Authors: Sonora Carver
I waved to the crowd, boosted myself up on the railing, and put on my helmet. When I signaled George to send Klatawah up, he began to turn him to build up the horse’s momentum, then sent him into the runway. Klatawah’s hoofs hit the ramp with a crash.
The whole tower vibrated and shook as he rushed up at me, and I knew that in a split second he would be going past. Then he was there and I grabbed for the harness and swung myself into place. As he drew up at the head of the platform I was aware I had mounted him right. But the real test was ahead of me. I had to stay on him, come up from the water on him, and ride him out of the tank. If I failed to do any of these things I would have failed as a rider—and I wanted to be a good rider more than anything else.
I was anxious to be off and get it over with, but Klatawah was not. He was a fast enough diver during practice sessions, but tonight he had an audience and he reacted to it.
Klatawah had been one of Dr. Carver’s first diving horses. In the early years the horses had carried no riders, so in order to build up audience interest Dr. Carver had taught Klatawah to count out his age at the edge of the platform by pawing his hoof a number of times. Dr. Carver had long since wearied of this act (as had Al, since the pawing tore up the padding), but Klatawah had not; in fact, he thought it was splendid. He proceeded to count now by bringing first one foot and then the other high under his chin and letting them drop down with a whack that shook the very uprights.
The motion of his body as he went through these gymnastics jerked me backward and forward as if stricken with a violent case of hiccups. Klatawah was a fraud. He never actually counted his age; he simply pawed as many times as he thought the audience deserved, which could be a great number. Finally, however, he gave the audience one last look, then he clattered down onto the kickoff board with an almost running motion and immediately kicked off.
I felt his muscles tense as his big body sprang out and down, and then had an entirely new feeling. It was a wild, almost primitive thrill that comes only with complete freedom of contact with the earth. Then I saw the water rushing up at me, and the next moment we were in the tank.
We went in so smoothly that wetness seemed the only proof of landing. Klatawah’s feet touched bottom and he began to nose up. I sensed a pull; the water parted; we came to the surface.
“I did it! I did it! I did it!” That was all I could think, and I was so excited when I dismounted that I forgot to bow to the audience. I simply turned and waved both arms, not once, but twice; it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
Then I turned to get Klatawah’s sugar from the groom, but it wasn’t the groom who was standing there. It was Dr. Carver, and he was smiling and said, “That’s Daddy’s girl.”
It was the first time he had ever called me “Daddy’s girl,” but I hardly heard him. I was too excited and full of myself. I went back to my dressing room, and in the mirror I saw I was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “What a pity,” I thought, “there’s no one to help me celebrate. I never felt so wonderful!”
The fact was that I hadn’t a single friend in Durham. There might have been several reasons for this, but Dr. Carver was the overwhelming one. He didn’t approve of my associating with people in the park; a top performer must maintain an air of mystery, he said. He was probably right, but just then I would have gladly traded mystery for some shared jubilation.
It wasn’t until after I got back to the hotel that what he said really penetrated my mind. “That’s Daddy’s girl!” The only creatures who received this accolade were his beloved horses. If he had put me in the same category, our private war was over.
I was right in thinking that the title evidenced affection and pride, for he called me that in all the remaining years of our acquaintanceship, and because he liked it and because it seemed appropriate I called him “Daddy Carver.” Many people took me for his daughter and I never bothered to correct them, for I became a daughter to him through devotion, if not by right of blood.
He had held off approval until I met the final test, afraid I might disappoint him somewhere along the way. I became convinced of this during the course of the next week when he started training a new girl for Al.
When Al left, Dr. Carver promised to send him a trained rider in time for his opening in Texas, and to that end had put an ad in the paper. The first applicant appeared just before matinee time three days after my initial ride from the high tower, and I was present when Dr. Carver explained the act and asked her to stay for the performance so she could see for herself. After the show she said she would like to try and was told to report the next morning.
For three mornings thereafter she was subjected to the same riding exercise I had undergone, but on the fourth Dr. Carver suddenly announced she was to make her first jump from the low tower.
As I went up on the platform with her to show her how to stand, I was deeply ashamed. I had spent weeks learning to hang onto the horse, and here she was riding from the low tower after only three days of ground training. I was not only ashamed but also perplexed. She had not ridden the horse any better than I had. What, then, did this mean?
The routine that followed after I came down from the tower was the same for her as it had been for me. The groom stopped the horse, she mounted, and after a brief pause the horse dived. I wasn’t enough of a rider yet to judge, but since she was still on the horse when he came up I assumed she had done pretty well. Then she went up for the second time and the horse was turned into the runway, but the groom didn’t release him after she had mounted. I could see that she was talking but could not hear what she was saying. From her gestures, however, I could tell that she was hesitating.
At this point the conversation on the tower was interrupted by Dr. Carver, who shouted, “What’s going on there?” At that she threw both hands in the air, began screaming, and scrambled frantically over the horse’s rump and down the incline.
I ran to the back of the tower. “What’s the matter?” I asked, but she shot past me, unheeding, and slammed into the dressing room. About this time Dr. Carver walked up. “What happened?” I said.
“Nothing,” he answered in disgust. “She just hasn’t got the nerve.”
“But,” I argued, “maybe if you’d given her more ground training—“
”No,” he said. “I haven’t time to waste on a girl without nerve, and after watching her the past three mornings I decided she didn’t have any. I let her ride from the tower just to be sure.”
This, then, was the test. There had to be several along the way, and she had just flunked hers.
After we found someone to ride for Al, which we did the following week, we trained her and sent her off to Texas, and then there was nothing on our calendar except two daily performances. I passed the morning hours by practicing on the trap bar AI had put up for me before he left and by swimming in the tank. I was forbidden to swim in the big pool in the amusement park because Dr. Carver said that I shouldn’t mix with my audience for the same reason I shouldn’t mix with the people who worked in the park. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” he said. “They’ve got to think you’re special.”
Thus I was forced into a close and isolated association with Dr. Carver. His influence was to prove to be both wide and deep, endowed with a creeping quality much like inflation. He influenced not only my deportment but also the length of my hair. I found to my astonishment that I was letting it grow!
In 1920 when I had cut my hair there were still precious few bobs in the South. Most women put their hair up or back but did not cut it. One day when I was sixteen I spent the afternoon with a friend, during the course of which we washed our hair. After the shampoo came the brushing and putting-up ritual, which always seemed to take hours. When I could not get my locks to stay in place because the pins kept sliding out, I suddenly reached for the scissors lying on Mamie Lou’s dresser and hacked off my hair.
Within a minute it lay in a pile of red-brown glory, hair I had had since the day of my birth. There was silence, as well there might have been. I sat there looking at it, thinking, “Mother is going to kill me.” Then I got up, pinned back what was left, and started to go home. I slipped in the back door and fled down the hall to the room I shared with Jac. When she came in later I buried my head in the pillow and pretended to be asleep.
The next morning I asked her to bring me the paper, planning to hide behind it and for a few minutes forestall the inevitable. I had hardly assumed a reading pose when I heard Mother coming down the hall. She threw open the door, stormed into the room, and snatched the paper out of my hands. Pointing to my head, she shouted, “I know!”
My little brother had seen me slinking home the night before and had made an announcement at breakfast. The upshot was that I was told to stay in the house until my hair grew long again. Such an order was out of the question, of course, and had to be rescinded, but for a long time Mother never looked at my shorn head without a disapproving and tormented sigh.
I took pride in my achievement and clung stubbornly to my bobbed hair. The fact was I liked it short. But in Durham I found myself with lengthening hair. Dr. Carver accomplished this by uncanny means. He said one day that he was pleased to see I was keeping my promise and letting my hair grow. I could not remember such a promise and I told him so. “Of course you did,” he said firmly. So, on the basis of a statement that had no foundation in fact and certainly none in logic, Dr. Carver succeeded where my mother had failed.
Having won the victory with regard to my hair, he started in on my clothes. Women’s dresses were beginning to creep up about that time and had reached a point three inches beneath the kneecap. This was shocking to Dr. Carver, who insisted that a “lady” never let her knees show, so whenever I went to buy a dress he came with me to make certain I got it long enough. If it didn’t meet his standards he had it let down, and I ended up wearing hems about three or four inches longer than was fashionable.
On occasion I felt the old upward surge of defiance that was as much a part of me as my hands and feet, but I squashed it by asking myself, “What difference does it make? If it makes him happy, let him have his way.”
My moments of antagonism were further salved by the fact that at least he was consistent. He was as strict with himself as he was with me and as conservative in his tastes. How it had happened that the flamboyant days of his youth had given way to such conservatism, I do not know. All I know is that his former love for the spectacular in clothing was now confined to a love for red, which he exhibited only in his ties.
However, he liked good clothes and paid a lot for them and took care of everything but his hats. These he sat on, crushed, abused, and, what was worse, wore no matter how they looked. He had only one for which he showed any reverence, though I never found out why. It was a white panama which he saved for special occasions.
In addition to conservative habits in dress, he never smoked or drank. In fact, he had never done either, even back in the old days, when to set a saloon door swinging was the hallmark of manhood. This was such a novelty that in time he became famous for his abstinence, and once when he was in St. Louis giving a shooting exhibition a group of women from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union appeared and asked him to give public testimony to the fact that the reason he was so big and strong was that he never drank.
Dr. Carver refused. “I don’t know that’s why,” he said. “Look at Buffalo Bill. He’s just as big and strong and healthy as I am and he hasn’t drawn a sober breath since I’ve known him. And that’s been a long, long time.”
His only vice was mild profanity. Life on the plains hadn’t been designed to promote delicate speech, and his was not. The words were never foul, merely vigorous and forceful. They were also usually forgivable because he never realized he had used them. Once when I accused him of cursing he looked at me very hurt and said, “I
Where my language was concerned he would not permit even the mildest slang. “Gosh” and “golly” were not at all to his liking, nor “gee,” “dern,” or “darn.” One day I thought I had found one that would surely get by without violating Dr. Carver’s code. I had read it in the paper and anxiously awaited my chance to use it. It finally came one evening when we were sitting on the front porch of the boarding-house, talking to some people. Someone made a flat statement and I said, “Banana oil!”
Immediately Dr. Carver turned to me. “Haven’t I told you
to use such language?” “Well,” I said, “what in the world
I say?” He replied, “You may say, ‘Oh, my word.’” It occurred to me later that perhaps he wanted me to stay apart from other people not so much to provide an air of mystery as to keep me with him to see to his comforts. If this was so, it was too late by the time I caught on. I was too fond of him and too proud of his pride in me to take an independent stand.
That first summer was memorable principally for working with three of the horses. Lightning and John had gone off with Al and the new rider, but we kept Klatawah, Judas, and Snow.
Klatawah’s name was Indian, meaning either “Go to hell” or “Go away,” depending on the inflection. He was a chestnut sorrel gelding weighing about 1250 pounds, and his conformation was perfect. From stories I had heard, he had apparently been quite a devil in his younger days, but when I knew him he had settled down, which is not to say that he didn’t have plenty of spirit; and he was the greatest showman of all the diving horses I have ever known.
He reminded me of a temperamental Shakespearean actor, the only difference being that a Shakespearean actor loves an intelligent audience and Klatawah loved a big one. His manner when working for a small crowd was so different as to make him seem two horses instead of one. When the crowd was small his whole body and every action seemed to radiate disgust. A person could almost feel his thoughts— “To think that I, Klatawah, the great diving horse—a star!—should be forced to work for such a miserable handful of people.”