Loss is part of our life cycle. Yesterday, me and my family experienced a type of loss that is new to me. Barn fire. It heated memories and possessions and melted them away before my eyes leaving me wondering if their existence was a memory at all or something I made up.
I was at work getting ready for the next lesson with a flight student when I received a call from my mother-in-law, Darla. Her voice was obviously stressed and choked when she said, “One of the barns is on fire, I’m on my way there now!” Shocked myself, I asked “A barn is on fire?!? I’ll be right there!” I flew into my Chief’s office, told him my barn was on fire and as I turned to run out leaving my computer and lunch still on and open on my desk, he said “GO!” On my run by Dispatch, I said “My barn is on fire, you can reach me on my cell!”, then I was gone.
At times like these it’s fascinating to watch where the mind goes. On my careful-to-not-slip-on-the-ice run to my car, I flashed on my precious horse, Milonguero EC. He holds a larger part of my heart than I care to admit and losing any of our herd would be devastating to a point where I purposely stopped the thought in the middle of its creation. I jumped in my car, started the engine, backed out of the same spot I park in every day at the Mankato Airport and proceeded to take the one-way out to the main road. It was at that moment when I was facing the right direction, the direction of my house and the barn. The black plum of smoke reached far into the sky. That’s when it hit me. “God, PLEASE spare our horses!” It was a plea more than a request. To our family, the horses have always been more than just horses. Each has its own personality. Some hold more of my heart than others and each has a very important place in the existence of our family ranch, Railview Peruvians. I knew that at that time of day there would be no humans in the barn.
I am racing home watching myself use the same Aeronautical Decision Making skills I ask my students to employ, only now, out of the cockpit. Pilot training is amazing for keeping the mind working clearly under stress, in fact I would say my mind and body perform even more acutely under stress. There is ALWAYS a way to work the problem. As I approach my driveway, following a fire truck that leads the way, I see the huge amount of vehicles and people who are there to help. I can now see what part of the large metal barn is burning.
I am already wearing boots, heated socks and gloves because of being a flight instructor during Minnesota winter. My face is covered with a mask I wear over my nose and mouth to keep my face warm and I have my winter aviator hat on that my mom brought me home from Germany recently. All you can see are my eyes as I go to find my family, who I know from their cars in the driveway, are already there. I count the horses in the pastures and quickly see they are all safe and keeping themselves away from the smoke, which aside from the flame they don’t have access to, is their deadliest threat. I take a deep breath of relief. The humans and horses are safe.
Up until this moment, I hadn’t thought to wonder about what part of the barn was ablaze. Now that I know all the horses are safe, I am hit with the reality of the location of devastation; our viewing room. The viewing room is the place with a window looking into the indoor riding arena. It’s the place that holds the memories. As I stand here in a group with family and friends, all facing the fire but saying nothing, I begin to feel the effect of the location of the fire.
Many years ago, before we became who we are with the horses, we were like everyone else who starts out as a new breeder of Peruvian Horses. We didn’t know a lot and we learned as we went. Money, blood, sweat and tears went into everything and no one in our family lacked a strong work ethic. At the shows we would attend, sometimes we did well, sometimes not. We continued to learn, work hard and enjoy the family time and the horses. As the years continued to fly by, we bought and bred higher quality Peruvian Horses. My husband, Chris, became a Peruvian Horse judge and with that improved all our abilities, both in the saddle and out. Gradually over the past 25 years, the ribbons on the walls of the viewing room began to represent higher accomplishments and these last 12 years the walls also celebrated National Championships with some of our horses.
Standing there, staring at the not-yet-controlled blaze, I began to feel loss. It wasn’t loss of a human or a horse. It was the loss of era. The ribbons on those walls, weren’t there to boast. They were there showing us the path from where we have come and celebrated the journey. They represented hard work, determination, frustration and sometimes tears when our best wasn’t good enough for a goal we may have had. They represented family and the fact that through all we had done, we had always done it together, as a family. It was never one member of the Austin family accomplishing more than another, it was the group of us standing behind the one whose goals shown brightest at the time. Darla, and her leadership every year bringing together our friends to exhibit in the Amigos de los Pasos Drill Team at the annual Minnesota Horse Expo. Danielle, riding elegantly side-saddle. Chris in his desire to improve himself by becoming a carded judge, then later judging Peruvian Horses in five countries. Me, when I received my dream horse, Milonguero EC, and my desire to ride him to a national title after his previous owner, my mentor and friend passed away. In 2018, we won two national titles. Those ribbons represented friendship with the horses who carried us to win them and the friends who were there at the shows, making joy and camaraderie the reason we did it in the first place. This, was the loss I felt.
The truth is, the memories remain. We have each other and the horses. We still have friendship and many bright years ahead. We will rebuild. Through this rationalization I notice that I tried to rationalize away the loss. They are JUST ribbons and trophies. It was just a room in a barn. While on the phone with my mom, she reminded me that “Oh no, Aura. It is much more than that.” I suppose she is right. On top of losing the physical possessions that held the space for memories and years of growth, fire brought an intensity that reminded me of the volatile balance of life and how little control I have over it. It not-so-delicately threw back in my face the truth that while I tried to be the best mother, wife and pilot I could possibly be, I can’t always keep everyone safe nor put out the fire that blazes in our barn.
Another friend arrives at the scene and gives me a hug. While we are watching the smoke continue to fill the sky, something in me begins to shift as I look around at the teams of fire fighters and the numerous trucks that occupy all parts of the ranch. Police Officers and Sheriffs are managing traffic on the road. There are fire fighters from Kasota, Madison Lake and Eagle Lake Fire Departments. They are all working together as though they are the same unit. Men are coming out from fighting the fire to drink water and cool off. When they remove their gear in the below-freezing temperatures, the heat from their heads steam so obviously that they look like they came straight out of a cartoon. The men are suiting up their teammates and I realize the beauty in the fact that they can’t screw on their own air tank, a teammate must do it. They are focused, detailed and driven to extinguish the fire at our barn. While I look around at what must be 50 fire fighters, it dawns on me that these people are volunteers. I left work to come home and basically stare at a fire and check on horses. They also left work but they came to suit up, risk their lives and successfully stop the huge blaze from spreading to any other structures.
During a period of three hours, I had felt dread, fear, loss, love, gratitude and appreciation. I hugged Milonguero and told him for the millionth time how much I love him. I looked around at the camaraderie of the fire fighters who seemed to even joyfully carry out their selfless volunteer jobs. I saw the swarms of friends and distant neighbors I had never met, offer assistance and come carrying horse halters just in case we needed to move horses and couldn’t get to our halters in the barns. Since the fire, texts, messages and calls have come in offering the same assistance any time of day or night.
All of this comes around in a full circle beginning with devastation and ending in beauty, love and gratitude. There is a beauty in this loss. Beauty in the appreciation it created in me for the journey and memories we have made despite that the awards are no longer there to represent them. There is beauty in the caring of humans. There is beauty in the future of the building we didn’t even know we would create. There is beauty in the heart of a volunteer.
Yes, there is beauty in loss.
The Austin Family would like to thank the Kasota Fire Department, Eagle Lake Fire Department, Madison Lake Fire Department, the Police and Sheriffs Departments and the numerous friends, family and strangers who came to our aid. Thank you.