The Barn Crew

 

 

“Any man's death diminishes me, 
             because I am involved in mankind." 
                          John Donne

Under the tobacco barn rafter, twenty-five feet off the dirt, his Mohawk
sturdy against the tin roof for balance, Tony plots to pop
a pigeon neck with the flick of his wrist. Why the bird doesn’t fly down
and out the barn door is beyond me. Dumb bird. 
Tony folds his fingers gently around the head, slings
the gray body toward Beulah land, and tosses
down the carcass. I watch the body hit the ground, 
toe the limp bird with my boot, but I don’t want to pick it up. 
A tiny red dot drops from the beak and blends with barn dust, 
feldspar flakes, and tobacco leaf bits. Thaddeus J., 
the other boy on the crew, stands midair on a joist
between Tony and me. “Makes good stew. If you don’t want it, I do.” 

I walk out the double-wide door, and memorize the blue pond
of the sky covering acres of tobacco and peanuts to the horizon. 
I’m thirteen and working summer days outdoors is like potluck supper
on Sunday or holding a girl’s hand on Saturday, and I feel like
I’m stealing when the farmer gives me ten dollars a day. 
A boy could do a lot with ten dollars.
Some of it goes to Moon Pies and RC colas at lunch.
Some of it goes to Roosevelt dimes for the coin collection.
Some of it goes to the Saturday double feature with Stephanie.
Most of it stays in a tin box for a different day’s dream.

After ten hours of picking and hanging, the door will shut
on a barn full of tobacco to cure and turn the leaves chestnut
and ginger. Tomorrow, we might pull weeds in peanuts,
lime the soybean fields, or crop tobacco on another farm.

All three of the crew had worked the fields, so we knew the barn squad
was the luxury job. The tractor returns with pallet after pallet
after pallet of tobacco strung neatly, three leaves at a time, 
to a square dowel thick as two thumbs and long as a man’s leg. 
I unpack each stick from the pallet, lift the tobacco to Thaddeus J. 
who delivers the square pole to Tony. Five minutes to hang
what took forty-five minutes to pick. Then we wait.
Thaddeus J might take a cat nap in the flat shadows
of the barn corners. Tony likes to stay off the ground
and swat the buzzing horse flies that settle
on the raven-black and gray-speckled barn timbers. 
I like to stroll outside and gaze at the day.
I am rarely afraid of a man, but I am often afraid
of the ideas of men. I didn’t yet know the word
for the killing of birds. Probably something Latin. 
I knew the words for the killing of men. Two years earlier, 
Martin Luther King was shot at the Lorraine Hotel
in Memphis. Bobby Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel
in Los Angeles. My father, a Navy veteran of WWII who fought
the Japanese in the South Pacific, could only muster, “People are crazy.”

Then, Richard Nixon started a draft for the Vietnam War.
For years, the slow freight trains lumbered past our house, 
like elephants lugging military equipment to Savannah,
Jacksonville, and Tampa. An entire train filled with tank turrets
pointed east. Sometimes, among the war machines, 
a train would haul a concrete section of monorail track
to Disney World in Orlando, the long curved beam balanced
across two flat cars.  Sometimes, a train would take
Ringling Brothers to the next town. Most of the time,
the new army jeeps and shiny green trucks bent low
under the burden of the coming apocalypse.

The New Testament had taught me to repent, but I didn’t feel sorry
for the bird. Pigeons are like rats, nasty, but there are lovely birds
in south Georgia. Ginger and black Pileated Woodpeckers
the size of bobcats. Stately Brown Thrashers and prideful Peacocks. 
Even the Turkey Vulture has a terrible beauty. Its blood-red head
held high to sniff death. 

I watch a Barn Swallow fly from a fence post
to the tobacco barn eave, back to the fence post,
back to the barn eave. I can barely see three
tiny brown heads peek out of the mud nest
propped on a ledge edge underneath the roof.
Their faint chatter answered by a syncopated chip chip
from the bluish gray adult whose tawny head
leans into the nest. The bird’s long swallowed tail flits
and settles. The adult flies away, this time past the post
to land on the charcoal and cream back of a dairy cow.
I want to fly with the Swallow and forget the world,
the way a book placed back on the shelf forgets
its own pages. I want to work on the barn crew, forever.
I want to be the slow country rain falling on my hair
or the blue sky over the green peanuts or the bird on the back
of a cow. I don’t want to go to Vietnam.

 

Ramsey Mathews Biography

May-June 2016 Issue, BOAAT