They mention mules. And that one word tells you all about them. It's not the fact they have a lot of wrinkles and weathered skin or walk with a stoop or drive thirty-five miles per hour or have gray hair or no hair or can't hear well. Nor that it usually takes them a long time to get in and out of a vehicle or that they don't like a lot of new things and would rather have predictable surroundings because a sense of sameness is appealing to them. No, none of these things tell nearly as much as the fact that they mention mules. And they always mention it in a natural sort of way, like we talk about movies or a TV show or something. Except their mule stories seem a little richer, a little more tied to existence, a little more akin to tales rising up from the dust of long days wrestling with life.
A mule, as you probably know, is a cross between a horse and a donkey. The idea is you get the best of both worlds. A hearty animal that won't overeat (unlike horses), able to work long hours, intelligent, doesn't require a lot of upkeep, and is supposedly more manageable. The "supposedly" is in question. All this I've learned just by hearing older people talk. There are stories about hardheaded mules and sick mules and run-away mules. There are stories about buying mules and selling mules and trading mules. About teaching mules and being taught by mules and the men who worked the mules and the mules that worked the men.
And they all revolve around a creature that people were so dependent upon just a few years ago. A four-legged-pulling machine that man walked a few yards behind all day long, tilling and walking through hard ground and wet ground and weedy ground and muddy ground, all the time staring at the same back end of the same mule. It's no wonder this creature wove himself, like a spider's web, into the fabric of the previous era. The simple fact that everyone so needed this large animal in order to make a livelihood, provided the backdrop for endless tales.
But, alas, the mighty tractor came along. It didn't need feeding before breakfast everyday and wasn't quite as temperamental. It could pull more and didn't take as long to put up at night. And it had a proper seat on it. And so Mr. Mule faded into oblivion. The mule traders went bankrupt or died, the mule equipment was set in the back of the shed, and the harnesses, along with the memories, were hung on the walls to collect dust. About all that's left in this county that was once so full of mules are the tales. And every time an old farmer passes away, there's one less mind that holds these memories, one less life that experienced days with those creatures, and one less tongue to share the stories.