Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

My Kingdom For A Donkey

by Norris Chambers


   Some Bluegrass enthusiast once said: "Every boy who attains the age of four should be presented a banjo!" I would change that observation to say: "Every boy who attains the age of four should be presented a donkey!"

  I grew up with a donkey whose name was Birthmark. Someone named him that because he was dark all over except for a little white spot on the bridge of his nose. Because of its color, it stood out and was seen by the one who named him as a birthmark. He was a fully grown and people-smart animal when I first saw him. He was imported from somewhere by an oil field friend about my own age. When the oil field subsided and the workers moved on, the former owner, Gaston, gave him to me to have and to hold and take care of. I was happy to assume ownership since I had been well versed in the care and handling of a donkey and had learned most of his mischievous tricks.

  A common way of passing time on a hot summer day was lying on the back of Birthmark and picking out little lead pellets from his rump and sides with the small blade of a pocket knife. Sometime in his past he had been peppered generously with birdshot from a shotgun. No doubt he had broken into someone's field or garden and had been persuaded to leave by a few shotgun blasts. Donkeys are bad about t breaking into fields. They are very intelligent animals and if there is a way to get through a gate or fence they will find it. They can open the usual barn door and to keep them out the latch must be some sort of harness snap or other hard to maneuver device.

  We never used a saddle when riding a donkey. When we first mounted Birthmark, he would make a few half-hearted bucks and if we stayed on, he would not try it again that day. Donkeys are stubborn, and will not go unless you know the secret. The secret was to carry a club about a foot long and start tapping on the spot where the neck and back join. There is a little hump there, and I suppose it is pretty sensitive. After about a half dozen light licks he would take off. At first it was just a walk, but if you continued the drumming he would progress to a rough trot and eventually into a smooth gallop. He could continue that gate for several miles and distance was covered quickly.

  Clifton got a donkey about the same time I acquired mine - I think he gave $2.00 for it. Her name was Jenny. She was not quite as stubborn as Birthmark and bucked harder and faster. She was harder to ride, but when she settled down was good transportation.

  One day we decided to make a donkey cart. We went to the blacksmith shop and got busy. The first thing that caught our attention was an old set of planter wheels on an axle. It was about four feet wide and the wheels were probably two and a half feet high. We went to the woods and cut two small straight poles about eight feet long and connected these to the axle. Then we built a little cabin about four by four and mounted it so that it balanced on the center. The two shafts were connected to a collar on Birthmark and two steering lines were connected from his bridle and brought back to the enclosure. We could have just used the two lines to steer him, but we decided to get fancy and installed a steering wheel with a pulley. When the wheel was tuned it pulled the line in that direction and steered the donkey. We installed two old bucket seats from an automobile and got ready for our trial journey. There were no doors and no windshield. The back was also open, but four posts supported a tin roof. It was a funny looking contraption, and those who saw it shook their heads and said they had seen better looking rigs in the junk yard.

  Before hitching the donkey and taking off, we greased the wheels. Clifton became comical and nailed an old auto license plate on the back. It was probably about nine o'clock in the morning when we brought Birthmark out and pulled the cart around him. He gave us some pretty gruesome looks, but stood still while we put on the collar and connected the two shafts to the hames. We adjusted the reins, or steering lines, to the wheel so that turning the wheel would pull on either one. Then we mounted the seats and prepared to go. They didn't know about seat belts in those days, so we didn't buckle up.

  We immediately encountered our first problem. He wouldn't move out of his tracks. We couldn't use a donkey club like the one used for riding. Clifton suggested that we might get Clyde, his next youngest brother, to sit on the donkey and provide the incentive with a club. But I had another idea. We took a stick about four feet long and installed a sharp nail in the end of it. We could punch him with that, and it got instant results.

  He took off at a fast gallop up the north road toward the peanut field. Planter wheels without springs between them and the chassis were not made for easy riding. Every little rut or rock gave a bounce, and we rocked about like bats in a hail storm. We tried to stop him or slow him down, but we hadn't installed any brakes or made any provision for pulling both lines at once. So we just caught hold of the upright posts and tried to hold on.

  Hollering "Whoa!" didn't do any good. Birthmark was having serious fun. It became funnier for him when he left the road and headed for the pasture. We were struggling to hold on and when he left the relatively smooth field and entered the pasture it became even worse. I thought about abandoning ship, but decided against it when I looked at the swiftly turning wheel just back of where I was seated. Clifton was saying something, but there was so much noise I couldn't understand him.

  We were now in the rough pasture, running over shrubs and logs and rocks. I thought we were in danger of turning over. I was really scared. I was even more scared when I saw that he was heading toward a big stump. Before I had time to worry much, the left wheel hit it and the cart stopped abruptly. Clifton and I both went forward through where the windshield should have been. The shafts broke loose from the axle and Birthmark kept running toward the brush with the harness rattling and scaring him into a faster gait.

  Meanwhile Clifton and I managed to get up off the ground and take a quick look at the cart and the fleeing donkey. The wheels and axle were not damaged, but the cab was pushed forward and to right. It was desperately in need of a rebuild job. The donkey soon disappeared into the brush. We limped back toward the house, feeling that our project was a failure.

  After a leisurely conference in the blacksmith shop, we decided to abandon the cart for the present and try another donkey thing that we had heard about. Donkeys are noted for their part in carrying prospector's supplies in the search for gold in the mid and later 1800's. We wanted to try this aspect of donkey power by moving wood from the post oak thicket to the house, a distance of perhaps a half mile. It was not possible to get a wagon to the area in many cases and this made it necessary to carry the wood from the place where it was cut to the wagon.

  We constructed a rack from 3/4 inch angle iron and bolted it firmly to an old saddle. It was about three feet long and two feet wide with upright posts on the front a back. This extended about halfway up the neck on Birthmark and almost to his tail in the rear. I don't believe he liked it much when we hoisted it on his back and tightened the girth. He showed his disapproval by a couple of neat jumps. We took a couple of axes and the donkey and headed for the timber.

  It didn't take us long to cut a few lengths of fireplace wood and stack it neatly in our rack. We didn't know exactly how much to load. But we did know that green wood is pretty heavy, so we stopped before we reached to top of the posts. It made a neat load the way we had stacked it crosswise across his back. Nothing distasteful happened on the way back and we declared the wood hauling experiment a success. We shelled three ears of corn for Birthmark and left him busily eating.

  There was another use for donkeys. Some promoters came through the community with a bunch of donkeys and organized a donkey basketball game with local men riding the donkeys and playing a game of basketball on the school court. The audience paid to see the game and the promoter took some of the money and gave the rest to the players for their worthy charity or church. The donkeys they used had been trained to be mean, and they were constantly throwing their riders and kicking at them. This made the game more interesting. We tried a little basket ball on Birthmark and Jenny after that, but we weren't that impressed with it. We had to get off to get the ball too many times.

  We rode the donkeys to the swimming hole at regular intervals in the summer time. It was about three miles from the house. We tried to get them to go in the water, but they were not interested in bathing.

  I'm not sure if Birthmark knew he was a donkey. When he was in the pasture, he usually stayed with the cows. Apparently he liked cows more than horses. He was never very friendly with Jenny, however, they never fought or complained.

  Jenny died in the late thirties. We had not done any donkey riding in several years and Birthmark was fat and happy. When I left the farm permanently in 1940 he was still well. I saw him occasionally and was told that he died a natural death in 1949. I don't know how old he was when I first saw him, but I had known him for over 20 years.

  The main message the donkey sends is: Don't be in a hurry. Do what you need to do, but don't rush into it.


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