Every perfect family needs a Shetland pony, right? Girls and horses.
I missed my sister’s doll era (I don’t think she had much of one), but she was deeply committed to miniature horses. I’d say there were over a hundred by the time I could tie my shoelaces by myself. She kept them dusted with a moist washcloth every day. From there it seemed a natural evolution to getting her a real horse of some sort to ride. (I sorely wished this same principle had applied to my interest in robots.)
Our mother, who felt that horse riding was the ideal way to emphasize what she considered her aristocratic bearing and patrician heritage, aided her in this scheme. (In truth, her father had just been a country doctor with a thick head of white hair and a modest talent on the viola, who’d inherited a big drafty house full of chimney swifts and field mice-but in her mind it was a mansion on the hill, and she couldn’t believe she’d given up a room full of suitors bringing her corsages for my minister father who tied fishing flies at the dinner table and did ridiculous imitations of Hitler with a black comb held above his upper lip, even if he hadn’t been into the infamous “cupboard” where he kept his hooch.)
The family’s fixation on horses (along with all their associated costs) would have some profound repercussions on our finances and solidarity when the divorce eventually happened (which was something like the earthquakes we experienced so often, only it didn’t stop, it just kept shaking things apart). But the obsession started out modestly enough, with a Shetland pony ride at Tilden Park for my sister. I was quite happy to stick with the merry-go-round. (I particularly enjoyed riding the giant rooster, so perhaps I shouldn’t make any comments about girls and horses).
Of course worshipping miniature horses is one thing, actually getting on a slightly less miniature horse is another. My sister was petrified, which I found deeply amusing. Somehow, it seemed like such a long way to the ground to her-and yet she so wanted to be able to do it. Dad’s solution was ever a lateral one (although many would’ve said “skewed”).
One of his techniques for getting us over any fear of the water had been to blindfold us. As strange as that may sound, it had worked very well, and both my sister and I became good, fearless swimmers at a fairly young age. It was true that I was forced to wear a life preserver in open water like a lake, but even Dad occasionally employed some sensible precautions.
Seeing my sister’s alarm at having her dream fulfilled, but worrying that she might wet her pants with anxiety on her first real ride, he took the pillow case off one of the pillows we’d been sitting on the lawn with, and put it over her head. I think the people running the pony ride were rather surprised by this move-and I’m fairly certain several other parents were-to see this little girl wearing a white hood led around the ring on a pony. “Mommy, am I going to have wear one of those?” a girl behind me asked.
I see my sister parading around the circle of dust, looking like a kidnap victim or a Klan child undergoing some initiation rite. My mother was scandalized (but that was easily done). Two circles around and the hood came off. Dad’s methods were unorthodox, but they worked.
After that success, for so it was counted, the next step was a true ride out in some fields and on a real trail. The “ranch” was out in Martinez, which is the seat of Contra Costa County (where I would later serve my only jury duty assignment, an interesting murder case that finally hinged on a photograph of a driveway where the outline of a car appeared, proving that it had been parked there during the rainstorm when the crime was committed). It’s also the birthplace of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, and home to a massive Shell Oil refinery and tank farm that gives the live oak California ranchero air a distinct tinge of industrial grit.
But the pony farm my father located was there, and so off we went one Saturday. Everything seemed fine at the start. My sister was calm (and no doubt glad not to have to wear the pillow case). The pony was a fat thing named Suzie and seemed smaller to me than most of the merry-go-round animals. I figured if I could ride a big crazy looking chicken, my older sister could ride a half-pint horse. What could go wrong?
Well, that’s the problem when things go wrong-it becomes very hard later to say where the drama started. Was it Dad’s lack of attention to the security of the saddle when the woman with the big bazooms came out to water some of the other ponies? Was it her husband with the terrible stutter that put us all off? Was it the mix of gold grass and black oak pollen combined with the harsh waft of oil smoke and plastics being made? The fact that my mother wrapped our crumbed chicken picnic in cellophane and not foil, which then peeled off the skin and meat, could’ve been a factor too. Maybe everything counts when an emergency transpires. Maybe accidents don’t just happen, but are delicately if secretly orchestrated.
What occurred in this case was something my sister would’ve been better off wearing her hood to have experienced. The pony got loose and shot forward at full gallop. That may sound funny, and the whole idea of ponies is indeed a bit foolish-but they’re still powerful creatures, and this little tubby thing got up to speed in a way that stunned us all. My sister especially.
We watched her gallop off, just like in a movie. At first, I admit, I thought it was funny. There was an element of someone’s hobby getting away from them-of Life, even at pony size, being more than they bargained for. But there was an acute sense of our family running away from itself too. The shrill cry of my mother blaming my father, when it seemed to me that she was every bit as much at fault. The whole horse passion was really hers. And what good did it do to yell at him anyway when the problem was two hundred yards away and escaping? Without understanding it, I learned a vital lesson that afternoon. The first person to assign blame is the most likely to be at fault. Think about that when stuff happens. I’ve found it to be a very sound rule. “I thought your father had it all under control,” are words that might ring across the ages and at least two of the major religions.
My father, for all his shortcomings, had a theological position that can be summarized as: don’t lose faith even when the blood starts to flow, and in this world, God’s work must truly be our own. He leapt into our old Rambler and bounced across the fields around the back. Meanwhile, my sister had slipped from the saddle and appeared to be almost dragged along the ground, her head seeming to bounce even more than the car.
Dad returned about fifteen minutes later, leading the pony, with my sister back in the saddle, her face streaked red with tears and fear-and blood. He held something in his hand with an uncomfortable level of care.
Not two minutes later we were in the stuttering rancher’s car and headed to the hospital. My sister was in a state of shock, holding the left side of her head. I wanted to hold the ear, which was wrapped in some of the cellophane left over from our picnic.
You think we might’ve learned from that episode, but not us. That was just the beginning.
I glanced at the ear in my mother’s lap and noticed there was some chicken skin on the side of the transparent wrapping. It made me think of the mad rainbow colored rooster I’d ride on at Tilden Park. We were all on a carousel, without even knowing it.
“It’s only a piece of the ear,” my father said to the rearview mirror. (He’d later do that even when the back seat was empty, old habit.) “It’s going to be all right. They can do wonders now. Just some stitches.”
“If I had a pony of my own, this would never have happened,” my sister choked, in a brilliant seize the moment ploy. Dad would’ve handed her the car keys just then-anything to duck Mom’s wrath. I meanwhile, was wondering what an ear would taste like-figuring it would probably be a step up from my mother’s chicken. We were all on the same carousel, lost in the same stampede.
“It’s going to be all right,” Dad repeated, and I knew that he’d say that at least five more times before we got home again.