A Blind Mule and a Box of Medals

“Do you know what your daddy did?” said the doctor.

“No, sir, I reckon not,” said Wilburn.

“He saved that man’s life. Your daddy knows a chicken’s body temperature is higher than a man’s. It drawed the poison out of his leg and into the chickens.”

Apart from the three dogs and some chickens, the family had only a blind mule, which had evidently memorized its way around the farm and could be sent up and down the lane with a load of kindling and find its own way home.

Maudie Vest, with her amazing green thumb, kept them in vegetables. Hunting and fishing provided most of the protein in their diet. During the Depression years Maudie would sometimes take blocks of government oleomargarine, apply a little coloring, and sell them in Decatur to unsuspecting townspeople as “good country butter.”

What meager wealth of farm-boy smarts and savvy Wilburn Vest drew upon to keep himself alive in war time, only he would ever know. He was pistol-whipped and put before mock firing squads in the Stalag. When he was finally liberated, he cried when the guard who had given him his crust of bread every morning was shot. A strapping youth who stood 6’1″ tall, he returned from Europe weighing 92 pounds.

Like most men and women who have actually experienced intense combat, Wilburn Vest never wanted to talk about it very much. He was proud of his POW medal when the country finally issued it, and observed that it was not an award for getting captured but an acknowledgement of “honorable service while a prisoner of war.”

His honorable service involved two escape attempts. On one of them, he made it into France, where a family hid him in the barn. The German army found him there and made him watch while they executed the entire family who had helped him. He never forgot their kindness and the two or three words they taught him, like “bread,” “water” and “thank you.”

After his discharge, he never owned or fired another gun or, to my knowledge, killed another animal of any kind.

The messages he had written in pencil on Red Cross postcards from the Stalag hadn’t reached Mildred. Unschooled in geography (he had only finished the sixth grade in the one-room country school), he had addressed them simply to “Huntsville” without specifying the state. They sat in Texas, undeliverable, until the war was almost over.

The gaunt soldier who returned from Europe found a wife who hadn’t been sure he was still alive, her still-grieving parents (who had lost their son to heart failure the month I was born) and a nearly two-year-old child with whom he had never “bonded,” as they call it nowadays. There is a photograph of him holding me as though he didn’t know quite what to make of the burden.

In the 1952 election he said, “I Like Ike, too, but I’m voting for John Sparkman.”


According to my father,
We had this mule one time
and it was blind
but it had Morgan County

Well sir,
it knew which way town was
and who you was,
and where to take a load
of kindling wood.

One time it loped up
across the yard
where people stood,
having a picnic lunch
and pitching horseshoes,
and it kindly stopped.

And stood real still.

And Hubert Whitlow set
his ice tea down
and took about two steps
backwards before
he lit out toward the fence
which when ho got there
furnished him a post
to cling to
because that mule caught up,
clamped him on the knee
locked his jaws
and laid down
sideways like a dead
jay bird
except its legs was trembling.

“Godamighty, hep me”
Hubert said.

Directly someone hollered,
“Get an ax.”

The mule held on
and Hubert suffered while
they found an ax.

They had to take
the mule’s head off,
to get its jaws unhinged
from Hubert’s knee.

They made us take the head
and wrap it in a box
and mail it to Montgomery
where they run some tests?
and come to find,
that mule was crazy.

David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.

He can be reached at: davidvest@springmail.com

Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com

Click here to read I’ll Never Get Out of this Band Alive, Chapter One in David Vest’s online memoir Rebel Angel.


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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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