Dog Days

The past few days has been what we Mainers refer to as “a mite sticky”. Hot temperatures, coupled with high humidity, makes us a tad grouchy. As brutal as last winter was, these clammy days sure make some of us long for dry, 60 degree, weather. It’s hard to do much of anything outside with any degree of comfort. I got thinking about this today and thought back to the days on the farms of my youth. By this time, we had typically finished haying, and we were thankful for that…a day with this sort of heat and humidity would be beyond brutal in the hay mow. We usually would fertilize our hayfields in August. This meant that my cousin, Genie-bub, and I, would each drive a tractor, hauling an attached manure spreader, around and around one field then another, until we had each field covered in a salad of chicken, cow, and assorted other manures from the large pile of this stuff, located up by the barn. The spreaders had a moving track on the bottom of the inside of the spreader, and two “whirly-gig” bars that rotated at a high rate of speed. This allowed us to drive around watching gleefully as the odiferous contents flew through the air and spread wide and thick. Sometimes we would sling an especially juicy sample of this highly valuable …uh…farm field enhancement, at each other when we passed one another going to or from the main mother lode of, ahem..fertilizer. Unc Gene would be waiting for each of us as we pulled up beside the pile and would fill our spreader-trailers to the top using the John Deere 10-10 which had a bucket loader.

This process, I’ve come to realize, is very much like what takes place in the hallowed halls of our beloved state’s capital building, located in Augusta. I wonder how those fine folks would do in a hay mow. Might prove to be a great team building exercise.

Anyway, earlier today I flashed back on a day back then when Cuz and I had nothing much to do, a rare occurrence on the farm. It was a day that was was hot and muggy, so we were looking for things that might be fun, but keep us cool as well. Usually, this meant we ended up going down to the brook to recreate in the babbling cooling essence of those waters, and maybe catch a trout or two as a bonus.

This is what transpired….a story I call:

The Donkey, The Mail Box & The Tree Trail.

Growing up on a farm allows a young fella with an active imagination lots of opportunities to make his elders shake their heads and wonder “just what ta hell was you thinking?!”

Seems I may have caused my fair share of these sort of moments, and one could say I had even developed, among my elders, something of a reputation, or as I preferred to think of it, “farm-cred”.

Yes, I was adept at taking the most placid of situations and jacking them up to an all hands on deck- full scale rescue deployment.

It’s a gift.

So anyway, on this farm he had a duck, ee i, ee i, o.

Actually we did have ducks, geese, pigs, sheep, cows, goats, horses, a mule, and a donkey. Uh…ee i, ee i, o.

This story is about the donkey. The donkey was named Ed Muskie, after our native political son. I don’t recall where we got ol’ Ed, or even when, it seems he was always there from the time I started remembering stuff, and stayed around until I was in high school. About then Unc Gene donated him to Camp Fair Haven for the kids to play with while on their summer vacation on the shores of Randall Pond.

We also had a mule named Ginny, but she aint in this story.

I mention her because there is a difference between mules and donkeys.

Wikipedia tells us:

“A male donkey or ass is called a jack, a female a jenny or jennet; a young donkey is a foal. Jack donkeys are often used to mate with female horses to produce mules. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). It has been claimed that mules are “more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses, and they are considered less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys.”

I don’t know about the “more intelligent” part. Ginny was pretty smart, but ol’ Ed had a little something between those long floppy ears too. He sure as hell was stubborn, and he was the worst damned ride I’ve ever had. All hurky-jerky, like riding a cow.

It’s important to note that Ed loved two things more than anything else.

One, he loved cigarettes. He’d eat ‘em and ask for more, cigarettes became sort of a featured snack for Ed.

Two, he loved green grass, the longer the better. Like the stuff that grows around fence posts or mailbox posts, that the lawnmower can’t get to.

One summer day, me and Cuz Genie-Bub and I were dawdling around in the pasture across the road from his house. We played a game or two of horseshoes, then climbed the golden delicious apple tree and had a snack, and then we contemplated going down to the brook to see if we could catch a trout or two. I figured that I would come out on the losing end of the fish competition as I always did. Cuz was a great fisherman, patient and skilled at leading his line so it wouldn’t snag in the alders and blow downs that congested the brook. He said that was where the best trout were found because they liked the shade. Conversely, I hadn’t discovered patience at this point in my life, and I wasn’t particularly skilled at anything to do with fishing, except get my line and worm snagged in the blow downs and alders. So, I figured that since I was gonna lose that race, I might as well use my superior size to push Cuz down in a cow flap, jump over him, and hop on ol’ Ed, who just happened to be hanging around hopeful for a ciggy-snack. Cuz and I were the same age, and although we were first cousins, his dad being my dad’s older brother, we were more like brothers since we spent most all of our time together. Genie-Bub was the quiet dutiful son who paid attention when the elders tried to impart a life or farm lesson, while yours truly usually had his head in the clouds. This meant, even though I often caused my elders to heave huge sighs, sometimes it was a matter of being framed by the oh so dutiful one. He was clever about it, and had perfected the innocent look, I didn’t stand a chance. So, I took my shots when an opportunity presented itself.

Now, as I mentioned, ol’ Ed was a horrible ride, but I decided riding Ed and making Cuz walk to the creek was preferable to the other way around. He was too small for both of us to ride, and as I mentioned, he was stubborn as a ..well…mule…even though he was a donkey. I didn’t have a cigarette to bribe the ol’ boy with, and it was apparent that Ed had decided, “no snack, no ride.” He dug his front hooves in and refused to move. Genie-Bub went over to the roadside gate where the grass was long and green around the posts and pulled some, waving it at Ed, who decided he would hurk and jerk over for a nibble of what Cuz was offering. Cuz said,

“I’ll feed him this grass and you start putting your heels to him and pull on his mane, that’ll make him head towards the creek…don’t worry, I’ll catch up to ya.”

I thought this was pretty neighborly of Cuz, especially after I pushed him down in a cow flap to get to Ed first. So, I took his advice and started kicking my heels into Ed’s ribs about the time he was munching on the green grass. Good ol’ Cuz with a gleam in his eye, opened the gate to freedom and beyond. Ed, realizing this, decided all-of-a-sudden it was time to take off like he’d been shot in the ass (pun intended), through the gate and down the road.

Cuz told me afterwards it was quite a sight to see. Ol’ Ed with his discombobulated lurch pounding down the road, with a wide-eyed eight year old boy looking like one of those bobble-head figurines one gets at a ballgame, hanging onto his mane for all he’s worth, moving further down the road with every bone-jarring thump of his front hooves.

Payback is a bitch.

After Ed and I did this hurk-jerk dance for about 100 yards we came upon the Flood’s house, which was the next place down the road from Unc Gene’s. The Floods were also family, but on my mother’s side. Aunt Bea was my Mom’s older sister and she lived there with her husband, her four boys, and her daughter. Aunt Bea was a sweet lady who always loved to see me and she was the author of my nick-name, which some family members continue to call me to this day.


Very masculine eh?

Anyway, ol Ed, as he is trying to run out from under me, spies the Flood’s mailbox. More precisely, he spies all that lovely long iridescent green grass growing around the mailbox post, and he made the split second decision to stop, put his head down, and chow on the a fore-mentioned grass.

And, I mean stop, like right now.

Yes, Ed stopped, I didn’t.

It flashed through my mind at that moment that the cow patty I pushed Cuz into didn’t hurt half as much as the mailbox post I found myself piled up against did.

It hurt my pride more than anything else, especially when I picked myself up to the sound of laughter. I peered around, I couldn’t see anyone, but I could hear four voices laughing and twittering at me.

Ed, meanwhile, seemed quite pleased with himself. He munched away, peering at me sideways from time to time.

Then I hear, “Mitchell-boo, look up here.”

I followed the sound with my eyes until I spied my cousin Terry, the oldest of the four boys, waving at me from about 15 feet up in a tree on the edge of the woods in his yard. Everyone in that family called me Mitchy-boo, except Terry, who called me Mitchell-boo. I supposed it seemed more formal somehow.

Then I hear, “How’d you like kissing that post?” from Ronny, the next oldest, waving from another tree.

Johnny and Jeff, rounding out the fearsome-foursome, were grinning like a dog with a mouth full of bumblebees from yet two other trees. They were all having a great time at my expense, albeit 15 feet off the ground.

I queried, “Any of you boys ever fall from a tree?”

This brought another round of raucous laughter. “Catch us if you can!” hollered Jeff, and they started moving.

I watched in amazement as these four cousins of mine started moving through the trees like monkeys in a rain forest. From tree to tree, all around their property, never touching the ground. I realized by watching them, that the three boys behind Terry mimicked his movements from branch to branch, tree to tree. They had developed a tree-trail that ranged from a mere eight feet to as high as 20, but never did they touch the ground, or fall. This was the epitome of cool. I wanted to do it.

I glanced at Ed, who seemed content to mow the lawn, and figured he’d be ok for a while. After-all it wasn’t fair that I spend all my time with my father’s side of the family, I was needed here on my Mom’s side of the tracks, right?

I scrambled up a tree and figured to catch up, only to become stumped. How the heck did they do this? I decided that if they could do it, I could too, so I took a leap of faith, literally, and jumped from the maple I has climbed to grab a limb on a nearby cedar. I managed to get my hands on the cedar bough, but my weight brought me back down to the ground in a heap.

More laughter.

This was stacking up to be one of those days.

As I sat there nursing my wounded pride I noticed something missing….

Ed had sauntered off. Then I heard a horn blaring.

Uh oh.

At least this brought the boys out of the trees to see the action taking place down the road. Ol’ Ed had decided he had gone as far as he wanted and stood smack dab in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. He wasn’t gonna move either. I looked back towards Unc Gene’s to see Cuz and Unc walking my way as me and the Flood boys headed down the road to see if we could entice Ed to move out of the road and let people, and vehicles, to pass by.

It became something of a cluster, me and Ed surrounded by several motorist looking a might peeved, the Flood boys standing around highly amused, and Unc and Gene finally making the party complete. Unc looked at me, shook his head, pulled a Pall Mall out of his pocket as an enticement to get Ed to the side of the road. Ed looked serene as he chewed up the cigarette. We all walked back to the farm, with ol’ Ed acting like a choir boy all of a sudden. I think he’d had enough adventure and wanted back in the confines of the pasture where it was safe and there were no blaring horns. Genie-bub was smirking, The Flood boys were laughing it up, Unc Gene was still shaking his head. I figured I was gonna hear it from Dad later, and I knew pleading my case of being framed by Cuz wasn’t gonna cut it. So, I begged a another Pall Mall off Unc, fed it to Ed, and thanked him for such a fun ride as we closed the gate with the donkey inside.

As we walked back to his house, Unc patted me on the back, nodded at Genie-bub and said, “You know boys, ol’ Ed here, got more sense than either of you do.”…but he was smiling as he said it.

Mitch Littlefield

About Mitch Littlefield

I was born into a large family in the mid 1950s, in Belfast, Maine. My family owned and operated three working farms during my childhood, and the entire family worked these farms. It is these formative years, this family, those farms, and that way of life that is the background for these stories.