Reading, VT turns 250 years old today. With a population of 707, Reading’s 4th of July celebration is utterly fascinating. Like many other New England towns, Reading holds a good old-fashioned ox pull.
The setting is the public school’s athletic field next to a set of weathered bleachers. Hot dogs are sold for a buck. Two oxen, often taller than I am, yoked together by wood and leather, are lead in and harnessed to a platform holding 2,000-3,2000 lbs of concrete. They must pull that sled six feet. Fast as they can. At a signal, their handlers, sometimes a willowy girl or boy in shorts and boots, cry “Get Up!” with a sharp slap of a switch. The great lumbering beasts surge into forward motion, tossing their heads. The handler curses or yells encouragement. Sometimes the oxen bellow. The huge blocks are dragged past a line. The oxen cease, their handlers praise and lead them away. Then a tractor pushes the concrete-laden platform back six feet so the next team can have their turn. Later, the same team will return to pull that sled 100 pounds heavier.
I can watch the competition all day, and if the ox action slows for a moment, just jawing with the locals is a pleasure.
With any luck, before I leave I will get to pet an ox or two. Their very enormity thrills me. Sometimes it is not clear that they even notice that I am there. I always wonder if country folk pet oxen as well, or if my petting them indelibly marks me as once-country-now-inexorably-‘citified.’ And I wonder what it would be like to get to know a great horned beast that is bigger than me.
And I really want to know what the oxen do the rest of the year. The question surpasses them. Are they, like our deepest hopes and values, trotted out on holidays to flex and strain and entertain, then left out in some back forty to graze the other 364?
I want to hold the image of these oxen all year–lumbering forward, strong and steady–unstoppable. I want to move a mountain because it needs to be moved, then return an hour later and, though it is even heavier, move it again. I want to look back from a day’s work and see furrows plowed straight and deep, knowing I will rise the next dawn to sow.
I want this to be my 4th, my 5th, and on like that.
(Mazeltov to Reading, VT)
Another thoughtful and beautifully written essay, one that provides a new perspective on an old tradition. I’ve been to many a country fair that hosted similar competitions, but never drew similar conclusions. Thanks!