Jim and Jerry
Jim and Jerry, the senior team in the field in front of the Brookside Farm barn, were put down last week. At 20, Jerry had crippling arthritis and Jim was wasting, and to put one down guaranteed that the other would fail decisively during the winter ahead. Anyway, they were a team in life, so the decision was a natural one.
Still, Hillary Blocksom and Maria Sercander, who works with Hillary at Brookside, struggled with the decision for a long while before making it. And, "We cried for a couple of days" afterwards, Hillary said.
Jim and Jerry now rest permanently from their intermittent labors in the field where they spent most of their long lives, down the hill just in front of the bank barn. Two stones mark the spot.
If there were a category for such things, I'm sure Jim and Jerry earned the title of most photographed team of oxen ever. Daily, a tourist or two will be encountered - suddenly - his car half off the road beside the stone wall, recording the scene for some family album. Of course, the scene, even without the venerable team, is dreamy and worth recording, and it's not easy to be sure what caught the photographer's eye: Jim and Jerry, who paid no attention to the attention but knew how to put their best feet forward, or the sloping fields, the ancient barn, the glistening Tiasquam below, or the illusion of trackless forest looming just across the river. In the fall, Brookside is the centerpiece of the Vineyard's autumn foliage tour, which otherwise is a bust.
Hillary, who runs the ox pull at The Fair, trained Jim and Jerry. Jim was the off ox, bigger than his teammate and a little rambunctious, and Jerry was the nigh ox, the dependable leader. She learned how to drive oxen from Buck and Shorty, her first team, and from Leonard Athearn of West Tisbury. This week, she remembered, a smile in her voice, that long ago, a month after Buck and Shorty arrived at Brookside, Leonard brought a two-wheel cart to the farm and suggested that they hook up the new team to see how they'd do. It was New Year's day, below freezing. One supposes Buck and Shorty, whose history included mainly pulling heavy sleds laden with concrete blocks at county fairs, were excited by the new surroundings and stimulated by the weather. Hillary hooked them up, and they sensed what was coming next. Leonard told Hillary to get in front and tell the pair to come along. (Handlers usually manage their teams from ahead or from the left, or nigh, side. Hillary says you do all the work from the left, just as with a horse.)
Anyhow, she did as Leonard asked, spoke the words, and Buck and Shorty gave a mighty lurch, as if they had a thousand-pound sled behind them and a cheering crowd looking on. Surprised to find the light cart on behind, and maybe thinking that this was a bit of a lark compared with what they were regularly asked to shift, Buck and Shorty took that cart on a powder around the pasture. Then, tireless, triumphant, and downright sporty, they attempted to hurdle the stone wall, which proved their undoing.
"It ended up with the shaft ten feet in the air and them hanging off it. I had to hammer them out of the yolk," Hillary said. "Leonard was just as calm as ever."
The Brookside field is not empty. Bud and Boy arrived a while ago to join Jim and Jerry, in a well-planned transitional succession. Like the recently departed, Bud and Boy are Red Devons, a breed that is smallish by modern ox standards, but one that figures large in American history. They were the original cattle that the settlers brought from England, because they were economical to keep and suitable for meat, milk, and work. Bud is the nigh ox and Boy, the off. Maria is working with them. To the regular passerby, the Brookside oxen haven't a reputation for doing a lot of work. Their daily pursuits include frequent posing, nearly constant grazing, keeping track of one another, tallying the tourist-photographers who stop by, and occasionally licking one another. Sometimes they lie down, and one senses that they'd like to roll over on their sides, but those pesky, curling horns defeat them. Bud and Boy have not revealed their thoughts about the departures of Jim and Jerry. They have taken the change in stride and begun to let go of whatever regrets linger. Understandable, I suppose. For the rest of us, memory haunts, and change disturbs.