When I was thirteen, I had a best friend named Ace. He lived down the hill from me in our suburban McLean, Virginia neighborhood, and we spent a lot of time playing army in the woods in back of our houses. Hanging out with Ace was a lot of fun, because he was an only child and always had the best and newest toys, while I was the oldest of five and had to do a lot of sharing. At Christmas time, Ace’s house looked like Santa’s workshop, strewn with plastic guns, electric trains, car modeling kits and action figures. He was a bit of an odd kid, but I liked him.
Ace’s mother was unique in my limited experience of women. She wore her hair short, dressed in jeans, and drove an early Ford Bronco. And she was part owner of a farm off of Route 7 in Sterling, Virginia. Since Ace didn’t have many other friends, she sort of took me under her wing, and on Saturday mornings we would climb in her car, drive past the sign in the cornfield that said, “Future Home of Tyson’s Corner Shopping Center” and head for the country. I spent a lot of happy times out there, doing chores for a little spending money, and exploring the interesting sights, sounds, and smells of a working farm.
We would do things like picking up hay bales in the field and stacking them on a wagon pulled behind the tractor, or cleaning out the barn. They had a small flock of sheep there, and one time we had to catch the male lambs to castrate them, which was done by placing a tight rubber band around their testicles, causing them to shrivel and fall off a week or so later. Another time we had to catch sheep for shearing, and I came home all oiled up from the lanolin in their wool. And once, a pack of dogs from a neighboring farm attacked the sheep when no one was around, killing about 15 of them, and we had to stack the bloody corpses in the pickup and dump them in a hollow. Ace had a sharp knife, and we cut open the belly of a pregnant sheep for a vivid impromptu anatomy lesson.
Speaking of anatomy lessons, Ace’s mother’s partner in the farm was an old country doctor, Doc McGriff. He had a stack of ancient medical books stored in the barn, which Ace and I perused avidly for the gory black and white photos. One section of a book was devoted to farm injuries, and some of the pictures stick in my mind even today. Apparently, a lot of injuries are caused by a device called a power take off, which is a rotating shaft on a tractor used to power other farm equipment. If you got too close, it could snag your clothing and rip off a limb or kill you. The book had a page of grisly photos of men whose penises were torn off, which was an extremely terrifying thought for two thirteen year-old boys. Actually, I’m getting a bit squeamish right now just remembering it.
One Saturday, Ace’s mother took us with her to the livestock auction in some little rural Virginia town. I think I had gotten permission from my parents to purchase a rabbit, and I was kind of excited about the prospect of having a pet. Of course, I knew nothing about how auctions worked, but when the man reached into a crate of rabbits and pulled one out, and the bidding started, I was right there with my hand up. I won, with a bid of something like 75 cents, and went up to claim my rabbit. That’s when I found out I had bought the entire crate of a dozen bunnies. Ace’s mom was a bit pissed, but she lent me the extra money I needed and helped load my crate into the Bronco. I ended up being allowed to keep three of them, and the other neighborhood kids became the beneficiaries of my largesse as I dispensed rabbits to all comers. I remember the kid across the street took two bunnies, who each promptly gave birth to 4 or 5 babies. His parents must have loved me.
Those days I spent on that farm come back to me every time I smell the sweet scent of new-mown hay, see dust sparkling in the sun through a crack in a barn wall, or hear the sounds of a flock of sheep. Even though the farm is long gone, gobbled up for housing developments in the voracious Washington real estate market, I can still close my eyes and see it, and feel lucky.
Because for a few golden summers, I got to be a farm kid.