I have always been a big fan of good art and a harsh critic of bad art and since my own artistic skills fall into the category of bad art, I have rarely ever indulged myself in being creative beyond writing and dabbling in architecture a bit. A few times I have wanted to try my hand at painting just to see what would happen but memories of the summer of 1985 surface whenever I think about trying it and like Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, my brain has been reprogrammed to avoid paint at all costs.
The summer and fall of ’85 was memorable for several reasons. It was the hottest summer that I can ever remember. It was the summer my Dad “hired” my best friend, my brother and I to paint his barn, just a quick little summer job. Sure it was. It was also the year of the “Farm Party” and also the year of the plane crash and all of this was centered around my father’s farm.
The barn we were to paint was actually was part of this small farm that Dad had won in a poker game one night where he bluffed a guy holding a full house with a busted flush, taking the deed to some fairly large parcel of prime farmland….well, not really but somehow that rumor got started, it took root and like the famous line from the movie ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Moreover, the job didn’t just entail painting the main barn but also the farmhouse and a smaller barn directly behind the house used for storage. Dad would supply the paint, brushes, rollers and all the drinks we wanted and for a modest hourly wage, we would supply the labor.
Let me go on and state for the record that “Labor” and I were not on the best of terms. I am not afraid of work; in fact, when it is work that I enjoy and that I feel is productive, I will often work nonstop until it is done and then refine it several times if I can to make it even better. Such was not the case with outdoor painting in the hot Georgia summertime. Dad figured for three inexperienced painters, it would be a two or three-week job. Dad’s expectation ran to the optimistic side too.
First of all, the barn in question was not the classic square red barn that would come to mind for some people. This barn was enormous, a long, low building that seemed about a hundred feet long and maybe about forty feet wide. I think it was actually bigger than the farmhouse itself. Dad had picked out this shade of dark green for it that was, I admit, an attractive color in the beginning but which later grew tiresome to look at all day long.
We would meet up in town each morning, run by the store, ice the cooler, pick up drinks and, if needed, more paint from the hardware store, then head the six miles northeast of town to the farm. We would then get the paint pans, rollers and other paraphernalia and get started. Each day we had big ambitions about how much we would get done and how much closer we were to being finished but as the hot summer sun climbed higher in the sky and the temperatures rose into the 90’s and even the 100’s, the job of painting became tediously slower as the breaks grew more frequent.
We consumed gallons of orange Gatorade and I think we went through enough green paint to cover a respectable sized battleship. The days stretched into weeks as three unmotivated, novice painters worked in spurts painting the big barn, the little barn and the farmhouse, listening to greatest hits of the 1980’s on the local radio station, drinking Gatorade and wishing we could figure out a way to put the job off on someone else. The heat was unyielding as well and breaks inside the air-conditioned house were a welcome relief even if there wasn’t a stick of furniture to speak of. Finally, after what seemed like half the summer, all three buildings were done, although there are some contested versions as to who all actually finished the job. Whatever the case, at some point I put the paintbrush down and never picked up another one again. The memories and sunburn just run too deep.
The farm was only in the family a few years but it had quite a run during those years. The “Farm Party” still gets brought up now and again in conversation. During that period, our family barbecue restaurant had won the first and only “Best Barbecue in Georgia” contest ever held by an Atlanta television station. To celebrate this momentous occasion my parents, grandparents and cousins threw a party at the farm and to this day, it is the largest party I have ever attended in my home county.
Imagine, if you will, a party that began about 5PM with a live band that lasted until well past the midnight hour. Add to that all the free barbecue and Brunswick stew plus fixings that you could eat. Now add all the beer you could drink to that and I don’t mean a keg either. They had the Budweiser truck there with the taps on the side so you just walked right up to the refrigerated truck with your cup, pulled the tap and filled it up. This had all the makings of a party of epic proportions and it was, especially since they had put an ad in the paper inviting anyone that wanted to come.
Of course, Dad assigned me and some others to direct the parking efforts for the party. The adjacent pastures had all been mowed down flat and our job was to stand there with a flashlight and turn the drivers into either one or the other as they arrived. With the sun setting and twilight coming on, the scene in retrospect looked like the closing moments in the movie Field of Dreams, where a line of cars, visible by their headlights, stretched all the way down the half mile of dirt road and then on down the paved road that it connected with for another mile or so. We did our best to get the cars into the pastures but after an hour or so of this, the sounds of all the fun and festivities got to be too much for us and we decided to abandon our post and let the cars fend for themselves.
I figured by then there were enough people at the party and it was dark enough that Dad would not notice we were not down in the north pasture so we mingled in the crowd and we sure weren’t wrong on that count. There were so many people there that town must have been completely abandoned. The rest of the county was likely easy prey for burglars since the Sheriff came and put all of his on-duty deputies at various points to direct traffic at the roadways. Fortunately there were no noise complaints issued due to the loud band, plus we were a good distance from the nearest house and all the neighbors were at the party as well. Hay bales had been put out for people to sit on and occasionally trip over coming to and from the Budweiser truck. People sat, ate barbecue, drank beer, danced, cut up and socialized and made merry into the early hours of the next morning. I don’t know how many actually came and went during the event but it was estimated to be in the thousands. Thank God that Dad didn’t assign us clean up duty the next day!
Of course, the farm was also a great place to go with your friends on the weekend and it was pretty hard to get in trouble in town if you were out in the country and far enough away from anyone that noise was never an issue. Our occasional weekend party paled in comparison to the one Dad and the rest of the family threw but we had good times, built the occasional fire, roasted marshmallows, drank beer and sat on the tailgates of pickup trucks under wide open, starry skies free from light pollution and smog.
Not long after the party to end all parties, the farm played a small part in the worst local tragedy that ever happened in our county. Several miles down the road from the farm, there used to be a local parachute jump center and the farm was a great place to watch the activities when they occurred. Small planes would go up all day and you could watch them fly slowly around and then suddenly you would see a line of parachute jumpers disgorge from the plane. The jumpers looked like small dots until the bright chutes would open up and then they would float lazily down from the sky, almost always landing near the jump center. I had watched them from my grandmother’s house a few miles in the opposite direction of the jump center from the time I was a child and I always wondered what it would be like to jump out of a plane and drift slowly back down to earth.
One day in late September of that year, one plane went up but then something went horribly wrong and the plane came hurtling back down, landing in the pasture of an adjacent farm but only a few dozen feet from ours. The pilot and sixteen parachute jumpers died instantly on impact and for several days, the entire area was inundated by reporters, investigators and those whose curiosity could not be satisfied. I had just begun EMT school at that time and was on the scene with the initial responders. It was an indoctrination into the field of emergency medicine that few hard-nosed veterans in EMS ever had to deal with, much less a student EMT with only a year of volunteer rescue service in his portfolio.
It was not long after that Dad sold the farm to a young family that had dreamed of owning such a place. I never went back there again but I still have a lot of memories of fun parties, socializing, one experience that I hope never to see again and rolling acres of green paint along the sides of a very long barn.