PUMPING IRONY: Sixteen Tons

There’s a scene in Shane, one of my favorite westerns, in which the gunslinger Shane (played by Alan Ladd) and the homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) do battle with a gnarly old stump in Starrett’s dusty front yard. They go after it with axes for a while and, when they see it’s weakening, they just start pushing… Read more »

There’s a scene in Shane, one of my favorite westerns, in which the gunslinger Shane (played by Alan Ladd) and the homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) do battle with a gnarly old stump in Starrett’s dusty front yard. They go after it with axes for a while and, when they see it’s weakening, they just start pushing on it like nobody’s business. Starrett’s wife, the lovely Jean Arthur, implores her husband to “hitch up the team” to finish the job, but Joe will have none of it. It’s personal; kind of a test of his manhood.

That scene has come to mind on a couple of occasions this past week, as I’ve been digging out some fence posts in my own homestead. These aren’t any ordinary fence posts. As my neighbor, Joe (just a coincidence), put it the other night, when he found me staring dejectedly into a 4-foot hole embracing one of these posts, “Harry put those in. He didn’t mean them to be moved.”

Harry would be Harry Johnson, the previous owner of this house, who sunk those posts back around the time Shane was playing in the theaters, when concrete must have been cheap and plentiful. This particular post is one of four Harry planted to hold up a grievously ugly chain-link fence back by the garage, where My Lovely Wife would like something more dainty.

Hence, the harvesting of the posts. Or the attempted harvest. The lower 4 feet of Harry’s 8-foot steel pole is encased in concrete and, after two prolonged episodes with MLW’s ancient garden spade, I can move it around in the hole pretty well, but can’t quite muscle it up to the surface.

MLW has responded with her best rendition of Jean Arthur, encouraging me to “hitch up the team” (which, in modern terms, means calling a contractor friend of mine to get the number of this guy named Schmitty who owns a front-end loader and could take care of Harry’s posts in no time flat. But I’m feeling a little like Joe Starrett — that post has gotten the better of me and I feel like I’ve got something to prove now — so I’m putting off that call.

Besides, I’ve got other fish to fry.

MLW has been after me to patch up a crack in the house’s foundation before the ground freezes, so yesterday we went to the hardware store and picked out the nicest long-handled shovel we could find for under $15 and I set about excavating around the southeastern corner of the foundation, which as fate would have it, required that I unearth another of Harry’s well-planted fence posts in order to get at the crack.

I’m used to these sorts of family handyman setbacks, I should note; a surprisingly high percentage of these little household projects I undertake feature some obstacle or other (besides my own ineptitude) that I had not initially expected. It’s just the way it is. In this case, Harry’s post and its requisite 700 pounds of concrete was tightly hugging just the part of the foundation where the crack appeared. So, I started digging and a while later had an impressive pile of dirt amassed nearby. Harry’ post, however, remained firmly rooted. I dug some more, this time employing some of MLW’s gardening tools to unearth the earth between the post and the foundation. Each time I dove in with the hand trowel and dandelion weeder, a slice of Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s 1955 hit, Sixteen Tons, played in my head: You load sixteen tons / what do you get? / another day older / and deeper in debt.

This seemed to spur me on, though, and eventually I was able to break through a clod of clay that revealed the bottom of Harry’s handiwork. I backed out of the hole (St. Peter don’t ya call me / cause I can’t go / I owe my soul / to the company store) and the post fell harmlessly away from the house.

This was good, I thought, noting that Harry had perhaps run short of concrete on this project — only about 3 feet of cement wrapped itself around the post. And the hole was shallow enough that I could push down on the top part of the pole and maneuver the concrete-encased part nearer the surface.

This is where Jean Arthur and MLW would have me hitch up the team, of course. But where they might’ve seen a big old chunk of Harry’s concrete, I was looking down at a terrific opportunity to channel Marty Gallagher and deadlift that sucker right up to terra firma. So, I got my feet set on either side of the hole, tested my bum knee a little, then went into a squat, grabbed hold of a small piece of pole sticking out of the cement and, taking one deep breath, lifted it up and out. It wasn’t what I would call effortless, but I think Marty (and Joe Starrett) would’ve been proud.

Harry? Not so much.

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