I was incredulous when I looked up the word “sweet” in the dictionary and saw that it was not defined as Justine. Someone had obviously made a horrible mistake. Who….what….was Justine? She was the sweetest, most gentle mini-lop rabbit in … Continue reading
Reckless with best friend Latham.
Reckless under fire.
She was a good-lookin’ redhead. No one argued that point. She was small but had one of those put-together-right bodies. You know the kind. Plump and filled out in all the right places; lean and hollow in all the other right places.
Those who knew her well said she had a solid dose of piss ‘n vinegar….just like nearly every other redhead they’d ever met. And those who knew her even better said she also had heart and determination big enough to dwarf a 12-story building.
Stress never phased her. Throw a challenge at her and she dug in for the long haul. Maybe it was the piss ‘n vinegar part of her that kept her hanging on long after everyone else moseyed on down the trail.
She wasn’t prissy. She’d guzzle down a beer with the boys any time they invited her. She also had a voracious sweet tooth and the guys were more than happy to hand over their candy rations to satisfy her cravings.
In the vernacular of the early 1950s, she was, indeed, a babe….a dame with class.
Her name, in her native Korean language, was Ah Chim Hai. The English translation was “Flame of the Morning.” The name given to her by the guys in the Recoilless Rifle Platoon of the 5th Marines in the Korean “conflict” was Reckless. Just slightly larger than a pony, the blaze-faced Mongolian mare (some say her dam was a racing Thoroughbred) stood a diminutive 14-hands and weighed 750 to 850 pounds at her heaviest.
The 5th Marines’ search began after Capt. E.T. Pedersen’s superiors gave him permission to use a horse to carry ammunition for his platoon. It was up to Pedersen to figure out the best, and most logical, place to purchase such a horse. Logistically, his options were limited since he was standing in the middle of a vicious war in Korea.
After a short session of head-scratching, aided by choppy and difficult-to-interpret conversations with village locals, Pedersen set off for the old, rickety racetrack in Seoul. He roamed around, looking at the horses getting ready to participate in the day’s races. His roving gaze stopped when he saw the little redhead. He could almost feel her attitude. There was an air of confidence blasting out of that compact body, and he knew this was one of those times when size didn’t amount to a hill-of-beans.
Pedersen walked up to the mare’s owner, Korean stable boy Kim Huk Moon, and offered him $250 from his personal pocket. The lead rope changed hands. It was 1952 and the mare was four years old when she unwittingly swapped the world of racing for ear-splitting artillery fire, exploding grenades and the wild screams of mortars as they sought the flesh and blood of U.S. Marines.
It has often been reported that Reckless’ owner didn’t want to sell the mare. He had nicknamed her Flame and she definitely had a place in his heart, but the $250 meant his sister could finally have a prosthesis for the leg she lost after stepping on a land mine. One eyewitness reported seeing a tear slip from Moon’s eye before the young man turned his head to hide his emotions.
Reckless was drafted as a member of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Her assigned role was that of a pack horse, capable of carrying up to nine-at-a-time of the 24-pound shells that powered the recoilless rifle used by the unit. That equaled 216-pounds, which was a fourth of the mare’s body weight. The Marines in her unit renamed her Reckless, as a contraction of the word “recoilless.”
Let’s indulge in just a few words of digression here. There is nothing….absolutely nothing….romantic about war. Every aspect is horrible; including the horses, mules, dogs, and even pigeons, pressed into service and killed.
During WWII, the lifespan of a horse in the German army in 1940 was six months. That was reduced to six weeks by 1945. Most of us, especially those with a tender heart for animals, have no desire to indulge in the graphic details of what happened to eight-million horses and mules in WWI, to tens of thousands of dogs and to more than 100,000 pigeons.
Approximately one-million American horses and mules served in Europe.Only 200 came home.
The stain of shame resting on our heads isn’t because we pulled these horses into service but, rather, in our treatment of them when that service was done. We’ll talk about that elsewhere. For now, the focus is Reckless.
Just like every other raw recruit, Reckless entered the equine version of boot camp under the close supervision of platoon Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham, who was her primary trainer. Private First Class Monroe Coleman was her main caretaker. Lieutenant Bill Riley and Sergeant Elmer Lively were also involved with her general well-being and training. The majority of her medical needs were tended to by Navy Hospitalman First Class George Doc Mitchell.
Reckless, like her human counterparts, needed to grasp the intricacies basic survival skills. Her willingness, along with her quick intelligence, impressed everyone who worked with her.
The little mare became adept at avoiding deadly entanglements with barbed wire. She perfected dropping to the ground and lying prone when under fire. And she knew to run for a bunker when someone yelled the word “incoming.”
The Marines fell in love with the mare who seemed innately courageous but, at the same time, gentle and affectionate. She roamed the camp without halter or lead rope, frequently going inside tents and making herself at home. Latham, her closest friend, never objected when he found her sleeping next to his tent stove on cold nights.
Reckless was the original “foodie.” She loved dining on scrambled eggs, washing them down with a Coca-Cola or beer. Bacon, buttered toast, chocolate bars, hard candy, shredded wheat, peanut butter sandwiches and mashed potatoes were also on her “preferred menu.” Doc Mitchell, however, put his foot down when it came to the Cokes; giving orders that she was to have no more than two per day.
The love story between Reckless and the Marines in her unit grew stronger each day but, when duty called, neither the men nor the mare shirked the dangers.
The mare’s primary duty was to transport the 24-pound shells to wherever they were needed. There were delivery routes to be memorized. All she needed was to be led the first few times and, after that, she made the trips on her own. The way she picked and dodged, loaded down with the cumbersome shells and with no one at her head to show the way, was almost magical. She was a lady with a mission and she did it while mortars hit around her. Her Marine comrades breathed a collective sigh of relief each time she returned safely.
It was March 26, 1952, when Reckless earned her legendary status.
It was the Battle of Panmunjom-Vegas (also known as the Battle of Outpost Vegas/Vegas Hill). The struggle between the Marines and the Red Chinese was bloody and intense. The pint-sized lady made her way through “the rockets’ red glare” in 51 solo trips in a single day. She packed four to eight shells each time, for a cumulative total of 9,000 pounds, delivering them so those recoilless rifles could continue their death-dealing barrage of bullets. In that one day, she logged a total of 35 miles and was wounded twice. Each time, she delivered her load, returned to base and was loaded again. She didn’t make those returns empty-loaded. The shells were replaced with wounded Marines, tied to the mare and clinging to her as she navigated rice paddies and steep 45-degree mountain trails. She crossed 1,800-yards of brutal No Man’s Land on each one of those 51 missions, with artillery exploding at the rate of 500 incoming rounds and hour. The mare was exhausted but no one needed to remind her, or to ask her twice, to make those 51 trips..
Her heroic performance earned her a promotion to the rank of corporal. And, while there’s no written record attesting to the fact, she probably enjoyed a beer or two that night before settling down for a much-deserved sleep. She also moved from being the pride of her platoon to the pride of the entire Corps. She was a legitimate heroine.
Reckless packed other things when she wasn’t in the thick of battle. She was especially adept at carrying wheels of telephone wire on her pack, stringing as much wire as twelve men on foot. She was also the first horse in the Marine Corps to participate in an amphibious landing. After that, her unit was given a rest. That was when the mare’s fellow Marines issued a challenge to the famous Thoroughbred Native Dancer. The conditions were somewhat different from a usual race, stipulating 1.5 miles over paddies and hills, carrying 192 pounds of ammunition and no riders. Native Dancer’s connections never responded. Reckless’ connections figured they were scared.
The Korean Conflict ended and it was time for Reckless to retire. An outpouring of support for the mare paved the way for her to come to the U.S. as a bona fide Marine.
Now known as the “Pride of the Marines,” Reckless made her way to California’s Camp Pendleton, 7,000 miles from her native Korea. Her owner, Capt. E.T. Pederson who purchased her with that $250 from his own pocket, sold her for $1 to the First Marine Division Association. Some folks would say Pederson lost $249 but he didn’t look at it that way.
Reckless’ final military promotion came after she reached Camp Pendleton, when she was officially elevated to staff sergeant. She was also officially listed as retired, with orders to be cared for with respect and dignity for the rest of her days.
The most passionate, eye witness account of Reckless and her unparalled courage came in 1995 from Harold Wadley, a veteran of the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Wadley was one of the lucky few to make it out of “Hill Vegas” alive. This is his vivid recollection, as quoted in the July, 2011 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine.
“Marines passed stories up and down the line on the ridges. We’d heard the recoilless rifle boys had a horse, for crying out loud! They trained her to pack the rounds as well as the gun. That gun was six feet long and heavy; it took two guys to handle it. They would strap that on one side of her and strap ammunition on the other side to balance the load.”
Wadley will never forget what he saw on March 26, 1953. His unit was holding Outpost Vegas, about a mile from the front line. It was worse than brutal. Then, out of nowhere, the Chinese threw a full-on assault.
“The artillery mortars were unspeakable,” remembered Wadley. “It was horrific. I was taking wounded Marines to the command post when I saw Reckless. She was coming up that ridge where the recoilless rifle boys had a big foxhole. I couldn’t believe it!
“There was no one leading her. She made that trip all night long by herself. They would tie a wounded Marine on her and turn her around and she’d head down that ridge with all this artillery and mortar coming in. The guys down there would unload the wounded off her and tie gun ammo on her. She’d turn around on her own and head right back up.
“I remember in the flare light, looking back and seeing that little Mongolian mare heading up that slope without anybody leading her and going up to that gun pit. She knew exactly what her job was. There’s not another horse in war history that could even touch that mare.”
Wadley became deeply emotional when he spoke his last words about Reckless.
“Here’s the part that still gets me (referring to Reckless after her retirement to Camp Pendleton). Knowing what that mare had done, the order was that there was never to be any more weight than a blanket put on that mare’s back again – and that order stood.”
That order did, indeed, stand. When Reckless set out on her daily jog, the Marine who went with her jogged on foot.
The little blaze-faced mare died in 1968. She was 20. She’s buried at Camp Pendleton at Stepp Stables. There’s a monument marking her final resting place, but Wadley doesn’t think it’s nearly enough.
Reckless was honored with a full-sized statue a few years later. Wadley was there for the unveiling.
No one who knows about Reckless will argue that the little redhead was a classy dame. She was fueled by piss and vinegar pumping into her enormous heart until it was over-flowing.
She was fierce.
She is still loved.
I knew it was Spring several days prior to all the news media telling us to “spring forward” with our clocks.
I knew, because on the evening of Wednesday, March 7, I took my dogs outside for their final potty before bed. The motion detector lights cut through the darkness, allowing me to see if there were maurauding skunks or coons or possums helping themselves to the plentiful supply of seed and peanuts spread out for the birds and squirrels. I could also see the stark, moonlit outline of the tree branches in the dense woods behind my house.
The branches were bare. Black, rough scales held in position by cracks that appeared silver around the edges; similar, I think, to open, human lips covered in that horrible Gothic-inspired make-up. Dead-looking….not yet emerging from the deep imprisonment of winter.
Then, just after sunrise on the morning of Thursday, March 8, I took the furkids outside for their first potty since the arrival of the new, 24-hour cycle. Birds and squirrels were feeding, skittering away when they heard the glass storm door close. I glanced at the trees and couldn’t believe what happened during the night, while I was sleeping.
The trees had changed clothes. Their black mourning suits had disappeared and, in their places, were gowns of that ever-so-special shade of green that marks new growth and new birth. It’s that green that defies description, remaining eternally nameless since there is no word on the human color palette that accurately depicts the hue. How could such a miracle happen overnight? Such a dramatic transformation? Could I have seen it if I’d been awake? Or was it like Santa Claus, leave the gifts and then hurry away before anyone sees him?
Remember to stop and notice the Spring miracles that will continue unfolding for the next few weeks. They remind us there is an eternal cycle that is completely beyond our control; although, sadly, not beyond our power to destroy.
In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade!
I’ll be all in clover when they look you over,
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade.
On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us…
I don’t remember photographers but I can definitely tell you I was always a grand, grand lady at Easter.
There were very specific elements about my family’s Easter traditions, beginning with the shopping trip. Mama and I would get in the car on a Saturday two weeks prior to Easter. Destination: find, and purchase, my Easter outfit….an entire ensemble for a fashion conscious four year old, with a mop of Shirley Temple-curly hair. A straw hat, usually with a ribbon tied around the crown, holding a nosegay of Spring flowers in place. A tiny, matching, straw purse. A dress….the frillier and the lacier, the better. White gloves, reaching to my wrists. Lace-trimmed socks rising from my Vaseline-polished, patent leather shoes. And, for the piece de resistance, a confection-like, pastel-colored “topper,” which was the back-in-the-day name for a soft-as-a-tissue, short jacket. After all, it could still be quite cool and the lightweight piece of cotton candy was just enough to put a shield between me and the early Spring reading on the thermometer.
Oh, was I ever decked out….not just physically but emotionally as well, since this was long before I knew the endless variety of hypocracies grown-ups could harbor. At four, and even at the more advanced ages of five and six, I thought everyone not only said nice things but….actually meant them.
I was raised Catholic and, back then, our rural community’s parish existed on very little money. (This was also prior to my learning about loans from the archdiocese for projects such as church-building. Such loans, of course, were followed by those little envelopes everyone tossed onto the collection plate.)
Our church was what they referred to as a “storefront,” but even at four, I puzzled over that designation, since it was the back of the building that served as our church….not the front. It was such a cramped space that the priest donned his vestments at the altar. The front, the real front, was a country grocery store.
We went to church and I absolutely reveled in all the “Oh, isn’t she precious” comments. I accepted the adulation with a beaming smile.
We went inside and entered a pew. I really can’t remember how the church managed to have pews in the back of a grocery store, but we did. On this particular Easter Sunday, the store must have received a large delivery of fresh onions the previous day because the church reeked. Not even that little, gold thing swinging from a chain with incense puffing out of the tiny holes could conquer the smell.
I always stood on the kneeler that was hooked to the back of the pew in front of the pew my family occupied. I know. That’s a lot of pews and, considering the onion smell, the pun was intended.
The reason I stood was because, if I knelt, I was too short to see over the next pew.
So, there I stood in all of my finery; gripping the handle of my beautiful straw purse with both hands and hanging it over the back of the wooden seat in front of me. The Mass began and proceded a bit more quickly than I thought it would, catching me somewhat unaware when it was time to sit. I was just stepping back off the kneeler, bringing my purse with me, when the broad back of the very portly woman in front of me descended into her seat. I could see the writing on the wall as those broad shoulders fell like a sack of soft lead against the back of her pew. She crushed my gorgeous, white, straw purse. I watched in desperate horror as it squashed; part of the little pink and yellow and green nosegay peeping sadly from the confines of that woman’s heaviness. She seemed to neither feel nor hear what was happening behind her.
I threw my gaze toward Mama, who stood there, shaking her head at me in the unmistakable side-to-side movement of NO.
I didn’t care. I yanked my purse, trying to rescue at least a flower or a straw. The handle tore off. There I stood….holding the handle and staring at it like a dog who catches a lizard only to have the creature’s tail break off….leaving the confused dog to wonder what happened to the rest of the body.
I could not believe the unfolding horror story. I felt Mama’s hand on my shoulder. Again, I didn’t care. I yelled, “Get off my purse,” and shoved the big back with both hands. The lady’s head, topped with her own Easter bonnet, swiveled around….allowing her to stare at me with a gaping mouth.
I was angry….oh, so angry….so angry that I began bawling. Loudly.
That lady had managed to rain (a thunderstorm, actually) on my private Easter parade.
I wasn’t happy. Mama wasn’t happy. The lady wasn’t happy. And there, in the middle of it all, stood my laughing, 14-year-old brother. Daddy took care of him.
I have remembered that Easter for all these years. And you know what?
I still have that bonnet.
A brown western hat snugged tight against the man’s head, crowding his ears downward. His blue and black checked flannel shirt, draped loosely over his slightly stooped shoulders, fought off the early morning Wyoming chill. Faded, well-worn jeans contrasted sharply with a big, silver belt buckle—a relic from his younger days when he competed with the best of cowboys on the bare backs of bucking broncs. And, finally, reflected rays of sunshine shot skyward from a pearl-handled Colt .44 revolver. Hanging from a gun belt strapped to his leg, the Colt came from his granddaddy. The man never left his house without the gun, especially this time of year when the Diamondback rattlers were slithering out of their dens to enjoy the early Wyoming sunshine. It was the 20th century, but the man appeared to be a remnant of the old west.
The man’s name was Clark. Sloshing through the creek in rubber waders, he slowly and deliberately closed the distance between himself and the beaver dam in front of him.
There was the beaver. Droplets of clear water spotted his slick, taupe-colored coat, glistening and sparkling in the morning sun like so many crystal pendants dangling from an invisible chandelier.
The beaver sat still, patiently waiting, dark, button-like eyes darting across his immediate horizon. His two front teeth resembled shining white candidates for a vintage Ipana toothpaste commercial. Those strong choppers were enjoying a brief rest from their seemingly constant chewing, chomping and carving. It’s not a craving for industry and productivity that causes beavers to fill their days with felling trees and building dams. Instead, they must spend a large portion of their lives cutting and chopping to keep their teeth worn down and, thus, prevent them from elongating and stabbing painfully into their lower jaw.
The beaver’s chubby body stiffened in anticipation. “Aha,” he thought in beaver language, “I knew he’d be here.” Cocking his head to the right and raising his tiny paws to his mouth, he fixed his button-eyed stare on Clark wading through the creek.
The beaver skittered his glance upward to the snow-crested peaks of the Grand Teton mountains surrounding this place called the Hoeback Junction at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The mountains were a calendar for the beaver. He reckoned time by how far the mantle of undisturbed snow extended down the mountains’ pitted faces. This was the first meeting of the year between Clark and the beaver. The pattern was set nine years ago, when the beaver was a youngster crowding close to the soft fur of his mama while she demonstrated the fine art of dam-building. That was the first time he saw the man. That was also the first time he heard him, bellowing and cussing about “damn beavers” ruining his pastureland with their “damned chewing.”
The beaver didn’t understand the words but his senses told him there was a struggle here. He glanced at his mama but she seemed to ignore the man as she continued gnawing through the trunk of a slim, silver aspen. He remembered how the tree cracked and snapped, falling with a splashing plop into the shallow creek directly in front of the man. The cold water flew upward and backward, drenching him in instant shivers. To this day, the beaver couldn’t be sure but, when he looked at his mama, he could swear he’d seen the flicker of a smile on her mouth. That was nearly 10 springs ago. Since then, the beaver managed to give the man a couple of doussings of his own. He always remembered his now-dead mama’s smile when he did it.
Clark stopped and surveyed the destruction around him. The crystal clear creek was one of several dotting his 2,000-acre ranch. It watered cattle and elk and moose, and even provided drinking water for himself and his family when their well ran low. Every year, after the beaver left, he waded in and cleaned out the fallen timber, freeing the water and allowing it to again run its natural course. It needed a month before regaining its clarity, draining itself of the muck and crud that accumulated above and below the surface as a result of resting stagnant in its beaver dam prison.
The man put his hands on his slim hips and tipped his brown hat back from his forehead. He didn’t look at the beaver. He knew he was sitting on a log not more than 25-yards from him, but he’d be hanged if he’d acknowledge him. Instead, the man directed his gaze and his thoughts toward the mountains.
Clark brought his eyes downward, frowning at the water eddying smack against the steps leading to the front door of his oldest son’s cabin. His four-year-old grandson was sitting in the open doorway, pulling on the rubber boots his mom handed him.
“Mornin’, Pop,” called his daughter-in-law. “We found the water when we woke up. The beaver’s back and he must have worked all ni
“I swear, this’ll be the summer,” Clark growled. “He won’t live past June.” He hitched at his waders irritably, still refusing to glance toward the beaver.
The beaver continued staring at the man, thinking his own beaver thoughts. “He’s aged,” he mused to himself, using padded paws to pat down his rich fur which was drying and becoming very uncomfortable in the upward angling Wyoming sun. He thought he could feel it pulling and pinching from the inside to the outside.
Clark did look older. Even his two boys could see it. He was 68 this summer and it had been a hard life. His grandfolks on his daddy’s side were the first white family to settle in the Hoeback. Until then, the only people had been the Indians who named those two towering mountain peaks the Grand Tetons, which translated rather crudely into “Big Tits.”. It’s no wonder Clark felt a God-given right to the land.
The beaver was about to return to his work when he noticed the man opening his mouth to talk. He couldn’t understand the words, but the years had taught him to read much of the man’s body language. He thought the man looked worried as he leaned over and allowed his daughter-in-law to speak into his ear.
The man finally looked at the beaver. “You flinty-eyed little devil,” he hissed. “I just found out I got me another grand-baby on the way. You keep pushing that water up to this house and I’ll be forced to use this on you.” The man patted the pistol while he held the beaver’s stare. “You hear me, you furry rat? You cause any problems and your hide will be on the inside of my coat this winter. You hear me?”
The beaver was the first to break the deadlock of their eyes. He blinked at the man….just once….one blink. The man felt his head jerk back just a fraction. “Dang,” he said to himself. He knew the beaver had just answered him. He watched as the beaver slid off the log, made a couple of deep dives to wet his fur thoroughly, and then cut through the water in a gliding motion to begin work on yet another tree.
Spring turned into summer and the piles of felled trees grew higher. The man swore the beaver never slept. The young couple in the creek-side cabin insisted they could hear his big, front teeth gnashing late into the night, followed by the plop of aspen falling into the stagnant water at rhythmic intervals.
July gave way to Labor Day. By mid-September, the Wyoming air developed its first crisp edge. The mornings were chilled, and the nights were dropping to two-blanket lows. Clark was eating supper one evening with his sons and daughters-in-law, all seated around the big table in the main house. It was near the end of September.
His younger son laid down his fork and looked at his father. “Pop,” he said, “it seems to me that beaver is worse this year than he’s ever been. The water must be 10 inches up the side of our house. It’s bothering me. Didn’t you say something about killing him?”
Clark directed his full attention to his coffee mug, never looking away from the dark brew, blowing across the top of it in tiny ripples. “Soon, son,” he said. “I’ll take care of the beaver. Probably some time this week.”
The man glanced out the front window. There was just enough remaining twilight to get a good look at the Tetons. He mentally calculated the length of the snow mantle draped down the mountain. “Soon,” he said. “Real soon.”
Clark went to the creek the next morning. He waded into the water and sat down on one of the chewed logs. He could hear the beaver on the other side of the dam, chomping and carving. He waited. In less than three minutes, he felt rather than saw the button-eyed stare. He turned his head. The two pairs of eyes—one as black as flint pebbles and the other as blue as the Wyoming sky—locked on one another. Neither man nor beaver moved. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, both turned to look at the blanket of snow drifting down the big bosom of the Tetons. “Soon,” said Clark to the beaver. “Soon.”
The beaver blinked….just once. They both understood. Each knew just how far to push the other in this battle of wills they waged each year. They understood and abided by their unspoken rules of war; rules based on steadfast, mutual respect.
Clark returned to the creek the following morning. He looked around. He waited a few minutes, his mind sliding into the unfamiliar silence. Then, slowly, he began dismantling the now vacant dam…. just as he’d done for the past several years…. just as he’d done when the beaver used to come with his mama…. just as he figured he’d do next year and the year after that. And he’d need to instruct his kids and grand-kids to do it after he was gone.
A man needed his pride but, then, so did a beaver. He’d have a new grand-baby next spring. One of the first things he’d do would be to show her the beaver. Then, just as he was straightening his back and lifting a limb from the cold water, he heard a “plop.” There was no need to turn around. He knew it was the beaver, getting in the last word before his final good-by of the year. Clark kept his back turned away from the sound. After all, he didn’t want the beaver to see him smile.
Don’t forget to show hospitality
to strangers, for some who have
done this have entertained angels
without realizing it! (Heb. 13:2)
There! I heard it again. It was so tiny and so soft that I couldn’t be certain I’d heard it at all. I crossed one foot over the other so I could turn my body on the ladder, facing away from the nearly 10-foot tall, prickly Christmas tree that was being festooned with every imaginable decoration. I glanced down from my viewing vantage point, shaking my head and thinking the living room was a perfect tableau for a Norman Rockwell painting.
There were cardboard boxes of every size, with brightly colored satin ribbons flowing from the corners. Some of the boxes bore the obvious scars of age and all of them were open with various “stuff” spilling out. Two of the six cats were wrapped in multiple strands of lights like fish caught in a net. I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to plug in the tiny twinklelers. I’d never seen lighted, decorated cats and this could be my only chance. I refrained.
I saw one broken ornament, and a guilty-looking cocker Spaniel sitting next to it. I was certain her repentance wouldn’t be long-lasting, however, since she was already eyeing Skipper, the black and white fox hound terrier, and his mountain of tinsel. I could see trips to the vet in my near future if I didn’t pick up and clean up some of the irresistible, shiny playthings.
I looked back at the tree. It was huge, the biggest I’d ever had; and the odd conglomeration of decorations seemed somewhat symbolic. Chaotic. Turbulent. Close to rudderless.
There! The sound. I had no idea what it was. I knew it wasn’t a bark, but neither did it sound like a cat. That was scary. What was it if it was neither dog nor cat?
Being respectful of my intrinsic fear of ladders, I carefully picked my way down step-by-careful-step. Safely on the floor, I walked to the hall closet and pulled out a heavy coat, hat and gloves. Texas weather is usually quite temperate, but we were experiencing one of our rare cold spells….as in really, really cold. Add a 30 degree temperature to 40 mile-per-hour winds and you discover the definition of not just cold but miserably cold. I tried to rationalize the situation by saying, “Well, after all, Christmas is only five days away so it should be cold.”
The bundling process completed, I turned on the front lights and went out the door with head lowered to combat the brutal wind. I stood still, trying desperately to hear over the groaning and whistling gusts. Nothing. “I can’t stand here very long,” I muttered to myself. On the heels of those words came my next thought which went something like, “But I know any creature that might be out here is definitely in trouble.”
I wrestled a flashlight from my narrow pocket and directed its beam behind the row of low-growing cedars that hemmed the front side of the house. I leaned over to push some of them back, trying to ignore the itchy pricks on my wrists where the coat sleeves parted company with the tops of my gloves. I stooped forward and there they were! Two huge, glowing, yellow-green eyes centered in what appeared to be an overly large head. And there was the sound again….the weakest, most pitiful imitation of a meow I’d ever heard. I never stopped to wonder if the cat might be unfriendly. I just said a soft “Kitty, kitty” and reached down for him. I knew extricating him from the cedars would be tricky, so I moved slowly.
I couldn’t believe what I felt when my right hand closed around the cat. He was, literally, skin and bones. I could actually place my fingers on his side and pinch around each, individual rib. I slid my left hand underneath him as I raised him higher and, again, I was shocked when I felt the opening of his rib cage. He was finally out of the cedars and in full view.
I looked at the cat under the orange/yellow bath of the porch light and, suddenly, all the Christmas tree ornaments just one room away lost their glitter. “Oh, God,” I said softly, “how could this happen?” My reaction was always the same when I faced situations such as this one. I felt suffocated by pain and, on top of that pain, was a consuming anger at our throw-away society. We throw away razors and contact lenses and TV dinners heated in instant microwaves. We throw away just about everything, including relationships. Why not animals? Just toss them out when we’re tired of them or when they change from cuddly babies to somewhat less cute adults. Sure. That’ll work.
The cat’s hipbones strained against his skin, looking as if they were trying ever-so-hard to escape their thin prison walls. I couldn’t stroke him down his back because my fingers hung on the knobs of his spine. And the head that I thought was overly large? It wasn’t. It just had that appearance because the rest of his body was so emaciated. His feet, too, appeared large….like big pads glued to the bottoms of boney sticks.
His fur was gray….a smokey gray….the color of fireplace smoke drifting skyward on crisp October afternoons. It felt dull beneath my fingers. Some people may not realize it, but “dull” is a feeling as well as an appearance.
I cradled the cat in my arms, afraid I’d snap one of his nearly exposed bones if I placed the least pressure on them. He didn’t struggle. He probably didn’t have the strength for a great deal of movement. I wondered how he’d managed to wedge himself behind the cedars. Then, as I tried to stroke him, I saw him push against the warmth of my coat. For what must have been the millionth time in my years of loving animals, I felt my heart crack as I looked at the pitiful creature.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get you inside where it’s warm.” The big yellow-green eyes blinked at me. “We’ll need to put you in your own room,” I continued. “I have no idea whether or not you might have anything contagious, even though everyone in the house is vaccinated against all imaginable germs and bacteria. Besides, you’re in no condition to meet anyone right now. Even a gentle swat would send you tumbling.” He seemed to pay attention to my running, one-sided conversation.
Dogs and cats alike rushed at me when I opened the front door and walked in, acting as if my absence spanned weeks rather than minutes. The gray cat never stirred. Some special feline sense seemed to tell him he was okay as long as he had me in his corner.
“Okay, guys,” I said to everyone. “Let me through. It seems we received an early Christmas present.” Dogs jumped. Cats rubbed. There are times when I know exactly how Moses felt when he parted the Red Sea. “Let me through,” I repeated. Noses lifted upward, straining for a whiff of the newcomer. Had they been able to verbalize, I’m quite certain I would have heard, “Let us see. Let us see.”
I took the thin, scruffy cat into the guest bedroom, and promptly plunked him in the middle of the bed. He looked at me and blinked, appearing totally at home on the yellow comforter with its mauve roses. “Look,” I said, “everyone needs a name so, at least for now, yours will be Smokey.” He filed no protest so I assumed he was comfortable with it.
Okay. The next step was food. Not too much and not too rich. All my cats stayed fat on dry food, but the canned variety might be better for Smokey’s condition. Leaving him in the bedroom, I foraged in the kitchen cupboards and came up with Ocean Whitefish. I put not more than two, level tablespoons in a bowl. Taking two more small bowls from the cabinet, I put milk in one and water in the other. I returned to the bedroom, finding Smokey curled into a tight ball and sleeping between two pillows. I decided to arrange a litter box for him before awakening him to eat.
Everything was ready. His three bowls were on a metal tray which I put on the bed. The cat was just too weak to jump up and down. I brought him out of his warm slumber by stroking the head that looked too large for his shrunken body. Blink! The yellow-green eyes burst open.
“Come on, Smokey, guy,” I crooned. “How ’bout some dinner?” I picked him up and took him to the food. He smelled, turned his head and covered me in a yellow-green stare. “Go ahead,” I encouraged. “It’s yours.” He lapped at the milk three or four times, sniffed the food and took the smallest possible bite. “Go on, Smoke,” I encouraged again. “You need to eat. Not a lot, but more than that.” He looked at me as if he understood. He took another small bite, but he was doing it more for me than for himself. He returned to the spot between the pillows, wobbling from weakness and the soft mattress. He looked at me before he returned to his warm nest.
“It’s okay, Smokey,” I said. “Maybe you need rest as much as you do food; but you really must eat.” The gray cat had been sinking to the bed but, when I told him he really must eat, he stopped his downward motion and looked at me. I rushed to him, putting my hand on him and pushing him gently to the mattress.
“It’s fine, Smoke. There’s no need to get up right now,” I told him.
There was something very strange about this cat. He seemed to have this all consuming desire to please me, and I was nothing more than a total stranger who happened to pull him out of the cedars. He kept looking at me and I kept looking at him. I had a feeling we were connected by some invisible thread, and another feeling that said he understood everything that was happening to both of us. It was highly peculiar but, at the same time, I felt suffused with a spreading warmth and sense of well-being. I could almost feel him absorbing every negative vibration from the house, sucking it all into himself and leaving clean, clear, positive air to fill the rooms and hallways. I closed the door gently, leaving him to his rest while I returned to the Christmas tree. Somehow, the scene I’d left less than 45-minutes earlier had changed. It was quieter….more serene. I felt like an idiot saying it, but the entire atmosphere of the house seemed altered. I certainly didn’t intend to say I thought it was because of Smokey’s presence.
I took Smokey to the vet the following day. The diagnosis was straightforward and basic. He was emaciated. On a scale of one to 10, his overall system was functioning somewhere between a two and a three. He was probably wormy so they administered a very gentle med since they were afraid he was too weak to sustain even a normal dosage. He didn’t appear to have anything contagious. Would he live? They weren’t willing to offer a prognosis.
As I spoke with the vet, I couldn’t help but notice one of the techs from the corner of my eye. She stood next to the examining table, bending over slightly, stroking Smokey. The gray cat rested his head on her right hand while she used her left hand to caress repeatedly from his neck to his flank. Her movements seemed almost hypnotic.
“Lisa,” I said. She didn’t respond. I raised my voice. “Lisa.” She turned and looked at me, but her hand continued its ministering kindness. “This is the most wonderful cat,” she said. “There’s something so special about him.”
I looked at her and then at Smokey. “Yes, I know,” I answered.
I wrapped Smokey in his towel, holding him as tenderly as a baby, and placed him on the passenger seat of my car. I talked with him on the short drive home.
“Well, Smoke, at least we know there’s nothing contagious. The Christmas tree is all finished and, even if I do say so myself, it’s probably one of the most beautiful ones we’ve ever done. If you’ll eat just a little bit for me today and tomorrow, you can come out and admire the tree with the rest of us. We’ll leave the door to your room open when we get home and see how that goes. Okay?”
I reached over to stroke the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against my hand. Funny thing. He was still as emaciated as ever but, for some reason, his head no longer seemed out of proportion to his body. His bones still strained against his skin. I could still imprison his ribs between two fingers. But, somehow, I was no longer aware of all those things. All I saw was….well….beauty. That must be what Lisa witnessed when she stood there stroking him at the clinic.
I unwrapped Smokey and put him on his yellow comforter, leaving the door open and sitting in a rocker near his bed. The cocker Spaniel was the first to venture in. She sniffed the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against her neck. The other two dogs trooped in. Sniff. Purr. Rub. It became a ritual. The six cats came in, usually in twos or threes. They hopped on the bed and approached the gray stranger. No hisses. No swatting. Just quiet. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.
The days until Christmas passed with Smokey becoming no better and no worse. Somehow, in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t live; and I couldn’t help wondering why I was so instantaneously in love with this gray cat.
It was finally Christmas Eve, a day we usually approach with fever pitch excitement since the mountains of presents are opened Christmas Eve night. This year, though, it was different. It was quiet. Peaceful. More reverent. The way everything had been since Smokey came from the cedars. The lights were plugged in on the tree, hundreds of dainty, white flickerings among the branches of the towering spruce. It seemed to dance with fireflies. Satin bows graced the boughs and a lace-clad angel perched on top. Underneath was the stable with the Christ Child’s manger.
Everyone was there, watching the tree as if it might disappear at any moment. Yet, there was a magic something in the air. I glanced down and there, curled up next to the stable, was Smokey. He’d come from the bedroom on his own. All I saw was his beauty, and I felt so blessed to have him.
Somehow, as soon as I opened my eyes Christmas morning, I knew what waited for me. I walked into the living room and there, still curled next to the stable, was Smokey. I’d left him there the night before because I felt that’s where he wanted to be. He’d died during the night. I cried as I stroked him but, at the same time, I knew he’d been a special gift; and I also knew it might be years before I knew his true meaning….if ever. For the first few moments, I felt the crack that had come to my heart when I first met him begin to widen. Then, just as quickly, it was stopped by the mortar of his magic and mystery.
It was three, maybe four, years later when I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store. I glanced at the rack where all the little pocket books are displayed and saw one on cats. I picked it up and laid it on the counter. Later that night, I read a piece titled “The Gospel Of The Holy Twelve” by Gideon Ousley. In 17 lines, it revealed the story of the birth of Jesus. The last three lines told of an ox, a horse, an ass and a sheep, who were in the cave with Mary, Joseph and the Child. And, it said, beneath the manager was a cat.
Ah, Smokey. Were you that cat?
Now, I make a fire every year on the first, crisp, October afternoon. Then I go outside and watch as the gray smoke floats heavenward, looking for all the world like a gently curling cat’s tail – a gray cat’s tail . My heart grows full, tears gather in my eyes but I smile through them. And I think….
Ah, Smokey. Thank you. Thank you for purring peaceful meaning into Christmas.
(*Warning! This is an extremely hot-button issue and may not be suitable for all readers. Discretion is advised. Also, article is unavoidably long.)
“As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”
-Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
I’m going to jump right out there and declare my personal life philosophy.
I believe it is morally criminal to inflict needless pain, suffering and terror on any breathing creature, human or animal. And no breathing creature, human or animal, should be sentenced to spend its final days/hours in abject fear. I learned 20-years ago that I can live very well, and very nutritionally, on an abundant variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains and very little flesh of any kind.
I realize fully that the majority of the world does not agree with my choices and that’s fine. It does, however, strengthen my resolve when I read the words of world-famous people who share my view, such as Mr. Tolstoy.
Immanuel Kant (philosopher, 1724-1804) once said, “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”
What about horse slaughter? How does it fit into the scheme of things? Where does it rank? Are we able to discuss the subject with objective reason and logic as opposed to emotional overflow? I’m going to try.
The last of the three horse slaughter facilities, located in Illinois, was closed in 2007. Two plants were located in Texas. A resident living in the small Texas town with one of the plants was quoted as saying, “The smell and sounds coming from there were horrible.”
The facilities were closed on a technicality, which was created by the federal government, after funding for inspectors was eliminated. Enter the law of “Unintended Consequences.” Plants in the United States were closed but tens of thousands of horses continued meeting their fates in slaughterhouses. Only the locations changed. Now, horses are crammed into trailers and trucks, some double-decker. Stallions and mares are shoved into the same vehicle. There are even babies. The majority of the horses are absolutely healthy, since they, after all, provide the most, and best, meat. It’s very easy for the healthy ones to trample the few old, sick and injured while “elbowing out” there own piece of still-suffocating space.
These are long, ugly rides with the final destination being the bloody floors at kill houses in Canada and Mexico.
We need to look at facts and work from those points, since this is a situation that should be predicated on one thing….the welfare of the horse.
People in the U.S., with only a few exceptions, do not consume horse meat. But, it will probably surprise most to learn that wasn’t always the case; especially in the 1940s during World War II. Horse meat was eaten. It wasn’t a long-lasting practice and, today, the biggest and most consistent consumers are in Europe and Japan, where it’s considered a tender, sweet-tasting delicacy.
Many pro-slaughter supporters insist the number of horses making that bleak trip to Canada and Mexico was created by the closure of the plants. According to available data, however, this is not true, and if we’re going to arrive at anything that is positive for the horses, we can work only with the truth.
This slaughter argument actually has similarities with the abortion issue and there may never be a one-size-fits-all solution for either one. Regardless of your personal views on abortion, there is one element on which everyone probably agrees. That is: abortion should never be used as a form of “birth control.” The same is true of slaughter.
Many of us won’t own up to it, but by and large, we over-breed horses. The absolutely amazing advances in equine reproductive technology have, in many instances, allowed production to outstrip demand. Does anyone really think all six of those babies out of a Quarter mare in one season will succeed on the track and/or be lucky enough to have a “forever home?” Slaughter, then, becomes our “birth control.” We all are aware that nearly every industry has been adversely affected by the economic downturn prompted by the recession, but there’s a significant difference between the horse business and other industries. In most cases, manufacturing industries will severely curtail production and turn to selling inventory. The breeding industry, because of the way it’s economically structured, can’t (doesn’t) follow the same course.
We throw around the term “unwanted horses” rather loosely. The serious recession and overall tough economic environment a few years ago accounted for more ill-kept horses than the lack of slaughter. Thousands and thousands of people lost their homes during the mortgage meltdown but it wasn’t because those were “unwanted homes.”
There were 90,000 horses slaughtered in the US in 2005. Nearly 20,000 of those were sent, live, to Canada, Mexico and Japan. France alone chewed down on 300,000 horses in 2003. The total horse population in 2005 was 9.2-million. American Horse Council data says 10-percent of the entire population dies of accident/injury, illness or natural causes each year. That 10-percent, then, accounted for 920,000 horses. That’s a lot of decomposing horses or renderings or incenerations or whatever, but there has been no concern voiced regarding the possibility of a negative environmental impact. (The opposite is suggested by some associations and organizations.) Also of interest is that the reported equine abuse cases did not rise in California after the state banned slaughter for human consumption. Horse theft, however, decreased by 34-percent. Horse thieves are much more active when they can make good money on the hoof.
The American Veterinary Association says there is no way to track stolen horses when, indeed, there is at http://www.netposse.com It’s estimated that 40-50,000 are stolen each year. The number seems to rise in direct correlation to the per-pound price.
The Quarter Horse industry prides itself on growing and growing and….. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided that growth is sustained in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, though, slaughter plant records say 70-percent of all horses positioned in front of the captive bolt gun are Quarters. According to those same records, only 10-percent or less of all slaughter horses are old, sick, injured.
All these issues may become moot points in the final shakedown. The European market is in a constant argument with itself about accepting horses from the US because of the drugs most of them are given during their lifetimes. Statements must be signed attesting that a horse sold for slaughter has not been administered Bute for at least 180-days. We all know how to get around that requirement….just lie. Some countries, however, wised-up and performed their own testing, finding levels of several medications that are not approved in animals for human consumption. The European Commission Food and Veterinary Office found serious violations as recently as 12-months ago. For those of you who prefer to not eat horse meat, be careful since it’s sometimes mixed with beef and sold back to the US.
A huge spending bill (H2112) signed during President Obama’s administration covered several different agencies, including the USDA. Rep. Jim Moran (D) spearheaded an amendment that retained the ban on funding horse slaughter inspectors. The amendment passed but was stripped out at the last minute by just three congressmen. This particular appropriations bill was critical for keeping the government viable. It had to pass and it did. Interestingly, one report states that nowhere in the bill is horse slaughter specifically mentioned. That same report further states that Congress did not allocate new funding for horse meat inspections, thereby passing the estimated cost of $5-million per year to taxpayers.
The European Union has tightened its rules regarding imported horsemeat. The only way to fulfill some of these regulations is to hold horses on a feedlot until they test clear of drugs. This is not economically feasible since it comes close to doubling the price of the horse. Simply put, the United States was never geared to raise horses for human consumption on a broad scale.
The racing industry consistently expresses serious concern over its public image. The over-riding objective seems to say that image will be considerably improved through the elimination of medications/drugs. And, indeed, it will but what about that rotten portion of the image that becomes even worse when horses such as Ferdinand end up on someone’s table?
We can make slaughter plants sound more acceptable by referring to them as “abbatoirs” and we can make the process of bleeding out sound a bit better if we use the term “exsanguination.” In most plants, the captive bolt is used; either the penetrating or non-penetrating form. Use of the penetrating bolt has decreased due to fear of spreading disease. The penetrating bolt is discharged from a gun into the forehead of the horse and then retracted. Since it penetrates, unwanted bacteria/substances is still on the mechanism when it’s used on the next horse, meaning the resulting, tidily shrink-wrapped meat could have contaminants other than drugs. Additionally, a horse’s brain is located towards the back of the skull which means it’s more difficult to penetrate. And, if it is penetrated, it’s nearly impossible to prevent brain matter from clinging to the bolt and contaminating equipment.
The non-penetrating bolt (actually either one) should render the horse unconscious. It is then hoisted by its back leg via a chain and bled out. Unfortunately, the process doesn’t always work as intended and the horse is still very much alive and aware when its throat is slit. A horse is extremely sensitive to its surroundings. It’s aware of death, and terror spreads like wildfire. By the time he reaches the kill chute, his head is likely tossing wildly. Even the best marksman would have a problem. The situation is exacerbated when the non-penetrating bolt is used. A precise aim and hit become imperative. (Information tidbit: the captive bolt pistol was invented in 1903 by Dr. Hugo Heiss, former director of a slaughterhouse in Germany.)
The purpose of the traumatic stunning is to induce unconsciousness before the animal is bled out. The bleeding must be done while the heart is still beating and, hopefully, consciousness does not return prior to the horse drawing its last breath.
The employee turnover in slaughterhouses is, not surprisingly, high. One barely has time to learn his job before he’s gone. The nightmare factor for those employees is, no doubt, intense. Also, all three of the previous plants in the U.S. were owned by foreign entities that made millions of dollars while paying almost nothing in federal taxes to the United States. Not to mention that the properties in the small towns where the plants were located became impossible to develop, resulting in a significant loss of property taxes.
Prevailing conditions are severe. The overall horse industry is over-breeding, especially the segment engaged in Quarter horse racing. Parts of the country, such as Texas, have been ravaged by wildfires and drought. The monthly cost of feeding a horse is astronomical due to the price of hay. Shelters, animal control facilities and rescue groups say they’re receiving more and more calls.
A few years ago, the world of small animals rallied under a banner that boldly proclaimed “No More Homeless Animals.” I looked at the words and thought, “Who’s spreading that fairy tale.” I am, however, amazed at the strides made toward the realization of that goal. There has been a relentless push for responsible spay and neuter programs. Puppy mills are either being closed or subjected to much stricter oversight.
The situation, however, is decidedly more complex with horses. First, it’ll probably be a very cold day in hell before over-production stops. And, like it or not, slaughter will always be with us. The actual number of horses slaughtered after the plants closed actually did not decrease; they were simply sent elsewhere. And, regardless of what anyone says, slaughter conditions are inhumane; beginning with the holding pens prior to being loaded, to the transport, to the holding pens at the plant ,to the kill chute, to the kill floor. The USDA has provided hundreds of pictures documenting the abuses. So, where we are is changing those conditions from start-to-finish. Consistently humane standards must be initiated, regulated and enforced. No exceptions allowed. One very positive move made by one pro-slaughter group is calling in Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State. I’ve spoken with Dr. Grandin and am familiar with the way she revolutionized many slaughter facilities for the humane benefit of cattle.
We must also plot other solutions and ferret out the possibilities for potential options. For instance:
States might consider funding temporary rescues that include tax revenue-generating jobs and thereby making it easier to find homes for those horses. States might also provide additional funding for sanctuaries and animal control agencies to deal with the problems. One Nevada horsewoman says the county animal control service is responsible for picking up a euthanized horse at no charge.
There could be low-cost euthanasia available, not much different from the low-cost spay/neuter clinics for small animals.
Groups of sanctuaries have voiced solid suggestions, including the creation of state and regional training centers and networks, where young, healthy horses (who make up more than 90-percent of the slaughter population) are trained for productive lives; support for the growing network of sanctuary operators who connect with one another for horse placement; develop and expand existing networks of foster homes.
The Oklahoma Racing Commission has approved a rule to designate $100,000 per year from the breeder’s incentive fund to help care for retired racehorses. Frank Stronach has formed an after-care program to find homes for retired Thoroughbreds.
There’s the possibility of government-funded, strategically located euthanasia facilities. It’s not necessary to staff them with vets. Well-trained techs will suffice. Charge $25 or $50, just enough to defray some of the costs.
Whatever we do….slaughter….other options….or a combination….the focus is on the welfare of the horse. How far back in development would this country be if we’d been unable to do so much of our early building through the willing labor of the horse? We throw disposable razors, diapers and contact lenses into the trash every day. We must stop extending that unthinking process to the horse. We cannot make movies such as Seabiscuit, Secretariat and War Horse that show people the dignity and majesty of the horse and, then, turn around and tell those same people how we inhumanely slaughter 150,000 or more per year. That makes no sense to those people. We can’t flash smiles at them, slap them on their backs and say, “Hey, come to the races tonight” and expect them to understand how one-third of the horses they watch fly down the track will, ultimately, be brutalized.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”
Don’t care for Lincoln?
How about Albert Enstein who said, “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinance is from injury to animals.”
Have a bone to pick with Enstein?
Then try Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission – to be of service to them whenever they require it…If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
Well said, Francis. Whatever we do….slaughter….other options….or a combination, we’ll hopefully remember that we have a higher mission.
Lights at the End of the Tunnel
I didn’t spend the money for tickets when the film Secretariat was in theaters. There was little motivation to open my wallet, since most of the reviews panned the movie; some, of course, more critical than others but all thudding somewhere on the bottom rungs of the popularity ladder. The general drift coming from the critics included descriptions such as “inaccurate” and overly Disney-fied. There was none of the glowing, adjective-driven praise that surrounded the pre-release of Seabiscuit.
The negative commentaries were so firmly lodged in my brain that I even hesitated when, while flipping through the television channels, I saw the film scheduled for 8:00 p.m.
“Should I watch it?” I thought. “Why not?” I answered. My outrageously expensive cable bill would arrive whether I tuned in or not. I clicked the appropriate button.
The first 30-minutes corroborated the critics. The story line was sprinkled liberally with inaccuracies embedded in a romanticized, rosy hue. I could almost see a dusky pink, maybe mauve, background.
Fortunately, I ignored the remote cradled in my hand and stuck with it. I plowed through owner Penny Tweedy’s (Chenery) perfect June Cleaver image of a stay-at-home wife and mother, who fretted over dinner or clothes needing to be pulled from the dryer before they wrinkled. Seldom did she wear pants, sporting a wardrobe of dresses and aprons.
Penny was painfully conflicted over her family duties and her growing involvement with a young colt who, although no one knew it at the time, was destined to become a racetrack legend. Her husband, of course, felt she was neglecting her home responsibilities to follow some ridiculous dream until…..
Penny was away at the races and, even though this was long, long before TVG (Television Games Network), Secretariat’s race was broadcast on national television. Her family tuned in, watching the first strides with ho-hum expressions. Then, the beautiful red colt shifted into cruising gear and powered to the front. Husband and children popped out of their chairs like exuberant Jacks-In-The-Box. They were screaming, urging Secretariat to run even faster. Arms were in the air, fists pumping.
I leaned back and smiled, thinking about my own personal and professional association with racing, “This is what people need to see. Stand them next to the rail and let them feel the ground shake as the field passes them.” It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Thoroughbreds, such as Secretariat, or Quarter Horses. The power generated by the horses when they blast out of the starting gate must be experienced before it can be described.
The movie continued to the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Secretariat’s new track record victory. Then to the Preakness and another NTR. Then to the Belmont, where Secretariat treated tens of thousands of people to an unforgettable, magic carpet ride.
I have no idea how many horse races I’ve seen but, like many others engaged for decades in the racing sport/industry, I wondered if I’d gone a bit sour….jaded….ho-hum, like Penny Tweedy’s family. Maybe even numb. My answer came while watching that critic-panned, inaccurate, romanticized film.
It was the Belmont, the longest and most grueling competition on the Thoroughbred Triple Crown menu. The gorgeous, red horse wasn’t satisfied with simply winning this third and final leg. He went to the front, focused not on the finish line but, instead, on some distant horizon that only he could see.
The announcer’s voice quivered as he yelled into his microphone, “It’s Secretariat by four-lengths, by nine-lengths, by 14-lengths.” He continued, shouting out his last call, when he told people watching at the track, as well as those stuck like pieces of Velcro to televisions and radios, that Secretariat won by an incredible 31-lengths in a New World Record time.
I couldn’t sit calmly. It was just too much. I perched on the edge of my seat, grinning, staring at the screen. I felt the hair on my arms stand at attention and a wave of shivers roll down my back. At that moment, I was convinced I could relate to the overwhelming emotions of the resurrected Lazarus. I had just watched a thing of indescribable beauty in a mistake-ridden, Disney-produced film. I was alive! The fact that the Belmont placed the Triple Crown squarely on Secretariat’s regal head was almost incidental.
It’s true that horse racing is as multi-faceted as an intricately cut diamond. The outside of the sport/industry is gilded with a certain pomp and circumstance that reflects off the sheer wonder of the equine athletes. Underneath, however, are the hidden fractures that shave the worth from imperfect diamonds.
Racing has traveled a long road from the shabby rooms housing seedy-looking bookies, with cigarettes and cigars dangling between thin lips that fold back on yellow teeth. Yes, there are serious problems lurking beneath the surface but nothing, no one, no sin we may commit, has the power to strip away the brilliant beauty of these horses. Yes, we have a desperate need for enormous changes; those changes are happening, albeit, slowly.
What do we do in the meantime? We wait. We wait for the sustaining glory of another Secretariat in the Thoroughbred world and another Special Effort in the Quarter Horse kingdom because they are the lights at the end of our tunnel.
*American Pharoah won in 2015 and Justify in 2018. It was 37 years between Affirmed’s Triple Crown victory in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015.