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CHEERFUL TALES OF NEIGHBORLY INTERCOURSE
THE impression may be easily acquired by the reader that the collector of these authentic reminiscences is inclined to look with favor upon those whose personalities are exhibited in these pages. Such an impression is probably correct as it is not human nature to comment too sarcastically upon that which adds to the joy of life.
In the average conservative rural neighborhood of New England, it is regarded as excellent policy to cultivate the semblance of cordiality in neighborly associations with special regard for humorous intercourse whenever possible because people of even more than average human frailty may have occasion to do kindly acts. Therefore, it is seldom that neighborhood friction becomes openly demonstrative.
The boy or girl who has been raised in an atmosphere of forbearance and who has been taught to avoid any outward display of personal dislike, has acquired a very useful lesson. This may explain to a certain extent the ability of the transplanted Yankee to avoid antagonisms in neighborhoods in which there may be, generally speaking, less personal restraint.
I Ben Jackson, or Am I Not?"
It would have been perhaps natural for a certain Ben Jackson to have resented what happened to him one sultry afternoon, but so far as the record shows, if he had any such feeling he kept it carefully to himself.
Ben Jackson had been to town a few miles away with a load which he delivered with a yoke of oxen attached to a primitive cart of earlier days. At that time it was but the most natural thing in the world that there should have been included in Ben's purchases at the country store, a bottle of rum. It must not be understood by this that Ben was an intemperate man, for such was not the case. Like nearly everybody else of that era, including deacons, clergymen, as well as Indians, he considered that his health and that of his family required that they have "something in the house" at all times.
On his way home with an empty cart and a docile pair of oxen, progress was necessarily slow. A man who rises at three or four o'clock in the morning in order to put in a fair day's work before nine o'clock in the evening, has an excuse for becoming drowsy at times of inaction. Ben had sampled the rum, found it good and tried it again, after which, knowing that his oxen would probably find their way through the coming strip of woodland without any guidance from himself, he stretched out upon the cart and was soon fast asleep.
In the meantime the oxen had leisurely picked their way through the woods until they came to a little opening at one side of the road where there was some green grass. Having no one to restrain their movements, they turned away from the road and began to refresh themselves. Just about that time two young men came along who knew Ben very well and who promptly grasped the situation. The little opening at the roadside was rather rough ground and they could easily picture the oxen tipping the cart to such an angle that Ben would roll off and possibly be injured. It was therefore but a naturally kind act for them to guide the oxen safely into a little arbor, release them from the cart and leave their friend to enjoy his nap in safety. Incidentally they decided to sit down in nearby obscurity and watch developments.
Ben's nap lasted for considerable time. But finally a swarm of mosquitoes aroused him to semi-consciousness. He was surrounded by trees and the entire scene was vague and unfamiliar. It seemed to him that it must all be a dream. He began to talk and his kind friends, before mentioned, listened eagerly.
"Am I Ben Jackson, or am I not? If I am Ben Jackson, I have lost a yoke of oxen. If I am not Ben Jackson, I have found a cart."
It can be easily understood that the friends in ambush soon reassured Ben as to his identity. Just how much of the rum was left when he finally arrived home does not appear in the record.
It will be noted that in this instance a practical joke was played upon an unsuspecting citizen which placed him in a ridiculous light. However, if the same practical joke had resulted in anything like personal injury or damage to property, it would have been met with local disgust or indignation, all of which indicates merely inherent common sense.
In the more leisurely days it was the custom that friends or neighbors meeting while driving on the highway, would stop their teams and have a little chat in the roadway. An exchange of jovial banter under such conditions was not only frequent but expected. As an example there was the chance meeting between Mr. Peck and Mr. Wells.
Farther You Go the Better They Are"
Mr. Peck, who had recently removed from his native town some dozen miles away, was returning to his new home from a brief visit to his former town and met Mr. Wells, an old neighbor, in the highway. Being congenial acquaintances, there naturally followed a general conversation in which Mr. Peck inquired as to the well-being of various mutual friends. There was much for Mr. Wells to tell, and Mr. Peck enjoyed getting all the news from his old neighborhood- It required several minutes for Mr. Wells to lay before Mr. Peck these numerous details. Just about this time a heavy team approached nearer and nearer and it was necessary, in view of the narrowness of the road, for these old friends to separate. As Mr. Wells started up his horse to move along, he remarked:
"There are some mighty fine people in our old town."
"Yes," replied Mr. Peck, "and the farther you go the better they are."
The personal application of Mr. Peck's remark will be appreciated when it is explained that Mr. Wells lived on the very first farm across the boundary line in the town under discussion.
In these degenerate gasoline days, there is less opportunity for such friendly exchanges of left-handed compliments. When the horse was the chief mode of conveyance, the frequent watering trough afforded occasional chances for the circulation of the perennial Yankee jokes.
Put the Doctor Ahead"
A man returning to his farm from a visit to the grocery store, in waiting to give his horse a drink, fell in behind an unusual collection of vehicles. At the head of the line with his horse's nose in the trough, was a well-known undertaker. Directly behind, waiting for his turn was a veteran dealer in tomb-stones. And next in line was the village doctor. The man in the rear, who knew all the parties concerned, could not resist the opportunity to make a suggestion.
"Say," he called in loud tones to those in front. "You've got this procession dead wrong; you ought to put the doctor ahead!"
All this is but a part of the record of the past. The actors have all passed on, but there are many more recent echoes of amusing happenings along the country roads.
Scrambled Eggs in the Highway
At the foot of a long hill, near the outskirts of a certain busy town, the middle of the snowy road for a protracted period of winter cold, presented the appearance of well scrambled eggs.. In reality it was not exactly an optical delusion either. A well-known farmer, who lived considerably back in the hill country, started out one day in his oldfashioned "pung" sleigh to deliver to a local grocery store two or three weeks' accumulation of fresh laid eggs. These were carefully packed in a receptacle with a loose cover. Just as he was reaching the foot of the hill near the railroad, a train suddenly darted into view and while his horse was old enough to have become steady, he had never become reconciled to the arrogant actions of a locomotive. He gave a quick leap and in spite of the best efforts of his driver, succeeded in dumping the contents of the sleigh into the middle of the road. The slaughter of eggs was practically complete.
The conventional thing to say would be that the driver, who soon controlled his horse, returned to his home a sadly disappointed man. But this would in reality be a misstatement- The spectacle of thirteen dozen eggs totally wrecked in the middle of the highway and the prospective wonderment of passersby so stimulated the farmer's Irish sense of humor, that he told the story with great delight to everyone whom he could induce to listen to him. Naturally his attitude regarding this untoward event might have been somewhat different had he been in circumstances which made the loss of the eggs a matter of any real importance.
The occasional wrecked vehicle which may be seen by the roadside in country districts is more likely in these days to be a gasoline buggy than one drawn by horses. But one midsummer day not long ago, travelers along a back country road observed with much curiosity what remained of an old time buggy which indicated a bad case of misunderstanding between some horse and its driver. Those who found out the facts were considerably amused.
Story of the Rebellious Horse
A prominent farmer in the neighborhood had somewhere acquired a horse whose disposition had become permanently sour. This horse was not satisfied to work eight hours a day, or six hours, or in fact to do any work at all. She was on a permanent strike and inclined to sabotage. Her owner therefore decided that there was no use in bothering any longer and announced his intention of having the horse killed.
About a half mile away there was a young man who believed that he possessed certain hypnotic powers, at least in the matter of horses. He told the owner of the striker aforesaid that it was a shame to close out as good a horse as that, whereupon the owner promptly made him a present of the animal. The young man led the horse home and made elaborate plans for a process of education and benevolent philanthropy which would cause the rebellious equine to see things in an entirely different light.
As the eccentric horse had a record of becoming too handy with her heels, it was desirable to proceed with caution.
The early results of the ensuing course of treatment were encouraging. The horse seemed to respond to the humane methods of the experimenter. Every evening the horse received a lesson and finally was harnessed and driven short distances on the highway. His new owner, however, seemed to prefer seclusion for his experiments. At last he began to be convinced that the horse's nature was entirely changed. He was elated with the success of his efforts.
Finally he decided that the time was near when he could exhibit his new possession by daylight. He looked forward with much anticipation to the admiration with which his efforts would be regarded by all the young men of his acquaintance.
Before making this public show of his horse, he concluded to give it one more tryout. He had always driven with a stiff check rein which held the horse's head very high. When a horse's heels go up, its head goes down. After making a little detour on a comparatively level road, he turned on to a stretch of road which led up a hill. When he had nearly reached the top it occurred to him that it was a little hard on the now reformed horse to make her climb where it was so steep with the head held up so high. He stopped the animal, got out of the buggy and unhooked the check rein. He resumed his seat in the buggy, gathered up the reins and started the horse again. Holding the reins very firmly he was, for a minute or two, able to keep the animal's head in nearly the desired position. Then followed a struggle between the horse and the driver which resulted finally in the horse depressing its head to the right angle, after which there was a most remarkable bombardment of rapidly moving heels which, according to the driver's subsequent report, established a new record over anything he had ever yet heard of. The horse trainer fortunately succeeded in escaping uninjured from the vehicle, got the horse by the head, unfastened the straps, and ran what was left of the wagon up on to the bank at the roadside, from which point he led his horse home, thankful that the shades of evening were such as to make his movements obscure. The horse regeneration experiment was a failure.
While the more remote highways of New England are anything but a joy during certain months, they become more attractive as the fields and woodlands assume their summer hues.
Happened to the Junk Man
One of the first signs of well developed spring in the farming sections is the appearance of the traveling junk man.
The conventional outfit required for this branch of commerce is a substantial wagon of medium size and a horse of sufficient age and discretion to stand patiently by the roadside while the driver dickers for old metals, worn out rubber footgear and the surplus burlap grain bags which are apt to accumulate on the average dairy farm. It is probable that the real, conscientious traveling tourist of this variety does not allow himself to profiteer to a greater extent than say 4000 per cent. As might be expected, these travelers are not regarded with much enthusiasm, although they are allowed to carry away that which otherwise would be a total waste.
One of these aggressively industrious people was making his rounds one day and left his team in front of a farmhouse while he interviewed the proprietor. Just at this point some men were repairing the road. Although his negotiations occupied several minutes, he returned empty handed, climbed into his wagon and moved along. Shortly afterward he turned off the main thoroughfare on to a side road which soon became quite steep. His faithful horse had never failed him so he was surprised to have him falter. Finally, in spite of the driver's agitated words of encouragement, the wagon began to back down hill, landing in a ditch.
No damage was done, but it was all very mysterious to the junk man. He could not understand what had happened to the horse. The animal did not seem to be sick and had never been inclined to be balky. At last he concluded to take an inventory of the load. Lifting a pile of ancient burlap bags in the rear of the wagon, he discovered eight or ten large boulders, each being about as large as two men could lift. It seemed very amusing to the men working on the highway a short distance away when the junk man by herculean efforts succeeded in dumping the rocks out of the end of the wagon.
Happened to Another Junk Dealer
On another occasion a young scion of a prosperous junk dealer started out with a high powered automobile to make a quick collection of burlap grain sacks which at that time were in demand at very high prices. Naturally he did not care to pay much for these bags and he was not taken very seriously by the up-to-date farmers whom he visited. Passing into an unfamiliar section he asked the manager of a large farm whom he had been annoying by his persistent methods, as to how he could reach a certain neighborhood not far away where there were a group of large dairy farms. He received directions and shortly after appeared at one of these farms complaining bitterly of the state of the highway. The man who listened to his complaint could not understand why he had found such bad roads. A little questioning demonstrated the fact that in his disgust at the unwillingness of the opulent junk man to take "no" for an answer, the manager of the farm before mentioned had directed him to take a crossroad which was considered locally as practically impassable, even for a farm wagon. The commercial tourist succeeded in making his perilous way across to a place of safety but he narrowly escaped heart failure.
To those of rural districts who seldom travel far from the home fireside, there are suggestions of possible interest and entertainment in conversing with strange frequenters of the highway. This was especially true of earlier days when, because of frugal habits and rather unsatisfactory public roads, unfamiliar faces in the highways were few indeed.
Inquisitive Man by the Roadside
It is not surprising therefore that when a real old gentleman who had served his community and even his state acceptably in his more active days, observed an absolute stranger walking rapidly up the road, he should have meandered out to the front gate for a little closer inspection.
The traveler was evidently in haste, but was brought up to a short turn with an interrogation from the old gentleman that it would have been very impolite to have ignored. Then followed a conversation which is yet occasionally referred to after more than half a century.
"You seem to be in a hurry today." "Yes, I am."
"Where did you come from?"
"I came from Monkton."
"When did you leave there?"
"Day before yesterday."
"Where did you stay last night?"
"I stayed in Goshen."
"Where are you going today?"
"I am going to Jericho."
"What are you going to Jericho for?"
"I am going to school."
"A man as old as you going to school! What are you going to school for?"
"I am going to school to see if I can't learn how to mind my own business."
The stranger passed on and left the old man thinking it over. The more he thought it over the more he was sure it was a good joke on himself, and being a genuine Yankee, he enjoyed the joke just as well as though it had been on someone else and it soon became well known to his acquaintances.
But while the interchange of civilities among near or more or less remote neighbors who chance to meet in the highway, is quite prone to touch upon the humorous episodes which are constantly happening to normal human beings, there is occasionally a glimpse of the pathetic.
Misfortunes of Mr. Foley
A man who had quite an extensive acquaintance in a certain section was driving to town one day and at a turn of the road met a genial old Irishman who was jogging his fat and sleepy old horse along toward home. The two had not met for quite a while and the conversation was much prolonged. After inquiring as to Uncle Jimmie's health and that of his family, and the outlook for the hay crop and various other subjects of mutual interest, inquiry was made as to some of Uncle Jimmie's Irish friends. Finally Mr. Foley's name was mentioned. A shadow came over Uncle Jimmie's face.
"Ah! it is indeed sorry I am for poor Mr. Foley. First he lost the foal of his mare; then he lost a sow and litter of pigs; and now, poor mon, he's lost his wife."