The worst hailstorm on record for Washington County lasted an hour and a half and cut a swath so violent that it scythed 200 acres of new hay, bruised cows, and left so much ice in one farmer's driveway that he couldn't get out to the main road without using a plow. After the ensuing downpour, hail was washed down into the valleys, leaving mounds of frozen slush more than 3 feet high. January thaws and heavy rain took out half the culverts in town a few years ago, and back in the early '90s, a small twister worked its way down our mountain valley, uprooting huge maples and oaks along its path. There was a lot of firewood that year.
As a child, I remember standing high up on Red Mountain in the Bartlett Lot, looking down the valley toward New York State and seeing a large plume of smoke coming up from Colonel Vaughn's farm. Some green hay had spontaneously combusted, and the milking barn was turned into ashes and blackened concrete in mere hours. Just two years ago, the Wilcox Dairy south of Manchester went up in smoke, and the West Farm on Tate Hill Road was burned to the foundation last fall. I once ran into a local man who was excavating a cemetery back in the woods, claiming that he had discovered a mass grave. He told me that a hundred years ago, in a bad influenza epidemic, the dead were laid out like cordwood by the road and were picked up by horse-drawn carts and buried together. The same fate awaited many of those involved with the Shays Rebellion in the 1780s. They hid out on top of Egg Mountain (a short walk from our farm), and many died of the flu.
Just recently, the town gossip included a divorce; whispers about a bad traffic accident involving a teenage girl; a horse that fell on a rider, crushing her leg; and the deaths of Georgie, who was living up at Susy's place in a converted barn, and Roy McBride, who had moved to Florida some years back but had kept his small red house next to the old Smith farm. Of course, over the years one collects heartbreaking stories of tractor accidents, hunters mistaking friends for deer, logging mishaps, and automobiles that collide with moose. I can point out more than a few crosses with flowers erected by the side of the road.
Those of us who grew up in the country often regard our own childhoods as accidents waiting to happen, as parents were less protective back then. In the summer, as a young farmhand, I was chased by a bull, frequently stepped on by a 1-ton draft horse, and worked alongside corn choppers, Farmall tractors, and hay balers so dangerous that I'm surprised I still have both arms. My first horse was a Morgan that had a nasty habit of stopping cold on the edge of embankments (I kept going) or loping under large, low-hanging boughs (I stopped cold). Other days, I would take off with my .22 and a sandwich into the mountains to explore abandoned camps with rotten floors and half-fallen ceilings. After supper and a few doses of Jim Beam, my mother often took my sister and I on wild rides up Southeast Corners Road in a surplus army Jeep that skidded and sluiced over the gravel and loose fill. It's a wonder we survived.
My own kids seem to live a more protected life. They've fallen off horses, survived an overturned canoe in the Battenkill, and made their share of visits to the emergency room after swallowing staples, fracturing a leg, drinking a half-bottle of cough syrup, and suffering a short list of other childhood injuries. Real disasters seem more distant. We recently heard of a family that lost two sons to sudden heart failure and a freak car accident in the next town that ended the lives of a mother and her two children. It is unbearably tragic but not threatening, as if you could hear the distant rumble of a gathering storm without actually seeing it. For now, the weather report for our mountain valley remains sunny.
Families endure all sorts of other, more minor tragedies. When I ask Charlie if he wants to play with his train set, he looks at me with a slightly pitying look and says, "No, it's OK, Dad," in an effort to soften the blow. Or I yell at Caroline for losing control of her horse and she spends the rest of the day alone, her pride having suffered. Many things are natural enough: the longing for a neighbor recently buried, or grief taken in hand and measured out in small bits over a lifetime. But it is also natural to be hopeful, to sense a homecoming in the faint scent of wood smoke drifting up the valley and think well of the future despite the present.
On occasion, Adrienne and I have the good sense to sit on the porch after dinner when all of the good and bad add up to nothing much, if you call watching fingered shadows steal across our lower meadow nothing. It's for certain the end of a perfect day, a day that will soon be lost to history as the cool Vermont twilight steals down from the darkening woods. It's natural to forget how good a day it was, thinking that tomorrow will be just as fine, an easy replacement, if you will. But, being older and perhaps just a bit wiser, we'll sit awhile and watch the last minutes of this day ebb into night and try to commit it to memory. One just never knows what the future may bring.