The sound of rain tapped on the barn, like the echo of BB guns fired 20 years ago.
Parke County roads were jammed with festival traffic this weekend, as thousands flocked to Mansfield, Rockville and all towns in between. But unbeknownst to all but a couple dozen regulars, on a small farm northwest of Bridgeton, the Covered Bridge Festival Olympics were raging on Saturday afternoon. The manifestation of childhood friendships, the games drew not only a group of men in their 30s, but now their wives and children.
“This is our 20th year out here,” explained Matthew Sullivan, 36.
Meanwhile, dodge ball was under way on the east side of a large red barn as players ran about wearing colored beads while others chomped down hot dogs.
Owned by his uncle and aunt, Brad and Ruth Rukes, the Parke County farm first hosted the gaggle of Terre Haute North Vigo High School students as campers on opening weekend of the Covered Bridge Festival. Friends in high school during the mid-1990s, the guys have returned to the site each year for 20 seasons, bringing their own families from places such as Indianapolis, Chicago and New York.
Brad, now 56, recalled the tradition’s origins as BB gun wars in the woods, where his nephew and friends liked to play.
“Actually, they started a few years before that,” the retired carpenter said of the 20-year mark, noting he and Ruth have no children of their own. “These are my kids here.”
Autumn’s colors painted the 12-acre compound of farmhouse, barn and outbuildings. Ruth said the couple first moved there about 30 years ago and have been personalizing it ever since. Markings in the main barn’s concrete floor are difficult to discern, but denote its construction date as either 1901 or 1907, making it more than a century old.
“When we first moved out here, the loft didn’t even have the boards nailed down,” she laughed. “We had no idea it was in such good shape.”
But this weekend, music poured from a stereo near a refrigerator lit by neon signs. A hand-crafted bar sits by wooden poker tables, and the whole ground floor resembles the clubhouse it’s become.
“Yep, that’s all I do with it,” Brad said, describing it as a party barn.
And for their nephew’s friends, then teenagers, it was the perfect place to birth a tradition of camping and games.
Taryn Stanley stood off to the side of the grassy playing field where races were under way.
“I belong to the crazy guy in the red shirt,” she said, pointing to her husband, Jay.
Still residents of Terre Haute, the couple attended Terre Haute North with Sullivan and began hanging out at the Parke County farm on Covered Bridge weekend. This year their two small children came along, and Taryn remembered her own years there hanging out with the guys.
“I just think it’s neat that these guys, after all these years, make time to get back together. It’s a testament to their friendship that they do that,” she said.
Sullivan said the group chooses a different theme each year, and 2012 brought a third round of Olympics. Bead necklaces of gold, silver and bronze represented medals for events ranging from sack races to a homespun pentathlon, and a campfire blazed near the “eternal flame” they’d lit at opening ceremonies Friday evening. His 16-year-old nephew Lane played the national anthem on an electric guitar for the ceremonies.
The weekend also includes a trip to The Bean Shack in Bridgeton for breakfast of biscuits and gravy, a routine they’ve done so long the owners know each of their names.
“We’ve been doing that for 20 years now and we’ve never missed,” he said proudly.
Clouds darkened a little Saturday afternoon, but Jay Stanley said the group is indifferent to weather.
“There was one year we were out here when there was six inches of snow on the ground,” he said.
Ruth remarked that even as kids, the guys never gave them any trouble out there regarding behavior, policing themselves well enough. Both her and Brad’s parents were there Saturday, and over the years, the other guys’ parents come out as well, she said.
“It’s all family and friends and the families keep getting bigger,” she said.
Visitors sign sheets of plywood with the year scrawled across the top, and Lane said he’s enjoyed playing with the guys since his own earliest years.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “It’s just a really cool get-together.”
In 1997, Sullivan suffered a debilitating accident while diving, but neither that nor the growing distance of hometowns has changed the group’s resolve to re-unite each fall.
“These guys mark their calendars like Christmas,” he said, megaphone in hand.
And there will be no shock to those there Saturday if the gang’s still at it in 2032.
“I sure hope so. I think if you ask, to a man and woman they’d say yes, we have another 20 years in us,” Sullivan said.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.