Each One Teach One
As befits its editor, Bill Treichler is much more acute than I am at identifying material for the Crooked Lake Review. I had thought of this as just another horse story, albeit one that did my mother much credit. On reflection, I see that it details an accomplishment—a learning accomplishment—on the part of one—my mother—who settled here, ("here" being in this case the hill country south of Ithaca, New York), that culminated in a truly heroic act.
My father was born and grew up on a farm of a few hectares in the north of Holland. It was covered with lush naturally permanent grass full of nutrition, with open ditches full of water, also with Holstein cattle and Frisian milking sheep, both full of milk. To him their one horse was an accustomed commonplace, a necessity for hauling hay to the barn and every speck and drop of manure back to the fields. In addition he had a part-time job driving horses on an undertaker's hearse. Horses to him were very routine. My mother grew up in the city of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where many of the streets were water. Boats were plentiful there, horses scarce. The closest she ever came to them was backing away from horses carrying mounted police who used them for controlling crowds pressing for a glimpse of the Queen or other celebrity passing in parade. She grew up very afraid of horses.
They both came separately to the USA in 1910, met, married and acquired one son who survived infancy—me. Came the Great Depression, my father lost his job as farmer and groundskeeper on a rich man's country estate. His employer told him, about 1930 that he was no longer rich, was selling his cows and could no longer pay him. It had been a very good job where they had saved money. Farms were extremely cheap then, jobs were unobtainable. They bought a farm near Ithaca. Horses were not quite equally cheap, but they bought two to do farm work.
So here was my mother living in close proximity to a pair of the dreaded creatures, even being a joint owner of them. At his job, my father didn't drive or care for horses; the teamster did that. Here her husband and son spent much time with the horses, using and caring for them. Something had to give. What eventually yielded was her fear. Our livestock numbers here were small; we gave them all names, talked about their condition and often enjoyed their antics. Bit by bit, she became used to the horses, more at ease with them. While she never drove or led them, she came to enjoy giving them little treats, like a crust of bread, an apple or a carrot. She learned how to hold these offerings so they wouldn't bite her in accepting them. The horses learned, too, to the point where whenever they saw her they would run to the nearest spot along the pasture fence looking for a reward.
One day my father and I were both in the wagon with the horses, in a field within sight of the house, when we saw something that required both of us to dismount to set it right. We left the horses to stand, confident that we had ample reason to think they would do so.
The horses thought otherwise. Employing whatever horses use for brains, they decided to return to the barn all on their own. They took off at a slow trot. I took after them as fast as I could run. By some miracle, they chose the right spot to cross the road ditch so that the wagon rolled out upon the road surface still upright and intact. Feeling this, they speeded up. It was hopeless, my two legs against their eight, but I kept moving—nothing else to do. My father and I both knew, with horror, what to expect. Before long, we felt sure, they'd hit something unyielding with the wagon—a tree, or a gatepost, something. Then they'd panic. Horses in panic while still attached to wreckage make almost certain big trouble.
My mother, in the house, saw them coming. She had loaves of bread cooling in the kitchen. Grabbing a loaf, she rushed out into the road in the path of the fast-approaching team, holding the bread aloft above her head. The horses probably smelled as well as saw it.
This pause allowed me to catch up and retrieve the lines that would put me in control. Not until I had the leather securely in hand did I look up, to see my mother breaking off chunks of bread for them and the horses contentedly chewing, very pleased with themselves for their accomplishment.
Then my father and I learned, too, as things quieted down with dire disaster thus averted. We learned not to trust this team to stand unattended on all occasions, and we didn't forget.
© 2000, John Rezelman