The paddock fence was going to have to be fixed, and fixed that day.
It was eleven months after the divorce, in which I got the house, the animals, the big sky, and the upkeep on fifteen bucolic acres of Wisconsin countryside. Eleven months after he took all the power tools and the manly knowledge of how to use them. Now there was a broken board in the wooden fence leaving a space big enough for Babe, my geriatric mare, to sneak through and eat herself to death or disaster in a pasture full of lush green grass. She just couldn’t handle eating around the clock at her age. And the duct tape I’d patched things together with just the week before had proved an impermanent solution. The entire board had finally ripped loose from the end post, screws broken off, wood split, little grey shreds of duct tape hanging consumptively from the soft, splintered pine on the ground.
There was an urgency, real and immediate, to the job. I knew in my gut that if I didn’t do this thing very soon, my horse would end up dead. I had been taking care of her for most of her life, and she was my last connection to becoming a horse owner at the age of 16. She was also the Calamity Jane of horses when it came to health. She dodged more bullets over the years than I could even begin to remember, though one night spent with her in a barn a few years ago at eight degrees above zero when even the vet thought she would be dead by morning was the high-water mark. I could have bought a really good car—a Jaguar, or a Mercedes—for what I’ve spent on her over the past three decades.
My options to get someone else to fix the fence were none. After eleven months of “audition” coffees and casual dating, I still wasn’t seeing anyone seriously enough to ask him to start pounding nails. And while my ex could still be finagled into the occasional household favor, he was currently floating several hundred miles away on a houseboat with my children somewhere around International Falls, Minnesota. No, I was truly “home alone.” I slipped into a yellow rain jacket, found the retractable measuring tape that sat in a kitchen drawer with my potholders, and went out in the last of the drizzle to gather the exact dimensions of the board and the screws my ex used to build the fence twenty years ago.
I drove to the local Menards and went straight for the power tools. All I knew was that I wanted something cordless. More convenient and less likely to electrocute me if the rain picked up again. My first helper was a polite young man about as old as my third child. My whole story rushed out at once, of course, as it usually does when I’m treading water in unfamiliar seas. Divorced, on my own, ex with the tools out of town, need to fix something, totally clueless. He’s probably used to it. Sees a middle-aged woman in the power tools section looking like a displaced refugee, and thinks, “dear God, why me?” We eventually settled on the store brand package of a cordless drill with a 14.4 volt rechargeable battery and a bunch of drill bits and other parts I didn’t recognize. Did he think I’d need a cordless screwdriver too? Not really, he explained, you could do the same thing with the cordless drill. Oh. Well, then.
He stayed on to help me figure out what kind of screws matched up with the old ones. And to find the baling twine. Earlier in the morning, I’d picked my dog up from the kennel, and caught up with Pat, the owner and a friend of mine. She was single too, and a former horse owner, and she got a big laugh at my duct tape improvisation. “Don’t forget to buy baling twine,” she said as I was leaving. “You’d be amazed at what you can fix with baling twine!”
My cordless drill, a package of screws and a spool of twine in my cart, I headed for the store’s lumber yard. Same story spilled out, this time to an itty bitty young girl about half my size with a blonde pony tail. She was delightful. Chatty, friendly, outgoing, helpful to the extreme. She took me under her tiny wing and I followed her through the lumber yard like a puppy. She not only located the exact size board I needed, but carefully checked over each board to find me a really straight one. Carried it around for me until we got to the checkout lane. In between, she opened up the drill’s black plastic carrying case and gave me a tutorial on what I needed to know about using my new tool. She loaded and unloaded the bits, changed the rotation, cautioned me on being safe while using it. She’d followed her dad around a lot when she was little, working alongside him on projects and learning the ins and outs of power tools, saws, many manly and mysterious things. She felt pretty good about it. I felt like a hothouse plant by comparison, but somehow dropped managed to drop into the conversation that I’d gotten a Remington twenty gauge shotgun for Christmas. Female bonding, anyone?
I brought home all the stuff, opened the instruction manual, and knew was in trouble. For all my professional strides over the years—newspaper reporter, freelance writer, prosecutor arguing to the state Supreme Court—our marriage had followed very traditional lines. I baked the cookies and ran the kids and hung the wallpaper, he built the deck and hammered the drywall and set the concrete driveway. Once in a while I’d bring him a glass of cold lemonade if it was hot out. A building project, to me, was a two-layer cake. My tools were nine-inch round baking pans and a hand mixer. My “secret weapon” in most household emergencies was nail polish remover.
I phoned Tom, my go-to guy with all my manly questions—car maintenance, satellite dishes, tools, you name it. We’d met months ago on line, but weren’t dating. He drove a cement truck, and was smart, and funny, and tall, and cute, and sported a diamond earring. I still laugh out loud remembering his e-mails. He, in the middle of watching a NASCAR race on television, was the soul of patience and gave me basic instructions on drilling holes. He cautioned me about not setting the drill to use too much “torque.” Huh what? I didn’t know what he meant, but he assured me that I could break a wrist if I got it wrong. I found the “torque” setting on the drill, figured something in the middle range should keep me out of trouble, and stepped up to the plate.
I had a couple of screw drivers and a scissors in my pocket, my hand saw under one arm, the baling twine under the other, the cordless drill set with a screwdriver head and carried like a six-shooter, and a bunch of two-inch rust-proof deck screws in my pocket. I needed to make a separate trip back for the eight foot board, and as I carried it around, I thought I’d fit right in with the Three Stooges. Many things got bumped into along the way. I took a moment to mentally praise the sheer brilliance of my ex, who apparently knew that he could buy eight foot boards already cut, set his posts eight feet apart, and avoiding all sorts of custom adjustments.
I tried to take the old screws out of the post. The drill battery ran out of juice after the first three. Back to the house I ran for the spare. I used the baling twine to rig a simple scaffold to hold the new board in place, hanging it from the board above, while I position it incrementally to the right spot. Yes, my friend Pat was right—you CAN use baling twine for almost anything!!
The board exactly in place, I took one of the new screws from my pocket, and tried to drill the screw into the board. It didn’t make a dent. Back to the house again, I switched from the screwdriver head to a drill bit. Tired of the round trips, I tested the drill bit out on a piece of firewood in the living room. Sawdust flew, but it worked.
Finally fully equipped, I set to the task at hand. The drill bit peeled right through the board and into the post below, leaving tiny spits of wood in its wake. I could feel the difference in pressure as it ripped first through the new plank of wood, and then grabbed deeper into the softer, old post beneath. I remember the only thing I understood from the instruction manual, and kept the drill bit turning as I pulled it out of the board. By golly, I’d made a real, live, professional-looking HOLE!!! I twisted a screw in with a hand-held screwdriver, and breathed a sigh of satisfaction when it held the board fast. The rest of the job went quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I decided to inspect the rest of the fence. I found that another board has completely broken in half as well, but had escaped notice, hidden by some low hanging pine branches.
Well. No kids around, no bugs flying around either because of the heavy rains, nobody to interfere with another job, hey, I was on a roll. I drove back to Menards, sauntered in the lumber yard entrance, and found the same young girl. We located yet another fabulously straight eight foot board for this second project, and she seemed genuinely happy and excited for me that I was starting to have fun with this. I told her about the baling twine scaffold, and she seemed truly impressed. “That’s really smart,” she says. “I would have probably just wrestled with it myself.” I felt like I’d been given the Order of the British Empire.
Returning to the paddock, I set to work with a hand saw, getting rid of the overhanging pine branches so that I could reach the broken board. There were more branches to trim than I thought, and more work all around than I could have imagined. . The lush, green boughs were each about ten feet long, and heavy as I dragged them away to a corner of the pasture. I was sweating, and getting covered with sap and lichen and sawdust. The mare watched from a distance, her gold coat and white mane gleaming prettily in the afternoon sun as she munched her way through a field of grass and Queen Anne’s Lace.
Nothing went smoothly. One of the old screws broke off in the post, leaving the twisted, spiral stem jutting like a brash taunt to my inexperience. I took the business end of the hammer and bashed the broken screw into the post until the surface was once again flat. Out of sight, out of mind. I somehow felt a whole lot better for pounding something hard.
This time, the board was an inch too long. Or the space it was supposed to fit in was an inch too short. It could be that the old posts have shifted over twenty years, or that the other boards swelled from the earlier rain. I lugged the board down to the second basement that doubled as my ex’s workshop. Nothing useful in sight except for a small vise. Clamping one end of the board in place, balancing the other on a cardboard box, I turned again to my little hand saw and hoped to heaven that I could cut in a straight line. This was WAY different than lopping off odd branches, this required actual precision. I guessed at what an inch would be, and tentatively scraped the teeth across the top of the board. Sawdust scattered every which way, and the saw skittered across the top, directionless, the teeth never taking hold. I tried again. The same thing happened. I remembered that failure was not an option. This time I grabbed the saw handle with both hands, and drew the teeth across the board like I was the one in charge. Amazingly, a notch formed and the blade dropped in a straight line through the pine. An inch-wide strip of wood fell to the floor, leaving an edge that looked straight, and consistent, and premeditated.
One more trip back to the paddock with the shortened board, and the job finally went the way I’d planned…an hour earlier. Baling twine, drill bit, Phillips screwdriver, all feeling familiar, in a final get-it-done-and-get-out rhythm. Board firmly in place, I gathered up the drill, the screwdrivers, the screws, the twine, the scissors, the saw, and dragged them back to the house. As I brought the mare in from the pasture, happy knowing that there was no way she’d getting loose that night, I realized I’d forgotten to cut down the loops of baling twine. It broke up the horizontal lines of the newly fixed fence like an odd little bit of macramé. After a second’s thought, I decided to leave them there. If they ever come loose, birds can use the strands for nesting material. But for now, every time I see them, I smile.