When Stanley Joehlin gave us his 1895 barn, we decided the most practical and cost-effective way to make it happen was to take our 1973 Winnebago up and park it in his parking lot so we could spend the weekends stripping the barn, along with any volunteers we could muster. (We fed them and put them up in a cheap local hotel.) Stan and his wife weren’t all that enamored with our band of gypsies so we were limited to using the water hookup (hot and cold) in the garage for drinking water and washing up and a port-o-let for doing our “business.”
We had Stan get a dumpster and had it placed next to the barn for all of the interlocking seal tab shingles on the roof and the brick-tex shingles that covered the beautiful old red barn siding. I was working downstairs salvaging granary boards and keeping an eye out for stray helpers who might make the mistake of walking out one of the stable doors by the dumpster for fear they would catch a floater. Shingles tend to have a mind of their own when tossed from a 24-ft.-tall barn.
While prying loose one of the boards, I caught a glimpse of someone in one of the stable doorways and turned to warn them of the danger only to find there was no one there at all. The next morning exactly the same thing happened; only this time the image was quite clear before it wasn’t there again. Kind of a dark triangular (broad shoulders narrow waste) shaped image that reminded me of caricatures I had seen done by an artist who was often featured in my dad’s Playboys that he kept hidden in his bedside end table.
Realizing Stan might decide to run the gypsies off if he realized we were hallucinating, I decided to keep the sightings from him. Deconstructing the barn went quite well, and soon the barn was lying in nice stacks ready to have the pegs driven out, nails pulled and timbers tagged before being stacked on the semi trailer. Laura and I were alone that day, and it was peaceful and pleasant until I heard Laura scream as if she had been surprised by a snake. It was instead a shriek of joy when she had pried a wooden shake off from a door post at the opening I had seen someone in only to find a note written on linen hidden behind it.
The note was clearly in a foreign language, and when Stan got home we showed it to him. He got quite excited and asked if he could show it to some of his Nordic family members in hopes they could translate it. He asked if we had found or seen anything else, a question that prompted me to divulge my “sightings,” fully expecting to be rebuffed or run off. Instead, we were invited to dinner (first time in the house after five weeks of working there) and asked to look through family scrap books to see if anyone in them might resemble the shape I had seen.
It turned out both Stan and his wife believed one of their relatives still inhabited the barn, and they were hoping I had seen that person. Looking through great old images of generations of life on the farm was really enjoyable, but, to my surprise, when we turned a page in Stan’s family scrap book, there was a picture that matched exactly the person who had been visiting me. It was Stan’s grandpa Alfred who, from what we could make of the family legend, had been stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Stan told us of being told when he was very young, and Grandpa Alfred had vanished, that grandpa had died. Then, many years later, he remembered going to his funeral. It turns out he had languished for years in a “care” facility.
Stan and his wife were quite happy to know that Alfred had actually been with them all those years. It turned out the linen was in an ancient language, which we found out a year later from someone studying ancient languages in Moscow, and was actually an “amulet” that had been placed under the shingle to curse the evil spirits that might want to start a fire on the barn’s roof. The day the truck full of timbers left, Laura and I sat in the Winnebago looking out over the field behind where the barn had stood. I was going to start the camper, which was always finicky after sitting a while, but when I turned the key, it just started like magic.
At that exact moment, a shooting star made a stripe across the sky directly above where the barn had been and pointed directly at our home at the Center of the Universe. To this day, we believe it was Alfred whose presence we still feel in the barn, which now stands across the driveway from our garage. I often wonder how many barns standing unused on the American landscape, having served generations of farm families, contain embodied spirits of their prior stewards.