindful of the hole that we came up through, one big step and you’d be down with the hogs and nursing a broken leg. The entrance to the main tunnel was right by that hatch. We’d get down on all fours and crawl in, the sunlight getting smaller behind us, the darkness looming ahead of us. Straw filled our noses and our sweaty t-shirts doubled for Kleenex. The dark was scary, anything could be in there. Phil warned us to look out for rats, terrifying, but those barn cats would be frightening enough if your hand landed on one of them in the pitch black tunnel. Frightening and scar producing.
Further in the tunnel suddenly opened into ‘the Great Room’: a spacious square, big enough to sit up in. Out came the flash lights and we talked and told stories and made plans and sweat. The tunnel from there went straight out and then suddenly branched into two tunnels, two pitch black tunnels that anything could be living in. Further along was another room with a space between a couple bales to let natural light in. In one tunnel the floor suddenly opened up and you dropped down into another tunnel. We would climb to the top of the bales with the end of the rope in our hands, jump off and swing out across the hay until we were brave enough to let go. It’s hard to remember anymore what was real and what I imagined I would like to build up there. What I know is that it was more fun than any fun I’ve ever paid for.
At some point my Aunt would call us in and, reluctantly, we would head in to the house to get cleaned up. We were scratching and itching, laughing and talking, caked with dirt where the dust had mixed with sweat and turned to mud. I learned some engineering, architectural design and spelunking skills up there. I gained courage as I faced fears. More than anything, I got to dream. Up in that hay loft I became every hero I ever imagined being. I was bigger than my body, lead character in my own action/adventure book: Farm Boy and the Adventure of the Straw Pyramid.