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Poor old Jack

Thinking of the time when, finding that old horse plough share, I stood there remembering those long ago days with poor old Jack. I say poor, because he was the most sorry looking horse I had ever met. Most horses at that time were working horses, strong heavy Shires, but not poor old Jack, he was a painfully thin horse, with a long sunk in face, large brown sorrowful eyes, rough coat, and very thin legs, all my Dad could afford.

 My Dad was in the habit of pulling me out of school when ever he felt he was getting behind in his constant battle against weeds and time on his pitifully small acreage, consisting of poorly shaped tiny fields of two to five acres, scattered across the Fens on the edge of our Village [these were the little bits that the big farmers never bothered with]. He would wait until the daily roster had been called, and would then call upon the Head Master for permission to take me out. He was never refused. This was a small farming Village and practically every one worked on or was connected to agriculture.

 One spring morning , I remember being taken from School at the tender age of nine. "You can harness old Jack up" he said "and harrow the five acre's". I had to stand on a box to put his collar on, and in trying to turn it round, would be lifted high in the air, as Jack would toss his head up. This began to be a daily game we played. I was a small skinny lad, weighing ten ounces soaking wet, {an old Norfolk quip}. After shackling him to the harrows, off we went. I always felt sorry for poor old Jack, every job was hard for him. He would strain and struggle with the easiest of jobs, and I would stop at the end of each round, and pull some nice fresh grass to give my perspiring old friend to chew. "You are doing all right old buddy", I would whisper in his ear, and off we would go again, Jack struggling, and me a nine year old lad in short trousers, [we couldn't have long trousers until we reached the magical age of fourteen,] lifting the harrows with a hooked stick. My Dad in those days never possessed such a thing as a watch, but could tell the time from many different sources, no matter how long our day was, he always said that four o'clock in the afternoon was long enough for poor old Jack.

 Our land sloped down to the river, the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. Over the river was the rail way track. The milk train, consisting of a long line of milk tanks always came by on the stroke of four o'clock, giving a piercing whistle as it approached the station. I knew nothing of this of course, concentrating on the job in hand. I heard the call of the milk train but thought nothing of it, but other ears also heard. Suddenly poor old Jack turned, and without a by your leave, headed purposefully for his stall where a feed of welcome oats would be waiting. I discovered that no matter what we were doing - hoeing, harrowing, rolling-drilling, ploughing or hauling sugar beet - when that 4 o'clock whistle sounded Jack was going home, and no little snotty nosed kid was going to stop him. I learned after that episode to be ready to stop him long enough to unshackle any thing he was hitched up to as soon as that very welcome whistle came.

 Then one day we came into possession of a very old iron wheeled Fordson tractor. It was a rusty, beaten up old thing with cleat track wheels. It had a small tank for petrol, and a larger one for paraffin.I was over the moon. No more walking hour after hour behind poor old Jack, now I could plough, cultivate, roll, harrow, drill, and haul loads much quicker and easier and Jack was left in his paddock.

 I feel I should mention that my Dad's little fields were scattered , some as far as two miles away. It was the most uneconomic set up that one could imagine. One evening, returning from a day on one of the faraway fields, I put the tractor away, and set off to close the gate, anticipating a lovely hot meal. Suddenly I stopped. Something felt wrong. "Where is Jack?", I demanded! "Sold him!", answered my Dad brusquely. I was stunned. I knew the Knacker's Yard was the only place poor old Jack would be going to. I knew my Dad needed the money, life at that time was not very easy, but to sell poor old Jack!, I couldn't eat any dinner, I felt so guilty,

 Poor old Jack had been shut away in his paddock day after day, watching us leave for work, me so rapt up with our old tractor, never thinking for one moment of that thin scraggly horse, alone and forgotten., I never once thought of going over to look into those big brown sorrowful eyes, scratch his neck, and tell him what a grand old chap he was, [ he loved me scratching his neck]. I would never again reach up to place the clumsy collar over his head and wait for him to toss his scrawny neck up, in his playful attempt to lift this thin underweight kid off his box. I could no longer confide in him my foolish childish dreams with the total confidence. He would tell no other. Or sitting on his back, becoming once again Kit Carson chasing the Apaches off our land.

 The next day I was ploughing the five acres, the very same field where I had at the age of nine  started my first days work with old Jack. I was concentrating on keeping the plough turning cleanly and the furrows straight, when suddenly in the distance I heard the strident whistle of the milk train. I stopped the tractor, walked a few yards away, and this young lad just turned thirteen, but doing a mans job, just stood and sobbed and sobbed, and even now, in my mid seventies, no matter where I am, should I hear the whistle of a train I close my eyes, and I am back there once again in that little five acre field, pulling a handful of fresh grass for poor old Jack.

 Gordon Langley


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