March 1, 2017

Gate swings open to let out mule memories

The back ramp of the livestock trailer descended with a thump into a lush bed of fescue. Neighbors Carlton Stamey and Pete Craft witnessed the massive strawberry-blonde mules clop down the ramp into their new pasture, overlooking Lake Hartwell. 
Carlton scratched his head and said, “Pete, if he had grown up plowing and staring at the hind-end of a mule, he wouldn’t want mules now.” 
After Ruby and Rose went to Mule Heaven, Maggie is 
the only mule to meet me at the barn for a behind-the-
ears scratch and an apple. 
They laughed.
I laughed, wanting to jump up
and click my heels.
That was almost 20 years ago. Ruby and Rose were about 7, and my brown hair hadn’t turned “possum blond.”  In 2015, Rose was the first to go.  About four months later, the best answer the vet could offer was: “Ruby just grieved herself to death.”  These days, the only mule to meet me at the barn for a behind-the-ears scratch and an apple is Maggie.   If the tall red mule with black stockings could talk, she’d say, “I miss them, too.”
And since I didn’t grow up dusting my brogans behind a plodding mule, I opted at middle age for two of those often-misunderstood-and-maligned animals over a motorcycle.  I am not alone in that choice.  Ruby and Rose helped me connect with a loyal fraternity of mule owners, including retired Coca-Cola CEO Doug Ivester.  We both have bumper stickers proclaiming: “Love me, love my mules!”
Our mutual friend, Connell Stafford, swung open the mule-lot gate of memories with an emailed photo of his “Mule Crossing” sign on his board fence.  That prompted retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Minter to send Connell, Doug, Larry Walker and me his reflections.  Larry declares he’s plowed mules too.  Here’s an excerpt from Jim:
“I personally know of only three living people who have seriously plowed a mule: Jimmy Carter, Glenn Vaughan, long-retired editor-publisher of the Columbus newspapers, and myself.
“Both President Carter and I have written accounts of the number of trips behind a mule required to make a crop of cotton.
“1. On a cold morning, when they are brittle, break up stalks from last year’s crop. One trip.
“2. Rip stalk roots from last year’s crop with two-horse plow. One trip.
“3. ‘List’ with one-horse plow, scooter and wing, to throw dirt into furrow created by ripping old roots.  Two trips.  One left, one right. (You have created a ‘bed’ where seeds for the new crop will be planted.)
“4. Before planting, you must make a run with either a cultivator or a drag-log to smooth the bed. One trip.
“5. Next, one mule has to pull the fertilizer distributor on the bed, making a furrow where the seed will be planted.  The ‘guano,’ as it was then known, is distributed in the furrow by a set of ‘knockers’ attached to a wooden wheel on the distributor. One trip.
“6. Then the planter is run behind the distributor, putting down seed. Germination is uncertain, so excess seed must be planted.  One trip.
“7. The seed will come up too thick to make if not thinned. This requires ‘running around’ each row with a naked scooter and a ‘fender’ to keep from covering up the little plants.  The plants have to be run around on both sides, requiring two more trips on the row, left and right.  And one more to ‘run the middle’ so there will be no place for grass to grow.  Three trips.
            “8. The plants must be thinned to 10 inches apart by hoe.  The next step is ‘dirting back’ with a naked scooter and a fender,            which allows some dirt to be rolled back around the plants but not enough to cover them up.  That’s two more trips on the row, left        and right. Your  challenge is keeping your mule from stepping in the row. Another middle to run. Three trips.                        
            “9. From now until about the Fourth of July, the cotton must be plowed every week.  A plowing is two trips with a scooter and             scrape, up and down the row, followed by another trip ‘running the middle.’ That’s four or five plowings, depending on the                       weather.”
  According to Jim and President Carter’s calculations, it takes about two dozen trips through the field to make a crop of cotton. Jim adds, “For better or worse, you and your mule become close companions.  … Now, we have Roundup-ready cotton that requires no cultivation and therefore no mules.  Boll weevils are history, and 12-row mechanical cotton pickers have taken the place of 10 fingers.”
     Jim makes Carlton’s point a valid argument about Ruby and Rose’s arrival.  Still, love me … love my mules. 
     Ain’t that right, Maggie?