My Most Unforgettable Character

Our covered wagon suddenly emerged from the rolling green of Virginia into the closely crammed hills of Kentucky. Amazement struck me, not only with the sight of the first mountains I had ever seen, but with the fact that ninety-eight per cent of the local terra firma was set on a sixty-degree angle. How utterly different from the exciting canyons of Juniper and Chestnut, the towering Petra of South Penn Square or the asphalt jungle thickly settled between the Delaware and Schuylkill! At ox-cart pace we proceeded along the winding trail walled in by the myriad hills, avoiding ruts and hog wallows, real threats to the “body by Fisher,” and escaping them altogether where path blended with stream. Jouncing along the creek bed, we felt as out of place as a juggernaut in the narrow pool of the Taj Mahal. Occasionally the shallow flood seemed to merge back into what residents euphemistically referred to as “the road.” I never could quite make up my mind whether the trail ran into the creek, or the creek ran more often into the trail!

At last we reached the preacher’s tiny stilt-supported cottage on the hillside by a bend in the trail, the stony yard sloping down to sapling-covered, hog-infested bottom land. Not as drab as I had expected, no badlands fascination as I had anticipated. Later, as I soon learned that night, there was a quaintness, a sweetness, an attraction known only in these coal-mined hills.

At moomrise, hills and valley combine silvery glow;
Stars faintly sparkle crystal jewels
Like spattered tear-drops on black velvet.
Hilly woodlands, silent and serene,
Emit dark, pristine beauty’s fragrance.
From forest pulpits cicadas lead
Nocturnal mites in chirping praise,
Expressing vernal sentiment, “Peace! peace!”

Strange, how such impressions are made while enjoying a Saturday night hath out on the back porch in the moonlight! In the little bungalow only rigged-up privacy was available. Early pioneers had no gas, electricity, running water, bathroom or tub. But since “civilization” had not yet penetrated into this back-country, there was no more advanced facility present than the back stoop and a galvanized laundry tub. I drew water from the well, heated it in a vat over an open wood fire in the yard under the stars, and completed my ablutions at an hour when mountain travelers would not be trudging the nearby trail. I was further encouraged in this bold exposure by the fact that neighboring homes were separated by modestly intervening hills.

At the time, I did not realize it, but my friend Alexander and I were destined soon to meet. It was to be my happy task to visit lost places on Lost Creek, far back into the hills, to teach the Word of God in the scattered mountain schoolhouses. To begin this project, I had to find Alexander, for he was to take me through this wild territory and introduce me to adventures such as I had never contemplated. He lived on one of the Jones’ residences, and not too far from Jonestown, population: 10. This was next to Granny Campbell’s place. I remember this dear old soul chiefly for her habit of expectorating on the floor at the Wednesday cottage prayer meeting. Arriving at the Jones household, I was greeted by yelping hounds which did not faze me much until I saw how they could climb the fences and trees on the premises. Alec was not in at the moment. He was up in the woods “t’other side th’ crick,” but Mrs. Jones accommodatingly called his name in what to me sounded like the screechy tones of the rebel yell. Reluctantly, Alec came out of his comfortable hideout and jaunted down the hillside and across the foot-bridge to the barnyard where I was waiting. He greeted me with a disgusted eye. I did not shake hands. Alexander was a mule.

In my opinion, this bony, shapeless, shiftless, non-descript beast was dubbed “Alexander” because he had no more worlds to conquer. That is, from birth he had been born “beat,” and cared nothing to prove his mettle, nor even to conquer the little knoll “ahint th’ Jones place.” He only half-heartedly fought his way up there because it was wooded and afforded ample refuge from the heat. There he would remain until he couldn’t stand the insistence of Miz Jones’ screechy summons, or until he smelled the cooking of blackberry cobbler a day or two later.

Mounted on Alec, I who had hardly mounted more than a soap-box scooter made with an old roller skate, felt like Lawrence of Arabia sitting atop the peak of a dromedary’s back. However, he had an advantage over me. His desert bus would kneel so he could mount. Mine had to be hauled to a stump from which I could climb into the saddle. How far it seemed to the ground! Seated there I had no idea how or where I was to dismount. But I had a suspicion that Alec knew. He started off rather sedately down the road as long as we were in sight of his master’s house. But once around the bend in the road he became proud and acted as though he owned me. Uppity enough, I humiliatingly felt I had to agree. He determinedly slowed down to such a slow gait that I kept wondering when his hind feet were going to catch up with his fore feet. The plop plop of two of his feet were separated by such a long interval of silence before I heard the plop plop of his other two. The trail led under shaded ledges, over sunny valley and right down the middle of the creek for miles. I soon learned that feet in stirrups and reins in hand do not necessarily imply a rider in control. Alec went wherever he desired, and not where I subtly tried to guide him. Along a path at the edge of a bluff hardly wide enough for a child, with a stream far below, I was absolutely fearless. Mules are quite sure¬footed. I read that in a book somewhere, I told myself. Alec was rather steady on his feet for the first hour of the rocky trip. After that I often felt that I should attempt carrying him part of the way.

Little mountain cottages dotted the hillside, some quaintly framed with rail fence, and as we passed, some of the inhabitants might be seen seated on the porch or standing in the fields gaping with long unbelievable stares at us. After all, Alec and a greenhorn from William Penn’s town were quite a combination! It was customary to go through something like, the following greeting and salutation routine. “Howdy, there!” I would call. “Haowdy, thar. Step daown an’ set a spell. Stay ohl naaht.” “No, thank you; reckon I have to get along. Come with me.” “Nope, thank’ee, reckin All’ll jes set raaht ehere.” This and much more was often said in passing — you can’t imagine just how slowly Alec could dawdle.

Now Alec knew everything a mule could know about this country, whereas I neither knew the country nor Alec. Consequently, next to him I felt like a jack-ass. I had to despise my own vaunted wisdom more than once to depend on his. It is a genuine lesson in humility when one must learn from a mule. I was not aware of the fact that over this trail Alec had been used to stopping at certain houses, but that was why he kept pulling me toward every draw or creek branch leading to small out of the way cabins. It was all I could do to turn him back to the wilderness road. The cliché “stubborn as a mule” did not apply to Alec. He was only conforming to his old social habits. Besides, he was too lazy to be stubborn. But there was one lonely house at which Alec simply had to stop. So, off the road he went to the “tether tree,” and off went my sun helmet as the hanging branches scraped it from my head. My thoughts reverted to Absalom as his mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak . . .

Soon the first schoolhouse was in sight. Before it there was situated a narrow wooden foot bridge over the ubiquitous stream. This seemed like a natural short-cut to the school, being wide enough to accommodate a mule. But Alec merely stolidly stood, and eyed the planks with careless annoyance. Men and boys lounging on the front steps of the schoolhouse stared mightily but offered neither comment nor advice. I learned later — everything I learned here I learned later — that mountain people have the facility of laughing uproariously to them-selves without cracking a smile. They are too polite to needlessly offend strangers. Dismounting and tugging on the reins could not avail to make Alec take one step on that bridge. In disgust, I remounted (this in itself must have been an amusing sight) and rode Alec across the creek, where I dismounted, tethered, entered the school-house under the curious gaze of the country schoolmaster and his lovely pupils. There I taught what everyone called “Sunday School,” regardless of what day it was; we sang hymns, and I gave instruction in Bible history. Afterward, Alec and I proceeded on his way to the next school down the creek. Alec, I was afterward instructed, was not being ornery; he simply never would cross a bridge like that for fear of breaking a leg in one of the many holes of that rickety span. I may have been brave, but Alec was no fool.

Through a shady avenue of trees surrounded by endless hills I pressed on into more inaccessible country, where of course I’d never before been, and where no sort of written directions could have been of any possible use to me. So, I was instructed to “borrow” one of the pupils to ride Alec with me as a guide to the next outpost. With a quiet mountain boy behind me, I informed him how I was more familiar with the controls of an auto, and had not yet discovered the control panel on this reeling quadruped. Consequently, I had a question: how do you accelerate this thing? I can’t say that Alec paid no heed to my insults for he made noises in his throat like marbles rattling around in an empty oatmeal box. My biped companion quickly dropped down to the ground, was as quickly back with a stick which he applied to Alec’s bony rump. The change was shocking. The world suddenly seemed to be a blur of saddle, stirrups, mule ears, two pairs of arms and legs bouncing high, scenery rolling by, an occasional hen scuttling aside from flying hoofs, and in that hectic moment I remember a pair of geese dive-bombing overhead.

This locomotion continued more or less unabated, with Alec’s head turned sideways, ninety degrees to his body, one eye then to the fore in the direction of flight, and the other eye to the rear watching application of the switch. When he observed cessation of this persecution, he would immediately slow to it worm’s crawl. He became so well trained that I had only to raise the stick, and that one rear-viewing eye took the message to his two-by-zero brain, and off he would go again at his mock gallop —more motion than speed. But usually his was an exasperating slowness. I could never understand how a creature with twice as many legs as I (and twenty times the muscles) could move slower than a man wading in waist deep snow! On one of these trips I had neglected to carry a switch. This certainly was not unknown to my flea-bitten friend. For taking advantage of his head-sideways strategy, he constantly maneuvered me away from overhanging trees and bushes on either side, so that with his zig-zag stagger I could not break off a switch while en route. But a resourceful man will not be outwitted by a mule, I affirmed. There was my mechanical pencil: I drew it from my shirt pocket like a dagger from its sheath and with a backhand sweep struck Alec a blow, you know where. He got the message, even though conveyed over a longer nerve route than before, and heaved off into space. This method of acceleration did not succeed for long, however, as Alec, craning backward could see nothing in my hand, and since he could see nothing, concluded there was not only nothing to fear but nothing to feel. After that, no amount of jabbing would coax him to give a snail competition. But then I instituted the habit of carrying a piece of lumber the size of a billy-club. Alec only had to see that raised, and for quite a spell he’d whip up a breeze.

On return from these safaris, we had to take a different route across lonely ridges, and on that first sally Alec was the only one of the two of us who knew where we were going. Once he led me down a strange but sparkling, bubbling stream away from my desired haven, and refused to turn back or to stop. With that bit in his teeth there was no turning him, and riding in the creek as we were, dismounting meant an unattractive half wading, half swimming progress. Meeting a native and not taking the time for the usual greeting, in exasperation I asked whether he could “turn this bag of bones around.” Hauling on the reins he did so, addressing Alec by name, for he knew him of old, and slapped him off into the right direction.

Certain mule-back riding questions at times entered my mind. Does one ride a mule up the mountain-side? Yes, I found, but only upon making frequent rest stops on the way. Alec sounded like a broken-down pump organ at a city mission with his wheezing, grunting, grumbling, moaning, and for my benefit the giving of his own imitation of the “death rattle”: so that numerous pauses seemed in order. Does one ride a mule down the other side of the mountain? No, I learned, unless you like the saddle situated right behind his ears. It was necessary to dismount, take the reins before him and drag him down, stepping carefully over rocks and breathlessly guiding him as he stumbled half falling, catching himself and so laboring to the next level.

My work was done in very hot weather, sometimes 112 deg., once 125 in the sun. Returning on one of these friendship tours (Alec and I were rather close by now) we came to an old abandoned saw mill where rotten saw dust was strewn down the mountainside and across the road. At this point I had the sensation from my usual lofty height of coming closer and closer to the ground. Alec’s legs were with his forward progress bending more and more until my feet in the stirrups were actually touching the ground. I bounded out of the saddle as mule legs stuck straight up into the air as he lay on his back like a dead beetle. I felt like Balaam whose ass fell down under him. From a safe distance, I watched my only means of conveyance throw what I assumed was a fit from sunstroke. What thrashing about on that soft bed of sawdust! I had an intuition that a sick animal ought to be gotten on its feet as soon as possible, so a little rein pulling roused him shakily to his feet. Fearful that the throes of his ‘fit” might still be current, I tethered him in the shade under a tree to see what results a rest-cure might bring. As I did not wish to be too close, in case a like spasm should recur, I sat in the tree over his head to read my Bible for the time. But Alec was only pulling my leg rather than his own carcass. His cinch had slipped and become too tight; so he was only settling down in the softest spot on the long mountain road to wriggle and shift it to a looser and more comfortable position.

Finally, proceeding homeward, I was happy that my rented transportation was still in operative condition, and could be returned to owner in approximately the same shape as when we started out. I had my doubts when the next moment a cloudburst struck us. Alec took off as though a tribe of Comanches were after us. We were immediately drenched. All the while I was bobbed around in the saddle, a stirrup broken, and rode trying to hold it uselessly on my foot to keep from losing it. Just as suddenly the rain ceased, the monotonously calm gait of my companion resumed, and sitting practically side-saddle with one stirrup, we were, in the 100-degree heat, soon as dry as ever.

Now I was an experienced circuit-rider for the Lord, and every day faced similar intriguing adventures. Alec faithfully took me over mountain fastnesses, placid streams, across raging torrents, through woodland vale, high along waves of ridges and ranges, along shaded ways trellised with black locust, in the blazing sunlit valleys, and once through a huge buzzing colony of digger wasps entrenched in the bed of the road. Alec and I called at many a one-room school house, some much more remote than others, yet revealing a spiritual nurture, a bright-eyed inquisitiveness not at all evident in duller pupils much closer to organized society. I remember the dark-eyed, calicoed, pig-tailed teacher in one of the schools, the aged, hoary-headed prophet-like teacher in another. I remember the clean cut, shining faces of the mountain boys and girls radiant with intense interest, hanging on every word, their enthusiastic and attentive response heart-stirring. But then, Alexander, my mesozoic wonder, that fugitive from a glue factor, has an esteemed and irrepressible place in my memory.