This matters, and it’s not gory. Daddy told me a short little story so many times that I almost feel like I was there when it happened, but I wasn’t. I had not even been born when it unfolded. But as I write this I can see two young Tennessee farmers in the late 1930s as the Great Depression was coming to an end, one being Daddy and the other Uncle Sterling Baggett who married Daddy’s sister, my Aunt Edna. I can see the pasture where it happened, can see Daddy pointing out the persimmon tree he sat under, and the spot a few feet away where Uncle Sterling had asked Daddy to meet him to help skin a mule that had died of natural causes.
I passed by that field hundreds of times during my growing-up years as we made frequent visits to Uncle Sterling and Aunt Edna’s house, or when we drove over to help Uncle Sterling with some farm project. I always enjoyed being around Uncle Sterling and Aunt Edna. But that’s not the point of this story.
This is really a story that reveals a facet of Uncle Sterling’s personality, and maybe a facet of Daddy’s as well. But Daddy’s reason for telling this story was to illustrate something about Uncle Sterling’s nature, and Daddy never told it without laughter and admiration mixed together. Daddy usually ended the story by saying that Uncle Sterling, who Daddy called Sterl for short, would do anything to make a nickel, something Daddy appeared to have more difficulty with during his life. Uncle Sterling planned to sell the mule hide. Such hides are used to make gloves, belts, and other things.
Anyway, they met at the pasture where the mule had died, about halfway between their house and ours as measured by the three gravel roads that connected our farmhouses. The total distance was less than a mile. Uncle Sterling had brought the skinning knives and they began work at the front end of the mule.
Daddy said as they worked their way back to the mule’s midsection, Aunt Edna walked up with a piece of pie on small plates for each of them. Daddy always expressed surprise that Uncle Sterling took his plate and sat down on the mule’s unskinned rump to eat the pie. Daddy took his plate over to the persimmon tree and sat down, facing away from the mule.
That was pretty much the story as Daddy told it. He always ended it with laughter.
Nowhere in my memory did I, or my older brother Nolen Robert, or Mother ever ask Daddy any questions about this story. We just listened to it and we always laughed with Daddy when he told it.
But as I write this, I’m a bit surprised that it never occurred to me in the decades that followed to ever ask Daddy any questions about that story. Here are the questions that occur to me as I write:
- Did Aunt Edna bring them anything to clean their hands with, or did they just wipe their hands off on the legs of their bib overalls before eating the pie? Maybe they had brought drinking water to the field and used that to wash up. No information was ever provided on this point.
- Did Daddy sit facing away from the mule because the sight of it was unappetizing or out of respect for the mule? Maybe it was partly both. I just don’t know.
- Did Aunt Edna stand off to the side like the third point of a triangle so she could talk to Uncle Sterling and Daddy at the same time while they ate the pie? From the story, it is fairly clear that she did not bring a piece of pie for herself.
Daddy would not have been surprised if I had asked these questions. He was well accustomed to my questions on a host of things. But as I think about it, none of these questions really matters.
What matters is that this story meant a lot to him. What matters is that this story stuck with me. It is a reminder of a bygone era, of a time when farmers in our area were too poor to buy tractors during the Great Depression. I remember Daddy plowing with our mule for a short time after World War II, before he bought his first tractor and sold our mule, before Nolen Robert got old enough to plow, when I was just a tyke.
I remember an old song, “Mule Skinner Blues,” written and recorded for the first time by Jimmie Rogers in 1930. I remember that song from the Grand Ole Opry in later decades. But “mule skinner” in that song did not refer to anyone who skinned mules, but to mule drivers who were adept at handling mules.
That mule-skinning story that Daddy told about Uncle Sterling took no more than two minutes to tell. But it has lasted in my mind for a lifetime. It is a story associated with a happy time during hard times, with relatives I loved, and with a place that made me to a great degree.
My questions about the story really don’t matter. I remember it, and that matters.