People wonder how I can write with so much confidence about horses and their treatment in the western portion of my stories. We had riding horses, a pony, and one horse that my husband used on round-ups while in Phoenix. I grew up on a farm where horse were used more for the farm plowing and planting than the tractor. One incident has been etched in my mine.
When I was in the primary grades, I attended Gray Consolidated School in Gray, Iowa. It was about five miles from our farm. The mode of transportation was by bus over graveled or graded dirt roads. The school bus driver during my second grade was a man named Mr. Nicely. This struck my seven-year-old brain as something that brought happiness.
When he made the stop to let my youngest brother and me off, he would make sure we were safely across the road before turning down the dirt road to continue his rounds. As an adult I’ve often wondered why he bothered waiting for us to cross the road as no one was going to be driving any faster than 30 or 40 miles in 1944. Some people were still driving Model A and Model T autos. No new vehicles had been built since the start of World War Two. Many farmers returned to using their tractors with metal wheels and that had steel lugs as treads. Any farmer that had a newer tractor with rubber tires ran the risk of not being able to use it if a tire were damaged. There were no new tires for tractors or autos. I remember some of the tubes on my oldest brother’s car looked like one big patch.
On the first day of school, I told my mother about Mr. Nicely’s name and how he watched us cross the road. She informed me that I needed to thank him nicely for such thoughtfulness. At the age of seven, one tends to be quite literal in following your parents’ instructions. The next day, I rehearsed over and over what I would say to Mr. Nicely. Of course, he followed the same routine.
As I stepped down from the bus, I said, “Thank you nicely, Mr. Nicely.” I thought he looked a little funny turning red so rapidly.
Later, at the PTA meeting in Gray, he told my mother about my thanking him and his struggle not to let me see him laugh. He was laughing when he told mother. I was slightly miffed when I heard it as I thought I had done the correct thing and adults laughing meant I had not.
All through the year, Mr. Nicely piloted the bus without incident. March in Iowa was like most: Snow, then snow melting, rain, ice, more snow, warmer weather and melting snow. It would be a challenge going to town to buy groceries and everyone made sure they had sufficient gasoline for farming by keeping a gasoline tank. The gas for the farm equipment was purple and delivered by truck. The allotment was quite high, but if any farmer were caught using purple gas in their automobile gas tank it was instant arrest. Like the rest of the populace, farmers had to use ration stamps to purchase gasoline for going to town or church.
By the end of March there were but a few lumps of snow left in isolated spots. The ground was spongy from melting snow and the plentiful spring rains. It was warm enough that mother let me wear knee highs instead of the hated long cotton socks.
As Mr. Nicely turned the corner and started down the dirt road without gravel, the bus slid into the ditch. No amount of gunning and trying to move forward or back made it budge. Mother appeared wondering why we hadn’t returned to the house immediately.
“Tell Mr. Nicely I’ve gone for my husband,” was her command.
Papa appeared shortly as he drove down the lane and onto the graveled road with the iron monster that was our tractor. This thing had metal wheel and metal lugs on the wheels. Once hooked to the front of the bus, Papa put it into gear and tried to move forward. Nothing happened.
Mr. Nicely requested to use the telephone. We did not have one. He was directed to go over to the neighbor’s house a few yards down the road and use theirs.
“I’ll go hitch up the team while you’re doing that.”
Mr. Nicely shook his head and headed for the neighbors. Few believed that horses could do what a machine could not.
Mr. Nicely returned hanging on to the seat of the neighbor’s John Deere with rubber tires. Mr. Fredrickson had purchased it in 1941 prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. They looked at Papa coming with our team as a madman and hitched the John Deere to the bus. The results were the same as with the iron monster. The bus remained mired in the red clay and dirt mud.
“Guess I’ll have to call the school, but thanks anyway. I thought sure it would move it.”
Papa brought our team over and proceeded to hitch them to the bus. Mr. Fredrickson and Mr. Nicely were shaking their heads at such folly.
A more mismatched team would have been difficult to find. Molly was older and slower, part Clydesdale and just as large as one. Betty was younger, but still less than middle-aged for a farm horse. Her background was part Morgan and part quarter horse. That meant she was at least two hands smaller than Molly. Her chest was a Morgan’s wide chest, but she had slimmer legs. If things went too slow in the fields, she would move the wagon before Papa had finished with the hay or corn. His powerful voice would be clearly audible for incredible distances as he yelled obscenities at her in both German and English.
Once they were hitched to the bus, Papa slapped the reins over their backs and shouted, “Yo up, Betty, Molly, up.”
The two horses leaned forward pushing their chests into the harness and felt the weight behind them and the resistance of the muck around their hooves. I watched their haunches descend in unison and the muscles tightened in their back haunches. Then their necks stretched out and it was like watching the stored strength in the muscles flow forward. Their steps were perfectly matched as they moved slowly, inch by inch as the bus began to move. Even to my eyes it was strange. I’d never seen them pull so evenly together.
This time Papa kept his voice lower and guided them and the bus up onto the road. Both Betty and Molly were covered with foam and their muscles were quivering while they waited to be unhitched.
The “thank you” and the “I didn’t believe it could be done” were profuse. Papa nodded and grinned and took Molly and Betty back to the barn for a rub down and probably an extra ear of corn or some other treat.
I had never been so proud of Betty and Molly and I never forgot that lesson in horse power.
Mari Collier Blog was first set up to publish my memories of growing up. This was for my daughter and son and their families. Then more of my relatives loved the posts for it included their Grandparents and fathers. Somehow I have continued to post bits of my life there. Occasionally I do post about my novels and anthologies and the struggles and processes of publishing and marketing. Perhaps the best way to explain my weird writing is my website. Such a bucolic upbringing gave plenty of time for my imagination to venture into far places.
I searched diligently for a picture of Betty and Molly, but could not find one. I have included a picture of my husband ready to go on a roundup in Northern Arizona.