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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Sometimes its good to be mule headed

Both my father and my late father-in-law grew up working their respective farms with horses and mules.

The practice died out quickly after World War II as machinery and technology replaced the work animals. But for many, particularly my father, there was a certain amount of nostalgia for them.

My brothers and I heard our share of stories about Kate, my dad’s horse, renowned for her gentleness and smarts. Reins were hardly necessary because she responded to gee-and-haw voice commands. When cultivating a field, she stepped over and around the fragile plants, but never on them.

His favorite Kate story involved pulling stumps. Kate was on one side, pulling hard in her harness, and my grandfather was on the other with an axe, chopping at roots. The stump lurched with each cut root, sometimes sending Kate to her knees. But my grandfather only had to talk to Kate and she’d be back on her feet pulling.

So it was with more than just passing interest that I read the article “Riding High” in the New Yorker double anniversary issue, Feb. 15 and 22.

The story traces the recent history of the military’s use of pack animals. It’s a fun, insightful story, with anecdotes about a CIA program that bought mules in Tennessee and shipped them to Afghanistan to haul arms and supplies during the fight against the Soviets.

There’s even a reference to my favorite author, William Faulkner, who said that a mule would work happily for 10 or 20 years just “for the privilege of kicking you once.”

After ending its official pack animal training program shortly after World War II, the military now operates a training center at Camp Pendleton, Calif. There is even a manual, published in 2004: FM 3-05.213, “Special Forces Use of Pack Animals.”

The story is a good reminder that sometimes the best answer to a problem is the simplest, not the most high tech.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Feb 12, 2010 at 7:23 PM


Reader Comments

Tue, Feb 16, 2010 HogTown Nebraska

I marveled at the progress that my grandfather saw as a farmer who grew up using horses until post war ag machinery started such revolutionary change. At least as revolutionary as an old Farmall or Oliver tractor could be. And oh when they got that 4 row self-propelled combine instead of the 2-row tractor-mounted "corn picker" that was really huge step.

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