Whenever someone new visited the farm, it was “snipe huntin’ season” for my brother, Wayne, and I. We’d wrangle some paper bags, bed sheets and canned peas, and off we’d trudge into the deep woods with our innocent guest close behind.
“There are snipes in these woods,” Wayne would caution in his best John Wayne, “and if we don’t hunt ‘em dead tonight, you can say good-bye to your precious night’s sleep.” No matter the weather, our guest would turn frigid, but grit his teeth with fortitude. There was no looking pale in front of the Pensenstadler boys.
Now snipes, as the legend went, only came out at night, when the thick darkness met the evening fog, and boy did they love canned peas. As luck would have it, we boys hated canned peas, so when Rose went looking in the pantry, she’d have to settle for corn or carrots, which just so happened to be our favorite. Snipes could keep a kid up all night, scratching the rooftop and snarling for food.
“And let me warn you,” Wayne continued, “a snipe’s appetite is never satisfied.”
When the moment was just right, my brother would hurry ahead, pulling our guest with him into a bed of wet grass. They’d lie there with bated breath, and I’d hear Wayne whisper,
“Don’t make a sound.”
Our guest’s heart rate gathered the seconds like a rising tide. Then suddenly, a rustling in the wings; it started soft then grew until it was nearly right in front of them.
“Snipe!” Wayne would yell and charge forward with a bedsheet raised to trap the wild beast. Our guest, meanwhile, would run screaming toward the lights of the farmhouse, vowing never to enter those wretched woods again.
“Nice work, Roy,” Wayne would laugh, and wrap me triumphantly in the bedsheet, a great white snipe in boy’s clothing.
When I think back on it, I do feel a little bad for our bleary-eyed guests who’d emerge from their night terrors come breakfast, barely able to eat the bacon Wayne and I so readily devoured. A snipe’s appetite is never satisfied, after all.
The guest would ultimately get the last laugh when Rose hollered, “Who muddied the bed sheets?” and made Wayne and me spend the afternoon washing and hanging them on the line.
Wayne & Roy the "Snipe Hunters"
Legends grew large on Butternut Road and weaved their way throughout the generations—like the missing stairs in the barn that Penny said horses ate one winter when they were starving or the fugitive hideout that Chris and Lisa stumbled upon or the severity of Wayne’s injuries when he fell from an apple tree at age 14.
But no legend ever rivaled that of the missing diamond ring.
In the summer of 1948, my parents attended the wedding of a dear friend’s son. As a gift, they allowed the newlyweds to honeymoon at the farm. The happy couple traveled all the way from Carnegie, but when they arrived, the farmhouse was packed; the entire Pensenstadler family was already there for the summer. So the honeymooners were redirected to the barn, where the only bed was a pile of hay in the loft. Most of the quilts and pillows were already claimed, but Rose managed to find a few sheets in storage, all be them marred with grass and mud stains from our bygone days of snipe huntin’. To make matters worse, the bride’s ring had yet to be resized (and she refused to be without it), so the diamond dangled from her finger, secured only in a clenched fist. Well, the ring must have slipped from her finger as she slept one evening, because when she awoke, her precious ring was gone.
We searched everywhere—every pocket, every floorboard, every straw of hay. Rose checked the washer and wringer, the linens on the line, and Penny searched every drain. We spent countless hours looking for that ring over the years. We’d forget for a time, months would pass, and then someone would casually say, “that reminds me of the diamond in the barn!” and the search would reignite tenfold.
We’d jump from the highest beams into hay piles below, wrestle with bat dung and horse manure, and pop floorboards with a crowbar, all with blind hope that our hands would land right where that diamond had so many years ago. When our own children grew older, they too joined the hunt. Though doe-eyed and skeptical, they exhausted every inch of that barn until sunshine called them to the pond or one of Penny’s grand inventions. And that blessed diamond ring was forever left unfound.
The jumping off beam
But it was never about the diamond, really; it was the search for something bigger, something that may or may not exist—perhaps impossible to find—that fueled us.
I pulled up to the farm today to say good-bye, the empty bed of my truck in the rearview and the dilapidated porch ahead. This will be the last time I ever see the beloved place. For most of the day, I’ll gather my mother’s things—an old lamp, a dented watering can, a wooden placard that hangs above the pantry—and fill the bed of my truck nearly to the brim with tired miscellany. The shed and the barn will need to be cleared out, the springhouse, the kitchen cabinets, and the yard.
The beloved farm
But first, I walk the exterior of the house, my playground for the better part of a lifetime, and it’s like I’m watching frames of film flicker in front of me. I see Kathie and Rosie running down the hill, their pans full of blueberries, Penny chopping firewood near the shed, Wayne mounting our horse, Goldie, with a “hmph”, and Rose pinning wet linens on the line. I walk in Rose’s direction; the poles of the line are secure and steadfast in the soil. Much like these memories, they’ve never wavered. I run my hand along the thinning line, from one pole to the other, and hear my children giggling beneath its outstretched sheets.
“I’ve checked every pocket,” Rose says. “Where could that diamond have disappeared?”
I’m 51 but suddenly a boy again, alone on the farm, and running toward the barn.
The double doors open with the lightest tug, and the sun shines through splintered wooden beams. The stairs to the loft haven’t been climbed in years, nor should they be. “A team of wild horses must’ve feasted on these boards,” I laugh. But I make the climb ever so carefully to the top. The loft has become a storage space for rakes and shovels and other tools, saddles and haystacks and tree stands, but the crumbling roof has done little to keep them dry.
I heave the haystacks to the side, making my way through the rusted junk when a pile of bed sheets catches my eye. They’re damp and smell of mildew, but I gather them in my arms. I can hear Rose asking, “Who muddied the bed sheets?” and knew it was my duty to hang them on the line. A snipe is a snipe forever, after all. Once the sheets were hung, I’d return to the barn and continue my last ditch attempt to find the ring.
Linens on the line...
The sun was hot between the poles as I pinned one sheet and then the next. Once they dry, I’ll take them home and wash them properly in Rose’s honor, but for now, they’ll flap the stench of mildew into the summer breeze. My pinning skills have much improved since my boyhood days. Over the years, those old linens on the line trapped snipes, slinged broken bones, and warmed honeymooners in the barn; they were tents and togas, capes and clubhouse curtains...but never really bed sheets; they were something bigger. And I’m lost in the memories...when something like a shard of glass catches the light between my feet.
And there in the grass...somehow, someway...is the legendary diamond ring.
When dusk hits, I load the remaining items I can fit. I think to cover the bed of my truck with the sheets but then place them neatly folded in the passenger’s seat. The wheels of my truck crush stones as I drive, the farm growing smaller and smaller in the rearview.
Sometimes I wonder if those farm days are just the stuff of legends, like snipes and fugitives and the ball field fire of ‘49. But then I found the diamond ring, didn’t I?; it was always there, hidden in the hay. And I start to think, “Hell, maybe snipes exist too, after all.”