This story may well be true. It also may be completely false. In all likelihood, it’s partially true; thus, I consider it to be based on a true story. This gives me literary license to fill in blanks and outright fabricate portions of it.
This is based upon a story I’ve heard twice–from two different sources. One was a person I know well and trust. The other was someone I barely know. The essential facts were the same, but there were differences in time, location and other minor details. It could be that the whole thing was made up. I don’t know. But I do know that I like the story, so I’m going to tell it.
As with my other blogs, I’ve changed the names of those involved. So, if you have a relative called June Bug, that’s not who I’m talking about it. One name I didn’t change is “Lonzo.” Lonzo is a shortened version of Alonzo and is a fairly common name in Eastern Kentucky. In fact, growing up, I knew several people named Lonzo. Once I left Eastern Kentucky, I never met anyone else by that name. It’s a good mountain name and fits the character in this story. The story would lose something if I changed it.
Much of the dialogue is mine. Some was recounted to me in the story. Other parts, I made up trying to fit it with the characters involved.
Finally, do not interpret this tale as glorifying or promoting animal abuse. That’s not what it’s about, although there is a tragic accident at the heart of the story. I know a lot of folks who like animals more than they do people. I’m fine with that. BUT, if you suffer some sort of trauma and go mental reading this, please do not direct your bile toward your author. I am merely your narrator. Thank you.
Purdy was a mule or probably a mule. He could have been a donkey or jackass for all I know, but they called him a mule. “They” were the Harringtons, which was pronounced “Hairnton.” There were three Harrington boys: Lonzo, Terry (pronounced “Turry”) and Junior (also known as June or June Bug). They lived with their daddy, AC. No one knew AC’s full name (if he had one), although June Bug was in all likelihood named after them. The boys had a mother, but no one knew where she was. Rumor was that she just left them, but some folks said there was an incident with her being hit with a shovel. It doesn’t really matter. She was gone, and it was just Daddy and the boys.
They lived on the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River in what most people would call a shack. The house was down off the highway on the other side of the river. They had about a half-acre of land connected to the highway by a bridge. The bridge was one of those homemade bridges you see in the mountains. It consisted of a couple of I-beams with wood laid across for the driving surface. It spanned from creek bank to creek bank and was supported at each end by cinder blocks.
The house itself was three rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. The front room was sort of a sitting area with a TV. The kitchen was in the back toward the left. The two bedrooms were in the back to the right. Daddy had his own room. June Bug and Terry shared a room, and Lonzo slept on the couch in the front room.
None of these folks had jobs, of course. Daddy had worked in the coal mines at some point in the distant past. Lonzo had been in the Army for two years before he was unceremoniously discharged for some disciplinary reason. Terry and June Bug pretty much did nothing. Between Daddy’s disability check and Social Security, they got by.
Daddy had one possession that he valued–Purdy. As I said, Purdy was a mule. They also had a few chickens and, from time to time, a hog. But Purdy was a constant having been around for many years. At one time, he was used to plow Daddy’s small garden, but he had foundered at some point and didn’t do much of anything now. Daddy didn’t have much use for his offspring, but he loved old Purdy or at least really liked him.
DADDY GOES TO TOWN
Daddy made fairly frequent runs to town for various things, picking up a check, buying groceries, etc. It was a Saturday in October, and Daddy left in the morning.
The boys rarely went anywhere. They mostly sat around and drank. Lonzo was the oldest by two years. Then came Terry, and two years after him, June Bug. Lonzo would have been considered the brains of the group, but that’s only because of his ill-fated stint in the Army. He was about 6 feet tall and wiry thin (we called it “squirrelly-built”) with long, greasy black hair pushed straight back behind his ears. He had that hard, flinty look that only people in Appalachia have. Terry and June Bug could have been twins. Both were short with beer bellies and a penchant for going shirtless most of the time. They had fat, red faces and bushy blonde hair. There were substantial paternity questions regarding Lonzo, but no one ever asked.
The boys also rarely got out of bed very early, and this Saturday was no different. Lonzo rolled over on the couch when he heard a commotion outside at around 11:00. He got up, lit a cigarette and walked out on the porch just as June Bug was running from the back of the house toward the creek with a coil of rope under his arm. Terry came running from the other side of the house.
“Hey! What the hell’s goin’ on?” Alonzo inquired. Terry stopped, breathless of course, and said “Looky yonder!” He nodded his head toward the creek. In the middle of the creek, still as a statue, stood Purdy with water up to his belly. “I’ll be flat damned,” Lonzo muttered. “How in the hell did that happen?”
Terry responded: “Don’t know. June just seen him out the winder. Just froze up right there.”
“Well, what are you boys doin’?” Lonzo asked. Terry said, “June’s made a lassoo and’s gonna lassoo him!” Lonzo rubbed his beard stubble and took a long drag off his smoke. “I reckon that might work.” Terry headed down to the creek with Lonzo right behind.
By the time they covered the 100 yards or so to the creek bank, June Bug had already fashioned a crude lariat with a slip knot. He was unfurling the rope. “I’m gonna lassoo his ass and haul him in.” He twirled the rope as he had seen cowboys in movies do and tossed it toward Purdy. He missed. He tried again. He missed again. Over and over he tried, but with no lucky. Finally, Lonzo lost patience and said “Gimme that damn rope!” He, too, tried and tried with no luck. It should be noted that Purdy stood a good 40 feet from the bank, and the rope was no more than 30 feet long. This bit of immutable physics was lost on the boys.
They all sat down on the bank and stared at Purdy. “What do we now, Lonzo?” Terry asked. Lonzo responded: “Hell fire, I don’t know. All I know is that we better get that damn mule outta the creek before the old man gets back. He’ll raise nine kinds of hell.”
“You reckon he’s sleepin’?” June Bug asked.
“The damn mule? Hell, no. He’s standing up” said Lonzo.
“He’s sleeps standin’. I seen him do it.” June Bug said.
Lonzo turned at looked at June Bug. “Is that what you do with yoreself? Stand around watchin’ a damn mule sleep? I don’t know if he’s asleep, but I do know he’s in that damn creek, and, by God, we gotta get him out.”
Terry then observed, “He got hisself in there. I figger he’ll find his way out.”
This was the last straw for Lonzo. “This right here is what’s wrong with you fellers. Quitters. I ain’t no quitter. I’m gettin’ that bastard outta there!”
THE BEST LAID PLANS
After being chastised by Lonzo, the boys just stared at Purdy for a few minutes. Then, Lonzo saw the answer and stood straight up. “By God, I’ll ride his ass out.”
Terry said: “How you gonna do that? Wade out there?”
Lonzo snapped: “Hell, no! I ain’t freezin’ my ass off in that damn creek! I’m gonna shimmy over the side of the bridge and jump on him. Once I’m on his back, I’ll just ride him out! Let’s go!”
All three got up and headed to the bridge. When they got to the middle of the bridge, Lonzo looked down and determined that he could, in fact, hang down and drop right on Purdy’s back. Even if he missed, the drop wasn’t that far, maybe 10 feet at most. If he landed in the water, he wouldn’t be in it very long anyway.
Lonzo sat down in the middle of the bridge with his feet hanging over. “You boys lower me down. I’ll grab aholt of that beam.” So, the boys did just that. With Terry taking one arm and June Bug the other, they lowered Lonzo over the side.
Lonzo was facing the wrong direction. He could grab the beam and hang down, but he would be facing away from Purdy. Riding a mule was likely to be difficult under the best of conditions. Facing the wrong direction, it might be impossible.
Once he was lowered into postion, Lonzo swung his right hand under to hold both sides of the beam. Now, he was sideways. Then, he saw it. A length of cable ran the entire length of the bridge just inside the beam. This was perfect. He grabbed the cable with his right hand and swung his left hand over. Now, he had a perfect grip and faced the proper direction. He was perfectly positioned.
Hanging down from the cable, Lonzo was about 10 feet from the water and maybe seven feet from Purdy’s back. He started to swing back and forth on the cable to get proper momentum for his leap. After three or four swings, he was ready. One last swing forward and he let go.
Falling through the air is a funny thing. Usually, you don’t have time to think about it. You just fall. Sometimes, though, you have a moment to consider what’s happening. I imagine this might have happened with Lonzo. He may have seen Purdy hurtling toward him, instead of he himself falling to Earth. At that moment–and just for a split second–he might have realized that this plan was not, in fact, well-conceived.
Ah, but the plan worked–sort of. Lonzo landed square on Purdy’s back. There were two sounds: First, the loud, unmistakable sound of a mule’s back breaking. Second, Lonzo emitted a long, mournful scream which could only accompany a shattered testicle.
Purdy folded up like a lawn chair pinning Lonzo. Lonzo, still wailing, slowly slid sideways until he dropped into the water, which was as cold as he feared. The cold water, though, shocked Lonzo into full consciousness and he stood straight up, only to be doubled over again in pain. He repeated this cycle as he struggled to the creek bank. From their vantage point on the bridge, Terry and June Bug thought he looked like one of those toy birds that dips its head up and down like it’s sipping water. Lonzo made it to the bank and collapsed, doubled over in agony.
The rest of the story is uneventful. A watery grave for Purdy, a trip to the hospital for Lonzo. Terry and June Bug did have to get Purdy out of the creek, and they got to use their “lassoo.” Daddy was mad, as expected, but he got over it. Lonzo lost a testicle.
So, there you have it. This could have happened. I knew people who would have done such things. I hate to think of a mule dying under those circumstances, but life’s not fair.
Oh, what about the title of this blog? A close friend of mine was so taken by this story when I first told it to him years ago that he wanted us to develop a screenplay based upon it. He titled our project March of Folly. I see Adrien Brody as Lonzo, maybe. Robert Duvall as Daddy.
Sadly, the thought of stretching this out to even a 90 minute film is daunting. I haven’t given up hope, but we really need to get on it. Hollywood awaits.