Opinion

EDITOR'S COLUMN: Roaming around can be shocking

Driving to work Monday morning I saw a cow looking longingly at a cabbage patch, separated from possible gustatorial paradise by a single strand of wire. The cow knew it was an electric fence because of the insulators on the steel posts. I knew what the cow was thinking: Jump, or crawl under?

My vehicle passed so quickly that I never learned the answer. Did the cow back up 60-feet, make a four-footed run at the fence, and leap over like a bovine hurdler? Or did it get down on its four knees and wriggle under the fence, like a soldier infiltrating enemy lines? Either way, it was probably disappointed. I don’t think cows like cabbage.

The sight got me to thinking about electric fences. Are they still the stuff of mythology as they were in my youth?

I was a small boy in the ‘50s, when electric fences were new, especially to the small part-time farmers around Snohomish who fenced off 5 or 10 acres with electric wire. It only took one strand compared to four for barbed wire, and electricity was cheap. Grand Coulee Dam was new, and produced more power than anyone could ever use. The PUD practically gave the stuff away.

My dad put up an electric fence, and I still remember the nifty black regulator box mounted on the barn wall. It had two glass lights, one red and one green, that alternated with the current. Watching the box, you could tell if the fence was on or off. Trouble was, you couldn’t tell just by looking at the fence.

Kids used to roam around the countryside for hours on end. Nobody was afraid of strangers because there weren’t any. All that roaming required negotiating fences of all types. Barbed wire you either crawled through or under, or you could grab ahold of a post and walk your way up and over the fence, but that made the wires sag and could get you in serious trouble. So generally we crawled, and as a result the backs of our flannel shirts were punctuated with holes.

Electric fences were an entirely different matter. They were easy to crawl under, but first there was the matter of honor. Someone had to touch the fence to see if it was “on.” Otherwise, you were chicken. Generally, the smallest kid went first.

Touching an electric fence today isn’t easy even today. But in those days it took the bravery of a Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. Because there were electric fence stories that would curl your hair. Talk was that the first fences used direct current, and kids would touch the wire and be caught for days, flopping all the time like a big fish. Some of those direct current fences carried enough current to fry a man, it was said, and there were stories of boys who had disappeared forever. Their parents found nothing but a pile of ashes surrounded by a pair of pants and flannel shirt that looked familiar.

And then you had to consider who owned the fence. Mr. Thompson didn’t like kids, and probably had it turned up to high. He was probably sitting in his house now, watching with binoculars, hoping we’d grab the fence and start dancing. Other neighbors most likely had their fence on medium or low, so touching the fence was less of a gamble.

To prove our manhood, we had to touch the fence regardless of the probability of imminent death. Usually we’d use a blade of grass, and if that didn’t kill us then we’d touch it with bare skin. BUZZZZ. It was a shocking experience, but worth it. Because at the next fence, it was somebody else’s turn to see if it was on.

I don’t know if kids every try to negotiate electric fences any more. But at least cows do.

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