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Jack and I

My father rode toward us on the gravel road leading through the farm, past my grandparent’s house and toward our own humble abode farther on. I was maybe 12, maybe 13. There’s no one left to verify details. He rode a horse or, more precisely, a pony. A large pony, not a little circus pony. Who knows whether Black Jack was a large pony or a small horse. It didn’t matter.

I had been visiting my grandmother when my father and Jack (the descriptive part of the horse’s name would quickly fall away) approached over the rise where the old barn sat. Visiting grandmother rarely involved interacting with her but rather fooling around in or on top of the smokehouse or pulling a branch from the weeping willow tree, stripping its leaves and pretending it was a whip. Or pumping water from the well in the backyard for the purpose of…pumping water. Or stealing apple slices left to dry on a tarp laid out on a big table in the sun. Or throwing stones at chickens. I hated chickens beyond reason. Living, dirty, squawking, pecking, shitting chickens, that is. I would throw rocks at the chickens to the dismay of my grandmother if she caught me. I would later accidentally kill one with my new bb gun and shove it under the crawl space. You can imagine the consequences. I despised chickens all the more after the chicken massacre where a specific, vindictive chicken chose to cause me such grief.

My grandmother’s regular Sunday fried chicken dinner, on the other hand.

So you can imagine how exiting an addition was Jack to our small world, especially so since his arrival was unexpected. Seeing my father on a horse was nothing short of comical. He was not a farmer as my deceased grandfather had been. He was a truck driver. He had ventured up the road hours ago to visit a neighbor with which he was on friendly terms. On foot. Since he spent so many hours with his ass planted in a truck cab I understand now why he walked at every opportunity, sometimes for considerable distances. How exactly Jack was acquired is today something of a mystery. Probably via a trade which is how my entire extended family lived their lives and conducted business.

I might as well call my father by his first name. So Cliff (my father) arrived with Jack and I was hoisted up to enjoy the remainder of the ride. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever been on a horse but farm animals other than the beastly chickens left the farm with my grandfather. It was still a working concern in the realm of corn and tomatoes and tobacco and such but other than the tobacco sticks that served as imaginary weapons or horses and used to hang and cure the leaves from the barn rafters the tobacco itself and other crops were not very entertaining. Maybe Cliff thought that a companion in the form of an incorrigible horse (we’ll get to that later) would tide me over during the summer when I was largely without playmates.

After much marveling at the animal while Ruby (my mother) shook her head disapprovingly, Jack was put up in an abandoned stall in the back of the barn where he had ready access to to a barbed wire fenced field with plenty of grass to feed on. There was a corn crib and a field of corn next to the barn. Ruby knew that Cliff was a part time husband and father and that in a day or so he’d be back on the road with the 18 wheeler and Jack’s care would fall on the shoulders of her shy and undersized son whom she couldn’t imagine would be up to the challenge. Now that I think about it maybe the work and responsibility imposed on me was, more than the companionship, what Cliff had in mind.

We learned about Jack’s meaner proclivities in fairly short order. On the very first night after his arrival as we sat, after dinner, as a family unit in front of the television we heard a clumping disturbance outside. Then my mother screamed at the horse muzzle steaming up the picture window, stomping and hoofing loudly at the wooden front porch. It seems Jack was not happy about being excluded from the family’s affairs. We weren’t accustomed to evening visitors at all, especially those of the equine variety. As I recall the front door was not only unlocked but left open like most of the windows in the summer months so the night air could find its way through the screens.

We took Jack back to the barn where we locked him in the stall. When Cliff and I went back the next day to find and repair the breech in the fence and to check on the animal, we found the door to the horse stall still intact but splintered and barely on its hinges. The next full day was spent on sweaty repairs in the hot sun with Cliff cursing frequently and colorfully as was his nature even under the most favorable circumstances. Then we reopened the stall and let Jack roam free to test his containment.

Cliff had ridden Jack easily and effortlessly without the animal’s resistance. Perhaps Jack sensed the weight and strength of Cliff’s authority whereas when I mounted him alone for the first time I was savagely bucked from his back, landing on the hard ground with the wind knocked out of me. I got quick instructions on handling the animal though I was warned not to try to ride him until Cliff had returned and could supervise. It seemed it was important to keep the animal’s head up with taught reins. The head down position was that which gave Jack the leverage to thrash and buck his hindquarters. The next day Cliff left for a week or more on the road. He left us with Warren’s phone number for use in the event of disaster. Warren was Jack’s previous owner.

It turns out that owning a horse is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s mostly about oats and heavy buckets of water and brushing burrs out of his tail and shoveling shit laden straw out of the stall and daily exercising on foot for I was not allowed to let Jack out into the field unsupervised. Walking a horse rather than riding one is about as entertaining as watching chickens peck at the ground.

When Cliff returned my riding lessons continued. I learned how to cinch a saddle. You put the saddle on the horse’s back, tighten the cinch at his belly, wait for him to breath in and tighten it again but not too tight. Weeks later I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table crying while she plucked pebbles form my raw and abused back and applied rubbling alcohol after Jack dragged me down the gravel lane. The saddle had slipped to his side while I had one foot stuck in the stirrup. When I was retrieved, injured and humiliated, Jack was peacefully munching grass at the side of the road, such was his callousness and disregard.

In short order I learned Jack’s various tricks for dismounting riders mostly achievable due to  my failure to be stern and authoritative. There was the dragging my leg along the barbed wire fence tactic. The drop and roll in the dust gambit. The buck or the bite, of course. And the famous off-switch. The off-switch was when Jack simply refused to move forward, often at the most inopportune time, a mile or so away from home. I didn’t wear spurs and I could kick at him with all my force while realizing that I was causing very little discomfort.

Winter time was the worst. I would trudge to the barn in the ice and snow to attend to Jack’s needs before catching the school bus. The next spring what little progress I had made in becoming Jack’s master had thawed away with the ice. He might as well have been purchased from a stranger the day before.

There came the stepping into a yellow jacket’s nest while tethered to a tree fiasco. My mother and one of my much older sister’s (she was married and re-domesticated already) friends waded into the swarm with a burning broom like a torch to ward off the bees while releasing Jack from his cruel captivity. Then the bursting through his enclosure to feast on the adjacent corn field excursion. They call it foundering. Apparently a horse presented with an unlimited food supply will literally try to eat himself to death. And on and on.

Jack was not without his tender moments when he would nuzzle at me with his hot breath huffing from snotty nostrils. He seemed to truly enjoy my company while I was not astride. I never came to terms with his mean and angry side but I had a theory about its origin after I learned what gelding meant.

One day I came home from school. Jack was not in the barn. He was not in the pasture. He was no where to be seen. It was explained to me that the expense and trouble of Jack simply didn’t measure up to our enjoyment of him. He had been sold earlier that day. I was saddened and without appetite. I don’t remember if I cried. The bittersweet memory of Jack lasted but a few days before I found other more meaningful distractions on the schoolyard in the form of fillies of a very different breed but still of a spirited and temperamental sort.

The important lesson learned early in life was that control of other living beings is largely an illusion. No matter the species.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 11, 2015 at 12:54 am

    I loved reading this, Mick! Thank you.

  2. Rebecca Burris
    July 12, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Nice. I have very similar memories of portions of my childhood.
    I like the storytelling style. It is written very much in the same style as the old stories told by my grandparents of our family’s farm in Kentucky.

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