As far as I can tell, the blame lays squarely with Prince William of England and his then-fiancée, Kate the future Duchess of Cambridge. I had my flash of insight as I was innocently flipping through a Maclean’s magazine when I saw the picture that gave me inspiration. I don’t remember now the exact words of the caption, but the picture showed a tall William and fragile-looking Kate on either end of a manual post-pounder, showing the world how game they were to try anything, in connection with some military (or civilian?) project.
Most everyone (or at least country folk) knows roughly what a mechanized post-pounder looks like. Gas-powered, or PTO driven, they are generally hydraulic nightmares of the highest caliber which brook no mistakes and forgive no carelessness. It’s only too easy to imagine the dangers a body might come to even without the helpful mangled-stick-figure-man “Caution” stickers plastered all over them. On the better models, a mechanized arm holds the post in question while a heavy weight smashes down repeatedly, driving the post into the desired depth with no effort (other than stopping one’s ears) on the part of the operator. As these savage machines are prohibitively expensive to purchase, we have rented them on occasion when we have had fencing to complete in a hurry, or when a looong straight row beckoned. However, there are many places you can’t use these noisy leviathans. The gas-powered ones must be hauled around by something (ATV or truck) and the PTO-driven ones require tractor access.
At this point, I must mention that for our farm a post-hole driller or auger wouldn’t work. Our soil is very sandy and, even with backfilling, our posts are much sturdier pounded in rather than placed and backfilled. We’ve had some challenging animals (fence-challenging, that is) over the years. Trust me. On our raw little farm, there are still many impenetrable places a vehicle cannot go, hence we can’t tow machinery in. Of course, sheep and goats will happily clear that problem up for you (impenetrable bush), but the problem is you need a fence to keep those tasty little coyote snacks in, leaving one in a bit of a “chicken or the egg” type quandary.
Seeing that photograph I was instantly inspired. I had never seen a manual post-pounder before that point and, now that we actually have one, I must confess I have my sincere doubts that the Dutchess was able to lift her end. A manual post-pounder very strongly resembles a police battering ram. Essentially constructed of a heavy steel tube (greater than the diameter of the post you might pound with it, naturally) with long handles running the length of either side and a heavy metal cap. This object slides over the post in question and a person on either side (or one very strong person) then proceeds to bash the post in with an up-and-down motion, observing all reasonable safety precautions. Here was our solution to weekend fencing. If we were going to just do a few posts, we’d use the manual post-pounder, but first, we had to make one.
Now welding, while an indispensable farm skill, is not something husbands are born knowing how to do (of course, neither are wives, but it doesn’t often come to that if we don’t want it to; I freely confess that I’m all about equality of the sexes until the heavy lifting starts). As we were once urbanites with no welding opportunities, occasions, or experiences, this skill—along with most others—had to be learned the hard way. As Adam became more proficient, we trusted his welded works more and more. The litmus test, as we reckoned it, was retrofitting brackets for removable bale forks on our tractor bucket. Since the brackets have remained in place after much loading, unloading, and moving of 1,700-pound bales, we figure he’s got it down now. However, the post pounder was still a bit earlier on in our farming adventure. I showed him the picture and he confidently agreed it wouldn’t be too hard to make. We sourced out the heavy materials required and on one balmy Spring day he spent the morning in the garage cutting, grinding, and welding the pieces to form one 90-pound pounder. The heavy steel tube was quarter-inch thick with a six-inch inside diameter and measured three feet from tip to tip with a half-inch plate steel top. I could only just lift the monstrosity but do nothing else with it. Thankfully, Adam, being a very strong man, took full charge of everything.
We decided that now that the frost was out of the ground we’d try it out on the newest paddock division we wanted to make, “The Lamb’s Barn”. This was a smaller paddock of roughly a quarter-acre where we could safely enclose imminent ovine mothers and their new lambs for closer observation. Sandwiched between the “Bull Pen” and the “Winter Pen”, it had the added benefit of not allowing our resident bull nose-to-nose access with his harem, an always risky temptation that was best to avoid if at all possible.
We headed out down the path, each holding one of the post-pounder’s handles, it’s heavy weight balanced confidently between us. To shorten our journey carrying the metal monstrosity, we pitched it over the existing fence rather than taking the long way through the other pens to reach it (a gate was in order, we wryly noted). Of course, Murphy’s Law always in full force on the farm, our ram, Waits (so named after the singer Tom Waits for his unusually deep, gravelly baaa) chose that moment to come out from around a bush and the edge of the pounder clipped his head. His front knees buckled momentarily but then he shook his formidable head and eyed it balefully. A few test sniffs and he rammed it with his head producing an admirable bell-like tone from it’s hollow depths. As we clambered over the fence he walked away uninterested, seemingly no worse for wear for his encounter. I can personally vouch for the thickness of a ram’s skull, since Nature designed it for maximum bashing capabilities.
Since reaching maturity, we have been unable to enter the sheepfold unarmed with Waits around or he’d happily seize the opportunity to ram us into next year.
With our ovine antagonist gone we lugged the pounder over to the first post laying ready in its place. I held the post at an angle while Adam heaved the pounder up and slipped it over the top like a sleeve going over an arm. When it was on we raised the post to its full six-foot length. At the count of three, we each began to raise and lower our respective ends. The jarring of the pounder made the hands go numb within moments, despite work gloves, and after only five strokes I called a rest, out of breath and strength. It was impossible to breathe while using this tool as it required such a straining effort and my head already swam. Undoubtedly the weaker of the two, I rested so long that Adam grew tired of waiting for me and grasped both handles and began to pound it in himself. I watched in admiration as his barn jacket strained handsomely against his broad shoulders and then a terrible thing happened.
Unbeknownst to us, on the previous pound, the weld had loosened on the top cap. Adam’s next forceful downward motion popped the welded cap right off sending the metal sleeve plunging to the ground over the post. As I watched this happen in disbelief my first thought was that his feet would be mashed, but the top of the cap, still attached to the sleeve by one corner and drunkenly askew like a jaunty baseball cap, caught Adam’s head on the way down and he dropped like a felled ox. The cap pinged off his head and flew off a full ten feet in the air before Adam even hit the ground.
I gasped and jumped up as Adam floundered to his knees blood obscuring his face, “I’m hurt!” he gasped unnecessarily. I ran over and grabbed him under the arms and hauled him to his feet. “I’m hurt!,” he repeated again. Babbling placating words, I helped him over to the fence he must now climb over to save a very long journey around to our main gate right through the curious flock of sheep. As an aside, if you’ve never kept sheep you can’t imagine what it’s like to try and keep your balance in the wooly press. Not renowned for their intelligence, they flock tightly around you with their deafening baaas wondering what you might be bringing them. It’s very hard to keep one’s balance and Adam was having trouble enough.
I was surprised he managed the climb over the fence, a trail of splattered blood behind him and we began the drunken walk to the yard. I bellowed at the top of my lungs for my older son whom I could hear outside. He came running down the path and I saw the look of shock when he saw his father’s bloody face and stumbling gait. I yelled for him to grab his little brother and get him in the car seat. He must have flown because when we got to the house both kids were sitting buckled up in the car. I helped Adam into the car and grabbed the sweatshirt from my son’s back to staunch the flow of blood while I ran inside to get the keys and my purse, and then we drove to town well above the speed limit (a half-hour drive at the best of times, only 15 minutes this time).
At the emergency room, they didn’t even triage us, we walked in with Adam’s face covered in fresh and dried blood and were immediately ushered into a curtained-off room. I went back and did paperwork and when I returned there was already a nurse cleaning the wound while our kids watched with the morbid fascination of the young.
“Can you hold this?” she asked me, indicating a fresh pack of gauze she had under slight pressure. I did as she asked while she got scissors to begin snipping away the offending hair around the wound. The wound measured three inches long and poured out blood so copiously it was impossible to determine it’s depth. It was hard to tell with all the gore, but it appeared to be slightly sunken and I prayed that wasn’t the case.
Adam, by now, had recovered his aplomb and we laughed and chatted while she worked. Wincing in discomfort he nonetheless kept up his end of the conversation until the doctor came in, and I marveled at his fortitude. The jovial doctor irrigated the wound (still bleeding) and trimmed away more hair, then lifting one of the lips of the scalp with some forceps asked, “Hey, you kids wanna see your dad’s skull?”. The little ghouls trooped right over and we all observed with some curiosity the smooth dome of my husband’s skull as it was washed with saline.
“Really, you can see my skull?” Adam asked, disappointed none of us had our cell to take a picture. It was a wasted opportunity.
It was amazing that there was no damage to the skull, and it took nine stitches to close up his scalp again. His bruised, shorn scalp shone whitely around the long row of ugly stitches as the doctor checked his eyes and reflexes. For now, it seemed other than the physical damage to his scalp and the tremendous headache he had, there was no lasting damage and no evidence of concussion. With common sense instructions to bring him back should he experience blurred vision, nausea, impaired motor function, or excessive sleepiness, we were released.
I removed his stitches after a week and the wound was healing beautifully. We had a formal work-related dinner to go to exactly eight days after the accident and Adam regaled his customers with the gruesome tale, as everyone couldn’t help but notice his enormous bald spot and shining scar and it provoked questions wherever we ambled in the hall. The pounder remained like a sleeve over the half-sunk post for a few weeks while he recovered enough to help me lift it off and carry it back. His hair grew back sparsely around the scar until you couldn’t see it anymore, and life got back to normal.
In the end, the posts still needed pounding and we hired a professional welder to fix the post-pounder. We subsequently use it like one would enlist the aid of a rabid dog, with great caution and precaution. We wear steel toes, hard hats, no solo use and we’re always watching the cap to make sure it won’t bean anyone. Despite having seen the arc of trajectory from the original lid bouncing off of Adam’s skull and mentally marking where it landed, the original cap was never found.
When I think of the picture in MacLean’s magazine of the future King and Queen of England holding the handles of a post-pounder bigger than the one we have, him wearing a sober blue suit and expensive shoes, her wearing a designer dress and equally expensive heels, I just smile and think, “PhotoShop.”