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EXPLODING HORSE MANURE AND ENRICO FERMI


When the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, was a young man applying to college, he was asked to write an essay for his entrance exam about the characteristics of sound.  

Jaws dropped when the examiners read his paper and discovered the precocious 17-year-old used Fourier analysis — finding the eigenvalues and the eigenfrequencies -- to explain the partial differential equation of a vibrating rod.  

I share this with you because the future Nobel Laureate would later become famous for his “pile” — a mound of uranium blocks and graphite bricks so arranged inside a University of Chicago squash court that it could, if left unattended, achieve a self-sustaining chain reaction, heat to unearthly temperatures, and destroy the surrounding city with a Chernobyl-like meltdown.

It was 1942, the Nazis were goose-stepping across Europe, and Fermi was trying to grasp the physics behind nuclear fission and whether an atomic bomb was possible.

When I’m in my barn, thinking or not thinking about eigenvalues, I realized that Fermi and I have much in common because, you see, I too have a pile.

“The typical 1,000 pound horse will defecate approximately four to thirteen times each day and produce nine tons of manure per year.”

I have two draft horses who each weigh 2,000 pounds.  

You can do the math.  

Fermi would use his six-inch slide rule to calculate when the neutrons were multiplying at a dizzying rate, causing his pile to heat to dangerous levels.

I would use my six-inch hand.

It was September 20th, 2004 at 11:00am when there was banging on our front door.  Our historic, 200-year-old barn was “fully-engulfed.”  It was all we could do to get the cars out of the garage before they exploded.  The Norwich fire department didn’t bother to save the barn; they just sprayed the farmhouse with foam.  

(Nobel genius that I am, I took the above photo from inside the house, unaware the siding was melting from the inferno.  At any moment the house could have burst into flames.)

“If bailed wet, bacterial fermentation causes hay to heat.  When the internal temperature of a bale exceeds 140 degrees F, it can spontaneously combust.”  

Had I only known this law of barnyard physics BEFORE I opened my big mouth and invited my neighbors to fill the barn to the rafters with their mulch hay.

Fermi was smarter.  

To keep his pile from going critical and transforming a major US city into a glowing Gomorrah, Fermi installed cadmium control rods which could be slid in and out, so the difference between dormancy and Armageddon was, literally, inches.

Sometimes when troubles pile up,  your brain heats up, so much so that it seems as if you might self-ignite.  If only it were as simple as sliding out a rod — a worry rod — to slow down your mind.  

Apparently, Fermi’s pile made no noise.  And yet, beneath the surface bubbled the power of an exploding star.  

If you were able to free yourself from the slavish rhythms of your three-dimensional body, if all your senses could be turned off for a moment  — no taste, no sight, no sounds — would you know if you were still alive?  Would you still have awareness that you commanded a place in the cosmos, that you were grasping the Universal subway strap for dear life, that you were made of the stuff from exploding stars?  
Would you realize that your salvation and your destruction were inches apart, wedded and woven like warp and woof?   And would you sense, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, you were, in fact, whole and STILL EXPLODING — at the same time!

Several times a day, armed with my shovel in one hand and a manure fork in another, I watch my pile grow and imagine what forces I might unleash once it reaches a critical mass.

Up from the pile of horse shit, straight up, mushrooms a rising tower of excrement, raining down death and sending wriggling worms flying.  

###


FIGURING THINGS OUT ... ONE LOAD OF MANURE AT A TIME.



The male goat will pee on his own head to make himself sexually attractive to the female.

I should not have been surprised to learn this.  Men often do dumb things when a woman is involved.  

Take my two Belgian draft horses — both castrated males — who frequently, when extreme weather is involved, make poor choices.

20-below Polar Vortex air swooshing down from the Arctic.  "Hey, let’s go stand outside and freeze to death."  

On more than one occasion I’ve had to put on my headlamp at 2:00am and fight my way through whipping wind and slashing rain to find the Belgians shivering under a tree.
 
I didn’t grow up on a farm, so their stubborn, knuckle-headed, vote-against-your-own-self-interests behavior perplexed me.

You see, I was raised in a steam-heated apartment in New York City overlooking the West Side Highway.  The sound of commuting cars racing into Manhattan at 6:00am was my crowing rooster.  When I had the opportunity to move to Vermont and raise sheep and goats, I jumped at the chance, figuring if I ran into trouble, I could always call 911 —- like the time a porcupine waddled onto my property with no apparent agenda.

“I can walk right up and pet him,” I said to the 911 dispatcher from behind my trash can lid shield. “He must be rabid.  Do you want to send a SWAT team?"

“That won’t be necessary,” said the officer.  “Porcupines are rarely in a hurry.  They don’t have to be."

Talking to the emergency dispatcher took me back to my childhood in the Bronx, holding the phone, dialing 911, while the neighbors in my apartment building screamed and pounded on each other, making poor choices.  You’d then see them in the elevator a day later, black eyes covered with thick makeup.

Recently, I installed a surveillance camera with infrared night vision to study equine behavior like Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees. Then I would sit up in bed at night, ignoring my beautiful wife, and watch the Belgians in the barn on my iPhone app.   

To my horror, my work horses had transformed into leisure horses, curling up like kittens in their wood shavings.  Maybe they were dreaming of hauling logs or pulling sleighs, but I didn’t think so.   I suspected we had on our hands a Ferdinand the Bull situation.

I was about to call 911, but what was I going to say? 

Some things — your work horse refusing to work … your goat peeing on his own head … the neighborhood porcupine parked in your driveway … your son’s battleship streaking towards North Korea while his commanders discuss the tactical use of nuclear weapons between putts on the back nine at Mar-a-Lago …

Perhaps it’s best to just cover yourself with makeup and pretend it all never happened.

###


 


Melting Down


ben and jerry's truck

It’s a Tuesday and I’m driving a refrigerator truck South on 91 to Jersey in one-hundred degree heat.  The truck is filled with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  I’m not unaware of the consequences if I should break down or, God forbid, launch my vehicle into orbit off the George Washington.  Maybe that’s what motivates me to pick up a hitchhiker at the Northampton exit?  I want someone to bear witness should this be my final run.

The hitchhiker is wearing a sweaty Black Dog t-shirt and flip flops.  Apparently, I make him feel right at home because within two seconds the flip flops are off and his feet are on my dash.

Are you kidding me? I say.

He puts his feet back on the floor.

We’re not maybe ten minutes down the road, and the hitchhiker is dying for a smoke.  I won’t let him.  The fumes can infect my cargo, I tell him.  He doesn’t believe me, but what can he do?  I’m the driver and he’s the hitchhiker.  There’s a hierarchy.  A hierarchy that’s been established since man first learned to drive an ox cart and picked up some bearded guy thumbing his way to Nazareth.

My hitchhiker bounces his leg up and down and talks a lot.

He met his wife on the Internet, he says.  She didn’t speak English.  He didn’t speak Spanish.  So they translated their emails with software.  She was a model, he says.  He shows me a picture.

I nod.  What am I going to say?  That’s some hot fuckin’ broad?  I wish I could take a run at her?  No.  He might call the “Do You Like My Driving?” number on the back of my rig like that red Quatro asshole I gave the finger to a few weeks back.  So I keep my mouth shut and listen.

It’s not easy.  I have the windows open.  The heat and noise and exhaust from the rush hour traffic is getting sucked into my cab.  The hitchhiker wants me to shut the windows and turn on the AC.  If he wasn’t there, I’d think about it.  But it was a principle thing at this point.  He expects limousine service?  He’s a hitchhiker.

That said, I didn’t want to come across as unreasonable.  Maybe my hitchhiker isn’t a saint?  Maybe he has a gun in his backpack?  So I spell out, calmly and rationally, that I don’t want to divert energy from the refrigerated compartment.  The truck is working overtime because of the heat.  As purveyors of a premium ice cream product, Ben and Jerry’s insists on a lower temperature than other ice cream manufacturers to maintain the integrity of their brand.  If I was hauling Bryer’s, or that crap they sell at Price Chopper, who gives a goddamn, right?  But under the circumstances I needed to conserve, sacrifice my own personal comfort, anything, to prevent a white haze from forming on the surface of the Cherry Garcia, a particularly vulnerable flavor to the vagaries of climate change.

At this point, I’m pretty worked up and waving my hands.  The hitchhiker takes all this in.

You’re a careful man, he says.

Gotta be.  One wrong move and I got soup on my hands.

His leg is bouncing faster now.  I figure he’s got to pee.  The wife, I ask.  Did she ever learn English?

Yeah, he says, shouting over a blue Impala with a hanging muffler, dragging sparks.

Then he slides closer to me on the bench so I can hear.  I get a little nervous he might be a fag, but then he goes on with his story and I calm down.

His wife learned English watching Judge Judy, he says.  Her first words were, “Baloney” and “You’re in the doggie house.”

I pass a Winnebago with a satellite dish mounted on the roof.  The thing is swiveling and, as I drive by, I can see some kids inside trying to watch a basketball game on a small flatscreen.

How did she get here? I ask.

She swam, he says.  How do you think she got here?

After this crack, I’m wondering if I should leave this jerk in the breakdown lane.  Obviously, there are many ways a hot Latin chick can enter this Land of Opportunity, and not all of them are legal.

Maybe she came in someone’s friggin’ trunk, I say.

He sees I’m angry and realizes which side his bread is buttered.  He’s a perceptive hitchhiker.  I see that he’s reading me at the same time that I’m reading him.  Maybe he thinks I’m the one who is dangerous?  There’s always that risk, you know, for both parties when you engage in a hitchhiking transaction.  One of you could have just gotten out of Leavenworth.

No, she flew, he says.  Into Kennedy.  It was winter.  I’ll never forget seeing her for the first time.  No coat.  No hat.  Just tight black pants, a tight white blouse, and long dark hair.  I had a beard at the time.  Later that night, she would discover my toenails were painted pink, which is a whole other story I won’t go into.  Anyway, at the airport she kissed me on the lips and that was that.  It was March 6th.  Five months later we got married under a tree by a justice of the peace during his lunch break from the post office.

I was a little nervous about the pink toenails, but still curious about the wife.

Did she know where Northampton was? I ask.

No clue, he says.  After several weeks, she tells me with her hands that she has to go back to Guatemala, she forgot something.  Two weeks later, she returns with her 14-year-old son who is the size of a refrigerator.  The kid doesn’t speak a word of English either.  I feel like a foreigner in my own home.  They’re looking at me sideways and jabbering away. I have no idea what they’re talking about.

One day it snowed hard, the hitchhiker says.  One of those famous Northeasters we get, with drifts up to here.

He holds his hand against my cab’s ceiling.  Then he goes on with his story.

I thought they might like to pitch in and do the walkway, so I show them a pair of shovels and point outside.  Later, I’m thinking where the hell are they, and glance out the window to see they’ve cleared the entire front yard.  They didn't understand.  They thought I meant shovel all of Massachusetts.  I ran out to stop them.  They’re hot and steaming and stripped down to their t-shirts, cursing my name in Spanish.  I could never get the kid to shovel snow again.

The hitchhiker slides back over to his side of the cab and leans out the window.

You ever get married? he shouts.  He has to shout because we are going through Hartford and are next to a Boar’s Head meat truck, the one with the ugly pig snout printed on the side.  The truck is hitting every pothole and making a racket because the sliding back door wasn’t secured and is jumping around.

Twice, I say.  But I don’t feel like going into detail.  He was my hitchhiker, not my priest.

The hitchhiker keeps talking, this time to the boar.

Whenever I pulled the car into the garage, he says, my wife would lower her head and run into the house like a bull.

Why is that? I shout.

The dog fencer.

She didn’t like dogs?

She didn’t like the red blinking light on the dog fencer.  She said it looks like the laser on a gun when it’s pointed at you.

Ah! I think.  She has history.

She also hated spiders, he says.  We had a ton of them on our deck and she would attack them with a broom.  Her foster mother used to put tarantulas in her bed.

Some asshole in a Subaru suddenly veers in front of me, and I have to zig and then zag so we are almost driving on two wheels.  Melted Rocky Road flashes before my eyes.  It took a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding.

The hitchhiker doesn’t miss a beat.  He keeps talking, maybe to calm me, maybe to get things off his chest.  I am, after all, cheap therapy.

A married blond friend, he says, dropped by one afternoon to visit.  Her name was Sheila.  My Guatemalan wife looks her up and down.  There is no way to explain that Sheila always wears dresses that are too short and makeup that is too much.

You’re not going to chuga-chuga with her? the wife asked after Sheila leaves.

Of course not, the hitchhiker says.  Why would you think that?

Never trust, the wife said, retreating into the kitchen.  Steam was rising up from pots on the stove.  Never trust.

I know a Mobil station is coming up.  I signal to move into the right lane.  While I’m looking in my mirrors, trying to snake in front of a skinny bitch in a Range Rover, I say casually, so you banged your friend, Sheila?

The hitchhiker is now examining himself in the side view mirror like he’s preening for the Oscar’s.  Not just the big vertical mirror, but he’s checking for zits in the round fun-house mirror.  At first, he’s not aware that I have enough mirrors in that truck to know what goes on in Ethiopia.  Then our eyes meet through a maze of reflections.  He stops preening.  The bank accounts were emptied, he says.  She took one car.  I guess her son figured out how to drive the other.

We need gas, I say.

I hit the right blinker and take Exit 9 just before New Haven.

She left a note, he says.  It was written with a big Sharpie.  The words leaked through the paper onto the kitchen table.  Now every morning while drinking my coffee, I have to stare at ...

"I’M GOING TO TAKE YOU TO KLEENERS!!!"

I pull into the Mobil station and drive around back to the diesel.  When I stop, the hitchhiker looks at me.

Can I borrow five bucks? he asks.

I'm not surprised.  I’ve picked up hitchhikers before.

He’s bouncing up and down on the seat now, so I know he’s jonesing to go to the bathroom.  I take my time looking for my billfold even though I know it’s in my front pocket.  Finally, I give him the five.  In the mirror, I watch him climb out of the truck with his knapsack and race to the john.

Want anything? he shouts before slamming the john door.

I’m good, I shout back.

While he’s in the can, I pull away and get on the Interstate before he can write down the phone number on the back of my truck.

I don’t care if he’s Jesus, I say to a tan Prius from North Carolina.  It’s one-hundred friggin’ degrees in April, and I have a Dominican supervisor waiting for me in Jersey who thinks he works for the Department of Homeland Security.

The sonofabitch will inspect my cargo, carton after carton, until he can hold up a tub of Mocha Mountain Fudge and taunt me with signs of the tell-tale hoar frost.




I need someone with class, curb appeal, and savoir flare.


woman at bar

"Damn it, Manheimer!" my business partner shouted, pounding the bar with his fist. "We need someone with curb appeal!"

The BBQ chicken wing sticking out of my mouth disappeared like Tweetie Bird swallowed by Sylvester.

"We can't send a warthog like you out there to interlocute with shop owners," my partner went on.  "We need someone with class and a little savoir flare."

I nodded, filling my pockets with beer nuts.

"They should have chops like Megan Fox and be able to facilitate a conversation out of both sides of their mouth like President Clinton."

"How much do you want to pay this person with class?" I asked, reaching for my Pabst Blue Ribbon.  "Class don't come cheap.  These people, they want the finer things."

My partner pulled out his wallet and counted his bills.

"Start 'em at twelve.  If they can talk and walk, bump 'em to thirteen."

I whistled.  "Magnanimous!  Is this a full-time gig?"

"Is my name Rockefeller?  No!  Part-time.  With opportunities for advancement if they should happen, by some miracle of Fate, to buy me the winning Winter Wonderbucks."

Well, you heard my partner.  We need a few good men and women with class and curb appeal to circumambulate the Upper Valley environs and transact knowledge; i.e. domesticate the masses about our brilliant new revelatory idea –– www.birchstand.com.

Interested?  jcmanheimer [at] gmail [dot] com rings on my desk.  Not interested?  the_pope@vatican.com




Ricky and Santiago


the boys in snow

It's the end of an era.

My two Belgian draft horses, Ricky and Santiago, are looking for a new, loving home.

As draft animals, they are utterly worthless.  The last time Ricky pulled a cart, he smashed it to bits. Santiago is blind in one eye.

As pets, you will find none better.  They will come running when you call, lick your face, nibble on your clothing, and remove your hat to see what's underneath.  They are also quite social and frequently find an excuse to visit the neighbors, especially this time of year when they like to go apple picking.

Did I mention, they are big?  You need supplemental oxygen to get on their backs. Their feet are the size of tractor tires.

They make excellent lawn mowers who could start their own business if they knew how to use Quickbooks.

Don't let the Belgian in their names fool you. They are registered to work legally in all fifty of the United States.

They are Democrats.

802-649-####.  Ask for Renee.  It's too painful for me.