I wrote and performed in shows. I served on the Campers’ Council. I was editor of the camp yearbook. I got up on water skis after falling forty-seven times (actually, it was forty-two times but somehow forty-seven times sounds funnier and not that far from the actual number, which is embarrassing enough, although exhilarating in the fact that I ultimately got up. Though I did almost crash into the boathouse shortly thereafter. But that’s another story, I believe one I have already told, though that is unlikely to stop me from telling it again.)
Each of the foregoing – and others I will think of too late to include – was a shining moment in my extended – thirteen seasons – summer camp experience. But one other accomplishment topped them all, one singular achievement so startlingly unexpected – even more than my getting up on water skis after forty-two ignominious kerplunks that’s how out-of-the-ordinarily impressive it was – stands at the pinnacle of all my achievements. It’s the one I am, far and away, the most proud of.
What exactly did I do?
I was really, really brave.
I know. That doesn’t sound like anybody who’s been writing this blog. Making you fully justified in your suspicions that there’s been some hacking going on, wherein a courageous person had suddenly done whatever you have to do to infiltrate a blog and had coopted the writing from the pleasant but ineffectual dufus you are used to.
“A story about being brave? This guy? I don’t think so.”
Yeah, well, that’s what makes it so special.
Once I was brave.
(As I write this, I am kvelling (basking in visceral satisfaction) in my orthopedic desk chair that does nothing to help my back and probably makes things worse.)
Join me on this retrospective journey to a fragment in time when I turned out, to the surprise of all but no one more than myself, not to be made entirely out of Jell-o.
I am twelve years old, and we are out on a trail ride.
The stables housed eight to ten horses. We are not talking thoroughbreds here. Besides, the riding instructor’s personal horse, which was average, the rest of the remuda were identifiably stamped “Camp for Poor Riders” or “Glue.” If there’s an equine heaven, I am certain its “Glue”-designated inhabitants looked down in dismay, thinking,
“They’re alive and I’m not? Is there no justice in this world for horses?”
We are a long way from “snortin’ mustang here.” Four legs and a tail, old, tired, overweight, with seriously concave backs – that’s what we rode. Horses with names like “Vicki” rather than “Thunderbolt”, which might have, I suppose, been a possibility, but only as ironic commentary.
We head out on the trail, the riding instructor leading the way, his assistant riding “drag”, eyes peeled for stragglers, one of whom was inevitably me.
I liked riding at the back. It was fifty percent more insulated – there was no contemporary behind me, razzing me for mishandling my mount. Which to me wasn’t mishandling; it was just me being thoughtful.
When I fell behind, I would never kick my horse in the sides. Or anywhere else for that matter. Didn’t it have enough trouble, forced out of a shaded, hay-rich stall, saddled, bridled and tightly cinched, and sent out on a sweltering afternoon, a two-legged burden sitting unbidden on its back? And then, on top of all that, you kick him? Where’s the empathy? Where’s the compassion?
We had a deal.
“You don’t buck me off. I won’t kick you in the sides.”
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I had no inclination to renege. (For fear of equinistical reprisals.)
I walked my horse at the back of the pack, entertaining myself, singing the theme songs from TV westerns. Maverick, Wyatt Earp, Rawhide, Have Gun, Will Travel, throwing in some syndicated esoterica, like Tombstone Territory and 26 Men to impress…who? Nobody. Nobody was listening. And if they were, they would yell at me to stop.
So I’m breaking into the chorus of Yancey Derringer, not noticing that the cayuse in front of me has slowed, and is now considerably less than the mandatory one horse-length distance between itself and the horse behind it, which is mine.
The gap between the two horses is rapidly closing. I mean, they are virtually nose-to-tail. Though I was entirely unaware of it. I was in a world of my own, warbling those Cole Porter-like lyrics:
Yancey, Yancey Derringer
Yancey, Yancey Derringer
In every tale of derring-do
They tell of Yancey D.
And that’s when it happened. The horse in front of me, kicked up its rear legs, one of which nailed me ferociously in the right shin.
The natural silence of the trail ride was shattered by a sound that unmistakably spelled trouble – the shuddering clank of horseshoe against bone.
“OW!” I cried out, in agony, mixed with surprise.
The ride immediately stopped, the riding instructor dismounting and racing to my assistance, thoughts of concern and legal liability racing through his mind.
I was helped to dismount, looping my afflicted right leg over the saddle, and easing myself gingerly to the ground. My leg hurt like blazes, but for some reason – perhaps buoyed by “Yancey Derringer” intrepitude – I was not crying.
Instead, my response was gritty and grumpy, a simulation of a cowboy in distress.
We were maybe twenty minutes out from the stables at the time of the mishap. There was talk of immediately going back. But I would have none of it. Though my shin throbbed like a son-of-a-gun, I insisted on being assisted back onto my horse, and finishing the ride.
So that’s what we did – we completed the ride. And every minute it proceeded, the respect level I received incrementally increased. Here was a guy with probably a broken leg, pluckily insisting on going on. My antagonistic cabinmates, who normally rolled their eyes watching me helplessly circle under a “pop up”, only to have in fall ten feet in front of me or fly twenty feet over my head, were suddenly looking at me like I was the bravest person they had ever known.
And I took full advantage, morphing from a sniveling weenie-bean into a grizzled casualty, barking out orders he expected to be obeyed.
“Move that horse up, will ya? A horse’s length distance, damn it! What’s the matter with you? Wake up!”
It turned out, the horse kick left a croquet-ball sized lump, a temporary limp and a gigantic bruise on my leg. But no fracture. Still, I had not known that at the time. And I had acted like a hero.
Sometimes, males – I guess females too, now with women in combat – wonder how they’ll behave in a crisis situation, when the chips are unavoidably down. I had always thought one thing. But having been kicked by a horse and having responded as I did, there was the seed of a hope that perhaps I’d been selling myself just the tiniest bit short.