My cousin Nancy and I are the same age. Well, actually I'm five months older. Our mothers were sisters (both now deceased). Nancy grew up in New Jersey and I was raised in Southern California. Despite the span of three thousand miles, we always shared a close bond - more like siblings than cousins.
Now - at this late point in our lives - we both live in Tennessee (only a few miles from each other), and we enjoy remembering the youthful adventures we shared.
Sixteen years old
My cousin Nancy and I shared an inherent knack for courting adventure and getting into various degrees of trouble. On this subject alone I could write a book.
This story doesn't necessarily pertain to trouble, but rather it's about a ride I'll never forget. We were sixteen years old that summer.
Nancy always loved horses and is an expert rider. She rode very frequently when she lived in New Jersey. The closest I ever got to a horse was watching Gunsmoke on TV.
It was inevitable that she'd ask me to go riding. I suppressed my intense apprehension and summoned the paltry portion of macho that I kept on the bottom of my Keds tennis shoes.
"I'd love to!" I lied, while visions of my obituary raced through my head - Headline: California Kid Clobbered in Colossal Riding Catastrophe.
My fear was momentarily sidetracked when we got to the stables and Nancy accidentally locked her keys in the trunk of the car. Actually, it wasn't her car. It was her parent's treasured Camaro -- which was more sacred to the family than the gigantic Catholic Bible they kept stashed in the dining room closet.
After exhausting every conceivable attempt to extract the keys without damaging the car, we resorted to one final desperate ploy: removing the back seat.
How exactly we removed the back seat I can't remember - - but I think we got help from one of the young male workers at the stable. The seat finally popped out and we had access to the trunk.
Putting the back seat together again was a challenge worthy of minds far more sophisticated than our own. After an hour of agony (or so it seemed) we haphazardly completed the task.
Our inept handiwork didn't go unnoticed. Ever since then, every time the car was used, the back seat would slowly but steadily pop out and had to be forcefully pushed back into place. My aunt and uncle never knew why.
But I've sidetracked my story.
We eventually made it to the riding trails, and I managed to mount a horse. In consideration of my apprehension and less than minimal riding experience, I was given a horse aptly named Mule. To say that he had been ridden by General George McClellan during the Civil War might be a slight exaggeration - but nevertheless, Mule was undeniably ancient. He was slow, gentle, and clockwork predictable - - which suited my pathetically timid riding personality.
I won't mention the painful saddle sores that inflicted my tender virgin ass during our early evening rides. I will say that I eventually got used to Mule and enjoyed our excursions on the trail.....
....until the fateful day when Mule was suddenly incapacitated. I don't recall why he was unavailable, but I vividly remember the substitute horse with which I was provided. His name was Pal - - and a more inappropriate name for a miserable mount was never devised.
Pal was not only mercilessly stubborn, he could instantly sense that an inexperienced sissy was in the saddle. And he was determined to make my equestrian experience as unbearable as possible.
He stopped when I wanted to go. He went when I tried to stop. He deliberately maneuvered his stride into an unpredictable clumsy pace, which elevated the pain of my saddle sores to new levels.
Halfway along the trail was a house where an old lady lived who hated horses and their riders. On previous occasions, every time Nancy and I rode by, she would inevitably come out of the house and yell at us to keep away from her flowers.
She had a large and very impressive-looking flowerbed at the front of her property. We did our best to avoid it at all costs.
Pal, as if eagerly sensing an invitation of danger, stopped by the flowerbed and began nibbling the begonias. When I frantically tried to pull him away, he ventured farther into the vast roadside bouquet and greedily chomped every flower within reach. I panicked.
"Nancy!" I yelled. "What should I do?"
My cousin jumped off her horse and took my reins - but Pal was obstinate, even with an expert. He refused to obey Nancy and wouldn't budge from the midst of the fragrant (and tasty) blooms.
Fortunately, the old lady didn't seem to be around. I figured either she wasn't home, or she saw us from the window and dropped dead.
After Pal had his fill of flowers, I desperately tried to steer him back to the trail but he had other ideas. He headed for the open door of the old lady's garage and went right in! Fear turned into shock as Pal and I were suddenly occupying the empty place next to a big dusty Oldsmobile.
It took a Herculean amount of persuasive power to finally, somehow, maneuver Pal back onto the trail. After completely trampling the flowerbed and touring the garage, he seemed a little more calm and agreeable. I actually felt confident enough to retrieve a cigarette from my pocket and light up ("smokes" were one of our secret pleasures).
When Pal suddenly stopped and reared up on his hind legs, I choked on my smoke and realized I was in heap big trouble. Before I could get my breath, the horse did a quick about face and --Hi-Yo Silver!-- we were off!
In my wildest cowboy fantasy, I never dreamed a horse could gallop so fast. We were racing back towards the stables at breakneck speed - bounding over rocks and ruts, leaping over bushes, and zooming past dangerously close trees.
"Nancy!" I shrieked in an alarmingly high falsetto. "How do I stop him?"
Nancy was now very far behind me, but I could hear her shouting "Pull the reins! Pull the reins!"
I pulled - and the harder I pulled, the faster Pal went. I was eventually pulling so hard that his head was all the way back and I could see unwholesome details of his denture work.
The cigarette blew out of my mouth, my feet slipped from the stirrups, and I was clutching Pal for dear life as I repeatedly ducked to avoid being decapitated by low overhanging tree branches.
My glasses (this was before I got contact lenses) were precariously perched halfway under my nose.
When I glanced ahead (through blurred double vision) and saw the tall fence that surrounded the stables, my pathetically brief life flashed before my eyes. If I wasn't so terrified I would have screamed - - my scream was merely a silent gesture of farewell.
I opened my eyes after enduring a hard and sudden thump and saw a cloud of dust. We had successfully leaped over the fence and were now galloping toward the barn. I didn't have time to thank God that the door was open. In another instant we were inside, in total darkness, and Pal didn't stop until we nearly plunged into the opposite wall.
I slid off of that horse onto skinny legs that were weaker than two strands of over-cooked spaghetti. My knobby knees were knocking. I was shaking like a pansy in a zephyr and it took all my effort to emerge from the barn.
Nancy was there - - unquestionably concerned but erupting in convulsive laughter. After realizing that I was still alive and reasonably intact, I started laughing, too.
If any event in my life could have been captured on film, that ride with Pal would be my first choice. It was far beyond priceless.
Did it dissuade me from ever riding again? Not much. A few days later Nancy and I were on the trail again - - and I was safely back on Mule.
Nancy still rides here in Tennessee.
So far, I haven't. And probably never will.