Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Summer Times - Riding Lessons"

I want to get in one last camp story, before it’s “Back To School.” It’s funny. No matter how old I get, the end of August still means camp’s over, and the day after Labor Day means, “Back To School.”

Those calendar signposts stick with you. When I started writing for television, and production started in July, it always felt wrong to me. It felt like I should be at camp. So, in some deluded form of wishful thinking, I always dressed like I was – cut-off jeans shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. Unfortunately, clothes only make the man. They don’t make the place.

I don’t know when our camp started offering riding. It was probably when a rival camp did, and they were trying to keep up. We did not have the same horses from summer to summer, but they appeared the same, because they were all past their prime, some of them way past. You could almost read the relief in their eyes. It’s like they knew they were hovering near the cutoff point:

Summer camp…or glue.

Regular readers know that I’m a cowboy in my mind. The freedom, the danger, the excitement, I love it all. But only in my imagination. In real life, I favor comfortable predictability and a reliable alarm system.

My one memorable moment concerning riding at camp occurred when I was about twelve. We were out on the trail, and the horse in front of me suddenly kicked up its hind legs and one of them hit me in the shins. And I didn’t cry.

It was a character-defining moment. Everyone expected me to cry. And I didn’t.

And it’s not like it didn’t hurt. It hurt like hell. But I didn’t cry.

You could hear the horseshoe thumping against the bone. That’s why everyone thought I would cry. But I didn’t.

I mean, they heard that terrible sound, and there I was, sitting in the saddle, not crying, and insisting we continue the ride…okay, I’ll stop. But I’m still impressed with myself.

Our first riding instructor was a fellow named Mel. Good looking, charming fellow. Always had a smile on his face, but a certain kind of smile, suggesting he was doing well with the ladies, after the campers went to sleep.

Mel had the idea of actually grading us on our riding ability. However, since most of the campers had no riding ability, he decided that half the grade would be applied to a written test, quizzing us on our horse-related I.Q.

It was a workable, and face-saving, idea. If you were smart but couldn’t ride for crap, you could still end up with a reasonable grade. Not that I’m talking about myself here. Okay, I am.

Unfortunately, Mel went a little too far. It was his intention to test every camper in the camp. This led to a memorable moment in the Dining Hall during after lunch announcements, when a counselor named Deeny, who was filling in as the Junior Unit Head – six to nine year-old kids – while the real Unit Head was on his day off, came up to the microphone and said,

“I would like to remind all Junior campers that they will be taking their written riding tests this afternoon, right after Rest Hour. In preparation for that test, I would like to invite those Juniors who do not know how to read or write to meet at my cabin during Rest Hour, where I will teach them how to do it.”

Mel immediately backed down, mandating riding tests for only those campers who were able to read and write.

We had a number of riding instructors over the years. But there’s just one other one that I remember, and I think that’s primarily because of his name. His name was Fred Quebec. It sounded like an alias to me. Like he’d been involved in some ugly riding mishap at another camp, and going on the lam, he had replaced his real last name with the surname of a French-Canadian province.

But it wasn’t just his name that has kept Fred Quebec prominently in my memory. It was also something he said, which was either very profound, or exceedingly stupid, depending on how you look at it. I will leave that decision to you.

A camper was mistreating a horse, whipping it, or kicking it, which you’re permitted to do with horses, but this kid was abusing the privilege. Well, Fred Quebec, who could normally be found napping on a bale of hay, happened to notice. At which point, he shouted,

“Hey! Treat that horse right, will ya? He’s only human.”

I knew Fred was right. But I still laughed my head off.


Rebecca said...

When I was a tiny little girl at camp, a horse bolted with me. I didn't cry either. More importantly, I didn't fall off. At the end of the session, when awards were given out, I was given a blue ribbon for Bravery. I'm still impressed with myself, too. :)

A. Buck Short said...

Oh yeh, Earl. Try running a horse camp in Texas, where all you do is horsey, and when it’s not 103 every day before the heat index, for some reason it’s monsoon season 3 out of 5 days for three weeks straight, and none o’ the nags are mudders. (Why that was almost Runyonesque wasn’t it? Or Heywood Broun?)

After you’ve had 30 Hillary Duffs in the barn drawing pictures of horses and making horse chachkes for a total of 56 hours, you start to run out of ideas. That’s not me, it’s the wife talking.

All I ever got was one week of day camp. The city or somebody sent a school bus to the housing project, picked me up, and took their charges to a different state park or field trip every day. People asked me where I went to camp. And I’m thinking “Today I don’t know, but yesterday we had s’mores on the Boston Post Road.”

You don’t know how lucky you were. Of course, I wasn’t there, but my parents allegedly met in a horseback group, I assume in the 40’s? (We don’t have Mounties, so, for a long time the only pictures of people I ever saw in jodhpurs were dad and George C. Scott.). It was also one of those “horse in front” situations.

First day they met, dad’s horse want to be, Mom’s apparently already had the pole position and took umbrage. Swerved into the passing lane, kicked dad’s ride in the head, and it supposedly dropped dead there and then right under him. Don't you hate it when that happens? You’d be surprised how hard it is to find women like that outside of America’s Funniest Home Videos?

All of which begs the question. After the “incident” did they make you take defensive riding at the Comedy Store, and is that how you got into Best of the West? Some day if you’re interested, I’ve got about 2,000 solid words written somewhere on semi-hilarious personal misadventures buying and owning horses. Adios, and keep the yarns comin’.