We live next to cows, but we’re not certain what keeps them from visiting. I don’t say this because we secretly long for more bovine company–(“Hello Mrs. Guernsey, I’m glad you could come to our dinner party!”)–but because we don’t understand the nature of the fence at our property line.
Fences may not seem like complicated things. I certainly never thought they were. In fact, had you come to me before we moved in and asked me if I could be outsmarted by a fence, I would have figured you were being rhetorical, à la “Can you find your way out of a paper bag?” or “Would you like to make that value meal larger?”
Then I met the enigma that will plague me until death. Or until we move again. Or at least until I decide to ask the neighbor who lives on the other side of it. (Not the cows, just to be clear. I’ve already asked them, but they weren’t helpful.)
Its visible characteristics are pretty simple to describe, because the cunning thing has the gall to look straightforward. It consists of a single length of barbed wire about two feet off of the ground, stretched between metal poles to which it is attached via plastic brackets.
The puzzle: is it electrified? I’ve now wondered for years.
It started the day we first saw the house. I asked the realtor, but she didn’t know. We talked about it a bit, but only came up with more questions. Would a single line of barbed wire keep in cows if it wasn’t electrified? Wouldn’t an electric fence need to be labeled? Can cows feel the barbs on barbed wire through their leather coats? If a cow touched an electric fence, would the fence cook it? If the fence did cook it, might the farmer share? (It’s possible that we were looking at the house late in the day, very close to our meal time.)
We really needed to find out, because my wife was already pregnant at the time.
It occurs to me that my juxtaposition there could get me into trouble. I was in no way intending to call my pregnant wife a cow. And even if I did, the fence wouldn’t have been a danger to her because she seldom grazed outside.
As a possible danger to our child however…. We wanted her to be able to play in our yard, but being somewhat picky, we didn’t want her to be electrocuted. (She found this danger on her own in a different place, but that’s a story for another time.) Oddly, the thought of her running into a barbed wire fence didn’t bother us. We’re apparently not picky enough.
Either way, we didn’t know how to find out about the fence. Or at least we didn’t know a method that wasn’t fodder for one of those shows that aired stupid home videos. Here I gloss over the option of asking our neighbor, because who are we kidding, that will never happen. Beside the large stretch of pasture, his property hosts a jumble of silos, barns, tractors, and other items that intimidate me. Also we’d have to cross the fence because we can’t locate his driveway. We did ask just about everyone else though.
Our priest said it was probably electrified, based off of the need for plastic connectors. This random guy I met on the street said that it probably wasn’t electrified, because an electric fence wouldn’t need barbs. My dad said I should touch it with a stick. He might have just wanted to watch though, or to submit the home video for money.
The whole business came to a head when a windstorm blew our garbage cans into the cow pasture. I needed to go get them back. Theoretically, I shouldn’t have had any trouble stepping over so short a fence, but I’m not graceful. Also, as a man I can assure you that, every time I step over something potentially dangerous, I’m conscious of having put myself in a vulnerable position.
I didn’t want an electrified barbed wire between my legs. Unfortunately, I also didn’t want to have to buy new garbage cans, or to explain to my wife why I wasn’t getting the ones that were a hundred feet away. Sometimes in life I face tough decisions, but never with aplomb.
Then, while I was contemplating these deep matters next to my fence-formed nemesis, a total stranger came up to me and asked me if the fence was electrified. I wanted to turn to him with tremendous enthusiasm and shout my vindication, “Crazy, right?! You can’t tell!”
Instead I said something much more gruff and dramatic: “I guess there’s only one way to find out.” Then I stepped over the fence and retrieved my wayward garbage cans.
It’s the little triumphs that are important, at least to me, because they’re the kind I actually have. I’m never going to be an action hero, but that day by the fence, I like to think I seemed a bit like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Well, minus the terrorists and explosions, and trying to save some five dollar garbage cans instead of my wife. Still, I was an average man overcoming danger, which ought to count for something.
But I never did find out whether the fence was electrified. I was meticulously careful to avoid it as I gingerly raised each leg over. And now I tie my garbage cans to our house whenever there’s a storm.
Someday I imagine my daughter will ask me about it. I’ll probably tell her to touch it with a stick.