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S. Donovan Mullaney

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Horsemen's Tales: Ch. 1
By S. Donovan Mullaney
Friday, December 29, 2006

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Chapter One: "Waste"

The walking machine stood next to the barn. Four arms jutted from a central obelisk to form a horizontal cross shape, as though someone had succeeded in tipping a windmill. Rust marched steadily over its orange frame. My grandfather, Raymond Mullaney, bought it used from a fellow horse-man. Blooms of deep-red-orange oxidation gave the walking machine a mottled skin similar to the fiery salamanders living in the dark dampness beneath its base.

I had permission to dig for worms on my grandfather's farm, but was never allowed to disturb any salamander on his premises more than was necessary, for amphibians were a sign of balance. Balance disturbed is time lost in restoration.

Despite the rust, the walker still turned—with loud metallic protest. Its small chain motor was built for three speeds: walk, trot, and fast trot. Second gear had slipped, leaving only the extremes.

Our two riding horses, an Arabian gelding as old as I was and a half-blind Welsh pony, had all-day turn-out. Four of my grandfather's five racehorses were out on the walking machine. These equine athletes were on a set routine, which Ray had designed to maximize their performances at upcoming purse races at Rockingham Park.

Each horse required a different kind of grain mixture—high-protein, low-fat performance grain, or the more standard Trotter pellets, or my favorite—the kind that came with molasses and cracked corn, the kind that tastes like trail mix. Some of the horses had vitamin supplements; others required pain medication for old racing injuries, injuries my grandfather specialized in rehabilitating. Ray had the rare mix of single-minded devotion, detachment, and fearlessness one needs to work with four-legged, half-ton champions. He was one of those people that guy Evans wrote about, a "horse whisperer." The only son of Plymouth bakery-owners, Ray could have been a veterinarian. He didn’t want to leave his parents without help, although they never asked him to stay. "Then the War came, and I had to go," he'd told me.

My grandfather was a crack shot who could put four out of six bullets through the same hole in a target. After Pearl Harbor, he was drafted along with most of the men in his generation to serve in World War Two.

"Did you have to kill anyone, Grandpa?" I was hoping that he'd be war a hero.

"No, Number One, I never had to."

My great-grandmother, a devout Christian, had made Ray promise not to kill anyone. He knew that if he were on the front line, and it came down to a his life or a German's, the German would lose. Worse, he’d break a promise to his mother. When test day arrived, Ray had a plan: he would score low in marksmanship. Not enough to disqualify him, but enough for his Basic Training commander to ask him "What else can you do?"

"My parents own a bakery," Ray said. So Pfc. Raymond W. Mullaney became a cook and baker for the United States Army. He served in North Africa, Britain, and the unit that liberated Rome.

My mother stills says the family would be better off if he had gone to vet school instead of staying home. "What a waste of a calling," she'd say with pursed lips and my grandfather's hard blue eyes staring out of her face. "Live your life the way it's supposed to be, Shea, or you’ll end up bitter like your grandfather."

Ray was sometimes as bitter as the ammonia sting of horse urine in nostrils. He and I loved each other.

In the barn, I was his captive audience for stories of his mis-spent youth, otherwise known as "life before I met your grandmother." Stories were always followed by advice. Advice was followed by advice.

Stories about drag-racing his early-model Ford through the town forest ended with "But don't you try it, Number One, we were professionals." Accounts of water- and snow-skiing were followed by "When you gonna get up on one ski, boy?" And there were the stories that ended with silence: stories about fighting.

My grandfather was a lone stallion, but he was ruthless when challenged.

"Avoid a fight, Number One, if you can. Walk away or talk your way out. If it comes down to'd better win. Use everything you got to get 'em on the ground and make sure they can't get up to come at ya from behind. And don't ever turn your back, if ya can help it."

I especially loved War stories. He'd regale me with life in battlefield camps, him watching the ovens while bullets cruised overhead or a few dozen yards away.

In the war, my grandfather rode with Saudi Princes. He noticed there were two classes in the Arab armed forces. "The ones with the fancy headdresses were getting kow-towed to by the ones in simpler turbans." My great-grandmother didn't rose a fool; Raymond knew whom to befriend. He carried back tales of riding through Tunisian sands with his North African friends.

"Those crazy Ay-rabs," he'd say, "would put a knife in ya as soon as look at ya if you cross them. But man, do they know horses." Ray's friends offered him one their prize studs, but he couldn’t afford to bring it Stateside. Still, he developed a lifelong love of the Arabian breed, for their fire and intelligence, and found himself another Arabian, ‘Nosara Satan,’ after returning from the war. Arabian horses live longer than many humans.

At ten years old I was still too young to ride Nosara's son, Ara Be, even though gelding had somewhat banked his fire. What I could do then—what I still do now that Ara Be is too old to ride—is clean stalls. Cleaning up horse-shit every day gives a strange sense of accomplishment, a sense of a day well-lived; the shit you can shovel is easier to clean up than the shit you make through bad choices.

* * *

The pitchfork stood taller than I did. Its sharp metal points intimidated me; I was sure I’d never be able to use it, or if I did, I’d impale myself. My strategy was to get as much soiled shavings as possible onto the tines, then heave the whole thing over the side of the wheelbarrow. Less strokes, more efficient; I was pretty strong for a 10-year-old. My grandfather stood clear, leaving himself room to "supervise," and me room to screw up.

About half of each fork-full fell back to the floor. The smell of the urine made me dizzy, and I kept catching the end of fork on the wire gate, jarring the handle painfully into my belly. I developed a pinch at the base of my neck, which grew steadily worse as I worked until I could no longer turn my head.

"This is hard, Gramps. You do this every day when I'm away at school?"

"Yup. But not the way you're doing it. I do it smart."

"What do you mean?"

He taught me about leverage. "Hold the fork with both hands, Number One." My grandfather always called me Number One, referring to the fact that I was the first grandson, ignoring the fact that I was the only grandson.

"I am."

"No, like this." Gramps slid my left hand back until the head of the pitchfork rose slowly off the floor and came to rest in a straight line. "That's the balance point. Everything's about balance. Let the pitchfork do the work. This is why human beings make tools, because you wear them out, you buy another one. You wear you out, you’re out of luck." It made a certain sense.

Now he slid my right hand back toward to far end of the handle. "This hand is how you counter the additional weight. That's right, Number One. Now bend your knees to make a little box with your lower body. Put your weight on the balls of your feet and roll into the stroke just a little. Keep the fork as close to your body as you can. When you roll, move your whole box, don't lean forward with your back. You always want to push from a base of power, Number One."

At first, I let the handle stick out too far behind me, catching it in the metal grate of the stall's gate and dropping all the brown globular horse-droppings onto the floor with a muted, squishy plop-pla-pop sounds. But eventually, I figured out it how to balance the fork and its load, heaving great piles of dirty (and a lot of clean) shavings into the wheelbarrow.

The lesson continued: "That's better. Now go for the wet spots first, Number One, you don't need to worry about economy at the beginning, so don't worry if you get some clean shavings."

Stall-bound horses like to cover their waste so that they can sleep on the clean layer at the top, so first I raked off this layer and found the wet spots. I scooped this up first. My grandfather taught me to turn over the rest to separate shavings from the manure we brought by wheelbarrow to the pile that would feed my grandmother's gardens the following Spring.

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Reviewed by Sage Sweetwater 1/2/2007
A story of the equine model and a lad molded out of a grandfather's own shoe of strong character. It is often that our grandparents are the ones who have shaped us into sturdy adults. Horseman's Tales: Ch. 1 is the hallmark and visual of a potential film narrated by Mr. Mullaney. The storyline speaks a language of familial and equine bonding, a celebration of horses and the families who keep them. Mr. Mullaney delivers both imagery and storyline that embody the spirit that the Arabs say the wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears. Whispers the soft breeze of the petals of spring, Shea...


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