COLFAX — From his cinder block blacksmiths shop, Don Dillon hammers a red-hot iron bar into the shape of a comically exaggerated mule his nose jutting out like a mailbox , his ears bent and waving like a bugs antennae.
In a weeks time, Dillon can turn out 40 of these decorative beasts, each one fitted with a hook at the bottom thats perfect for hanging a hat.
But mostly, Dillon would like all Democrats to notice that mules are practically donkeys and that North Carolina will be crawling with donkeys come Sept. 4, and a custom-made donkey hook might make a dandy convention souvenir.
This is my bailout program, said the 70-year-old smith, fingers smeared black. A mule lends itself to caricature, so I dont have to be perfect.
For 30 years, Dillon has earned a living by heating iron bars in a coal fire and bending them over an anvil a rare and back-aching business but the Guilford County craftsman says it beats growing tobacco his familys trade.
You might have seen Dillon demonstrating at the State Fair. He used to make lamps. Then the furniture factory shut down. So now he makes mule hooks mixing humor and politics with lop-eared metal.
One version comes equipped with a crank, which Dillon calls a wind-up key for a liberal Democrat. Youre supposed to insert the mule end where the sun doesnt shine. Another serves as a toilet-paper holder. Another hook combines the ears of a mule with a pachyderms trunk.
This is a donkey-phant, Dillon explained. Thats for the undecided voter, the split-ticket man, the quiet man that dont make a lot of racket. I made a few elephant hooks, but couldnt sell any of them.
Dillon grew up on this tobacco farm outside Greensboro. The date of his birth is recorded in pencil on the boards of an old farm house, written in his fathers hand along with other milestones:
Sept. 1960: Took boy to Boone to go to college
March 1963: Boy gets married
March 1970: Got a new Ford 2000 tractor.
Stories spill out of Dillon while he punches a nostril into a mules nose, or stamps a pair of eyebrows onto its iron forehead.
Sit in his shop for an hour, and youll hear about the man who drove a Cub tractor 19 miles to the nearest liquor store, or the time Dillon traded one of his handmade adzes (an axlike woodworking tool) for a jug of apple liquor even though he doesnt drink.
He explains that Colfax didnt offer much entertainment for a young boy. He and his chums would fight over the latest copy of Field & Stream to hit the public library. He carries a B-flat harmonica in the front pocket of his overalls. He earned his college tuition money by raising calves.
So he doesnt believe in bailouts, stimulus packages or politicians who want to remedy hard times with a truckload of tax money. Elephant or mule, theyre all jackasses to Dillon.
Its been going downhill since Eisenhower, he said. All of them got high ideas and somebody elses money. The word poly means many-sided, and a tick is a parasite. Poly-ticks.
His mule idea came by way of Ira de Koven, a master blacksmith who made the rhino-shaped jungle gym that now stands outside the Asheville Art Museum.
But mule hooks really picked up speed when Dillon attended the Mule Day festival in Columbia, TN.
Theres people who have never seen a mule hook before and they went at them like a feeding frenzy, he said. I sold all my three-gallon buckets.
By contrast, working Mule Days in Benson is a bust for a blacksmith.
Aint no money in Benson, Dillon said, unless youre selling beer or insulated saddle bags.
He gets bored sometimes, making mules all day, alone in his blacksmiths shop. But hard work is the only bailout Dillon knows, and a trip to the bank will cure boredom.
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