I Thought It Was Just a Little Paint

^AA5C1FBC83EDF7AF46DDAECD4635A672684C4D347CBC931FC2^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrLife on the farm isn’t too different from anywhere else. Except for the chores, not being able to see neighbors, the deafening quiet at night, and hunting from the porch, it’s just like living in Manhattan.

Oh, and tetanus. My entire farm is a case of lockjaw looking for a place to happen.

Between an old barbed wire fence, the two barns, renovations to the house, and a couple of rusty junk piles in the back woods the previous owner left behind, the chances of somebody visiting the Emergency Room in the next year will be an even-money bet.

Unless I need stitches or a cast, I should be good, but not so for the rest of the family.

Because of the places I’ve been, I’ve been pricked and prodded more than the zit on a prom queen’s nose the night before homecoming.

If I had a dollar for every time I was stuck by a syringe, I could probably just write for a living. And if you count jabs from a tattoo needle, I could afford to farm full-time.

The wife and kids should have appointments for tetanus and rabies vaccinations soon. Either that, or we can have them added on during the next Urgent Care visit. Whichever comes first.

I had a slightly different vision of what was going to take place when my wife said, “A little paint and some texture touch-up.”

^46C7D812FAC3DCE8FA61FFE4847D5CE3B0871596B981FBCD5A^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrStuds are visible.

Electrical outlets have been relocated. Archways have been added. Undesirable doors are being framed shut, and new ones are under consideration, so we can access a deck and hot tub we don’t yet own.

I don’t think I’ve reached the point of having bitten off more than I can chew. However, some of the projects will push the limits of my skills and force me to learn a couple of news ones.

I can always fall back on my Amish carpenter, if absolutely necessary, but that’s admitting defeat, and I’m not a fan of losing.

During a long, hot San Jose summer, my brother Jake and I, inspired by daily reruns of “Hogan’s Heros” and pushed over the edge watching “Stalag 17,” decided an underground clubhouse would be far cooler than any stupid tree house our parents had already told us we couldn’t build because lumber costs money.

^0BCA08302E54DDC65D90F3D300950AA65DDEA7CA18B1EC0B38^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrWe weren’t poor growing up, but neither did we have cash to burn. However, getting money out of my mother was like giving the cat a bath. As reasonable an idea as it may seem at first, nobody ends the project feeling good about the experience.

Confident in our logic that removal of dirt to create a void was not objectionable because it didn’t cost anything, and with the additional benefit of not creating an architectural eyesore, me and Jake raided the tool shed for the implements of the imminent cave-in.

We found a secluded spot behind the garage, at the far end of the property, that was not visible from the house. Not that it mattered much. The plan was to have a magnificently camouflaged entrance that rivaled the tilting tree stump Bob Crane made famous.

We didn’t have a tree stump handy, but no matter. Such minor details would be worked out as the project progressed.

That Monday, me and Jake began to dig. By the end of the work day on Tuesday, we could both sit up inside the cavern comfortably. That’s when we realized just how dark an underground existence could be. We would have to scavenge the garage for parts to wire our lair.

^340E72AB86867519BE654C36348B8F51A7F04B4F8DD5CAEA5C^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrOn Thursday, we were closing in on being able to stand up, but grew mildly concerned at the dirt raining down on us whenever the dog walked across the top. I think our parents became suspicious at me and Jake showing up for dinner all week encrusted in enough dirt to require stripping us to our underwear and hosing us off with the garden hose.

Pulling a dirt-filled bucket into the daylight the next afternoon, I met my dad, squatting down along the rim of the entrance, holding a flashlight.

“You and your brother, get out of there,” was all he said. Jake and I clambered out of the diagonal shaft, while the old man hung his torso over the edge and peered to the end with the aid of his flashlight.

Plumbing the dimensions of the cave with the beam of light, Dad slowly shook his head. He looked toward me and Jake. In a flash of brilliance, Jake blurted out, “We’re making Mom a root cellar for her canning.” I nodded my head in agreement.

“Your mother doesn’t can,” said my Dad, in a measured tone I’ve come to learn is a father’s way to keep from killing again.

“She can learn,” I added, hoping to turn the situation into a good idea.

It’s episodes like this that cause me to believe I was not beaten enough as a child.

^E5A904D4547807207E201B5B9D8B64CBDE2A92278475E5699B^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrAfter a lecture on the need for bracing within earthworks, Dad caved in the structure by jumping on the roof. Jake and I spent the weekend collecting the dirt we had scattered to fill in what was now a big hole in the ground. The Kommandant had found us out, and we were lucky to get out of it without any time in the cooler.

Looking back, the experience turned out to be instructional because my wife just texted me.

“Where do you think would be a good spot for a root cellar?”


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Killer Cows

download (2)Homesteading is more of a mindset than a physical reality. Life circumstances don’t always allow for a fulfillment of the dream. Establishing a full-blown farm is a daunting task that is often tackled in increments with a gradual expanding of numbers and types of animals kept until the suburban home or semi-rural homestead has reached its carrying capacity. Then the search for a new property, or expansion of the current one, is all consuming.

All the while, homesteaders dream of new, more ambitious livestock and scheme of how to turn excess farm production into cash, since there are just some things that can’t be made at home.

Short of importing illegal Chinese labor and putting them up in the barn, I don’t see a way to produce locally sourced laptops.

A smart homesteader does his homework. Countless hours are spent researching the dozens of different breeds contained within each type of animal. God help the homesteader who doesn’t have a short-list of characteristics he wants. A chicken is a chicken, more or less, but even the simplest and most basic of choices between layer, meat, or hybrid will turn your mind to mush.

IMG_0449Rabbits aren’t much better. There are only about a thousand different types to pick from, as opposed to the million choices in the chicken world. Also, there seem to be fewer people raising rabbits, so the fire-hose of information, opinion, and experience isn’t quite as fierce.

I blame the internet for the information overload and paralyzing of the ability to pick.

Whatever your choice of livestock for your homestead, there is seemingly no end to the amount of advice and information floating around. Most of it is decent and borne of personal experience. Although, what works in one area may or may not work in another due to the nature of the property, density of neighbors, climate, or the factor that your particular animal is an asshole. It happens.

Even with the entire world a mouse click away, the best way to lean the how and what of homesteading is to do it.

Experience is the best teacher, but don’t just start picking up animals at the local farmer’s market without a plan or experience. The knowledge gained that way is costly and time consuming. Your best bet is to dust off your personality and make a few friends who already husband the sort of livestock that interest you.

This is where the internet and social media has been the biggest boon to homesteaders since the invention of chicken wire. With Facebook and varying combinations of half a dozen keywords, I’d be willing to bet my brother’s left testicle that there is at least one person within a reasonable distance of you who is already raising your animal of interest.

IMG_0446While looking for a rabbit breeder to supply the start of our herd (I know it’s called a “colony,” but I like to call myself a “part-time rabbit rancher”), we came across a young couple working toward their goal of being full-time homesteaders. When we showed up to select our rabbits, Mrs. Cunha and I discovered this fine young couple was already living a lifestyle similar to our aspirations.

Chickens, rabbits, goats, and ducks abounded. They even had an old mare and a miniature cow who kept each other company in their retirement. We all seemed to hit it off immediately, especially when the husband and I discovered a mutual love for hunting and preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse. Not too surprisingly, the questions flowed, a tour ensued, and invitations to return for work parties were extended.

In the military, work parties are universally loathed, and to the uninitiated, contributing an uncompensated day’s labor to someone else makes about as much sense as enrolling a child in the Jared Fogle ‘Lil Ones Daycare and Sandwich Shop.

In reality, it’s not providing free labor. However, my kids would disagree since I dragged them along with me. Screw what they think. They were building character.

Think of the experience as a day-long apprenticeship. My labor was exchanged for hands-on experience in skills I wanted to learn and the opportunity to pick the brain of someone who has already done the things I am trying to accomplish. The exchange typically includes feeding you, too. So, that’s an added bonus.

Farm life being what it is, it will be a rare person who turns down any help you offer; assuming you don’t put off the serial killer vibe. Even if you want to learn a skill that isn’t used very often such as castrating, disbudding, butchering, or birthing, a little willingness to be flexible with your schedule will get you an experienced hand to guide you through all manner of nasty, but absolutely necessary, homestead projects.

I have yet to meet a homesteader who didn’t relish the opportunity to pass on his skills and knowledge. As a group, we are a remarkably welcoming and informative bunch.

Understanding that one man’s “reasonable” may be another man’s “impossible,” you may not be willing or able to drive an hour to work on someone else’s farm. It just happened that these folks have similar personalities, backgrounds, and life ambitions to Mrs. Cunha and me, so we knowingly bypass at least a score of other homesteaders.

images (27)My parents can take the blame for instilling this “labor-for-skills” ethos in me.

They used to have a second house in Northern California where we would spend long weekends and summer vacations. It was all farms and ranch lands at the time. I haven’t been there in twenty years, so I have no clue what the area looks like now, but I suspect the population density is still pretty sparse.

For whatever reasons that I’m sure made perfect sense to my parents, the plan to move the whole family up there never came to fruition, but they certainly laid the groundwork for understanding the nature of farm chores with me and Jake. Much of our vacation time, we would be farmed out to split wood, move hay bales, help shear sheep, shovel shit, or anything else that wasn’t terribly dangerous for kids to do.

And we loved every minute of it…except for the days we shoveled shit.  Personally, I could have done fine without learning that particular skill, but I’ve come to learn shoveling shit is a big part of life, even if you don’t live on a farm.

I was fourteen the first time I really thought I was going to die. I don’t mean that in the figurative sense like “I was so embarrassed. I nearly died.” I mean a situation where I genuinely thought a mortal injury was imminent and my time on Earth had run out.

Spanish Pete was an old gravel-voiced, barrel-chested Basque with Vice Grip hands, leathery skin, and a shuffling gait that was the result of multiple limps acquired over a lifetime of ranching. Although he spoke Spanish reasonably well to communicate with his ranch hands, Spanish Pete’s primary language prior to immigrating was French. I still don’t know how he wound up being called “Spanish Pete.” It’s just what everyone in the area called him.

Jake and I called him “Sir,” just to be certain we didn’t get cross-ways of the old man because we had seen him castrate sheep “the way we used to do it in the old country.” There’s an episode of Dirty Jobs that shows the details.

I probably won’t ever know how Pete was turned Spanish, and will have to chalk it up to one of history’s mysteries that are lost to time.

PeteCommon wisdom in the area was that old Pete owned half the county and leased another third of it from the Bureau of Land Management. If I wasn’t a product of the public school system, I could tell you how much that was. On the upside, I feel really good about myself for not knowing.

Me and Jake were helping Pete’s ranch hands shoo cows out of a milking barn on a muddy, overcast spring morning. Semi-permanent cattle pen sections created an alley that led from the door of the milking barn and turned right sharply before leading out to a small holding pasture. I’m fairly certain neither the ranch hands nor the cows needed our help with the maneuver, since all parties concerned did this every day.

For lack of anywhere else to put us where we would not be underfoot, Jake and I were positioned in the elbow of the turn and given profanity-laced instructions in Spanglish to direct the cows into the pen.

Like most fourteen-year-olds, I wasn’t terribly bright. It didn’t occur to me that these cows knew the route better than I did.

Jake grew up as a skinny child, and I hated him for that. For a time, we thought he had Tuberculosis, but it turned out he was just a skinny shit.

As for me, let’s say I’m glad skinny jeans were not the fashion of the day. I had to spend most of my youth shopping in the “husky” section along with Danny DeVito. The upside is that, unlike my brother, I have never been lifted off the ground by a large kite in a heavy wind. So, I’ve got that going for me.

Jake and I stood in the center of this turn waiting for the cows to appear like a bad Laurel and Hardy impersonation team. Due to Jake’s waif-like construction, he only sank into the mud up to his ankles. The turd nearly floated atop the homogenous mixture of clay mud and cow shit.

Daily Spring rains and frequent hosing out of the milking barn had turned the paddock into a mud field. For anyone interested, I’d put the mixture about 90% mud and 10% cow shit. However, it smelled like the opposite.

On the other hand, I was sunk to the tops of my rubber boots. Every attempt to free one foot from the mud sent the other deeper into the mire until I decided I would be able to direct cow traffic right where I was. The last thing I wanted to deal with was that mixture oozing down my bootleg and between my toes. It’s a special kind of nastiness when dried.

As the cows came trotting out of the milking barn, something occurred to me.

1cowsThere must be something special about the design of a cow’s hoof because they weight a lot more than I did, but had no trouble hauling ass across the bog straight toward us.

Grinning and laughing like idiots, Jake and I swung our arms about wildly to coax the cattle down the only path available to them. We waved and shouted like a couple of retards at a clown parade. The lead cow looked at us as if to say, “Who brought the Special Olympics children out here?”

The cow didn’t have long to think because she was being pushed forward by the cows behind her. A mass of bovine flesh thundered through the mud toward us and cut right, splattering us with muck. It only made us laugh harder.

The reason for the hurry became clear when I spotted Pete’s Australian Blue Heeler, Maria, chasing the last cow and biting her heels whenever she lagged.

The last cow slid through the corner past me and Jake with Maria nipping at its teats. Jake and I were splattered with mud from the cow rush hour we had just witnessed. Dammit, this made is cowhands.

My feet must be defective because I was the only one having trouble moving through the muck.

After the stampede passed, Jake went bounding after the herd, or more likely, the dog to congratulate it on a job well done. I tried to follow, but mud suction kept my boots planted. Brute force only resulted in stripping my foot out of the boot.

As I was figuring out how to keep my feet inside my boots and move around at the same time, a straggler appeared in the barn doorway. Maria had missed one. I made a mental note to take that up with her supervisor at a later time.

heeler1The cow looked at her friends in the field, looked at me, and back at her friends. I don’t know if being sunk in mud up my knees make me look like a four-foot-tall salt lick or if cattle have a sense of humor. Either way, this bossy bitch started trotting toward me, putting her head down, like Melissa McCarthy going to the fried Twinkie booth at the state fair.

One of the few things I remember from Physics class my senior year (In the Cunha family, that’s generally the eighth grade) is that force is a function of both velocity and mass. For example, a ping pong ball at one hundred miles an hour probably won’t hurt you. A car traveling at ten miles an hour will definitely hurt you, and just might kill you.

A cow is a lot closer in size to a car than a ping pong ball.

On any given day, given a flat, dry surface, even as the old man I am now, I can dodge a trotting cow. With my lower extremities encased in mud, my options become limited very quickly.

As the cow drew closer, I debated whether I had a better chance of survival by bending back and risk getting my nuts stomped versus leaning forward and risk breaking my spine when Ol’ Betsy trampled over me. The closer the cow got to me, the less survivable the situation seemed, so it became an exercise of what type of pain I’d prefer to endure while the cow did a Mexican Hat Dance on my fat ass.

In a moment of clarity, the phrase “Stomped into a mud hole” made perfect sense.

I’d like to say I managed to free myself by executing a perfectly times somersault over the cow’s head while slapping her on the ass for good measure as I stuck the landing.

I didn’t.

I was saved from being trampled to death by this milk cow when one of the ranch hands came running up from behind me waving his hands and cursing in Spanish. That’s all it took to make her cut right and join her friends. I wish it was a more spectacular ending, but it’s not.

However, I did learn a couple of things that day.

Firstly, don’t be too proud to shovel someone else’s shit. Especially, if you can get some experience out of it.

Secondly, despite all the knowledge in books and wisdom from the internet, there are some things you just have to learn by watching someone else do in front of you.

And finally, cows aren’t afraid of husky Portagee kids, but they sure seem scared of one-hundred-twenty pound, cursing Mexicans.

Possum Patrol

CoonPredators skulk everywhere. Chicken coops, rabbit hutches, garbage cans, or dog food bowls; they’re not picky. A forgotten peanut butter and jelly sandwich from your six-year-old is just as likely to be filched up by a coon as is an unguarded clutch of eggs. Actually, I believe it more likely since no animal on Earth is known to care enough about the remains of a PB&J sandwich to protect it and the fact that it tastes better than raw eggs.

One of the burdens of livings outside city limits is the necessity to protect your property; land, livestock, machinery, wives and children, etc.

Your barn, attic, and crawlspace are prefabricated, and sometimes furnished, living quarters for any number of wild animals too lazy to dig out their own. Animal feed, household refuse, and especially gardens turn your homestead into a Home Town Buffet for critters you never intended. It’s like having Millennial children who graduate college and won’t leave home.

When they feel like a little entertainment, the more adventurous of these freeloaders go after the most vulnerable of your menagerie. A horror I have yet to experience is peeking into my chicken coop to discover decapitated hens strewn about the floor. I get a raccoon taking a single chicken, but the destruction described by victims of these attacks, even if in response to a defense mounted by the birds, speaks to a violent streak in Procyon lotor.

I haven’t always lived in an area where it is perfectly legal and acceptable to use my back porch as a deer blind.

images (64)Where I grew up, despite pockets of orchards left over from the days before the IT explosion, was a post-War, suburban ghetto; a former bedroom community of San Francisco with an inferiority complex. The neighbors on one side raised chickens. The neighbors on the other side attended the opera. Luckily for me and Jake, the neighbor behind us never ventured to the rear of her property and left it mostly overgrown with vegetation. Had she ventured into the heart of darkness, she would have found all manner of pellets, BBs, and arrows that ricocheted their way over the fence, the skeletal remains of several birds and squirrels Jake and I sharpened our marksmanship skills upon, and a whole mess of 30-06 cases.

You can get some serious hang-time from a 30-06 case filled with gunpowder, tapped upside-down into a tree stump, and ignited with a piece of twisted toilet paper jammed into the flash hole.

Luckily, our redneck rocketeering never touched down in the yard of our chicken ranching neighbors. They would have snitched me and Jake off to our parents for sure.

fox terrierIn addition to chickens that would peck off the finger of any child dumb enough to stick one through a hole in the fence, these same neighbors had a pack of Toy Fox Terriers that were convinced they were Doberman Pinschers. God willing, every one of them is dead by now.

These annoying rat dogs prowled the fence line incessantly barking whenever my brother and I were in the backyard, which was pretty much all daylight hours during the summer.

One hot June day, the head rat dog broke off a piece of fence big enough to stick its head through. As the little dog snarled and barked with its head jammed through the hole to its shoulders, our German Shepard Harry sauntered up, lifted his leg, and pissed all over the other dog’s head.

Having proven his point, my dog trotted away leaving a wet and enraged Fox Terrier standing with its head through a hole in the fence. Jake and I recognized an opportunity for shenanigans when presented. We ran up, pulled out, and both proceeded to followed Harry’s lead.

Seven pounds of piss-soaked, humiliated dog sure can muster up a lot of demon.

The little rat dog was determined to kill us. It strained against the fence, growling and snapping at the pee streams.

I’ve had several dogs over my life; a couple were terrible, and I was happy to be rid of them. A couple were fantastic, and I was truly sad when they met their ends. The last dog I put down was in 2009. A friend told me at the time that losing a good dog, and Molly was one of the best, is as close to losing a child as a person can experience. I think he’s right.

Even the best dogs have eccentricities. Maybe the eccentricities are what make a good dog great. This is probably the wrong paragraph in which to place this sentence, but here goes anyway. Molly was a racist. She didn’t like blacks, but was fine with every other group of people.

When she was really advanced in age, Molly wouldn’t even bother getting up to express her bigotry. Molly would stay laying where she was and woof under her breath, often not lifting her head off the ground. Maybe it was the dog version of dementia like when my former Grandmother-in-Law though she was still in Angola during the war and would mumble about the darkies coming to get them.

I’ve begun to wonder if racism is a genetic trait of labs. Molly’s replacement was a black lab I named Toby, because at the time, my youngest couldn’t pronounce “Barack.”

Toby didn’t like Mexicans, which is a hard situation to deal with when you live in El Paso, Texas, the northern suburb of Cuidad Juarez and a dead ringer for Afghanistan.

If you’ve been to both places, you understand exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, just imagine the world’s worst summer camp and add in brown people trying to kill you. Embrace the suck, my friend.

photo4My current lab seems to be more sexist than anything else. He doesn’t listen too well to anyone with a penis, but I’m OK with that. Maybe Zeus is chivalrous because he is awful friendly with the pizza delivery girl. Or maybe it was the pizza. Either way, as long as a female Domino’s delivery driver doesn’t try to burglarize my house, I think I’m set.

Zeus has one weird habit I’ve tried unsuccessfully so far to break him of, and it’s somewhat related to a bad habit of my own.

When I’m working outside, which is a big chunk of the day, I see no sense in leaving tracks through the house just to make number one. When I’m sweat soaked, mud caked, and poop splattered, I consider it a thoughtful gesture to my wife’s housekeeping efforts, and additional years tacked onto a happy marriage, to limit the number of trips across my wife’s sparkly clean floor. Therefore, I frequently tinkle outside.

Zeus must spend every waking moment waiting for me to pee because I have seen him nearly knock the screen door off its hinges running toward where I am relieving myself to pee on the same spot.

The first few times, I thought it was humorous, until it dawned on me that it might be some sort of dominance move. I can’t let that happen. The next thing I know, I come home to find him sitting in my recliner with the TV remote in one paw, chomping on one of my cigars, and smacking my wife on the ass when she brings him a sandwich. That’s my job, God damn it.

Now, as a matter of policy, I pee on Zeus’ head whenever he pulls that crap. Which is pretty much every time I pee outside.

Believe it or not, when I did a decade of hard time in San Diego, I used this process in reverse to house-train a particularly recalcitrant dog, whose name I can’t remember anymore.

We had very short fences in that neighborhood, so I’m sure the neighbors were puzzled seeing me pee in the back yard with my dog on a leash. They probably thought I was either blind, suffering from early-onset dementia, or both.

San DiegoDespite living firmly within city limits, we had our share of predatory animals. There were certain areas of town, specifically Tecolte Canyon and any of the hoity-toity areas that begin with the word “Rancho,” where people habitually took their neighborhood strolls armed with walking sticks or actual clubs to fend off aggressive coyotes when walking their dogs. These were areas of town where you literally could not have an outdoor cat because they were mysteriously turned into coyote turds with little collars reading “Mr. Whiskers.”

God forbid the inmates of the California Republic be allowed to carry a firearm to protect themselves and their property. It’s one of the few areas where Ronald Reagan can be faulted, but in his defense, those laws were aimed directly at the Black Panthers wandering around in public openly displaying firearms to intimidate the few white people still living in Oakland.

On a side note, any neighborhood in San Diego County containing the word “Rancho” is way out of this Portagee’s price range, and very likely yours, too. When I escaped California, the median house price was $460,000. Look up what “median” means, if you want to have a mild heart attack.

Over in my lower-middle class neck of the woods, we had our own wildlife problems. Not only were our fences short, but they were rickety and full of gaps from benign neglect, mostly of landlords. As a result, all manner of furry little critters transited across property lines at will. It was good practice for living in the Southwest.

Try as we might to prevent it, my poor dog Molly would tangle with a skunk about twice a year. I admired her instincts, but hated the aftermath.

Through trial and error, my wife figured out the best de-skunking method was a bath in baking soda and Dawn dish washing soap. It turned my normally Chestnut brown lab into an ash blonde. After the first three or four times, I began to suspect Molly was intentionally provoking the skunks, so she could have a spa day at home. Had Molly just asked, we could have skipped that whole part with the skunk and moved right into the cut and color.

Another nuisance animal in no short supply were opossums. I don’t know if there are different types of opossums or if the ones in San Diego were all exposed to radiation from the San Onofre nuclear plant up the road, but these suckers were the biggest opossums I have ever seen. They were the size of pygmy goats.

One summer night, while sitting on the back patio in the dark in my overstuffed, high-back leather chair with a pipe in one hand and my third four-finger Scotch in the other, my contemplation of the likelihood of being struck by a meteorite was broken when Molly hauled ass into the darkness at the fence line growling.

Even though I’m a friendly and amenable drunk, my default reaction to march toward the sound of gunfire took over, and I plunged into the darkness right behind the dog.

About all I could make out at first was what I presumed was my dog lunging and retreating in a circle around something in the darkness. Not desiring a vet bill I probably couldn’t afford, I grabbed the first piece of what I thought was Molly that I could, fully expecting to be sprayed by a skunk along with her or have some possibly rabies-ridden animal take advantage of the situation and bite the every-loving shit out of me.

I had “Drunk’s Luck” with me and managed to grab a handful of mostly collar and relatively little Molly. By this time, my wife and her girlfriend Sarah had heard the commotion from inside the house, where they were doing whatever it is women do when their men aren’t in the room, and ran outside with my Mag-Lite, by far, the best combination impact weapon and illumination tool ever devised.

Ask an old-school cop how many people he’s hit with a flashlight versus how many with a baton, and some of you “progressive” types will be absolutely appalled.

When the piss-poor beam illuminated the area Molly was lunging toward, we discovered a motionless opossum sprawled out on its back, feet sticking straight up and tongue lolling out of its mouth.

2possum“Will you look at that,” I said, to Mrs. Cunha. “It didn’t take but about five seconds for Molly to kill that thing.”

“I don’t see any blood,” countered Mrs. Cunha, as she swept the beam around the prostrate marsupial. “Are you sure it’s dead.”

“Of course, it’s dead. Look at it,” I snapped.

Mrs. Cunha may not be educated, but she’s a really smart gal.

“Figure out how you want to kill it, and I’ll bring out what you need,” Mrs. Cunha said, over her shoulder as she and Sarah dragged Molly into the house.

I wasn’t terribly keen on the idea of discharging a firearm late at night in a residential neighborhood. Not so much because I am a thoughtful neighbor, but because jail sucks and there is always that one snitch in the crowd. Thanks for leading the charge in the pussification of American men, California.

I didn’t have a lot of experience dispatching small animals at that point in my life, but I had once had necessity to beat an opossum to death with a shovel and knew that it was entirely more effort than I wanted to commit to this particular project. Using said shovel as a pogostick across the back of the opossum’s neck would be courting a drunken fall to the ground and a possible trip to the ER for a head injury. And we all know how fall-down drunks fare in Emergency Rooms.

Alternating between puffs of a delicious stove-cured Virginia flake and sips of my favorite single-malt (I took them with me to rescue the dog, of course), I pondered my dilemma. Shooting was too noisy. Stabbing didn’t offer enough standoff distance. Decapitating would leave a mess all over. I was running out of options fast. It didn’t help that the little critter was beginning to stir. I stumbled to the back door, deposited my drink and pipe on a nearby end table, and call for Mrs. Cunha to bring my bat before returning to stand guard over Molly’s captive.

I was watching the opossum regain its feet and sway its head back into consciousness when I heard the back door slide open. Without looking, I extended my hand behind me. What was thrust into my hand was most definitely not a Louisville Slugger.

Sarah had beat my wife outside by a couple of steps and thrust a can of pepper spray from her purse into my hand. Well, technically, it was bear repellent because people-appropriate concentrations of oleoresin capsicum were, and probably still are, illegal and unavailable for purchase in California.

Are you starting to notice a pattern of reasons as to why I was overjoyed to leave California? Don’t fret. The state is just a glad to be rid of me.

The idea flashed in my mind that a two-stage, incapacitate/dispatch approach was preferable to a drunk chasing an opossum around in the dark with a baseball bat. Slightly less comical, but still preferable.

Pepper SprayI shook up the contents and took the stance, just as I’d been taught how to do and practiced dozens of times over the years. As I took a bead on the little beastie, we made eye contact. He was suspicious. I could tell because his eyes narrowed, daring me to do my worst.

Not one to let a challenge go unanswered, I thumbed the triggering lever and let loose a solid stream of beautiful chemical irritant that nailed the little bastard right between the eyes. Both girls cheered, clapped, and bounced up and down as I hosed him down with bear spray.

I’ve talked to many a cop who had little to no faith in the efficacy of pepper spray and, having never seen it fail, attributed their opinions to situations that were statistical outliers. One-off situations each had experienced. Sort of like the old joke that begins, “Build a thousand bridges. Do you call you Carlos the Bridge Builder?”

Because of this experience, I no longer include chemical agents in my “bag of tricks.” If I can’t handle a problem with my bare hands, I’m gonna hit it with electricity, an impact weapon, or a projectile.

Have you ever seen a dog snapping at the water stream from a garden hose? That’s exactly what this opossum did until he got bored and decided to go home. I dumped the entire remaining can of that pepper spray into the side of that opossum’s face as he waddled toward the hole in the fence through which he entered and disappeared into the neighbor’s yard.

The three of us stood there with our jaws slack as the scent of propylene glycol wafted in the air. Was this the kind of reaction we could expect from a bear? What sort of false hope are the pepper spray people peddling? I’m pretty sure a bear could have pushed through the experience and eaten us for a late-night snack, if he wanted to. It sure didn’t seem to bother the opossum.

The Mexicans of Europe

Charles the Hammer

Thanks to ISIS of the first millennium, many Portuguese have decidedly olive toned skin, brown eyes, and kinky hair.  Before the Moors invaded, we were part of Visigothic Hispania, along with Spain.  In the untelevised prequel to what has happened in Syria and Iraq, Southwest Asia, and the Maghreb (The area of North Africa taken over by the Moors), the Saracen invaded the Iberian Peninsula.  Those conquering Mohammedans rolled their Jihadi army all the way to the gates of Paris before being fought back to the Pyrenees Mountains by the Frankish King Charles Martel.  With the current French terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo, it looks like France could use another Charlie the Hammer.

Saracen Army
The Saracen Army

Deciding to call well enough good, the first Islamists consolidated their gains and imposed Dhimmitude on the Iberian people for the next 500 years.  After five centuries of institutionalized discrimination, crippling taxation under the Jizya, murder, forced conversions to Islam, and outright slavery (Does any of this sound familiar?), is it any wonder Portuguese are the darkies off in a forgotten corner of southern Europe?

Historically, the British, Spanish, and French colonized most of the world, but the initial legwork was accomplished by Portagees.  Prince Henri the Navigator commissioned explorations for much of the world.

Here are some discoveries and firsts.  What do they all have in common?

  • 1419 – Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira discovered the Madeira Islands
  • 1427 – Diego Silves discovered the Azores Islands
  • 1444 – Cape Verde Islands discovered and colonized
  • 1484 – Diogo Cao discovered the Congo River
  • 1487 – Bartholomeu Dias lead the expedition around the Cape of Good Hope
  • 1498 – Vasco da Gama reaches India navigating around Africa
  • 1500 – Pedro Alvares Cabral discovers Brazil
  • 1501 – Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real explored Greenland and Newfoundland
  • 1519 – Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe
  • 1542 – First Europeans to land in Japan

I don’t think I have to spell it out.  You get the idea.  I’m not saying other nationalities didn’t do just as much, but credit is deserved where it is deserved.  The Italians and Spanish try to hog all the glory when it comes to charting unknown lands, but they weren’t the only ones running around during the Age of Discovery.

The Portuguese mindset can be summed up as, “Hey, that place over there looks interesting.  Let’s start a colony and force everyone who is already living there to work for us.”

We are an adventurous, seagoing people who are not afraid to take a gamble with our lives.  Admittedly, we were early practitioners and chief instigators of the slave trade in the New World, but I’m pretty sure one of the other colonial powers would have gladly taken the lead on that project were they given the chance.  It was just the way the world worked back then.

Portagees are Like Horse Shit…All Over the Place

The diaspora that resulted from this Portuguese national wanderlust goes a long way to explaining tiny Portuguese enclaves around the world such as Goa (in India) and Macao (in China).  Ask a Hawaiian about Portagees and he will likely go on a several minute long tirade.

I was utterly flabbergasted the day I met a Chinaman who spoke Portuguese.

Gonna Go Explore the New World, Baby. We’ll Be Back in a Couple of Years.

The case can rightly be made that Portugal is (or at least, is descended from) a race of sailors and deployment widows.  Maybe it was the location at the far end of Europe and consisting mostly of coastline that inspired daydreams about what lay over the horizon.  Maybe it was generation after generation of tyrannical foreign rule making life at home so miserable that being crammed into a tiny boat for weeks at a time to face possible death in an unknown land seem like a better alternative.  If not better, then no worse.

And sailors being sailors, we did a pretty thorough job of spreading our genetics around the world.  The Spaniards and Frenchmen were no slouches at dispersing their DNA hither and yon, but for the most part, they had our sloppy seconds because we were there first.  Imagine the Spanish landing somewhere and saying, “Shit.  The Portagees beat us here, again.”  The British were either disdainful of natives or possessed fantastically advanced forms of birth control, judging by results.

Between the genetic infusion of North African Moorish physical characteristics and the dusky hues of the indigenous people they seemed to have an appetite for (and frequently brought back with them), Portagees tend to be swarthy.  Yes, we have some that look rather genteel, but I suspect they are from families that stayed home and did not otherwise practice miscegenation.  Portugal may not have been a crossroads of cultures, but genetically speaking, it sure was a collector of them.

Portagees have continued a national habit of striking out from their homeland for greener pastures since the 1400’s.  In more modern times, on arrival in their new country they take on occupations at the low end of the socioeconomic scale; manual labor, dairy farms, whaling, farm work, fishing, etc.  I have never met, or for that matter even heard of, a Portuguese immigrant to the United States whose first job off the boat was anything close to what we would consider white-collar.  Even if they were in Portugal, they all started off doing the shit jobs.  There might be a few floating around, but I have yet to find one.

In that regard, Portagees are the Mexicans of Europe.  Nobody would put up with us if it weren’t for us doing the jobs they won’t.

All the factors touched on above don’t make us unique in the world, but it makes us a little weird.  As a culture, we have some very pronounced neurosis.  We don’t know exactly where we belong, so we just try to fit in wherever we go.  Brazilians don’t like us because even thought we speak the same language, we are too white and remind them of “the ruling class” back home.  Other Europeans don’t like us because we are uppity, olive skinned slave traders, in their view.  We ourselves don’t like Spanish speakers (with the possible exception of Argentinians since they are fascists, too) because…well, because they won’t learn Portuguese.  We also have this really annoying habit of trying to take over the joint, but that’s because we’ve been taken over so many times, we don’t know any better.  Blame the Romans for starting that pattern.

My Uncle-Cousin Jim is a perfect example.  As a native son of Portugal, Jim immigrated legally to the United States as a teenager.  We didn’t have the benefit of a land border, so my family had to wait their turn.  Imagine that.

The Cunha family only had one illegal in it, and we actually cooperated with the government to have his stupid, drug addict ass deported over a decade ago.  This family doesn’t tolerate shenanigans.  We take care of our own, whether it is in the charitable or the punitive sense.

The reason my Uncle-Cousin Jim has a compound title is a little convoluted, and requires an understanding of life in remote locations.  Americans, especially from the more urbanized areas, cast the southern United States as the butt of an awful lot of national humor.  You know the stereotypes; uncouth, unwashed, quasi-barbaric, poorly educated, and generally backward.  I think a lot of the images come, rightly or wrongly, from the environment.  It’s an urban versus rural dynamic.  Truth be told, Southerners can’t resist a good Yankee joke.  It really is one group looking down on another for their percieved shortcomings.  The difference is that in the South, we will laugh at “redneck” jokes just as readily as “Yankee” jokes.  We don’t take ourselves overly serious.

Now, think about “hillbilly” stereotypes for a second.  If someone can manage to have indoor plumbing, for example, there are precious few who would turn it down.  The same goes for dental care, education, and most everything else.  People like conveniences, and often the lack of them has to do with location.  Generally speaking, the more remote you are from an urban center, the less access you have to things.  Remoteness also breeds difference from the dominant culture.

We want out
We Want the Hell Out of Here

And there are few more remote locations than the Azores, a volcanic archipelago of nine islands in the North Atlantic Ocean about halfway between Europe and Newfoundland.  Until this century, there really wasn’t much else going on there other than dairy farming and fishing.  It’s a good stopping point for ships and aircraft traversing the Atlantic, but that was the extent of non-agricultural industry.  Think much like Hawaii, Midway, or Guam in the Pacific have been used as stopping points for voyagers.  Prior to this century when tourists began to visit the Azores, the only reason to be there was because you were on the way to somewhere else, and that is exactly what many of the locals did.

I have this image of my grandfather looking at a boat in the harbor taking on fresh water and thinking, “I have to figure out a way to get myself on one of those.  I don’t even care where it’s going.  As long as it’s somewhere else.”

If Portagees are the Mexicans of Europe, Azoreans are considered the Portuguese Hillbillies.  Every backwoods Appalachian stereotype Americans harbor about the Mountain People applies to how mainland Portugal views the Azores; remote, wild, uncivilized, and inbred.  This is how we get to my Uncle-Cousin Jim.  He isn’t inbred, as far as I know.  He’s actually a great guy who taught me and Jake a lot about life.  Sometimes it was intentional.  Sometimes it was not.

One of my Aunts (there were six Cunha girls in total) married one of their first cousins, who was Jim’s brother.  That means he started off as my second cousin and became an uncle by marriage.  When my brother Jake and I pieced together the lineage as youngsters, we thought it would be hilarious to bestow the title of “Uncle-Cousin” on Jim.  I’m pretty sure he peed on our lunch bags in retaliation, but it’s a small price to pay for a piece of storytelling gold like that.

Whether this stems from growing up in a shithole like the Azores or colonial avarice hard-coded into the DNA, wherever Portuguese go, they have a compulsion to own land, preferably with a domicile that can be rented out.  That’s what every Portagee I’ve ever met wanted out of life.  My family was no different.

On weekends and school breaks when Jake and I were not otherwise occupied with renovation projects for our parents, we would hire ourselves out to Uncle-Cousin Jim as laborers.  By fourteen years old, I was earning as much as anyone else on the crew because I could hang sheet-rock and pour concrete with the best of them.  Thanks to my dad, I was also a reasonably competent plumber and electrician.  It didn’t hurt that I was already taller and physically stronger than the average Mexican picked up at Home Depot for day-labor, so what I lacked in skill was made up for in speed and carrying capacity.

That’s also where I decided that college would be a good idea because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life swinging a hammer.  At least, not building somebody else’s house.

porta potty
Never Knew What Was Inside

At that time in my life, I did not know what a port-a-potty was.  I was aware they existed, but I had never used one.  If the toilet in the house we were working on was inoperable that was just too bad.  That particular project was pushed up to the top of the list of things to fix because no Portagee was going to waste money on a plastic outhouse.  It gives great clarity of purpose to have a turd prairie dogging while repairing a sewer pipe connection.

Port Outhouse
Oh, the Luxury!

When it was going to be a long, toilet-less project, the great outdoors became our urinal.  More specifically, the furthest point on the property away from the house so we didn’t stink the place up.  When faced with a natural process of the solid variety, we resorted to a five gallon bucket lined with a garbage bag.  Of course, being Portagees, the garbage bag part of that assembly did not occur to us until after the test drive.

I have taken more poops into a plastic bucket than I can remember.  Believe it or not, I think it helped prepare me for working and living in what the military euphemistically calls “an austere environment.”

Mind you, these were the days before you could pop over to the local home improvement center and purchase a brand new, clean, shiny five gallon bucket.  You might get lucky and find some at the Kelly Moore paint store, but that was rare.  Paint already came in a five gallon bucket.  And the idea of a watertight lid that screwed on was nothing more than a fairy tale.

So, as might be imagined, we guarded those empty buckets with our lives.  They were multi-purpose.  Besides being paint containers and toilets, they were:

  • Chairs
  • Work benches
  • Sawhorses
  • Stepstools
  • Garbage cans
  • Planters
  • Wash basins
  • Water bottles
  • Toolboxes
  • And on one unfortunate occasion, an emergency fish tank when the head flew off my hammer

Being the professional gallows humorists we are, Jake and I would append the modifier “Portuguese” to all these items.  For example, a wheelbarrow was a Portuguese Pickup Truck.  Electrical tape was a Portuguese First Aid Kit.  A hammer was the Portuguese Debate Club…or as we got older, Portuguese Spanish Fly.

I could have been far worse off in life.  Without having had instilled in me an adventurous spirit, the willingness to work like a donkey, and some privation of comforts, I certainly would not be able to make my living the way I do now.  The lessons I learned growing up have also held me in good stead when life got tough financially.  Creativity, ingenuity, and need combine to blossom the most when there is the least to work with.  I try to instill these lessons in my children, especially around Christmas time.

Reliable Reports Indicate

Reliable Reports
Reliable Reports

Fremont, California is home to a bar/dance club called the Saddle Rack.  Based on the name, the casual observer would be absolutely correct to infer the atmosphere is decidedly twangy.  However, since this is the Bay Area version of country, the odds of finding an authentic shit-kicker are about the same as booking a hunting trip at Urban Outfitters.  Mechanical bull and Weekend Country Girls aside, my brother Jake and I took our chances one chilly December night and sallied forth to what we understood to be the final night of this oasis of songs about heartbreak, hard luck, and hating Mexicans.

Jake had arranged a few days in town on his way to Guam, so I took the opportunity to come up and kill several visits with relatives with one stone.  Our cousin Maria was back for Christmas break from some little Podunk college neither of us had ever heard of, and we all met up at our aunt’s house.  Aunt Paula was not thrilled at the prospect of her two barbarian nephews whisking her virginal daughter away for a night of carousing.

After much begging, pleading, and promising of the maintenance of her twenty-one year old virtue while Jake and I warmed up with whiskey sours in the kitchen, Aunt Paula relented.  We had resolved to leave Maria behind if she was unable to unlatch herself from Aunt Paula’s teat, but the promise of some friends of Maria to accompany us on our adventure convinced Jake and I to allow our financially dependent cousin some latitude.

“Any of these chicks worth a shit?” I asked Maria, as I poured a third drink.  I held it out for her.  Maria caught herself reaching for the libation and forced her hand down to her side.

“They’re nice,” Maria replied.  “They’re lots of fun.”

“Does that mean they put out?” asked Jake.  We stood peering at Maria as we quaffed our drinks.  She stood in silence as she processed the unfamiliar query.

“That will have to be between you guys,” Maria replied.  “But I warn you.  One of them has a big ass.”

“That’s fine,” I replied.  “I like big asses.”

“You don’t understand, Carlos,” said Maria.  “This girl has got a really big ass.”

Maria and I went back and forth in this fashion a couple more times until I decided to put an end to the silliness.

“No, dear cousin,” I replied, “you do not understand.  I like really big asses.”

“You’ll see when she gets here,” Maria said, as she threw up her hands and walked away.

Thirty minutes and two drinks later, what should darken the lower half of my aunt’s front door, but a four foot, thirteen inch tall Portuguese girl with pancake batter makeup spackled over her pockmarked face, a bad home perm, and pumps that looked like she was baking bread in her shoes.

I kept my game face during the introductions.  There was no need to frighten off the quarry unnecessarily.  Besides, I was unfamiliar with the evening’s hunting grounds and tired from travel.  Going ugly early was a definite possibility under the circumstances.

Two Pillow Cases Full of Them
Two Pillow Cases Full of Them

As Frizzy Head passed Maria and me to enter the house, I turned and realized my cousin had not lied to me.  Stuffed into a pair of Levi Straus sausage casings was a posterior the proverbial two axe handles wide.  Short of a well-muscled thoroughbred racing horse, it was the biggest ass I have ever seen.  It looked like a pair of denim pillowcases stuffed with doorknobs.

“Jesus Christ, that’s a big ass,” I whispered to Maria.

“I tried to warn you,” Maria said, as she punched my shoulder and followed her friend.

As luck would have it, friend number two flaked out.  Perhaps she sensed trouble.  Whatever the reasons, we carried on without her.  After final promises of not becoming embroiled in any sort of shenanigans, hijinks, or mischief instigated by the Scandalous Cunha Boys, we found ourselves seated around a table at the Saddle Rack.  The girls sipped Zimas or some other noxious concoction from their bottles through straws.  That should have been a clue to Jake and I that things would go from bad to worse, but bottle beer was literally being served by the bucket at ridiculously cheap prices.  So we stayed.  My cousin Maria was a good sport.  She didn’t seem to be having a great time, but she seemed to be having a good enough time watching Jake and I thoroughly enjoy our intoxication.  I suspect her college experiences had ill prepared her for watching a pair of professionals.

Lest You Think I Made This Place Up
Lest You Think I Made This Place Up

Frizzy Head did not appreciate either our sense of humor or our war stories.  She became more sullen and surly as the evening wore on.  Why she stayed despite offers of rides home, cab fare, or simply ending the evening was beyond me.  As the evening wore on, Frizzy Head’s fiancée make an appearance.  Her face lit up for about a minute and a half before she went back to being bitchy.  I was starting to believe this was her default setting.  Some people are just chronically unhappy.  To this day, I am still unsure whether the meeting was prearranged or a rescue attempt.  I’ve always leaned toward a prearranged meeting because he joined the party.  And that was probably a mistake on his part.

If you’ve ever lived and worked in an all-male environment for months on end in the middle of some shithole location, you may have noticed a coarseness that develops.

Civilization is a fragile concept.  It doesn’t take too long of eating MREs, showering from plastic water bottles, and being on the receiving end of rocket attacks before you stop caring about little things like feelings.  And that night, Jake and I cared nothing for anyone’s feelings.  Maria did her best to keep a straight face, but Frizzy Head and her purse carrier were not amused.  I thought I saw him begin to smile a couple times, but a quick, hard glance from his dream-killer reminded him with whom he had to go home.

When Jake leaned over to Frizzy Head and said, “I thought you people were supposed to be jolly,” the festivities were pretty much at an end.

This is the point where my memory becomes a bit hazy.  Reliable reports indicate Mr. Fiancée issued an invitation to both Jake and I to engage in fisticuffs.  These same reliable reports further indicate the brothers Cunha were willing to handicap themselves out of a sense of fairness by engaging in said fisticuffs from the chairs they occupied and Mr. Fiancée was welcome to commence the pugilistic display at his leisure.

Of course, reliable reports also indicate:

  • An impromptu diving competition from an indoor balcony onto the safety mats surrounding the mechanical bull (Remember kids.  Safety third.)
  • Sundry feats of strength (I was a magnificent physical specimen at the time.)
  • Me being physically removed from a bouncer, and Jake defusing the situation by blaming PTSD (This was clearly not the first time he had pulled that trick out of his hat, but an acceptable lie in order to avoid a trip to the county jail.)
  • A 2 am four-wheeling excursion through an empty field (Don’t ever buy a used rental car.)
  • And me yakking in my Aunt’s driveway (Thank you for hosing that down, Maria.)

The next morning, I awoke to Jake and Maria shaking me awake for breakfast.

My Name is Raaaaalph!
My Name is Raaaaalph!

“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” Maria said, in a sing-song voice.

“Get your ass up, Princess,” Jake growled through his own hangover.

I mumbled something both incoherent and unintelligible as I pulled the covers back to realize that sometime during the festivities I had been stripped down to my underwear and deposited into a very comfortable bed in my Aunt’s guest bedroom.  The one eye I was able to open focused on Jake, shifted to Maria, and then slid down to my skivvy-clad middle area.  I raised my head and squinted at Jake.

“Where are my pants,” I asked.

“You know it was a good night when you have to ask that question,” Jake shot back.

Portuguese Tupperware

When my parents finally bought a new refrigerator, they relegated the old one to the garage.  It served as overflow for the main fridge in the house, but my brother Jake and I were able to find room to squirrel away a few ice cream bars, some Snickers, and the odd soda.  I nearly wept tears of joy the day I discovered the ultimate earthly pleasure of a frozen Snickers bar and a cold cream soda.

Portuguese Tupperware
Portuguese Tupperware

One afternoon shortly after Halloween, I was rummaging through the old fridge for one of the fun-size Snickers I had stashed away when I knocked over a container of Caldo Verde.  Now, this just wasn’t any container.  This was what Jake and I derisively called “Portuguese Tupperware.”  It consists of any plastic container with a lid that seals, but for some reason we could never deduce, was invariably a Cool Whip container.  And then there was the family-size version which was a two-and-a-half gallon ice cream tub.  Woe be to any child thoughtless and wasteful enough to throw away either container when it was empty.  That child would find himself digging through a garbage can with a flashlight on a dark night to retrieve said container.

The lid popped off and out leapt this green slug of frozen soup in the exact shape of the Cool Whip container.  That set my child’s mind to turning.  I called my brother over to display my breakthrough.

“We could freeze water in containers,” Jake exhaled.  He eyes grew large at the prospect.

“That’s what I was thinking,” I replied.

“But what do we do with big chunks of ice?” Jake asked.  “Do we just watch them melt?”

“We can throw them and watch them break,” I said.

“Or we can hit them with a bat,” Jake giggled.

“Oh, oh, oh,” I chuffed.  “We can drop them from the roof.  And we won’t have to clean anything up because the chunks melt and the water evaporates.”

I’m going to stop here and explain that if my children got up to one-fifth of the things my brother and I did, I would have a nervous breakdown.  Clearly, our parents subconsciously hoped one or both of us would die through what is euphemistically called “misadventure.”  I will save these stories for other posts, but let me summarize by saying I suspect Jake and I are the reason alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives are regulated by one federal agency; it makes for streamlined paperwork when dealing with the Cunha boys.

Having discovered liquids have a definite volume, an indefinite shape, and will freeze into the shape of their containers, Jake and I set about experimenting, which was never a good thing.  If it held water, there was an example of it in that freezer in the garage.  Any containers that would not allow the frozen block to pass through the opening were peeled away.  Milk cartons were a breeze for strong, young hand.  We made quick work of milk jugs and 2-liter soda bottles with our ever present pocket knives.

Of course, we had pocket knives at eight and ten years old.  We also carried our rifles down the road to one of the local orchards where we had permission to shoot squirrels after school.  Why does that seem so odd nowadays?

The problem arose with metal containers.  The old kidney-shaped GI canteen cups allowed the ice block to slide out.  Sections of cast iron pipe with endcaps screwed in place worked well once we figured out to wrap the threads with PTFE tape, but we couldn’t use too much lest Dad notice it missing.  And a huge chunk of iron in the freezer was very noticeable and difficult to explain away, so we abandoned that method quickly.  Then we realized that with the proper application of a pair of pliers, a soda can was relatively easy to peel away from it cylindrically shaped frozen contents.

A soda can-size block of ice is as close to perfect for mischief as you can get.

In life, familiarity breeds complacency.  I was practiced at removing the aluminum sheeting from ice cylinders to the point I was casual.  I could hold a conversation while I peeled away the soft metal like I was unwrapping the foil from a burrito.  Until one day, my angle of attack was a little off, my hands were a little wet, and my grip was a little off.  By themselves, none of these variables would have been significant.  This is when I learned a life-lesson, the name of which I would not discover until a decade later.

The field of Mechanical Engineering has a concept called Stacking Tolerances.  Everything has a range, or variance, in which it will work.  The concept is expressed in the “plus/minus” symbol you may have seen in a schematic or other technical drawing.  Accumulate enough variances together and sometimes a bunch of little variables add up to the whole not working.

I have always thought of tolerances as “no biggie.”  However, put enough “no biggies” together and you get an “aw, fuck.”

I have a two inch long scar on my index finger that begins in the middle of the pad, cuts across the fingerprint, and wraps around the finger until it ends at my middle knuckle that is the result of stacking tolerances.  I blame Portuguese Tupperware for setting this entire episode in motion.