harry hits the road


Chapter 10: Mule Skinning

Strong is just a six letter word, and believe you me, it’s all relative. I get an early Monday morning reminder of that en route to Pinehurst No. 2, a world famous golf course not far from Fort Bragg. where I’m going to be a caddie. Muse and I have already spoken four times since my parachute jump with the Golden Knights the previous Thursday. She knows I’ve survived it. Even so, she isn’t real pleased with me.

“You don’t give me the life of day,” she says when I call to touch base.

I’ve got to do a double take. She’s talking Germ-English again.

“What you mean is, I don’t give you the time of day,” I say.

“Ja, I mean that.”

“I like life of day better.”

“You don’t give me either one.”

“That’s not true. Right now it’s 7:04 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.”

Muse ignores my lame attempt at humor. “I hate this road trip of yours,” she says. “I wish it would end.”

“It will,” I reply, sighing, “Don’t you want to visit New Orleans?”

“New Orleans? Ja, I want to go there.”

“Well, first I’ve got to make it past Atlanta.”


I quickly discover that making it past all eighteen holes at Pinehurst No.2 is going to be tough enough. It’s the hottest day of the summer so far. On the first tee at 9 a.m., the temperature is already 92 degrees and the humidity percentage is close to it. I’m caddying alongside a veteran named Mike. Our clients are a married couple on vacation from the west coast. She’s got a slicer’s swing and a sweet disposition. He’s a sour puss who hits snap hooks. In other words, they’re alter egos of Muse and me.

On the front nine, I carry her bag and Mike carries his. With a few simple tips, I get Sweet Slicer hitting it pretty straight, making mostly bogeys and a couple of nice pars. Snapper, meanwhile, hits it left of Karl Marx, and chops more trees than Paul Bunyan.

At the turn, Mike and I switch bags. Sweet Slicer stays cool as a bottle of blue Gatorade. But Snapper stinks up the next three holes, and gets more and more pissed at himself. I know I should keep my mouth shut, but I try to help him fix his hook. He immediately starts playing army golf, hitting it left, right, left, right.

When we get to seventeen, the temperature’s 96 on its way to 98, and I can tell Snapper’s getting pissed at me. He asks if it ever gets any hotter than this down here.

“It will this afternoon,” I say.

Even Snapper laughs at that. He still screws up the last two holes, but I reckon he can at least blame his bad play on the heat instead of on his blabbermouth back side caddy. I reckon wrong. Coming off eighteen green, Sweet Slicer gives me a $40 tip, the first money I’ve made since I started my road trip. Snapper doesn’t give me jack.

“Don’t spend it all in one bar,” Mike says as I shamble sore-shouldered and bow legged back to my Smart Car.


The heat and a bunch of bad techno-karma follow me down to Charleston, South Carolina, where I’m bunking with a golf buddy I call Fluff, who used to caddy for me back when I could play a lick. Fluff says he’s set me up with a gig in the Charleston historical district: I’m going to learn to drive a mule team for Palmetto Carriage Works. I call Muse to tell her the good news.

You are still a warm duscher,” she says, half teasing and half not.

I’ve heard this one before. It’s the exact opposite of her accusation that I suffer from excessive testosterone levels. Warm duscher is slang that literally translates as “one who takes a warm shower.” What it really means is, “you’re a wimp.”

“I ride rodeo in Texas,” she adds.

“Yeah? Where?”

“When my Prussian boyfriend Georg and I are in the Hill Country. We live on a ranch. A limestone house with no air conditioning. Full of scorpions and snakes.”

“What? You lived in Texas without air conditioning. That’s crazy. Even the poorest of the poor get themselves a damn window unit.”

“We have no window units. Georg was a second son. He inherited very little  money from his family. He was determined to show he could make it on his own in America.”

“That’s pretty brave. Guess he was handsome and sexy, too?”

He was extremely good looking. Tall with very high cheekbones. Very Prussian. But also there was his laughter and his smile. He could be quite goofy.”


"Ja. Anyway, what I am, telling you is that the rodeo arena was full of shit from all the bulls and horses. But it at least did have the air conditioning you say is so important. I became a barrel racer to get away from the heat and the snakes and the scorpions..”

I’ve not heard this one before, and it sure enough grabs my attention by the cojones. Barrel racers have to steer their horses in a cloverleaf pattern around three thirty-five gallon metal drums, competing for fastest time. Though men participate in certain venues, barrel racing is primarily a woman’s sport, as opposed to a male sport like bull riding. But hell, you still have to rein your cutting horse like a man, maybe better. At stake, there’s money, glory, and ornate silver belt buckles.

“How many buckles you win?” I ask, trying to disguise my awe.

“Sadly, I don’t win any,” Muse says. “I finish mostly in last place. But what else can I do? I don’t speak the language. Horses are the only ones I can communicate with.  They don’t care about German or English. And just as I start to get better at it, everything goes haywire.”


“Georg is in a station wagon out in the middle of nowhere coming to pick me up at the rodeo arena. A drunken cowboy comes the other way in a pickup truck. There is an awful collision. The station wagon flips over. The police call the rodeo. One of the other barrel racers takes me to Georg and leaves me there all alone.

“There is no ambulance for one hour,” Muse continues. “Then the ambulance comes and they say Georg must go to the hospital in San Antonio, which takes another one hour and a half. I am already freaking out. Then it goes even more haywire. On the way to the hospital, the ambulance driver gets lost and it takes over two hours to get there. Dank sei Gott, the doctors at the hospital know what they are doing. ”

“Not surprised,” I interject. “Yankees think Texas is full of dumb asses, but it’s got some of the best doctors anywhere. At least in the big cities. The Texas Medical Center in Houston is world famous for heart surgery, cancer, all sorts of shit. Lucky you got Georg to San Antonio where they could take good care of him. Better than being out in the sticks, huh?”

Jim Brain, driver and tour guide Charleston, SC

“Ja, I guess so,” Muse says.

“What do you mean, you guess so?”

“Never mind. It is too long a story. Meine liebe warm duscher has to get up to drive the ferocious mules tomorrow.”

“Quit calling me a wimp, dammit.”

“You are going shooting in South Carolina? I hear they have beautiful skeet ranges.”

“You do that in Texas, too?”

“Oh, ja. Shotguns. Rifles. Also revolvers. I like shooting them all. You should be keeping that in mind from now on.”

“Will do.”

“Seriously. Please be careful.”

“Look, I know a thing or two about guns myself. My daddy gave me a 12 gauge when I was six years old.”

I am talking about the mules to be careful. You don’t know what you are doing.”

“Okay. Promise.”

“Gut. I don’t have night mules or nightmares. Bussi.”

We hang up and I hightail it to bed, hiding under the covers like a real warm duscher.   


I arrive at Palmetto Carriage Works’ Big Red Barn at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning to meet my trainer, Jim Brain. It’s almost as hot as it was in Pinehurst and even more humid. I’m wearing tan shorts, black rubber muck boots, and the broad brimmed straw hat I got in Intercourse. Jim, age 49, is a wiry, dark haired former Navy brat dressed in white pants and a white shirt with the logo “Good Carriage Drivers Always Wear White.”

I’m as much of a dumb ass when it comes to mules as I am when it comes to Muse. Leading me into the barn, Jim starts with the basics. A mule, he notes, is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey. Some mules have male names, others have female names, but they’re all neuters. Incapable of reproduction, they’re bred specifically for work.

“The first thing you need to know is that mules like to work,” Jim informs me. “Anyone tells you it’s cruel to ‘em, like those animal rights organizations, that’s absolutely wrong. Industry like ours gives ‘em a place to be. We give ‘em a lot of love and attention, and they like the socialization along with the work. Now I’m not sayin’ they wouldn’t rather be out on a farm gettin’ fed all day and not doin’ anything... ”

“Well, who wouldn’t?” I interject.

“Exactly like us,” Jim says, nodding. “A mule is also a much more heat tolerant animal than a horse, more sure-footed, and more durable, which is important in South Carolina in the summer. But they also know their own limits. You can work a horse until it drops dead. But if a mule gets tired, it’ll lay down and go on strike.”

“Had a bunch of girlfriends like that,” I confide.

Lucy the mule on the street

“Uh-huh,” Jim says. “Haven’t we all.”

I follow Jim out to the driveway, where the two brown mules, Lucy and Sally, are being hitched to our carriage by a groom. They weigh over 1,000 pounds each, and stand a head taller than us.

Jim urges me to show them affection by patting their noses and flanks, and to always keep talking to them so they get to know my voice. Otherwise, he warns, they can turn real mean. If they get riled or spooked, they can easily run off with the carriage, crushing cars and pedestrians.

'A mule skinner once told me that a mule will be nice to you for a whole year just to get the chance to kick you once,” he notes.

“Glad Muse isn’t around to hear that,” I mutter, shuddering at the thought. “She’d get some ideas.”

Jim drives us out to a semi-deserted street near the Port of Charleston, where  I can train in relative safety. He hands me the reins and tells me to make a kissy sound. I do as directed. Lucy and Sally lurch straight forward for a few steps. After a few more steps, they start veering steadily to the left toward the only parked car in sight. Jim tugs on the right rein, and immediately straightens them out.

“I told you mules are smart,” he says, chuckling. “They learn over time as a team that if they walk slow, the other one does the work. So you get mules competin’ to see who’s gonna do the least work. One’ll think, ‘Okay, you slow down, then I’m gonna slow down.’ That kind of thing. Before you know it, they stop.”

HH3 in the driver’s seat

“Sounds like an old married couple,” I say.


After an hour or so of practicing U-turns and parallel parking, I steer the carriage back to the driveway behind the Big Red Barn so Lucy and Sally can take a water break. One of the grooms removes Lucy’s diaper, and takes her temperature with a rectal thermometer. I volunteer to do Sally.

“You’re really gettin’ into this,” Jim says.

“Hey, it’s supposed to be participatory journalism.”

Both mules show temperatures between 101 and 103 degrees, the optimum working range. Jim leads me inside to the air conditioned human break room where we can get water. He reminds me I’ve got two tasks. Task one is safely operating the carriage. Task two is giving the guided tour. Applicants for a tour guide license must master a 500 page manual provided by city regulators. Since I obviously don’t have time for that, he gives me a crash course about the historic sites along our planned route.

I’m starting to sniff an employment opportunity here, only to be unpleasantly surprised to learn that Jim makes just $12 an hour plus tips, which he claims are few and far between. His dual tasks require a skill set as demanding as that needed to navigate any intimate human relationship, but the pay isn’t much better than fees for freelance journalism.

“For a lot of people, this is a transitional job to do while they’re in college,” Jim says. “But those of us who want to make a career of it usually work two jobs. I give carriage tours during the day, and I give walking tours for another company at night. We don’t do it for the money, most of us. We do it because we’re into the history of Charleston.”


St. Phillp’s Church

Sweat oozes from my every pore as I climb back into the driver’s seat in front of  a pick up area around the corner from the Big Red Barn. Clutching the reins with whip in hand, I turn to watch a contingent of grandmothers and granddaughters fill the four rows of bench seats behind me. It so happens they all hail from my native Texas. Because I’m a rookie, they’ve been offered a free ride.

“We hear they’ve given you a crash course in mules,” one of the grannies says.

“Yes, ma’am. Fortunately, I haven’t crashed into anything -- at least not yet.”

The granny chortles, and I let out the reins, making a kissy sound with my lips. Lucy and Sally trudge forward, their hooves clop-clopping against the pavement. I shake the reins and the whip to speed them on.

“Now you’re going to see me use this whip from time to time, but I assure you it doesn’t hurt,” I declare. “I just tickle them between the withers and pop those black rubber diapers you see attached to their rumps.”

As the carriage rounds the corner of North Market and Church Streets, I launch into the opening part of the monologue Jim taught me less than half an hour earlier.

“The spire you see up ahead of us is St. Philip’s Church... It was founded in 1680, same year as Charleston... Charleston prided in offering religious freedom... But it was also a good business idea.... People from Europe who had suffered religious persecution flocked to Charleston, and spurred the economy...”

The bells of St. Philip’s begin to peel, adding a holy sound track to the buggy ride. “Charleston was originally named Charles Town for King Charles II of England,” I continue. “His motto was eat, drink, and be merry. We do go to church here in Charleston, but we do a lot of that other stuff, too.”

The grannies giggle.

Upon turning down South Market Street toward the market area, I keep up the patter like I really know what I’m talking about. “This is the oldest continually operating marketplace in the U.S. of A, ladies... This is the top of the market we’re approaching now. It’s where one would go to buy meat... Down there at the bottom of the market near the water is where one would go to buy fish...”

Then my throat tightens and my mind goes blank. I can’t think of one more thing more to say, and we’ve still got three more blocks left on our ride. The eerie silence is punctuated only by the clop-clopping of mule hooves. I glance over at Jim. He simply shrugs as if to say, “You’re own your own now, bubba.”

At last we pass a souvenir stall in the middle of the market. I spy an elderly black woman in a cotton moo-moo weaving baskets out of sweet grass strands. On a walking tour the day before, I tried to shoot her with my Flip camera, and she shooed me away. I figure she must be one of the Witches that Muse warned me about in her fairy tale, and she’s put a voodoo curse on me.

Lucy and Sally veer toward her. Now she’s the one who looks spooked. Miraculously, the curse is broken, and I get my voice back.

“Here you can buy hats and baskets and all kinds of other stuff you direly need,” I say. “But don’t try to take a picture of that sweet grass weaving lady... She believes in voodoo... She thinks it’ll steal her soul...”

“She may be right!” shouts one of the grannies.

“She may be,” I allow. “I know my soul got stolen. All I have left is the soles of these boots I’m wearing.”

“Your soul was probably stolen by a female!” shouts a second granny.

“How’d you know?” I return.

Another round of laughter roils the passenger seats behind me. When I pull to a stop in front of the Big red Barn, the grannies burst into applause.

“That was great!” one of them cheers. “Just one thing you need to work on.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Your accent,” she says, climbing out of the carriage. “It sounds real Texas, but  it needs to be more Charleston.”


That afternoon, I drive six hours to Atlanta in a ferocious rain storm. On Interstate 20 outside Augusta, I hit a major traffic jam. There’s an SUV flipped over on its roof in the median. I see an EMS technician working the tool they call the “Jaws of Life.” I later hear on the radio that the Jaws were too little too late: there were three fatalities.

When I reach Atlanta, it’s dark and still raining hard. I’m so shaken, I check into a $300 night hotel downtown. I call Muse to tell her about my close call on the highway, but she’s more interested in critiquing my hotel accommodations.

“You just spend more money on booze when you stay in cheap motels,” she says.

“Stop it now! I am reforming, just like I promise.”

“Ja, and I believe it when you show me your credit card charges.”

“I show you mine when you show me yours.”   

Next evening, I check into a mid-priced Holiday Inn in suburban Stone Mountain, Georgia. There’s a surprisingly good Mexican restaurant nearby where a rather attractive Mexican waitress serves me very well-mixed margaritas. Pissed at Muse, I flirt with the waitress and ask her for a date. The waitress blows me off. I reckon she’s made me for an unemployed mule skinner caddie who can’t hold his tequila, just another gringo going through “man-o-pause.”


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Jim Brain, driver and tour guide Charleston, SC (HH3) 2. Lucy the mule on the street (HH3) 4. HH3 in the driver’s seat (Jim Brain) 5. St. Phillp’s Church (HH3)