Creative Nonfiction, Margaret Hawthorn

Farm Boy

by Margaret Hawthorn

“Gordon’s eyes are up,” Everett announced. Everett, we would find, liked to be the bearer of news, especially if it was bad.

My husband Bruce cracked the last egg into a bowl. First morning on the job, he planned to serve scrambled eggs, pancakes, and bacon. “What does that mean?” he asked.

On cue, Gordon groped his way into the kitchen, his arms stretched out before him to locate the refrigerator or any other obstacle in his path. His irises had rolled up under his top eyelids, leaving two eerie strips of white showing.

Bruce called Ulysse, the man who had just sold us this place.

“I forgot to tell you,” said Ulysse. “Gordon’s eyes go up when he gets tense. They’ll get back to normal in a while.”

Gordon and Everett were among the thirteen men who came into our care overnight with our purchase of Camelot Farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts. Built around 1850 as an inn on a well-traveled stage coach route between northern New England and Boston, Camelot had seen a number of incarnations. It was called Sunnyside Acres in the 1940s and ’50s, when it served as a summer hostelry for lady school teachers who came out from Boston and Cambridge to paint and enjoy the fresh air. Yvonne Harrington, an elderly neighbor who still lives on the common, grew up in the old parsonage next door and worked in Sunnyside’s kitchen in her teens.

Over time the building fell into disrepair, becoming so derelict in the 1960s that the forty-room house, barn, and forty-five acres sold for $7,000 to a man from town who had long dreamed of owning a house on the common. He called it his Camelot.

After couple more changes of hands, a military veteran named Ted Messier moved in with his wife and thirteen children. Once their children began leaving the nest, the Messiers took in disabled veterans who were psychiatric patients at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Bedford, MA. Ulysse bought Camelot in 1972, continuing to run it as a veterans’ home. By 1978 Ulysse knew this wasn’t his calling.

Bruce and I thought it might be ours. On an unseasonably warm day in October of that year we arrived with our infant daughter Molly, two cats, and all our possessions tucked into an old Volkswagen van.

We knew to expect anxiety among the residents with the handover; we didn’t know someone’s eyeballs might disappear. Establishing trust in us could be a stretch for a group of men who were mostly our parents’ age. In the meantime, there would be testing and comparisons, often with grating comments like, “Ulysse didn’t do it that way.”

Gordon with fresh cut asparagus from the garden

Gordon’s handsome, youthful face with piercing blue eyes and rosy cheeks belied his fifty years. He was one of the few non-smokers in the house, and had no history of alcohol use. In constant motion, he paced or shifted his weight from foot to foot any time he wasn’t going from point A to point B.

He liked to help around the house, but struggled with voices in his head that scolded him for never getting anything right. Before we arrived, he had taken on the job of wiping the dining room tables after meals. When he felt well, he was proud of his work. When the voices gripped him, he got confused and fretted that he shouldn’t have accepted such a big responsibility. Sometimes, like a needle stuck in a record groove, his mind would catch and he would wipe one spot with the same circular motion over and over. “Looks good, Gordon,” was enough to break the spell so he could move on.

His roots were in farming. His family ran an apple orchard and produce stand on the last working farm in their eastern Massachusetts town. He hadn’t made it through boot camp—he was a sweet country boy who never belonged in the military, despite his family’s hopes that the Army would be good for him. In a way it did help, because it qualified him for the lifelong medical and psychiatric care he would need for his schizophrenia. Gordon had two goals: to return to his family farm, and to live to the age of one hundred.

The big wooden barn behind Camelot had housed dairy cattle at one time, but it stood empty and rundown when we moved in. I saw past the rubble, and imagined the noises and smells of farm animals. In the field, an old claw-footed bathtub that once served as a watering trough waited to be filled again.

October was too late to start with livestock that first year. We could make plans, though, about how to best use the space inside, what kinds of animals we wanted to raise, and where to put a garden. With Molly in a front pack, I spent crisp fall days clearing away broken glass.

I had lots of help. In our early years at Camelot, more than half of the men who lived with us had grown up in rural New England and served during World War II. Even those who didn’t have a direct connection with farming loved country life. Most of them jumped in on the project, sharing my enthusiasm for putting the barn back to use, but Gordon was my right hand guy. He carted wheelbarrow loads of trash to the dumpster, growing ever more animated about where we would get the animals, what we would feed them, and how they did things on his family’s farm.

The men were turning out to be a handful, more than the doddering old shell-shock victims originally described to us. We found out about the practice of lipping meds (keeping them in your mouth until you leave the dining room and then spitting them out) when a resident punched out a window on the second floor late one November night because he saw a face staring in at him. EMTs arrived in a VA ambulance, strapped a straight jacket on him, and took him away—the only time I ever saw a straight jacket put to use. In the man’s closet Bruce found a coffee can half full of meds he had lipped.

Winter swooped in with a Thanksgiving Day blizzard. We didn’t see bare ground again until the following March. Work on the barn stopped as we settled into learning how to care for the men and raise a baby. In just three months we had become parents, moved to a different state, and taken on a new, potentially high stress kind of work. We needed time to regroup.

During the day Gordon sometimes pushed Molly in her carriage, circling between the kitchen, dining room, and parlor. His greatest pleasure, however, was helping Bruce, to whom he developed a powerful loyalty. As Bruce tackled the endless repairs and renovations involved in keeping an old ark like Camelot afloat, Gordon was on hand, fetching supplies, handing him nails, and helping with clean-up. To Gordon’s delight, they discovered a cosmic connection—they shared a birthday, twenty years apart.

In the spring, they left off on house projects long enough to equip a barn stall with a heat lamp and a brooder box for twenty fluffy, day-old chicks who would grow into our first laying hens. Then they cleaned out another stall and built a milking stand.

Through the winter I had experimented with drinking goat milk, which more closely resembles human milk than cow milk does, making it easier for sensitive stomachs to digest. Molly’s colicky tummy fared better when I switched over. Soon I was making goat yogurt and goat cheese as well.

By spring we had become friends with several goat owners, whose social lives revolved around milking schedules. I was taken with the personalities of goats and their owners, and drawn to the daily rhythm of milking. We made a trip to a goat farm in Epping, New Hampshire, to pick up Tally and Nina, two Toggenburg does.

We set off for Epping in a Checker Cab we’d tracked down in Vermont. The Checker had close to 200,000 miles on the odometer when we bought it, and was going strong. Besides being sturdily built, it had good carrying capacity, with roomy bench seats in front and back plus two jump seats behind the driver and front passenger. Gordon rode along, buckled into the jump seat behind Bruce.

Nina was a yearling who would be ready to breed the following fall. Tally, having just freshened for a second time, came with excellent production records. Before we left Epping, the farmer put Tally on a stand so we could practice milking. She showed us how to squeeze from the top down, to trap the milk and press it out instead of backing it up into the udder. Tally’s teats were easy to hold, and the milk flowed in thick streams.

Recently, I came across a photo taken in the driveway the day we brought the goats home. Still anchored in the jump seat, Gordon has his arms wrapped around Tally, whose head sticks out a back window. Nina’s tail end is visible as she appears ready to leap from the other side of the car.

Twelve men watched us unload Nina and Tally and lead them into the barn. Life at Camelot Farm was getting more interesting by the day. That evening, with Bruce behind me holding Molly, I coaxed Tally onto the milk stand. Gordon stood next to Bruce. I filled Tally’s grain dish, placed a shiny stainless steel bowl under her belly, and squeezed her teats. Nothing happened. I massaged her udder, talked to her, and squeezed again. Nothing. She let out a mournful bleat.

Bruce had no better luck than I. Poor Tally. In the hands of bumbling novices she was scared to let down her milk, but her swollen udder needed relief. I thought of calling one of our goatherd friends to come bail us out. Bruce looked at Gordon.

“Your family used to raise dairy cows, didn’t they?”

Gordon shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I…I only milked cows, not goats,” he stammered.

“Gordon, you can milk the goat.”

There’s no telling what the voices in his head were shouting at him, but his desire to help Bruce won out. “I’ll try.”

With a robotic movement, he grasped Tally’s teats. The way a body remembers how to ride a bicycle, Gordon’s body held the memory of how to milk an animal, using sure, steady strokes. When he stripped her teats out a few minutes later, Tally’s udder was soft and pliant, and the bowl was filled with frothy milk.

Daughter Molly, age 3, and one of Tally’s offspring

We didn’t put him in charge of milking—the responsibility would have been too much. Tally relaxed, we relaxed, and barn chores became routine.

Gradually, we added turkeys, ducks, pigs, sheep, a couple horses, and a miniature mule to our menagerie, and two more daughters to our family.

We’d been at Camelot about ten years when Gordon’s voices got worse. He gave up doing the tables and his eyes rolled up frequently as he wandered about the house. None of the medications helped. With huge regret, we conceded that we couldn’t keep him safe or provide the kind of care he needed.

We would have to make this call many times in our three decades at Camelot. In time the decision to re-hospitalize someone became clearer, but not easier. Three members of our original crew lived with us until they died in their late eighties, early in the twenty-first century. They were the exceptions; few of the two hundred or so other men who came into our care lasted that long.

Gordon never recovered enough to return to Camelot or his family’s farm. He didn’t make it to one hundred either, but he accomplished other things. A New England farm boy to the core, he helped restore life to an empty, unused barn. He did more than that, though. His enthusiasm in those early days for joining in whatever projects we took on, spurred us on to turn Camelot from a bare bones boarding house into a lively community. Like Gordon, most of the men who lived with us over the years felt they were part of something special, even when the outside world didn’t necessarily tell them that.

Front: Bruce and Margaret, and their daughters, Molly, Sadie, and Ruby
Front: Bruce and Margaret, and their daughters,
Molly, Sadie, and Ruby
Back: the Knights of Camelot

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