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December 27, 2012

Rolling toward a stop

I’m slowing down, friends, rolling toward a stop for this column. The best way to describe my reason is through an analogy: I want you to think of me as a horse-drawn wagon and driver — not just as the driver, but as the whole shebang.

A long time ago, the whole shebang worked great. The horse was never handsome, but he was sturdy, healthy, had a good gait and wind, and could pull most loads asked of him. These days the poor beast is sway-backed, spavined, short of breath. He is, in sum, “knackered,” as the Brits say: ready for the glue factory.

And the wagon, which in its day was solid and well maintained (axles greased, splits repaired), is now all creaks and squeaks; the wheels spin in erratic circles, making the rig judder, wobble and throw the sore-footed horse out of step and into stumbling.

And the rig’s driver, up on the box? His reflexes have slowed down, his judgment weakened, his perceptions turned untrustworthy. That all means that the poor horse no longer feels a sense of command and direction flowing through the reins. As if things weren’t bad enough for it!

Not a good situation for the whole shebang, as you can see. And so it’s time for the driver, with what prudence is left to him, to slow down. He needs slowly to rein in the footsore horse and to press down on the wheel brake.

In the old days, a mechanical wheel brake was essential to any horse-drawn rig, from fancy coach to farm buckboard. It could spare a team from injury or death if, going down a steep hill, the wheeled burden behind them got rolling faster than they could go and literally overran them, knocking them down. Horrific injuries would follow, with the team and often the wagon’s riders mangled and killed.

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