Every summer when I was younger, I would spend a month with my Grandpa. He lived in Northern Iowa on a massive corn farm that belonged to his Grandfather before him, and to his Grandfather before him.
Grandpa Alan was so proud of the fact that not had he kept the farm in the family for so long, but it was much larger than the original he had inherited all those years ago. Apart from corn, he grew potatoes, tomatoes, and squash. Fruit was also plentiful; apples, pears, and peaches were always sprouting up everywhere you looked. He gave me all his recipes, which I kept faithfully all these years. Although I have to admit, to this day the pies and jam I make at home just aren’t as good. I swear, he could have grown mud and it would have tasted amazing.
Grandpa Alan was a terrific guy; he was the stereotypical Grandpa we all wanted. He was tough and had plenty of kick ass stories from when he was in the army or when he worked as a carpenter, but he was the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet. We had a little tradition; every Friday night we would go to dinner at Hagerty’s, the best restaurant in town.
You know the kind of place I mean. Ugly, cheap décor and filled with rickety tables propped up by a drink coaster, but the food is delicious. I guess that is a good sign. Perhaps it means the restaurant is too busy focusing on food to fuss over design. No matter what, Grandpa and I had our usual; I would get chicken tenders and French fries, side of honey mustard of course, while Grandpa would get chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.
Afterward, he would always take me down to the closest ice cream shop for a cone of chocolate chip cookie dough, my favorite flavor. When walking back, we would swing by the local video store to rent a movie.
Ah, the days of video rentals. Seems like a different era doesn’t it? Back then I was huge on Disney; my personal favorite was Toy Story. But I always enjoyed the movies Grandpa Alan picked out too—usually a western.
Occasionally, he would wink at me conspiratorially and say, “Don’t tell your Mother I’m letting you watch this. I know damn well you crazy kids see things you shouldn’t at that age, so I might as well accept it and enjoy it with you,” before putting on some extremely appropriate movie for an 10 year old me to watch.
Dirty Harry was a particular favorite of his, along with The French Connection, Psycho, and Bridge On The River Kwai. They were all amazing by the way. Grandma Eleanor always just rolled her eyes whenever that happened but she never tried to stop Grandpa. I guess Grandpa figured if I was gonna see stuff like that he’d rather I’d be supervised. Not a bad philosophy, especially in this day and age.
There is no place more magical for a child then their grandparent’s house. Grandpa Alan’s farm was no exception. Grandparents love you like parents do, but they get to have fun with you all the time and not be huge sticklers for discipline and rules.
But there was just one little thing that was off about Grandpa’s farm. I never liked the scarecrow he kept out in the field. When you’re a kid, there is always that one object you swear is watching you. It might be a toy, a painting, a mask, or even a statue. But no matter what it is, the feeling is always the same.
Whenever you walk past it, you turn around expecting it to be watching or following you. It never happens, but that never makes you feel any better. You can practically feel the vacant expression studying you. So, you watch it every time you see it out of the corner of your eye, just waiting to catch it doing something.
The scarecrow’s clothes were ancient looking and dirty. A tattered old flannel shirt and black pants with holes in them. The look was complete with a ratty old grey hat on top, a fedora. But it was the face that was the worst.
It had this hideous permanent expression on its face. It eyes and face had been clumsily painted on years ago and it made the face look warped and manic. The thin black slits it had for eyes I could feel leering at me. But the smile was hands down the creepiest. Always there, so wide and grinning. Like it was laughing at you. No matter what happened, I avoided the scarecrow as much as I could.
When Grandpa would take me out for rides on his tractor and I was in the back of the cart, or sitting on his lap while he was at the wheel, there the scarecrow was. Silently standing there, just staring.
I still get chills thinking about it. All I can say is that if it’s job was to scare away things, it sure was doing a good job. I can only imagine how crows or animals felt. I told my Grandpa how I felt a few times, and he always smiled at me and said, “Cody my son, you never have to worry about that. Just an old tradition to keep the farm safe and happy. I would never let anything or anyone harm you,” while sweeping me up in a hug.
While he always made me feel better, I still hated that thing.
Years later when I was teenager, I was visiting Grandpa for Thanksgiving. As usual it was amazing. After dinner, for some reason or another, we were talking about the scarecrow again. I can’t remember what started it, but I guess Grandpa was in a talkative mood.
“I know you hated that thing Cody. But believe me my boy, there are far worse things out there than crows or straw men,” A shadow fell across his face.
“Like what Grandpa?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“When I was a boy, I would sit with my Grandfather. Just like this. He would tell me stories of coming out west during Frontier times. Their journey was about a death march. The dangers they faced; disease, starvation, and attacks from Native Americans. Not to mention from within their own company at times. All four horsemen of the apocalypse indeed.”
“Something from The Good Book, my boy. When you are older you will understand them. The point is, they were dangerous times. Once they settled out here, things were hardly safer. Back then, there was no police to call, no 911, no nothing. It was just you and your instincts against whatever you were facing. Can you imagine that?”
“No Grandpa, can you?”
“A little bit,” he said seriously. “Well, after my Grandpa died the farm was handed down to my father, your great grandfather. He always kept a scarecrow in the field and for years, the farm was prosperous. But one year, he quarreled with a neighbor of ours a few miles away, a guy named Tom Bartlett.”
“Bartlett was the troublemaker in town, but everyone put up with him out of fear. Every child had been warned to not mess with him and every adult avoided him as much as possible. I was never sure why as a kid, but I did what I was told. Dad always said Bartlett was just jealous and resented that his family had sunk into poverty. I believed it all until a few days later when I saw something in my Dad’s eyes.”
“I think that is the moment all boys begin to see their parents as human and grow up a bit. That instant when you see a parent sad or afraid about something. That was the only time I ever saw my father like that. Apparently, old Tom had been cursing up a storm, saying we stole the land from him and it didn’t belong to us. My Father just ignored it. Or I thought he did until that July morning. It was a scorcher of a day.”
“Well, we go outside and on our front lawn was one of our pigs. It had died or something during the night. Dad went outside to took a closer look at it and I was right behind him. Almost instantly after seeing it up close, he shouted at me to go back inside. Believe me, I didn’t even consider not listening to him. Dad immediate ran in behind me and grabbed his gun. Then he ran to the phone and called a few of his friends over. They all came within minutes, and once here, they all piled in Dad’s truck and drove off. I never asked him where he went because I knew.”
“A few hours later Dad came back alone and went to the barn. Mom sat there in our sitting room sewing some shirt back together. More like she was pretending to sew. She was going through the motions, but her eyes were darting around nervously.”
“Just before dusk, I heard the barn door close and I heard the sound of a hammer putting a steak in place. Looking out the window, I saw my Dad putting up the scarecrow that is out there to this day. Personally, I thought it was a bit weird looking. Coming inside, my father gave me a big hug and told me there was nothing to worry about anymore. From that day on, we never heard a word from anyone even remotely connected to Bartlett again.”
“Wow is right my boy.”
“And you’ve kept the scarecrow in the field ever since?” He took a deep dip of coffee and breathed deeply before continuing.
“Well, I did take it out once years ago. I had long since forgotten about what happened all those years ago. I had just arrived back from the hardware store and it had gotten dark out. Shutting the door to my car, I could feel the air around me had thickened. It was a lot colder out even though it was supposed to be a warm September night. I didn’t like it outside. Not one bit. Ever step I took towards the house I felt like I wasn’t alone. So I got my ass inside and stayed put.”
“I came inside and your Grandmother greeted me with her usual sweet manner. I didn’t dare say a word to her, but I kept watch that night. For what precisely, I had no idea. But when I got up that morning, I came outside and it looked like I had just shot a bunch of birds, because a whole flock of them was lying there dead in the Pumpkin patch. Standing there on the porch, I felt like my chest was about to burst.”
“That was when your Grandma casually observed to me from inside that I had taken down that dirty old scarecrow after all this time. She had never seen the field without it and everything just looked off without it. Well, as you can imagine, I went out immediately and put the old scarecrow back up. That night, everything felt normal again. But believe you me, I never even considered moving that scarecrow again.”