In the early 1970’s what my family always referenced as the ‘old barn’ was torn down. The large building was located close to the home where we lived in Waushara County. Anyone could have thrown a snowball from the front door of the house and made a white impression on the old wood. My family never used the barn for farming purposes, and over time both the age and unsightliness of the barn took its toll on my parents.
As a boy, the old structure was not welcoming to me at all. It was dark inside, and large cobwebs stretched from all corners. I have often thought back and wondered if there had been a kid my age to explore it with would my impressions been different. I suspect they might have been. After all, my grandparent’s barn on the other side of the country road in Hancock was old, but in it I found wonderful places to hide and play. But then grandpa’s barn was a place of life and action. Milk cows were fed and milked there, and I recall a radio played at times when my grandfather worked there. There was a whole different world going on in that barn from the one on my side of the road.
I was pleased when my parents decided to raze their old barn. First, a brand new building without cobwebs would take its place, and second, there would be lots of ‘action’ happening just outside our home during construction. I liked it best as a youngster when things were ‘happening’. When the new road was constructed and all the heavy machinery rumbled in front of our home for days on end I was quite certain there was no better time to be alive as a boy. That exhaust smell from the engines was great to experience. I recall my mom was not pleased to have that smell “throughout the house”, but I had no idea what she was talking about. When my grandparents baled hay in the field nearest to our home it allowed me a front-row seat and so again I was delighted with something ‘going on’. So I knew when the building started there would be lots to see and do right in the yard.
My dad worked at his job with a man named Pinkie who came over and helped with the building project. Over and over I have heard the story of how Pinkie would not take any money for helping bring down the old barn, or assisting my dad with the new one going up. Pinkie only wanted the old wood and carted it off in his truck. My dad was happy to have the help, and not have the debris left behind. In the end, as dad always reminds those who hear the story he made sure that Pinkie was paid, even though it was hard to make sure the money got into the pockets of Pinkie. It finally did, though Pinkie refused over and over to take it. When I hear that story I am reminded of how life used to be, and what friendship meant for another generation of men.
While the new building was going up, a building that was soon to be always known as “the barn”, which would always remain separate from the “old barn” when telling stories, I first thought of the need to have a workbench. I am not sure why I came to the conclusion I needed a bench. With scraps of leftover this and that from the work that was taking place, I started to fashion my bench. The only thing I recall about Pinky directly is how he leaned over one day and showed me how to take old nails and straighten them out with a hammer to re-use on my creation. I am not sure exactly how it must have looked as I worked on it, but given my age and my total lack of knowledge about….well everything….it must have been a sight. What I do recall is that at some point my dad told me that he would help me build a workbench after the building was completed. It must have looked quite the sight for him to feel the need to take on yet another building project!
With rough pine wood that was leftover from the building, my dad and I made what I knew was the best workbench ever. On the back of the bench, where one might hang tools he placed siding. When it was finished we placed it in the west end of the new building in a little area that was always my space. Being the youngest of the three kids I had the luxury of having not to compete with others for a place in the barn during my teen years, as the other two were out of my hair.
The bench was used more for a place to work on things or store my belongings, as opposed to doing woodwork or car repair. Truth is I never had any real skills with those things, and even less desire to know anything about them. The bench was more a place to fill a bird feeder than successfully make one. And I was always fine with knowing my limitations. Not being frustrated over engines or carpentry allowed me to pursue my real interests. As such, today there is not a ding or an oil spot on the bench, yet it has always served a function. For the past nearly four decades it has sat in the same spot storing some of my things. That is until this past weekend. To ensure that the bench remains mine I felt I should bring it home to Madison. A woman with a pick-up truck assisted James and me and now the bench sits in our basement.
It now has a new role to serve. One that fits me and my life. It was born a worker’s bench, but it grew to be a potter’s bench.
Within 24 hours of it being here, a large plant was re-potted on top of it, and some seed catalogs now call it home. Like everything else in life, the bench changed and adapted to the place and time in which it finds itself. My dad has never seen our Madison home, and given his difficulties with walking would never be able to make it down into our basement even if he were here. Still, I am quite sure he would be pleased to see that the bench has a new location to rest in my home. I am sure he knows it will always be a treasured memory. My dad and I never went fishing or threw many baseballs or lots of the stuff one sees in the movies. But the things we did do together made an impression.
This one is my lifetime keepsake.
My dad and me, and the bench he made in the early 1970’s.
July 17, 2010