Tales My Father Told Me: Jack the Jumping Mule

by jimowensjr

Anyone having the privilege of growing up in, or spending much time, in the rural south, will no doubt have many tales to tell, which will often include interaction but humans and animals. Those tales will include bird dogs with names like “Jocko” or “Number Seven.” There will be tales of cows that have wandered out because someone failed to close the gate to the pasture. Sometimes the stories will include references to stray cats, (which are often referenced as “damn cats,” chickens, even pigs will make the list. But this is a tale, told by my father, of a mule.

For those of you unfamiliar with the origin of the noble mule, know that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. One wonders who first thought this might be a good idea and how much commotion must have been made the first time a mare in estrus was coaxed into the presence of an eager donkey. But that is another story.

Mules are bred for the surefootedness, ability to bear large loads and are tireless, if sometimes obstinate, animals. They are used to haul logs, pull plows, and as pack animals. Even today mules can go where machines cannot. While growing up, Dad’s family owned one such animal that, for some reason, was named “Jack.” It’s a sturdy name for a sturdy animal and Jack served our family well, I’m told. Yet he had a penchant for wanting to be on the other side of whatever fence he stood beside.

Jack, according to my father, had no reason to look for holes in the fence lines or an open gate. He would simply jump the fence as he pleased and wander about until someone grabbed a halter and returned him to the pasture or put him in his stall in the barn. But soon my grandfather, Chester, a quiet, auburn haired man of deep faith, grew weary of Jack’s behavior and set about finding a means to confine Jack more effectively. My grandfather was an electrician, farmer, storekeeper who knew how to do just about everything. It is a trait that he passed on in the gene pool of my father and uncles, but one that must be recessive and has bypassed me.

Dad tells me of “hobbling” Jack with a length of rope tide between his foreleg and the opposite hind leg. It wouldn’t injure Jack and would keep him from jumping the fence. But when an intelligent, obstinate creature, decides he wants out of the fence, he will find a way. Dad says, “after several days or working it out Jack found a way. But we never saw him do it. He was just out of the fence again.”

In disbelief, Dad tells of looking out one day to find Jack reared up on his hind legs, balancing like a small dog begging for a treat, then leaping over the fence from this two legged stance. He stuck the landing too and, if mules could talk, I suspect he was mumbling, “Nobody puts Jack in the fence,” a la Patrick Swayze’s reference to “Baby” in the film, Dirty Dancing.

I’m not sure of the rest of the tale. I suspect Jack lived a long life, well cared for by the people who depended on his loyal service to the family. I also suspect the hobbling rope was removed and Jack was allowed to continue making his own decisions about when he would remain inside the fence.  I suppose I shall have to check in with my Father about those details. And I’ve chosen to believe that Jack is somewhere in Mule Heaven jumping fences as he pleases. After all, “Nobody puts Jack in the fence.”