Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horse Sense

Phil Bailey must have been one hell of a guy, because my parents gave their third born child his name.  That's all I know about him; I've got his name.  Nothing else.  He faded away with the state of Maine in Dad's rear view mirror on my parents' move to New Hampshire, and all that I remember are some vague stories about pranks and outhouses from days long before my time.

I had a baby sitter named Pricilla Ferrin who called me "Flip", much to my chagrin.  "Philip!" I would retort to no avail.  Pricilla was a character- very funny and witty and sweet, and I'm sure if I saw her all these years later, she would still call me "Flip", but now I'd take it a little better.  She married a mortician named Karl, and I've no doubt that she nicknames every cadaver that rolls through their doors.

I'm "Phil" to about 99 percent of those who know me.  Those who call me “Philip” are either related or are truly intimate friends, except for one guy named Daniel, who calls everyone their Christian name in a condescending fashion.  I call him “Dan”.

I have grown into my name, but as a young boy, I was jealous of my brother David, who was named for my father.  To make me feel better about the situation, my father told me that my name was a great name, and that it was fitting for a boy who liked horses as much as I did.  Philip, you see, is Greek for "lover of horses". 

Indeed, the horse has always been my favorite animal.  As a boy, along with pictures of Sherman tanks, pirate ships, guns, and airplanes, I was constantly illustrating my schoolwork with horses.   Somewhere in a box of boyhood treasures I have a small plastic white horse, a keepsake from a large set of Revolutionary War soldiers that Dave and I played with.  It's scratched up and imbedded with dirt from the constant handling of a red-blooded American boy's hands.

Our father grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and shared a horse named Tony with his brother Gene.  I used to think what a marvelous thing it was that my Dad grew up riding horses.  Sometimes, armed with a bunch of carrots, he'd pull his car up beside a horse in a random pasture, and feed it with his bare hand, which seemed brave at the time, but Dad knew horses.  He loved all animals, but like me, had a soft spot for Brother Horse.

In 1964, our family took a cross-country trip from Rhode Island to Los Angeles and back.  It took 5 weeks, and it was the greatest trip of my boyhood. 

Riding in Dad's brand new, metallic blue Chevy Bel Air wagon, we saw America's wonders- the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, the Mississippi River, and Disneyland.  I have many wonderful memories of our odyssey, but the one that involves a horse is from Utah's Zion National Park.

Camping there for a day or two, my parents sent Dave and I on a horseback riding adventure- a trail ride up the walls of Zion Canyon.  We zig-zagged our way up the side of a sheer cliff on sturdy horses, sure-footed and reliable.  At one point, high above our starting point, David's horse reared, spooked by a snake.  He was all of 14, and hung on for dear life.  He was shaken, but he lived to tell about it, and it made our shared adventure a much more interesting story.  Such are the moments that make big brothers heroic.

Two years later, I was 14, and my parents had sent me to Camp Brookwoods in New Hampshire.  At the time, going to camp for a month was my reward for getting passing grades in 8th grade.  Now, I realize that my parents were the ones being rewarded by the absence of their beloved black sheep.  It was a well-deserved break.

Brookwoods was full of upper class boys in Izod shirts, boys with more money in their savings accounts than my dad made in a year.  Like many well-to-do camps, there were stables there, and horseback riding was an available activity.  Western style was beneath Brookwoods; we learned the proper "English" method, on saddles with no horns to hold on to.

I was assigned a large palomino, 16 hands high, named Butternut.  He was quiet and easy, and the tallest horse I've ever been on.  Every day of that long, hot July, I would amble from some sleepy activity- making lanyards or wallets- and find my way to the stable to see my old friend Butternut. 

To say I had a way with horses would be an enormous lie.  I believe Butternut had a way with me, patient and bemused, much like Bree in CS Lewis' The Horse and His Boy.  He never threw me, reared, or acted up.  Maybe he was too old to care; one hoof on a banana peel and the other in the glue factory, but if a horse can be kind and forgiving of a slow learning boy, Butternut certainly was.  We had a riding instructor, but Butternut was the real teacher.

When I was in college, I took a semester of horseback riding for phys ed.  It was fun saddling my horse, and galloping through the open fields of Nowhere, Indiana, the wind blowing through my hair- yes, I had hair then.  These critters had some life in them, and it was a thrill to feel the horse beneath me, surging forward with a gentle nudge of my heels, and riding like the wind.

It's been a long time since I hoisted myself onto the strong back of a horse.  I can't even remember when that might have been.  But horses will always catch my eye, perhaps knowing my name, Lover of Horses.

It's that affection for Horse that makes one shameful story all the more ironic and sad.

We'd been snowed in for a few days, a rare event in Nashville.  On the first day of the snow, my friend Tom Howard passed away, but that is a story I've told elsewhere in this collection of tales.  After a day or two, Nashville dug itself out, as it always does.  My Southern Born Woman and I decided to drive out to one of the many parks that dot Nashville's borders. 

We made our way slowly up and down the single lane drive, and rounded the bend finding ourselves grille to grille with a large pickup truck towing a horse trailer going the wrong way on a one-way road.

I was annoyed.  A woman got out of the passenger side, and was hoping to wave me past the truck, but I wasn't going anywhere; I had no idea what lay under the leaves and snow on the side of the road, and didn't feel like scraping the belly of my car on some hidden sharp rock.  Besides, I thought, what is with these self-entitled people thinking they can drag their asses and their horse the wrong way up this narrow road? 

I was too annoyed to care about the woman's story of rescuing their horse, and of having to drive the wrong way for whatever reason.  Hey, for all I know, it was just a story, right?

Of course, my genteel, properly raised passenger was aghast that my first thought wasn't to help them.  I sat, not moving, for what seemed like minutes, because of the inconvenience to me, and then finally, half-arriving at my senses (not fully, mind you), proceeded over the road's shoulder with no damage to my car, but plenty to my soul.

It was an event that she and I thankfully didn't speak of for quite some time.  I didn't wish to remember it; I had enough self-awareness to know I'd been an ass, and just wanted to move on.

Some months passed, and we found ourselves discussing why I would be so inordinately put out with these people and their horse.  It was a moment of utter shame for me, bitter and poignant and embarrassing, yet potentially pivotal and life-changing.  I was repentant and remorseful.  

A week doesn't go by in which I don't think about the horse incident.  The impact of my own selfishness on that winter afternoon continues to be real, and continues to reveal truth to me about the human heart, and about the ways nature can speak to the human condition.

Of note is that, in this unfortunate episode, I never laid eyes on Brother Horse or Sister Horse.  For all I know, perhaps that trailer carried the progeny of my old friend Butternut, who'd been such a gracious teacher to me as a young boy.  Whatever the case, once again, Horse was teaching me a lesson.

As I now think on that noble beast of burden, I wonder of my own burdens, and which of them would weigh enough to make such a beastly man of me on that cold Sunday afternoon.  Meditating on Brother Horse, I think of the dignity with which every horse carries itself, even under the greatest of loads.  And again, I wonder, what burden do I carry whose size leaves no room for me to walk with dignity? 

It's said that a tamed horse, returning to the wild, quickly sheds the habits of domestication.  With freedom, The Wild returns to the horse, who remembers its true nature.  No longer a beast of burden, Brother Horse runs free and noble, spirited and joyous.

I wonder what happened to the horse in that trailer.  Sometimes I fantasize that it was set free in some beautiful meadow, never again to feel the weight of so much as a saddle blanket or the cold steel shock of a bridle's bit.   And I pray, Love, free me of the burdens of selfishness and pride, let me run with dignity and beauty, but keep the bridle close at hand.