the cotton barn c. 1976

At the edge of our farm there stands a small, old cotton barn.  Built around 1890 from pines cut down on the farm and processed in my great-grandfather’s sawmill, it has been  slowly sliding toward decay for a long time .  One side was non-existent, its framing bones showing, wisteria vines curling skyward through its voids.

My son, Gordon, at about age 16, became deeply interested in graffiti as an art form.  He pleaded with me to allow him to cover the bare side of the cotton barn with OSB so he could have his own graffiti wall.  I relented, and for a time the barn, on three sides, was a rustic remnant, and on one side, an explosive artwork.

Gordon  was also becoming deeply interested in composing, performing and recording music around this same time.   He decided one day to make a sound booth in his room using his closet.  Clothes tossed out, he lined the walls  with soundproof foam.   I would look up from my chores to see an  unending stream of young people in various states of dress and body decoration carry their instruments up the stairs to spend a day in one of our closets.

Time came for Gordon to leave the south, and head to New York to college.  He hatched a new scheme: persuading  me that he should be allowed to rebuild the cotton barn as a recording studio.   I think I hoped it would draw him back home when he was finished with college.   I knew it made sense to allow some improvements to the crumbling ruin I had no time or money to bother with.

About this time, a new Gordon began to emerge.  This boy, with no knowledge whatsoever of  building, became a student of construction.  He turned to his father for advice and counsel.  He read.  He enlisted the help of a friend’s father who was a structural engineer.  And because he lacked better, I became a sometimes carpenter’s helper.

Often all I did was clean up the jobs site, or move things from the barn to another space.  Sometimes I removed nails from old weathered barn wood, or handed up the sheets of tin to reroof the building.  I came to relish the shared goal, the time spent watching Gordon’s spirit and imagination at work.  When he came home for breaks from college he would  work until the light was all gone,  sometimes with my help, growing faster as  he lost the light to try to propel the job as far forward as he could.  I began to sense that the barn project was one way in which Gordon could grasp with both hands his home, and do all he could to  set things right.  Lacking money, materials, and knowledge he gave it heart instead.

On the  last night before he would leave to return to New York, he would always  push himself into the night, dirty and tired, tucking things away.  I hold in memory one powerful image from those days.  It was late January, the last night of winter break.  We had worked so hard we didn’t feel the chill.  The  sun was setting in a cherry blaze behind the field across the road.  We both stopped to go look at it.  As we soaked it in  a hawk came from behind us, flying low toward the sunset.  A golden halo  formed around its silhouette.

Another scrap of memory I cherish– we were both stooped over at the foundation of the barn, just under the drip line from our new roof when, at my feet, I found the first arrowhead of my whole life.  “Untouched for 5000 years” as my friend Frank Bragg would say.  I grabbed it and cherished it like a gemstone.  But after graduation, when Gordon filled a moving van and climbed into the cab to go live in Brooklyn, I gave it to him.  His is the native spirit, the hawk spirit, with whom it should always reside.