This One-Horse Song Is All Wrong

Not so long ago everybody came home for Thanksgiving, and Marm and I presided on the old farm in becoming modesty and poise. Now that we are happy residents of a stately retirement home for comprehensive senior living, it is our privilege to get on the glad rags and be ready when the grandchildren come for us on the dot.

This time there was a power outage (oops!) just as Daughter thrust Old Tom in the oven, and she rang us on the phone to say there would be a delay. And then on our end it started to snow. When our daughter and son-in-law built their home, our daughter insisted the kitchen have, besides all new-day gadgets, a wood-burning kitchen range. So we knew Tom Turkey would continue to roast as soon as they found a match.

As for the snow, I merely loosened my nasal and sang mirthfully the aged ditty, "The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh," which includes the sentiment, "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go." While I sang that, the power company deservedly received sulfurous emergency phone calls from ladies who had just put turkeys to roast. And Grandmaw, who used to baste holiday birds and does not now, said, "Whatever did we do with the set-over pung?"

These addle-pated modernists, who lustily sing "Jingle Bells" with the notion it is Christmas music, need to be instructed, and a good place to start would be with a sleigh ride to Grammie's house on Thanksgiving, to which my charming bride of 65 years had just alluded.

If you want to sing "Jingle Bells" with feeling, get aboard behind ol' shufflin' Tantrabogus and ride out over the river and through the woods to Grammie's. And don't tell me what great fun it was.

I don't remember what became of our set-over pung. I've been told the set-over style was invented here in Maine, where Mother Necessity was ever busy with answers to our weather. The set-over sleigh was for fancy riding, and the set-over pung was a box-sleigh, the utility farm winter version. Anyway, the post-sunrise snow of this Thanksgiving petered out before it got going, and we rode to our holiday duties in a motor vehicle on a clear highway and left the set-over pung in the carriage shed of our memories. It is pleasant to know we shall never again go on a sleigh ride, except the kind played on a radio station at Christmas.

Tantrabogus was the old horse my grandfather used, and he was put to the buggy for going to town and to the sleigh or pung in snow-time.

In Maine, the sleigh and pung were bothersome problems on the road because winter was when Maine hauled logs to mill and hay to the team track. The very idea of clearing away snow to keep a road clear would have small approval, and the big importance in traffic was the "two-sled." This was a tandem coupling of heavy iron-shod sleds rigged "traverse" so they would track.

A useful road, accordingly, was lined out its whole length by two tracks where the horses stepped and the runners slid. The single horse had to walk in the snow between the hoof-lanes of the team, but the runners glided along where the two-sleds left their ruts.

Mother Necessity never made allowances about that. Whenever a horse pulling a sleigh wanted to turn right or left, he would do so, and at once would find that the runners of his sleigh or pung were down in the slots and didn't turn aside worth a cent.

In this situation, a sleigh sort of tightened up, as when a musician turns one too many on his banjo strings. The tension is loaded, with the horse going one way and his sleigh askew in the runner tracks. But the horse has not been notified in writing, so he keeps on going. Then the sleigh runners pop out of the ruts, the passengers are hurled into the snowbank, the driver too, and the horse is profoundly astonished. Now is the time to sing, "Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh."

When Thaddeus Wetlake was a small boy, his mother gave him a pail of molasses to hold, and then the family got in the sleigh and started off for Thanksgiving at Grammie's. On the way, they came to a lay-by, or a place for two rigs to pass, and as another sleigh was approaching, both horses did as directed, one reined one way and the other the other.

They twanged at the same time, and both sleighloads of Thanksgiving folks were hove all over the place. Although it is not pertinent to this narrative, I mention it now because Thaddeus Wetlake ended up with his head in the pail of molasses - a warning to all who hitch up a fictional Tantrabogus to a fictional cutter and go singing all the way to Grammie's house about what fun it was, jingle bells, jingle bells, etc.

There are other things about sleigh rides to be considered. How you had to stable old Tanty when you got there, give him a short pail of water, oats him, and put down his hay. Then, after the last piece of pumpkin pie, you'd go to the stable to find Tanty happy and content, and loath to get back to work. He crowds you, steps on your foot, and fights the bit, and your cold fingers must pry up the runners where they have frozen into the barnyard snow.

The power failure, I heard, made 50,000 subscribers thankful for the electric people, but our daughter's emergency biscuit baker got our Tom to table on time. And, as the snowstorm fizzled out, we were there when he was. We didn't need to find our pung. Jingle bells we'll leave to Christmas with all the other carols. There is so much these days to be thankful for.

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