Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Gate at Skyridge

The Gate at Skyridge
            When we became the owners of the house and property we came to call Skyridge in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, it had no gate at the entrance to its driveway which is approximately a mile long (OK, maybe fifty yards) and tilted essentially vertical (it honestly feels that way). Instead of a gate, we found a tangle of ugly orange plastic mesh stretched between two trees. This was, so we were informed, meant to keep the wild donkeys and goats from getting in which was an understandable precaution. The wild donkeys, lovable as they are and icons of the rich history of St. John, are not very good guests because they eat all the flowers within reach of their cute little muzzles and grinding teeth which leaves not only denuded gardens but enormous, stinky poop piles. As for the goats, they also eat the vegetation but have the further habit of falling into swimming pools and drowning. Goat corpses floating in one's pool are not what one wants to wake up to in the morning.
            The plastic mesh was the previous owner's idea of protecting the property against the armies of donkeys and goats that regularly make forays into the Upper Carolina neighborhood of Coral Bay. That meant every time we wanted to go anywhere, I had to hike down the driveway and pull the mesh back and then, after driving the car through, get out and stretch it across the driveway again. When we returned, the process had to be done in reverse, pulling the mesh back, driving up the driveway to park, then walking down to pull the mesh across the driveway again and tying it off. Not only did it require the stamina of your average Olympic long-distance runner but the mesh was ugly as sin and, anyway, didn't always work. The donkeys and goats often just hopped over it or mashed it down and came on up to see what they could see and eat what they could eat. That invariably meant many hours of work cleaning up donkey and goat poop, not to mention having to get new plants. Fortunately, no goats drowned after hopping the mesh but chasing them away was a pretty daunting exercise. Far faster and nimbler than any human, they were quite willing to be chased around the house as many times as I was able and still be ready to give it another go. Ultimately, it always took Linda and me in a coordinated effort similar to calling a Hail Mary play in a pro football game to get them headed down the driveway.
            One morning, even before we had time for a cup of coffee, we looked out from the deck and saw six goats in the driveway, contemplating life and our flowers. We rushed to defeat them. "You go left, I'll go right, yell, clap your hands, and herd them!" I cried as the goats looked placidly on, only reluctantly moving after we came after them. Even when we got them going more or less in the right direction down the driveway, they simply scattered into the trees, there to meander and giggle to themselves while probably also calculating how they might get into the pool to drown. Eventually, we got them down the driveway and I pulled the mesh tight. Hot and sweaty, I climbed back up the driveway to sit down on the steps and give the problem some thought, not the immediate goat problem but the problem problem. After a bit, I proudly announced to Linda my solution. "What we need is a gate!"
            "We have a gate."
            "That's a strip of mesh. I mean a real gate. You know, built out of maybe aluminum. With real hinges so it swings open and closed."
            "Sounds expensive," she said.
            "It will also be expensive when I die of a heart attack going up and down the driveway or we have to drain the pool to get out a dead goat."
            She pondered that. "It would have to be a pretty big gate and you'd still have to go up and down the driveway to open and close it."
            "No I wouldn't. I'll get an automatic gate opener." I cracked open my laptop and showed it to her, a tubular device bolted to a fine looking gate. A man and a woman were standing beside it. They were smiling and looking generally ecstatic about their gate and its opener. "Behold," I said grandly, "the Heaving Horse, the finest little gate opener in all the land."
            Linda peered over her reading glasses at the screen. "The Heaving Horse?"
            "That's its name."
            "Is that really its name?"
            "You betcha."
            Note to readers: It's not actually its name but I'm just trying to be nice here.
            "I know a fellow who will build the gate for us," I went on.
            "I don't know . . . "
            "Oh, come on. You worry too much. Trust me, it'll be great!"
            Linda arched an eyebrow but then nodded her assent and, before long, that fellow delivered up a fine big aluminum gate hung on a steel post. I was so proud.
            "I thought there was going to be an automatic gate opener," Linda said from the car as I trudged down the driveway to swing open our fine new gate.
            "The Heaving Horse has been ordered," I said over my shoulder. "I will install it the next time we come down."
            Indeed, just as I claimed, after we returned to Huntsville, the Heaving Horse arrived in a package. I peeked at it, saw it looked exactly as it did on the company's website plus also a black box filled with electronics and some power cordage. I didn't read the instructions in its thick manual. I was confident I would figure it all out when I got back to St. John.
            When we next arrived, I got busy installing the Heaving Horse. My buddy Wayne came over and inspected the assembly. "Where's the battery?" he asked.
            "We don't need a battery," I said. "We'll hook it up to the house power."
            "I think it has to operate off a battery. Look there in the control box. See that slot? That's for the battery."
            I shook my head and triumphantly held up the power cord coming out of the box. "This takes AC power. See? It says right here in the manual. Or at least, that picture shows it."
            Wayne took the instructions away from me and stared at the picture, then read the words beneath it. "Homer, what the electronics does is take the AC power to pump up the battery, and then the battery opens and closes the gate."
            I thought that was a strange design and said so. "Why use a piddly little battery when you have the entire grid to open and close the gate?"
            "Because if you lose power, the battery will still do the job."
            Unhappily, Wayne made sense. Also unhappily, the battery, naturally a very specialized one, was not included in the package. "I think I might be able to get one in St. Thomas," Wayne said. "But I won't know for sure until I get over there and start looking around."
            I approved Wayne's trip the next day to and fro St. Thomas to see if he could procure the battery. As I hiked down the driveway to open the gate, Linda called out, "Why isn't the Heaving Horse working?"
            "Technical difficulties," I said. At the bottom, I swung open the gate. It rotated easily on its brand new hinges. I loved how easily it swung. It was also good looking, too! I started to walk up the driveway but just as I turned to make the climb, the gate pushed up against my back. Astonished, I turned around and pushed it back. It swung easily and where I stopped it, it stayed. I pushed it another foot and it stayed. Then I pushed it another foot and it still stayed. Then I pushed it wide open and it didn't move. What, I wondered, had made it swing shut? Puzzled, I turned my back on it again and started up the driveway. I didn't take a step before I heard a creak and turned around just in time to keep the gate from hitting me in the back again.
            I hiked up the driveway, got a length of wire, and, with Linda watching me from the car with a lot of unvoiced questions, hiked back down and this time I wired the gate open. Back up I went and got in the car. Linda could stand it no longer. "Why did you go back down the driveway?"
            "To wire the gate open."
            "It won't stay open on its own?"
            "Yes. I mean, no. It's complicated. It will all be solved when Wayne brings the battery for the Heaving Horse. Then, we'll just use a clicker." I added my usual promise. "It'll be great!"
            "I'm sure," she said but it sounded like to me that she wasn't sure at all. Clearly, I would just have to show her.
            Wayne came back the next day with the proper battery and we inserted it into the control box and used some wire straps to hang the box to the gatepost and then Wayne hooked up the electricity. The circuit board happily lit up with some lights, some green and some red. I didn't know what they meant but I was confident I could figure it out. We bolted the Heaving Horse to its hinge on the post, then drilled out the bottom of the gate to receive the Heaving Horse piston, then ran the power and control wires into the Heaving Horse control box. After that, I got out the manual and looked at the pictures and fiddled with the little dials in the control box to set how long the opener would stay open and what kind of sensitivity it would have in case the gate ran into anything.
            All was in readiness. Confidently, I clicked the clicker remote. Nothing happened. I clicked it again. And again. Then again. The Heaving Horse sat immobile with apparently no plans to ever move. "It doesn't work," Wayne said.
            "I know that, Wayne, but why?"
            "Did you read all the instructions?"
            "Of course," I lied.
            Unfortunately, that was when Linda decided she needed to go somewhere in Dosie (our Suzuki Sidekick) so down she came, skidding to a stop before the closed gate. "Open, please," she said, keeping her foot stomped on the brake lest the steep incline cause the car to fall through the gate onto the road below. Honestly, it's that steep.
            Since the Heaving Horse was frozen, this required us to unbolt it from the gate while standing on the incline which meant if we dropped a screwdriver, it would roll for miles. Nonetheless, we persevered until finally, with some arduous effort, we swung the gate open, the Heaving Horse left dangling from its hinge like a freshly broken arm. Linda let off the brake and Dosie rolled down and then she sped off. We bolted the Heaving Horse back to the gate and I went back to puzzling over the instructions, this time trying out some of the words beside the pictures. "Well, I'll leave it to you," Wayne said after watching me read for a while. Absently, I waved him away and he headed off, no doubt grateful to get away from the Heaving Horse and me and the thick manual.
            Over the next two hours in the heat and the bugs and the tilted driveway where I could barely stand, I tried everything the manual said I should do and everything I could think of beyond. I fiddled with the dials, turned the box off and on at least a dozen times, unhooked the battery, rehooked it, and kept clicking the clicker. Nothing worked. In desperation, I turned to the troubleshooting pages where it had such wonderful advice as Does it have power? If not, turn on the switch. No, not that way, you moron, the other way. Actually, it didn't say that but kind of implied it. Finally, I had to admit defeat.
            When Linda arrived and beeped Dosie's horn, I once more went through the arduous process of unbolting the Heaving Horse so as to swing open the gate.
            "Doesn't it work?" she asked, either oblivious to the obvious answer or some sort of vile attempt at malicious humor. I was too tired to care. I had tools strewn everywhere, my tee shirt was soaked with sweat, my feet hurt from standing on the precipice that is the driveway, and I was done in.

Linda and Dosie wait for me to fix the gate

            "Doesn't it work?" Linda asked again.
            "Not yet," I said.
            "Why not?"
            "Technical difficulties."
            She smiled - this time I was certain it was a triumphant, nearly malicious smile - then drove up the driveway while I began to pick up my tools. I figured to give it a night and hit it fresh in the morning. As I bent over to pick up a pair of pliers, I heard a whirring sound and looked up just in time to be hit square in the forehead by the gate which was being pushed with all its might by the Heaving Horse suddenly come alive. As I fell backwards, my thought was, "It works!" This rather triumphant thought was, however, soon followed by another thought after I landed on the concrete. "Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!"
            The gate swung on, the base of it hitting one of my splayed feet, turning it painfully over, then heedlessly proceeding until it slammed into the post on the other side at which time it bounced back and started to close or, as I thought of it, came after me for a second try on my life.
            I scrambled out of the gate's way and watched as it swung until it slammed against its hinges, almost tearing them off. Unbelievably, even with an awful shriek accompanied by flying bolts and nuts, it started to open again. Crawling with bloody knees, I got out of its way, scrambled to the control box, and hit the rocker switch to turn off the power. The gate froze except for an odd trembling from what appeared to me excitement from its near-murderous rampage.
            For a long time, I sat bleeding on the driveway contemplating the gate while I gathered myself. When my gathering was completed, I collected my tools and limped up the driveway. "Tomorrow," I said to myself. "Tomorrow. I will fix the gate tomorrow." In the meantime, a wet washcloth and some antibiotic ointment sounded like just the ticket for my external wounds and perhaps some rum for my internal ones. Just as I got to the top, I heard a truck at the bottom of the driveway. It was Romney the gardener. I limped back down to disconnect the Heaving Horse opener arm and swing open the gate.
            Perhaps observing my bloody knees and other scratches and contusions, Romney asked, "Wha' hoppened to you, mon?"
            I told him about the gate. He looked at the gate, looked at the Heaving Horse, and took a step back. Then, he took another one. "Oh, mon," he said.
            "You know there be somthin' wrong down here."
            "There sure is. I can't get my gate to work . . . yet."
            Romney shook his head. "You don't know about it? You don't . .  . feel it?"
            "Feel what?"
            "This place, right here at the road, it's cooler than anywhere else around here. You never noticed that?"
            I looked around. "Well, there's plenty of shade," I said indicating the overhanging trees.
            "That's not it, mon!" Romney scolded. He came nearer and whispered, "Maybe a jumbie here."
            "A jumbie?"
            Romney put his finger to his lips in a warning for me to be silent, then climbed in his truck and drove it up the driveway, leaving me to puzzle over the situation. It was a bit cooler at the bottom of my driveway, now that he'd mentioned it.
            I looked at the gate.
            The gate looked at me.
            Was there a jumbie in my gate?
            The gate smiled. No, it grinned. An evil grin. It really did.
            I narrowed my eyes and set my mouth.

            The battle had begun.

Note: The Gate at Skyridge has its own Facebook page now, don't ask me why. To engage with it, please go here: https://www.facebook.com/TheGateatSkyridge/  Proceed at your own risk.

Donkey at Gate


  1. As I read this post, I started to chuckle and as I proceeded reading, I started to laugh. Not because of your gate or the wonderful story you wove about the automatic gate but because it reminded me of my Dad and his automatic gate. His story went just about the same as yours. The distance he had to drive out of the driveway to the road was about 40 feet, more or less. But he had to have that automatic gate. His gate was a chain link gate, that would slide on a rail to the right and stayed on rail that was beside the chain link fence. He worked on it for hours and I think it might have worked a week, maybe. He was constantly working on it and in triumph watched it work for a day or two or maybe an hour or two. Finally he lined it up with the rest of the fence, took it off the rail and just made it a "what not to do" trophy to the neighborhood!! Living near the Space Center could have been one of his problems, too much rain and you know how those rockets shake things up!! LOL Thanks so much for reminding me of Dad and the Terrible Tilting Gate!

  2. Laughed reading your comment, Sue. Yep, your dad and I fought the same battles. He should have blamed it on an evil spirit!

  3. Hello, I read the story "The Gate at Sky ridge. But just the first part. I actually thought it was pretty funny. I'm going to see you Friday. I'm a fourth grader that goes to Mountain View Elementary , Middle School. See you Friday!

  4. Snicker, snicker, snot, snort!