Monday, July 16, 2007

Autobiographical Notes: Joy


A few days ago I wrote a post entitled Back in the Saddle which got me thinking about a particular chapter in my life that had to do with horses, and one horse in particular:


When I was eleven years old, my parents bought a farm. My father was 61 years old. He had spent 30 years working as an engineer and had been planning for years to retire to a farm in upstate New York. The whole idea of starting one’s life over by buying a parcel of land was intriguing to me. We eventually settled for a 97 acre parcel of land at the top of a hill between Hillsdale and Craryville, New York. It had a big two-story white farmhouse, a barn with stanchions for perhaps twenty cows and stalls for five horses, a hayloft, and two garage areas, one for the car, the other for a tractor.

One of the big attractions for me of moving to the farm was the possibility that I would be able to own a horse. I had grown up reading about Jack Ramsay and the Black Stallion (another post here), and most of my favorite television shows - Hopalong Cassidy, Rin-Tin-Tin, Bonanza, Wyatt Earp - were about cowboys or life in the wild west. I had a suburban kid’s romantic vision of horseback rider as a dashing hero, one with mobility and an implicit sense of honor and justice. Once we had passed papers on the farm, my mom and my older brother Geoff and I moved in. My father took a hotel room in the city until his official retirement day; in the meantime, he planned to take the three hour train ride up to stay with us on weekends.

I don’t remember what the occasion was. I do remember that my mom came home one afternoon and told me that she and my father had bought me a horse, and that it was going to be delivered this weekend. I spent the intervening days cleaning out the box stall in the barn, going with my mother to purchase stores of straw and hay and grain, and buying some of the necessary hardware: ropes, buckets, a halter, a bridle.

I spent the Saturday morning the horse was to arrive out in the front yard, looking down the dirt road for signs of a dust cloud that might indicate a truck was on the way. At around 11:30 in the morning, a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer pulled into our driveway. From inside the trailer came sounds of banging and whinnying. There was definitely a horse in there. A pretty frisky horse. The wrangler, a grave looking dark-skinned, muscular man with a beard, stepped out of the truck grabbed a rope, opened the back doors of the trailer, lay out a ramp leading up to the trailer bed, and stepped in. There was a momentary silence, and suddenly about twelve hundred pounds of dark brown muscle came exploding out of the trailer, dragging with it the wrangler who was holding onto the rope for dear life and calling out “Whoa! Whoa there!! Hold ‘on! Easy there girl!!” It took him about a minute, but eventually the wrangler had her more or less stationary, but she kept lifting her feet in place, tossing her head, pulling against the rope as he spoke to her, trying to calm her as she stood snorting, eyes wild. We showed him where the box stall was, which I had layered knee deep in fresh straw. He led her into the stall, slide the door shut, and I stood outside, looking in through the barred opening just at eye level. Looking at her as she skittered around the edges of the stall, trembling and sweating and looking for a way out, I decide to name her “Joy.”

It wasn’t until some time later that we figured out what had happened. My parents had gone to a horse auction in Millerton, looking for a nice gentle horse for their son. They had seen Joy displayed at the auction by her handler, who had demonstrated her gentleness. He had walked underneath her belly, stood behind her to show she would not kick, had climbed up on her and over her from both sides to show she was not skittish. Knowing nothing about horses, nor about auctions, they had not realized that the horse they were so impressed with was in fact heavily sedated at the time. It wasn’t until I began to try to ride my new horse that we found out just how crazy she was.

In the beginning I was taught how to ride by my sister Priscilla, who had taken riding lessons at some point and who also had some experience working at a stable. She was the one who taught me approach the horse slowly from the side so as not to spook her, how to put on a bridle, how to reach my finger into the corner of the horse’s mouth - just behind the foreteeth which could smash your finger if the horse was in the mood - and touch the tongue in order to get the horse to accept the bit into her mouth. She taught how to put on the saddle blanket and saddle, how to cinch and tighten the girth, how to adjust the stirrups to my leg length by measuring it with my arm before I got on. She taught me how to approach the horse from the left on order to mount, how to turn the stirrup to face me so that I could get on the horse by standing at its side facing backwards - holding both reins with my left hand at her withers - put my foot in the stirrup, and then step up and swing my leg over in one motion, transferring the reins to my right hand in the process. She taught me how the difference between a western saddle and and eastern saddle, and between riding western and riding eastern. All of what she taught me would have been a lot easier, and a lot more fun to learn, if it hadn’t been for the horse.

Joy knew all the tricks in the book. She knew how to blow up her stomach while she was being saddled, so that once I was aboard and she let the air out, the saddle would fit too loosely and cause me to lose my balance, fall off entirely, or, on one memorable occasion, swing around underneath her and leave me dangling there between her legs while she bolted for home. She knew how to grab the bit between her teeth and run away. She knew how to sidestep quickly to throw me off balance. She knew how to look for low-hanging tree branches, wait until she was near, and then suddenly break for the branch and try to scrape me off. She knew how to rear and kick, how to run and then stop dead in her tracks to send my flying over her head and onto the ground. She made every minute I spent on her back a struggle for control, and every movement of her body an opportunity to dismount me. Once I was on the ground, she would run away riderless, loose reins and empty stirrups flapping in the breeze. Then it would take my sister and I an hour or more to chase her back to the barn, where she would finally return to her stall, sweaty, eyes rolling, feet stamping.

The worst part of it was that she needed to be ridden, and ridden hard, every day. Despite the fact that there were many days when I was too tired, or too discouraged, or too beaten up from the previous day’s disasters, to want to ride, I knew that if I didn’t ride her, the next day would be worse, for both of us. She needed to be worked, or she would get really crazy. My sister had a friend, Helen Hyland, who showed us the value of getting her tired. After hearing about my troubles with Joy, Miss Hyland came to the farm one Saturday afternoon and got out of the car with a whip in one hand and a fabric rope about fifty feet long. It had a clip at one end and a loop at the other, and was called a luge line. Miss Hyland clipped the rope to Joy’s halter, led her out to a flat field near the barn, then dropped the line on the ground, holding on only to the loop at the end, which she wrapped around her shoulder. Then she cracked the whip which gave off a noise like a pistol shot. Joy took off like a rocket, hit the end of the rope, and then, constrained by the luge line, began running in a large circle around Miss Hyland. Every time she showed any sign of slowing down, Miss Hyland would crack the whip. She kept her running for the better part of fifteen minutes, until Joy was shiny with sweat and clearly worn out. Then she reeled in the luge line, tied Joy to a fencepost, and saddled and bridled her. For the first time in my experience, Joy offered no resistance. Once the saddle and bridle were in place, I swung up into the saddle, and rode her around the field. It was like riding a different horse altogether, a kinder, gentler, much less fractious horse. We continued to exercise Joy on the luge line for several weeks, until she finally had gotten somewhat used to me, and me to her. From that point forward I was able to ride her without actually taking my life into my hands, but she never did really get to the point where riding her was anything like a pleasure.

After several months of tending to two horses, I was surprised when my sister asked me if I might be interested in boarding two more. Miss Hyland had another set of friends who had two palomino mares. One, who I renamed Steinway, was a huge draft horse with Percheron blood. She was gentle and not very bright, but she was strong. Her neck was nearly twice the size of Joy’s, and sitting on her back was like sitting on a piano: my feet stuck out nearly horizontally on both sides. She had what riders sometimes call a hard mouth, which meant that when you wanted her to turn or stop you really had to haul on the reins to get her attention. But she was goodhearted and willing, and riding her was hard but uncomplicated work. Spike, on the other hand, was a light horse, about the same size as Joy. She was quick and light on her feet and was fun to ride when she was in the mood. But she was, like many horses, deeply attracted to life in the barn. Given the choice, she would prefer to stay home rather than go out into the world. As a result, riding her was always a comedy in two acts. The first act was trying to get her to ride away from the barn, which involved continuously trying to kick her sides with my heels, making clicking sounds in her ear, tapping her lightly about the neck with the reins, and doing everything short of beating her to get her to move. The second act, the return trip, was the opposite: it consisted of hauling back and sawing on the reins continuously to keep her from going back to the barn at a full gallop. Once one of the reins broke and I was carried back to the barn at warp speed. She ran into the stall and stopped dead in her tracks, scraping my leg on the door in the process and then dumping me onto the floor.

In the spring of the year after we got Joy, my father died. We had bought the farm in June, and moved in in September. Originally the plan had been for him to retire at the end of the year, but his employers told him that they needed more time to find a replacement, and begged him to work another six months while they recruited and trained someone to take over for him. Reluctantly, he had agreed. He made arrangements to stay in a hotel room during the week and come upstate by train on the weekends. Three months into the six-month extension we got a phone call from a New York City hospital saying he had had a heart attack. My mom immediately drove down to the city and I stayed at home with my sister. I remember arriving home on the bus from school one March afternoon. I put down my books on the kitchen table and went around the corner to where my sister was standing at the sink, doing dishes. I opened the refrigerator to get a snack, and asked her “How’s Daddy doing?” I looked over to her and saw she was in tears.

“Daddy’s in heaven,” she told me.

I was stunned, I hadn’t really thought about the chance that he might actually die. The first words that came out of my mouth were “What’s going to happen to the farm?”

She came over and held me. “I don’t know.”

I don’t remember a whole lot about the immediate aftermath. The only really clear memory I have is of standing in the back yard a month or two later in the early summer feeling mostly anger at my father for having left us like that, for having worked himself to death and leaving us behind. Looking back at it now, I realize that I did something else: I took my anger at my father, and all the other feelings that I probably had but did not have words for, and stashed them way in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until I started writing poems in my late twenties that I began to deal with my father’s death. Every time I sat down to write a poem, my father wound up showing up in it. The very first poem that I felt really good about was an early memory of me and my father doing some yard work in the spring, and in its imagery and its tone it captured a great deal of what I had managed to keep suppressed for nearly twenty years:

Yard Work

Spring arrives, clear and dry. Out back,
my father and I collect branches
and twigs, pile them on the brush heap.
Blown against the fence, our Christmas tree
now brown and dry, trails tinsel as
we drag it over and toss it on top
of the pile. It's time. My father takes
newspaper and shoves it beneath
the twigs and leaves at the bottom.
"Stand back now, son," he tells me.
From his pockets he pulls a pack
of matches, tears one out. He bends
and strikes, then - cupping his hands
against the breeze - lights the fire.

First a curl of smoke, then orange fingers
fan upward. Upward! Leaping, the flames
catch and claw. The first lick touches the tree,
and with an enormous crackling whoosh!
it blazes, a yellow wall against the sky.
Lashed by the heat, I stumble back into
my father's arms. I stand stunned, shielding
my face, as black vapors stream skyward,
hissing; my eyes sting and tear. In seconds,
the tree is turned to black bones; the flames
subside. Cool air sweeps my face. Behind me,
my father stands. In silence we watch
the crumbling limbs burn slowly down to ash.


With my father gone, we all went on, as we had to, with our lives. I went back to school, and to the horses. I wound up taking care of these horses - and eventually several others, for three years, starting the year I was in sixth grade. My life during those years took on a steady and ultimately depressing rhythm: wake up at five, dress and go out to the barn, feed and water the horses and clean out their stalls, come back in, shower and eat breakfast, catch the bus to school, catch the bus back home from school, get changed, ride and exercise and then curry comb and brush all four horses, feed and water them again and clean out their stalls, eat dinner, do my homework, fall into bed, and then wake up the next morning and do it all again. By the time I was in eighth grade I was deadly tired of the whole routine. When my mother told me that she was thinking about sending me to a boarding school in New Jersey, the most attractive thing about that possibility was that it meant I would no longer be responsible for the stupid horses any more. So we sold the horses off, one and two at a time, and in the fall of 1960 I went off to boarding school in New Jersey, where I went for two years before rejoining my mother after she moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, where the next chapter in my life began to unfold.

1 comment:

Mark Hanington said...

I think you should subm,it this one to The New Yorker or Harper's or Atlantic Monthly.