by Matthew Taimuty, CJF
© Anvil Magazine
published in ANVIL Magazine, February, 1999
“Do you build gates?” the slightly wavering and rather ancient female voice asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I do. What do you have in mind?”
“Well, you see, I’ve lived in this house for 83 years, you know...”
There was a long silence. Had she paused for effect, or was she taking a nap? “The other night three hooligans tried to break into my house.” She sounded rather unnerved by what she had just told me. “My husband passed on a few years ago, and I don’t feel safe anymore. Could you build me a gate that would make me feel safe?”
“Most likely I can, ma’am. I’d have to come look at your house to be sure. Would you like me to do that?”
“Would you? You are so kind, young man.” I hadn’t been called young man since the third grade.
I arrived at Mrs. Rutledge’s house three days later. She met me at the front door. She was no bigger than a minute with thin, white hair, a shawl, a cane, and bright red sneakers. Rufus peered warily at me from behind her skirt. Rufus was of the canine persuasion. Ancestry unknown. He weighed as much as I did and had very long teeth.
“Ma’am, with a dog like that, why do you need a gate for protection?” I asked.
“I’d just feel safer with one, Sonny. A nice big one with spikes on top,” she said, gazing off into the horizon.
We walked out into the yard. Rufus sniffed aggressively at my pant legs. I thought I heard some guttural noises interspersed with sniffing noises, but I wasn’t sure. When we arrived at the location she had chosen for the proposed gate, I surveyed the situation. Directly across the driveway, a fairly solid covering of ivy was woven around the wooden fence surrounding the rest of the property. I figured this would be an easy one. Sink a couple of lengths of heavy tubing, fill them with concrete and hang the gates from them. There would need to be two, because of the span to be covered.
I explained all this to her. She seemed to understand. I showed her some designs. She selected one that was very gothic with lots of spikes on top. It would have looked perfect in front of the Munsters’ house.
“I really like the spikes on top. They make me feel safe,” she said.
I quoted her a price. She didn’t bat an eye and wrote me a check for half, then and there. I took my measurements and was on my way. When this one was finished, I would be able to pay my taxes on time. A nice feeling.
A few days later, the steel arrived for Mrs. Rutledge’s gates and I set to work. The cutting and layout went fine. Everything seemed to be flowing along smoothly, when I realized I was out of five-inch circles. The entire top of the gates were lined with them 38 in all. A quick call to my supplier turned up nothing. I was told they were back-ordered for six weeks, originating from Rumania. There was a strike of some sort. I next gave thought to cutting them with the band saw from pipe. No pipe. I was not about to buy a 20-foot length of five-inch pipe so I could use 19 inches of it. Last option: make your own. I had plenty of bar stock, an anvil I was supposed to know how to use, and a brand new shipment of coal. As I cut the stock for the circles, my mind did a quick calculation of my wages for this job. Adding in the hand-forged circles, the total came out in the high “cents per hour” range. Grumble, grumble. I figured I’d better get cracking, or the IRS would not be at all happy with me. I fired up the forge and piled a bunch of the new coal around the fire. The first three circles just about formed themselves. I welded them up like I knew what I was doing. I’ve got this lovely cone mandrel, you see. This was gonna be easy. The last one had a bit of splatter on it, so I decided to poke around in the fire and see what was down there. The first prod with the poker turned up a loud “clank.” I hooked onto it and pulled out a clinker the size of an orange. I successfully welded up two more circles. The third of that set would not weld to save my soul. Three tries and on the fourth, I burned it up. Darn! I routed around in the fire and found another clinker, this one the size of a grapefruit. On the third set of three, I was successful...sort of. The second one stuck on the second welding heat, but had so much slag on it I had to toss it. I cropped my hammer, bent to pick it up and the third one vanished in a shower of sparks. Drat! I started the fourth set to make up for the three failures of the first nine. Success!...once. The clinker I pulled from the fire looked like some spooky hellfire and damnation-created bagel.
I decided I had gotten into a bad batch of coal. I cleaned out what was left in the forge and started fresh. By the time I had the new fire going nicely, it had a strange, glittery look to it. I poked around and pulled out a clinker half the size of a basketball. Cripes! What’s going on here?
I tried one more time to weld up a set of three. The first worked perfectly. The second worked, but was a bit messy. I vaporized the third. Aarrrgggghh! Okay. We’ll try the gas forge. I got all set up, lit the forge and went to work. All went smoothly for awhile. I was able to hide most of the welds, and only burned myself with flying slag about half a dozen times. Then it happened. Putt, putt, putt, putt, ptptptptptptptpt...poot! Out of propane. Fiddlesticks!
I changed tanks fired her up and putt, putt, bang! Empty. Rats! Must be lunch time. I took both empty bottles and drowned my sorrows with a Big Mac. I filled the tanks on the way home and went back to work.
The afternoon went fairly smoothly got the circles welded up. Most of them fit fairly well. I was pleased.
The next day, I had to forge the spikes my own special design. I made the power hammer dies and everything. Really cool. I set to whapping away on the spikes like a madman. Had to make up for lost time the day before. I had that hammer smoking! Really smoking. I mean heavy, black smoke coming out of the motor. Then the lights went out. I hate the smell of an electrical fire. I was able to find the breaker panel by the light of the flames shooting out of the motor casing. Dang!
With the fire out and the damage assessed (a total loss), I was back forging spikes...by hand. By the end of the day, my right arm was a good three inches longer than my left, knuckles dragging on the ground as I walked to my car to drive home.
Day three - For a change, all went well. The welder did not blow a fuse. I did not flash-blind myself more than a few times, nor burn myself more than thrice. By day’s end, most of one gate was assembled and the other was well on its way. I went home tired and happy.
Day four was another story. There was to be a steel plate across the bottom of each gate for strength. It was to be eight inches high and a quarter of an inch thick. I had them sheared especially for these gates. They didn’t fit. What is that old carpenter’s axiom? Cut it off three times and it’s still too short. I fiddled around with those darn things all day. Finally I pulled off a “Rube Goldberg” fit, and got them in and looking pretty sound, if I do say so myself. It’s amazing what you can do with Bondo.
Well, three more days of screwing around and the gates were off to the paint shop. Mrs. R. wanted them in an off-white. They came back the next day looking brand new.
The day finally came to install the gates. I have a buddy who helps me with installations. He was out with a bad back. I was on my own. The boom crane on my big flatbed is a godsend when loading these heavy gates. I wrestled with them and the posts but got them all on board and headed over to Mrs. R’s to put them up. I figured I’d deliver them all at once and hang them the next day after the cement set.
When I arrived, the holes were drilled right where I had marked. My auger man is a good one. I dropped the posts in the holes and poured the cement. All went well until Mrs. R. came out to inspect my work. Rufus again inspected my pants.. and autographed my tool box. He then stepped in the fresh cement as he autographed each post. I went over to trowel out his tracks. He ordered me not to. Grrrrrrrrr!
“Now Rufus, you be nice,” Mrs. R. said in a quiet tone. Rufus just looked at her sweetly and sat quietly. I was impressed. I told her I would be back the next day to hang the gates and install the openers. Rufus gave me the evil eye as I got in my truck and headed home. It had been dry for weeks and the dirt road she lived on was a pall of dust.
The next day I arrived early to get a start on the projected heat of the day, only to find Rufus had been a busy boy during my absence. There were many tracks in the cement and more than a few yellow stains on both gates and posts, each covered with a layer of dust. I figured I could work around them and hose off his signature later. The gates hung nicely and fit like they were custom made. When I’m good, I’m good! The cement pads for the openers were also full of Rufus’s tracks, but I wasn’t worried about that. The openers would cover them nicely. I installed the openers without incident, as Rufus was nowhere to be seen.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on things, Mrs. R. drove up in her 1966 Ford Galaxy 500. Baby blue. Not a mark on it. It clashed with her red sneakers. I pressed the opener and impressed her with her new gates. Rufus growled at me from the back seat.
She got out to look at her new gates. She had a big smile on her face. Rufus had no such smile on his face. He was more than a bit perturbed by all the new stuff on his driveway. He diligently took to signing each and every new object, including a few more of my tools.
I showed Mrs. Rutledge how the remote opener worked, opening the gates and closing them a few times. She was satisfied and went into the house. Rufus did not like this at all. He commenced barking at the moving gates with a vengeance. He chased them open and then chased them closed. I found it rather humorous, so I pressed the button a few more times. Rufus got really agitated, chasing the gates back and forth for all he was worth. Then suddenly he stopped and looked at me with cold, black eyes. I froze. Rufus came at me with those long, sharp teeth of his, gleaming in the sunshine. I dropped the opener and sprinted for the fence. The ivy made it impossible to climb, so just as Rufus was removing my back pockets, I leapt for my new gates and scrambled over to safety...almost. My belt got hung up on one of those fancy spears I had so dutifully forged. There I was, hanging in the wind by my belt, like a Christmas goose hung for seasoning. Rufus thought this was just great. He barked and leapt at my toes for a few moments. Then he got an evil look in his eyes. My heart was pounding and my entire life flashed before me. Rufus calmly walked over to where I had dropped the remote. He looked at it, then looked at me. He stepped on the button and the gates swung open, with me attached. Rufus then pressed the button again, closing the gates...with me attached. Rufus was having a grand time watching me swing back and forth. I was cussing and screaming, all to no avail. I was thoroughly stuck. Rufus just grinned, it looked like.
An hour or so later, after the local fire department got me down from my impromptu perch, I collected my tools and prepared to leave. I handed Mrs. R. the final bill. Rufus had been banished to the house. The firefighters would not come in the yard to save me with him there. Can’t say I blame them.
Mrs. R. took the bill and walked over to the gates for a final inspection. She looked and looked. She walked every inch of them, with her red sneakers shining like hot coals. She finally ran a finger over one of the gates. She marched right over to me with great indignation.
“Young man!” she hollered. “Young man, look here at my finger!” It was rather dirty. She wagged it at me ominously and shouted, “Young man, I thought you understood! I wanted dust-proof paint on my gates!”
You know, this place I’ve been staying is really nice. They feed me three times a day . I can watch all the TV I want. I get a bath once a day and I have a comfortable bed. I don’t mind that they all wear white coats. It’s this funny jacket they make me wear, where I can’t move my arms...