Horse-fly

The horse-fly watcher

By Emmitt Maxwell Furner II

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much tWhen I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years. Mark Twain

My father was a soldier and a horse farrier, and the sacrifices he made were for his God, his country, and for me. Now, some thirty Octobers from childhood, from the invincibility and ignorance of youth, I often find myself thinking of him and wishing I could have, would have, done more to help him through the tough times – or at least, not to have done so many things to make the tough times tougher. But I didn’t, and I’m sorry.

My grandmother once told me that memories travel best with the wind, and I believed her. Still do. For there is a particularly fond memory of mine that moves with the cool easterly breezes that howl through the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, breezes that seem to flow swiftly with its rivers, and pulsate through the red, yellow, and brown leaves of its forests. It’s this wind. This mystical mountain wind that picks up and carries with it the familiar aged scent of elm and hickory, the sweetness of sassafras, and, for me the most spiritually stimulating aroma, that of horse manure.

My father was a soldier and a horse farrier, and the sacrifices he made were for his God, his country, and for me.

It’s this wind, with its powerful scent, that always seeks me out. Finds me. When I’m seated on an outcrop of rocks at the edge of a gorge, or when I’m hiking the towering ridges of the canyons or the shady foothills of the mountains, or when my feet are submerged in the swiftness of those West Virginia streams that divide it all. Wind that has found me in eastern Afghanistan and Baghdad, Iraq. And when it does, when it finds me, it overwhelms me. It takes me back. Back to a farm. Back to a barn. Back to a hay-covered wood floor where I waited for my father. And it was there, as an innocent child, that I prepared to assume my duties. The most important duties of my life. The duties of a horse-fly watcher.

From the recesses of my heart and mind, and through the damp early morning fog and the doors of that barn, came the man whom I’ve forever since been trying to become. He wore old cowboy boots, jeans that were faded and ripped, and an old t-shirt with a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes protruding from the small breast pocket. If you had asked him why he dressed the way he did, as I never thought to do, he would have told you that he liked what he wore to be broken, or that perhaps next payday he’d buy something new for himself. But what he wouldn’t have told you, not in a million years, was that he’d spent what little money he had earned on me.

He held a rope in one hand and an old coffee can of molasses grain in the other. Obediently following behind him, attached to the rope but not pulled by it, walked a shiny black horse, its heavy hoofs falling solidly on the barn floor with repetitive hollow thumps. Now, of course with the help of the wind, I remember him telling me the key to catching a horse was not to chase it, since he with the most legs would surely be uncatchable, but rather to convince it. Convince it to come with you. Convince it that you’d take care of it, protect it; that you’d let nothing happen to it while it was under your care. He told me this as if he somehow knew I’d one day be a father and a leader of soldiers.

I remember him telling me the key to catching a horse was not to chase it, since he with the most legs would surely be uncatchable, but rather to convince it. Convince it to come with you.

Nailing metal shoes to horse hoofs was sort of a family affair. It had really little to do with nailing metal shoes to the bottom of horse hoofs, especially now. The work was hard and the pay was little, but now as I reflect back, with the help of the wind, I realize that while riding around in that old pickup truck, going from farm to farm, I was introduced to the West Virginia of my dreams, immense, tall, and green. It was also there, next to my father on the torn and stained truck bench seat, that I met many of West Virginia’s most precious people, and especially now, I know that I spent many priceless hours with the best man I have ever known.

My father handed me the leather reins, and told me to not let go. I held the cold, stiff leather straps in my hands while my father fetched tools from the back of his truck. Dust covered the truck from the back roads that snaked between, around, and over some of the steepest hills in the state. The horse curveted and capered, and its heavy hoofs thudded against the barn floor. It immediately calmed when my father returned and ran his hand across its smooth, solid neck, up into its coarse mane. The horse’s large black eyes reflected the rounded fish-eye image of an honest, gentle face, the face of a man who’d experienced much hardship and despair. It was that same hand, that scarred, callused hand, that bore the only surviving token of broken marriage vows, that also calmed me, that had made me feel safe so many times before. I was left to assume, as did anyone who ever shook his hand, that they were the hands of a soldier or at least the hands of a man who had had it rough.

I can remember, only faintly though, when the wind is not so strong, a faded bumper sticker on the back of that old truck that read, “Proud to be an American.” This struck me as ironic, more so now than then. Ironic that a man who was sent to fight an enemy who was not really his enemy, and who was seriously wounded by that enemy – and who returned only to be ignored and sometimes mistreated by the people he was protecting, and alienated by the very government that sent him – would stick a bumper sticker on his truck declaring his allegiance to those very things. Maybe I’m still too young to understand.

I was left to assume, as did anyone who ever shook his hand, that they were the hands of a soldier or at least the hands of a man who had had it rough.

My father learned his craft from an old horse trader by the name of Burt Brown. Burt had looked after my father when the West Virginia coal mines gave my grandpa a black lung, a pine box, and a pension that was not enough to feed his six children. With my grandfather buried in an unmarked grave behind their company house, my father was left to take care of his mother and sisters. So, at the age of fifteen, my father became a blacksmith; then at the age of seventeen, he became a soldier; and finally, at the age of twenty, he became a disabled Vietnam veteran.

In spite of his disabilities, I was astonished by my father’s unparalleled strength as he gripped the tuft of hair on the back of the horse’s hoof, and by the way he lifted it, apparently with the horse’s cooperation, to his thigh on which it was supported.

The prosthetic replacement of the leg amputated in a field hospital in Vietnam shook a little, but it did not – ever – give way. And while the war made him technically disabled, his years of blacksmithing gave him a crushing grip and the muscular build of a floor safe. Yet, his manner remained open and gentle.

I watched my father do what I believe – what I now know – good soldiers so often do. I watched him fight. Not the fighting on the battlefield, although I suspect he did his fair share of that. But the fighting he did upon his return home. Fighting I often heard late at night. Just down the hall. Alone in his bedroom. Against an enemy who apparently came home with him. An enemy that I believe was just as lethal as those on the battlefield.

My father, nonetheless assigned me an important duty. The responsibility of watching for horse-flies.

Since I was small and not very strong, I could not help my father with the manual labor of horseshoeing. My father, nonetheless assigned me an important duty. The responsibility of watching for horse-flies. It may not sound like much, but I assure you, it was quite an important job. If it were not for me, horse-flies could come and go, land and fly, as they pleased, free to bite the horse my father was working beneath. And if those flies were permitted to land, and subsequently bite the horse, my father might be seriously injured, or even killed by the thousand-pound bucking beast. So, like my father, I took my duty quite seriously.

Still today, I can spot one of those large, robust bloodsuckers anywhere, any time. I studied them, learned their ways. As if he knew I’d one day be a soldier, my father once told me that all good soldiers know their enemy. And like a good soldier, I knew mine. It had short antennas, a broad head, and a flattened body, and was brilliantly colored.

I also realized that, for the same reason that I couldn’t hold the heavy horse hoofs, pound nails into them, or bend the metal shoes, I couldn’t do much to prevent the other bloodsuckers from hurting my father: The bill collectors who sent notice after notice, the foreman who fired him because he couldn’t move as fast as the other workers, the wife who left him to deal with the post-traumatic stress on his own, and the government that gave him a Purple Heart and thirty-percent disability for the leg they caused to be blown off – money that did little to help him raise me alone.

So, it was there at my post that I stood watch, searching diligently for the elusive enemy as my father worked.

So, it was there at my post that I stood watch, searching diligently for the elusive enemy as my father worked. Across the horse’s back, under its large round belly, then over its flanks. Anywhere the horse’s whisking tail could not reach. Though not often, I occasionally watched my father work. While his sacrifices meant little to me then, they now mean everything.

My father always began his work with a friendly pat on the horse’s rump and a, “Hello, old friend.” Then, one at a time, like a surgeon, he chose his tools from his toolbox and fixed the horse’s feet.

While holding the hoof with the bottom facing up, he removed the old shoe with a device resembling a pair of pliers, and then, using a knife with a narrow blade and a curved end, he cleaned the bottom of the hoof of mud and rocks. “If his hoof gets too dry and hard it can crack, but if it’s too soft it can bruise too easy and get infected or something,” my father told me, as if he knew I would one day care for others.

Then, after cutting away the callus-like growth from the underside of the hoof, he used nippers to trim a quarter-inch-thick semicircle from the bottom of the hoof. Next came the rasping of the hoof bottom, back and forth repeatedly until the surface was flat and ready for its new shoe.

Although he had only a ninth-grade education, he performed this intricate task perfectly every time, like a scientist or engineer. Next, he chose a long file he referred to as a rasp, and filed down the hoof until it was smooth, clean, and evenly rounded. Between his teeth, and sticking out from his thick red mustache, he held eight flat one-and-a-half-inch nails, one for each of the holes in the horseshoe.

He held them there for easy access because both of his hands were full – a hammer in one hand and a horseshoe in the other. Then, he put shoe to hoof, attaching it with a nail on each side, careful to ensure that the nails came through the hoof. Once the shoe was in place, he hammered in the others and cut and filed each of them.

Finally, he filed the leading edge of the hoof so it was flush with the horseshoe. If my memory serves me correctly, or if the wind is strong enough, I believe that, from start to finish, the process took seven or eight minutes per hoof.

“Does the horse feel anything?” I asked once. I asked the same question every time I watched him remove a nail from his mouth and hammer it into the horse’s hoof.

“No. The hoof’s like your fingernail,” he replied with a full, comfortable smile.

And I can remember, even without the wind, with great fondness and admiration, a saying my father recited as he worked. “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. And for want of a horse, the rider was lost.” He went on to advise me that, “If a horse is shod improperly, he can break a leg, cause a spill, cause a rider go down. People can break their necks and die.” This, too, he told me as if he knew I’d grow up to help people.

So, with my Dad proudly watching, I sneaked quietly up beside the horse like a soldier, my reflection captured in the large black eyes that searched for the source of the silence.

“Dad!” I shouted in a fit of anxiousness.

“Yeah, Son?”

“I see one.”

“All right,” my father replied calmly. He released the horse’s hoof and let it clomp back down on the barn floor, and stepped back. “Go ahead, boy.”

Finally, it was my turn. My turn to help my father. There was no way I was going to allow him to suffer any more pain. I would not allow him to shed one more tear. I would take care of him as he had taken care of so many throughout his life. As he had taken care of me for eight years. So, with my Dad proudly watching, I sneaked quietly up beside the horse like a soldier, my reflection captured in the large black eyes that searched for the source of the silence. Then, with my small hand flattened, I carefully brought it up behind the fly, cautious not to startle it, and counted to myself – one, two – and on three, the horse let out a loud snicker and bucked a little.

As I slowly removed my hand, my father and I watched as the fly fell to the ground and buzzed helplessly in the sawdust and hay. I immediately crunched it under my foot, the proud, courageous foot of a horse-fly watcher.

Read more great stories like this one.

 

Emmitt Maxwell Furner IIEmmitt Furner is an active-duty U.S. Army officer. He has several degrees, and has published four books. He is married, with two school-aged children, and is the proud son of a disabled Vietnam veteran.

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