Just another day in the life of your average teenage hero
|The Barn Fire
It was a quiet fall evening and the Fisher family had just about finished supper when Jeri Maughan knocked on the front door. The Maughans lived a couple of miles down the road from us so Jeri passed our house each way when she went into town. Jeri was a small, quiet woman and it was a surprise that she would appear unannounced. More outgoing neighbors might drop by uninvited, but it was unusual for someone as shy as Jeri. Mom answered the door and said hello, but Jeri wasn’t there for small talk.
“Do you know that there’s smoke coming from your barn?”
She didn’t seem overly concerned or excited; she just asked the question in a matter of fact tone. It was almost as if she thought we might have planned a barn burning and, if so, she didn’t want to interrupt the party. She didn’t hang around to watch, and none of us even saw her leave. We’d all run to the back of the house to find billows of white smoke pouring from the hayloft and rising up into the evening sky.
The barn was built in the nineteen thirties and the unpainted wood was weathered to a silver-gray color after almost forty years of sun and rain. A bright metal roof was installed over gambrel style trusses to provide a large open space for the hayloft. Our Grandfather originally used it for horses in the days before tractors became common on small farms. When Dad took over the ranch the horse stalls were unused, dusty, and full of old junk that us kids thought were treasures.
That barn seemed huge when we were kids, but it was only about 48 feet long by 24 feet wide. It was originally set on concrete footings with only a dirt floor. Dad added a full cement floor inside when he decided to start a dairy operation. He also removed the horse stalls to make a calf pen and added two large rolling doors so that the cows could enter the milking parlor from the adjacent corral and exit out into the fields on the other side.
The three stall milking parlor extended across the full width of the northern end of the barn. It had a drain trough molded into the floor that lined up perfectly with the back end of the milk cows. Dad made a grate out of welded steel rebar to cover the trough, and we hosed all the ‘stuff’ into a drain pipe that led from one end of the trough to the outside of the barn. Overhead there were stainless steel pipes that connected the automatic milking machines to a bulk tank in the fully enclosed milk room in the southwest corner of the barn. The milk room had its own outside door to provide access for the tanker truck that hauled our milk to the dairy twice a week.
The vacuum pump for the milking machines was in a short aisle way between the milking parlor and milk room. A solid interior door that helped to resist dirt and flies led into the milk room. There was a gate for the milking parlor and another that opened into the calf pen that occupied the southeast corner of the barn. A home-made ladder at the southern end provided access from the calf pen through a gap that ran the width of the hayloft floor. The gap, at the end of the barn with the hayloft doors, was wide enough to climb through or to toss down a straw bale to the calf pen below.
Each hayloft door was about 5 feet square and hinged at opposite sides to make a single large opening. They were usually left open during the summer months for ventilation. When necessary, Dad would buy more straw and we’d use an electric bale elevator to lift the bales up about 10 feet to the hayloft. The real reason for the hayloft was to store the straw for calf bedding, but us kids often played up there, especially on a cold, rainy day. Sometimes we even jumped from the hayloft to land in the soft and smelly heap of old straw and calf manure piled below (not our mother's favorite game). That barn and the hayloft had been a constant in our family’s life since Dad was just a boy.
And suddenly it was on fire. No one said anything for a few seconds; we just stared and wondered if it was already too late. Losing the barn would be a tragedy, but losing the dairy equipment would mean financial disaster. We soon realized that there weren’t any visible flames and the smoke was only coming from the hayloft. So I gathered up my courage and plunged into the raging inferno. Well, I entered the barn through the milk room door and grabbed the garden hose that we used to wash down the milking parlor. Luckily, it was long enough to stretch around through the calf pen, then up and into the hayloft. It even had a handy spray nozzle to help me direct the water flow.
I climbed the ladder to the hayloft with my heart pounding and poked my head up into the unknown. Luckily, the draft created some clear air near the floor, so I was able to start spraying water at the fire without actually climbing into the smoke. It was soon apparent that only a couple of straw bales were actually burning, surrounded by a smoldering circle of charred wood flooring. I continued to spray water and approach the flames, surprised that the fire hadn’t spread farther and faster. It didn’t take very long to knock down what turned out to be a relatively small fire. I soaked the straw bales and kicked their remains out the hayloft door. I soaked the floor again, the bales again, and the floor for a third time.
Afterward, I realized that the fire had spread slowly because the open space at that end of the hayloft had been swept clear of loose straw. It was a fortunate circumstance (and perhaps a contributing factor) that the hayloft was only about half full of bales that day. Three bales had been dragged away from the rest of the pile and arranged in a pattern that suggested a table and chairs. The ‘table’ had burned almost completely and the area with the ‘chairs’ was scorched. If that space surrounding the three bales hadn’t been swept clean, I’m sure the main straw pile would have caught fire and the whole barn would have been lost. It turned out to be less serious than we had feared at first, but I still took every opportunity to play the part of the heroic firefighter facing certain death to save the family farm.
When the ashes were judged to be cold and dead, we finally made our way back to the house to finish supper and assign blame. As Dad might have said, ‘it was all over but the crying’. It didn't take long to fit the available facts into a theory that my little sister had been playing with matches in the hayloft.
I think Mom led the interrogation:
“Marcia, were you playing in the hayloft?”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I might have been in the hayloft playing.”
“Did you have matches up there?”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I might’ve had some matches, but I didn’t light any!”
“Well, I might’ve lit one, but just to warm up my hands!”
Marcia eventually broke down and confessed that she’d lit a birthday candle, ‘just to warm her hands’. She’d been playing ‘house’ and had arranged the straw bales for furniture. She was also the one who’d swept the loose straw off the hayloft floor.
We deduced that Marcia probably forgot about the candle when Mom called her in for supper. The candle burned down and the straw ‘table’ soon caught fire. In the end it became a funny family story, but we were awfully lucky that Jeri Maughan happened to drive by and overcame her shy nature just long enough to sound the alarm.