There’s a horse on my foot
Dr. William O’Flaherty remembers long ago incident like it was yesterday
We were plowing the garden in front of the house, up the hill a ways, towards the highroad. That garden, you should know, was the main potato garden of the family — it had been tilled, fertilized and harvested for a hundred years. Never you mind what they say, that a garden can’t last that long — what with the manure, caplin and kelp spread on it every year, it could probably last forever, growing Irish Cobbler and Aran Blue potatoes.
We had planted the potatoes in May, shortly after we plowed in the manure; now the small potato plants were just peeping above the ground in long lines on the flat earth. The rows were easy to see since we had spread caplin, silver coloured smelt-sized fish all along the lines of plants, the plowing process to come covering the fish and choking the small weeds coming through the soil.
That procedure — the plowing — required labour input from the two of us — man and boy— and the horse, of course. I was always amazed how some horses in Long Beach could be controlled with reins alone, going back and forth, back and forth, responding to a gentle pull and a sharp command. Not so, our horse. I, 10 years old, had to lead him, my hand grasping the bridle while my dad guided the plow.
Behind us, that soft summer morning, with the sun beating on the plowed drills, the steam came up out of the earth creating a low-lying mist that would soon disappear as the wind rose. The hens, let loose out of
Dr. William O’Flaherty
the stable and guided by his majesty, the red combed rooster, followed behind us as the plow turned up the soil, dormant since the spring planting. In there, as the roosters soon clearly demonstrated to his harem, were juicy tidbits — earthworms, grubs and other tender morsels, enough to make a Long Beach hen’s mouth water.
We, my dad and I, were here on this particular day for a very good reason. Normally, in early July, in the time of the caplin skull, he would be on the water, baiting his trawls, hauling back and forth, taking off the hooked codfish. Now, this day, his boat had sprung a leak, and it was determined, in consultation with some of the older experienced fishermen that the “stuffin’ box”, the contraption situated where the propeller shaft exits the boat, was at fault. It had to be fixed. There is nothing that can induce a fisherman to verbalize unnatural oaths, cursing God and man, and other creatures as well, as a boat halffilled with salt water in the morning. As stated it, it had to be fixed.The boat was hauled onto the beach, up onto the dry land.
While that was being fixed by uncle Amos, a man quite adept in such matters, we plowed the fields.
We were halfway through the garden up above the house when unpleasant events occurred. First of all, the plow struck a rock; one of those that my father maintained grew up from below during the winter, every winter, bar none. We were brought up solid, immobilized. The plow was inspected; damage to that farm tool would have ended the day’s work. We rested, the horse and I, while it was determined that no significant harm had occurred.
It was a harbinger of things to come.
There were other gardens to plow, mind you, besides the one now being tilled: the one “over in the valley,” the one “across the high road,” the one “in by the graveyard,” and the one “over by Syle Steele’s.” They all had to be looked after. The team of a man, a boy and horse with the plow in good working order was essential for the whole enterprise to succeed. That process went on, intermittently, at its proper time, all the way to the late summer and into the fall harvest.
Shortly after the plow struck the rock, the one that my dad cursed but did no harm, very shortly after that, I say, all hell broke loose. All of a sudden two events happened, disrupting our work that summer morning. I, not paying attention to the proper method of leading the horse which was, in part, that of keeping my feet out of the way, my mind distracted and wishing the plowing would soon be finished (as 10-year-olds are wont to do) I let my right foot be trod on by the left fore hoof of the horse. That creature, somehow knowing that the routine was disrupted, probably by my howling, did what any sensible horse is supposed to do — he stood stock still.
I remember screaming and smashing out my right fist into the face of the animal, which effort made no difference whatsoever, other than to cause the poor creature to look askance, if that be possible, wondering what all the fuss was about, as I tried to drag my foot clear.
Then, the second unexpected event occurred. Almost at the very instant that my poor foot was driven into the soft earth, up the Valley Road by Tom Woodfine’s place came a procession led by a man on a white horse, himself bedecked in finery, followed by similarly dressed men carrying banners, blowing trumpets and banging on a big drum — a dozen or so of them, creating a great racket.
Well sir, I had never seen the like before; neither had the horse. The serenity and boredom of his morning was, all of a sudden, disrupted by a young boy smashing him in the face with his fist and now by a caterwauling crowd, up there, raising hell on the highroad. He was having none of it. The greatest defense that the various members of the equine species have, in the face of real or perceived danger, is speed. With one mighty leap he was gone, dragging me thirty feet or so while my father shouted out: “Hang onto ‘im!”
I had no intention of being pulled anywhere by the crazed horse, especially since he had caused me enough suffering that morning. Enough was enough. I let go of the bridle and off he went, at a stretch gallop, downhill, away from that bunch on the road, dragging the plow over rocks and hummocks.
The first impediment to his wild flight was Will Johnson’s fence, bordering our land, where the two (horse and plow) parted company. Over he went or, should I say, partly over, impeded as he was by the burden dragging behind. Down he came, all three-quarter ton of him, down on the longers, smashing them to bits and leaving the plow behind, tangled up in the destroyed section of fence.
Now, unimpeded, away he went gathering speed, trailing behind him one trace with the tailstick dragging — the only remains of the harness still attached — hitting him in the legs and rump as he flew along, making him go even faster. He bounded easily over the fence at the opposite side of Will Johnson’s garden and on he went into the marsh below the house where his forward movement was severely impeded. There, finally, wild eyed and frothing at the bit, he stopped, up to his guts in mud.
“Who the Christ is that crowd?” I asked as the trumpets blared all the way up the road to the Catholic church.
He looked at me; a bit of a pause; dead air. He didn’t say anything. The look was enough. Ten-year-olds were not supposed to take God’s name in vain, at least not in his Dad’s presence.
“Orangemen,” he said. “It’s Orangemen’s day.”
We looked at the plow. It was destroyed. Never again would it stick its toe into the fertile fields of Long Beach. Its day was done.
“If I’d had the reins on ‘im, I would’ve held onto ‘im.” my father said, as we viewed the damage. But who needs reins when you’ve got a hardy 10-year-old and he ahold of the bridle?
The plow was needing replacement. No matter. My dad knew where to get one, and very soon.
Making a deal
Next door to us, close by and up the road a ways, lived Eli Higgins and his wife, both of them now stooped over and elderly, not capable of going anymore into the cabbage garden (or any other garden for that matter), having done their part in the world and now resting on their laurels.
Eli had a plow. His sons, one a teacher in the elementary school and the other a man of limited intellect and ambition (but able to father a number of children) had no interest, the two of them, in cultivating the land. Pota- toes and vegetables imported from up along formed the mainstay of their diet.
But Eli, the father, preferred local produce and my father knew it. Indeed, any day of the week, Eli, helped along by his wife, no slouch herself, could consume a gallon of good local potatoes, and more than that on weekends when his crowd, his “tribe” as he called them, descended on the old homestead come Sunday dinner.
“Long Blues is what I wants,” stated Eli, when my father approached him. “Four sacks this winter and four sacks next winter. Ya hear? Long Blues!” The deal was made over a handshake. The very next day the stuffin’ box was fixed and the boat was on the collars. The horse had been hauled out of the bog, the harness repaired and the tilling went ahead with Eli’s (now our) plow. I had hoped on that day, the day after the episode just described, that the wind would be calm so my dad would be on the water, thereby giving my bruised foot a chance to heal but, no siree, as you might expect, it was blowing a gale o’ wind, and, on days like that, you plow the land.
“Your foot’s not broken b’y,” he said, “you’re tough, just like that horse.”
You learn things as you grow up, often moreso by example and observation than by formal teaching. You learn certain trades, without exception, or at least a minimal introduction to them; you garner, along the way, the moral values of your parents, their respect for law and order and the work ethic. Last but not least you gather snippets of wisdom that stay with you for years. I hesitate to bore you with discussions of anything but the last item; I confine myself to a lesson from our little story.
On the eleventh day of July, one year later, my father said to me: “My son, if it’s blowin’ a gale tomorra, on Orangemen’s Day, we’ll shut the horse in the marsh garden and you and I’ll go into Outside Union Pond, where the big ones are. We’ll catch some good trout in there.”
And, next day, early on, sure enough, on the Glorious Twelfth of July, we did just that.