It was a proper fence as farm fences go. Four strands of barbed wire stretched between wooden posts set ten feet apart, with a stretch post about every one hundred feet. Abe and I erected the fence to keep Bob Hollister’s brahman bull from roaming in and eating all the lush rye grass I had planted on the twenty acres north of Lake Ponchartrain I affectionately called my “Farmette”.
Building the fence went pretty much as Abe and I had planned, except for the time a strand of barbed wire popped while we stretched it. As soon as I heard the pop, I knew instinctively what had happened. I threw my arms around my head for protection. The sharp wire recoiled around my body but the thick jeans, heavy denim shirt under a rawhide jacket and leather gloves that covered my hands and wrists prevented injuries that required medical treatment.
Abe had been operating the stretching tool quickly ran back to where I lay on the ground ensconced in the vicious wire. “God damn cheap ass Jap wire” Abe said to me as he retrieved a wire cutter from his rear pocket to cut his engulfed boss out of the maze of wire.
After Abe cut me free, I told my old friend, “Piss on this job for today. Let’s sit over yonder in the shade of that little oak by the lake and have a little snort.” I did not want to admit to Abe, who had been raised on hard, dangerous work, that the incident had scared the hell out of me. I could feel spots on my body where the sharp barbs had pricked my skin.
I limped over to the edge of the lake with my trusted friend. We sat on a hunk of porous, rusty material,an odd “rock” about the size of a camel back trunk, which I had always fantasized was a meteor from outer space. It came to surface when the contractors building I-12 just south of the property purchased three acres of fill soil from me, creating a sixteen foot deep lake.
I loved the lake because the road contractors paid me enough money for the soil to pay for the farm itself and the Federal Department of Conservation stocked it with bream, bass and perch. Ain’t the Federal Government just grand. Providing the fish proved to be a most precise operation. The federal conservation officials required that I arrive at the Parish Courthouse in Covington three times exactly at 4:23 p.m., (not 4:22 or 4:24) to pick up my fish. I had to arrive with five gallons of water from my pond no colder than 72 degrees f and no hotter than 76 degrees. The feds first delivered the red-eared sunfish. Three weeks later the perch arrived. The final delivery of bass came after another month. During this process, I wondered, Why can’t the federal government be this organized in all its affairs?
As we sat on the rusty rock, I slid from my right rear pocket the half pint of Old Crow whiskey that pretty much had a permanent home there. I always thought that the clever folks that bottled the soothing elixir had the good sense to curve one side of their bottles so they fit the ass cheeks of those in need of having a drink of whiskey close by.
In accordance with southern custom, I passed the bottle to Abe first. Abe took only a short swig then passed the bottle back to me. I took a long draw on the bottle, then screwed the cap back in place and returned the curved bottle back to its sanctuary.
“Tom I thought you was really hurted when that wire popped back there. Lucky you had the presence of mind to throw up your arms in time. I have seen some barbed wire just eat up a fellow when it popped like that. You just can’t trust that foreign wire. It just too brittle,” Abe observed.
Out of character for him, Abe chatted as the two of us sat on my meteor. “Tom, this here is some mighty fine rye grass you planted in this here pasture. Look how thick and dark green it is. I knows that Mr. Hollister’s big black bull is gonna want to get to this fine grass. That is one mean critter. You know he roams all over these free range woods just doing whatever cows he comes up on. He must be daddy to a hundred calves in these woods. I don’t think he has ever been penned up.”
I just nodded an acknowledgement and Abe went on, “Why did you decide to plant rye grass on this twenty acres anyway? You ain’t even got any live stock to feed.”
“Well Abe”, I explained, “I just think rye grass is pretty stuff and it stays green all winter long. It smells good too and I think it keeps the place cooler in the summer. Anyway, I might bring in some animals next year”. I knew this was a lie because I did not like the responsibility for caring for animals on the “farmette”. The “farmette” was an escape from my job. It was a place where I could do what I deemed to be useful physical activities and drink as much as I wanted with nobody to judge me. But it was also a place where I almost killed myself twice while drinking Falstaff beer, driving a tractors towing a disk on one occasion and a old bed spring I used as a harrower on another. But that is another story.
“But Tom,” Abe advised, “You could have put in alfalfa or bahai and made hay to sell. Why rye grass?”
“Well Abe,” I explained, “Rye grass is the only kind I knew anything about. I learned about it when I was in the Army, stationed at Camp Gordon, Georgia. When they assigned me to the Receiving Company, I became the most junior officer. This meant I got the shit details– one of which was Area Beautification Officer. Since I was on active duty between the Korean War and Viet Nam we had nothing to do except to sit around and wait for the next conflict or war or whatever they wanted to call it. To break the monotony, I decided to bring a little life to our area so I seeded it with rye grass. We soon had the greenest company on base which pleased Captain Maxaminie, my CO and made my life easier.”
Abe sat thinking about this a spell while he pulled a sack of Bull Durham smoking tobacco from the top pocket of his faded denim shirt. With a precision acquired over many years, he retrieved a cigarette paper from the side of the pack, cupped the paper just so with the fore and middle fingers of his left hand, pried open the draw string on the sack with the index finger of his calloused right hand just enough to pour an exact amount of tobacco into the paper. He put the draw string in his teeth and zipped the pouch shut. With the index and fore fingers of each hand, Abe rolled a thin cigarette that tapered at each end. He sealed the smoke with a lick across the edge of the paper. He took a long kitchen match from his left shirt pocket, scratched it across the right thigh portion of his coarse jeans and let the tip of the flame light he end of his home made cigarette. He took only one long draw to consume about half of the carefully constructed smoke.
I watched with envy as Abe roll his perfect cigarette. I had never perfected this skill. I had perfected the skill of drinking. Once again, I pulled the curved bottle of Old Crow back out and offered Abe a first swig. Abe motioned “no” with his left hand and took another drag on his smoke. I took a long snort on the Old Crow.
Not that it was really any of my business, I always wondered about Abe’s heritage. Having worked with Abe on several projects at the “farmette”, I knew that he possessed great physical strength. But at five foot-eight and weighing in at one-hundred-sixty pounds, he didn’t look particularly strong. Abe’s gnarled hands displayed many years of farm labor without the protection of gloves. But his body seemed round and soft, not angular and chiseled as one would expect of a hard-working man.
Abe’s saddle leather colored skin suggested he had some African ancestors. His high cheekbones suggested some Native American genes. His blue/green eyes, however indicated maybe some French blood. For sure he was of “mixed blood,” as the early laws of Louisiana would describe him.
We sat silently watching the sun settle beneath tall pine trees to the west. I reached for the Old Crow once more and offered Abe a final snort which my friend again waived off. I drained the remaining contents, stood up, stretched and announced “I have had enough of this shit for today. I am going down to Henry Keller’s for a few beers. Care to Join me?” I invited Abe.
“I better be getting home. I told my mother I would cook a gumbo tonight for her church women’s meeting tomorrow,” Abe said, declining the invitation–knowing from past experience that having a few beers with me might last way into the night.
Abe ambled up the pasture to his shaggy old brown Ford pickup. I sat on the meteor and watched the sun vanish beneath the sea of pine trees to the west. I then drug himself erect and trudged toward my ancient three-quarter-ton chevy pickup I referred to as “The Green Monster”. The massive work of Detroit had eighteen-inch wheels, dual fuel tanks and batteries. After I bought the truck from Mack Oliveries, I soon learned the need for dual fuel tanks. The green Monster devoured fuel, obtaining only eight miles to a gallon.
I first met Mack and his son David when I prosecuted the two punks from Texas who held Mack and his son up at gun point at their service station on 4th Street in Harvey, Louisiana , just four blocks from the Courthouse. Luckily, neither Mack nor his son were hurt and the two dummies from Texas were caught just down 4th Street attempting to rob another station. When you went into Mack’s service station you got the full treatment, gas, tires checked, oil and water checked, windshield fluids checked and all windows fully cleaned. Mack, whose ancestors were Mexican hailed from Beeville, Texas on the border with Mexico. He always had a cheery greeting and his uniform looked as though it had been just laundered and pressed. I eventually sold “The Green Monster” back to Mack so he could deliver loads of heavy truck tires to industrial customers.
Henry Keller was always happy to see me arrive at his Conoco Service Station, which also provided a small bar and food store. He knew “The Green Monster” required large amounts of gas and I consumed copious amounts of beer. Although he did not sell “hard liquor,”Henry Keller’s Conoco Station and Barroom was the gathering place for a select membership of Lacombe, Louisiana society.
When Henry’s mother, Thelma, ushered Keller’s Conoco station, store and bar into existence just after WWII in the late forties, Lacombe was just a lazy village along the banks of the picturesque Bayou Lacombe. Folks there existed mostly by fishing crabs, shrimp and oysters out of Lake Ponchartrain. They lived like their parents and grandparents had for a hundred years. Since there was no Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and only an old rickey, two-lane bridge across the neck of the Lake at Slidell thirty miles to the east, a trip from New Orleans became an all day and into the night event. Lacombe was like an insect caught in amber and encased a long ago time.
But Thelma, a tough old gal who outlived two husbands, eked out a meager living pumping gas, selling groceries and dispensing very cold beer. When her only son Henry returned from duties in the big war, Thelma tutored him in frugality and gradually turned the business over to him. From then on, Henry operated the business by himself seven days a week from dawn until the last drunk left at night.
But Henry is a story unto himself. When I first met Henry, he was in his fifties but looked eighty. He ambled around his business unshaven in old wornout house slippers.. Because he did nothing except supervise his little business enterprise and engaged in no physical activity, Henry’s five-foot-eight inch frame carried mostly fat. Henry hired Matthew, a local mulatto gentleman in his fifties to do anything requiring physical skills. Matthew seldom talked and worked slowly but steady.
If one encountered Henry before noon, he was apt to find him still in his pajama top. He did not rush into any activity. He talked even slower. If you asked him the price of an item in the store, none of which had any established prices written on them because Henry made it a game to negotiate prices as items were sold, he would mull things over for a while then say, “Well I think that can of beans is worth about eighty cents”.
Henry had gout in his right leg and confided in everyone that he was in fact was diabetic. If this was so, and I suspect it was, Henry obviously heeded no medical advice. He sipped Jax beer all day long and into the night.
Local lore suggested that the frugal Thelma had stuffed much cash in the walls of the small apartment that she and Henry occupied at the rear of the store. The locals assumed Henry had continued this practice until he died. Upon Henry’s demise, the community learned that these stories were not mere conjecture. The wall of the living quarters were filled with cash.
An only child who never married and had any children that he knew of, Henry did not amuse himself by chasing women. Women were expensive to live with. When he needed sexual release, he would drive the twenty miles to Slidell and find a professional to accommodate him.
We in the community did notice when a female attempt to take up with old ,cranky Henry. We all assumed that Mable had heard the stories of walls full of money and attempted to cash in on he deal. Mable came from Fabourge Marigny, just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. We found it hard to establish her age through all the black hair dye, thick mascara, excessive rouge and bright red lipstick. My mother would have described her as “A Floozy,” a woman of loose morals. Not our kind of folks. We thought a cousin of hers who lived in Lacombe put her on to Henry. Mable muddled around Henry’s establishment doing odd but not taxing jobs for a couple of months. Henry did his best to ignore her and she gave up her quest after a few months.
After I left Abe at the “Farmette” I drove the Green Monster to Henry’s and ordered a Falstaff beer to continue soothing my frazzled nerves. I had few more beers while I told Henry of my travails with building the fence. As usual, Henry had advice on how to build a fence, although he had succeeded in escaping manual labor all his life. Henry reminded me of a man my Uncle Harry told me about. Uncle Harry’s friend told him, “I avoid work, because a working man sweats. A sweating man stinks, and nobody likes a stinking man”. Henry seemed to have adopted this philosophy.
Green Chevy Truck
Being a bit more relaxed, I drove the Green Monster the three miles back to the farmette only to find Bob Hollister’s great, black Brahman bull breaking through my fence to again ravage my rye grass. In frustration, I returned to Henry’s for a few more beers. After a while, Hollister himself came into Henry’s for a beer. I seethed and drank more beer.
Bob Hollister was not a bad man. He was a quiet fellow about five-eight of trim, muscular build. His work on offshore oil rigs, and his life on this farm kept him fit. Locals knew Bob to be a tough fellow about my age. He and his ancestors had lived on their farm about five miles north of me on St. Tammany Road since the late eighteen-hundreds. Their cattle had foraged the open range above Lacombe without restriction until I enclosed the Farmette.
In those days when I put whiskey or beer in my body, my mind convinced me that I was ten feet tall and bullet proof. On occasion this illusion did not serve me well. This became one of those occasions.
Once I had consumed enough liquid courage, I decided to confront Bob Hollister about his bull’s bad behavior. I quietly said to Bob across the l-shaped bar, “Bob, you know that big black bull of yours just tore my fence down again. This is getting old. The next time he does that I guess I am just going to have to shoot that critter.”
Bob turned his head to the left and looked me square in the eye without blinking for what seemed like a minute or two then drawled, “Well Tom, you know that is free range out there and if you shoot my bull you will have to deal with me.” Somehow Bob’s stony cold words penetrated my alcohol-soaked brain. Some power outside me ordered to me to remain silent and I obeyed.
There is an old saying that “God takes care of fools, babies and drunks.”. This must be true because on that occasion He gave me the good sense to finish my beer, get in the Green Monster and drive back to the Farm without further discussion with Bob.
The next morning, I cleared my head with strong French Market Coffee and Chicory. I surveyed the damage to the fence and performed a few chores around the Farme then headed to Henry Keller’s for a cold Coca Cola and bag of potato chips. Bob was there filling up his Chevy truck and loading up some chicken feed. I had regained my good senses that booze had deprived me of the day before. I approached Bob with a friendly smile and apologized, “Bob I was way out of line yesterday. I think Mr. Falstaff was talking out loud. Of course I do not intend to shoot your bull, but I have to figure out a way to keep him from tearing up my fence every time he feels a need to munch on my rye grass.”
“Have you ever thought about installing an electric fence around your place?” Bob asked. “They work pretty well. Once a animal touches it once, they don’t want to have any part of it any more. It is easy to install and does not cost much. Abe knows how to install one. He helped me put in one out at our place,” Bob advised.
“Are they dangerous to humans?” I queried. “I would hate for my kids or anyone else to get hurt.”
“No,” Bob replied. “They operate on high voltage, but very low amperage,” Bob explained. “Whatever touches the wire just gets a big thrill they won’t forget anytime soon, but they don’t get hurt,” Bob assured me.
I Left Keller’s and drove up Fish Hatchery Road to Abe’s house. I found him working in the fenced-in vegetable garden that supplied fresh produce for his family, with some left over to sell for cash. “Abe”, I said, “Bob Hollister tells me you know how to install an electric fence.”
“Yes Tom I can help you with that. If you get the material we need, we can start next Monday and do it in about two days,” Abe advised. He told me what we needed to do the job so I went off to the Slidell Feed and Seed Store to buy the necessary equipment. About four thousand feed of wire, several hundred ceramic insulators and a transformer to convert 120 volt current into low amperage electricity to feed into the wire.
Abe and I spent all day Monday and most of Tuesday stringing the wire on the ceramic insulators on each fence post and bringing it back to a small shed near the gate of the driveway entrance to the property, where we installed the transformer.
As daylight dwindled on that bleak November afternoon with buttermilk clouds hovering low above, Abe and I were about to hook up the final connection bringing the electric fence to life. Just then, I noticed Bob Hollister’s big, ugly bull come out of the piney woods north of Dixie Ranch Road and approach the fence. I shouted to Abe, “Here he comes. Hook the damn thing up. Hurry up. Get the damn thing hooked up before he tears the fence up again,” I implored. Abe frantically completed the connection.
The destructive sixteen-hundred pound critter cautiously approached the fence as though he sensed that something was new about the structure he had destroyed with ease in the past. He eased closer and pawed the earth in front of the fence. He sniffed the barbed wire , but did not touch the thin electrical wire. Emboldened, he stepped forward fully into the fence where the thin, but malleable electrical wire engulfed his huge chest without breaking. Every two seconds electrical current at high voltage surged through the massive bull. Stunned and disoriented, the massive animal leaped straight into the air, all four feet off the ground. Again and again the current surged through the bull’s huge body. The enormous black animal danced and pirouetted, pounding the ground into a mud puddle, but the elastic wire would not relinquish its tenacious hold on his body. Every two seconds, the current contracted the critter’s muscles into spasms, causing him to fly like a ballerina into the air.
Abe and I were beside ourselves with glee cheering the dancing bull on. The evil one finally extracted himself from the offending wire and clinked back across Dixie Ranch Road to the safety of the piney woods–never to be seen at the Farmette again.
Abe and I celebrated by driving to Henry Keller’s, having a few beers and telling everyone there, including Bob Hollister, of our defeat of the big bad bull.