Authors: Sonora Carver
By the time spring came Lorena had recovered sufficiently from her leg surgery to be able to ride, so it was she who left with Al when he went out in April to open at the Old Spanish Fort Park in New Orleans. This was fortunate, since Anne, the girl Dr. Carver had hired and trained in Durham the spring before, had turned out to be a poor performer. From Al’s point of view as a showman, she had proved to be a dud by committing the unforgivable crime of climbing off Lightning’s back onto the framework of the tower just as the horse was ready to dive. Though it had been only a temporary loss of nerve, it happened on two occasions, and in Al’s opinion she was all washed up.
Both he and his father put a great deal of stock in courage. Neither of them had any use for anyone without it; at least not anyone who wanted to ride. In so far as having nerve was concerned, I suppose I had it, but if I did it was no credit to me, since it was as natural to me as fingernails.
Having courage is, I think, like having money. If a man who has a million dollars walks down the street and sees some valuable article in a shopwindow that he wants to buy, he goes in and buys it without any thought of what it costs, but if a man without any money sees the same article and feels the same desire to own it he immediately realizes he can’t have it because he hasn’t the money. The point is, if you have it you don’t think about it, but if you don’t have it the realization is often thrust upon you.
Actually, true courage is what it takes to make yourself do something you’re afraid to do. I was not afraid of riding the horses; on the contrary, I loved it and would not have given it up willingly. In the beginning I loved it because I adored the horses and liked traveling around the country, but later the crowds were an added factor. The wolf whistles that followed me up the ramp, the applause that burst out spontaneously as I climbed to the top, the call of the clown in the audience who shouted, “Hold ‘er, Newt, she’s a-rarin”’— these were the people for whom I performed; good-natured, responsive, admiring. I loved them all. But this stage passed; more and more as time went by I discovered I wasn’t riding for their applause. I was riding for the sheer animal thrill I got every time we cleared the tower.
The physical, wholly sensual pleasure that comes with the drop from the tower down to the tank is a pleasure totally lacking in psychological or philosophical meaning. It’s the sheer exhilaration of being entirely free of the earth as well as everything human; to me no other physical sensation can be so acute, so deeply intoxicating.
Did I also enjoy flirting with death? It never seemed to me that that was what I was doing, though in fact I was. Had I been conscious of this I would probably have quit, since I have too much common sense to keep on doing something that I feel will end in anything quite so irrevocable and final. But then I suppose we are all great believers in our own immortality; death can happen to others but surely not to us.
The year after Al and Lorena left for New Orleans, Dr. Carver and I went to Kansas City to appear at Fairmont Park for the season, and this time we traded horses. Al took Klatawah and Snow and Judas, and we kept Lightning and John.
Lightning was our largest horse, weighing some fifteen hundred pounds. Her name had been Babe when purchased, but this wasn’t nearly ostentatious enough for either her or show business. Dr. Carver renamed her “Lightning” because of the speed with which she worked. Some years later he added the title “Duchess” in honor of a real duchess who happened to be visiting a town in Canada when the act was working there. The duchess saw Lightning and tried to buy her. Dr. Carver refused to sell, but he did change her name. From then on she became officially “The Duchess of Lightning,” although in conversation we never called her anything but “Lightning.”
In spite of her name, however, she was more terrified in bad weather than any animal I have ever known, and whenever there was a thunderstorm we had to make certain someone she loved was with her. At other times she was the bravest of all the horses. If anything frightened them while in the pasture she would dash off with the others, but she invariably returned first to see what had caused the excitement. She would stand stiff-legged blowing through her nostrils, head up and ears back, before turning to scamper off again.
Although Lightning lacked most of those personality quirks that made the other horses so entertaining, she had one characteristic I have always adored in a horse. She talked to people with little whinnies and nickers. When one of us went into the stables at night it was always she who called out, sometimes in such a human way that it seemed as if she summoned us by name. This gentle friendliness was very touching, and I shall never forget the day I was forced to hurt her feelings.
It was a Sunday and Dr. Carver had decided to give the audience an extra treat by having both horses dive instead of only one. He therefore arranged for Lightning to make a dive alone and for me to follow immediately, riding John. When the time came he sent Lightning up ahead of me, in place of my preceding her, as was the usual routine. Although all the horses except Snow had been trained to dive with or without a rider, Lightning really preferred to have a passenger. That Sunday when she got to the top and I wasn’t there she looked around for me.
I had just started up the ramp behind her, planning to get into place after her dive, but when she saw me coming she apparently assumed she should wait. I climbed onto the railing and made no move to mount her; she gave me a look that was clearly puzzled and then backed up. She looked at me as if to say, “Is that better? Am I standing right? Can you get on from here?”
I saw there was nothing to do but force her off the platform, so I reached out and slapped her smartly on the rump. She took off almost immediately, but not before giving me one last look full of reproach. I felt a deep sense of guilt at not being on her back where she wanted me.
Of the five animals, John was unqualifiedly the most amusing—“a real character.” A big horse, our biggest next to Lightning, he weighed some fourteen hundred pounds. He was light brown, with almost roan ears and roan spots on his body. John was the smoothest diver among the horses and was also an excellent swimmer, although he preferred to make you believe otherwise.
For some reason, he didn’t like bringing a rider out of the tank, although he was certainly big and strong enough. As a result he always tried to unseat a newcomer (and sometimes the veterans as well) by putting on an act. After making a dive, instead of heading for the incline with a series of powerful, rhythmic strokes as he did when behaving himself, he would remain in one spot, thrashing the water with strokes so feeble that he was barely able to keep his head above water. By his actions he seemed to be saying, “Look, I’m not strong enough to carry you while I swim, so please be a good girl and get off.”
If this appeal to pity failed, he would then change his tactics so suddenly as to make it obvious that he had been faking all along. He would bring his forefeet to the surface and begin pawing the air until he rolled over on his side or back. With some girls this maneuver had the desired effect, for they would turn loose and head for shore, leaving John to right himself and swim out, wearing a very smug expression.
Dr. Carver had warned me about his tricks in advance, telling me not to get off, that he was only bluffing and I wasn’t to let him get away with it. The first time I rode John I stuck with him even after he rolled over. Since that took a little doing, I decided to outsmart him the next time by trying a trick of my own. As soon as his forefeet appeared after the dive, I dismounted but still retained a grip on the harness with one hand, and John, feeling my weight gone, thought he was rid of me and began swimming strongly for the incline. At this point I slid into position on his back and rode him out in triumph.
The last time he tried the rolling-over trick on me was one night when he floundered all over the tank while I alternately mounted and dismounted until we were against the back wall. There, realizing he was fighting a losing battle, John suddenly straightened up and headed for the incline with such speed and precision as to amaze the spectators, who had been certain he was drowning.
He had a very stubborn streak and, once he set his mind on anything, it was impossible to change it. That year in Kansas City the diving structure was built beside a big tree, the branches of which brushed the right side of the tower. The branches had some delicious new green leaves on them, and John spotted them right away. Lightning was too much of a lady to eat leaves in public, but John wasn’t about to ignore anything so appetizing. On his first trip up the ramp he came to a halt and took a bite. He then went to the front of the platform, where he finished chewing before making his dive. The audience found this byplay delightful, but we were afraid to let him continue munching on the leaves for fear he might dive before he had swallowed and thus run the risk of strangling. The next night, when he made a grab at a branch, I jerked his head back before he reached his goal, but that didn’t discourage him. After another try in the same direction which I also prevented, he suddenly swivelled around, snatched a mouthful, and then leaped off the platform. Fortunately he didn’t strangle. Dr. Carver had the limb cut off the next morning.
Anything at all unusual attracted John’s attention, and he invariably tried to investigate. Once while experimenting with a new system of lighting for the tower, bulbs were placed on the outer edges of the apron. Lightning paid no attention to them, but John immediately became interested in one particular globe, the top one on the left. On the right was another just as bright and a whole lot closer, but that seemed to make no difference to him.
Each time just before he dived he tried to reach the bulb with his left foot but failed. Finally one night after he was already in a diving position it seemed as though he couldn’t endure being frustrated any longer, for he suddenly pulled back up on the tower and with his right foot reached over his left and put his roof down on the globe. The bulb burst with a loud explosion that startled John (and me) into the world’s fastest take-off.
Another time when we were working a fair in Massachusetts the man who had charge of decorations placed additional streamers of colored lights on our tower. These streamers, extending from the top of the tower to the ground, provided John with a new toy. He didn’t make a single dive at night during the whole fair that he didn’t reach over and bump a streamer with his nose. Of course this caused all the lights to vibrate. He would watch the vibration intently until it died away, and then he would nudge the streamer again. He formed a habit of nudging the lights three times before each dive.
Apparently he had a good deal of judgment, whatever his eccentricities, for he often used discerning faculties not usually found in a horse. Later that season, after we had left Fairmont, our tower and tank were set up facing a lake about a thousand yards away. The first two or three times John dived he couldn’t seem to figure it out. He would look down at the diving tank, which must have seemed awfully small in comparison with the lake, and after a moment’s intense consideration of it he would then raise his head and stare fixedly at the lake. This would continue, first the tank and then the lake, several times before he dived; he seemed to be wondering why he had to dive into anything so small when there was all that water out there.
Aside from having better than average brains, he was a mischief-maker and a tease and annoyed the other horses constantly when they were out in the pasture. One day he came up with a new trick, the wonder of which was that he thought it up himself. He made off with the broom that was standing beside the bam door and galloped out to the pasture where the other horses were grazing. He dashed at them with the broom between his teeth, brandishing it as he ran, which of course sent them off in a panic. This seemed to please John enormously and he continued chasing them around until he finally tired of the game and dropped the broom.
It was with these two splendid animals, Lightning and John, that we ended the season at the Essex County Fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts, where extensive advertising had given the diving horses top billing. As a result we faced a battery of newsreel cameras. After that we appeared in news-reels many times and also made some short subjects, but the first time for anything is always the most exciting, and I’ve always remembered Topsfield with affection.
The summer of 1926, spent at Krug Park in Omaha, Nebraska, was uneventful aside from one incident, an incident memorable because it was my first experience with a near-serious mishap.
One Sunday afternoon just as John was about to dive, the harness suddenly came loose. He brought up short at the head of the platform, and I shot off over his head. As I fell I caught hold of a handful of mane and hung there suspended forty feet in the air.
It was not the height that created my danger, however. I could easily have let go and dropped, but I was afraid that if I did the horse would dive in on top of me.
Al was with us at the time and he shouted from below, “Let go! Let go and drop!” But I knew it would be safer to get back on the platform.
In the midst of all the commotion John stood in calm bewilderment, feet set, neck bowed, jaw taut and firm. “I’ll go off this thing right,” he seemed to say, “but I’ll be darned if you’re going to pull me off.”
This attitude was exactly what I needed. Since he was set so firmly, I could swing my body up and get my feet on the padding, after which I was able to get hold of an upright and pull myself onto the platform.
When I told Al later why I hadn’t let go, he said, “That’s using your head. I was so excited I never even thought about it. There are three things a good rider has got to have —steady nerves, the ability to think quickly, and the ability to act quickly. You’ve got all of them. Every rider is going to get her share of bruises and bumps, but the good one is the one who can make instantaneous decisions and act on them. People think that in this business you don’t have to have any brains. They’re wrong. The first time you stop thinking, you’re dead.”