Sunday, March 20, 2011

Grandpa's Mules

Many many years ago when the sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii were shifting from mules to using all trucks, my Grandfather decided to buy 14 mules at the auction that the Plantation held. Even at 13 years old, I knew that 14 mules makes an interesting herd.

I remember how my grandfather rode each and every one. One by one for a full day, he rode them just to see which he'd sell and which three or four he'd keep.

After each day, he'd go out and check each mule to see how sound it was and look it over.

He told me, "Sometimes your choice is easy, but other times it feels like the hardest thing to do is say who stays and who goes."

All of the mules, like our horses, had different personalities and habits. After riding each one, working them with the cattle and taking them through some tough very rocky territory, he finally ended up keeping five of them.

The one that became his favorite, he named her Jackass Ginger.  She had a nice way about her. She was very calm and did everything he wanted. She seem to know the saddle and not just a pulling harness.

She stood well, lifted her hooves good, and wasn't cinchy, excited, or tired. She was a very smart mule, and I remember grandpa saying she seem like a fast learner. And besides, she had pretty eyes.

Another he called Blackjack, because he was black. Yes, we weren't really one's to give our animals real creative name. We had an Appaloosa gelding that grandpa named White Ass because of the spots on his rump.

Another of the five, he named Tony after his "peacock" brother. He never explained that to me, so I figured I shouldn't ask and never did. He called one a Portuguese word that wasn't very nice, and one he called Ornry Basstead.  

He sure liked Ginger. When it came to moving cows all day, grandpa started leaving his horses at the ranch and instead would take Ginger.  Hawaii's terrain is a variety and not what some people would think.

Most people think of sandy beaches when they think of Hawaii. But on the leeward side of Oahu for example, the Nanakuli-Waianae side, it's dry, rocky, and tough.

In Kunia where my grandfather's ranch was, it was mostly rocky and red dirt. There was tall California grass, and sugar cane and pineapple fields. Sugar cane fields used to ring the ranch.

And yes, there was nothing like rounding up cattle after they get out through a broken fence and into the sugar cane. It happened more times than I'd like to say, and talk about tough to herd.

With the tall grass and the sugar cane, a bull might be just a few feet away behind a wall of cane and grass and you wouldn't know it until you were right on him  - or he was right on you.

The chore of getting him either in the cattle truck or back in the fence would sometimes become a real rodeo all by itself.

As for the sure footed mules, they walked through that country like there was nothing to it. And yes, my grandfather absolutely loved four out of the five mules. And being honest, so did I.

Ornry Basstead was too mean to ride for any length of time, and Grandpa figured no one would buy the dirty stinker. Fact is, grandpa didn't want that mule to hurt someone so that's why he didn't sell him.

Like he used to say, "The money is nice to have but I have to live with myself." 

Knowing that he might buck someone off, or whatever, and get someone hurt was enough for grandpa to decide not to sell him.

That was the only mule out of the whole lot that actually turned to take a bite out of grandpa's hide when he was saddling him up one day. He was one mean mule. He didn't like anyone, no matter how nice you tried to be to him.

Then one day a cattle truck with two plantation workers came up the red dirt road leading to the ranch. And in a fog of red Kunia dust, these two men got out and asked for grandpa.

Grandpa was already coming out to meet them as I turned to go get him. He shook each man's hand, and then they handed him a check and letter.

The check was for one of the mules. The letter described which mule they wanted. It also explained why the plantation wanted that one mule returned. 

Those men were there to bring that mule back with them, no excuses. The mule they were there for was supposed to have been shot before the auction. Come to find out, that mule had killed a plantation worker on the Cultivator Gang.

Supposedly this mule was a real monster and a true man-killer. Grandpa read the paper and handed the paper to me to read. After reading it, I felt bad for grandpa. He loved all of his mules. And yes, especially Ginger.

I can still remember how I felt so bad for grandpa. It was tough for me to let him look at me because I didn't want him to see the tears in my eyes. 

Standing there, I watched as he motioned for the two men to follow him as they went over to where the mules were penned. I watched him walk in the pen, and just then my grandmother called me to the house to do something for her.

It was sort of OK with me because I had a hard time watching grandpa go in there. Just before turning to run into the house, I saw Ginger just standing there looking at him and he at her.  

From inside the house I could hear grandpa turn the mule over to one of the plantation workers. Then while one man got in the cattle truck and backed it to the cattle shut, the other walked the mule up into the shut and into the truck.

The plantation worker who loaded their man-killer mule was a Filipino man who was very nervous and laughed to his friend a lot until it was done.

The other man looked at the the paper to identify the numbered brand. They looked at the paper twice, and whispered something to each other. Then they looked at Grandpa and one of them asked him if it was OK with him? He just said, "Sure."

As I came outside, the men thanked us both. But before they left Grandpa offered them a beer for the road. I remember one saying, "Well it is hot today!" Grandpa was like that, and yes it was hot that day.

He told me to go into the house and put a six pack in a paper bag for the men.

After I came back out, he took the beer from me and handed the men the paper bag with a six pack and thanked them both.

They left with a waive. And yes, we stood there for what seemed like a long time watching the truck roll away in the red dust.

The mule started kicking and screaming in the back of that truck. It was a horrible sound.

I looked up at Grandpa and said, "poor Ginger."

Grandpa looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said, "No worry, my boy. Ginger will be alright with us. But I can't say the same for that Ornry Basstead when he gets back to the plantation!"

Story by Tom Correa

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