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One Damned Good Horse: Stories, Wit, and Wisdom

One Damned Good Horse: Stories, Wit, and Wisdom

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One Damned Good Horse: Stories, Wit, and Wisdom

306 pages
4 heures
Feb 16, 2019


This book contains essays and stories from Mel West, tracing his growth from the idyllic childhood of a southwest Missouri farm boy through his time at the University of Missouri and service in the US Marine Corps during World War II to his time as a dairy farmer, a Methodist minister, and an internationally known humanitarian working with Habitat for Humanity, Heifer Project, Alfalit, Rainbow Network, and other organizations. At the age of 70, a time of life when most of us would be in full retirement mode, Mel started the PET Project (now Mobility Worldwide), an organization that makes three-wheeled, hand-cranked carts to give to leg-disabled people in more than 100 developing countries around the world, in his garage and directed it for 20 years, seeing it grow to more than 20 shops around the United States and expanding into Africa. The stories will make you laugh, cry, and think.
Feb 16, 2019

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One Damned Good Horse - Mel West


Chapter 1:    Idyllic Childhood

The Good Old Days, #1

My ancestry includes Scotch, Irish, English, Dutch, and Cherokee. My maternal grandparents, the Bawbell family, came from England during the potato famine, I assume. They were craftspersons, cabinet makers, and carpenters. I inherited some interest and skill from that heritage. They first settled in Maine, and eventually found their way to southwest Missouri..

My dad’s family came through Kentucky as farmers. They settled in Dade County MO, around Greenfield. They were related to the Stocktons for whom Stockton MO and Stockton Lake were named. A young Indian maid on the Trail of Tears1 provided a smidgen of Native American blood for my veins.

A Bawbell great-grandfather served as a soldier in the Civil War. My father was a sailor in WWI and I, a Marine in WWII.

So, I became a farmer with carpentry skills and a serious interest in environmental issues. The Wests were Methodists and Democrats, and the Bawbells were Presbyterians. So, I have ended up with farming background, and as an ecumenical, liberal, progressive Christian. For me, that is a great mixture, though it troubles some.

I grew up with amazingly straight and clean living. I never heard any of my family utter profanities, tell off-color stories, or make racist remarks. I never recall anyone treating their mates with anything but love and respect. No one in those families smoked or drank. The handshake was our code of honor. I never got any lectures about any of this, but I knew what was expected of me. My biggest fear in life has been that I might do something to break the trust folks have had in me.

In a nutshell, that’s who I am. I owe a great debt for that heritage.

I Cost $15

I was born on May 21, 1924, and I have a copy of the check my Dad wrote to Dr. C. R. Boone for $15 to prove that he paid for me. The check was dated May 24, so I suppose Mom and Dad wanted to look me over a little before investing that much.

Doc Boone was a single man with his office in his room in the hotel in Golden City MO. He was a highly respected person in the community. He always seemed a bit lonely and developed a friendship with my folks. During the summer months, about one evening a week, he would come to our farm to fish in our creek. We would usually be working in the field, but we could see his Model A Ford pull into our barn lot and park under the big elm tree. Someone would comment, Doc’s goin’ fishin’.

As we milked the Jerseys, about dark, he would come from the creek and put his fish stringer in our cattle tank, and then walk into the barn. He and Dad would visit a bit, and then he would say, Well, I’d better get back to town.

Dad would say, Now, Doc, you stay for supper. Edith put on an extra plate and peeled another potato when she saw your car here. And that was true.

They would have a friendly argument for a bit, and then Doc would say, Well, I’ll stay if you will take a gift of the fish I caught. That sealed the deal, and everyone knew he did not want the fish anyway.

Doc stayed for supper, and his visit was a special treat for us all. He was Doc Boone, our doctor and our friend.

I met him when I was very young.

The Good Old Days, #2

The first line in my memoirs says, No child ever born on this Earth ever had a more idyllic childhood than I. I did not recognize that 90 years ago, but I do now. Look at what I had.

I was born on a 400-acre farm with a mile-long fishing creek running through it, with muskrats and other critters available for trapping. South of our house was a prairie where jack rabbits roamed, coyotes howled, and prairie chickens boomed. A pond in it brought in ducks and geese. A large forested area adjoined our farm to the west through which ran another creek. What a place for adventure and learning!

Almost the same day I was born, a border collie pup named Ol’ Jim was also born.  We grew up together, he my constant companion, fishing buddy, protector, counselor, and confidant. Together we roamed those woods, prairies, and creeks. At age three, a brother joined me, and as he grew, we teamed up in the adventures. We had rodeos riding calves, danced with the newborn lambs, chased down kittens in the haymow, and caught frogs by flashlight.

I grew up smothered in love but ordered in discipline. Two sets of grandparents lived within eight miles, and we saw them frequently. They were Methodists and Presbyterians and reinforced my parents’ respect for the Church and the institutions that make the good life possible.

My childhood memories include hard times financially. Those were the Dustbowl days of bank closures and the Great Depression, and plagues of insects with no chemicals that really helped. We often went to town to do our weekly shopping with no money at all to spend except what the eggs we sold brought.

I had responsibilities. At an early age I began to carry in firewood, gather eggs, feed the calves, and bring in the Jerseys at milking time. On my birthday at age six, I milked out Ol’ Blue to my dad’s satisfaction and became a certified dairyman.

I think psychologists today would agree with me that those were idyllic circumstances for raising a child. I had nothing at all to do with that arrangement but am eternally grateful for it.


At our farmstead, before we had the deep well drilled, a cistern was built on the north side of the house outside the bathroom. It was about ten feet deep and six feet across, lined with brick. About two feet of the cistern wall protruded above ground. It collected rain water that came from the house roof.

A pitcher pump inside the house brought up that water. It also brought all manner of bird droppings and whatever else was on the roof when it rained. A cutoff could be used when it rained to divert the first rainfall, but we usually forgot. A filtering system of gravel, sand, and charcoal sat on top of the cistern to help purify the water that ran from the roof of the house. The concrete top had a small man-hole about two feet across that could be used for cleaning and inspection of the cistern. A square wooden lid covered the man-hole, topped by a heavy sandstone to keep small boys from removing the lid and falling in. But boys do not remain small and eventually develop a lot of strength, especially when adventure beckons. So, my brother and I, several times a year when the parents were not aware, slid the rock and lid over and peered into the dark and musty depths of the cistern with its unfamiliar odors. Little critters climbed the walls and swam across the surface.

We poured a cup of water into the pump as a primer to start the water flowing. We used the well water for laundry, baths, and scrubbing floors. The well water was hard, meaning it had a high calcium content. The cistern water was soft.

A white-enamel bath tub stood on its four legs in the bathroom. In the summer we bathed in it, heating the bath water on the stove in tea kettles. We had no toilet in the bathroom.

Out the east porch door, left by the cellar, and turn right at the orchard fence, push open the door, and you discovered a genuine, three-holer outhouse, one of the holes being small for children. In the corner sat an old carbide can filled with fine lime. Instead of flushing, we sprinkled a bit of lime upon the product of our journey to keep down odor and flies. On the seat platform would be either a Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogue, useful for both reading and wiping. I have no idea when real toilet paper was invented, but I knew we could not afford it.

During the spring, summer, and fall, a visit to the outhouse was a more or less pleasant experience. But on a cold day or night in the winter, the trip would be more of an ordeal. During especially cold times, or during an illness, a slop jar under the bed provided a welcome alternative. About twice a year, the manure spreader would be pulled alongside the john and the products of human digestive tracts would join those of the farm animals to help grow our crops.

When I was sixteen, electricity came to the farm, followed eventually by running water and a toilet stool in the bathroom occupying a previously empty corner. The outhouse stood its lonely vigil out there by the orchard for many years, but finally disappeared. No longer could my city cousins go back to their urban friends with their hilarious stories about their country hardships.

A Tale of Two Dogs

In 1924 two pups were born 290 miles apart, both called Jim.

One was a border collie, Ol’ Jim, that became my boyhood life companion. Together we roamed the woods, prairie, and creek on and surrounding our farm. We trapped, fished, brought in the cows, and learned together of the wonderful mysteries of nature. Jim was an excellent stock dog, but of more importance to me, he was my protector, confidant, comforter, and counselor. He gained no fame, and I am probably the only one to have ever put his name in print.

The other Jim was a Llewellyn setter born in Louisiana MO and sold to Sam Van Arsdale for $5. That breed of dogs was designed for hunting, and Jim proved to be excellent at such. But it was not for his bird pointing ability that Jim became famous. That was because, as one veterinarian wrote, I am convinced that Jim possesses some occult power that may never come to a dog again in many, many generations.

Here are just a few reports of this amazing dog: A person in the group would be asked to write the license number of a car on a piece of paper; it was placed on the ground and shown to Jim, who was asked to find that car; he always found the correct one. In a crowd, he was asked to pick the man who sells hardware or doctors people or is a policeman; Jim always went immediately to the correct person. In the woods, he could pick out any species of tree named. He could predict the winners of elections and horse races. Jim performed at the Missouri State Fair, before the Missouri State Legislature, and in many other places. He died in 1937 and is buried in a people’s cemetery in Marshall MO. Caretakers say his gravesite is the most visited in the cemetery.2

I wish my Ol’ Jim could have met the Wonder Dog. They would have been great friends.

An Ode to Ol’ Jim

Jim was born about the same day as I,

He to a canine mother, border collie.

I—Scotch, Irish, Dutch, German, Cherokee.

Together we grew.

Together we roamed the woods,

Fished the creek,

Chased the rabbits,

Brought in the Jerseys for milking,

Watched the tadpoles grow,

Ran the traps,

Listened to the prairie chickens boom,

Danced with the new lambs,

Pestered the pigs,

And challenged the gander.

Jim was my protector,

Partner, confidant, counselor,

Companion, and fishing buddy.

In due time, he became Ol’ Jim.

I am inclined to think that

Dogs are more like God

Than any human I have known—

Forgiving, loving without reservation,

Understanding, enduring, faithful, patient, kind.

I think that if every boy born on this Earth

Had a dog and a creek and a woods,

It would be a better world.

After almost 90 years I still miss that dog.

Ol’ Jim.

A Lesson in Geology and Theology

The summer I turned six years old, my uncle, who lived a quarter mile away, dug a well. With the help of a water-witcher and a fresh forked stick from a willow tree, he selected a spot near the house. He and a neighbor started digging with picks and shovels.

This work fascinated me, and I sat on my haunches and sorted through almost every bucket of earth and rocks they hauled to the top. They had scarcely started when the buckets brought up fossils that caught my attention, and I began a collection. Some of the fossils I recognized as the stems of plants. Some flat stones had the impressions of ferns and fish.

The experience was a theological revolution to me. I reasoned that some ancient sea had covered the Ozarks and must have done so for many years. At that time, I lived in the Bible Belt area where people insisted that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago in six 24-hour days. Even my childish logic told me that there was more to it than that.

Now we know that a shallow sea, in fact, covered this area more than 100 million years ago, with only the Ozark Mountains protruding. One of the fossils I collected became the Missouri state fossil, the crinoid. A group of high school students from Lee’s Summit pushed that through the legislative process.

My uncle hit water at 20 feet. The house he lived in is now torn down, but the well still exists. I will always be grateful for that well’s lesson in geology and theology.

The Swallows Are Back

From the time I could toddle, the big barn on our farm in southwest Missouri was an amazing place for me. Cats used the haymow as birthing places for new kittens, to be caught and tamed. Pigeons built nests and hatched their young in nooks at the very top of the mow. My brother and I could climb the ladder and see out across the countryside. On the first floor we saw calves being born, cranked a corn sheller to make feed for the horses, and caught bugs to feed the fish in the water tank.

Spring featured the main attraction: the return of the swallows, not to Capistrano, but to our barn. We milked about 20 cows by hand, sitting on a one-legged stool and tugging away at the cow’s teats. Overhead, beneath the mow floor, were two-by-ten open floor joists. On these the lovely and graceful barn swallows built their nests. The nests remained year after year, but often needed refurbishing. Soon after the swallows appeared, there would be a flurry of nest cleaning and mud repair work. The birds would come in, beaks full of fresh mud from some wet spot in the barn lot, and skillfully mold it into the desired shape. They built one or two new nests each year to replace those that had fallen from the joists. Then they set about mating, laying eggs, and hatching young. All the while we sat just a few feet underneath observing this nature show. Soon little bare heads would appear over the edges of the nests while parents hustled back and forth with food. Flight launching day usually resulted in a few crashes on the barn floor with our cats doing the autopsies.

I grew up a privileged child. Privileged to share life intimately with some of God’s creation. Barns, barn swallows, boys, and Jersey cows: a good combination.

It Will Soon Be Trapping Season

As I took my walk this evening, I could feel it in the air—that briskness of breeze that says summer is about over and fall is near, and with it that memory of my years as a trapper. When I entered the University of Missouri in 1941, I brought with me my total wealth of $250, most of which I had earned trapping rabbits, civets, skunks, opossums, and muskrats. Trapping was a cold weather activity. Furbearing animals needed to have a winter coat in order to be saleable. Rabbits were usually shipped dead and gutted, and the meat needed cold temperatures to arrive edible.

I made my first rabbit trap at age seven. Carpenters had repaired our porch, and I took the scrap lumber and built a box trap. I set it in our orchard, baited with an apple, and I caught a rabbit the second night. I carried both trap and rabbit to the milking barn so my dad could kill it for me, as I had never done that. He showed me how to gut it and hang it in our smokehouse for safe keeping until we went to town. My first income as a trapper was the ten cents for that rabbit. I spent five cents for a bottle of pop to celebrate and put the other nickel into my account at First National Bank. It went with me to the University.

I caught muskrats in our creek, setting the trap just below the waterline at the entrance to their home in the creek bank. Across the road was a large water tank, with a family of civets (small skunks) living under it. I could usually catch two or three. I caught skunks near an old barn and dug opossums out of old straw stacks. Each animal had to be skinned, the pelt scraped clean of fat and then stretched on a board shaped to its size. After a time of curing a muskrat pelt would bring 50 cents, a big skunk pelt 75 cents, and opossums 25 cents. I set traps for mink, but never caught one. They brought $35.

Such was the life of a farm-boy trapper. I ran, literally, my traps each morning before going to school. Weekends I often moved traps to a new setting. Trapping was a way for a kid to earn some money. It was a healthy activity for me (not the animals), and my dog, Ol’ Jim always came along as a partner and a protector.

Going to Town

My home town of Golden City, eight miles from our farm, was an exciting place during my childhood. It had two car dealerships, a farm machinery dealer, a grain elevator, two doctors, one dentist, four grocery/produce stores, a bank, a livery stable, several small manufacturers, two hardware stores, one funeral home, three restaurants, two clothing stores, one plumbing shop, a blacksmith, a hotel, a lumber yard, seven churches, two drug stores, and 800 people. We went to town once a week to sell cream, eggs, chickens, furs, and rabbits, and to buy the few essentials we could afford, such as white flour and sugar, and to visit with friends.

I liked to visit all the places in town. Even when I was as young as six years old, my parents would let me out of the car at the east edge of the business district and I would roam for a couple of hours.

First, I would go through the livery stable to see what new horses they had and to admire the fancy horse buggy rigs. Then, I went to the lumber yard to smell the new lumber. I would check at the Corner Café to see the ice cream flavors as I knew I would get a nickel from my Grandpa West to buy some later on. The Leukins Shoe Store both made shoes for Sears Roebuck and sold shoes to locals. I liked to see them stitch with the big sewing machine and to hear them speak German. Next stop was the plumbing shop where I watched them solder tin. Then I’d stop at the funeral home/hardware store to check out the caskets.

An exciting stop was the light plant, the electricity generating facility for the town. It had a big, one-cylinder diesel engine with a flywheel six feet tall. It provided electricity from 6am to 10pm. Then I went to the big produce store where I loved to watch them candle eggs and test cream for butterfat content with a whirling centrifuge.

Now crossing Main Street, I started back. I always stopped to see the blacksmith at work, shoeing horses or, my favorite, putting a new iron rim on a wagon wheel. He let me crank the forge blower. Next, my uncle had a feed store and he bought eggs and chickens. I checked my weight on the scales there and sampled the blackstrap molasses they sold for cattle feed. The leather shop made saddles and harnesses for Montgomery Ward. The place smelled strange and the saddles fascinated me. They gave me small pieces of leather for my sling shot.

The shop of the Golden City Herald, our local weekly newspaper, always pulled me in. They kept the building warm so that the ink would flow. They had a huge press that printed one page at a time. They set the type one hot lead letter at a time and loaded a page on a flat tray for printing. Dellard Surburg was the editor/printer.

The Sahlow Drug Store was a necessary stop, for the druggist and I were business partners. My brother and I sold him empty bottles we found, and he used them to package medicines. The bottles brought from two cents to a dime, depending on size. Our mother made certain we cleaned them thoroughly.

Back at the east end of Main Street and a half block south, my great uncle had a carpenter’s shop. He and his son, Dale, were craftsmen. Among other things, they made wooden ladders for Sears Roebuck and ornamental drawer pulls for another company. They also built barns and houses, cabinets, and furniture. Most of my family had furniture that they made. Their shop was powered by a puff-puff, John Deere, one-cylinder engine and a series of belts. Dale taught me to use the lathe and a scroll saw powered by one’s feet, like a treadle sewing machine. That helped start my life-long love of wood and woodworking.

Note the amount of small businesses. Three businesses sold shoes, leather goods, and wood items to businesses beyond Golden City. All that is gone now. The city is only a shell of its former self.

My Friend, the Bank President

Each time I went to town, I carried with me my little bank deposit book, about 3 by 4. The next to last thing on my tour of town would be to go to the Ford Garage where my Grandpa West worked and hang out with him for a while. I knew that he would soon say to me, Melvin, if I gave you two nickels, what would you do with them?

The correct answer was, Grandpa, I would save one and spend the other.

I got my two nickels and headed for the bank. George Koltermann, the bank

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