Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eighty Dollar Champion

Jan saw this sign in a catalog the other day: “I want to be the man my horse thinks I am.” A very, very, worthy ambition.

This true story  of a horse named Snowman was recommended by friends Trice and Pat Lawrence and Terry Mathews. I probably would not have read it without their suggestion because I knew nothing about show jumping (I know quite a bit now).

This book, however, is about more than an equestrian event that a lot of us think is the province of the elite. It’s about triumph over adversity against all odds. It’s about the unique and unusual bond that can be formed between man and animal. 

I knew I was in for a treat when author Elizabeth Letts painted a vivid image of a dirty, flea-bitten nag looking through the board slats of a truck bound for the slaughter house at a man with only eighty dollars in his pocket—a man who needed a horse to train students to ride and jump horses at an all-girls school. The horse and man saw something in each other’s eyes.

Sound overdone? Romanticized? Too sentimental? By the time I reached the part where Snowman shows up in his former owner’s yard dragging an old tire and a piece of board fence, I was hooked on this story and this horse.

Maybe it’s because my grandfather’s horse returned in a similar fashion. I’ll never forget the day he came back more than a month after being sold and taken more than a hundred miles away. But that’s another story. That was Buddy. This is about Snowman.

I have always been fascinated by theories about an animal’s ability to reason and to love their human masters. I am still just a wannabe cowboy, but I was raised around horses and there have been only short periods in my life when I did not own at least one (I still own one today).

As a boy, I remember trying to connect with my horse the way that Gene Autry connected with Champion, but I just didn’t know how to train my little mare to do all those tricks. I thought it was her fault, but it was mine, of course. 

Then there was the time I was summarily stopped and thoroughly chastised by my father when he caught me trying to teach her to rear (we called it rare-up) on her hind legs.

Most of the stories we hear about humans bonding with animals have been romanticized to the point of becoming pure fiction. Letts is careful not to do that. By sticking to the facts and careful detail of how this relationship develops, readers can believe in something that we all want to believe (and most of us want to achieve).

It is one of the ironies of life (at least mine) that we often learn how things should be done after it is too late (or we are too old). Also, I find it fascinating that we all have aha moments when we are trying to master a skill, a subject, or a relationship—those moments when we read or hear the exact words that explain something that has been confusing before. 

Even the best of teachers don’t always speak to all students.Some of us listen and absorb in different ways. I have had many aha moments with horses. 

One was when I read that a woman’s heart rate will match a horse’s within sixty seconds after putting a hand on the horse. That simple revelation spoke volumes to me.

I discovered by trial and error that my horse Rowdy would do just about what I expected of him. If I expected bad behavior when we team-roped, I got it and vice-versa. Even though there were many hits and misses, the discovery came in an “aha!” moment.

I concluded at first that the horse was just reacting to my physical movements—the way I sat in the saddle, the way my legs relaxed or tensed, the way my hands held the reins. However, I came to believe that it was also a mental thing.

When you ride and train a horse almost every day, he learns your moods, can read the expression on your face, and can correctly analyze every gesture. People generally know that about dogs and smaller pets, but not so much about horses. I now think that animals communicate on a much higher mental and emotional level than I first thought. 

I have been to a lot of horse training clinics and watched a lot of videos where the trainer tries to get this point across. But few ever come right out and say how they are communicating on a silent, mental level with the horse in addition to sounds and physical movements. 

Some are just not articulate enough, but most are doing something that comes natural to them.Or maybe they figure that nobody would believe them. This mental connection can be learned by most. Snowman  proves the point.

Although the bonding between Harry le Feyer and Snowman develops through trial and error, failure and success, this is not a clinical description of training.  There is definitely something intangible working between Snowman and Harry (a mental, emotional thing).  

A survivor of Nazi-occupied Holland of WWII, this immigrant farmer, husband and father has a background that also makes the story more believable and more emotional. The pair develops what we all want to feel and share. You will soar inside the head of Harry and Snowman as well as over the jumps as they achieve the near-impossible.

Remember—launch party for Go Down Looking is Wednesday, May 9 from five to eight PM at A&M-Commerce Alumni Center, 1706 Stonewall in Commerce. Invitations to be mailed no later than Friday, April 27. Be there. Download invitation details here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

High Plains Tribute --The Last Time I Saw Him

He didn’t ask for much. Five minutes (people had things to do and places to go), a pair of 501 Levis, some Bob Wills music, a pine box and an old pickup to haul it in. He meant it, too.

As one of his best friends said afterward, you either knew him well or you didn’t know him at all—meaning, of course, that you can’t judge the interior by the exterior.

Some would say he was old-fashioned, certainly stubborn. He didn’t try to conceal his less endearing traits, but his word was always good. He had strong opinions and didn’t care too much about being politically correct. His good deeds were many, but done quietly, usually anonymously, and always unselfishly. 

At a local restaurant the night before, he had been the main topic of discussion for a small group. “Most unselfish person I have ever known,” said one lifelong friend. 

“Yes, if he was here tonight, we would have to watch him to keep him from paying the bill for all of us and sneaking out before we knew it,” said another. 

“Most people don’t realize a tenth of the good deeds this good man has done.”

Where had they all come from?  Miles could be driven without seeing a house, much less a person.  Eyes which have seen Texas only through fiction would have nodded approvingly at the sea of black and silver-belly hats. Wranglers and Levis topped boots of oil-soaked cowhide and full-quill ostrich.

A lonesome pair of spurs played a tinkling, sporadic tune when their owner shifted his boots in the cold wind. No time to remove the spurs when he left work or no time to put them back on before returning? More likely, just part of the daily uniform.

Being there was important … dressing up was not.  An occasional tie or pair of shoes interrupted the Panhandle dress code, but not enough to notice. 

A look at the faces and their expressions confirmed that these were not just characters in a movie or a book—they were real Texans. Many had come from the North Country, some from Germany and other countries, but all had passed the test.

They were Texans to the core—only one or two generations removed from the pioneers who came to this one-time desert to tame it with livestock and crops. Most did not live in town, but the closest town is named for a breed of cattle. 

The seventh year of a more or less continuous series of droughts showed that Mother Nature does not tame easily. The continuous struggle had etched deep lines in some faces, but cold determination and persistence were evident in their eyes. Today, those eyes and faces showed pain and respect for one of their own.

The temperature hovered in the thirties with a matching wind speed. The sun was out, but they would have preferred standing in a downpour.  They knew that he would have wanted it to rain on his special day. 

Some were kin by blood; most were kin by shared hardships, grief, and occasional victories. Hardy stock—the people kind. They stood reverently as a close friend gave the best kind of eulogy, one spoken in plain words—from the heart—and from close kinship. 

Afterward, they broke into small groups to share stories of the man’s life, his sense of humor, his jokes and stories, his infectious laugh, his generosity, of how he would be remembered.

Without benefit of topcoats or gloves, they stayed in the cold wind until their turn to speak to the family came. A sentence spoken at a time like this does not do justice to a life well-lived, but a hug and a look convey more than words can say. 

They made their way across the brittle grass, kept alive by irrigation, to their waiting trucks, leaving the pine box alone on the prairie. They would continue their struggles without him.

His worry about rain and crops was over for now. Was he watching? Was he pleased? It took longer than five minutes, and the pickup had not been practical for hauling the box, but he had his Levis, a tin of snuff was in his pocket, grandchildren had left him remembrances, and Bob Wills music had been played. It was good … it was honorable … befitting a good and honorable man. 

Now he was alone on his beloved prairie and snow was in the forecast.  Maybe a good crop was in the offing for his family and friends. He would surely want it to be. 

Arliss Edwards’ great and generous heart stopped beating on Christmas Eve, 2001, in the office of his farm shop on the High Plains of Texas where he had lived and worked all his life.  

Find the flow . . . Hear the music Save the date for Go Down Looking launch party May 9. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tales of Bob Lee and Arliss Lee: The Blurry Line Between Fiction and Truth

Those of you who read my novels (thank you) will recognize the name Bob Lee Boggs. There is a hint of him in the first two novels and much more about him in Rivers Ebb. Bob Lee waved once as he danced his way through the snow toward Jake and String. Jake’s cousin had always carried twenty or thirty extra pounds, but it was evenly distributed.

His character is even more important in *Go Down Looking, my fifth novel. “Damn, Jake. I babysat you for six months and you didn’t get thrown in jail once. Let you out of my sight for a little bit and here you are in the hoosegow.”

 I’ve never tried to hide the fact that the character named Bob Lee was inspired by my cousin, Arliss Lee Edwards. Arliss was one of those “bigger than life” characters who seemed more suited to fiction than real life. There are hundreds of stories about him.

He was eight years older than me, and lived five hundred miles away in the Texas Panhandle. The stories, however, traveled the distance back to my home in Northeast Texas regularly and Arliss became a sort of legend in my boyhood mind. He wasn’t a bad boy in the traditional sense; he just did things that inspired laughter and more than a little tongue-wagging.

We moved to the Panhandle when I was fourteen and the distance between Arliss and me was reduced from five hundred miles to about thirty miles. Our house was literally in the middle of nowhere (twenty miles away from a paved road) and you could not distinguish the front from the back.

You could see one small shack from our place if you knew where to look and the sand wasn’t blowing. It seemed to me that we had moved to the moon. The only people I knew out there were Arliss and his family.

Arliss sensed my fear and misery and would sometimes take me for a ride in his ’57 black Chevy. I will never forget the rooster tail of dust that Chevy left on the dirt road that led to our house, or watching Arliss “peg” the Chevy’s speedometer and take the needle around to the other side; or watching him land a small plane on a farm-to-market road just for kicks.  

Irresponsible for a man twenty-two to take a boy fourteen on such a wild ride? Even reckless? Yep. But Arliss sensed that lifting my spirits was worth the risk. Most men of that age have little time or patience for a boy as immature as I was.

Panhandle distances and my parents’ sympathy gave me a lot of latitude when I began dating. I remember stopping at an all night cafĂ© on Route 66 on the outskirts of Vega late one night. Arliss sat alone in a booth, having a piece of pie and a glass of tea.

We had both been out courting, and it gave me a sense of camaraderie with my older cousin. He regaled me with rapid fire jokes until my sides hurt from laughing. I still repeat at least one of those jokes (my all-time favorite), but I can never match his storytelling skills.

I grew to love my new home and enjoyed the growing relationship I had with my cousin. But my parents were never really happy out there and we moved back in less than three years. I was bitter again.

I found myself afoot on the last night before we moved, and Arliss tossed me the keys to his new Chevy (or was it the ’57?). 

In my mind, it will always be the ’57, but what matters is that he loaned a very nice car to an unhappy, angry kid not quite seventeen so that he could have one last fling before leaving the life he loved behind.

I also can’t remember if I actually heard the argument he had with his father when he bought a new car or if I have been told the story so many times it has become a visual image to me. I do remember his famous words after being severely dressed down by my uncle. “Don’t know what to tell you, Dad. Just work hard and save all your money.” That still makes me laugh.

I saw him only at funerals and rare reunions after I left the Panhandle until I began occasionally traveling to Amarillo on business more than three decades later. I always made it a point to look him up. The visits were always entertaining. I got to know him man to man and found him to a very complex character.

He, like a lot of us, struggled with balancing discipline and praise when raising children. He had trouble showing affection or expressing his deepest emotions to those he loved most.

We shared a tendency to speak our minds and to see things in black and white and not in shades of gray. We were both stubborn when our minds were made up. Our tendencies often led to words best left unspoken. Talking about it helped.

During one of my business trips, Arliss and I parked near a grain elevator between the place where he grew up and the farm where I lived during my Panhandle years. It was an overcast, cold, and of course, windy day—a good time to reminisce.

I recalled memorizing the exact miles from the main highway to the turnoff that led to my house because it was easy for a boy used to corner posts and big trees as landmarks to get lost. Out there, all roads looked pretty much the same.

We talked about how the grain facility office served double duty as a community center back in the day and the time I saw my parents dance there for the first and last time. And about how I grew to love the big sky, arid air, and wide open spaces carved up into square and rectangle giant farms and ranches with little distinguishable features to the unpracticed eye. I even grew to be comfortable with the more or less constant wind.

But my parents never adapted. They missed giant shade trees, landmarks, creeks, and bois d’arc fences. They wanted a farm measured in acres instead of sections—one they could farm with one tractor—one you could “get your arms around”. Maybe a few cows. The roots of their youth called them home.

On the day of our talk, I had just had a business book published and Arliss knew about it. He said he wanted to buy one for himself and one for each of his “bull barn” buddies.

I appreciated that, but told him that this was a business type of book written for a target market. I doubted that he or his friends who farmed would find it useful or interesting. Besides, the publisher had not provided any copies for me to sell.

He turned to me as if I had insulted him. “You wrote it, didn’t you?”

I nodded and he pulled out a roll of bills, started counting twenties before he came across a hundred. He handed the hundred to me and said, “How many will that buy?” That gesture describes him about as well as anything could, I think. I made sure he got his books.

We kept in touch over the years until health problems that had plagued him a large part of his adult life overcame his indomitable spirit.  I was honored when his wife and children asked me to serve as a pallbearer. We left for the Panhandle at once.

Next week: High Plains Tribute—My recollections of what happened when I saw Arliss for the last time.

*Save the date. Go Down Looking signing party is May 9. Invitations will be mailed and available on my website

Find the Flow . . . Hear the Music

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Go Down Looking Launch and Excerpt

Save the date. Go Down Looking launch party.
Wednesday May 9, 5 to 8 P. M. @A&M-Commerce Alumni Center

Here’s an excerpt:

On Friday night, Jake Rivers stood on the warped two-by-eight boards that served as a walkway behind the bucking chutes at the Kow Bell Rodeo in Honey Grove, Texas. Although the bareback rigging under his arm was well used, Jake knew it sent the wrong message.

He had already compared himself to the real cowboys and knew he came up short. He felt fresh off his mother’s breast, as shiny and unused as a new nickel when he sought advice from the wizened, teeth-missing, scarred-up twenty-somethings that were his competitors.

He had located his horse and was waiting patiently for his turn to rig her up. Her name was Eagle’s Nest, and she looked almost pitiful in the chute—a long-legged, ribs-showing mare with a dull coat and tangled mane. Something drained from both cloudy eyes and flies worked feverishly at whatever it was.

As was his practice, Jake did not seek information about her pattern of bucking.  Thinking about getting thrown will cause you to get thrown, he figured.

As Jake dropped to his knees to pull the cinch tight and tie off the latigo strap, he felt a spur rowel against his thigh.

He looked over at a seen-better-days pair of cowhide boots encrusted with manure. The sole stitching had long since worn through or disintegrated from cattle manure and urine, leaving only several wraps of adhesive tape to hold the soles and vamps together.

The tops, black with red piping, were short and had deep scallops made deeper with a dull pocket knife. The legs of a pair of frayed Levi’s dropped partially inside the boot tops.

“Rooster” had been carved into the widest set of spur straps Jake had ever seen. Buckles that had once been shiny and baling wire under tall, slanted heels kept the spurs from slipping, but allowed just enough room for the jingle bobs to jingle.

The boots and spurs belonged to an older cowboy sunk way down in his worn-out hat. A four inch brim with tattered edges shaded a face that had already seen too much sun and a narrow nose that seemed out of sync with the rest of the face.

One clear blue eye and one unfocused eye with a scar under it stared at Jake. “You draw Eagle’s Nest?”

Jake turned back to the latigo before answering. “Yep.”

“Wanna know what she’s gonna do?”

“Nope.” Jake’s answer was soft and under his breath. He knew the cowboy would see him as downright stupid for such an attitude.

“She’ll go right when they open the gate. Buck two, maybe three friendly jumps, then go over in that corner right over there.”

Jake straightened and turned. It was too late to avoid the advice now. “Then what?”

The cowboy was already walking back along the planks. He turned only his head. His smile revealed two missing teeth. “Then you’ll find out why they call her Eagle’s Nest.”

Jake found a good seat and snuggled his right hand deep in the rigging handle. A hang-up and dragging at a buckout had spooked Jake, so he had cut back on the glove and handle resin. He didn’t want things too sticky.

As he raised his left hand and leaned back, he pulled his right hand out of the handle just enough to get it out in case of an emergency, then nodded for the gate.

He marked her out good, holding spurs to shoulders through the first jump. He felt good and loose as she made two more. Pretty easy to keep his spurring in rhythm.

But he went tight as a fiddle string when he found himself in the corner. He had little experience with bucking horses, but had to think that what happened next was somewhat abnormal, especially for a scrawny, sickly horse.

The horse reared almost straight up and came down bone-jarring hard on her front feet. Jake was thrown forward and almost turned upside down on the horse’s side. But the bronc- riding angels seemed to be with him as his hand stayed in the handle and the old mare bucked just the right amount to return him to his seat.

Jake managed to lean back and dig in the spurs for the next jump. An eternity-second passed as the horse seemed to give up. When she squatted, Jake thought she was going to fall over and die. He raked the spurs across her shoulder and all four of her legs came off the ground at about the six second mark.

She went higher than seemed normal for a horse to jump, fishtailed, kicked out both legs, and broke in two. That’s when he wished he had left his hand deep in the rigging.

When it came out, he felt as if he were flying, flopping in the air like a wounded duck. He worried about hitting the horse on his way down.

But Eagle’s Nest had done this before. She stepped out of the way with the grace of a ballet dancer. She passively watched her defeated cowboy come down beside her. Jake’s landing was clear, smooth, flat and hard.

Eagle’s nest stared at him for a second of two before calmly walking toward the open gate that beckoned her and the good supper that waited.

He saw his father for a few seconds just after landing, maybe a second or two in the air, about the time that the eight second buzzer sounded. A translucent vision of Rance stood over him as he lay on the ground and asked, “How’s this bronc-riding working out for you, Jake?”

When the vision disappeared, Jake’s first thought was that his back might be broken. He felt numb. His second thought was about the laughter as he flailed through the air.

A grinning rodeo clown bent over him. “Damn, boy, she sure sent you flyin’. Anything broke?”

Jake took the clown’s hand and stood up, checking his back and legs. The applause was less than the pain, and there was almost no pain. He had been lucky and knew it. But it would take him almost two weeks to earn back that entry fee.

Jake was disgusted with himself, and getting away from that rodeo was suddenly important. He retrieved his borrowed rigging and kept his head down as he walked toward his car. He had been carrying the rigging around in the back seat like some sort of trophy of his manhood, a symbol of his cowboy dreams, for most of the summer.

Tonight, he threw it in the trunk.