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Through a Portagee Gate

A Portagee Gate

  I hadn’t been in Escamil a week when I learned our reputation had preceded me to California. I was visiting a ranch. The rancher was showing me around. He was proud of his fields, his crops, his animals.
   “I’ve got some goats over that rise over there,” he said. “You want to take a look at them?”
   “Sure,” I said.
  We were standing in a field. We started walking across the field toward a barbed-wire fence. I looked ahead. I could see there was no gate. I felt some anxiety. The fence was too high for us to go over the top. We would have to squeeze through between the upper and middle strands of barbed wire. The problem was I was wearing my best clothes. The only decent suit coat I owned was on my back. I could see myself getting snagged on the barbed wire with a resulting tear in my coat. I took my coat off.
  I couldn’t help saying, “You don’t have a gate, do you?”
  “We got a gate,” he said.
  I looked again. I couldn’t see one.
  We came up to the fence, up to a heavy wooden post. This post was dug into the ground, but attached to it was a much lighter post and this post was not dug into the ground. It was joined to the anchored post with a noose of wire at the top and another at the bottom. The rancher pulled the top noose up and off and raised the lightweight post out of the bottom noose, and voilà! We now had an opening, or a gate, if you please. The lightweight post was free to move and the barbed wire which was attached to it was very flexible, as good as hinges.
  How clever, I thought. How ingenious.
   “We call this a Portagee gate,” the rancher said, laughing.
  I gave a start. It was as if I had been unmasked. My immediate suspicion was that he was needling me. But I knew he couldn’t have been. There was no way he could have known I was Portuguese. I had traveled three thousand miles across the country, trying to outrun that word, and here it was, waiting for me. It was like our soldiers in World War II who would be sent to the ends of the earth and when they got there, there would be a sign waiting for them, “Kilroy was here.”
  It was eerie. I was out West on an isolated ranch. The last word I expected to hear was “Portagee.” I had thought all the Portuguese were in the mill towns of Massachusetts. I hadn’t known there were a certain number of Portuguese living in California, working in dairies and on ranches. And they had obviously made an impression here.
  I knew what that rancher meant. If I could have gone into his mind, I knew what he would have said: “We call this a Portagee gate because the Portagees are too tight to spend any money and do the job right. All you’d have to do is buy a little hardware and a little lumber and you could build a good gate, but the Portagees won’t do that. They won’t spend a nickel if they can avoid it. They slap something together, instead of doing the job right.”
  Yes, they make do with what they have. That could be the Portuguese creed.