Monday, October 29, 2012

How to Avoid Work and Flirt with the Butcher

My maternal grandfather, Henry Meyers (b.1900), was a storyteller, like many of his generation. I haven’t noticed the same inclination among my fellow Boomers. This is probably just as well. Twenty-first century grandchildren are accustomed to stories told in high-def and 3D. Most of us lack the knack to compete effectively with technology by mere spoken word.

Henry had several favorite tales, and as a kid I enjoyed rehearing them just as much as I enjoyed reruns of favorite TV shows. One of his frequent reruns was the Spider story. Spider was the least appropriate horse ever to pull a milk wagon.

In 1910, Henry was a 10-year-old boy who lived on his parents
 dairy farm on Raritan Road in Cranford, New Jersey, with his three brothers and two sisters: Catherine, Carrie, Bill, Fred, and Martin. Henry spent much of his time with Bill (13) and Fred (8) who were closest to him in age. The three boys did the usual work of farm boys, including delivering milk to customers.

Motor vehicles and horses coexisted in 1910. Cars, notably Ford’s Model T which began production in 1908, were becoming more affordable, but they still had other drawbacks. For one thing, outside of downtown areas, nearly all roads were unpaved. Many were badly rutted, and sections of them turned to mud whenever it rained. These conditions were better suited to stepping than rolling, and so helped keep the horse competitive. A motorized horse-van was an especially rare sight, since in most circumstances it had the advantages backwards. Nevertheless, on an August day, one stopped in front of the Meyers farmhouse. The boys investigated.

“What’s in the back?” Bill asked the driver.

“A race horse. He is all yours for $10.”

My great grandfather William (actually Wilhelm, named for Wilhelm I, but he usually went by William) overheard this as he approached. He wasn’t sure what the going rate was for racehorses, but he knew even the slowest nag on the track was worth more than $10.

“What’s wrong with him?” William asked.

“He’s lame,” said the driver honestly. “It isn’t bad, but it means we can’t run him. He’s a gelding so we can’t breed him. I could sell him to the butchers, but I’d rather not, and, besides, this will save me the trip.”

“We don’t have much use for a lame horse on a farm either.”

“He’s not so lame you can’t ride him. You just can’t race him.”

“Let’s at least look at him, pop,” Bill urged.

“OK. Back him out.”

The boys looked the horse over. Their sisters came out of the house to look, too. He was a tall bay thoroughbred with long spidery legs. He was beautiful.

“His name is Spider,” the driver added.

The three boys consulted, and then pulled their father aside. The boys wanted the animal.

“Maybe he’ll be good for something,” William conceded. He probably also figured he could resell the horse for $10 if need be. William bought the horse. “You boys wanted him. You take care of him,” he warned.

“Let’s saddle him up to try him out,” Fred said as the van trundled away. It was more than a suggestion.

They first walked him around on a lead line in front of the barn.

“You know, I don’t see a thing wrong with him,” said Bill

“Neither do I.”

The boys tacked the horse. As soon Bill tightened the cinch on the saddle, Spider lifted his left front hoof. Bill led him outside by the reins.

“Darn if he isn’t lame after all,” he said.

“Well, see how he rides anyway.”

“I’ll give a try,” Henry said.

Henry mounted. He nudged Spider with his heels. From the perspective of Fred and Bill, Henry and Spider vanished into dust. Henry hung on for dear life as Spider charged full bore along the fence line. He tugged desperately at the reins but to no avail.

Henry shouted, “Whoa!”

Spider planted his feet. Henry flew forward, but Spider flung up his head to catch him. Henry had lost his stirrups, and his arms were wrapped around Spider’s neck. He re-seated himself and regained his stirrups. The barn looked impossibly distant. Spider wasn’t the slightest bit winded. Henry turned him around and faced the barn.

“OK, nice and gentle,” he said.

Henry barely nudged the horse. Spider once again took off along the rail, running at a full gallop.

Nearly top of his brothers, Henry shouted, “Whoa!”

Spider planted his feet. This time Henry was ready, but he still collided with the animal’s neck.

“Why’d you run him so hard?” Bill asked.

“It wasn’t my idea.”

“He doesn’t look lame at all,” Fred observed.

“Let me try him,” Bill said.

Henry dismounted. Bill got on, and duplicated Henry’s ride.

“He only knows how to stand and run,” Bill said.

“My turn!” Fred insisted.

The wild ride was repeated again. Spider skidded to a halt at the end of the return jaunt.

“Turn him out for now,” Bill said. “I have an idea for tomorrow.”


“I think that after the milk deliveries we should pick up the mail at the post office.”

“That doesn’t sound so exciting.”

“It will be if we hitch Spider to the milk wagon.”

“It might at that”

The boys could barely sleep that night, and the chores the next day seemed to go on forever. Life on a dairy farm starts early, however, so it was only midmorning when they had a chance to execute their plan.

They retrieved Spider from the pasture and eagerly hitched him to the wagon. This had to be a new experience for Spider, but he was quiet during the procedure. The three boys got in the wagon with Bill at the reins. He gave the reins a quick snap.

Spider leapt forward. The wagon bounced and shuddered on the ruts and ridges of the driveway and dirt road. Repeatedly the boys were tossed in the air and narrowly escaped flying off, but they stayed in the wagon. Bill reined him to the left around a corner and the wagon skidded in an arc as the boys hung on for dear life. Pedestrians looked and pointed as they approached the post office.


Spider skidded to a stop, pushed forward by the harness.

“That’s the fastest we ever got here!” Henry said, and there was no denying it.

Fred ran inside and picked up the mail, which in 1910 cannot have amounted to much. He clambered back aboard, and Bill snapped the reins. Away they went again, careening around corners and bouncing alarmingly.

That afternoon, the van reappeared at the Meyers farm.

“I couldn’t help seeing you boys terrorizing Cranford.”

“We got the mail,” Bill explained.

“There must have been something mighty important in it. Spider was running pretty good.”

“He runs fine. We figured it out. He just acts lame when you saddle him so he doesn’t have to work. Once you get him going, he is sound as a dollar.

The dollar in 1910, it should be observed, was backed by gold.

“I sold you the horse. I’m not saying I didn’t, but I’m thinking I might want him back.”

William Meyers, who had observed the goings-on with misgivings, approached the van and said, “I’ll take back my $10.”

William knew very well that a sound race horse was worth a tidy sum, but it didn’t seem honest to him to profit from the man’s mistake. This is another difference between 1910 and today.

The boys were disappointed, of course. They had been looking forward to delivering the milk the next morning.

No comments:

Post a Comment