Joe and Sam tamped the gravel around the last post rock-solid. They stepped back and Austin Kind stepped in, drew his DeWALT, and sunk the last two screws on the final board. The origin of the fence was a quarter mile north. The first post had been planted over a month ago, but this vision was ten years in the making.
It was eighty-eight in the shade, but the nearest tree was twenty yards. The crew gathered their tools and guzzled water. I had compromised the disk between L5 and L6 two days and fifty posts ago. I ratcheted my spine to a sixty-five-degree angle and thanked everyone for making a dream come true.
There had been impediments.
We moved in to our new house August of 2018. The first urgency was to plant grass before the burdocks took their pasture back and the dogs tracked the yard into the living room. In two twelve-hour days with the help of Sheila’s nephew and niece, Dahlin and Micaela, we had our four-acre lot rock picked, graded, ripped and seeded with two-hundred pounds of Fort Special grass, fertilized, and sixty bales of straw spread by dark on Sunday. Near biblical rains fell the following Tuesday and Wednesday. Five weeks later, we were mowing.
The second order of business was a retaining wall to keep the back yard out of our basement. The first Saturday in September, Our builder Jon Bound showed up at 6:00AM with One, Two, and his Mini. (Austin and Brendan Kind and his Kubota excavator) Twelve hours later Austin was leanin’ hard on his hoe handle, his hands were like hamburger, but we turned six pallets of seventy-five-pound Sienna Brown bricks into a helluva start on a retaining wall. My best efforts to finish the wall by fall were thwarted by apocalyptic fall rains. Snow flew before we were able to get the last courses set and backfilled. The project sat idle until Easter weekend, 2019.
Aldo Leopold I am not, but I get all geeked out by wildflowers. They show up early April and persist into late September along the walking paths at Dorothy Carnes and Korth Parks. Along highways F and 73, landowners have seeded and tended acres of native prairie flowers, all for the benefit of the bees, butterflies, and those driving through not glued to their devices. I wanted a patch of my own. I envisioned our friends, Gary and Dianne, waking to the scent of Purple Phlox wafting through the window of the guest room when they came to visit. It takes minutes to mow a half an acre and days to water and weed two hundred square feet of flowers. Still, I stumbled in.
The uber-kind folks at Prairie Nursery in Dane walked me through their Wildflowers for Dummies website. The third Wednesday in May, I rolled up the drive to six boxes of plastic trays on the front porch. Like a kid on Christmas, I carved open the boxes. The labels read; Brown-Eyed Susan, Prairie Coneflowers, and Big Bluestem on one side, genus and species on the other. I trembled.
I had five-hundred square-feet behind the retaining walls and two raised-rock gardens to plant. The tiller bounced and lurched off the clumps of clay like Raggedy Andy on a rodeo bull. I raked, eyeballed, and graded the pulverized earth until the fallen rain would trickle from the house to the field. Sheila and I planted, plugged, labeled, Blue Sage, Fire Pink, and Golden Groundsel according to height and when the little labels told us they would bloom. Mayor Dave drove the dump truck for Blodgett’s. He delivered eight yards of cedar mulch, and we bedded them down like little green kids at a sleepover.
The abridged Honeys* Do List:
Set up work bench
Build retaining wall
Sit on porch, Drink a beer
There was one more entry before The Great Paradigm Shift.
To this point weekends had been dominated by the list. We’d rack out early and work. If there was daylight or energy left, we’d go for a bike ride or to the pub for music.
A month, three trips to the chiropractor, four trips to John at Countryside Jewelry, and one trip to St. Gabriel, and we were done. Five bundles of cedar posts and six pallets of 2x6s had become thirteen-hundred feet of hi-low-two-board horse fence.
Damn Pinterest; thank God for my wife.
Sheila is my voice of reason, and governor. When the to-do list says build a fence, my nature is to drop a straight line, dig some holes, hang some boards, and go. My wife starts every project with 1300 images from Pinterest. She calls three different lumber yards for estimates, and has the material delivered. Then we build fence.
Shelly Reichert of Paradigm Farms in Lake Mills has a pristine white three-board plastic fence around her herd of Olympic-class Gran (gron) Prix dressage horses. We have five Quarter Horses re-homed from Flying B Ranch in Wyoming, and a broken Clydesdale that Sheila couldn’t stand euthanizing. Stormie and Yukon are down in the Assisted Living pen. They’ve been on the farm since Sheila was in diapers. Our herd would look like Jethro Bodine at The Oscars behind such a structure.
We’d build wood.
It’s the Blue Beetle Syndrome. When you’re in the mode, you notice every fence in the country. Three-board follows wooden fence like corn bread and beans. Sheila is not a follower, and our horses would stay on the other side of baler twine strung between T-posts. We decided two boards would be plenty. She accused me of pre-empting a future request for a miniature-horse by building a fence he could walk right under. The truth is, my knees are well past their warranty. That low board would cost an extra hundred-and-thirty genuflects, and at ninety cents a foot, I could buy a lot of CDs.
Google “treated lumber.” Your first page of hits will be Home Depot and Menards. London Lumber has three employees, a land line, and one computer. They also have more straight boards in stock than every big-box store in the state of Wisconsin. Not to mention, John read my books and offers to drop stuff off on his way home. They always get the first call. He could get it in a week, but Pal Steel in Palmyra could deliver the next day.
I figured a post every ten feet. If ever there was a day I’d consider digging 130 posts by hand, it was not at fifty-four years old. Mid-State Equipment rents post-hole augers for the front of a skid loader. Mayor Dave was pretty sure his grandson Cody had a three-point auger layin’ behind the barn. I liked the idea of saving $120 a weekend, but I had two concerns. The last time I saw that auger in service was ten years ago when we built the pasture fence. It’d been laying in the weeds since. It would likely take a gallon of grease and a ten-pound sledge to get it on the PTO. The other reservation is preservation. If you’ve ever seen a post hole auger for a three point, you’ll understand. I can smash three fingers walking by the bastard. I thought about squeezing my left index finger in the vice, just to get it over with.
Part of me hoped Dave couldn’t find it. Sure enough, it was in the weeds behind the old motor home and the corn head for the combine. I whacked the weeds and scooped it into the bucket tractor. I had it mounted and turning in under twenty minutes, leaking oil like a ’65 Nash Rambler. My moment of pride was brief as the bit was too tall for the tractor and it dragged the ground when I traveled. I’d never get lost, but that and a wonky clutch on the Allis 185 would make it pretty hard to get my holes started straight.**
Thomas Edison said, “I have never failed. I have an extensive list of things that don’t work, but I have never failed.”
I had that thing on and off a half-dozen times, trying to adjust the auger and the draw bar. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Absorbed in the throes of another failed attempt, I laid the thing behind the tractor, pinning my ring finger between the differential and the top arm. I lifted it off and climbed back on the tractor. Five minutes later, I noticed the pain persisted and a there was moisture in my glove. The sensation was similar to the time I cut my leg with a chainsaw and I noticed my boot filling with blood. I pulled off my glove to find my wedding ring smashed flat on my rapidly swelling finger. I was just across the fence from the garage and my tool box. I was able to squeeze the ring with a pair of channel locks, relieve the pressure, and scrub the grease off so I could get to work by 7:00AM.
By noon the swelling had not relented to the point I could slide the ring off. I imagined the throbbing waking me at midnight with my hand the size of a bratwurst, stumbling around the garage in my bare feet wrapped in a towel trying to wedge the tips of my tin snips between ring and finger. John Black at Countryside Jewelry built the ring. He had me come by after work.
Those who saw me driving down Highway B holding my hand high out the window will be less surprised when I show up in the memory care unit of Lilac Springs in a few months. We iced my hand and sprayed it with Windex. John came with a fine pair of jeweler’s channel locks but when he squeezed it wider dorsal and ventral, it would constrict medial and lateral. Heidi tactfully held her tongue as we wrenched on the band of gold. I held one side with my Leatherman while John cranked the other with the pliers. If our marriage holds up as well as the ring that represents it, we’re in it for good.
Fence building ain’t brain surgery but Sheila wanted to have the kinks worked out before we called in the troops. She found a spool of binder twine in the back of the shed. We tied the distal end to the last post in the old fence down by the road, and sited the spot that would be the corner of the new fence parallel to the drive. We spray painted a dot every nine-feet-ten-inches. I backed through the pasture and pushed the tip of the auger top-dead-center on the first white dot, pushed the clutch to engage the PTO and dropped the drawbar. Rattling and wobbling, she drilled the ditch like grandma plugging a watermelon. Six inches into the third hole, I recalled the guys from we energies scratching through a foot of frozen tundra with the frost tooth on their backhoe, trenching in our power line which ran, approximately, right between the wheels of the tractor I was sitting on. I grabbed the drawbar and mashed the clutch. The image flashed of the crime scene outline of the guy who forgot to call Digger’s Hotline.
We relocated operations to the back of the house, until Digger’s showed up.
Three days later there were red flags heading up the hill. I crossed myself, and looked skyward.
The spray paint wrapped around the spoil dirt of the hole I’d pulled out of.
I had this vision of every post solid as a soldier and straight as a laser. That notion was shattered early on. We took the bolt cutters to the binders on the first bundle of treated cedar posts. You can’t make a post straighter than the tree. On the third hole the auger hit rock, headed south, and the tractor started to buck like the bull at Billy Bob’s. I was minimally amused when Sheila pointed out, “That’s why this is a horse pasture, and not a plowed field.”
We had an idea where we wanted the fence; the fence had others.
Sheila had the idea of 2019. She suggested that instead of end-to-end, we stagger the boards in a high-low pattern. Not only could we get a bigger bite on the posts, but it would absorb the variance in our hole positions courtesy of the glaciers that delivered a quarry just beneath the topsoil of our lot. A stroke of brilliance and creativity, which held up for seven full posts. The gap to the eighth was ten-foot-four inches. Our fence boards are ten foot zero inches. John at London Lumber had plenty of twelve-footers.
We made it from the woods to the laneway-the north end of our lot-in a Sunday afternoon. We had all the posts set and were four boards away from the corner when it started to rain. I don’t recall Jim at the Lake Mills Ace Hardware saying the DeWALT 20V cordless drill was not waterproof, so we kept at it until the mud was caking two inches thick on the bottom of my boots.
Expanding on Edison’s theory, we learned with confidence that the 185 with the auger hanging not-quite-vertical added an element of difficulty that we didn’t have the skill-set or patience to absorb. I called Mid-State Monday morning and rented the auger for the skid loader the following weekend. It was time to call in some youth and vigor.
Each spring the Fort Atkinson High School FFA has a community service auction. When I was in band we went door-to-door selling candles and cards. These kids offer to do anything from babysit to bale hay, in exchange for a donation to the FFA. We got a pulled pork dinner, a carton of chocolate milk and four hours from a thirteen-year-old farm boy, and eight hours from fifteen-year-old equestrian and volley ball player, for under 200 dollars. When we called to make arrangements, her mom quipped, “Oh this will be fun, she’s never done anything like that before.”
Completing our crew was Braxton Walter. Chris and Christa Walter are two of my favorite folks. Christa runs a 10k and does an hour of yoga before her oatmeal every day. Chris grew up on a farm in Ohio and played fullback in college. He just celebrated fifty. He could still throw on pads and open a hole the size of a Ford Ranger. Their twins Braxton and Bennet are what’s right with kids these days.
Ten-year-old Braxton was sipping a root beer at the end of the bar at Tyranena. He gave me a handshake and eye contact. He and Chris ran a Tough Mudder obstacle race down in Illinois last fall. I asked him how his training was going, and he assured me he was on track for a podium finish this year. The kid loves to run, and Chris had him doing body-weight exercises for his upper body. “Well, Brax, I’ve got just the exercise for your forearms and shoulders.” I asked for his hand, turned it palm-up, and rubbed it with my thumb. I nodded, “Yup, I have a tamper that would fit your hand just right.” Chris’ temple creased behind his cheaters.
Braxton asked, “Dad, what’s a tamper?” Chris has a laugh big as his shoulders, “Son, I’m sure Doc Bill would be happy to show you.”
Sheila made five pounds of Sloppy Joes. She didn’t have the crew showing up until eight, so we could get the first holes marked and dug. I glanced at the forecast and had Johnny Cash in my head,
“how high’s the water momma?”
“it’s three feet high and risin’”
Sheila’s phone started pinging at seven, “Are you guys still building fence?” Accuweather.com had a near-hundred percent chance of rain predicted for Jefferson County, Wisconsin. The radar looked like a kindergartner spilled red, green, and yellow paint on a map and stirred it with a toothbrush.
The John Humphries credo reads, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just a poor choice of clothes.”
The computer was correct. Christa drove through a downpour between Lake Mills and our place. Hailey’s mom drove around two flooded intersections coming up from Whitewater. It would be a bit centric to suggest divine intervention but there were multiple times I could see torrents of rain like a mountain monsoon falling on Tom Doeberlein’s old place a quarter mile to the west and The Andersons to the North. On three occasions I had Braxton gather the tools in case we had to make a run for the machine shed. We got what Ritchie Behm calls a three-inch rain. It was three inches between the drops in the dust on the hood of the John Deere.
We gathered for a pre-game pep talk. I had everybody try and wiggle the last post Sheila and I had set, “That’s how we want ‘em all to feel.”
I had a sixteen-pound monster maul I used for a tamper. The triangular head fit next to the post just right, but with a four foot handle in a three foot hole, I spent more time on my knees than a high school boy in confession. I scrounged a four-foot hunk of pipe from the barn and scabbed it on to the handle. I googled Stand-up-Tamper and I got a hit for an espresso maker on Amazon and a political video of Borat.
I was thinking the monster tamper might get to be a bit much for Braxton pretty quickly. I thought it might get to be a bit much for Bill after lunch. I added a piece of PVC to a six-pound sledge. I may be the only guy you know with a Mini and a Monster stand-up-tamper.
It didn’t take long for us to find a system. I used a fender washer dangling from three feet of six-pound test for a plumb bob. Braxton and I would mark ten holes, and then I’d hop on the skid loader and drill ‘em. I showed farm-boy Isaac how to start backfilling every hole with a little gravel to wick water away from the butt of the post. Brax would site us straight-up north and south, we’d alternate dirt then gravel until each post was solid, then move to the next. Sheila and Hailey would rake up the spoil dirt and Hailey would build a cairn out of the rocks too big to backfill.
The youth infusion of our crew kept my language PG, but every third hole the clutch on the auger would bite and growl and I’d be out of the seat beating and prying rocks out of the hole. We got fifteen posts ahead and the girls broke off and started hanging boards. Hailey looked like she was headed to volleyball practice in black rubber barn boots. With arms big-around as hoe handles, she was totin’ 2x6x10 foot boards two at a time. Sheila showed her once how to set the clutch on the drill and in short order she looked like Rosie the Riveter building bombers for WWII.
I’d catch Braxton leaning on a shovel and ask if he planned to work for the county when he grew up. At thirteen, Isaac looked like he’d been shaving since he was ten. He liked talking a little more than working, but a “Hey, farmboy” every now and then would keep him in the game.
Folks work a little bit better with a goal. “I know y’all want to keep going, but when we get to the corner of the house, let’s go inside and have a bite of lunch.”
Braxton and Team FFA got us twenty-two posts, to the box elder by the driveway by Saturday evening. I was out of the house and on the job by 5:30 Sunday morning, which gave me two hours to waste setting nine posts building a maze I’d seen at the Kettle Moraine to slow down bikers crossing the horse trails.
My idea was that we could walk or zig-zag our bikes through the maze, but the horses would just see wood. Sheila took one look, “Yukon will be grazing the back yard in ten minutes.”
The second Sunday impediment.
At its completion, the fence would be a quarter mile long, a hundred and thirty fence posts, two hundred and sixty boards, three gates, and four man-passes. There was ONE hole that had to be in A spot. As predictable as beer at a Badger game, the auger broke the topsoil, then just sat and spun. I rocked all eight-thousand pounds of machine on the tip of the auger, to no effect. For the other 200 rocks we’d found, the bit would bind, the rig would buck.
This was the Moby Dick of boulders. I pried with the breaker bar, beat on it with a sledge hammer, and drilled four holes around it. Tracy dropped off Micaela who was home from college and cash-poor. “Holy shit, brother, I’ve got a demolition hammer at home.” And so it went. Two hours on one hole, three inches at a time.
Thanks to my maze-to-nowhere and Moby we only made the end of the laneway by lunch on Sunday. Sheila and I were starting to fade.
Thank God for Micaela. As a kid, Mic was a bit of a daddy’s girl; we’d wondered out loud how she’d fare in college. If fence building is a barometer, she’ll win her first Nobel before she’s thirty.
The next run was a straight shot. Nineteen posts next to Santana’s paddock. Calling upon the definition of insanity, I switched from the twelve to the nine-inch auger. I wouldn’t have a lot of room in the hole for the tamper, but we’d reduce our chances of hitting rock by 25%.
I drilled and set posts, too dry to speak and too tired to think of something to say. Mic and Sheila followed, hauling with the golf cart, hanging boards, and babbling like a couple-a-school girls. Sheila reminded Micaela that she had been the most annoying of the nieces and nephews.
I had grand visions of getting the project to Hwy J by lunch on the first day. The reality was that by the time the sun was grazing the treeline to the west the Sunday evening, we’d made it to the bottom of the burial mound. We still had a bundle-and-a-half of posts at the end of the drive. Eight hundred feet of fence built, five hundred left to go.
Life intervened and the job sat for another two weeks.
To this point in time we’d been building at a rate of thirty-six posts a day, and once again Accuweather had predicted rain.
It was time to call in the ringers.
Joe and Sam Pappa are Joe’s Handyman Service. They’ve painted our house, the clinic, replaced garage doors, basement doors, and stained every inch of trim in our house. They are all about git ‘er done.
Austin Kind has been Jon Bound’s chief grunt for four years. Working for Jon is like playing for Lombardi, there are expectations.
Micaela was home from college again. I’m convinced she could build the fence by herself in a few days.
My friend Glenn Fuller was down for the weekend.
Give Glenn Fuller a canvas, a photograph, and a week, and he’ll paint a piece of history. Hand him a breaker bar and a shovel, and he’ll give you all he’s got, plus ten. He was all about pinch-gripping, dead-lifting, and farmer’s walks before the term cross-fit was ever coined. He’s got the joints to prove it.
Dad said, “You know son, that Glenn always gets his end.”
The ultimate endorsement of the workin’ man.
In spite of my tamper innovation, eighty fence posts had not been kind to my lumbar spine. With eight-hundred milligrams of Vitamin I on board, I was still bent over like Quasimodo. At eight-on-the-dot the white Chevy pulled up the drive, followed by Austin’s little grey Volkswagen.
Shit was about to get done.
The Blues was born as workers chanted field hollers in unison as they slogged across cotton fields. Austin and Mic bantered the plot lines of Disney Movies while they engineered the step-downs where the fence drops into the ravine by the old dump.
I backed down the chalk line in the skid loader, drilling holes then switching to the pallet forks to haul posts keep Sam, Joe, and Glenn stocked. I grabbed one of Joe and Sam’s posts, not a wiggle. I was amazed they could go in that fast. Joe caught me, “I’d do the same thing to you Doc, and you know it!”
Joe’s Handyman service has taken over the jobs I used to do, and some I never could. It saves time, but is a bit emasculating to call to replace a ballast or patch some drywall. I felt my blood testosterone nudge a nanogram or two spending a few hours on the end of a shovel working with the guys for once.
They say good fences make good neighbors. Sheila’s parents and brother live next door. We installed a remote-controlled gate so they could drive their golf cart up to supervise our progress on the deck or take Tugger for a ride.
Folks build fences to keep dogs, cattle, or kids in. They build them keep rabbits, foxes, or neighbors out.
We built ours to say, this is our home.
*Yes, plural. My wife is not one to delegate and sit. She’ll be doing her part.
**AFTER the fence was built, Mayor Dave stopped by on his Mule, making the rounds. “Oh Ya, Cody mentioned something about the top arm on that auger bein’ bent or something.”