Apparently the dead mule is the hallmark of good southern literature. Don’t believe me? A professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill spent the better part of fifty years arriving at that conclusion. He read, analyzed, cataloged and then announced, with great confidence, that a dead mule within the pages was essentially a guarantee of top-notch work. Don’t believe professor Mills? Rick Bragg said it too. In my world that’s proof enough.
Let’s assume for a minute that a story with one live mule is half as good as a story with one dead mule. So one live mule equals half a dead mule. Couldn’t we also agree then, that TWO live mules equal one dead one? By now you probably see where I’m going, right?
My story has two lives mules.
The anticipation had been building for weeks. We were going to be in the Christmas Parade. I can’t imagine what might be more exciting to a couple of kids from Florence, Alabama and their two best friends. It all started with my Papaw.
I remember him for things like his affinity for rabbit hunting (although, to the best of my knowledge, no rabbits were ever actually killed), for drinking only a half cup of coffee at a time (“Just half a cup, Mama”), and for bestowing upon me at an early age the moniker of “monkey.” I remember Papaw for these things, and for the critters – horses, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats (one in particular who took great pleasure in sneezing on people), at least one peacock, and of course, the aforementioned mules.
This particular holiday season he decided it would be fun to put my brother Russ, our friends Amy and Jess, and me in a big blue prairie-style wagon pulled by said mules and literally parade us down the streets of downtown Florence. Great care was taken to put a fresh coat of paint on the wagon and to bedazzle it with tinsel and velvety red Christmas bows. We picked out our outfits. We practiced our Opryland waves. Our mothers made not-so-veiled threats about what was likely to happen if we dared stand up during the ride and made sure our winter coats were of parade-worthy quality. We were, in a word, ready.
And then the unthinkable happened – it snowed. Why so unthinkable? Well, I’m pushing forty quite hard these days and I recall it snowing in the month of December exactly twice in my life. Now my memory may not be as accurate as the folks at the National Weather Service, but it’s close enough to make my point. Snow and ice being such a rare occurrence in my hometown means that when that fluffy white goodness does fall from the sky, we are ill-prepared to handle it. The whole town shuts down. Every grocery and convenience store for forty miles has its stock of milk and bread obliterated in a matter of hours. Businesses close, kids are sent home early from school, community events are canceled…
Before our heart-brokenness had time to show itself, somebody was hatching a backup plan. My guess is that is was my mother, although I have no evidence to support that theory… just the knowledge that it’s the kind of thing she would do. The parade in Florence was dead in the water but, some twenty odd miles east the fine folks in the town of Lexington were determined not to suffer the same fate. Their parade, we were happy to learn, would go on and our little two-mule wagon was welcome to join. And just like that, we were rock stars again.
Papaw and Mamaw tackled the daunting task of actually getting the mules and the wagon to Lexington. My mom and her friend Joanie (mother of Amy and Jess) got the cargo there.
And wow… was it ever cold. I’m sure the coat I was wearing was warm enough but I have no memory of what it actually looked like. There’s a vision of a red corduroy number in my head but that’s an older memory of a younger me that’s mucking up the works. Amy wore a black and white fur coat (rabbit fur, but fur nonetheless). There were mittens and scarves and possibly ear muffs and (definitely) blankets over our laps. My memory fails me again when I try to recall what my Papaw was wearing but I can say with absolute certainty that he was decked out in his signature dark blue Dickies coveralls with “long johns” underneath.
We waved. We laughed. We furiously brushed the falling snowflakes off our clothes in hopes of avoiding being cold and wet. We scanned the crowd for familiar faces but found none other than our parents and my Mamaw. When you’re eight years old, Lexington, Alabama may as well be Hollywood, California. It was far from home and foreign to our untraveled feet. We had no idea where the parade started, where it ended or where we were at any given moment during that half hour ride. But it didn’t matter.
Life is, after all, all about how you get there.