Horses, books, dreams
"A wild, ringing neigh shrilled up from the hold of the Spanish galleon. It was not the cry of an animal in hunger. It was a terrifying bugle. An alarm call.
"The captain of the Santo Cristo strode the poop deck. 'Cursed be that stallion!' he muttered under his breath as he stamped forward and back, forward and back.
"Suddenly he stopped short. The wind! It was dying with the sun. It was spilling out of the sails, causing them to quiver and shake. He could feel his flesh creep with the sails. Without wind he could not get to Panama. And if he did not get there, and get there soon, he was headed for trouble. The Moor ponies to be delivered to the Viceroy of Peru could not be kept alive much longer. Their hay had grown musty. The water casks were almost empty. And now this sudden calm, this heavy warning of a storm."
When I first read those words, I was in third grade. The story that followed thrilled the horse-crazy little scrawny blonde girl in gold granny bifocals that I was. Oh, how I loved horses! I read everything I could, anyway, but horse books and science fiction- those were my favorites. And Marguerite Henry was partially responsible for igniting that dream of a far off place, and I was entranced by the story of Paul, Maureen, and Grandpa and Grandma Beebe, who were real people.
I remember seeing words I had never seen before: galleon, Moor, Viceroy, cask on the first page alone. The story was so good I had to know what each word meant.
All of these memories came flooding back to me as I read today about the 81st Annual Pony Swim being held in Chincoteague, Virginia as part of the Pony Penning Days. Every year, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department rounds up some of the ponies which run wild on Assateague Island, which is a wildlife refuge split between Maryland and Virginia. The proceeds from the sale of some of the ponies pays for equipment for the fire department.
I learned about the real round-up of horses every July off the coast of Virginia in Misty of Chincoteague and the sequel, Stormy, Misty's Foal, and then all of her other horse books that were in that tiny library, which covered one wall of the school cafeteria. There was Justin Morgan Had a Horse and Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West and even Brighty of the Grand Canyon, which was about a burro, not a horse, but I read it anyway.
The story of those ponies fired my love of reading as well as my love of horses. Of course, I soon exhausted the school library's collection, and those at the local county library, too. We didn't have lots of money, but every now and then, my mom would let me order a book from Scholastic. You remember these, right? Filmy, almost onion-skin paper. Colorful blurbs crammed all over describing different books you could order. On the back page, a narrow column of an order form with all the books and their prices listed. You'd cut it out and bring it to school with your money, and the teacher would place the order. You could buy a book from Scholastic for seventy-five cents back then, and if you ordered three sometimes, you could get another free. It was torture for me. So many books! So little pocket change!
I would save my birthday money to buy a book. My grandmother, who had lived in a nursing home near the Panhandle since before I was born, would send me a dollar for my birthday, pressed inside a small card covered with pastel glitter. I knew that dollar was a sacrifice for her, because she was on Medicaid and had no assets. The only money she got was from making quilts and teaching crafts for the other nursing home residents, whom she called "the old folks." I almost always spent Gramma's dollar on a book. That way I had something to show for the dollar she sent. I started mowing lawns in the neighborhood after fourth grade, and I used that money too. Sometimes my mom would buy me a book from the T. G. & Y dime store, inexpensive bindings of classics like Jane Eyre and Little House on the Prairie.
But I loved the horse books best of all. After I finished up all of the Marguerite Henry books I could find, I moved on to other pastures (sorry). The "Blaze" books by C. W. Anderson. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, which made me cry as poor Beauty went through his long line of masters, some good, some bad. I knew what it was like to want someone to love you just for you, and to have chaos swirl through your life for reasons you couldn't understand.
The "Black Stallion" books (all twenty-one of them) by Walter Farley. Smoky, the Cow Horse by Will James. National Velvet, by Enid Bagnold. I saw the movie of that one, too, and when I found out THAT Elizabeth Taylor was the "old" Elizabeth Taylor who played Cleopatra, I couldn't believe it.
I learned about Assateague and India and Arabia and the Grand Canyon. I learned about steeplechasing and thoroughbred racing and the good qualities in a cow pony. I learned about the difference between a quarter horse and a mustang and an Arabian and a Morgan. I dreamt about owning my own horse, even though deep down I knew that the closest I would get to a horse would be when we went riding at a stable with the Camp Fire Girls, or when one of my friends let me tag along and ride at her dad's farm east of town. But words-- words were magic, and carried me wherever I wanted.
I knew the meaning of that old saw, "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride." But I always had my books.