Sunday, April 1, 2012

Primal Fear

There I was, perched at a perilous height, with the deafening roar of a tractor coming straight at me, and the barn collapsing before my eyes. It was so loud, I couldn’t even hear myself screaming. The sheer terror of the moment is the only thing I remember with certainty. The rest of the story has been fleshed out with time and retelling. My family insists that I am wrong, that I misunderstood, that it couldn’t have happened this way. “Don’t you see?” they would say. “The barn is still standing.” That may be. Still, however factually implausible my narrative is, it is emotionally true and counts as my first recorded memory. I might have been three, still small enough that when I walked with a grownup and held their hand, my arm was up in the air. My parents, my older brother and I were spending a few days with my Aunt Josephine and her husband Clyde on their ranch in Cottonwood, Idaho. The term “ranch” is used advisedly, for their spread was little more than a few hard scrabble acres of arable land devoted to alfalfa, in an arid mountainous region dominated by Cottonwood and White Pine. Still Clyde, lanky and slightly bow-legged, was a cowboy and not a farmer, so it follows that his place was a ranch and not a farm. Adults may not realize that an unintended consequence of children “being seen and not heard” is that children do a lot of listening, accompanied by their own unfettered and unfiltered interpretation. This practice was, in truth, the source of my undoing. Among the many snippets of conversation overheard during the few days of our visit, which surely included such benign topics as remaking a winter coat or the recipe for tomato soup cake, was the mention of pushing over the barn. It is at this juncture that my family takes issue with my memory. They claim there never was any such discussion. Be that as it may. By anyone’s standard, barns are large structures, and barns remembered from childhood are immense. Uncle Clyde’s barn was two stories high, grayed with exposure, with a door on the second story into the hay loft and a ground level sliding door, wide enough to accommodate a truck or tractor. A circular corral made of peeled poles was attached to the barn, which was entered through a wide gate. That day I had accompanied the men out to the corral, very possibly without an invitation. I don’t know what project they had in mind that morning, but it is safe to assume it was unsuitable for a three year old. As a consequence, someone set me up on the fence, to keep me out of harm’s way. The picture I call to mind is taken from a long way off, peering across the corral. I am perched high up in the air, on the gate post. No doubt, the height of my perch is greatly exaggerated, but relative to my own height, it is stratospheric! I imagine that I liked it at first - heights have never been a problem for me. Soon, however, I realize that I am alone. The men along with my brother had all wandered off. Somewhere out of sight I hear the explosive sound of a tractor starting. The noise increases as the machine rounds the corner of the barn, heading in my direction. In that moment, the raucous presence of the tractor coalesces with my belief that the barn is about to be pushed over. There I am, unable to get down or be heard over the noise of the tractor. Panic ensues. But that is where it ends. The barn didn’t collapse. Someone rescued me from the post. For most of my life I assumed that the source of my terror was the imminent collapse of the barn accompanied by the deafening noise of the tractor. Upon reflection, I suspect that there may have been a more primal fear at work – the fear of being forgotten. I had been placed on the fence post for my protection, but had subsequently been forgotten, like a ring placed on a window sill over the sink for safe keeping and never returned for. Surely this is a universal fear? Years later when I was late to pick up my own daughter, I explained that I got involved in a project and forgot all about her. “You forgot me?” Her lip quivering, her eyes wide in disbelief. “But, how could you?” How indeed.


  1. I only saw that ranch from the road, but have imagined it, too, from others' stories. And written about it, too, from what I imagined. Sensible relations' recollections can just get in the way of a good yarn.

  2. Amen to that. And some of our relatives are such sticklers for accuracy! You may actually have seen the "ranch" on the Imnaha, which Clyde and Josephine moved to not long after this incident occurred.