Thursday, August 31, 2017

Mules - Beasts of Burden

Kentucky Grey Mule
"Stubborn as a mule" or "kick like a mule" are phrases we often hear applied to individuals. Many images of a mule show  a caricature of the animal nose first, floppy ears hanging, mouth wide open with large bucked teeth going 'hee-haw' like the cartoon on the long running TV show Hee-Haw.
   Evidence of the mule has a long history reaching back to early Greece in the 5th century BC to a rhyton, a drinking cup or vessel frequently styled in the shape of an animal's head. One, now in a museum in Algeria, has the form of a mule's head with its long ears completed by a painted bridle.
   Mules are hybrids who are unique in that they tend to be larger in size, show signs of higher intelligence, and exhibit greater stamina then either parent. A mule is the product of mating of a male donkey or jack with a mare. The successful breeding of a jenny (female donkey) to a stallion is difficult - when it does happen the offspring is called a hinney

Out of a Belgian Draft mare
   The males are sterile, but the females have cycles. There are few recorded instances of a female mule giving birth, about 60 since 1527. One in Colorado, in 2007, has been documented by DNA as having a mule mother.
   The mule inherits the size, ability to run, and conformation of the mare, and the character, endurance, and strength of its donkey sire. They are more independent than other equine species and live longer than their parents, while requiring less food for their size. Mules get their coloring from the mare, hence you will see sorrels, blacks, buckskins, duns, and greys. A breeding with an Appaloosa mare gives a kaleidoscope of colorations.

Snaking logs
Working handlers prefer mules to horses because their skin and hooves are harder than a horse's. They can also tolerate greater exposure to sun and rain. For some unknown reason genetic reason they have a resistance to disease and insects.
   Amish farmers still use them as working farm animals, though they prefer horses to pull their buggies, which we see on the roads. A friend told me about the fun she had, as a town child visiting a farm near Sano, KY, riding the mules from the fields back to the barn. Her mother rode one to school.
   The late western author, Louis L'Amour tells the story of a breeding of a mule by one of the Sacketts who had to leave the Cumberland Plateau in his novel, Lando. The character acquired a retired thoroughbred mare, put her in a field with a jack, and then headed west to make his fortune with a racing mule.
  A true Kentucky racing story is of Old Red, who was owned by Clifford Grover.  Born in 1920, Red's mother was a sorrel mare. He started his career early in that decade and continued a brilliant run into the 1930s. After his racing days ended he was sold and, most likely, spent the remainder of his life pulling a plow.
  Mules have long been used to transport goods over rough country in caravans called 'mule trains.' Daniel Boone used mules to bring settlers into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap. The trains were immortalized in the song, Mule Train. Cowboy singer, Frankie Laine recorded it in 1949 and it was later sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1957. Drivers of the trains were called 'mule skinners.' Mule Skinner's Blues, tells the life of a driver; it was recorded by the Fendermen in the 1950s.

   Armies used them for eons in mountainous areas like Afghanistan to transport artillery, supplies, and munitions. Sometimes, the poor mule's back was used as a field platform for firing a small cannon. The United States Marines still conduct training classes in the use of animals as packers - the ole mule can go where there are no roads.
  From 1883 to 1889 twenty-mules hitched as a team were used in Death Valley to pull large wagons loaded with borax to railroad lines. The wagons (largest ever produced) were designed to hold ten short tons of ore. Interesting, the actual teams were made up of eighteen mules and two horses, though the famous washing soap was named 20 Mule Team Borax and is still in production.
   Librarians used them as early book mobiles well into the 1940s, as there were few navigable roads in the Kentucky foothills and mountains.
   Today mules, by the select breeding of 'hobby' breeders, participate in all areas of equine sports: such as racing, carriage meets, recreational traveling wagon trains (one operates out of Shelbyville, KY), western style rodeos, show rings, dressage, and pulling contests.
   Kentucky enjoys an extensive breeding industry of mule production, where besides the local market Kentucky bred mules are prized in the countries of China and Mexico.
Nash Black, author of the forth coming detective novel: Forged Blade.



Thursday, August 24, 2017

Drive-in Movies

 Saturday night with family, a special friend, or the whole gang was the night when everyone went to the drive-in to watch a movie. From early spring until late fall outside of small towns across the United States cars rolled up to the ticket window for the evening's entertainment.
  Before the large outdoor theaters with speakers on poles, in places that didn't have a movie house, the side of a building painted white was used for showing films in the summer. Patrons provided their own chairs and popcorn. Children were free, but adults were expected to contribute enough to pay for the rental and return postage of the film. We tell the story of one such wall movie spot that was located on the side of a garage in Dixon, KY, in a ghost story, 'Club House,' in our story collection, Games of Death.
The drive-in was a place where parents could take the kids and not have to hire a babysitter. When the light began to fade the big screen would be filled with cartoon characters like Wiley Coyote who chased Roadrunner across endless miles of desert, but never caught him. By the time the cartoons ended it was dark and most of the younger set were fast asleep. Their parents could relax and enjoy the evening's presentation.
   The films were seldom first run shows, but that didn't matter. Movies, even after the advent of television, had a special glamour and allure that drew thousands of patrons of all ages.
   Teenagers who were lucky enough to wrangle the family car for the evening were the bane of drive-in owners because the favorite game was to see how many pals you could sneak in without getting caught.
   The smallest one went in the trunk. One night a friend was stashed in the boot. Just as we started to pull away from the ticket window - she screamed. Later, she told us what happened. She'd broken the zipper on her shorts and didn't have time to repair it. So she pinned it with a big safety pin. It popped open and jabbed her in the rear.
   We have fond memories of summer evenings fixing popcorn, sandwiches, and drinks. Taking the pickup to the drive-in, backing into the space, then sitting in chaise lounges with all the comforts of home watching the big screen. A couple of times sleeping bags were a necessity when closing time for the season approached.
   Most old drive-ins are long gone, but every once-in-a-while you'll pass the rusting remains of one and feel a bout of sadness for all those Saturday evenings you enjoyed movies from your car with a speaker hanging in the window.

   Nash Black, author of Games of Death.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Color it Red

 I like bright clear colors. I often wear red, because when I go shopping for clothes the offerings are rows of blacks, dull browns, stodgy grays, and faded greens that dominate the showroom floors. It makes no difference if I' m in Lord & Taylors or Wal Mart.
   I get the feeling buyers and manufactures do not like women and work to have them fade into the woodwork. That's being cynical, but anyway, when I see a garment that is red I'm drawn to it.
   This article is not about my taste in clothes, but the color red itself and it's fascinating history.
    First off, in ancient times it was one of the first and easiest coloring agents available - it was obtained from ochre, a clay impregnated with iron oxide. Archaeologists, in 2000, found evidence of it being scraped from the walls of a cave in South Africa 170,000 to 40,000 years ago. They theorized it was used to color human skin, similar to a blue later used by the Druids, of the British Isles, for religious ceremonies.
   A cave painting in Spain (15,000-16,000 BC) shows a bison painted with ochre. The planet, Mars appears red because of iron oxide on its surface. A local example of red staining from clay can be seen in the vertical striping of horizontal layers of rock, on fresh road cuts between Burkesville and Thompkinsville, KY.
   Red covers many shades, from the pink of flowers to the deep burgundy of wine. The color for dyes and paint today is derived from plant, insect, and mineral sources besides clay.
   Red used in paintings has staying power reaching back to the frescoes or murals in tombs and on pottery of Ancient Egypt and the lava buried city of Pompeii. The Roman emperor Charlemagne, the first to adopt Christianity, painted his palace red.
   Red used as symbolism or to convey meaning has a duel personality. The robes of the Catholic cardinals are red to indicate the blood of Christ, while at the same time it is the color of the garments assigned to Satan, the devil.
   When you "roll out the red carpet" it is a form of a salute to the status and greetings accorded to individuals of importance. It denotes power, victory, and wealth. But again, it also symbolizes sin, promiscuity, and decadence of females.
   When "you're seeing red" you are angry, while if you "painted the town red," you had a merry ole time. In Eastern (China & Japan) countries today and in Victorian times in the US, brides wore red as a symbol of happiness.
   Red clothing can easily be seen in a crowd, hence its use in military uniforms through out history from the ancient Greeks to the US Marines dress uniform.

   This began not with my clothes, but when a salesman told me that white was the most popular color for motor vehicles. Maybe elsewhere, but it wasn't what I was seeing locally.
   There were very few red vehicles sitting on car lots, but I counted fifty-one on the road from town to home one Saturday morning. They included every type, from an eighteen-wheeler, a bus, a SUV with a matching canoe to an electric car, plus my own red Jeep.
  Oh yes, I also saw two red wagons. Do you remember having one of your own? I'd say red is the most popular vehicle color in South Central Kentucky according to my unofficial survey.
Nash Black, author of Games of Death.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wicker Summer

   Nothing spells a southern summer like white wicker furniture sitting on the porch. It gives an illusion of comfort and coolness, even during the 'dog days' of August.
   The use of wicker or rattan for furniture, chests, tables, and baskets goes back in history to ancient Egypt. Its light weight easy to obtain materials fostered a rapid spread to Persia, where during the Achaemenid Empire (500 - 350 BC) it was used in battles for shields.
From Persia it spread to Rome. The period of history, referred to as the Iron Age began about 1200 BC and ended around 400 AD, near the time of the adoption of the Christian Bible. This period saw the use of wicker for furniture spread across Roman conquered lands throughout the then known world.

   The construction and early patterns may have been instrumental in the development of what is recognized as Celtic Art, with the twists and turns, like the famous Celtic knot, that expresses undying love.
   By the 16th and 17th century, it was a common household item across Europe, England, and what became the United States. There is a rumor a piece of wicker furniture came over on the Mayflower.
   The great seafarers brought back a new material to add to the manufacture of wicker, a species of palm, rattan. The rattan fibers were tougher and harder than the previously used cane, Later someone opened the stalks and extracted the softer core to make wicker. The process was much like those used to acquire fibers from a flax plant for the weaving of linen that had been used for eons the make the ancient fabric.
   Cyrus Wakefield began manufacturing wicker furniture in the United States during the 1850s. At first, he used rattan discarded on the docks from flying clippers arriving from the Far East. Bundles of rattan were used for ballast on the merchant ships. Later he began importing his own materials. He merged  his company with a rival firm, which continued to build wicker products until 1979.
   Wicker, in our country, became popular with the Victorians, who believed it was more sanitary than upholstered furniture. It does not harbor fleas, which were a common household pest. It was sturdy and withstood the outdoor elements.
   Over the years, the popularity of this ancient home furnishing has waned and gained, depending on fashions of the time. Today the materials used are mainly plastic twisted around wire and then wrapped around an aluminum frame, never touched by human hands. Catalogs refer to it as 'all weather' furniture.
   Some years ago, when wicker was a hot collectible on the antique market, it wasn't safe to leave your old pieces out overnight on the porch.

   A friend told me about having her chairs stolen, going to a barbecue at a friend's home, and being shown the lovely wicker patio furniture the friend had purchased at a flea market. She didn't have the heart to tell the friend, it was her furniture.
   I have the pattern book my father used to make wicker pieces for his mother around 1920. The famous one is the floor lamp, no one wanted it and I ended up with it. To us, it was ugly and difficult to keep clean when we were using a wood burning stove for heat. Sold it at the 127 yardsale. On the way home, I saw it sitting on a neighbor's front porch. It didn't travel far, maybe it's haunting me.

Nash Black, author of Cards of Death. 


Friday, August 4, 2017

The Pencil

   Reading last week's newspaper about the school supplies fairs and wondered whatever happen to the basic item of my childhood - the pencil.
   My hometown's single industry was Mallard's Pencil Factory. When one entered the first grade, every student was given a #2 pencil, compliments of the company. They were yellow, with an eraser and embossed with a Mallard duck. The number indicated the hardness of the lead, which is actually graphite.

   This lowly instrument provided employment for our local citizens, and the same for others of different lands who contibuted the raw materials for production.
   The tin for the furl to fasten the eraser to the wood came from Bolivia. The 'rubber' for the eraser was a synthetic created to replace raw rubber, an ingredient, for which may have been produced at Old Colonel Distillery at Stamping Ground, KY. The graphite for the 'lead' was mined in Canada. The wood to encase the core was harvested and processed on our own shores. The availability of materials within the Americas aided the manufacture of pencils, when supplies from the Far East were cut off by the conflict in the Pacific.
  This brief paragraph does not include all those who were involved in transporting the materials to get the pencil into the hands of eager, long ago school children, but it does provide the foundation of basic global economics.
   The analogy is not original, I condensed it to 78 words, from memory, with the aid of Google to pinpoint sources of the raw materials during the 1940s, for the purpose of the article. It belongs to Milton and Rose Friedman, from their book, Free to Choose. The book was compiled from their acclaimed Public Television series of the same title.
   The late Armand Hammer used his business, family, and political connections to keep open a thin dialogue for peace between seven Soviet Generals and five United States presidents on the strength of a pencil concession. The Soviets, of the time, were able to duplicate the manufacturing process for many common US items, but never for the pencil.
   Our best goes to each student, who may discover a pencil is adequate to put words  and sums on paper. It's not subject to dead batteries or power outages, and is cost effective to replace.

Nash Black, author of Games of Death.