It Happened One Day
In the country, disaster comes in many forms-- an overturned tractor, a barn fire, or a bucking chainsaw-- and over time, we learn to take precautions. I always park my pickup facing home when logging in the woods (if you are injured, you have a better chance of driving out), I don't change gears on a loaded tractor when going downhill (if the brakes fail, you're done for), and I don't stack green hay in a barn since it can spontaneously burst into flames. I've met locals with one arm, parents who have lost children in haying accidents, and more than one mill worker down at Miles Lumber who is at least one finger short. One of my most vivid memories as a child was watching Colonel Vaughn's barn burn from the top of Swearing Hill. At first it looked like a small brush fire, and then I realized that this was a day I would never forget, the smoke curling up into the sky, dark and sinister, as if left by an invading army.
In the country, there are many signs of a well-regulated universe: sap running, hay growing, the arrival of hunters with out-of-state plates, and early morning gossip and doughnuts at the Wayside Country Store. Even potato bugs, Japanese beetles, and gypsy moths play their parts in this cycle, evidence that disaster is as predictable as a heavy frost in September. Over time, we can get used to news of droughts, fires, even car crashes-- events that creep into our notion of daily life. Still, some news is beyond our capacity for assimilation-- reality overtakes imagination-- and then our first cup of coffee never tastes quite the same.
Charlie Bentley, our last local farmer and a respected selectman, was injured this past spring in a tractor accident. He was working under a disk harrow, and, when the tractor started up, the harrow dropped suddenly and caught him by the neck. He was dragged through the field, face-down, until the tractor could be stopped. He survived-- Vermont farmers are hardy folk-- but as he is the last upstanding representative of the town's past, the event shook us all.
Within days, a neighbor organized a pancake breakfast fundraiser. I cooked 35 pounds of homemade sausage, others made vats of pancake batter, the country store sent along gallons of orange juice, and locals donated items for a silent auction: watercolors, quilts, toy tractors, jam, cookies, bluebird houses-- even a phone in the shape of a duck. On a crisp spring morning in June, 250 kids, farmers, carpenters, plumbers, truckers, and dairymen raised more than $10,000-- not much by city standards-- but an impressive sum for a small mountain town.
The rest of that summer never regained its rhythm, so my wife and I decided to hold a covered-dish supper over Labor Day weekend. Neighbors brought molasses-laced baked beans, ambrosia, three-bean salad, macaroni-chili casserole, vegetable lasagna, honey cake, and cherry pie, along with their folding lawn chairs. We stacked bales of hay for a table, boiled 150 ears of sweet corn, and served up 60 pounds of barbecued beef. As night came, we turned on the strings of construction lights hanging from the trees, and the kids scattered into the nearby cornfield, playing hide-and-seek. Charlie Bentley showed up and did his part, tucking into seconds, casting an eager eye toward the softer, more brightly colored desserts.
Everything finally seemed back to normal that evening as we sat together in tattered lawn chairs drawn in a circle under an ancient maple tree, listening to a distant thunderstorm that was slowly moving up the valley. A column of boys paraded smartly around the gathering with sticks held stiffly over narrow shoulders, lightning flashed in the distance like approaching artillery, and groups of locals slowly dissolved into the night, enveloped by pear trees and darkness. Just then, as twilight surrendered and the distant thunder was upon us, we awoke from thoughts of the coming storm and listened to the sound of the children in the cornfield. In our darkest hour, they called out to us from the heart of America, reminding us that every small town is a great nation, and each child is a nation unto himself.