Horses Don’t Pull
Farm accidents happen all the time. There are so many things to trip over and fall down from in the barn, in the woods, in the hay fields. Cement floors get slick with cow shit. It’s too bad, cuz when a farmer gets laid up the farm can go downhill real fast. The family suffers, too. If you get hurt bad enough you can’t provide.
- Paraphrased from a conversation with brother, Ray
As I knelt at Grandpa’s casket in the living room of his village home, I wept for the loss of this good and gentle man. His slight frame against the white lining belied a formerly tough and sinewy body. I gazed through tears at the swollen cheek where the cancer had set in two years earlier. Likely smoke from the pipe stem the doctors said. Grandpa savored the comfort of the smoky aroma at quiet times after supper in the quiet of the evening. The straight stem pipe rested in his side pocket through the day when it wasn’t clenched unlit by his dentured molars. At rest he would take a leather pouch from his pocket, tamp a bowlful of Prince Albert with his thumb, lift his leg and sweep a sulfur match under his britches and light up. At home in his rocker he would strike the match under the wooden arm rest. The malignancy had migrated to his brain, slowly limiting memory, conversation and function. I searched Grandpa’s neck for signs of the injury ten years earlier that had prompted him and Grandma to move from his beloved 100-acre farm to the village.
The leather wrist support had been removed for Grandpa’s laying out. It had provided some comfort to his shattered wrist since the fall. A metal hook embedded at its heal imparted a modest ability to lift. I wondered where Grandma had put it. It would be a reminder of my responsibility for the tragedy. I think she pitched it in the trash right after he came home from the hospital for the last time.
He was a man of quiet precision who enjoyed every aspect of farming the land, working his horses and cattle, growing, nurturing and harvesting the crops. The rhythm of the seasons carried him. His affection for the land and its creatures was as a lover enthralled by the glimpses of his partner, the beloved’s familiar smells and touches.
He was not formally educated and could minimally read and write. It was delightful talking with him. The plural of man was mens. Stones were stuns. He called butternuts buttnuts. Corn stalks mounted to dry in piles were stooks. He was wise and had a high IQ in matters of the land, animals and life.
Grandpa was skillful with a scythe. He sharpened the blade on a whetstone wheel that he pedaled with his right foot and carried a smaller one in his back pocket. His arms and upper body swayed gracefully as the sharp blade cut swaths of hay or millet. He would stop every five minutes or so to wipe his brow and sharpen the blade. Watching him swing the scythe with sure, perfectly timed sweeps of the curved instrument was to see an artist, a dancer, adept at his craft.
I walked behind Grandpa one fall day as he managed to steady the plow behind his team. The single furrowed plow turned the sod in a lengthening wave of fresh dirt. When he stopped the team with a whoa, I asked why are you stopping, Grandpa? He wiped his brow with the red handkerchief always visible from his back pocket and said, Don’t ‘buse your horses by overworking ‘em. They need their rest. You gotta’ be good to ‘em and they’ll be good to you.
Somewhere I read that horses move like they always hear music. One spring day Grandpa let Dick and Dan out of barn for the first time in many weeks. The winter had kept them enclosed in their stalls. Daddy, Grandpa and I delighted as the oversized animals whinnied and frolicked on the spring pasture grass like kids, rolling on their backs, their legs flailing the air. I was spellbound watching these almost children playing in complete abandonment to fresh air and the coolness of the ground. The warm sun beamed no more brightly than Dick and Dan did to each other.
It was haying time in the midst of summer. Best to get it now before it gets wet again, Grandpa said. The morning sun had dried it well and the smell of returning rain was in the air. I had ridden my bicycle on this breezy, sunlit day, two miles from the village to Granda’s farm to help with farm chores. He had finished the morning milking hours earlier and the cows were grazing in the meadow. I arrived at lunchtime, as Grandpa was finishing potatoes, Murphys he called them, a few strips of thick bacon, dark toast with butter, a cup of tea. Lunch finished, he donned his crumpled felt hat and asked me Are you ready to fetch some hay? I nodded eagerly. What could be better than to be alone with Grandpa in the fields, working with Dick and Dan, his great white Percherons.
He knew his twenty Jersey milkers by name, brushed them down day and night, the coarse curry comb pulling dust and debris from their hairy hides. Contented cows make the best milk he said. He was not less kind to Dick and Dan. He approached their stalls from the rear, announcing his presence with soft, reassuring words. Whoa, easy now rubbing their flanks as he placed a 6-inch wood stepping stool he had built by Dick’s’s side. He lifted the weighty black leather harnesses from the hooks on the wall and manipulated them just so onto his shoulders. Stepping on the bench, he flung the heavy bundle of straps over Dick’s back first, then onto Dan’s. He placed the horse collars about their great necks. He hitched and drew the straps around their bellies.
Turning to me he asked, Did you know horses are artists?
I know Grandpa, I said, because they can draw. We laughed at the worn joke we had shared many times. Grandpa was the first to mention it this time, a set up for what followed.
But did you know horses don’t pull? I thought for a minute. That’s a riddle, right Grandpa? This was a new one.
Think about it, Grandpa replied. You’ll see if you look hard enough, he said with a wink.
He backed Dick out of the stall and led him outside. Dick followed. Grandpa hitched the team to the hay wagon, a flat bed with tall wooden racks on the front and back. We climbed onto the wagon and Grandpa said gidyup. With a slight brush of the reins on their backs, the great whites dutifully moved forward on their way to the hayfield on the gentle slope beyond the house.
The field was a grid of turned Timothy lying in rows waiting to be picked up and stored in the barn. In route, a gust of wind lifted Grandpa’s hat off his head and it caught perfectly on the hames of the collar. He laughed hee, hee, hee, eyes asquint. I couldn’t do that again in a hundred tries he declared. He stopped the horses as I hopped off the wagon. Using a harness strap for leverage, I reached just high enough to retrieve the crumpled felt fedora and handed it to Grandpa. Much obliged he said. As I remounted the wagon he was still chuckling. Don’t that beat all?
Grandpa brought the team to the hay loader, commanded ‘back’ and Dick and Dan backed the wagon to the loader, so the hitches were nearly touching. I always delighted in watching Grandpa work his horses that he loved so much. A chk, chk was ‘go ahead;’ ‘gee’ was turn right, ‘haw’ meant left and ‘back’ for backing. The team responded more precisely than a well-trained cow dog. I hopped off the wagon and dropped the metal pin that hitched the hay loader to the rear of the wagon.
My job was to drive the horses and wagon over the windrowed hay. The rotation of the two large wheels on the loader engaged the gears bringing 6” oscillating tines over the rows of hay. The tines repeated their clawing motions elevating the loose hay to the top of the tin floored mount of the hay loader, dropping hay onto the rear of the wagon. Make sure to keep them in check grandpa told me. You’ve got to pull back on the reins, so they don’t take the lead. You gotta be in charge and hold them back. If they go too fast I won’t be able to keep up with all the hay coming in.
With a chk! chk! I started the team over the windrows. Hay fell onto the wagon and Grampa started placing the loose hay on the front corners, the sides, filling the middle. Grampa had done this so many times it was second nature. Using his three-tined fork, he deftly placed forkfuls of hay about the flatbed wagon as he had done so many times before. A first layer of hay was followed by a second and a third, the load mounting. He stepped on the escalating layers interlocking the strands of hay as they rose higher. Three times during the loading Grandpa hollered whoa which I repeated to Dick and Dan, bringing the team and wagon to a halt giving Grandpa time to place the mounting hay. You gotta hold ‘em back. Keep a steady rein. The wagon was nearly filled and I was wondering if Grandpa would let me drive the loaded wagon to the barn. I suddenly heard a muffled yell from Grandpa, Whoa aaay followed by a thud. I stopped the horses and looked back for Grandpa who wasn’t on the wagon. I hurriedly climbed off the high mound of hay and there he was on the ground in a heap, trying to stand. Give me a hand getting up he said. When he stood with his arm about my shoulder, he said his neck felt real stiff. He could stand on one leg but the other wouldn’t cooperate. That’s funny he said. Help me to the ground. Once lying in the stubble with his head back he said You’d best get your grandmother.
I ran as fast as I could barely seeing the ground through tears welling in my eyes. The 500 yards to the house seemed like two miles. When I finally arrived I was so winded I could barely talk. Grandpa’s hurt I said. He fell off the wagon.
Grandma hurried to the hay field, found Grampa on his side, still stunned, trying to make sense of the pain that riddled his body. Again, he tried to walk, this time leaning on Grandma. You best lie still, Fred she told him. With my help she let him gently to the ground.
Grandma saw Mrs. Stimets hanging clothes in her backyard down the road barely within shouting distance. She took off her apron and waved it back and forth over her head, yelling as loud as she could. Yoohoo! Yoohoo! Della! Della, bring your car! I ran closer so she could clearly hear me and yelled, Gramps is hurt! Bring your car! Mrs. Stimets drove her car to the house and over the mowed field to where Grandpa lay. She and Grandma helped him into the front seat and drove him slowly to the farmhouse.
I unhitched the team leaving the loaded wagon in the field. As I walked behind the horses toward the barn, I picked up Grandpa’s sweaty hat from the ground. I drove the team to the barn where I hitched them at the watering trough. I brought Grandpa’s hat into the house where they had seated him in the varnished kitchen rocker. The chair’s back was adorned with a white crocheted netting that read Come Rest Awhile. He sat there dumbfounded, in shock. What happened? Why can’t I move my leg? Are the horses in the barn? Did that load of hay get put up? My wrist pains real bad.
Grandma dialed Doctor Dugan. Fred’s hurt real bad she said, voice quaking. He arrived an eternity later, about a six mile journey from his office. He was not whistling his typical jaunty tune when he arrived. Dr. Dugan looked concerned as they moved Grandpa from the kitchen to the front seat of hid car. They pulled from the driveway, Grandpa leaning stiffly against the back of the seat, Doc Dugan reaching to support Grandpa’s head with his right hand.
Grandma next instructed me to ride my bicycle to the Nolan farm where brother, Ray, was working. The cows need milking and maybe Ray could do the job. I bicycled to the Nolan farm just over a mile away on the east end of Lamkin Street. He and Mr. Nolan were in the barn astride an overhead beam of the hay mow. I told him Grandpa was hurt and he was needed to do the milking. Together we milked the herd and awaited the report from the hospital.
Days later, they brought Grandpa home. He lay in his bed traction, an unlikely sight no one had envisioned. The life of this working man had taken a sudden, irreversible turn. He would have to sell the farm because he would be able to work no longer. He would give up his land, his cows and horses. All he knew was farming. I held back tears at the site of him held immobile in the bed, and the thought of Grandpa never farming again.
Grandpa’s eyes turned to mine. With a glint in his eye he asked Did you figure it out yet?
What’s that, Grandpa? I asked.
The riddle? Did you figure out why horses don’t pull?
No, I replied sullenly.
Why do horses wear collars? Grandpa asked.
He smiled at me as he answered his question They push their shoulders forward against their collars. So, if you think about it, they push the wagon, they don’t pull it. He chuckled and tenderly stared at me through forgiving eyes of understanding. It was clear he wanted to ease my hurt as he was beginning the long process of working through his own pain.
Grandpa and Grandma bought a small house in the village across Route 78 from McCuin’s Blue Seal Feed Store. They lived there for the next ten years until Grandpa died of cancer in 1963 at the age of 83. I inherited his iron spittoon and a wooden foot stool he had fashioned from scraps of turned wood and pine board, mementoes of quiet rest.