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MEANDERINGS: THE MORNING THAT OWNEN DIED

Thin gauzy curtains drooped down from the small rectangular windows of our basement house. The window on the west wall of the living room faced out toward a screen of apple branches, and the lane and fence that marked the property line between our place and Owen and Maude Beck's corral.

The east field ditch, after passing our house, scooted under the fence into Beck's corral toward a concrete headgate that, when dammed up during Owen's water turn, shot the water at a right angle into a cluster of ancient Jonathans surrounding their house.It was always exciting in the summer when the Becks would pull into the barnyard with a load of hay from the field. Owen and Wallace, atop the load, rode like lords of the harvest. Silhouetted against the sky, the high burden reeled crazily as it negotiated the narrow gate and moved like a proud parade float over to the stack.

Maude would be driving the orange, one-piston Case tractor, sitting behind its long, narrow orange snout, pushing levers and holding firm to the steering wheel, which seemed almost too big for her fragile frame to manage. But her wide-brimmed straw hat, tied fast to her head so the sides bent down, lent her a vestige of authority that made the whole thing work.

And then they would unload.

The huge derrick by the barn, which the rest of the year stood silent, would suddenly swing into life, its cables snapping, its crossbeam swinging back and forth from load to stack, its ominous fork tines dropping again and again, rubbing rust from their tips until the polished steel points glistened in the air.

The sound of the big fork sinking into the load was a beautiful, rasping, piercing sound, pushed in to the hilt by Owen's booted foot. Then, with a gesture to Maude, who by now had attached the cable to the tractor, the line would go tense. The fork's jaws would tighten like the bite of a pit bull on the throat of an unsuspecting heifer, and a huge portion of the load would rise effortlessly high above Owen and the lightened wagon, swinging, arching - he would be guiding it from below with a dangling rope - and when it swung over where he wanted it, he would give a sudden, heavy jerk on the rope.

Pop, the jaws of the fork would snap open, dropping the hay mass, its edges lifting lightly like the edges of a skirt as it fell, and, whoosh, landing heavy on the stack right beside Wallace, who then would stab into it with his pitchfork, jostling small bites here and there to trim the edges.

We would watch the whole process, from full load and big bites until the fork nudged the wagon bed and took its last nibbles. We would watch anxiously, waiting for Owen to miscue and drop a high forkload onto Wallace, smothering him, mashing him into the stack, cracking his fork under the force of it. But it never happened.

Owen's aim never faltered that we ever saw, and every year a new stack would grow where the old one had shrunk to nothing the winter before.

Then there was the morning when breakfast at our house was interrupted by a banging on the door at the top of the steps.

It was Maude.

"Owen . . . ," she said, "I think he's dead."

As we were later to learn, Owen had just a few seconds before keeled over with a heart attack while feeding a newborn calf.

We were strictly instructed to stay in the house, but this didn't deter us from pushing a chair against the high, west window that faced toward the Becks' barnyard. There was only so much room on the chair, and we jockeyed for the best view of Owen and Maude's barn through the trees. It was scary to look, but we couldn't keep from looking. Our small hands pawed at the delicate curtains as we struggled to peer out into the cold light of early morning.

Suddenly the north door of Owen's small wooden barn with the rusty tin roof swung open and figures appeared, figures of farmers in overalls carrying Owen's limp form out of the barn on a plank of wood that served as a makeshift stretcher, borne into the full light and then down the narrow path through the brush, over the rough plank bridge that crossed the ditch, and then, thickly veiled by branches, under the apple trees toward the house.

It is an image that remained with me, not haunting, but more, somewhat of a surprise, like the surprise we would have felt had Owen missed his mark with the hay. Hitting Wallace with the hay was something you sensed could really happen, but something you never really expected to see.

This view of Owen, being carried to the house with one arm hanging limply off the edge of the plank, was my first experience with the suddenness of death.

Suddenly, Owen was only a body, and the matter-of-factness of his departure through the trees on a makeshift barnwood bier was much simpler than I would have expected - and shockingly real.

There were no trumpets blasting or angels appearing over the cottonwoods, only the quiet rustle of curtains and voices, and the bright witness of morning sun throwing lines of derrick shadow across the corner of the barn like a sundial as it moved toward noon, undeterred, dissolving light into the brush behind the barn, where it flashed in a ripple of passing irrigation water.