Rumney, N.H. — Jem led the way to the barn. That's how my Saturday morning started at Salem Children's Village. Spring was sneaking into this New Hampshire area with small signs -- rivulets of melting snow and frozen roads turning to mud -- but for the most part nature was still stripped to the severity of winter.
Together, Jem (his name, like those of all the other youngsters, has been changed for this article) and I fed and watered Salem's horses, pitched manure, and swept out the stalls. Then we turned the horses out to pasture, along with the two goats.
``Humph,'' Jem said when I had finished spreading sawdust on a stall floor. ``More in the corners. That's where they get it the dirtiest.''
I tried harder on the next stall and got the B rating of ``better'' from my young taskmaster.
``How old do you think I am?'' he asked.
I looked at the curly brown hair and cherub face that seemed straight out of a boys' church choir. ``Fifteen?'' I asked, hoping I had guessed a shade older than he was.
He was clearly pleased. ``That's really a compliment, Hattie. Really. I'm 14, and I wanna be older.''
With neither bridle nor saddle, he struggled to mount the gelding. On the fourth try, he made it.
``You have to be pretty big to do that,'' I said.
``I don't ever hit the animals,'' he confided. And he was as proud of that accomplishment as any athlete winning an Olympic gold medal. Jem came from a background where beatings were the norm, and during his early days at Salem he mirrored that behavior. But no more.
By the time we returned to the house, the other kids had completed their chores: the basement was clean, the downstairs vacuumed, the kitchen shipshape, and all bedrooms in order -- sort of.
Jem and I sank into the couch, a vintage piece worn at the arms but high in comfort rating. The wood stove sputtered, and we could hear Sam chopping kindling. Billy was busy painting a big-eared fly on poster paper, and on the porch Susan sat wrapped in her blanket, waiting for chickadees to come to the feeder. All the while Dan Becker, the ``dad'' of the house, watched -- without appearing watchful. There's a knack to that.
At meal time I drew kitchen crew with Ernie, 16. We chopped cabbage and onions and peppers to go into the egg rolls. And we talked, mostly small talk about girlfriends and boys wearing long hair and the new glasses he was going to get, and that he likes Spanish and is good at it.
``I know more Spanish than the rest of the class,'' he said. ``All the four-letter words, I know, and they want me to tell 'em. But I won't. I know 'em because I hung out with guys that used 'em.''
He waited a while then said, ``I don't fight no more. Where I come from, you fought to protect yourself. In town here, they just fight to act big. That's got to be dumb. Real dumb. Now I don't fight no more.''
Dinner was a scene straight out of Emily Post but with the relaxed air of habit, not put-on manners. Candles were lit. No one started to eat before everyone else was served. ``Please pass the bread'' took the place of a Paul Bunyan reach across the table. And no one seemed to notice when Ernie picked all the peppers out of his egg roll.
It was early evening when Jem and I made one more trip to the barn to make sure the horses and goats were bedded down and that the barn cats had a treat of yogurt and cheese. When I left, Jem didn't say goodbye, but ``take care,'' and I knew he meant it.
To get to Salem, I had battled Friday rush-hour traffic out of Boston, driven 130 miles plus 20 more because I got lost. Three long hours.
Then, in the Salem home, I read the plaque in the front hall, ``The road to a friend's house is never long.''