Authors: Sonora Carver
By Sonora Carver
As Told To Elizabeth Land
Start Publishing LLC
Copyright © 2012 by Start Publishing LLC
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
First Start Publishing eBook edition October 2012
Start Publishing is a registered trademark of Start Publishing LLC
Manufactured in the United States of America
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As I sat in the grandstand at the fairgrounds that night in 1923 I had no idea that less than a year from that time I would be performing the act I was about to witness. Nothing in my background had prepared me to expect it, nor had any personal inclination led me toward it, and yet what was about to happen was to change my entire life.
In front of the grandstand was a broad green stretch of ground on which different kinds of equipment—high wires, trapezes, and the like—had been set up for various acts. But by far the most impressive was a tall tower that stood to the left. It was freshly painted white and so enormous it dwarfed everything else in sight.
A girl in a red bathing suit, brown football helmet, and white sneakers sat on a railing at the top of the tower, looking intently down a steep ramp. In a moment she gave a signal with her hand and instantly there came the sound of a horse’s hoofs hitting the runway. Streamers of lights on the tower quivered and braces and supports vibrated as the horse galloped up, and then, as if by magic, the horse’s forequarters appeared. She came off the ramp onto an aisle that led to the front of the tower, and as she galloped past the girl on the railing the girl jumped on.
They drew up together at the head of the platform, where there was a sheer drop-off, and the horse stood for a moment like a beautiful statue, looking down at the audience in the grandstand and at a tank of water that lay in front of the tower.
To my everlasting memory I saw she was dapple-gray, her forequarters wholly white, her flanks heavily marbled with gray. She had a white mane, which was flung to one side, and a white tail like a plume to the flow, and she looked as proud as any duchess, yet full of strength and power. I might have guessed, had I not already known, that her name was the Duchess of Lightning.
I, who had loved horses since I was old enough to know what they were, was completely spellbound. I thought she was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen in my life or was ever likely to see.
After looking the crowd over to her satisfaction she slid her forefeet down. A series of planks, set one beside the other, was nailed flat to the front of the platform, and it was here she braced herself. She hung for a moment at an almost perpendicular angle, then pushed away from the boards and lunged outward into space. For a split second her form was imprinted on the night sky like a silhouette, then her beautiful body arched gracefully over and down and plunged into the tank.
Sheets of water splashed up, hung there bright and crystal-edged, then fell back into the tank, writhing and boiling in the place where they had disappeared. For a moment nothing happened, and then the horse shot up, rocketed from the bottom by her own impetus, but as if catapulted.
The girl was still on her back. The horse swam toward the front of the tank and I noticed her ferocious expression. Her nostrils were sucked in and her teeth were bared, and for a moment I was frightened. Then I realized that nothing was wrong; it was just her way of keeping the water out. After a moment she reached an incline at the front of the tank and cantered out onto dry ground, where the rider slipped off her back.
By this time everyone was clapping and some were shouting and stamping. It was obvious that everyone was as thrilled as I was.
I turned to my date sitting next to me. “Would you do that?” I asked.
He said, “Do you think I’m crazy!”
It was a common enough answer and a sensible one, too, but it had special meaning for me because I had said almost the same thing to my mother three days before. She had come to my room at the boardinghouse on one of her odder missions; she wanted me to go with her to the Savannah Hotel to see the people who were presenting the diving-horse act at the fair.
“Why should I want to meet them?” I asked in astonishment.
“Because they’re looking for someone to dive the horses, and you’d be perfect for it.”
“Me!” I said. “Dive on a horse? Mother, you’ve lost your mind!”
“No,” she said, “I haven’t. You’ve got all the qualifications.” And as if to prove it, she handed me a want ad. She had torn it from the paper and the edges were all jagged.
Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel. See Dr. W. F. Carver, Savannah Hotel.
I handed it back to her with the words, “I’m not interested.”
“But don’t you see? It offers everything you’ve ever wanted! And you’ve got all the qualifications!”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m not interested. Traveling around with a carnival!”
a carnival,” she insisted. “They travel by themselves. And what’s more, it’s one of the finest acts in the country. Everybody says so.”
“I don’t care,” I repeated. “I’m not interested. I don’t want to meet them.” And the more she argued, the more resistant I became, which is understandable only if you knew Mother.
With Mother a person had to be stubborn to stay sane. Mother hadn’t a shred of practicality and was as irresponsible as a cockroach. Completely lacking in organization, she could not be depended on for anything. A person might have called her an eccentric, but of a definite type. She was an undercover eccentric because her eccentricities didn’t show. She didn’t wear a spider in her hair or an old Confederate overcoat or get up in the night and beat on a frying pan. On the contrary, her eccentricities were hidden beneath a veil of normality, and you had to live with Mother to know. If you did you were sure.
“Now look,” I said, “I’m not going down to the hotel with you and that’s all there is to it.”
them I’d bring you.”
“Then you’ll have to tell them you were mistaken.”
“You’re passing up the chance of a lifetime.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
That’s the way it began, just as simple as that, the way so many things in life begin and end up having the impact of King Kong. For me the most world-shaking event in my life began with nothing more than a mild-mannered want ad read by my mother, for the upshot of the matter was that she wouldn’t quit talking about it that day or the next, so that finally I relented. I’d go to the hotel with her, I said, if she’d promise to leave me alone.
It was a Wednesday evening and they were all in the hotel lobby—Dr. Carver, his son Allen, a daughter Lorena, and Vivian, a girl who rode for them. Dr. Carver was, I found, the most distinguished-looking man I had ever met. I didn’t admit this to Mother then or later, but I was quite impressed. He was eighty-four years old at the time but didn’t look it. He stood tall and straight like a redwood and was apparently as indestructible. His complexion was ruddy, with a series of ridges stamped between his remarkably penetrating eyes. As we talked about the act and the possibility of my joining it, I had the feeling he could see the bones in my skull.
Although he did offer me the job with his company I turned him down, explaining politely that I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do and that I had really come along only to placate my mother. I don’t remember my exact words, but that was the gist of it, and if I remember correctly he smiled and said something like, “I understand,” and after that we left.
Meeting Dr. Carver, however, stimulated my interest if not my appetite, and I was more anxious to see the act than I had been before. Hence I’d gone to the fair with my date and seen the show in which the diving-horse act was the finale. After I had watched the magnificent dapple-gray horse my whole outlook changed. As emphatically as I had not wished to learn to ride a diving horse, I now wished to learn. The fact was that I had fallen in love, simply and completely.
To understand how I felt about horses one should know that when I was only five years old I tried to trade my brother for a horse. When H.S. was six weeks old I willingly would have traded him for a bay named Sam had my parents not objected.
Sam was the carriage horse of the woman who lived next door, and she knew I loved him as I loved nothing else in the world. One day, as a joke, she asked me if I’d trade. I knew good and well I could get a new baby brother practically any time, but a horse! A horse was something else. Would I trade? Of course I would! I raced into the house, snatched H.S. out of his crib, and tore back out with him, afraid that if I didn’t hurry she’d change her mind. Just as I was about to hand him over, however, I had the feeling that someone was watching and, when I turned, there were my mother and father standing on the back porch.
I don’t think I have ever had a sicker feeling. I knew instantly they didn’t want me to trade and nearly burst out crying. As it was, I managed to say, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I took him back inside and put him in his bed, literally bursting with grief.
This love of horses was to remain with me for the rest of my life and to lead me into strange acts, some of them nearly catastrophic.
The year I started school I discovered a penful of horses down at the railroad yards. Waycross, Georgia, was a stop-ping-off place for feeding and watering livestock on their way to tie stockyards. Of course they were mostly cattle, but there were some horses, too, and after I found they could be seen every morning I stopped each day on my way to school. As a result I was chronically tardy but I never mended my ways. Even when the teacher threatened to fail me I continued to come in late. I had no use for the first grade and, to make matters worse, entered the room with a savoir-faire that would have felled Sinatra. In the end, however, the teacher had the last word. She flunked me.
That should have taught me a lesson, but I refused to be taught. I carried my truancy with me right on up through high school. As late as the tenth grade I was cutting classes to go horseback riding and once nearly killed our principal. He had the poor sense to cut back through the city park on his way from watching baseball practice and was following the bridle path when I came bouncing along. I pulled aside in time to avoid running him down but not in time to avoid being spotted. The next morning I was called into his office and threatened with expulsion if I cut school again.
He needn’t have worried. I quit—not because of a horse, however. My school career ended when my mother was called away to be with Grandfather, who was ill, and left me to take care of the children. She hadn’t meant for me to stay home, but that is what I did. The real reason was that I had fallen in love and had been rejected. A rejected eighteen-year-old is like a runaway torpedo. There’s no telling what she will do or in which direction she’ll go. For me it was the next thing to being thrown from a horse, and I simply couldn’t bear it, so I minded the children and stayed out of sight of my classmates.
To reveal the plain foolhardiness of my action, it is necessary to say that the love affair had gone no deeper than a few soulful looks and a couple of Saturday-night movies, but pride is a woeful thing, powerfully strong in me.
How often I’ve regretted it, it would be impossible to say. The real sorrow is that in spite of everything I had always made good grades, and had I really tried I might have become a student. But there I was out of school, and after a while I went to work. Before this happened, however, Mother moved herself and my five brothers and sisters to Savannah, Georgia. It was an ad that hooked her.