On Doc’s farm, the abuse generally centered on the fences. In fact, that old song, “Don’t Fence Me In” was probably put to music by one of our horses, its melodic ideologue handed down from one generation to the next so that fence-wrecking was easier to determine genetically than racing ability. And when it came to demolishing fences, the same theories launched in the breeding shed, speed versus stamina, found new credence in their destructive, moronic behavior: some of them did it fast, while the rest could do it all day. Doc’s emergency response team, which consisted of him and whatever was in the trunk of the Cadillac, preferred baling twine or wire whenever an escape was in progress. Some of the fences had highly technical repairs which I was to learn were mattress sutures. One section had an uncanny resemblance to a hernia patch. Seems veterinary medicine and home repairs had a lot in common. Good thing he wasn’t a dentist, otherwise the whole place would have been wrapped in dental floss.
I discovered, at least in the beginning, that a great deal of energy has been exhausted over the years to support the various fencing lobbies – loose confederations of grizzly looking wire peddlers who have researched the pros and cons of all kinds of exotic and organic materials, from old-growth cedar, to recycled Michelin radials and weird plastic posts made from melted- down dashboards, some with the speedometers still working. Each professed to know my true needs, the opening salvo of their sales pitch, playing on either my naiveté or my ego. “Well, see here, you got some mighty expensive animals here, and well, I don’t profess to tell ya yer business, being a manager and all, but I wouldn’t consider anything but the best. Now look here at this Bolivian teak...” Little did he know that what I really wanted to do was dig a mote and hope that two out of three drowned trying to escape.
We also covered electric fencing, something called, “The Bull Tamer,” that plugged into your dryer outlet. It didn’t shock you, it blew off a limb.
“Don’t you think that’s a little severe,” I asked.
“Why, hell no. Them horses of yours will only touch it once. Once they get a handle on 240 volts, they’ll develop a whole new attitude. Now, about that Bolivian teak?”
“What about the rain forest?”
“The what? Ah hell, you mean down there in South America? Did I say Bolivia? I meant Alabama. I keep gettin’ those places confused. Damn, I never was any good at geography.”
A field trip to some neighboring farms revealed a number of options, from four-board plank to an assortment of woven wires – some square, others claiming to be especially designed for Thoroughbreds: triangular. I didn’t think most horses did geometry. I figured it was a fashion thing. I stopped by to ask Earl, but he only shouted, “She ain’t workin’ today!” One neighbor was sold on electric fencing, but when I inspected his system, the sight of a half-dozen squirrels, frozen like rigored trapeze artists suspended from the wires, made me a little uncomfortable. Smelled pretty bad too. I did get a vote for this system – from the cat. I never knew cats could drool. I locked him in the truck.
I even considered barbed-wire, that nasty stuff that turned the Great Plains into a giant bovine parking lot. Granted, revenge did enter my mind in considering such an option, but I figured the cheap horses would con an expensive one into putting its leg through it, sort of like an initiation ceremony into a motorcycle gang. I finally decided on woven wire – non-climb – not the pricey triangular stuff designed for Thoroughbreds, but a cheap brand guaranteed not to rust, splinter, break, attract lightning or kill squirrels. At least until you got it home. I bought ten rolls, each weighing about two hundred pounds. I never did understand the ‘non-climb’ thing. Our horses were too lazy to climb anything. If they wanted out, they just put the transmission in reverse and rammed the fence with their butts. Their excuse was an unreachable itch. I should have bought them all back-scratchers instead.
I had planned on being environmentally sensitive by using the old fence posts, split-cedar relics from another age (when wood was wood and men were...), but the termites had eaten the bottoms and the horses the tops. (No, I don’t know why horses eat wood, other than to irritate the hell out of me.) A guy down the road had a semi-load of old railroad ties, soaked in creosote and made from ‘Erk’ trees and was willing to part with them for three bucks apiece, a bargain by local standards. I asked him what kind of wood ‘Erk’ was, but he just snarled and counted the money. Why does a guy with a fourth-grade education who uses diesel fuel for cologne always feel inclined to insult a guy who is trying to give him money? He probably stole them from Burlington-Northern and the Chicago-bound West Coast Limited was going to end up in a ditch outside Missoula, Montana.
Now I had the wire and the posts. The only thing missing were the holes, which deductive reasoning told me might involve a little digging. A search of the farm failed to produce anything suitable for the task. I did find two boxes of duck decoys, the motor for the barn boat and somebody’s clam sucker, a long tubular device designed for catching Pacific razor clams. It showed a lot of promise until it hit a rock. I headed for the feed store.
“Hey, how ya doin? How’s that Moomud mare you guys bought doin?” This was Maynard speaking, the owner of the feed store. Actually, the mare was a distant relative of Mahmoud. Something got lost in the translation.
“She’s fine, but I gotta dig some post holes. You got somethin’ for that?”
“Sure, try this.” He handed me a two-handled shovel that looked more suitable for pulling an infected molar on a gray whale.
“Say, you guys ever heard of a wood called ‘Erk?’ I got these railroad ties, the guy said they were...”
“That pile on Novelty Hill? Geez, those things weigh about 400lbs a piece. That’s Bobby Williams that has them. He’s from Georgia. They’re oak, not ‘Erk.’ He just kinda talks funny.”
“Well, I actually didn’t buy them, I was just thinkin...”
“That’s good, it’d take a stick of dynamite to get a nail in one of ‘em.”
Great. I just paid a fortune for petrified wood. And just think, there are only 300 of the damn things.
Back at the farm, the cause and effect of stabbing the earth with a weird shovel and the need for good mental health were at odds. I had figured that good, honest labor would negate my need to curl up on a psychiatrist’s couch and discuss my infatuation with Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Lyle Lovett. Okay, so I hum along with Lyle and have sexual fantasies about the others. Really, it’s inexpensive entertainment when you’re faced with punching holes in an unforgiving planet.
The first two holes went rather well, but by the seventh or eighth, the notion of an hour on the couch confessing old insecurities began to develop a certain appeal. My shoulders felt like Joe Namath’s knees and I was even developing blisters on my forehead. Considering I had 292 earth penetrations to go, it was time to go high-tech.
Another trip to town produced a true wonder of modern, technocratic farming: the auger, which is little more than a truck rear-end with a milkshake mixer attached. The thing fastens on the back of a tractor, gets hooked to the power take-off and while I sit and drink frozen daiquiris, it burrows its way to Shanghai. Perfect, except for one minor problem: it could dig the hole, but it couldn’t decide where the hole should be, a conclusion clouded by tall grass and natural indecision. A male thing. Men are not natural planners, we’re executors. Ever watched a B western real close? Women load the guns, men pull the trigger.
There are certain exceptions though, most involving stuff like betrayal, toilet lids, bedding other women – that sort of thing. Since the man was kind enough to teach the woman how to load the gun, the next step goes pretty quickly. The big difference is that women keep shooting until the gun is empty. Oh, and they try to shoot the man on the porch, not inside the house. Less mess that way. That’s the planning part.
After an hour of circling the field, I took the coward’s way out – I asked Jesse. Women always know where fences belong and they always show up on cue when something needs clarification. You turn around and there they are! Women love to confuse men with clarification.
She took to the task right away, explaining the importance of strict boundaries, honest lines of communication and something about parallel thinking. I tried to explain that parallel thinking was on a collision course with a forty-five foot alder tree. She dismissed my argument abruptly. “I think you need to re-evaluate your priorities. Maybe I should re-evaluate a few for…”
“Hmmm.” I killed the engine on the tractor and swung around to face her. “We are talking about a large tree?”
I kept looking at her, then outer space, then back to her. “Oh bloody hell,” I mumbled.
“Nothing. The bloody well. You can’t put a fence there. The well is in the way!”
“Then put it over there!” she yelled, gesturing toward the neighbor’s driveway. “In fact, why don’t you stuff it in...never mind, I’m leaving.”
Suddenly the clouds split and God’s long right arm slapped me alongside the head. “I completely forgot about last night...I’m really sorry.”
“You only remember what you want to remember. You’d forget Mother’s Day, the phone bill; you’d forget Christmas if it weren’t for all the decorations! It was my birthday!”
Mother’s Day I could understand. The last thing I wanted to do was encourage my mother. I’d already tried twice to get the local paper to print my obituary. “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “I haven’t known you that long. How am I supposed to remember everything in your life? I have enough trouble with my life!” Bad choice of words.
“Every? I sat in that restaurant for two hours – in a dress! The waiter started buying me drinks because he felt sorry for me! Like I said, put the stupid fence wherever you want. You’ll forget where it is in ten-minutes anyway! I knew I shouldn’t have…whatever!”
A dress? I missed that! I figured she’d only wear a dress for the Queen or something. “But, but…” Never could finish a sentence in these circumstances. However, I did have clarification.
With that she was gone, leaving me to my own devices, parallel thinking and all. Actually it was an historic moment: our first confrontation, man and woman sorting out the intricacies of our lives in front of God and a few of the neighbors. Somehow, it felt a little premature. According to my count, we had gone out approximately five times, not including one romantic rendezvous having the oil changed in her truck. I had gone from being invisible to patently irresponsible without ever having left any shaving stubble in her sink. “It’s not fair!” I yelled. From a distant porch, a neighbor yelled back, “I agree with you!”
After an hour of finger-drumming on the hood of the tractor, I made a bold decision. In reality, drumming your fingers is what professionals refer to as ‘anger management.’ Kind of like counting to ten, but spread out over sixty-minutes or so. That way you can assertively answer all those angry statements in the privacy of your own brain. As far as fences went, I would simply follow the creek on one side and the old fence line on the other. Plus, I’d whack down that damned alder tree. Somebody or something needed to pay a price. In this case it was a tree, which on further examination, turned out to be dead anyway. Probably a suicide. A much better way out than watching me try to start a chainsaw.
A hole is a hard thing to move. A 747? At least it has wheels. Holes just lay there sucking the life out of you. My choices were limited: either buy a two-foot wide auger or digress to a little corrective work with the manual model. But then, I figured that by the time the horses got done doing the ‘big three,’ the fence would probably be a little crooked anyway. So why bother? Besides, Jesse was going to take one look at it and wrinkle up her nose anyway. I had gone out with her just long enough to recognize when I had been dismissed by a facial twitch.
Now that I had all the crooked posts in the ground, it was time to string the wire. Contrary to what they told me at the feed store, there is nothing simple about a two-hundred pound roll of woven wire. The first step is to unroll the wire. The second step goes a lot quicker, as the wire decides to re-roll itself with me inside. Step three, which was probably step one in reality, is to anchor one end, then unroll it. Once I had it unrolled again, I discovered it was three-feet short of the end post, which might as well have been a mile, since all I had was a two-inch staple.
I tried hooking it to the tractor and stretching it the extra three feet, but that pulled it off its anchor, causing it to re-roll itself quite smugly underneath the tractor. A good jack and an hour of cursing finally brought the wire to its senses. It was now time to stretch it tight, giving it that professional look. Oh, I decided to ignore the problem about the missing three feet. It was a lot easier to shrink the farm than risk another session with the jack and a bunch of obscenities. Any more noise and the guys with the red suspenders would show up to sell me a brain.
The guys at the feed store told me that the best way to stretch wire was with a tool known as a come-along, a device that makes a wimpy farm manager into the Charles Atlas of fence stretchers. His instructions seemed simple: attach one end to a stout tree or the tractor and the other end to the wire. Vigorous cranking should make the fence as taught as piano wire. Evidently in the farming bizz you couldn’t have a fence that looked like fifteen mesh bras on a clothesline. Not really acceptable.
There is a problem with the cranking though. A come-along is really a power trip – singing wire and all that – so guys want to do just one more crank. It’s irresistible. Do it, surrender to your ego and boom, either the posts all pop out of the ground, the tractor tips over, or, in my case, the wire breaks, once again re-rolling the whole mess under the tractor, causing the neighbor to throw up his hands and disappear into his house. I wish the guy would get into down-loading pornography or something.
About nine o’ clock that evening, I scraped up the courage to knock on Jesse’s door. Mostly the dog barked, but after about ten minutes, two or three towels and a body showed up at the door. She had been in the shower.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” I offered. Actually I was.
“No, I’m sorry,” she returned.
“I’m sorrier,” I shot back. I was still thinking about the dress.
“I brought you a present.” I stuck out a bouquet of flowers and a can of corn. The kind that has little bits of red pepper tossed in.
“Corn? You brought me a can of corn?”
“Yeah, Mexicorn. And flowers! Focus on the flowers.”
So, get the hell to work! You're wastin' daylight.