Let me tell you about one of the longest days of my life.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, my father operated a rendering plant on Riverside Drive just south of Broadway.
We bought product from many different sources, one of which was the Asheville Livestock Yard, located near where the Day’s warehouses are now.
When I was about 16 or 17, I was given the job of going to the stockyard to bid on what we called “killer horses and mules.”
These were animals that were mostly too old to be useful and were sold very cheaply just to get rid of them. I was quite proud of being a buyer at the stockyard, and I became reasonably skillful at estimating the animals’ weight, which was how we determined the price we could pay.
Buyers at stock auctions are usually professionals; the auctioneer knows most of them and their particular bid signal, which could be a lifted finger or a scratch on the nose.
The advantage in using me as the buyer was that sellers didn’t notice me, a small teenage boy who was buying these animals to kill. Some people would refuse to sell if they found that out.
Our competition was a company down east that bought these animals for fox feed on fur farms.
Normally I would buy four or five animals at a Friday sale, but on this particular day the competition didn’t show up and I was able to buy about 15 animals at great prices, one of which was a particularly cantankerous blind mule.
I excitedly called my father to give him the good news but caught him in the middle of some serious business problem and an ill mood.
I told him I needed the big truck to haul the animals to the plant. He said the truck wasn’t available, and when I asked him how I was supposed to get them to the plant, he said, in a moment of pique, “I don’t care—walk ‘em down there.”
I knew my dad was not a man to argue with when he was in a bad mood, so I found a young black man who hung around the stockyard picking up odd jobs, and I told him I would give him $5 to help me drive these animals down Riverside Drive to the plant.
I found a farmer who had a hundred feet of rope that I bought for $2. We tied all the animals together, and I put the blind mule in front.
We were quite the sight as I led this mule train down Riverside Drive with my helper driving them from behind. We must have backed up traffic for a half-mile or more, and to make matters worse, a couple of the older animals kept breaking down, and we would have to get them up and going again. It must have taken at least two hours to walk them the two miles to the plant. You can imagine how relieved I was by the end of this ordeal.
Meanwhile, I had come up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. Instead of butchering the animals as soon as they were brought in, it made sense to me to build a pen and put them there, keeping them alive for a day or two in case we were over capacity.
I bought an electric fence from Sears that would shock the animals if they touched it to keep them from getting out of the pen.
Very tired but satisfied with “mission accomplished,” I was looking forward to a Friday evening with my friends.
That was not to be.
About two hours after I got home, we got a call from the Asheville Police Department. Apparently the rank, ill-tempered mule was not impressed with the fence I had built and had broken it down. The animals had gotten out of the pen and were wreaking havoc all over the neighborhood.
We had to round up all our men to go find them and bring them in. It was like the Wild West, trying to corral all the varmints with lassos and guns.
Of course, they were hard to find in the dark, having scattered far and wide. A couple had made it all the way to the farmers market on North Lexington Avenue, where they were helping themselves to the stored produce.
Luckily these were mostly older animals that didn’t move very fast, and we were able to capture most of them after several hours of hard work and aggravation. Unfortunately two were hit by cars and had to be destroyed on the spot by the police officer.
The worst was a horse that jumped off a bank and his head went through the passenger side of a pickup truck, where a woman was sitting holding a baby. Fortunately no one was hurt, but you can imagine the terrible trauma that poor woman must have suffered.
By the time we rounded up all the animals, settled damages with some of the vendors at the market, unruffled the feathers of the neighbors whose yards had been damaged, and contacted the insurance companies to handle the vehicle claims, it was daylight. Everyone was mad and exhausted, and I’d been transformed from a buyer of animals to one of them: the “goat.”
I was really lucky that the plant wasn’t operating at the time, as everyone involved in this all-night roundup was angry enough at me to put me in the rendering pot.
Even though I was spared this fate, it was still one of the longest days of my life.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at email@example.com.]