Authors: Sonora Carver
All in all, it was expensive, a single tower costing something in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars. This was, however, always at the expense of the park or fair, a part of the Carver contract.
The process of building was exciting to me and I watched the tower go up plank by plank. For some reason I could not fathom, my constant attendance at the project seemed to annoy Dr. Carver, and one day he asked me why I stayed around so close. I told him I wanted to learn how it was done and he said I didn’t need to know, which was an answer he might have given anyone but which didn’t set too well with me.
He did not, however, forbid my climbing it once it was finished. When I did, the first look down from that height caused me to step back involuntarily and grasp the railing on either side. Still grasping the railing, I bent forward and peered cautiously over the edge again to see if I had been mistaken, but no, it still seemed much higher from there looking down than it had appeared on the ground looking up. By the time I had climbed the tower a few more times the distance no longer bothered me and I was able to gaze down or out or wherever I chose without the slightest feeling of uneasiness.
When the tower was up and the tank dug and filled, the workmen began to build another platform, much lower, within the tower uprights. This one was only twelve feet from the water and was used for training purposes, both for new riders and new horses. This height was sufficient to give the horse the feel of the jump without frightening him to death, and the same was true for the rider.
Before I began my training from this low tower, however, Dr. Carver decided he wanted me to learn to do some dives. These were not ordinary dives, which I already knew, but trick dives and swimming stunts that I would be able to use in a special act at parks and fairs if so requested. Lorena had added some dives to her riding act, and the crowds had responded well. Having decided I should do the same, Dr. Carver ordered a fireman’s ladder and had a portable pedestal built. With the ladder and the pedestal he could then promote me to any height on the tower he chose and not only teach me fancy dives but gradually accustom me to perform from the forty-foot height.
I was eager to learn dives and swimming tricks, but Dr. Carver nearly removed all my enthusiasm. Sitting in the shade in a comfortable chair, he would give me orders. “All right, three somersaults backward, a log roll, and finish up with the water wheel.”
This took a little doing, but I would no sooner accomplish that mixture than he would say, “All right, now a swan dive, followed by the dead man’s float, and after that the waltzing trick.”
I’d clamber up the ladder, panting and beginning to change color, but no matter how advanced the state of my exhaustion, if I so much as stopped for a moment to get my breath he would glower at me and say, “If you’re too tired to practice you might as well get dressed.”
Finally one day when I was fed to the teeth I snapped, “Don’t hurry me! It makes me nervous.”
For a minute it stopped Dr. Carver cold. I had never talked back to him before. Nobody did. Al and Lorena let him run the show in his own way (no matter how much better they thought they might have run it) and never gave advice except in a roundabout manner, tactfully indicating that the suggestion originally had been his.
Now he looked at me from beneath the brim of his hat, which, I had learned, was not a hat but a weather vane. If it was on straight, things were going well; at an angle, he was feeling cocky. If it was on the back of his head, he had things to settle and you’d better watch out. Today it was on at an angle. Suddenly he laughed. “Makes you nervous, does it?” he said. “Well, now that’s a pity. You go get your dress on and I’ll buy you a lemonade.” He was apparently as unpredictable as the weather itself.
By this time about three weeks had passed in Durham and I had already lost weight. I had also developed some new muscles and no longer ached all over. I knew I was ready to dive, and Dr. Carver confirmed this a few days later by telling Al he was to take me up on the low tower and show me how to stand.
Standing was necessary when mounting the horse from the low tower because there wasn’t enough room for the rider to sit on the rail. After the horse came up and got into position all the space was filled because the area within the low tower was cramped. Al placed me on the left-hand side of the railing and then stood across from me on the opposite side.
Dr. Carver went to get the horse ready. I put on my helmet and listened while Al gave me some instructions.
“When the horse drops his feet forward onto the kickoff board, pull back with your weight; not on the harness, but with your body, so as to help keep your balance. A rider is able to think during the action of the dive only after some experience. In the beginning the brain merely registers impressions, and one of the most vivid is false. When the horse first drops his feet over the edge, you’ll have the feeling that he’s going to turn a somersault and that you’re going off over his head, but you won’t, and once he actually dives, this sensation will leave. In the meantime don’t panic. One girl we were training got so scared she let go of the harness the same time the horse kicked off, and she shot off his back like a cannon. She landed in the front of the tank, and all that saved her from breaking her neck was that she landed flat.”
With this amusing little story to cheer me I waited for the horse. When Dr. Carver was ready, Al signaled that we were, and Klatawah started up the ramp. The sound of his hoofs was dull thunder as 1250 pounds of sorrel-colored energy hurtled toward me. I suddenly had the feeling that we were the only living creatures in the otherwise silent and motionless world. Then he was beside me and Al reached out and stopped him.
Klatawah was the liveliest of all the horses, and being halted made him impatient I was no sooner on his back than he dropped his feet over the side and dived. For a split second there was an open space between us and the water, and then we hit it smoothly. I heard the water gurgling and bubbling around us as we went down, down, down, and then I felt his feet touch bottom and he gave a strong push upward. Almost at once we surfaced and I was still on him. When he pulled out at the incline a few moments later, I slipped off his back and was as proud as if I’d just brought in a winner at the Kentucky Derby.
I had imagined that Dr. Carver would be equally proud of me, but he wasn’t even there. Al sensed my disappointment and said, “Never mind. He doesn’t watch the dives after a performer is trained. Don’t worry. I’ll tell you whether you’re doing anything wrong. Come on, let’s try it again.”
As I rounded the ramp to the back to make my second ride, there was Dr. Carver. He gave me a little half smile and I knew what it meant. “That was all right,” it seemed to say, “but don’t get swell-headed about it.”
This time Al told me how to improve my ride. “You ducked your head a little too soon. Wait until the horse is in mid-air. And when he dives, sit tighter. The closer you sit him, the better. When he comes up from the bottom and starts swimming, let go of the harness and get hold of his mane. This gives him more freedom of movement and makes the swimming easier for him. And remember that when his feet touch bottom he’ll throw his head back, so be careful to keep
head to one side or you’ll get your nose broken.”
As Al coached me, the odds between me and the hospital seemed to get smaller, but it turned out that I rode Klatawah a second time and a third time, and each time I came out unwounded. In fact, I rode him twice a day for the next three weeks, and by the middle of May I had made twenty-one dives from the low tower.
The morning after my twenty-first jump, as I walked away to my dressing room, Dr. Carver announced without any preamble, “You’re ready for the top.”
My face burst into a big smile. I had been waiting for this! Then, as if afraid he might say something congratulatory, he turned around and walked off.
Still, his grouchiness could not dampen my spirits. I was delighted with myself and waited for the following morning with an almost childish impatience. When it came finally I got up and shot out of the park and put on my suit.
Until then I had had to wear the army riding pants over my suit, but now I was able to shed them. There would no longer be the danger of a friction burn, at least not as much as there had been within the narrow confines of the low tower, so for the first time I wore the trade-mark of my act— a modest red wool bathing suit with a rounded neck and a long torso.
I put on heavy socks to protect my ankles and over them canvas swimming shoes. I also had my helmet, which was a “must.” Dr. Carver insisted his riders wear one in order to prevent serious injury should they get kicked by a horse. This could happen if a rider fell off in the tank and got caught beneath murderously thrashing hoofs.
I looked around for the groom, who should have had Klatawah harnessed, but neither horse nor groom was in sight. Searching further, I walked around to the barn, where I found Al and Dr. Carver deep in conversation. Al was sorting brushes and scrapers, and as I walked up I caught the last of Dr. Carver’s words, “. . . get a new rider.”
For a moment I was jolted, thinking he meant someone to replace me; then I realized that he meant someone to replace Lorena. She had gone to see her doctor in New Orleans shortly after we arrived in Durham and had written her father the week before, saying that the doctor didn’t want her to ride for another year.
They continued their discussion even though I stood close by, and neither of them acknowledged my presence by so much as a lifted eyebrow. I stood first on one foot and then the other and finally blurted out, “When are you going to harness my horse so I can ride from the high tower?”
Dr. Carver looked at me as if I had just dropped off the moon. “When you make your first ride from the tower,” he said, “it will be for the benefit of an audience.”
It was my turn to be astonished. “But that’s seven days away!” I said. “The park doesn’t open until the twentieth. I’ll forget everything I’ve learned!”
“No, you won’t,” answered Al. “It’s like riding a bicycle or swimming. It’s not something you forget. Believe me. I know.” But for all his sympathetic words, his face had taken on the same lines as his father’s. I could see he was equally implacable.
For a moment I stood looking from one to the other and then turned and walked away. There was obviously nothing I could do.
I spent the next week roaming the lot all by myself and silently hating everyone. I brooded over Dr. Carver’s thoughtlessness and told myself he had no right. Not that I was afraid I’d be hurt; I was afraid I’d look like a fool. I didn’t care what I maimed or broke, just so I looked as if I knew what I was doing. And how could I, if I’d never done it before?
This was a bad time for me, made worse by the fact that Al left two days before we opened. He had to see to the setting up of a platform and tank in Texas, where he would do his first show. With him gone and Lorena still in New Orleans, I was left alone with Dr. Carver. Communication between us, which had been sputtering on and off for so long, seemed to have become permanently short-circuited. The result was a series of minor skirmishes in which I always seemed to be the loser.
I asked him one day what I should do about the audience after I made my ride.
“After you dismount, face the audience and make a nice bow.”
“Bow!” I said. “I’d feel like a fool!”
“Then do anything you damn please,” he snapped.
Our relationship was indeed wearing thin, but I didn’t know how thin until I went out to the park the day we were to open and found Dr. Carver pacing. He had already accused me a number of times of being unduly nervous and had suggested that I calm down. Now he was kicking up more dust than I had ever kicked and it made me angry. All that week I had been bashing the jitters over the head and getting lectured about it, and here he was at the last minute coming down with his own case of the jitters. So far I had consoled myself with the thought that he wouldn’t let me do it if he didn’t think I could, but here he was, blasting my only prop right out from under me.
Later I learned he was always nervous on the opening day of any engagement, but I didn’t know it then, so it was no help to me. All I could do was hold onto the few nerves I had left and count away the hours.
Mr. Foster, the manager of the park, had advertised our act as the featured free act of the grandstand opening, and as a consequence, long before appearance time, thousands of people were standing around the rope that separated the tank from the crowd. From my dressing room I could hear their voices, and as they grew louder my own excitement increased. I had to fight to keep myself calm enough to get dressed, but at last I had the suit on and the socks and shoes. Finally, and with extreme reluctance, I put on the bathrobe.
Had it been my bathrobe or almost anyone else’s it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the bathrobe was Dr. Carver’s and it wrapped around me twice. I had begged for a fringed shawl to wear as I walked to and from the tower, but he had barked an immediate and pre-emptive “No!” He was terribly conservative, severely disapproving of anything that smacked of “flappers,” and felt completely justified in handing me his bathrobe.
To appreciate the situation fully, one need only recall that he stood six feet four and weighed more than two hundred pounds, whereas I stood five feet six and weighed 125. The bathrobe, moreover, a gray wool affair, when bunched and tied around me resembled nothing so much as the hide of an old bull elephant. I had to keep hitching it up to avoid stepping on it and I could not have felt more unglamorous if I’d had the ears and trunk too.
As we walked toward the tower we had to force our way. People stood hundreds deep in places. When we finally got to the ramp I saw that George, our groom, had made it somehow and was standing there with Klatawah. I took off the robe and laid it over the railing and began to climb.
I don’t remember what thoughts went through my mind or even whether I had any thoughts, because a kind of numbness took over and I moved like a robot. All I remember is that when I got to the top I discovered I was no longer nervous and unsure. I looked down at seven thousand faces turned up to me, and their expressions of excitement and anticipation made me feel humble as well as proud. I wanted to do my best for them and somehow knew I would.