The summer I was 11 years old, my grandfather called the family together for a reunion on the farm. All of his children and their children set aside their plans so they could share a few sultry August days together.
I particularly looked forward to this time to spend with my cousins swimming in the farm pond, riding the old work horse, playing with piglets, scaring ourselves silly in the woods, and sleeping in the hay loft. My dad arranged his work so that we were the first to arrive, on Wednesday evening. That meant I was part of the welcoming committee as my father’s brother and two sisters arrived with their families over the next couple of days. The plan was to spend Friday evening and all day Saturday together and then leave after Grandma’s big Sunday dinner.
On Friday morning, Grandpa hitched the wagon to the tractor and took us back to the woods so we could make all the noise we wanted without disturbing the adults. We ran around playing variations of tag, did some exploring, and tried to figure out how to get a fat old porcupine out of an elm tree. After a while, we heard the tractor returning and ran to the edge of the woods to catch a ride back to the house.
That lunch was one of the best I ever had. I still remember it sharply though it was more that 40 years ago now. We always enjoyed Grandma’s good cooking, but that simple meal was outstanding. She’d found enough mature ears of corn to pick and husk, then boiled and served them with an open pound of butter to roll them in. Beside the platter of corn was a plate of thick sliced tomatoes straight from the garden. I ate corn until I thought I’d explode. My face was a buttery mess by the time I finished.
I was dumping my corncobs into the big bucket Grandma kept for kitchen waste for the pigs, when the phone rang. Grandma’s usually calm voice got louder as she talked to the unknown caller. In a moment or two, she rushed out with her apron flying and announced that there was a grass fire over on the Donnelly’s place. They wanted every able-bodied man and boy to get over there as quickly as possible to fight it. I was the youngest cousin present and begged my mother to let me go. She looked at my grandfather, who nodded subtly, then said, “Okay, you can go, but stay near Grandpa.”
As I ran toward Grandpa’s pickup truck, I could hear him shouting to my uncles to get empty burlap bags from the granary and shovels from the drive shed. When they returned, the men tossed their bags and shovels into the back and jumped into the cab, yelling at us cousins to get into the back and keep the bags from flying out. The three of us sat with our backs against the cab and our legs stretched out in front of us. We found we could control the bags and make the ride more comfortable by sitting on some and stuffing the rest behind us.
I don’t know how fast Grandpa was driving, but we kids in the back were glad to be huddled down behind the cab so as not to be tossed out when he went over a pothole. In all my years, I never experienced anything so exhilarating. Soon, we could smell smoke, prompting an adrenaline rush that was almost overwhelming. I was shaking with excitement by the time we arrived.
We pulled into the yard amid dozens of cars and pickups, and scrambled out. We all had bags and the men had shovels as well. The fire burned particularly fiercely along the fences. This was a part of the country where fences were built with split cedar rails. Once the fire got into a fence it spread the flames unbelievably quickly. A few men had run ahead and were dismantling sections of fence to try to stop the fire’s advance.
Some of the Donnelly’s neighbours had wrestled a horse watering trough onto the back of a pickup truck, filled it from the pond and driven it out to the burned off area just behind the fire line. There we could soak our bags, so that they didn’t catch fire as we beat out the flames.
As he ran across the field toward the fire, Grandpa yelled to us, “I won’t leave without anybody. We’re going to get separated. When we’re done, we’ll all meet back at the truck.” Though my mother had told me to stay with him, I hadn’t said I would and Grandpa’s words were all I needed to set me free to run off with my cousins.
More friends and neighbours continued to show up, hoping to save as much of the crops as they could. Fortunately, the wind that day wasn’t too strong, so with a lot of effort, we were able to get the fire under control and, eventually, extinguished, saving the neighbours’ farms and everyone was grateful for that.
For a while, we stood in the middle of the field, watching for wisps of smoke signalling places from which the fire might reignite. When the men were satisfied that we had done all that we could, we straggled back across the blackened field and congregated in the Donnelly’s yard, where refreshments were provided for the dry, weary crew. We all stood around feeling quite satisfied with ourselves. I look back on that day as my rite of passage, when I crossed the line from boyhood to manhood.
Mr. Donnelly’s neighbours gathered around to encourage him. His barns and cattle had been saved and, fortunately, the hay was already in, but he’d lost his grain crops. I watched as one by one the neighbours approached him, offering to give him a portion of their own harvest. I was amazed at how many friends this man seemed to have.
Later that evening as the story was retold, for the benefit of the last carload of relatives to arrive, I commented on all the friends Mr. Donnelly had. Grandpa said, “Son, you need to understand something. Not everybody who showed up to fight the fire is a ‘friend’ of Mr. Donnelly, in the usual sense of the word, but we’re all neighbours and that’s why we were there. In the country, neighbours understand that there are some things they just have to do. Grown-ups would call it a ‘moral obligation.’ Are you following me?”
I nodded. I thought I was understanding at the time, but it wasn’t until much later that I really got what he was driving at.
“You need to know,” he continued, “that when your neighbour is in trouble, you have to go to his aid, just as he would come to yours. You help whether or not you consider that man a friend. If you are his neighbour, you’re going to do that. Right?”
Again I nodded.
“Friendship is a great thing,” said my grandfather. “I have lots of friends and Mr. Donnelly has lots of friends, but if only your friends showed up to help you on a day like this, you’d be in big trouble. There were people fighting that fire today, who don’t particularly like Mr. Donnelly, but they were there because he was a neighbour in need.”
Finally, he shifted his attention to my aunts and uncles. “I don’t know what it’s like in the city,” he said, “but out here being a neighbour still means something.”
Since that day, I’ve replayed a mental movie of the event over and over, its intense emotion lodging it solidly in my mind. It gave me a glimpse of a world that I never experienced before or since. There was something about the bond among us as we fought the fire together that left a lasting impression on me. I’ve never forgotten my grandfather’s words about being a neighbour. While I have friends today and cherish them, I’m aware that I’m also a neighbour to all around me and try to be a good one—the kind of neighbour that my grandfather would be glad to have.