The scene of childhood bliss looks different after so many years

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald November 06, 2009 10:21 am

There is something uniquely sad about the sight of a certain sort of barnyard on the gray morning after a hard autumn rain.

This affliction does not affect outfits which have enjoyed a long and consistent run of bountiful harvests. The prosperity of such enterprises is easy to gauge from the well-tended lawn and the freshly painted buildings and the general absence of disorder and neglect.

Even these farms are not immune to grime — it’s awfully hard to grow anything edible without the occasional appearance of mud — but the mess is in the main confined to the fields. The public face of the place, what passers-by see from the road, must at all times and in all weathers present a picture of constant care.

Fallen leaves never linger long. They are bagged or burned or otherwise disposed of before the storms can subdue their vibrant colors and transform their pleasant crunch underfoot into the slippery, slimy sensation of walking across a field of slug carcasses.

I saw quite a lot of farms like that during a drive through the Willamette Valley on Halloween.

But the one farm I actually visited looked quite different from those others.

The leaves at this farm, mostly bigleaf maples as wide as a newspaper page, plastered the unpaved driveway.

Puddles of rainwater, the color of chocolate milk, filled the tire ruts.

The red paint on one barn had faded to a rusty brown, and many of its window panes supported only shards, or held no glass at all.

We went to the farm because my daughter, Olivia, had never kicked pumpkins in their native patch, nor wandered through a corn maze.

It was for me a nostalgic trip. This farm, a handful of miles north of Salem, is the one where my family had gone every October to pick pumpkins and buy a couple gallons of just-pressed apple cider. I had not been back in many years.

The farm that inhabits my memory bears only a passing resemblance to the one I visited on Halloween.

This is hardly surprising, of course.

Children are rarely cynics, and often are optimists. Few are offended by mud; many, in fact, consider it an integral part of their play.

When I was a boy this farm seemed to me very nearly perfect. I loved the rough texture of the pumpkin stalks and the sharp scent of cider and the epiphanous moment each year when I first saw the ideal specimen, its shape as flawless in its way as was the Christmas tree we hauled home each December.

But as I looked around this same patch of ground with the critical eye of an adult I focused instead on the unkempt yard and the farmhouse’s peeling paint and the green moss clinging to the vinyl awning that hung over the entrance to the corn maze.

I noticed that the pickup truck parked in a barn was almost as old as I am. I noticed the two tractor tires, the tread gone and the wheels overtaken by rust, propped against the barn, desiccated grass growing up through the axle lug holes.

I saw all of this, and what I wondered was whether it had been there all along.

Was this same Chevy four-wheel drive here three decades ago, the only different that it’s blue paint retained a little of its showroom luster, on those afternoons when my sisters and brother and I sorted through the piles of pumpkins, caring only about finding one with just the right shape for cutting a snaggle-toothed face into?

I don’t know the answer.

I’m not sure that I want to know.

There’s nothing worthwhile to be gained, it seems to me, from realizing that some blissful scene from your childhood was in fact tarnished by blemishes, even insignificant ones.

These intrusions of reality interrupt most of us often enough without our going out and rooting around for examples.

I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway.

So what if my current perception of the farm is keen, and that it is a struggling business, one drought or late frost away from failure.

It has at least survived all the years since I spent happy hours there. And the cider tastes as sweet as ever it did.

Perhaps the timing of my visit was responsible for my disappointment — we arrived, after all, on Halloween rather than a few weeks before as was my family’s custom.

Perhaps what I saw was only the equivalent (and forgive my second allusion to that other holiday) of a Christmas tree that’s been stripped of its ornaments and left to drop its needles on the hard barren ground of a February garden. Another year’s harvest concluded, with most of the pumpkins — and surely all the good ones — having long since left, clutched in the grubby hands of youngsters who daydream of the chocolate and nougat and caramel they will soon collect.

In any case I hope that what I remember most vividly from this Halloween is not the dreary somnolence of a farm whose heyday is as antiquated as a tractor with a plain metal seat.

I will strive instead to cling to the sight of Olivia and her blonde hair, lighter in color than straw, stray strands of it escaping the hood of her blue-and-pink raincoat.

Even the gloomiest spot is not without good tidings when onto the scene scampers a diminutive figure, giggling as she tries to outrun her two older cousins to splash in the puddles of waning October.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.