Friday, February 22, 2008

Dead horse day

This is from an e-mail from my father to the extended family, inlaws, outlaws, etc. Yes, it's a true story, and yes, I was one of the herein mentioned teenagers. Here it is in all its [NAMES REDACTED] glory:

Dies equi mortui

(Dead horse day)

The Winter of 78

It was a harsh winter in Dayton Ohio in 1978. The driveway always seemed to need shoveling. There were snowflakes at the bottom of the pile that had fallen the previous October One morning my son came to my room and said: “Pop, I can’t deliver my paper route today. It’s too cold.” I said: “Nonsense, you have to deliver your papers. Go! Be responsible! A bit later he comes back to the room and says: “Pop, I tried, will you drive me?” Trying to teach my son self-reliance, I replied: “OK, I will go with you, but we are not taking the car. I will walk with you.” We get about a block from the house and I find that self-reliance doesn’t keep your nose from freezing. We did complete the route, and later that day we hear on the radio that the temperature is 25 degrees below zero. That’s almost –32C mind you!

In a word: cold!

The Family

Five teenagers or might as well be teenagers - a Mom and a Pop rounded out the family. The teenagers were all smart but not all in the straight-A-at-school sense. All had active imaginations and self-confidence. In other words: trouble.

In April of that year the family was getting ready to move to a small town in Texas. Pop, that’s me, decided to leave his job for a new one. The family had moved a lot over the years so the trauma was not great, but pulling up stakes is always heart-rending and nerve-wracking. The family was busy getting kids out of school, preparing to get kids in school, packing clothes, shoveling snow – oh I already mentioned that – and generally making preparations and figuring out what preparations to make.

In a word: activity!

The dead horse

Frankie. She was a slender mare, gentle yet spunky under saddle, a perfect match for teenagers. She stood about 14 hands on her tippy-hooves. It was about a mile from the house to the stable where Frankie was boarded. A short walk if you are a teenager, but a long walk for that harsh winter.

Finally on a day in the middle of March, the temperature was above freezing; so the teenagers could stop getting on everyone’s nerves and go outside. After being cooped up all winter one of the boys decided to go give Frankie a little romp. Though it was not obvious, Frankie had not wintered well. While the boy was riding her, she fell over. My son tried to recover. He tried to pull the horse to its feet. But it was for naught. Frankie had not only not wintered well; she was unable to survive. She went to that great corral in the sky.

In a word: dead!

The fortnight of confusion

Life goes on. Well, maybe not for Frankie, but the family had to keep preparing for the move. That year, the groundhog must have had a very good look at his shadow, because the cold returned for another week and a half. This was not all bad because Frankie was lying dead in a field and the cold retarded decomposition.

What was to be done about Frankie? If you look in the Yellow pages under several topics, you will eventually come across animal-rendering plants. It seems that an animal renderer would be the perfect solution. Gentle reader, if you have ever talked on the phone to the spokesperson for an animal rendering plant, you will find that the experience is a bit surreal. The conversation will go something like:

Renderer: “Yeah.”

You: “I have this horse that died in the field.”

Renderer: “Yeah.”

You: “I was wondering if you could come and get him.”

Renderer: “Yeah.”

You: “Fine, when can you do it?”

Renderer: ‘Do what?”

You: “Come and get the dead horse in the field.”

Renderer: “I can’t.”

You: “Why?”

Renderer. “My truck is broke down. I can’t come till after I fix it.”

You: “When will you fix it?”

Renderer: “I don’t know and anyway there are a lot of dead animals to get this time of year, with the bad winter we had.”

You: “So will you be picking them up soon?”

Renderer: “I told you my truck was broke. I guess I’d take ‘em if you could bring ‘em by.”

This conversation seemed to happen with every animal-rendering plant I contacted. Now mind you a hard winter is always hard on vehicles, apparently more so on animal-carrying vehicles.

Of course moving preparations were going on. We packed up for the trip. Mom was going to stay home and try to sell the house. No, the house hadn’t been sold yet, partly because the bad weather kept the lookers away and partly because the lookers that did come, well, we had five teenagers.

When moving is in the near future, the only thing that seems to move is the calendar. The final week is upon us. Days go by. I need to start my job in Greenville, Texas the next Monday. Frankie is still in the field. Saturday arrives.

In a word: Shit!

Dies irae – the preparation

The casual observer - that is, a person who observes dead horse day casually, of whom there are few – might think that dead horse day commemorates the day the horse died.

Wrong! I am often asked the exact date of dead horse day, to which question I always reply: “Dead horse day is not an exact date; it is rather a state of mind.” But, if pressed into setting an exact date it would be that fateful Saturday before the big move to Greenville.

Saturday was a nice sunny day. The temperature had risen from the freezing state. The October snowflakes were beginning to melt. All seemed bright and clear and right with the world. Wait! The horse was still lying in the field and was still dead. There seemed to be nothing else to do. I had to find a way to get the horse to a rendering plant. Let us think of the tools at my disposal. I had a pickup truck, not a common thing to have in suburban Dayton. I had a good rope. I had three healthy, if lightweight, teenage boys.

I knew I would have to pull the horse into the truck somehow and to do this I would need some tool. So I went to the hardware store. In modern times people don’t understand what a hardware store is. It’s like a Home-Depot only with people to wait on you. They know you by name if you’ve been there more than twice. You can explain about the dead horse in the field and they will go get you a pulley that will hold a horse. We got your pulley right here. With these state-of-the-art tools in tow, we can now attack the problem at hand.

In a word: ready!

Dies irae – high-noon at the not so OK corral

The loading of the horse is a sight to behold. In fact, other people arrived at the stable on that day in April prepared to enjoy a Spring day of horseback riding. As soon as they beheld the sight of teenagers and Pop pulling on a dead horse, they seemed to go back to their homes. Maybe they forgot something.

We had to first get the horse under a nearby tree. About 500 pounds of people trying to pull 600 pound of smelly, beginning to rot horse. The truck can get no traction because the thaw has settled in and the ground is mush. We finally pull the horse by hand to the tree and attach the pulley to a sturdy branch. The pulley of course breaks - OK sometimes you can’t trust these hardware guys anymore than the guy that you had to chase down at Home Depot - we have now draped the rope over a branch of the tree. I’m not sure how, in fact, my physics teachers would deny the possibility, but the 500 finally countered the 600 until the horse was hanging like a bovine in a slaughterhouse, only with its head still on the ground bent looking like a cat about to lick its coat – I’m talking an upside down cat here. Sometimes we are pushing the horse into the truck bed, sometimes we are pushing the truck to aid its traction, sometimes we are wishing we were anywhere else. Hair is coming off the horse as we are pushing. We are not certain that the horse will hold together. Did I mention the eyeball? Maybe I better not. Oh well if you, gentle reader haven’t hurled by now, I guess you can take it. Yes, Frankie’s eyeball was hanging out of its socket; but the good news is its only one of her eyeballs.

In a word: grossmongous!

Dies irae – in transit

Gentle yet grossed out reader, I want you to imagine a scene. You are sitting at a stoplight on the way to the market to do your grocery shopping. You are taking your little girl Beatrice. You have to remember to get a relish tray for the church social tomorrow evening. You are a prim and proper suburbanite with a nice home with three bedrooms and two and one-half baths; you are feeling a bit anxious about the relish tray but all else is right with the world. Then, up on you left pulls a pickup truck. First you notice teenagers piled in the front seat. There is something odd about the look on the faces of these teenagers. In fact, you are having a hard time seeing the faces of the teenagers because of the sweat and grime. Wait! Is that horsehair growing from that boy’s neck? Now the rear of the pickup comes into view. What is that sticking up in the air? It looks like piano legs. No. There is fur. Hair! There are four legs sticking straight up in the air! My god it’s a… “Don’t look Beatrice!” Too late. “Mommy is that pony sleeping on its back? What is wrong with the pony, Mommy? Mommy what is that hanging from its eye?” Trust me, gentle yet giggling reader, this is not an everyday occurrence in peaceful, quiet, suburban Dayton Ohio.

In a word: outrageous!

Dies irae – the finding

I don’t know if you, gentle yet outraged reader, have ever received directions from an animal rendering plant spokesperson, but they go something like: “After you get off the highway onto Reefer Lane – Reefer lane doesn’t have a signpost cause Billy Ledbetter hit it with his pickup truck but it’s the second road after the Texaco – turn left at the second Y-turn to the right. Go on past the Perkin’s place; you’ll think your supposed to stop there but don’t. About a mile later you will see the barn. You can’t miss it ‘cause it is gray.” We found that the real directions to an animal rendering plant should be quite simple: “Get off at the Texaco and follow your nose!” You don’t exactly follow your nose, you more go the direction it doesn’t want to. Ah, the sweet pungent odor of the animal rendering plant on a warm day after the worst winter in half a century.

In a word: putrice!

Dies irae – the final resting place

Driving into an animal-rendering place is not the grimy, dismal, distressing, disgusting, grotesque, gut-wrenching experience you might think. No, it is much worse than that. There are dead goats, dead cows, dead dogs, road-kill, and many unrecognizable creatures in various stages of decay. Did I mention the stench? You would think the place would attract vultures, but they can’t stand it either.

We honked our horn, we pounded on the barn but no one was there. Thank God! Didn’t really want to meet the guy whose job it was to tend that place. His name had to be Igor. What to do? We certainly didn’t come this far to go searching for another animal-rendering place with a drive-in window, so yes, gentle yet vomiting reader, we did what we had to do. We took our faithful rope, whose story is inexorably tied to that of the dead horse, and tied one end to the dead horse’s legs and the other to a nearby tree. All teenagers aboard, we drove like the stinking wind. We did not look back; we did not even think about retrieving the rope, we did not leave a thank you note for Igor.

In a word: done!

Post mortem

You, gentle and better informed yet thinking you could have done without the information reader, may be wondering if there is a point to this story, or if its sole purpose was gratuitous repugnance. Say you are having this day where the kid is running a fever and the garbage disposal is disposing the garbage back into your sink and spewing forth onto your shirt which you would be washing except that the washing machine has been on the fritz needing a part which you could not get at Home Depot ‘cause the guy couldn’t find it and besides you got that washer from the hardware store that Home Depot put out of business and you can’t pay him anyway because you forgot to make a credit card payment which you generally make on-line but your hard disk crashed. And you sense that the day is only going to get worse. Remember that day? But when it happens to a member of the Order of the Dead Horse, a wry grin begins to break across his face. In fact, he begins to giggle. Then he laughs out loud. Why this strange behavior from this certainly frazzled and drained person? Is he crazed, deranged, out of his ever-loving gourd? What is he thinking?

In a word: ThereAin’tNoDayWorseThanDeadHorseDay.