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Granddad, Mun & The Mule

Thursday, June 02, 2011

My granddad, Herman Jackson, was about twenty years old when he went to work for his uncle, who had a large farm near Elsey. Herman had returned to the Ozarks and his native Stone County, having spent several years in Tulsa following the death of his father, Will Jackson of Brown’s Spring.

Will’s untimely death had left Herman, who was fifteen at the time, with the responsibility of providing for his mother Minnie, younger sister Audrey and infant brother Curtis. He had gone to Tulsa to live with another uncle, William Maples, and find work wherever he could. Among the odd jobs that Herman took was the grisly task of cleaning the streets of Greenwood, the predominantly black suburb of Tulsa, where one of our nation’s worst racial massacres took place in the early 1920s. Thousands of black residents were slaughtered and homes were burned to the ground when a force of the Ku Klux Klan attacked Greenwood. Afterward, the city gave Herman a job: He followed a wagon with a shovel, scooping-up spent gunshells from the streets.

Perhaps this sobering episode, coupled with Herman’s fierce sense of justice, forced him back to his relatively peaceful home of Stone County and a job as a laborer for his uncle, E.J. “Josh” Maples. This suited Herman; he had been raised a farmer’s son, and he would spend most of his time working with a cousin who was and would always be his best friend — Maundril B. “Mun” Maples, Josh’s son. Herman and Mun courted (and married) sisters Annie and Ethel Dunton, who lived near Brown’s Spring.

Herman and Mun were given the task of plowing and planting a field north of Elsey (Josh Maples had quite a large farming operation in those days, and worked his seven sons — and Herman — very hard). With nothing more than a few hand tools, a turning plow and one mule, the boys were expected to raise and harvest a crop.

They were used to hard work, so getting up early and working until sundown wasn’t too hard to demand of themselves. The problem was, no one had told the mule about this necessary work ethic. As the spring ran close to summer, Herman and Mun had plowing still to be done as they spent hours, every day, trying to coax the mule to “get up ‘n’ pull the **&^^%!^^ plow!”

One afternoon, having returned to the field with a wagon-load of manure to spread, the mule predictably laid down for one of its daily siestas…and Herman and Mun had enough. Weeks and weeks of yelling, cussing, threatening and an occasional two-by-four to the side of the head hadn’t changed the mule’s work habits, and this time, Herman and Mun were ready for him.

Still hitched to the wagonload of smelly bovine by-product, the mule had conveniently reclined over a low spot near the edge of the fencerow. The boys could easily reach under the side of the beast and lay-in a small pile of twigs and sticks. So they carried on this plan; a true stroke of genius: “We’ll build a fire underneath this here mule, and boy, will he ever learn a lesson about layin’ down on the job!”.

Equating a mule’s skin sensitivity with that of a human’s is not an idea that carries much sapience. The fire got good and hot before the resting creature noticed an unusually warm sensation on his ground-side. But, as the boys predicted, the beast finally rose to his feet, to theirs jeers and gleeful cheers. For a moment, it seemed that Man had conquered the savage beast; the wild had been tamed, and Herman and Mun just might get enough work done to get home, clean up and take the Dunton sisters to the pie supper, up at Union Ridge Church.

But the mule hadn’t finished his verse of the story — he walked, slowly, just far enough to position the wagon directly of the now-leaping flames.

The mule, once again, laid down. The wagon — and its load of cattle dung — burned to ashes.

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