If I could, I would give every child a few early years within easy reach of a haystack. Today, long past childhood and far from the ranch where I was born, I look out on a modern barn. Its 20-foot pole legs support a metal roof that shelters tons of hay - all baled. Yesterday, a giant motorized monster finished gobbling the bales from the field and stacked them domino-neat under the high barn. The process was quick and efficient. Piled bales, however, hold neither the challenge nor the dream-inducing fragrance of a mound of fresh-cut alfalfa.
When I was a child, the hay we fed our small dairy herd in winter was summer-grown by my father on our ranch. "Five crops again this year," Dad would say, hiding a proud smile behind a weathered hand. He and Orville, our hired man, hand-forked load after pungent load onto the hay wagon, before it was towed to the stack by our team, Nellie and Duke.
Once the heaped wagon was parked next to the haystack, Dad took his place on a rig he'd remodeled from an old mowing machine. It was simply two wheels, a seat above an axle, and a tongue to which Nellie and Duke were harnessed. This "bay stacker" controlled one end of a cable that ran from the stacker through a pulley high on a pole and dangled a clamshell-like loading fork.
Dad's gloved hands gripped the reins as he talked the horses slowly forward, keeping watch over his shoulder. The great forkful of hay lifted off the wagon. Orville stood on the stack, guiding the laden steel-jawed pendulum with a pitchfork.
"Drop 'er!" Dad shouted.
Orville jerked a cord. The jaws opened, dropping the load exactly where it was needed to "square out the stack." Nellie and Duke, obeying Dad's command, then backed until the big fork lowered to bite again into the hay on the wagon.
My sisters and I watched, holding our breaths between each lift and drop. But for us, the stack was much more than winter food for the cows. It was our tower of retreat for daring and reverie. Once the last cut of hay had been stacked, we'd climb the ladder to lie on the fragrant cushion, eyes toward the sky. We chewed sweet alfalfa stems and spun grand tales of future travels and careers that would rival movie queens Loretta Young and Myrna Loy.
The stack's height was a barometer of the seasons. It was also the annual test of my skill - and my courage - the soaring leap from the barn roof onto the springy platform.
By spring, the past summer's hay reserves had dropped well below the highest edge of the barn's roof that slanted, shed-like, its ridge paralleling the haystack. Now I could plan my leap. It was an easy climb up the board fence onto the low edge of the roof. From there, the ascent was scary.
Barefoot, the better to cling to the slippery surface, I grasped the sharp, wavy edges of corrugated tin and brought my legs up, one knee at a time, against the sun-warmed metal. Clinging with hands and toes, I inched along the grooves on my stomach as I headed for the high ridge of the barn roof. I wasn't brave enough to walk upright. If I fell, I had a fast roll into the manure-thick corral. On my left was a sheer drop of about 15 feet - the narrow chasm between the barn and the haystack.
When I finally reached the jumping spot, opposite the middle of the stack, I rose slowly, arms outstretched for balance, until I gained full height. For a few exhilarating moments I savored the panorama before me. To the east, the dusty blues and purples of the Inyo Range wavered with shifting cloud shadows. On the west, the craggy Sierra cupped a glacier above its snow-lined face. They were the guardians of my beautiful world, but I couldn't gaze for long, lest I lose my balance.
The distance down to the hay was about 10 feet. I filled my lungs with the warm spring air and leaped, expelling my breath in a yell, caught for seconds in a time capsule of triumph before I crashed spread- eagled on the resilient hay.
Now, as I look at the modern barn, I've made a decision. Before the grandchildren come, we'll hold back a small stack from the baler and heap it near the tool shed. The kids can get to the roof from the corral fence. Everyone should have a haystack where he can test himself between earth and sky and shout the joy of leaps into life.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor