Girl and Five Brave Horses, A (22 page)

BOOK: Girl and Five Brave Horses, A
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Ordinarily Red took off whether I was on him or not, but that night he seemed to be waiting for me, so, clinging to the railing, I moved forward until his body blocked my advance; then I climbed up and extended my right foot to the railing on the other side and stood up. I was poised above him like a Colossus. I heard Al shout. “Don’t do itl Don’t do it!” but ignored his warning.

I started inching my way forward once more. When I got to the front of the tower I reached down, felt for the harness, and dropped into position—at the last possible moment before Red took off.

Mishaps didn’t take place often, but whenever they did Al threatened to make me quit riding. I always managed to talk him out of it and in all those eleven years never experienced any injury more serious than a sprained ankle.

I rode for five years before I changed my policy about no publicity regarding my blindness. Once when we were appearing at Charlotte, North Carolina, a reporter from one of the newspapers came to interview me. While he was there another reporter, who had visited me the day before, came in. “Say,” he said, “somebody just told me that you can’t see. I came over to ask you personally because I don’t believe it.”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Well, I want to shake your hand,” he said, “because I think you’re the most remarkable person I’ve ever met.”

The first reporter contributed, “Well, I’ve been talking to her for twenty minutes and I didn’t know she couldn’t see.”

After the handshaker had gone I realized from the trend of the remaining reporter’s questions that he was planning to make my handicap the main theme of his interview, so I hurriedly told him that I frowned on such publicity and explained my reasons for doing so. He seemed willing to let the matter rest and we continued our conversation along other lines, but a few minutes later he mentioned my blindness again. His persuasive arguments for permission to write it up finally won my consent.

The interview appeared in the next day’s paper, and shortly thereafter I had a visitor. He was a minister who explained that the story had aroused his interest because he was on a committee in charge of raising money for a training school and factory for the blind of Charlotte. He wanted me to appear on a local radio station to make an appeal for funds. It was a request I could not refuse, nor did I wish to do so. The story in the newspaper and the radio interview attracted enough attention to set wheels in motion, and one morning I awoke to find a syndicated feature, a biography with pictures of myself, spread over half a page of a chain of newspapers.

At first I was genuinely annoyed at this publicity; then letters began to come in—not just a few but dozens—from people all over the country. They wrote to say in one way or another how much the story had meant to them and how it had inspired them to go on living as normally as possible in spite of their particular handicaps. This response forced me to scrutinize more closely my original ideas about personal publicity. I came to the conclusion that if knowledge of my blindness in combination with my success as a rider could help others, then it was both rude and selfish of me to keep it a secret. After that I never tried.

In 1942 we opened in what proved to be our last engagement. America had been in the war only a few months, but we had trouble getting men to excavate the tank, carpenters and laborers to set up the tower, and a groom to take care of Red Lips. (Our current groom had given up horses for army trucks.) Furthermore, by the time we completed our contracted appearance at Playland Park in Houston, Texas, there were rigid restrictions on tires and gasoline, and many fair associations were canceling their annual fairs for the duration. We decided the time to quit had come. We would put Red Lips out to pasture and take to the pasture ourselves.

I was ready, but Al was not. Al was and is a real showman, and real showmen love the business as they love nothing else in the world. They not only love it but need it with an inner craving and are miserable away from the noise and excitement of fairgrounds and amusement parks. In my years of show business I had found this to be true to the lowest-paid roustabout as well as the managers and star performers. Once a man had been truly smitten by show business, he was never free of its lure.

When I had my sight I often watched the roustabouts strike the tents or put them up and was impressed by the enthusiasm with which they worked. One would have thought they were going to be paid a thousand dollars, while the truth of the matter was they earned far less than men of similar skills on a routine construction job. They worked without flagging in sleet and rain. I have seen them, after they finished, wrap themselves up in an old tarpaulin, huddle beneath a wagon, and fall sound asleep, as content to be there as they would have been nowhere else in the world.

Few of them ever left show business for anything else. They seldom wrote or went home or even claimed to have a home. Once I asked a man who was working for us whom I should notify if he got hurt, and he said, “Lady, if anything happens to me, just throw me in that horse tank and pile on the dirt.”

Al was like the roustabouts. Show business was his life, and when he had to leave it, it nearly broke his heart. He would go back now if he were able, but physically he is not. He works as a motel desk clerk at night, and I work during the day as a typist at the Lighthouse for the Blind. Because of our working hours we don’t see as much of each other as we’d like, but before he has to leave in the evening we have our dinner together. He fills me in on what has happened during the day, or I tell him what’s going on at the office, or we talk about the old days and performers we have known. When he’s feeling especially nostalgic, he tells me stories about his days with the circus.

Sometimes old friends visit us, but mostly we live by ourselves, hearing infrequently from people we knew in Atlantic City. We haven’t seen Orville and Roxie for a long time, but we learned that Roxie was able to get out of bed after two years and walk on crutches. After a while she managed to hobble around on her own, though with a very bad limp. She was never able to perform again, which was very sad. She had been such a wonderful acrobat—and such a beautiful girl.

Arnette and I are still close, though a thousand and more miles apart. She and her husband and two children live in Pennsylvania, where she makes a constant effort, she says, to keep house better than Mother did.

Red Lips died in 1954. We had left him in Houston with friends. All the other horses were long since dead—Klatawah, Snow, and John. When I think of them and our years together I feel some of Al’s nostalgia, but I remind myself that We promises many new experiences.

I often have the feeling that I am part of the world and, though I cannot see my surroundings, the world is part of me. I am conscious of an indestructible, indomitable force, a constant and abiding truth that is stronger than any human being. This presence gives me strength and courage to face whatever comes, and I do not fear life or anything in it. On the contrary, I relish life and know that there is still much for me to do and to know.

BOOK: Girl and Five Brave Horses, A
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