Of Days Past

By Richard Holmes

I can still hear the crunching sound of tires on white gravel as the car slowly turned into the long driveway toward the stone farmhouse. But my preoccupation was with the tree. Was it still there? Was it the same?

The car came to a stop, and my dad opened the doors for our family to unload. I jumped out and ran across the front yard to the nearest of five cherry trees. Into that tree I climbed until I reached my familiar perch, a fork where three limbs joined together. It was comfortable, it was familiar, and most of all, it was mine. No one else could have that perch. They could unpack the car without my help––my place, after all, was in that tree. Besides, this wasn’t just an ordinary farm, with only cows, horses, pigs and chickens––this was an apple orchard, where trees were important.

We made this trip to my grandparents’ farm in Missouri several times a year, my parents sometimes picking me and my sister up from school on a Friday afternoon. Memories now reform, images become clearer, experiences revisited.

Apple picking season is the busiest time of the year, and my grandfather said that all other activities must take second place. I remember the excitement of the picking crews arriving at the apple shed in September with wagonloads of apples. We had to unload the bushel baskets quickly and begin culling the apples before another wagonload arrived.

Apples weren’t just dumped into baskets and covered with lids––they were first rolled down an inclined trough where people standing on either side wiped them with rags. Then, the apples were diverted to different chutes according to condition––the ones with spots going one way and the better ones going another. Finally, the bad ones were culled out before reaching the bushel baskets at the end. I didn’t just watch; I did important things, too, like polish the top row of a basket of apples before the lid went on.

The barn was always a special place to me because I could hide in it. This barn was strong, made from heavy oak, and leaned a little bit, like a barn should. The hayloft was mysterious, so I didn’t go up there much. Besides, pitching hay into it was hard work. But down below were numerous sounds and smells. In the calm of early morning came the sound of milk splashing into a bucket as the milk cows were brought in one at a time. Later, the rich smell of oats and barley being dumped into a horse feeding trough permeated the barn. The clank of a gate swinging closed pierced the morning air. I found many old objects inside–– things like old straps, harnesses, tools, buckets, tongs, pails, baling wire, yokes, nails, hooks, boards, and rusty old metal pieces. I wondered if there was ever anything new in a barn.

A plow stood in a corner, battered and rusty, with weathered oak handles. I had watched my grandfather plowing before and it didn’t look all that difficult.

After putting on the bridle, a single harness is placed over the horse, the breast collar brought around in front and held in place by a girth. A trace, coming from either side of the breast collar, reaches back and gets attached to the plow. The reins pass alongside the girth and are held by the person behind the plow. It looked easy, and once I had asked if I could try it. I wanted to plow, and plow I did––unsteady, zigzagging forward, tripping, stumbling, and finally falling exhausted at the end of a crooked row. What was wrong? I had just watched my grandfather do it. The advice I received was terse and practical: “Instead of pushing forward on the plow, try letting the horse pull it.”

Can a farm really be complete without a tire swing? A good tire swing is like a security blanket. It is a consoling place of solitude for a ten year-old boy when nothing else will quite serve the purpose. My swing hung from a large oak tree, its sturdy limbs wide and protective. From this swing, with the ever so faint creak of rope against tree limb, distant sounds registered their imprint upon my ears. I heard the sound of an ax striking wood. I looked toward the sound, and saw, far away, a lone figure chopping. But the sound came late. It didn’t come with the fall of the ax. It came as the ax was being raised to strike another blow. I would have to remember that.

Harsher sounds occurred more during the day, like the squawk of blue jays and crows, or the pitched whistles of bobwhites and meadowlarks. But toward evening, the more tranquil sounds prevailed, like the soft murmur of a turtle dove, or the song of a nightingale.

Nights are especially peaceful and pleasant on a farm––the city, with its cacophony of sound, being far away. The sky is alive with stars. A meteor screams through the blackness. The Big Dipper points boldly toward the North Star. At night, sounds seem to spring right out of the darkness. Can you hear the whippoorwill calling? The memories continue.

I laid in bed listening, and I thought of the warehouse. Added on to the rear of the house was a room my grandfather called the warehouse, a dusty old place filled with objects collected over the years. There, my grandfather kept old bottles, rifle shells with cracked cases, piles of ten-cent detective and western pulp magazines, the kind with the ragged, untrimmed edges. And there were books, too. Why, I even saw a copy of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Looking closer, there were mousetraps, empty dynamite boxes, broken scissors, a double barreled shotgun, knives, Prince Albert tobacco cans, and a whetstone worn from a thousand blades.

And there was food. Lining a wall were assorted jars of my grandmother’s canned fruits and vegetables, their succulent contents gleaming inside the glass containers. There was a feeling of abundance, of plentiful food, ample materials, necessities of life stored away for winter.

And then, one day, it was no more. The orchard grew silent and bare, the last leaves washed away by autumn’s windy exit. The apple shed was quiet, except for the fluttering of sparrows in the rafters. Small animals, tree frogs, and tiny creatures dug underground.

*       *       *

A soft snow covers the fields, cloaking the last vestiges of autumn in a mantle of white. Smoke curls from the chimney, while inside are visions of people gathered before a large stone fireplace, reading, as is their custom after an early winter supper. The lights come on sooner, as darkness falls earlier, and nights become cold.

Now the image is beginning to fade––time is receding, memories vivid, my eyes become moist. And the snow continues to fall, covering an era of days past.

Gone now are the orchards of fruit trees, the thump of apples rolling down a chute, the creak of a tire-swing rope against an oak limb. Gone are the sounds of tires on gravel, wagons loaded with apples, ax against wood, all replaced by silence. Gone, too, are the sights of harvest activity, the sweet smell of fresh grain, the aroma of a peach cobbler. But somewhere, someplace, high in a cherry tree, there is a boy sitting in a comfortable and familiar perch, a worn spot where three limbs join together.