“I had a farm in Idaho”. Doesn’t exactly have the same ring of the opening lines from “Out of Africa”. And I really didn’t really have a farm, my folks did. But I was the unpaid hired hand, milk boy, potato sorter, chicken, cow, sheep and horse manure shoveler and orphaned lamb feeder at the tender age of six – sort of a junior, junior farmer. Our eighty-acre farm wasn’t in the Kenyan Ngong Hills but just outside Lava Hot Springs, Idaho in the Lava Beds. No African coffee beans, but pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, milk cows, alfalfa, wheat and, of course, potatoes. Just enough of everything to make sure that the farm work was 24/7 and that nothing was profitable.
I became aware that my dad was interested in electrocuting me when he first told me to take hold of a barbed wire fence surrounding the sheep pen. Being an obedient and gullible child, I did as I was instructed – got a stinging shock and howled violently – thinking I was done for at a young age. My dad gave a hearty laugh – explaining that the electricity would give me a jolt, but wouldn’t cause permanent damage – he did, however, tease me about the lemonade stain on my pants. Over the next couple of years we progressed to seeing who could hold on to the electric fence the longest while volts were increased. Eventually the voltage would get to the point where the wire holder let go and admitted defeat. My Dad, with an unbelievable tolerance and resistance for electricity, always won. I think he often regretted that the transformer maxed out at 15 volts. He encouraged me to try urinating on the fence, but even the dolt I was (am) could see past that one.
When I was finally educated enough to read – somewhere around the third grade, I decided to see why my dad was so interested in getting rid of me by this method. I realized that what I knew about electricity could fit in one of my mom’s wooden stirring spoons. We had moved to Heber Utah by then (having given up on the farm because of a million exhausting and unprofitable reasons), and I was introduced to my first Library and the magic of books – an everlasting provider of pleasure. I went right to the technical section and found out what it takes to be electrocuted – so I could be on my guard. Although first, I had to understand amps, volts, ohms, watts, and joules – didn’t really savvy the jargon, but got the general idea. Voltage is like water pressure in a pipe, Amps the flow rate (current), and Ohms the size of the pipe (resistance). As you increase the Volts the current increases, but its tough if you have enough resistance (small pipe – Ohms). Wattage is the measurement of power – calculated by multiplying Voltage times the Amps. W = A times V. One Amp is equal to the number of electrons per second moving through a given point – 6.242 X 10 to the 18th power in fact. Increasing the voltage increases the flow of current (amps) assuming a constant resistance in Ohms. Another handy calculation is Amps are equal to the Volts divided by the Ohms. A = V/O. High Volts, Low Ohms – Midnight train out of here. Okay, sound like total gibberish?
What is it really that causes you to check out? It’s the Amps – the current flowing through your body – in fact 7 /1000th of an Amp can kill you if it reaches your heart for three seconds – the pump goes arrhythmic and shuts down, blood pressure falls and with no flow everything else follows –brain, lungs and other organs. This doesn’t usually happen with low amperage because your body has a built in resistance of about 10,000 Ohms of skin, muscle, bone, fluid and clothes, jewelry, etc, that keeps those Amps from reaching your heart. Use rubber gloves or boots and the resistance goes up and the electricity has trouble passing though you. Soaking wet the resistance goes down and current goes up. A bolt of lighting works does an especially good job if you are naked during a rain storm. It can have volts in excess of one billion. Does take a bunch to actually fry your cells (despite Hollywood’s love of showing shooting sparks from hair and fingertips). But grab hold of the subway’s third rail – 10,000 amps and you have a good chance of being not only set on fire, but also of being vaporized if you hang around long enough. Remember all of those Bazillions of electrons roaring along can cause immense heat if the volts are high enough. My dad would drag me out during Idaho thunder storms to test Ben Franklin’s electrical theories – I was always glad we couldn’t get the kite up – too much wind and my sabotage – not interest in tempting a billion lightning volts to come my direction.
As we progressed from the electric fence, Dad would yell at me to “come here, I have a surprise for you”, then touch my hand, and grab hold of 110 volts –a frayed light switch, loose wires, socket or anything that would conduct the current through him to me and into the ground. I got so I wouldn’t come near him without investigating the surrounding area. I did encourage him to try 220 volts himself with me as an Igor type observor – although at least 20 feet away. He wouldn’t bite.
As time went by and I got to the point of extreme caution, he would sneak up behind, rub his feet on the carpet to build up static electricity and then touch me on the ear with the resultant spark and pain. I, of course, returned this favor whenever he was asleep in his chair.
Over the years, my dad became a contractor and we worked together on construction projects. I realized that he probably didn’t really want to kill me, at least not with electricity – it was just his version of masochistic fun. But I was still suspicious. I became well versed in danger being the Grease Monkey for our Sherman backhoe, circa 1952. I again acted as his straight man/victim, when he asked me to take a wire and test the battery. He made sure he gave me a pair of metal pliers – no rubber handles – to touch a wire to the battery poles. Lots of sparks and a good shock, not too much pain – only 12 volts. I gritted my teeth and swore retaliation.
Revenge was sweet – one of my best was waiting until he was in the shower – then toss in a broken radio or other appliance connected to an unplugged extension cord – looked like sure death. His leaping ended up with he, the shower rod and the curtain on the floor – after crashing into the toilet. His string of oaths included the old but effective questioning my parentage – food for thought. I was faster than he and since he was naked, I easily outdistanced him through the house and around the yard. It helped that the second time he fell, his pace slowed a bit. I also did this once while he was in the tub, but the effect was not as great the second time around. I did hook up live wires to tools that I know he was going to use in the garage, such as a power saw. I’d wait outside and wait for the yelp and a string of cuss words. Usually had a good head start to ensure he couldn’t catch me until he’d cooled off.
Myself, I learned the torque power of even 110 volts while trying to drill through a concrete foundation – for a water line installation. I had a big, big Milwaukee drill with a 1-½ inch diameter bit. It was a hammer drill so the bit turned and pounded against the concrete. I was about half way through after fifteen minutes of shoving – death grip on the handles – when I hit a piece of rebar in the foundation wall. When you put steel on steel in this instance something had to give – what gave was me. The drill bit bound but the drill motor kept turning. The next thing I knew, I had rotated upside down in the trench – sure my arms and legs had dislocated from their sockets, muscles and ligaments strained and bruised. I was wrapped around the drill, mashed against the trench sides, having finally let go. Little more careful after that.
A real problem was when we were digging away – putting in water and sewer lines – hooking on to something we shouldn’t – gas lines, other water lines, breaking main sewer lines, you name it. I think my dad lived in fear, mainly because our repairs were sometimes of the questionable quality. I tried to assure him in later life, that I thought the statute of limitations had passed. I can remember him hooking a gas line, running to the meter to turn off the gas and then wrapping the line with tar tape to hopefully seal the leaks. Call the gas company, water company, city sewer providers – nope, just repair it ourselves and move on down the road.
However, when you hooked an underground electrical cable, it was entirely different – there was no place to turn anything off and do a quick duct tape job. There were massive pyrotechnical sparks, and people who came from blocks away complaining about the outage. Plus even my dad was afraid to try to splice those ends – who knew how many nasty volts were ready to short out his brain. We then humbly called the electric utility, who sent out a truck, usually with a supervisor whose sole duty was to make sure that we knew we were idiots. The threat of charging us always in the air. Pull up a telephone line – the hundred’s of wires – I don’t even want to try to paint a picture.
My dad was a bit too late for the introduction of electroshock weapons – thank goodness – you see them everywhere on TV, etc. Here is how they work. The handheld device can out put up to 1000 KV (1,000,000 Volts) – that sounds like instant death, but the current (amps) will depend on the target’s resistance, skin type, moisture, bodily salinity, clothing, the discharge waveform and the battery conditions. More gibberish. Okay, here is what really happens. The cops use about 250 KV most of the time. That is enough to overcome the resistance of the above items – a half second shock will cause intense pain and muscle contractions. Two or three seconds you are dazed and on the ground, four plus, its complete disorientation and lights out. Keep repeating this and death will follow as the heart stops. Although if you have a device like they used on Rodney King, with a defective battery, then its time to bring out the good old nightstick. I did order a Tazer once but was always afraid to use it for fear of self-destruction. Did frighten a fellow office worker to the point that he tipped his chair over backwards trying to escape the exposed prongs.
One of Dad’s most ingenious electrical contraptions was the Electricfied Dog Dish. We had a non-spayed female dog who seemed to have lots of boyfriends. We locked her in the garage but her eager suitors would scratch and chew on the door, howl and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Usually about 1:00 AM in the morning. Dad had a 22 caliber rifle next to his bed – at the ready – to fire out the window – loaded with buckshot so it wouldn’t kill the dogs, just give them a real good sting. The male dogs that came calling quickly got used to the sound of the window opening, and took off before the gun could be leveled, only to return later in the night.
My father having introduced our own dog to the excitement of electricity by shocking her with a cattle prod cut down to Dog Size, came up with the ideal solution. He took a good-sized piece of tin, nailed a block of wood to it, and then screwed a tin dog dish to the top of the block. Then attached one wire to the tin and the other to the dish – just a plugged in extension cord with bare ends. Wa La, the interloping dogs would come round, smelling the enticing snack laid out for their enjoyment and stand on the tin, then put their snouts in the dog dish – nicely completing the circuit. There would be a howl like the Baskervilles, and a violent rush away from the house. During one daylight episode, we watched a partially electrocuted dog take off so fast that he actually spun out and rolled as he tried to round the corner at the end of our gravel driveway. Our troubles we over – dogs would come down our street, recognize our house and skulk along the other side of the road until safely passed.
We no longer had Canine visitors. My dad, however, missing the fun of the whole experience, did recommend the device to all who would listen; asking me later in life if I thought it was patentable. My reply, as I remember, was: “sure, if you want the SPCA picking our house as a preliminary to your going to jail.“
He’s gone now, and no longer can delight in using me for some of his newest electrical experiments, but I expect to see him again, hailing me as I cross that great unknown threshold. My guess is that he will have a hidden celestial tazer as he reaches to greet me. I intend to leave instruction to be buried in a rubber suit just in case.