Artis Warren’s Mule

August 20th, 2009

I need to get away from politics and write more about things that make people laugh. Lord knows, though, I worry about the future of my loved ones and my country. Who will be left to remember what a great country we lived in?

Artis Warren was, for a while at least, our neighbor. He was an educated man who normally would have been far up the social ladder in any community. A bad drinking problem had clipped his wings early on, so he was stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder.

All told, Artis was a good man, booze or not. He owned your typical forty acres and a mule next to a place my parents had rented from his mother-in-law. His in-laws were my mother’s aunt and uncle. The uncle was several years deceased, but Aunt Fannie was still going like a house afire.

Aunt Fannie and her husband had only one child, a daughter named Beth. Frail and sickly throughout her childhood, she grew into a pretty woman, and her health improved considerably. Fannie and her husband Corbet spoiled their only child something terrible, so when they agreed to let her marry Artis everyone just shook their heads.

Lo and behold, Artis turned out to be a real “Cracker Jack” of a fellow. He had worked as a repairman for Corbet. The old man owned a combined saw mill and corn crushing business. The heart of the whole business was a stationary steam engine that Artis kept up. It was a big, smoke-belching nightmare. All black with shiny brass fittings, it was a real piece of machinery. The idea of lumber and corn was the right thing at the right time. It made Fannie and Corbet very wealthy.

Corbet Cheatom left home in Maine and came south in 1920. He had worked in his father’s mill and had learned about work and business. Fannie was just out of school when they met. They hit it off right away, but custom dictated that they have a respectable courtship, so they waited.

While waiting for his bride, Corbet bought a nice 120 acre farm. The property included a nice grist mill driven by a water wheel.

Even though Corbet saw a chance for a business grinding corn, he had been more inclined to start a saw mill. Water power wasn’t dependable enough. On the other hand, a steam engine could be set up to power both ventures. Even better was the fact that he could use his saw mill scrap to fuel the engine firebox and the nearby creek for steam water.

Corbet met and hired Artis on the spot. After three months Artis was still on the wagon and working his butt off. Corbet Cheatom never slowed down nor did Artis. The two of them, with Fannie helping, were managing to build a thriving business. Meanwhile, Beth Cheatom was growing into a woman. Artis found himself thinking of her often. In time the two fell in love and got married. Artis fell of the wagon now and then, but life went along.

About two years passed before Beth had a daughter. They named her Betty. She was pretty, she was smart, and she was healthy. Her Grandpa Corbet passed away just before Betty entered elementary school. She was six years old, and Colbert was 61 years old.

Fannie was so upset about her husband’s death that she didn’t want to live in their house any more. She locked everything up and moved in with Beth and Artis. The house was big and off the road. It wasn’t long until the locals started hanging around the empty house and vandalizing it.

As luck would have it, my folks didn’t own their own home and were looking for a rental. Fannie rented my folks all the first floor except for one room. For ten dollars a month it was a steal. Fannie needed someone to watch over the place. Now she could drive over and check on everything weekly instead of daily.

Artis didn’t drive at all. Beth had an old Dodge coupe that she drove them around in. Artis preferred his mule and wagon. Hence the mule story. The only time you ever saw Artis in the Dodge was when Beth was hauling him and his birds some place. The birds were actually pigeons, the kind that are taught to find their way home. Turned out that homing pigeons had a pretty good following in our area, and Artis was an avid fan of the hobby.

When Corbet passed away, Fannie shut the business down. She said there was enough money to let them quit working. Now Artis had the problem of too much time and the need for something to do became the urge to have a drink. My uncle said that when Artis fell off the wagon, the crash was heard 60 miles away in Birmingham.

Artis got to where he’d just hook-up his old mule to the wagon and leave. Beth and Betty would go looking for him, but Artis and the mule hid pretty good. The women could never seem to find him. Artis and Maggie, his mule, would just disappear. Then about 8:30 at night you would hear Maggie come clip-clopping up the road. If you still had enough light you’d see what appeared to be a driverless wagon passing by the house. It would be Maggie bringing Artis home. Artis would be passed out under an old tarp in the wagon bed.

Alas, Maggie being Artis’ designated driver would soon be put to the test. It was a Wednesday evening in September. We had all loaded into my Uncle Jim’s 1940 Chevy Deluxe. The old car still ran good, and with her fresh $29 Earl Scheib paint job, she looked pretty spiffy.

Riding with Jim and Hattie was always a “Chinese fire drill,” and today wasn’t any different. They were fussing about where second gear and reverse were on the old car, a not unusual conversation because of an incident that had happened that past Monday. My uncle didn’t drive the Chevy to work. Instead, he left it home for my aunt and rode with a co-worker.

She had started to town when she discovered the battery was dead. Her dad just happened by and stopped to see if he could help. He had no jumper cables but offered to give her a push with his GMC pickup. Cole told her to engage the clutch, put the car in second gear, and once she was moving to ease out on the clutch. Should fire right off. By the way, he told her, make sure the switch is on.

Well, they pushed that damned Chevy all over but nothing happened. After thirty minutes with no success her dad stopped to make sure the switch was on. The switch was fine, but the car was in reverse, not second. Needless to say, once in the proper gear, the old car started on the next push. Hence the heated discussion about shift lever position and the failure to see Maggie and her wagon coming across the one-lane bridge from the opposite direction.

We weren’t moving fast when we hit Maggie, but it scared her. She just kind of climbed up on the hood, put a hoof through the windshield, and slid back off. The hood ornament didn’t even scratch her belly. Maggie just stood there giving us a dirty look. Uncle Jim backed off the bridge and let the mule and wagon by. The old mule came across that bridge like she owned it. Snorted and dropped a load as she passed. Hattie said, “Lordy mercy, did anyone check on Artis?” My cousin said he’d checked and Artis was not hurt, just drunk.

I know those two got home that night and many more. Didn’t matter how drunk Artis was, Maggie would get him home safely. Bet you can’t get your Chevy or Ford to do the same.

Beth and her mom decided Artis needed more to do and Maggie needed to retire. They opened the grist mill and put Artis to grinding corn. He sobered up and went back to work and back to his pigeons.

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