(Mom and Mr Wilson)
Mom was of the opinion that certain social/cultural graces were obligatory. One should know how to swim, ride a horse, dance, play a musical instrument and play tennis. Doing any of these things to a high professional standard wasn’t strictly necessary, not unless one had the talent for it, but one should be able to bumble around on a dance floor or with a sheet of music without absolutely disgracing oneself. Mom put the tennis to one side upon hearing somewhere or other that playing it too much at too young an age might be detrimental to kids’ bones and joints, but the rest of us were thrown vigorously into acquiring these graces. (In Pippy’s case, thrown literally, by the swim instructor when she refused to let go of the pool edge and paddle across the pool, even though she could swim quite well. She dogpaddled to the side, howling… and the instructor picked her up and slung her in again.)
The musical component was first filled by having JP and I join a recorder group, organized by my 6th grade teacher, tootling mournfully away on soprano instruments before we branched out, JP to alto and me to tenor, upon discovering that the tenor line incorporated fewer notes, much as the Emperor was supposed to have requested of Mr. Mozart. In Junior High, JP abused the clarinet, and I performed a similar function with a viola. The music teacher’s stutter probably went away the year we were permitted to leave well enough alone, mission having been accomplished. We could read music after a fashion, and had some sort of appreciation for classical music, but never were able to find out why Bartok wrote so damn much for recorders.
Every other Tuesday night was cotillion night at the Masonic Hall, an hour and a half of drill in dance etiquette, and the fox-trot, cha-cha, and waltz, at the practiced hands of a middle-aged couple whose faces and manners were mysteriously preserved in some kind of mid-century lacquer. They had only one record each for the fox-trot, cha-cha and waltz, which set up some kind of Pavlovian response in us- to this day when I hear the theme from “Picnic” I start counting “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in foxtrot time. The dress code was exacting, JP and the boys had to wear suits or sport coats, white shirt and tie, and girls had to wear a dress (a real dress, not a skirt and blouse) stockings and “Sunday” shoes. This was all at the age when the girls tower over the boys, it was kind of grim, waltzing with a boy who only came up to your collar bone, too young to appreciate the view, and there being damn little there to look at anyway, chestwise. One of JP’s best friends was one of the three boys who were getting their growth early, so I could dance with someone my own height pretty often.
I'm getting to the bit about the horse. Really.
And when I was fourteen or so, Mom and Dad bought a horse.
It seemed as if most of our neighbors had a horse; some even had a steer or two, and one family we knew raised rabbits for the food market. All the houses were on acre or half acre plots, most of them with sheds and corrals, a very rural sort of suburb. The hills were netted with dirt roads and established trails, there was even a fenced bridle path along Foothill Boulevard.
He was a large, even-tempered gelding, a Standard-bred saddle horse, dark brown with a white blaze on his forehead, close to twenty years old. His name was Mister Wilson, and he had been a parade horse, with all sorts of training and even was supposed to know showy tricks, if one had known the right commands. A friend of Moms who knew horseflesh remarked, “He was somebody, once,” but what his glory days had been, and with whom, no one could say for sure. A co-worker of Dads’ had kept him for his kids to ride, as had several previous owners, but his feet were going bad: he could not be shod, and could no longer be ridden on paved roads. Our milieu of dirt roads and tracks was just what the vet ordered, so Dad’s friend sold him to us for $100, and brought him over in a horse trailer.
He came with accessories; a snaffle bit and half a bale of alfalfa.
“We should look into a saddle, “Dad suggested, and Mom said,
“The cheapest McClellan is $500… how many jokes have you heard about a $500 dollar saddle on a $100 horse?”
She gave us our first lessons, bareback, saying that we would get a better feel for riding, and develop a better seat, which I suppose was true, but his backbone was rather too prominent to be very comfortable. Mom went to a tack store and bought a thick pad, to cinch around his middle, and showed us how to slide the snaffle bit into his mouth--- such large, square grindy teeth!--- and put the leather bit over his ears, and then how to lead him around. No stirrups, and he was a big horse, so mounting up usually involved a fence rail or a handy boulder.
“Always on the left side,” Mom said, “I don’t know why, but that’s the custom, and it would make him very nervous if you didn’t…. now, hold the reins in your left hand. Sit up straight, elbows in. He’s trained for both English and Western…. now, move your hand so the rein touches his neck, that will make him turn to the other side… nudge his ribs with your heels, that’ll make him start…. And pull straight back—gently, to make him stop. OK, now make him walk in a figure eight…..”
The ground seemed miles away, and the big brown back moved joltingly and inconsistently, and at first I felt as inconsequential as a flea, perched away up there, clinging grimly on by my knees. It came easier, and after a couple of weeks, and only falling off once--- Wilson was the perfect gentleman and not only stopped at once, but considerately avoided trampling me--- JP and I were confident to ride up and down Hillrose. I had a breakthrough one day, when Wilson seemed to balking at everything, dawdling and being generally uncooperative, and exasperation overcame my natural disinclination to push around something that outweighed me twenty times over. He suddenly read my impatience and exasperation as command presence and a strong hand, and instantly fell into line. It was a useful experience, controlling something dumber, and very much larger than myself. The only thing to equal it for exhilaration was the first time I kicked him into a gallop, and his gait went instantly from the bone-rattling trot into a lovely, heart-surging gallop, all that strength and speed in my control and the wind blowing my hair back…. I imagine that riding the surf feels like that, or riding a motorbike on a mountain rode, but the surf and the bike aren’t alive the way a horse is alive.
But as we enjoyed the freedom, and the sheer exhilaration of exploring the trails around our neighborhood, the neighborhood itself was melting away. There was, like all stories of a lost paradise, a shadow and a doom laid over it. As children we were barely aware, but as we became teenagers this doom became manifest and inescapable. This being California, the doom took the form of a freeway; the 210 Freeway, to be precise. Redwood House, all the houses on Rosetta, Tim and Mindy’s house, Pat’s house and his grandparents, the mysterious rancho, even the Swiss chalet-style at the end of the road, all were in the proposed path of the new freeway. Family by family, house by house, everyone else accepted the State’s offer of compensation, beginning the summer that Mom and Dad bought Mister Wilson, and as they moved away, the houses were demolished and the fences between them taken away.
The Stalhusses decamped to a property farther west, taking all their livestock, adding a flock of geese, and establishing a garden even larger and more bounteous than the old one; I have always imagined Mr. Stalhuss leaving bags of produce on his neighbors’ porches before ringing the doorbell and running away. Tim and Mindy’s house was torn down, and so was the marvelous tree house. Wayne’s family, gone too, and the pool emptied and filled in. In a season or two, the wild grasses and the brush re-established, and the sites where houses had been reverted to something like what they had been before. I rode Wilson across the hillsides where the rancho had been, and sent him galloping in a zigzag course between the trees, which had marked the property boundary between the Stallhuses and the shiftless family next door.
Dad and Mr. Mathis brought suit for a fairer price for our properties, and when the suit was won, and paid, we were the last left. Even the roads were crumbling away, and overtaken by brush. We were all alone on the hill. Almost the last thing we did was to sell Wilson to another family who wanted a careful, gentlemanly ride for their children.
Mom and Dad and Blondie and I went back a year or so ago, when Sander took an apartment nearby. It was just a whim, we agreed, and to show Blondie where her uncles and aunt and I had grown up. We drove in over the street where JP and I had walked from school, or to the supermarket for the things Mom had forgotten. At the corner we stopped: Allen’s house was down that way. Hillrose climbed steeply; out of sight it dead-ended at the highway. Everything still looked the same, the fine dust settling on the oleanders, the road as rutted as it had been when I rode Wilson, or pushed Sander in the stroller. I had the illogical conviction that if I could just walk up that hill, it would all still be there, somehow: the row of olive trees, and the Tarzan swing, and Wilson ecstatically rolling on his back like a dog in the newly cut grass.
“We’d have had to move anyway, “ Said Dad at last, “The earthquake would have trashed it. The slab it was built on was half on rock, and half on fill.”