Monday, November 10, 2008

Crack in the armor

It is 4:12 AM. I am grumpy, and snarky, and quite clearly not asleep. And I have a headache. So... *pout* It could be worse, but it's enough to make me feel pitiful. However, my ill fortune is your gain, because it means I'm going to summon a happy memory to re-center my psyche and hopefully get pointed back toward sleep. And I'm writing it all down, which is where you come in, dear reader.

I had, pretty much, an ideal childhood. I've become aware since then that my folks were struggling with their demons, and hey, who isn't? But at the time I was Blissfully Unaware. In those days, the oilfield was flush with money and my folks were doing alright; we were really blessed. We had a little piece of land out on the edge of town, and a couple of horses, and a black lab. That's right: I had a pony AND a puppy. I pretty much hit the childhood lottery jackpot.

My dad worked for this guy named George, and George was a stubborn jackass with a hot temper but also a charming way with people. And money, so if he couldn't charm you or out-stubborn you, he'd just buy you. George had, at some point, "gotten into" horse racing and bought himself a very promising racehorse who turned out to be a stubborn jackass with a hot temper. He wasn't fast enough to win races, but he was fast enough to be a good pace horse. Except that Midnight Dancer, George's horse, would pick fights with the horses he was training with while they were training. That made him a very unpopular pacer, so he got retired. Midnight Dancer got bounced around a bit because he was too expensive to shoot and too obnoxious to have as a pet and too stubborn to ride. Eventually, George noticed that my affable father was married to a stubborn woman who happened to be "into horses." (Come on, you didn't think I was going to call my own mother a stubborn jackass, did you? For the record, she stops shy of jackassery, but she's the primary source of my stubborn streak and Rose says I do NOT stop shy.) And that's how Midnight Dancer came to live on our little piece of land.

Racehorses, like show dogs, often have their pedigreed name and then their "real" name. You know what I'm talking about, right? Your neighbor calls her dog Ralphie but when they go in the AKC show Ralphie-poo is introduced as Dame Nellie's Revelry or some such pretentious nonsense. It turned out that everyone who had ever had to deal with both horse and owner had come to one unmistakable conclusion about Midnight Dancer: his real name was George.

We used to go out in the evenings after school and feed the horses pretty regularly. They can get by on grass, but especially in bad weather you have to supplement that with something. Ours got a bit of oats some days and a bit of "sweet feed" on others. Sweet feed is a mix of grains and vitamins and salt with a little bit of molasses tossed in to hold it all together. Everybody, kids and dogs included, loved sweet feed. It's basically crack for horses.

My dog had been one of those frou-frou AKC-caliber puppies, before she was born. She was probably destined for two names and papers and retriever trials. There were ten in the litter and the mom was a national champion retriever. But the whole litter got sick and five of them died and the one we got was the runt. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazing considering my mom's nurturing skills, that sick little runt puppy with all her hair near burned off by a fever grew up to be a whip-smart retriever/guard dog/pet/babysitter/horse herder. We named her, with all the originality that children can muster after watching "Lady and the Tramp" 8000 times, Lady. To our credit, our pony was named "White Star Pixie Dust" but you can clearly see Walt Disney's stamp on that one, too.

So Lady went with us out to our little piece of land on the edge of town and chased rabbits through the tall grass and brought me sticks and pestered the horses. And she LOVED sweet feed. She'd just stick her head right into a feed bucket with any of the horses and nosh. Any of the horses except for George, anyway. George was NOT on friendly terms with Lady and if she ever forgot herself and tried to put her nose in his bucket, he would lay his ears back against his neck and snort and bare his teeth. If that wasn't enough, he'd stomp or charge a few steps toward her in defense of his food.

One day, my mom was working out one of her demons by giving George one helluva training workout. By the time they were done, they were both dripping sweat and exhausted. I don't remember this too particularly, but I expect I'd been down at the stock tank with Lady while mom was doing that. My dad had built this great arena out there out of spare oilfield drill pipe and a borrowed welding rig. So mom turned George out into the arena to let him cool off but keep him nearby and contained while she cleaned up. George had found some deep soft sand as far from my mother as he could get and was just rolling onto his back to scratch and dry himself when Lady and I walked up on the scene. I swear, I have never before or since seen a little black dog look more like a wild tawny lion than at that moment. Lady dropped into a low crouch and stalked up on George's tail like the hunting dog she was meant to be. She leaped up between his hind legs, landed full on his sweaty ribcage and went junkyard-style barking right up in his soft underbelly for about 10 seconds. Then she leaped between George's front legs, over his head, and dashed out of the arena to safety on the far side of the pasture.

George was righteously pissed off and a little embarrassed, of course, by the whole thing and probably spent 20 minutes running back and forth along the arena fence snorting and fuming. She still never did get any of his sweet feed after that, but I don't think it bothered her so much.

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