Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
August 2019 - Volume 19, No. 8
The Barn Fire
This is what I’ve remembered. It was 1947, I was 6 years old.
We lived in the small town of Mount Union, Iowa, Henry County, in the southeast corner of the state.(The town is now so small its few residents voted to unincorporate three years ago. At the time of this memory, it was a busier little town, and my father was the local Methodist minister.
It was a weekday afternoon; he was driving home, most likely from a hospital visit in nearby Winfield. For some reason I can still see/imagine/remember him driving alone in his 1939 black Chevrolet sedan driving east on what Google Maps now calls 150th Street, and shortly before the right turn onto “Racine Ave” for the last two miles into Mt. Union, he spotted ahead of him the thick smoke and probably flames of a barn fire.
Now I don’t recall if I’ve seen a barn burning to the ground, but it’s as if I have a few times in my lifetime - at least vividly in my imagination. In that part of Iowa, the land is flat and rich, and the barn is the grandfather building of the entire farm complex. When it burns, there’s nothing can stop it. You and the neighbors a probably a volunteer fire department from the town do your best to rescue the animals, and perhaps a tractor or major implement or two. I’ve seen in-town fires, like when my old wood-frame High School was destroyed. But a prairie farm barn fire is a wondrous and dreadful sight to behold.
And so my father made a decision to go to the fire rather than heading home. After all these years I have often pondered that decision. But for some reason, had never asked him. As if it was his own secret life.
What I do know is this:Somewhat later he arrived home - and my mother was furious. “Why didn’t you come get us, so we could have been there too?” I have few memories of my mother being angry, and especially at my Dad, but this time was memory-worthy. And in retrospect it was easy to understand. Here she was a preacher’s wife (sometimes an ordeal in itself) caught in a not-so-very exciting small Midwest town with two young children, ages 6 & 3.(My brother hadn’t shown up yet.) But somehow, that wasn’t the life blood for me of this memory.
Of course, I would have enjoyed being with him at such a spectacle. That goes without saying - and that it could have been a ‘fun’ family outing. But I have no memory of such a disappointment, even though I’m sure it was on my mind.
My father, to my memory, said little or nothing. I don’t recall him offering a defense, perhaps not even an apology. And if he did, that wasn’t germane to my memory of the event. He may have made a comment that the extra 25 minutes to get the family there together would be to miss the height of the fire.
One other ‘reason’ could have been that as the local ‘preacher’ perhaps there was some human tragedy he could rush to ‘minister’ to. But my father wasn’t one as a matter of course to think that way. He was a quiet and introspective man, and his knowledge of human tragedy was more apt to give added depth to a sermon than to ‘chase fires.’
In truth, it would have been more like him to have rushed home to gather us up and take us. My father was not a selfish man, and yet to the best of my awareness this had been a selfish behavior. That’s been the long mystery behind this memory.
For many years that was the extent of my holding this memory close to me.
Proud of Him
Only recently, in my own elder years, has my curiosity been reawakened to this apparently seminal memory.
It wasn’t like him, but I cherish the memory because it was so unlike him. I was actually proud of him. Not proud in that he stood up to my mother. That’s not a part of either his or my own character or history.
It’s that deep even iconoclastic nature, that subtle independent streak that had always been there in him. It wasn’t a cynicism (self-centeredly critical), nor a nihilism (like a fatalism). But something always there quietly running the show from a deep-soul place. And I’m tempted to embellish the early memory with the possibility that after my mother’s ‘outburst’, nothing else was ever said. She knew the man she married, deeply loving him, supporting him, at times suffering him - but always knew the depth of his caring and wisdom, both for his family and for his world.
This was a man who left little rich bits of himself, all over the Midwest, in little churches, and other small places, in a scattered collection of deep friendships, sometimes not knowing for sure if any of those little seeds would ever germinate and grow.
He was wonderfully unselfish. I think all he did for himself was to think and read - and care. I know whenever I wanted to talk, he’d set down whatever he was doing to spend time with me.
I begin now to understand why he went to the barn fire by himself. In my mind I watch a singular old black chevy heading down that straight flat SE Iowa prairie road. He needed replenishing, this time for himself, as a solitary man, watching, absorbing, being fed by the desolate power of that great and terrible fire.
He needed to go alone. And he did.
Then he could go home. Where I was.
I think now I understand.
Maybe I always did.
And I love that man for it.
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