On March 17, 1965 my family’s dairy barn burned to the ground. When the fire began, there were more than 100 cows inside waiting to be milked. When it ended, there was a pile of rubble that smoked for a week, and a farming family reeling from a world changed.
I was just a little girl when it happened. My parents did what any parents would do. They made sure my world – complete with my brother and sister and kindergarten and play dates- continued on as it always had. They also made sure to shield me the best way they could from their changed world. From the day of the fire forward, they lived with the knowledge that an arsonist had burned their barn down.
There are details from that day that I recall clearly. My house smelled funny. My mom was in a tizzy. I couldn’t find my shoes and a dear family friend whisked us three kids up to her house, away from all of the excitement, lights, yelling, and fire trucks. I remember looking into the valley that bright, sunshine-filled afternoon and seeing a haze I thought was fog. These are just little things that have been with me since that day.
Other details that came to me later. I learned that I could not play at my parents’ feet – something I had always done – while they talked to adults who wore uniforms and badges. I learned how my father entered the burning barn again and again to free the panicked cows from their stanchions and herded them out one at a time. Eventually I learned that a “poor confused soul” struck a match in our hayloft. Still later I heard that this confused soul actually intended to burn the barn down.
The fire changed the lives of my whole family in ways seen and unseen. Certainly there was the business of farming that had to be tended to. The growing of corn, the milking of cows, and the home delivery of milk continued. There was a difference because the cows were no longer in my backyard, but at a new barn a few miles away. I look back on those years and realize how together and sound everything must have looked.
It was the mid-sixties and even the sturdiest of families and institutions were beginning to feel the forces of change. I have the luxury, now, of fast-forwarding through my memories to get to my vantage point, however I cannot help but think of the soundness of those years like a potter’s cherished clay pot that fell hard from its perch but didn’t shatter. It may look intact, but a knuckle rapped on its glazed side produces not a resonant ring but a tinny sound from fissures hidden deep inside.
No one should be surprised that from the ashes of that day rose an inner resilience and strength to carry on. My parents, still alive and flourishing in their mid ‘80’s, are true examples of this and my brother continues the family agrarian traditions by running a thriving hay and feed enterprise on the very spot where the barn once stood. But what is surprising to me was how the seed of experience of that day has ripened inside of me.
I cannot equate the burning of my family’s barn to losing a home or a loved one. For those who have experienced such loss, I can only imagine their pain. But what was imprinted within me was a realization that bad things happen to good people. That you can be targeted for evil just because someone doesn’t agree with you. That the crazy, over-protective things my parents did may not have been so crazy after all. In the times filled with images of Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver, I lost the bubble of innocence.
Maybe all of this would have stayed stored away in my family’s dusty old photo albums, but I’ve recently published a book, and people ask me where the idea for the story came from or what I based a scene or character on. The book is a work of fiction about a girl impacted by the business of terrorism. And yes – there is a barn fire scene. It’s been through the process of answering my readers that I’ve felt the fissure of my own fired clay and examined its origins.
They say that the best fiction is based on hard facts. I was humbled by what I found when I sifted through those ashes.
Pawling native Connie Johnson Hambley is the author of the thriller “The Charity.” She will be at The Book Cove, 22 Charles Coleman Blvd., in Pawling on Sunday, December 16 at 1 p.m. to sign copies of her book. More of Ms. Hambley’s writings can be read at www.thecharitythriller.blogspot.com. Images of the aftermath from the Heinchon Dairy barn fire may be seen at www.facebook.com/thecharitythriller.