There’s a horse on my foot

Dr. Wil­liam O’Fla­herty re­mem­bers long ago in­ci­dent like it was yes­ter­day

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY­WILLIAM O’FLA­HERTY

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.

Juicy tid­bits

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.

Fall har­vest

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!”

Crazed horse

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.

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