SPONSORED BY GREEN MOUNTAIN POWER
The Vermont Writers’ Prize is a collaboration between GMP and Vermont Magazine. It was created in 1989 as a way to celebrate Vermont, writing, and to honor Ralph Nading Hill, Jr., a Vermont historian, author, and long-time GMP Board member. The contest is open to all Vermont residents, including seasonal and college students, and you can be a professional or amateur writer.
Serving on the panel of judges for the Vermont Writer’s Prize is one of the highlights of my role as Publisher. I love learning about people’s lives and perspectives. And certainly, great storytelling both articulates and creates a shared communal experience.
This year’s winners, “The Barn” by Douglas Robert Boardman, Jr. and “Death of a Barn” by Lindsay Knowlton, do just that.
When the judges convened this year, a funny thing happened. Alison Freeland, a former Vermont Writer’s Prize winner (and current judge) shared a remarkable story that truly captures the spirit and goal of this contest. I asked her if she would be willing to share it as part of this year’s introduction – and she kindly obliged. Enjoy the anecdote below – and congratulations to Douglas and Lindsay!
In 1994 my husband and I needed $1,500 in cash, which we definitely did not have. Nor did we have any good ideas for how to get it. It became an impossible sum looming in the shadows.
Newfane’s Moore Free Library always gave me more than books, like the poster I suddenly noticed that read, “150,000 pennies for your thoughts.” As I worked my way through the zeros, there it was, the exact sum we needed! All I had to do was write a winning short story, poem, or essay centered around the Green Mountain State. Green Mountain Power was (and still is) a co-sponsor. The contest honored Vermont writer Ralph Nading Hill Jr., and the winning entry would get published in Vermont Life Magazine.
How to craft a winning love letter to Vermont? How to be original about maple syrup, wood stoves, and mud season? I tried, but my attempts bored even me. My own experience with the state was more complicated, punctuated by battles with weather, loneliness, unsteady employment, and dark, cold winters. I began writing a story about a woman home alone when her power went out. Over time, I added death, a visit from a stranger, and finally signs of hope. I called it “Shadbush,” for the tree that blooms when the shad are going upriver in early spring. It failed at the tourist version of Vermont, but writing it helped me work through my own complicated thoughts about the state.
My husband pointed out that starting the story with a power outage probably wouldn’t endear me to Green Mountain Power.
That year, one of my part time jobs was renting out a friend’s beach villa in the Caribbean. Strategically-placed advertising generated enough phone calls to keep the place filled, giving me a small commission on every rental. The phone rang one afternoon, and I prepared to give my pitch. But the man said he was from Green Mountain Power, and I thought he was trying to sell me energy-efficient light bulbs. Didn’t he understand, we needed $1500, not light bulbs? But the man said something about winning. “You won,” he kept repeating, and it slowly dawned on me that “Shadbush” had won the contest.
Yes, the money was miraculous, but what came after was the true treasure. The prize opened doors. I began writing for the local paper, which led to my becoming a reporter for VPR, writing stories about Vermont from every angle. Today, the Vermont Writer’s Prize has a new home in this magazine, and I’ve become one of the judges. It’s one of my favorite activities of the year, because I know firsthand what can happen for the writer who gets that phone call.
By Douglas Robert Boardman, Jr.
Shortly after his 78h birthday, my great-uncle George was standing on his toes at the very end of a ladder, replacing the trim halfway up the side of his barn. He’d been working out there all day in some rare 90-degree heat, probably without a drop of water, when he must have passed out, fallen off the ladder, rolled about twenty feet down a hill into the tall grass and laid there dazed for twenty minutes or so. When he came to, he walked back up the hill, climbed the ladder again and finished the job. Since I lived a couple miles down the road from the farm, I often stopped in to visit on my way home from work, and this time in particular, I noticed that his bushy gray beard and long hair were more disheveled than usual, and he was especially cranky, and after George mentioned something about not being able to sleep and related the afore-mentioned details, I finally convinced him to visit a doctor--so we headed off to Burlington and the emergency room. It turned out George had two cracked ribs and a mild concussion. On the way home we argued about the cause of the accident.
“You probably had heat stroke, George. Next time, you need to drink more water and sit in the shade,” I said.
“That had nothing to do with it,” George said. “It was that goddam barn. If it would just stay put, I wouldn’t have to keep fixing it. And there must be something wrong with the ladder too. Why do they put that warning on there to stay off the top rung? What good is it if you can’t stand on it?”
George Bliss was a farmer, plain and simple—like his father and grandfather, and great-grandfather Augustus Bliss. Sometime around 1866, a year after he returned from the War Between the States, Augustus finished the barn he had started before leaving. It’s a testament to the tenacious Yankee perseverance of Augustus that he managed to complete the project with only his right arm, having lost the left to a minie ball at Cedar Creek.
More than 70 years later, George was an only child and had just turned 18 when he went off to fight a different war in the South Pacific. When the fighting was done, he folded up his uniform and put it in a box at the bottom of his closet. George never married and lived in the old house until his parents passed on and he was left alone to do the only thing he ever knew how to do.
He milked 80-100 head of cows, sold the occasional yearling heifer, and mowed about 150 acres, selling whatever sileage he didn’t feed to his own livestock. Meanwhile, the tie-stall barn that Augustus built had become a patchwork quilt of tin, tarpaper, and two-by-eights. The lime whitewash inside was a faded gray and dry rot had set in several of the main support beams. As a result, it groaned and swayed on windy days, complaining of old age and overwork.
In fact, over the years the barn had taken on an almost malevolent air and George felt like he had spent half his life skirmishing with it. More than once, he’d torn his trousers on a nail, banged his head on a beam, or tripped over a loose floorboard. It had started to sag at one end where it leaked in the summer while the corners filled up with snow in the winter. The cows, who preferred to stay neutral, never complained as long as they got fed and milked according to schedule. As for George, he looked on the barn with
suspicion and it came to represent all that was wrong about farming and life in general.
A few years after the ladder incident, the old-timer was creeping into his 80’s and had to sell the cows and lease out his fields. By then, the barn and George were both on their last legs anyway. A builder from Stowe came by and offered him a dollar a board, said he had some clients that wanted that “authentic” look for the inside of their house, but George said he wouldn’t wish that barn on anyone and anyway, he needed a place to keep his old farm equipment.
He was using a walker at that point, lifting and scooting it forward, then shuffling ahead in his black rubber galoshes. One evening in late March, after a foot of snow fell in one weekend, George noticed the door to the milk room had blown open. He was right alongside the barn when the metal roof decided to dump a section of its load precisely on top of him.
It was probably the walker that stopped George from being smothered. Although he was covered up at the bottom of the pile, it must have given him enough air space to breathe. I was running late on my way home and noticed no lights were on in the house so I swung into George’s place. I was walking up the drive when I heard muffled yelling from a snowdrift. I grabbed a shovel off the porch and started digging and the more I dug into that snow, the louder the noise got. Finally, I found George curled up under the walker, his Blue Seal cap pushed down over his nose, cussing at the barn, the snow, and at me for not shoveling fast enough.
I got him into the house without further incident, made him some hot tea, and he sent me on my way. A few days later I heard from a neighbor who said George was having trouble getting out of bed and complaining of pains in his stomach.
So, I finished work early and sure enough, he could barely walk to the car for our ride to the big hospital in Burlington. He was too stubborn to admit it, but I could see he was in a lot of pain.
“I must have drunk some milk that went sour,” was George’s self-diagnosis.
After five hours of assorted tests and scans, the doctors informed George that the stomachaches were not from bad milk, but from a cancer that appeared to have spread through most of his body. They scheduled a biopsy to make sure, but they were pretty certain that George’s time was limited and any treatment would be questionable at best. They agreed that setting up hospice at home was the best course of action. Later in the car, I stayed quiet until we got off the thruway and onto the main road but I was frustrated and angry.
“If you had gone in sooner, they might have helped you,” I said.
“Gone in where? To the hospital? By jeezus, I’d rather die than go to a hospital,” snorted George, shaking his head.
We looked at each other and then burst out laughing so hard that I had to slap George on the back with my right hand to stop him from coughing, while I steered like a drunk with my left.
After another hospital trip and a positive biopsy, the old farmer agreed to the hospice idea, so the visiting nurses set up a rotation and I stopped in every evening to visit. George didn’t argue much but insisted we move his bed into the dining room where he could keep an eye on the dilapidated barn. “I don’t trust it,” he said. “I know it’s up to something.” Another time he said, “I survived the Japanese Army, I guess I’ll outlive a bunch of two-bys and plywood.”
Meanwhile, the barn sagged slowly spine first and seemed to be collapsing in on itself, and the lower it got, the faster it went. George watched it through his dining room window and he thought about the ladder and the snow and smiled. “You almost got me, didn’t ya?” I heard him say one time. But he mostly didn’t say much because by now it was just him and the barn, and it was about the memories they shared as adversaries and ultimately friends, as sometimes happens when you come to respect your enemy over time.
One morning in mid-April, the overnight nurse woke and noticed the old barn had finally collapsed in a heap of spring thaw. In the dining room, George had his head turned toward the window, his eyes closed and a smile on his face. Which one had given in first and who survived longest, no one knows and it doesn’t matter anyway.
He left most of the property to the land trust while the rest was sold off and the money divided among us relatives. Still, I imagine some nights around dusk when I’m driving past the place, I can hear the sound of an old farmer cussing at a barn. Maybe it’s just the wind, but you never know.
Douglas Robert Boardman, Jr. is an award-winning journalist, teacher and musician. The author has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Johnson State College and a Master’s in English from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College and studied at Oxford University as a Wallace Foundation Scholar. He has taught humanities in Lamoille County for almost 30 years and currently is the academics coordinator at the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park, VT.
Boardman has served on the advisory boards for the National Writing Project, the Green Mountain Writing Project, and the Vermont Council of Teachers of Language Arts, and is currently on the board of directors for United Way-Lamoille County and Green Mountain Access Television. He is also a volunteer at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, the largest residential arts community in the country.
He lives in Johnson with his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Gale, and their English cream golden retriever, Snowy. His family heritage in Vermont dates back to the Revolutionary War and he is proud to call himself a “Vermonter”.
About the story:
“The Barn” is a fictional composite of true events that happened to my grandfather and great-uncle. They are typical of the real “Green Mountain Men” (or Women) that can—and will--do anything, because they are too stubborn not to do it and because if they don’t do it, who will? My father Doug Sr. is almost 85 years old, and he is the oldest working master plumber in the whole state of Vermont. I am not nearly as rugged as the men who came before me, but at least I can write about them.
Death of a BARN-GREENSBORO, VERMONT By Lindsay Knowlton
Pride of its weathervane far past remembrance
and stately cupola doomed,
the abandoned barn has long yearned to sit down,
and now after years
of wind and weather goading its boards,
the barn will have its way.
With stray sections of sheet metal
Now torn away and
odd shafts of light streaming through,
the roof has gathered momentum
quickening its downward slide.
Not a crosspiece level,
no upright plumb,
its sagging shell has begun to bulge
and taken up a fitful
clanging and moaning.
Last year’s doves, who for a while
nested high in the loft,
have made themselves scarce.
With the cows long gone and
stanchions now near collapse,
blessed by the wind in the rafters,
the ghosts in the stalls
soon too will give up all pretense and
gratefully sink to their knees.
Lindsay Knowlton has lived with her late partner, poet, Burt Porter, in an old farmhouse in Glover, Vermont for a quarter of a century. She received her MFA degree in poetry from Warren Wilson College. She has published poems in many journals and a book of poetry EARTHLY FREIGHT with I Universe on Amazon. She has twice been a fellow at MacDowell. She is a former recipient of a fellowship from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. She is an avid birder, traveler, reader and walker.