When I first saw the old barn, I figured that it had to be at least a thousand years old. The gray slate roof was half gone, and the huge side doors wouldn’t shut. Inside I could see mounds of hay heaped so high that I knew that there had to be rats living in them—and bats flying around the rafters at night! My pa told me that I could explore the barn as long as I was careful. But every time I thought of that barn, the hair on my arms stood straight up. I spent a lot of time sitting on a rail fence near the garden, just staring at the sagging barn. I felt like it was staring right back at me, daring me to come inside.
I met Doughnut the summer that we moved to the farm, the same year that I turned ten. His real name was Teddy, but everyone called him Doughnut because he was heavier than most kids and his face was round. We played baseball together or walked along the fence, pretending that we were high on a trapeze.
Doughnut and I had a lot of fun together—until one day when he said, “Hey, Elliot let’s go inside the barn and make a fort.”
“Nope,” I said. “That barn is alive.”
“Alive?” Doughnut laughed. “Elliot, you’re just chicken.”
My face felt real hot. I had never been called chicken in my life. “Well, OK,” I said reluctantly. My knees began to shake as I marched up the small path leading to the barn. When I reached the doors, I stopped and tilted my head back to see just how high the barn was. “Wow!” was all I could say.
“Come on.” Doughnut nudged me closer. “Let’s go in.”
Doughnut followed me inside. I was glad that the doors didn’t shut—I might want to make a quick getaway. The beams that supported the roof were as thick as tree stumps. And the wind whistled through the open cracks in the walls.
“Wow!” Doughnut exclaimed. “Our barn isn’t nearly this big.”
“Or this scary,” I told him. I felt my heart pound hard against my chest.
Doughnut climbed the ladder to the loft and grabbed a thick hemp rope. “Come on, Elliot, let’s swing across and drop into the hay.”
“Are you crazy?”
“You’re just a red-bellied chicken.”
I climbed to the loft and pushed Doughnut so hard that he rolled across the floor. I was furious at him for calling me a red-bellied chicken.
Doughnut got up, grabbed the rope, and whooped as he sailed across the barn and dropped into the hay.
Before I knew it, I was swinging across the barn and landing in the hay too. We decided to build forts and tunnels on each side of the barn. Everything about it became new and exciting. I never wanted to leave.
Every morning, when I got out of bed, I hurried and did my chores. I wasn’t afraid of the barn anymore, and I couldn’t wait to play in it. It was wonderful. Some afternoons Doughnut would come over and we’d play in the barn the whole time. I liked it best, though, when I was alone in the barn and could bounce my voice off the rafters or just listen to myself think. I began to think of the barn as a friend. I started taking care of it. I made repairs inside, swept up the scattered hay, and even stuffed hay in the draftiest chinks in the walls.
Early one morning I was eating my breakfast as fast as I could so that I could go out to the barn and tighten the hinges on the side doors. I wasn’t listening to my parents’ conversation until I heard the word barn.
“We’ll start tearing down the barn Saturday afternoon,” Pa said to Mother. “The Amish people will come load up the wood. I told them that they could have it for nothing. It isn’t worth much.”
My mouth dropped. “You can’t tear it down, Pa,” I choked out. “I have it all fixed up inside. Maybe we could rebuild it.”
“Elliot, it would cost more than it’s worth.” He gave me an inquiring look, then said, “Now, finish your breakfast.”
I felt miserable and angry. And I felt sorry for the barn. Was I a normal kid to think that a barn had feelings? I curled up in a chair in my room and drew pictures of how the barn could look if we fixed it up.
All week Doughnut begged me to let him come over. I told him no. I told him that I didn’t feel like playing in that stupid barn anymore. Anyway, it was going to be torn down. I think that that was the only time that I was ever really mad at my pa.
Saturday morning I did my chores and decided to stay in the house. I peeked out my bedroom window to take one last look at the barn. I tried to convince myself that it was just a broken-down building.
After lunch Pa came into my room. He sat down on the edge of my bed and looked me straight in the eyes. “Did I ever tell you about the oak tree that I used to play on when I was about your age?” he asked.
“Well, I found this old tree that had fallen across Miller Creek. The trunk of that tree was about as big around as this room. My folks always knew where to find me in the summertime. I would play on that tree until dark. I pretended that I was shipwrecked and that I was the captain. I fought off dangerous pirates and enormous sharks. I had the greatest adventures on it that I could imagine.”
I hadn’t really known much about Pa when he was a kid. It felt strange to imagine him as a little kid on that tree, letting his imagination run free. I wished that I could have been there with him.
“My adventures on that fallen trunk are some of my happiest memories,” Pa continued. He looked over at me. “I think that every youngster ought to have something happy to remember about growing up. Something he can hold on to.”
“Yes, Pa,” I said.
“So,” he said with a crooked grin, “I’ve thought a lot about what you said and how you feel about that barn. Maybe that’s what you’ll remember when you’re older.” Pa leaned down and picked up the drawings off the floor. “Do you still want to try to rebuild that old relic out there?”
“Oh yes, Pa!” I hugged him as hard as I could.
Pa stood and walked toward the door, then stopped, held out his hand, and said, “Well, come on then. We’d better get started.”