By Clyde Davis
Editor’s note: Clyde Davis won a first-place award on June 21 for his story, “Pluggy the Mule Hero,” from Panhandle Professional Writers.
This is the way it happened — the story behind the story. I had never thought of myself as a children’s story writer, but the way in which we perceive ourselves is not always the way in which the world perceives us. Take, for example, my erroneous belief that anybody besides my wife would be interested in hearing the love poems which I write for her.
Anyway, there are all of these family legends which we grow up with. There were the legends about my Uncle Bud and the Battle of the Bulge, which he embellished himself from time to time. There was some ancestor who fought in the Union Army as an officer, and his sword in my uncle’s attic, which I polished and restored so my cousin could take it from right under my nose. There were the legends about my grandparents eloping and getting on a railroad train. There were the stories from my mom’s mom about growing up near Johnstown, Pa.
Oh, yeah, that was where it started. I am a small child again, sitting in my grandma’s bedroom and she is telling me about Johnstown back in the early 20th century. It must be raining, because if it were not raining, I would not be sitting inside looking at these pictures, I would be outside playing. Who is this guy? I am looking at a picture of a dark, burly, black-bearded man in a pair of overalls, standing beside a plow which is hitched to a mule.
She proceeds to explain to me that this is her grandpa (Holy cow! You mean you had a grandpa? You mean you used to be a kid?) He was a farmer in the hills near Ebensburg, which is east of Johnstown. She tells me I have been there, and I remember this, going up to family reunions with people I only see once a year.
Then she tells me about the flood, which happened in the 1870s, I think. With little concept of my grandma’s age, I find it hard to believe that she was not there for the flood; she is, after all, ancient in my eyes. She tells me that this guy (you mean the husky guy in the picture?) spent days taking wagonloads of people from the flooded town to safety in his farm up in the hills. You can look this flood up, if you want, but I remember learning in Pennsylvania history that it was a very bad one.
So the story, like many family stories, foments for years, rejuvenated every now and then by a box of old photos, a family reunion or something similar. I do not know where I got the idea that this would make a good children’s story.
Not, however, as it was given to me. It’s a story about a farmer who cared enough about his neighbors to extend himself, which is great, but what happens if you tell it from the mule’s viewpoint? What happens if you take this mule, give him a name, and tell the story about how he has been busting his tail for days to rescue people? Kid story.
Animals are always interesting heroes for children to read about, much more so than middle aged farmers who lived 130 years ago.
There was a moral purpose to the story — Pluggy the mule struggles with his own tiredness and wet coldness as he does his duty. Pluggy isn’t seeking to be a hero, but he responds to circumstances in a way that makes him one.
There is a biology lesson — kids come to understand exactly what a mule is, neither horse nor donkey.
There is a history lesson — the Johnstown Flood of the 1870s. I don’t guess that kids’ fiction always has to have a teaching purpose, but it seems when I write it, it ends up that way.
This is true of the other three stories in the collection, also; an ecology fable, a story about the Comanches in 1500, and a story about a group of PaleoIndian hunters. So I still have a hard time believing that it was my name they called for first place. Cool.
Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University.