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Editor’s note: The following short story, by Downey resident Rosalie Sciortino, won first place in a recent contest by Writers’ Workshop West.
I always wanted to own a pet monkey – a small one with a long, skinny tail. Then I learned about the enchanting mule. What an amazing animal he is! A mule and a monkey? Why not?
What but a mule can carry as much as 300 pounds, seven hours a day, 20 days straight without complaint, strolling along under huge, heavy cargo as if it were a bag of balloons?
What is often referred to be a mules stubbornness is in fact his commitment to self-preservation, which is probably a form of genius. For example, a horse will eat until it becomes sick and dies; a mule will only snack, even if it comes upon a bin of oats. A horse can be enticed to gallop, fatally, over a cliff. Not a mule.
In 1942 when the army was researching a way to deliver mules to combat zones, someone thought to teach the animals to skydive. So they tried an experiment: 12 mules were fitted with parachutes and taken up in a cargo plane. The first six, caught by surprise, were pushed out the door and immediately fell to their deaths. The next six survived. This is because they must have figured out what was going on and absolutely refused to go near the door.
The mules commitment to survival is interesting because mules, who are the hybrid result of mating a male donkey with a female horse, is sterile and will leave no legacy beyond itself and no gene pool to mark its visit to this world. It is as if each mule knew that it had only one shot at being here on earth and risky behavior, such as jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet, would interfere with that.
The Marine Corps has a training center at the base of the Sierra Nevada where a two week course in using pack animals in war is held. It turns out that almost none of the marines had ever been near a mule before. There was a time when a young man without mule experience would have been the exception. These men become proficient in the half hitch and the box hitch for securing loads to the animals’ saddles.
Among the first mules in the U.S. were a herd belonging to George Washington. He believed that a good mule was essential to successful agriculture – donkeys were too ornery and horses too fragile. His enthusiasm was catching and soon mules were being bred by the thousands. For the next 150 years they did every sort of farm job and were happy to labor for 10-20 years in exchange, as William Faulkner once wrote, “for the privilege of kicking you once!”
Thousands of mules served in the Civil War and in both World Wars as well as in the Philippines, Burma and Greece. They have been indispensable in Afghanistan along the narrow mountain trails carrying anti-aircraft missiles among their loads.
Mules are being sold nowadays as riding animals. Women find them smoother riding than horses and are easier to care for. They are smarter. They understand better than horses or donkeys and are better at following instructions. Mules compete now alongside horses in dressage and show jumping competitions. They were once snubbed at traditional horse shows but now have been accepted for competition at the most exclusive horse shows in the world.
In 1885 the Army tried an unsuccessful experiment to replace mules with camels at a post in Texas. The camels were superior in strength, but they were vicious. They coughed up foul-smelling chunks of food and made horrible groans and roars that terrified the horses. Back to the drawing board…
Some noisy mules in the service are surgically “de-brayed’ in order to keep the peace, but otherwise are so steady and efficient they are called a “force multiplier” who doubled or tripled what troops without mules can do.
At the California training center, after practicing balancing their loads on the mules, the troops hike into the mountains with the animals. They set up camp, wake at midnight, practice loading in the dark. The animals endured the tugging and hitching with patience.
The men get used to the animals and transform from “Oh, God, he’s gonna stomp on me!” to hugging and loving them and wanting to take them home.
The more we learn about mules, the more attractive and desirable they seem – imperturbable, alert and stalwart. Yes indeed, someday I hope to have that small pet monkey and a very special gray, shaggy pony mule to call my own.
Published: October 06, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 25