Michael Swanson

Lean-to

I grew up in a small town in western Minnesota. Our house was on a quiet residential street, much like the rest of the town, on the east side, which was a little more hardscrabble and working class. Our back yard bumped up against a tract of undeveloped land, maybe two acres in total: small hills and haphazard brush, and well-worn crisscrossing footpaths beaten down by generations of wild northern children. Everyone referred to it simply as The Field.

Fixed between a lovingly maintained cornfield on one side and a row of houses on the other, The Field was considered an eyesore and an example of poor public planning by most adults, but to a child it was a vast and magical wilderness.

It was a place to climb trees and to hang hammocks. To read. To roam with friends. Or just to hide out when you wanted to be alone. I could walk through it on my way to school. The western edge of it ended at the dead end road near my elementary school baseball field and playground. My mother knew that if I came home an hour late from school on a warm spring day it was because I was lying down two rows into the cornfield at the edge of The Field by my favorite tree—always in the same spot.

It was a place for treasure hunting. I discovered, reclaimed and curated an array of items from that melting shrub tundra that I would now as a parent advise my own child not to touch. Dropped baseball cards or discarded magazines. Dud bottle rockets that you took home and tried to relight. Empty whiskey bottles that you’d kick off the dirt path on a Saturday morning. I once pilfered the seat from an abandoned and rusty bicycle, which was in better shape than my own.

My most prized find was one that I stumbled upon with my cousin, who at nine was a year older, and significantly taller and stronger, than me. Nevertheless, the code was that we both found it, so we had to share it. And because we found it in the field behind my house, it would stay in my backyard (this was a never stated but always mutually understood agreement). It was a piece of corrugated sheet metal—a rather large piece, at least compared to us, probably left over from a roofing project and windswept to where we found it, partially buried in the snow. I slipped on its smooth surface and fell on it with a clang. I clambered to my feet and we stood in silence in the tall grass and the wind and the snow admiring it. Then we bent down simultaneously and carried it to my house without speaking a word. Well, dragged it mostly.

By the time we made it back the wind had picked up and it had started to snow. It was the beginning of an eighteen-hour snowstorm that we didn’t know was coming. At that time we didn't really obsess over the weather forecast. It was one of those storms that started quickly, with heavy snow and fierce wind, and you could tell from the smell of the air that it was going to last for a long time. Because when you’re young and you spend as much of your time outside as you can you just know. So we made what seemed like the only logical decision. We used our newly found piece of sheet metal to build a lean-to to protect us from the storm.

Our neighbors had a ramshackle and weathered house with rusting cars on blocks and lots of scrap wood in the backyard. We covertly nabbed a couple of 2 by 4s, buried them in the drifted snow behind our garage at a 45-degree angle, and rested our piece of sheet metal against them. It was easy work, even for elementary school kids, but of course with the conditions and with the excitement of our discovery we felt like we were braving the peaks of Kilimanjaro—the wind threatening to blow us off the mountain, our eyelashes frozen and sticking together, surviving on grit and stubborn determination. I remember vividly the feeling of ducking down behind our ad hoc shelter: the sudden silence, the wind shutting off like a window hastily closed against the cold.

I don’t know how long we sat there with our eyes closed and our backs against our new and impenetrable wall, but I remember thinking about my warm house and a hot bath. And soup. And of climbing into pajamas and tucking up under the quilt my grandma knitted, which was how I spent most of the rest of the day. I knew it was all just steps away but that it needn’t come then. I was happy to sit inside our new and hand-built domicile for as long as I could stand it. I’m quite certain I’ve never felt as connected to a physical place and time as I felt in that moment.

As I grew older and eventually became disillusioned with small town life and with life in my hometown in particular, I thought less and less about that winter Saturday and our handmade lean-to. For a long time it became a distant memory from a different era, childish and insignificant. And then I read Thoreau when I was sixteen and I didn’t talk to anyone for a week unless they asked me a direct question and I’d stop eating at dinner and my parents would look across the table at me and tears were dropping into my mashed potatoes and I’d hear them talking quietly at night about whether they could afford to send me to a “head-shrinker” and I felt inconsolably lost and useless and disconnected because here was a man who carried that childlike sense of wonder into adulthood and could build and could create his own happiness and I could do none of those things though I once could. God bless and God damn Thoreau. And now I think about that lean-to more often and usually when I wake up in the morning from dreams of living in the woods and I hear the wind swirling around the sturdy walls of my house. The house that I didn’t build. But I try to feel happy that I have it and I try to feel happy that the sun is shining or that there’s fresh snow falling or that I’m alive and alert and that I have a million other things in my life that I should feel happy about and that I should try to focus on helping to cultivate my own child’s sense of wonder so I get up and I try to do that.

Michael Swanson is (until he finally realizes it’s just too cold) a lifetime Minnesotan and currently resides in St. Paul with his wife and daughter. He holds a BA degree in Literature from St. Cloud State University. He enjoys writing and reading poetry and creative nonfiction.  His work has appeared in Art Times, Scars Publications, and HazMat Review.  Michael is on twitter @michaeldswanson.
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