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Goodbye, Blackie

“I hate packin’ this water,” Hughie said to himself as he carried the heavy bucket along the path from the well to the garden. During dry summers Pop had the kids carry buckets of water to the garden to ensure the plants survived and produced vegetables. “I don’t know why Pop makes us do this. The garden’s not gonna make much anyway.” Suddenly something jumped from the ground and grabbed Hughie’s ankle. He lost his balance and fell in a heap on the dusty path. Water from the dropped bucket drenched him from head to toe. Dust from the path caked quickly as mud on his wet clothing. He checked his ankle to see if something had bitten him. “Man, you’re a mess!” Fred noted as he stepped from behind one of the large Rose of Sharon bushes that lined the pathway. “What happened?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. Hughie knew immediately what had happened, and it only took seconds for him to find a string lying across the path. One end was tied to a fence post, and the other end lay swirled out behind the bush. “FRED! You’re a road apple!” Hughie yelled at his older brother, realizing Fred had been the cause of his spill. (A “road apple” is horse droppings.) “Why, Hughie. I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” Fred said, the twinkle spreading from his eyes to his smile. “Yeah, right. This string just happened to be across the path, and it just magically jumped up and tripped me as I was carrying water to the garden, and you just happened to


be standing behind the bushes at that time, right?” “Now, now, Hughie. Are you a little grumpy this afternoon? I’m sure Mom would be glad to give you a big tablespoon of cod liver oil if you’re not feeling well,” Fred teased. “You probably better get inside and get out of those wet clothes before you catch a chill.” “It’s been over 110 degrees for the past two weeks,” the 10 year-old exclaimed. “How could anyone catch a chill in this heat? As for cod liver oil, I think I should mention to Mom that you’ve been acting a little mean lately and she’ll give YOU a dose!” Hughie realized what a good prank Fred had played on him, and though he was soaked, he couldn’t help but start some planning. “Hey, Fred. Have you done this to Elsie yet?” he asked mischievously. “Why, no I haven’t, Bud. You want to see if we can catch her too?” Fred said to his little brother. “Yeah, boy!” Hughie squealed with excitement imagining his sister caked in mud. “No hard feelings then, Hughie?” “No way. This is great! I just wish I was as good as you are at coming up with these things,” the little brother said with admiration. *** Weather is a critical part of farming, and it is one thing the farmer has no control over. The 160 acres the Hardies farmed lay along Little Hominy Creek that was usually more of a ditch than a creek. It had a few deep holes good for summer swimming and fishing. During the spring rains, Little Hominy would swell out of its banks and flood


most of their tillable ground. If Pop planted his crop before the rains, he would have to replant and hope there was not another flood. Hot weather and drought could be just as devastating as flooding for their crops. The years 1934 and 1936 were among the hottest ever recorded. Many days during those oppressive summers, the temperature climbed above 110 degrees. During 1934, the warmest summer ever, the plants burned up in the field before ears of corn ever had a chance to form. Not only were the crops they could sell ruined but the family garden withered too, no matter how many trips Hughie and the others made to the well for buckets of water. In 1936, temperatures did not match those of 1934, but there was an infestation of grasshoppers that stripped the plants of all vegetation. Women could not even leave a broom outside because of the voracious insects. They would eat all the straw on the broom in less than fifteen minutes leaving only the wooden handle and the wire used to hold it together. After the grasshoppers munched their way through the garden and orchard, the winter of 1936-’37 was one of the most difficult ever for those who depended on canned produce from a garden because everything was destroyed by the insects. All <<the Hardies raised that year were “early season” vegetables like kale, spinach, radishes, and turnips. They were also able to get some beans harvested very late in the season after the grasshoppers had moved on to find more to eat. But there were no extra helpings around the dinner table during that long winter, and there were no pies because the fruit trees were stripped bare too. Grass in the pasture became so thin that the milk cows went dry, leaving no cream


for the family to sell for cash. They got only one cutting of hay before the grasshoppers came and that was not enough to get all the cattle through the winter, so Pop sold all the calves and any of the cows that did not produce much milk. Old Blackie, the cow the kids learned to milk on, fell victim to the weather-related cuts and was sold to a buyer from a packinghouse in Tulsa. The hog herd was culled back to just a few sows because there was not enough to feed more through the winter. The family butchered more animals than normal and the small smokehouse behind the barn billowed thick smoke for many days as the hams, shoulders, and loins were preserved. The smoked meat was stored on the shelves in the cellar where the vegetables and fruits normally would have been. Pop explained all of this to Hughie, but it didn’t make it any easier for him to stomach the day the truck from the slaughterhouse arrived to pick up Blackie. Hughie went to the lot with the driver. “Saw there, old girl,” Hughie said, rubbing the cow’s bony back. Hughie put a hand full of corn in a bucket to get her to follow him. He swished the grain around in the bottom of the bucket and the cow’s head came up. She turned and followed Hughie as he backed toward the truck. The driver had set out a wide plank with small wooden strips running across it. These strips were called “cleats,” and they provided traction for the animal as she walked up the ramp. Hughie, watching the trusting eyes of his old friend, found his nose starting to run uncontrollably. His eyes also started to water and though he tried to keep all these fluids mopped up with his shirtsleeve, he finally lost the battle and several tears made their way


to his chin where they dropped off on the bib of his overalls. As Hughie started up the plank, Old Blackie realized something was different and began to look around for another way to get to the grain. The driver put a rope around the cow’s neck and tied the other end to the truck. Blackie had never had a rope around her neck and she did not like it. She tried to back away from the truck and found the noose only became tighter. Her eyes became so large the white part showed. She threw her head around and practically knocked the driver down. As he held the rope and tried to get close to her to lead her into the truck, she kicked her hind leg forward and caught him square in the knee. “You dag-blamed old bag of bones. You’re not worth the time it’s gonna take to get you to the slaughterhouse,” the driver yelled at the old beast. “I’ll fix you!” He reached into the truck and pulled out a tool that looked like a large pair of pliers that had little balls that came together when the handles were squeezed shut. A rope attached to one handle was threaded through a hole in the other handle. Hughie had never seen a pair of “nose leads” before. Pop didn’t like to use tools like that on his animals. The driver pulled the nose leads open and limped toward Blackie. She tried to get away from him, but the rope held her in place. She tried to kick him again, but he was watching for that and jumped away from the attack. He finally got close enough to slip the little balls of the leads into the large nostrils of Blackie’s nose. Once they were inserted in her nose, he pulled the rope, tightening the instrument like a vise. Blackie didn’t like the nose lead any more than she did the rope around her neck.


She again threw her head trying to shake free, but her efforts were in vain. In fact, pulling away from the device caused it to clamp harder on the gristly area between the cow’s nostrils. The rope attached to the leads was very long, and the driver walked up the plank into the truck and wrapped it around one of the metal uprights of the racks on the truck. He wrapped the remainder of the rope around his waist and began to walk toward the back of the truck, using the upright as a pulley to leverage the cow up the plank. Blackie’s nose began to stretch and Hughie was afraid it would be ripped from her head. Finally she had no choice but to step onto the ramp. The driver continued to pull on the rope pulling Blackie’s nose into the truck. She slowly stepped on the ramp with one front foot then the other. Her eyes were bulging and saliva was dripping from her mouth. The constant pressure on her nose kept her inching slowly forward. She placed one hind hoof on the ramp then the other. Once all four feet were on the ramp, the battle was almost over, except Blackie had one more trick for the poor driver. With her nose going into the truck and her feet on the wooden plank, Blackie charged. When the tension on the rope released, the driver lost his balance and fell to the floor of the truck that was covered with manure. He managed to scramble to his feet and avoid the charging cow. Most of the Hardies had a good sense of humor and appreciated a good joke even when it was played on them. Hughie couldn’t miss this opportunity to tease the fellow though he knew it was probably not the right thing to do. “You want me to untie this other rope?” Hughie called to the driver, laughing.


“You little smart aleck! You want me to come down there and give you a whuppin?” the irritated driver yelled, keeping an eye on Blackie to make sure she didn’t charge him again. The angry driver slammed the tailgate of the truck and gave Hughie a menacing glare. “I may stick around just to watch ’em kill that old bird,” the driver said angrily to Hughie. Hughie knew he should keep his mouth closed, but he could not resist. “You may want to change your shirt before you go in. You don’t smell so great right now!” The driver climbed into the cab of the truck and shouted a curse upon Hughie, this stinkin cow, and everybody else on this blasted hill.” He slammed the door and fired up the engine with a roar. There was a loud grinding sound as he attempted to shift the truck into first gear. He finally found the gear and revved the engine before releasing the clutch to engage the drive train. The truck shot down the road in a cloud of dust. As it turned the corner toward Sperry, Hughie was sure he heard the loud mooing of old Blackie as she banged around inside the truck. Hughie was also sure he heard several loud comments from the driver. Then all was quiet on the hill again. It was going to be a long winter at the Hardie home with most meals consisting of smoked meat and bread. Each time Hughie sat down for supper that winter he chuckled remembering the startled look on that driver’s face when Blackie made her last charge.