J.D. Moye and MuleSpeak

Phil Whitley's picture

Did I mention that J.D. was bi-lingual? He spoke mule, and I was impressed from the first time I ever heard him as he plowed a field with “Ol’ Buck”, his all-time favorite mule.

“Saaa, Buck. Saa back”, he said with a kind of in-charge authority, as he backed ole Buck into position. When the plow lines were attached to the harness and trace lines to the collar, J.D. would holler, “Come up”, adding a chk-chk clicking sound from his cheek that took years to master – and with a shake of the trace lines, Buck would move forward. J.D. would grab the plowshare, planting it deeply into the ground, and with expert skill he and Buck would plow a straight furrow through the Georgia red clay. Only an occasional, “Gee” or “Haw” command to Buck to keep him straight was all that was necessary.

But there was a whole lot more to it than that. The communication between man and mule has many subtleties. Tone and volume of voice communicate how FAR to Gee or Haw. (Buck himself also became quite fluent in understanding cuss words, especially those that mention God or even Buck’s mother.)

At the end of a furrow, timing between man, mule and response time became critical. The mule would have to continue forward until the plow reached the end. Then there was a rapid series of “Gee”s or “Haw”s (depending on which way the field was being worked), while J.D. completed his turn with the plow and lifted it out of the ground— turning it, re-planting it in the other direction, while simultaneously trying to keep Buck from walking through the just-finished furrow.

As a kid, I was in awe of this man-mule bond of communication that I was witnessing. It was poetry in motion —man and beast working in harmony against the reluctant soil and the ever-present rocks that would jolt the plow out of a man’s hands. This was usually followed by a series of “Whoa’s”, intersperced with the aforementioned cuss words. You see, the man has to hold the plow with both hands, while trying to maintain control of the trace lines that helped guide the mule. After a while, when the mule seemed to have gotten the idea of the pattern being worked, the man (J.D. in this case) would place the tracelines around his neck. If the mule continues in a forward direction after the man has been stopped by an obstruction, it can get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Some of the terms I still remember…

Gee – Right turn

Haw – Left turn

Saa – Back up in a straight line

Haw back – back up to the left

Gee back – back up to the right

Come up – move forward

Come up, chk chk – move forward faster

Whoa – stop

WHOA – stop NOW!

WHOA, you %#^@%ing sonovab**ch – I really, really insist that you stop all forward motion this instant.

Good thing ole Buck had a sense of humor!

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