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WOSTER: Imagination ran rampant in an old barn on the farm

Sometimes I feel bad for kids who grow up having never experienced the wonders of playing in a barn.

By playing in a barn, I don't mean "The Barn,'' the storied old gymnasium where South Dakota State College played its home basketball games for decades. That was a great place, too small by half to hold the fans that packed and stacked their way to the rafters.

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Recently, by the way, in email exchange, Lamoine Torgerson talked about living in the "gym dorm'' under the Barn. He made it sound uninhabitable, like the New York subway tunnels in a post-apocalypse movie. Non-athletes of my era knew of the gym dorm. I say "of'' it, because few non-athletes ventured into that subterranean cavern. To most of the students at State College, the gym dorm was as mysterious and unapproachable as Dracula's castle or Captain Nemo's fabled submarine, the Nautilus.

That's THE Barn. When I talk about playing in a barn, I mean a plain, old barn, the kind of structure in the feed yard of most any farm place. By plain, I mean massive in square footage, with a bottom floor that held sorting pens and milking stanchions and hooks and pegs for all sorts of straps and gear, a second floor the size of a football field and often empty except for some leftover bales of hay and piles of pigeon droppings, and a steeply sloped roof capped by two or three gray-metal cupolas where the pigeons strutted and cooed and dodged the occasional BB that rattled around in the cupola and lodged who knew where.

Farm kids of my generation spent a ton of free time climbing around in the barn. It was both an amusement park — although un-themed — and a fantasy world for any child with an imagination. Kids raised on old radio learned to imagine the most elaborate stories simply through the words of the actors and the occasional sound effects that accompanied the action in the story line. It didn't take much effort to move that imagination from the spot in front of the console radio on the living room floor out and across the farm yard into the barn.

The stalls and pens were perfect for Hide and Seek, especially because a nimble, slender lad could find a variety of openings in the second-story floor to slip quietly from hiding after the searcher had passed and pull himself silently up to the second floor to burrow in behind the baled hay. I was doing just that one carefree afternoon when I glanced up to the thick beam supporting the sloping roof and spotted a rattlesnake. These days, a young person might be playing a video game and spot a platoon of storm troopers. Me, I was feeling pretty alone there in the hay, weighing the embarrassment of breaking cover and losing the game against the possibility that my buddy wasn't the only one in the barn seeking me.

Another kid might have stayed hidden. I broke cover, and when I say "broke cover,'' I mean I bolted out of hiding, across the floor and down through the trap door with an impressive burst of speed. We went back, carefully and slowly, to look for the reptile in the shadows of the hay mow. It must have been a trick of the light and shadow, because the rattler I saw was an old snake skin, long dead, I guess, but still pretty menacing in the gloom.

My fine memory of the simple, imaginative life of a farm kid was jarred just now. I searched for a couple of images of old barns (ours blew down in that big storm that one time. You know, the storm during which my Dad always said we had nothing to worry about "as long as that old barn is still standing.'' When we emerged from the storm cellar and saw the splintered siding and flattened room, we figured we could worry.

Accidentally, the search offered a link to Family Barn. It's an online game, looks like. I guess that would keep the snakes, or the snake-skins, from scaring the players away.