Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Muncie Boyhood-Horse Crap & Horseplay

As a boy, I loved horses.  I never had one, but I always wanted one.  I used to beg my dad for us to move to the country so I could play in the woods, and so I could have a horse.  I suppose you could blame it on all the old cowboy shows…Marshall Matt Dillon…Little Joe…The Lone Ranger…they all looked so strong and cool up on those big beautiful horses.  By the time I was sixteen, my interest in them faded as my interest in girls overtook my senses…but, at fifteen, I still liked them very much.  So, when my best friend Tim…Tena’s brother*…asked me to go help him with his job at the stables on Cornbread Road, I jumped at the idea.  (*See "The Crush")

Tim was a couple of years older than me, but we spent a great deal of time together.  At this point, he had his driver’s license, and a car.  Riding with him could be somewhat life-threatening, but I survived.  He had a job cleaning out the stalls at a horse stable, a stable with a huge barn with multiple stalls.  The job entailed driving a tractor around the barn pulling a manure spreader.  At each stall, he would scoop out the horse waste, being careful to not overly disturb the horses, and then drive the spreader out into a field to spread it around.  Following that, he needed to fill a wheelbarrow with the sawdust from a giant pile in the middle of the barn, carry it to each stall, and spread it down under the horse to absorb the next round of waste…until the next day when the process was repeated.
The deal with helping Tim out was that it meant he could get it done much quicker if we tag teamed it.  He scooped out the stalls and drove the tractor.  Then, I would spread out the new sawdust.  I would have loved to have driven the tractor; driving anything with an engine at fifteen was cool and fun…even if it was only pulling a pile of horse crap.  But, no.  I drove (pushed) the wheelbarrow.  I think he let me try it out once, but actually running it was not going to be an option for me.

For some reason that escapes me now, I agreed to help him clean nasty horse waste out of all those stalls…for free…from the goodness of my heart…just because we were friends.  What did I get out of the deal?  Read on, my friend.  Read on.
We drove on out there.  He showed me the barn…the stalls…the horses…the pile of sawdust…and the tractor.  I don’t recall the make of the tractor, only that it was engaged with a clutch.  You depressed it to stop, and you let it up to make the thing go.  The more you let it up, the faster it went.  All the way out was one speed…not fast, but quick enough…and very powerful.

The work started normally enough.  He scooped out a few stalls, and I started the process of replacing the sawdust.  My process worked like this:  Fill a barrow full, unlock the stall, dump the sawdust, push the barrow out, spread the dust around, close and latch the stall, start again on the next one.  Generally, when I pushed the wheelbarrow out, it was facing directly away from me, and the handles would be sort of wrapped around my legs as I turned to latch the stall door.  On one occasion, that became problematic.
One thing I hadn’t mentioned was Tim’s tendency for horseplay…no pun intended…and his slightly dangerous sense of humor.

Anyway, at this one stall which was situated on a corner, I ran headlong into that precarious idea of fun.  The stall was the first one on the right as you entered the main doors.  The gate to the horse was facing away from the barn door.  To the right was a drive that led to the fields where you dumped the manure.  I had dumped the new sawdust, had pushed the barrow out as normal, and was busy latching the door with my back to Tim on the tractor; the handles of the wheelbarrow wrapping my legs.  I heard the engine start to rev up.  I turned to look.  That was when my life was almost sacrificed in the name of horse-crap.
Tim thought it would be hilarious to scare the poop out of me with the tractor.  When I turned to look at him, he was driving that thing directly at me and acting like he was planning to hit me with it.  That was when his foot slipped off the clutch and the tractor lurched forwarded and slammed into the barrow.  It drove the little cart directly at me, trapping my legs inside the handles!  Obviously, the power of the tractor was not going to be halted by the wooden handles of that cart, so I dove.  I dove to my left as fast as I could, and the tractor continued until it drove the wheelbarrow all the way through the stall door, breaking it loose!

At this point, I didn’t yet know that this was all an accident.  All I knew was that the guy who I thought was my best friend had just nearly crushed me with a tractor.  Was he going to back away from the stall and come at me again?  I didn’t know.  My leg was hurt.  I crawled…as fast as I could… I crawled out of the barn and rolled to the left so that he couldn’t get me directly.  I was scared, and adrenaline was coursing through my system.  Flopping over on my back, I grabbed my left knee with both hands and hoped he wasn’t going to come after me again.
Sometime later, I’m not sure if it was thirty seconds or several minutes, Tim came running out of the door looking for me.

“Mike!  Are you okay?  Are you hurt?”
“What did you do?!  Why did you hit me?!”  I nearly screamed at him.

“I’m sorry.  It was an accident.  I was just trying to scare you, but the clutch slipped.  Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.  I think I’m okay, but my knee hurts pretty bad.”

“Oh, >bleep  I’m gonna get fired.”
“Is the horse okay?”  I asked.

As it turned out, he had driven the tractor all the way into the stall door breaking the latch, but other than being frightened, the horse was fine.  Tim helped me up, and I hobbled into the barn with him.  I wasn’t bleeding, but I had hit my knee really hard on the handle of the wheelbarrow as I dove out of the way of the hurtling tractor.

Standing safely out of the way, I watched as he backed the tractor away from the stall.  We both examined the damage, and Tim decided he could fix it up pretty well.  He was hoping no one would notice the cracked wood after he nailed it back together.  With an uninjured horse and a repairable stall, the only remaining factor that could lead to his dismissal was my injury.

“Don’t tell anyone.  Okay?”  He pleaded.

“Tim, I’m hurt pretty bad,” I said. “I can barely walk straight.  Someone is going to ask what happened to me.”

“So make up something.”

“You know I won’t lie.”  And I didn’t.  I suppose I had to have been the most honest fifteen year old boy in Muncie in 1977.  “If someone asks me what happened, I’m not going to lie about it.”
“Please, Mike.  I really don’t want to get fired.”

A few minutes had gone by, and the initial pain was beginning to subside. 

“Okay, I’ll do my best.  I won’t tell anyone what happened, and we’ll hope no one notices.”

Ultimately, I forced myself to walk normally for weeks afterward.  When alone, I limped like one leg was shorter than the other, but whenever any adult was around I swallowed the pain and hid the hobble.  I should probably gone to the doctor, had X-rays, and some sort of treatment, but I wanted to protect my friend.

I think you all may be the first to know the truth.  The jig is finally up.  He kept his job…at least for a while…and I never had any knee ramifications….at least not yet.  I’m not sure how I was able to hide that injury because it hurt like the dickens, but I did.  But, there is one thing that you can be assured of…

I NEVER helped Tim clean out horse stalls again!

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