Mules in Mayberry

By John Latta
Executive Editor

Early every summer I make a sort of pilgrimage. Perhaps that’s too grand a name for it. Maybe I just visit, but it sure feels like more than that. My wife and I go to the Chickenfest and Mule Days celebration in Gordo, Ala. (pop 1,677).

Down the little country town’s main street come all sort of farm machinery, old cars, horses, mules, beauty pageant winners, wagons, dogs, riding lawn mowers and a tractor pulling a “train” whose carriages, full of kids, are converted oil drums. The roadside booths offer exactly what you’d expect, from hamburgers to funnel cakes, hats to horseshoes. Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, no beer.

It’s small-town America whooping it up.

I remember life in small country towns from my youth. I’ve also lived in New York and Los Angeles and places in between.

But I come to Gordo not just looking for memories, although I find plenty and enjoy them. And I’m not looking for some Hollywood-style small town with Norman Rockwell painting in the town square as bluebirds fly around Old Glory while clean-cut teenagers skip happily to school. I know the reality of life in a small country town.

What I come to see is small-town people enjoying themselves and their families in a happy festival free of the intrusions of the professional parade and fun people. It’s a homemade celebration, and that’s what I value so much about it. It’s not a bought and paid for one that was built in China and brought into town for two days, disassembled and moved to the next place that has outsourced its identity. You see, it’s not about entertainment – it’s about pride.

The stalls are manned by people from this part of the world. I don’t see big-city businessmen setting up in just-another-town to make money. I see old farm tractors, some of them obviously very valuable, with stray pieces of wiring and sometimes with mud still on the tires. They’ve been lovingly and painstakingly kept up, many of them working way past their prime, and they’re in the parade because their owners are proud of them. There are no big show professionals here looking to win some money in a contest. And up on the seat grandpas hold little boys and girls, and sometimes there’s a pre-teen who gets the honor of working the old hand throttle on an antique John Deere two-cylinder “Johnny Popper.”

Then come the mules, hauling hand-decorated wagons that carry people who, it seems, know nearly everybody in the crowd. Moms and dads run out and pass children into wagons for rides. Now come the horses and the cowboys and cowgirls. Some are show-day pretty, groomed and decorated, but most look they’ve come off the farm where they are ridden and tended to each day, and today is just another day. And once again the riders know the crowd. And the pretty girl on the buckskin is not trying to win television fame; she’s showing off for her friends.

To me it’s great that a town wants to see its own people out there in the parade, to cheer their horses and antique Fords, to wave at Grandma and Grandpa under an umbrella on a family wagon, to whistle at their teen queen and listen to some high school boys everybody knows try to play “Sweet Home Alabama” atop a flatbed. To say, “We didn’t come here to see a prize-winning big production extravaganza that will be nationally televised; we came here to see our show.”

Seems to me truckers are like small towns. Each a little different, one-of-a-kind and bound to stay that way.

We used to worry that the wasteland that is American prime time television would inevitably turn us all into the same people. It didn’t happen. Now the Internet is here connecting people, and I hear fears that the same homogenizing power is at work. But I think it is more likely that the Internet will help us know about and appreciate each other’s idiosyncrasies and regional differences.

Oh, wow, look, there on the main stage where the gospel group just finished are Deputy Barney Fife, Floyd the barber and Otis the town drunk.

It’s OK, I know Mayberry is myth, and these are just character actors. Aren’t they?

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