The Day the Mules Went Crazy
by Jim Foreman

Chapter 5


            Twisters, tornadoes, or cyclones as they are variously known, have been spinning across the Texas Panhandle for thousands and perhaps millions of years. The Indians who lived on the plains long before the white man came called them "Dancing Winds". They even had a ceremonial dance which imitated them. According to their legends, the funnel of a tornado was caused by gods in the sky sucking the souls of the dead up to heaven. I don't know about dead souls, but they have been known to suck up just about everything else.

            Tornados are both feared and revered. They have been known to pick up a house, turn it around and set it back on the foundation without damaging it. There are stories about tornados sucking wells dry and driving straws through trees. There is the story about the tornado that ripped through town, blew away the roof and walls of the Baptist church but left everything inside untouched. The music book was still on the piano, open to the last hymn that was played. But, probably the best story about the power and mystery of tornados came about because of a simple prank.

            There was a man by the name of Barrett who owned the local diary and was, without question, the biggest liar in that part of the state. He had this half-wit son named Waldo who followed him around no matter where he went and every time that Barrett started telling some outrageous lie, he would call on his goofy son to verify it. He would stop in the middle of one of his lies and say, "Ain't that so, Waldo?"

            Waldo would always reply, "Shore did, Pa, what was it?" Then old man Barrett would go on just like his story had been sworn to by a Supreme Court Justice.

            It seemed that just about any time that you met Mr. Barrett, he would launch into some tall tale. If there wasn't some subject of particular interest to lie about, he would come up with some new exploit of his horse that he called Old Granddad, named after a bottle of rotgut whiskey. His stories ranged from Old Granddad being able to count to going out and bringing home only the cows which were giving milk, but mostly his boasts centered around how high the horse could jump. Everyone around Stinnett was well aware of the fact that the horse was quite a jumper since the time when Barrett won the bet that he made with a traveling salesman that his horse could jump over a car.

            The car-jumping exploit was the biggest thing to happen around Stinnett since the time the fire truck ran away and smashed fifty dollars worth of watermelons in Cletus Burford's garden. The great car jump happened on main street right in front of the cafe one Saturday morning. At least half the town was there to see it. Barrett was bragging about how his horse had won all sorts of blue ribbons in jumping contests in Kentucky where he was born and trained. After a traveling tractor salesman in the crowd had listened to all boasting that he could stand, he decided to call Barrett's bluff and offered to bet five bucks that the horse couldn't jump over the hog-wire fence that Lawyer Tate had put up to keep Ed Bebedorff from parking wrecked cars on a vacant lot he owned next to the garage.

            To his surprise, Barrett took him up on the bet. When the money was on the line, Barrett kicked Old Granddad in the flanks and he hopped right over the low fence. Barrett declared that was the easiest five bucks that he had ever made and jumped the horse back over the fence to prove the point. Then he said, "Hell, Old Granddad can jump over things a lot higher than that little fence."

             Everyone was laughing about how the salesman had been taken on his own bet so he decided to either get even or else have the satisfaction of making Barrett back down. Everyone gathered around in eager anticipation as he said, "If you think that horse of yours is so damn good, I'll bet you a hundred bucks that he can't jump over the hood of my Buick parked over there."

            A gasp came from the crowd because a hundred dollars was more money than most of them had ever seen, much less known to have ever been placed on a bet.

            Barrett looked over at the car and said, "Gee, that's a lot higher than he has ever jumped before. Suppose that he hits the hood of your new car and damages it."

            "Then you'd lose because he has to clear it, and if he does damage the car, you'll have to pay for it," said the salesman, pushing the point.

            Everyone figured that Barrett was going to tuck his head and ride away but he said, "If I'm going to have to be responsible for any damages to the car, then I think that you should give me at least two to one odds."

            "Hell, I'll give you three to one odds if that's what it takes to make a lying sack of crap like you back down," boasted the salesman, pulling a big roll of bills out of his pocket and peeling off three one hundred dollar bills.

            Barrett just sat there, looking at the shiny new Buick while the salesman gloated and waved the money under his nose. Barrett finally reached in his pocket, counted out five twenties and handed them to Shorty Braxton who was going to hold the stakes.

            When the tractor salesman made the offer, he had no idea that there was the slightest possibility that Barrett would take him up on such an outlandish bet, but he was now out on a very thin limb of his own creating and there was no way that his ego would allow him to back down at this point. He reluctantly handed his three hundred dollars to Shorty.

            Several people who knew that Barrett would never accept such a bet unless he felt sure of winning, so they rushed forward to get in on the bet too. The salesman was already far deeper into this mess than he ever expected to be, so he refused, saying that this was strictly between him and Barrett and he wouldn't extend it to anyone else.

            Barrett rode up to the Buick, let Old Granddad stick his nose over the hood to see how high he had to jump and rode slowly up the street so he could get a good run.

            Everyone from both the cafe and the pool hall was lined up along the street, waiting breathlessly as the horse concentrated on the Buick. Then he came galloping easily toward the car, gave a small bound to pace himself and sailed over it with barely an inch to spare. As the horse cleared the hood of the car, a shout went up from everyone except the tractor salesman who stood there in shocked silence.

            As Barrett collected his winnings, he told the salesman, "It's only fair that I give you a chance to get even. I'll bet you five hundred dollars even money that he can jump over the top of it."

            It was now a matter of pride with the tractor salesman. He had seen the horse jump over the hood but clearing it only by an inch or so. Jumping clear over the top of the car would be another matter. "You're on," said the salesman as he dug into his roll again.

            Old Granddad was just as much as ease as he cleared the top of the Buick as when he had hopped over the fence. Barrett collected his winnings and said, "Want to go for a thousand that he can jump over it lengthwise?"

            "Hell no. You and that trick horse has already cost me too much," replied the salesman as he got in his car and roared out of town.

            I was taking a shortcut by Barrett's place as I walked home from school one afternoon and noticed Old Granddad standing in one of the lots in front of the long milk barn. The barn was at least a hundred feet long with milking stalls downstairs and a hay loft upstairs. As was Barrett's custom, he had tied Old Granddad with a long rope which allowed him to hop from one pen to another but it kept him from jumping over the main fence and getting away. I thought how much fun it would be to give Old Man Barrett something to really lie about.

            I untied the rope from where it was tied, led Old Granddad around the end of the barn and into the stack lot behind it and threw the rope back over the top of the barn. I went back around the barn, tied the rope back just like it had been and slipped away. I could just hear old man Barrett telling about how his horse had jumped over the milk barn.

            A thunderstorm was rolling in from the southwest and I had to run to get home before the rain hit. As was the custom in those days before television and instant weather warnings, any time that a thunderstorm came up, everyone would go outside and watch it. If things began to look too serious, they would all head for the storm cellar to wait it out. They used to call those storm cellars "Hidey Holes". I had just barely reached the house when I heard my mother shouting for me to get in the cellar with her because there was a thin funnel trailing from the bottom of the cloud.

            By normal tornadic standards it wasn't much of a twister. It wasn't one of those big, black things that sounded like a hundred trains, but it more resembled a rope dangling out of the bottom of the cloud. It whipped around in the sky for a few minutes, dipped down and twisted through town, turning over a few outhouses and demolished a couple chicken coops before disappearing back into the cloud. About the most serious damage that it did was to suck several of Mrs. Bateman's old red hens right off their nests and carry them away. The next day, some of Mrs. Bateman's chickens were found five miles east of town, still alive and seemingly little the worse for their airborne trip.

            As soon as the twister was gone, everyone in town gathered in front of the courthouse to compare notes on the damage done by the twister. Everyone had a story about how close it came to them and how they barely escaped with their lives, but as the old saying goes, the first liar didn't have a chance. Everyone knew that Mrs. Bateman didn't have more than a dozen chickens on her place, including three or four old ratty roosters, but according to her, the twister had sucked up at least a hundred of her best laying hens. Old Man Stinson, the town drunk, claimed that he was sitting in his outhouse when the tornado came and sucked it up into the cloud, spun around a couple hundred times and set back down right over the hole where it had been. This story was no surprise because Old Man Stinson was always thinking that things like that happened to him. In fact, he claimed that he had been sucked up into the air by Army planes as they flew over. When everyone thought that all the stories had been told, Mr. Barrett came running up, all wild eyed and out of breath. "You ain't gonna believe what that twister did at my place," he shouted. "It picked Old Granddad up out of the corral in front of the barn where I had him tied, blew him clean over the barn and set him down in the stack lot behind it without putting a mark on him! I know that it did because the rope is still over the top of the barn! Ain't it Waldo!"

            "It shore is, Pa! I seen it!"

            Since even Waldo seemed to be sure about the story, and the diary was only about a block from the court house, everyone decided to go see it for themselves. Sure enough, there stood Old Granddad in the stack lot with the rope running right over the roof of the barn. Even to this day, whenever stories are told around Stinnett about the strange things that twisters can do, someone will always come up with the one about the tornado that picked up a horse, blew it over a barn and set it down behind it without doing the slightest damage to either the barn or the horse.

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