Mules were like members of the family. We were dependent on them for plowing and for pulling the carts used to haul things on the farm, and the wagons used to take us to town, to church, or to visit relatives in distant places—as far as ten miles away! Feeding, watering, and caring for them were among our more important daily chores. We spent much time with them, talked to them—I preached my first sermon to a mule—and planned our work according to their ability to work. Mules are stronger than horses and smarter, contrary to the opinion suggested by the phrase “horse sense.” They are also stubborn, but they are less temperamental and therefore more predictable than horses. I do not ever remember our farming with horses; we always used mules.
In 1946 when I went on a cattleboat to Poland, I had to care for horses. I discovered then what I had already suspected, namely, that the derogatory reputation of mules relative to horses was quite mistaken. “Mule sense” might be a better term than “horse sense” to describe common sense. For example, when the sea got rough and the boat rocked the horses panicked, and when they got seasick, they lay down and would not try to get to their feet. Even when we helped them to their feet, they fell again. They gave up, and 30 of the 800 horses on board died during our trip to Poland and had to be dumped overboard. Mules would have stubbornly fought to stand and would not have so easily given up.
One thing that can certainly be said of mules is that “they have a mind of their own,” but they are not really stubborn. They can seem lazy because they will not put themselves in danger. A horse can be worked until it drops, but a mule has better sense. The “stubborn” streak is just the mule’s way of telling humans that things are not right. Mules are very intelligent and it is not a good idea to abuse them. They will do their best for their owner, with the utmost patience.
I remember one mule from my childhood especially; his name was Blackie. He was not a big mule or a very healthy one, so I don’t know why we had him. He had a very bad sore on his face which was raw most of the time and made it difficult for him to wear a bridle. The two larger mules did most of the work. They were stronger, browner, more like horses than donkeys, and we didn’t have pet names for them.
Blackie did odd jobs. He seemed to be the one assigned to me for the plowing, cultivating, etc., which I did when I got home from school in the afternoon or on Saturdays. He really didn’t seem to like to work. Maybe that’s why I felt it appropriate to preach my first sermon to him. However, when the work was done and we headed towards the house he seemed to have plenty of energy so that it was hard to keep up with him. I remember that my brother, Murray, and I sometimes hooked up Blackie to the buggy on Sundays and went for a ride. So Blackie was my workmate and my playmate. I remember him more vividly than any other mule we ever had. When he died we mourned as for a friend.
SOURCE: My father, who was raised a Quaker in rural Southampton County, Virginia, but became a Baptist preacher and then a missionary to Japan, where my siblings and I were raised.