Authors: Sonora Carver
Al didn’t bother to hide the fact that he didn’t think many people had brains. He was short-tempered and cocky and frequently untactful. He suffered from the overbearing ways of his father, as all of us did, but the main trouble between father and son was that they were too much alike. Al, who had real ability and his own brand of showmanship, had to knuckle down constantly, which seldom set well. When he was away he could do pretty much as he pleased, but when he was with us in winter quarters or occasionally during the season, it was a different story. Such times he accepted his father’s domination, but there was anger beneath the acceptance, and this he usually unleashed as soon as his father was out of sight.
Lorena did not suffer at Dr. Carver’s hands perhaps because she was a daughter, and daughters seem to be provided with fatherly exemption. Still, she must have learned from past experience not to cross him, which probably was not always easy, for she too had a strong will of her own.
An especially trying time for Al occurred each year when we got organized for the season. He always packed Dr. Carver’s trunks and despised every minute of the process, because Dr. Carver would sit by and insist upon telling Al exactly where to put everything, whether it fit or not. To suggest an alternate arrangement proved altogether useless, because at that point Dr. Carver acted as if his son were about six years old and couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about.
After witnessing several of these sessions I volunteered to take over the packing, and Al relinquished it with a sigh of relief. When the minute supervision threatened to barricade progress, I learned to get around it by overemphasizing the fact that an object wouldn’t fit; I exaggerated the fruitless effort of forcing it in. After a pause I would say, “I think your first suggestion was best.”
To this he would look thoughtful, as if trying to recall what he had proposed; then he would say, “Let’s see. What was it?”
Of course I would proceed to pack according to my own ideas. The diplomatic approach proved to be the only way to handle Dr. Carver.
The accident with John took place the week before Labor Day, and a week later the amusement-park season closed. Once again summer had gone and it was time to make the fall fairs. We were scheduled for two that fall, the second being the country fair at Lexington, North Carolina. It was here that my most humiliating experience as a rider took place.
We were due to open the night of October 7, but Dr. Carver, who had a cold and wanted to go to bed early, asked Al and Lorena to do the act in our place. I retired to my room with a book.
Just at performance time Al appeared at my door. Lorena’s leg, he said, had begun to bother her again and she didn’t think she should make the dive. Al asked me to take her place.
It was my first sight of the Lexington fairgrounds, and the strange surroundings plus the sense of hurry made me feel a little dizzy as I got into my suit and put on my shoes.
Al had taken particular pains to point out that I would ride the horse out of the tank; why, I do not know, since he didn’t ordinarily. Maybe it was to give me a pat on the back. I had ridden 165 times by then and not fallen off once. “Gotten knocked off” is really a more apt expression, since that is what happens, but anyway you say it, the fact remains that I had stayed with my horse and was proud of my record.
Whether it was the hurry, the unfamiliarity of the park, or inner nervousness, I do not know, but when Klatawah hit the water I found myself floating free and coming up at the side of the tank. Someone reached out a hand to help me; I caught hold of it and pulled myself out of the water.
I wasn’t hurt, but my pride had just suffered a terrible blow. I wanted to be a perfect rider more than anything else and I had just proved I was not. I was so downcast I didn’t even bother to bow to the audience and afterward, on the way home, got quite a tongue-lashing from Dr. Carver, who had gotten out of bed to go down with us.
“You were showing off,” he said. “That’s the reason it happened. You weren’t paying any attention to the business at hand. Always think about what you’re doing. Furthermore,” he added ominously, “I don’t care what happens to you out there, whether you get hurt or fall off or what—you bow to that audience and smile and wave just as if nothing had gone wrong. The place for groaning or for being embarrassed is in the dressing room. Never let the audience suspect that you have failed or been injured. That’s part of showmanship.”
Al’s complaint was that it had to be
time I’d fallen off. “Any other time,” he said, “I wouldn’t even have mentioned that you were going to ride the horse out of the tank. But no, I play it up and what happens? You fall off!”
It taught me a valuable lesson other people had discovered before me. As someone aptly put it, “Pride goeth before a fall.”
When we had finished the fair Dr. Carver gave the order to strike the platform and take the canvas out of the tank. I liked to watch this process. Instead of draining the pool and then taking out the canvas, the men removed the canvas while the water was still in it. They first untied the ropes from around the stakes and unfastened the stakes from the grommets. Then they worked the tarp forward until it was away from the wall, letting some water go behind it to make the canvas float to the surface. Then they pumped it up and down, forcing air under it until it began to balloon up. It took six or eight men to pull it out, since it was very large and very heavy when wet. Once they had it out, they stretched it on the ground to dry and afterward folded it up to be shipped.
This time was no different from any other, except that a little turtle came riding along on top of the canvas. How he had wandered into the tank nobody could guess, but there he was, no bigger than the palm of a hand and a truly beautiful specimen. His olive-green back was ornamented with a design resembling a dray, leafless brown twig. The shell underneath was a bright salmon pink and had the same twiglike design but in olive green and brown. His feet, legs, neck and head were striped in vivid hues of green and yellow. I had seen many turtles in aquariums and other places, but never one like him.
Dr. Carver loved the small creatures and had often entertained me with anecdotes about them, but at the time he had no pet, so he adopted the turtle and named him “King Tut.” For the first day or two after we found him King Tut remained tightly encased in his shell, but constant handling without injury must have created confidence, for eventually he trudged about the floor with all the familiarity of a creature in its native environment. One day, however, Dr. Carver forgot he was on the floor and accidentally stepped on him. I was in another room when I heard the bellow, “Where’s Daddy’s girl?” and immediately I went running because I could hear the fright in his voice. I found him holding Tut and looking badly shaken. “I stepped on him!” he said hoarsely. “And look what I did!”
I took Tut and examined him and found that the seams of the shell had been cracked on the right side by not actually crushed. I hadn’t the least idea what to do with a fractured turtle, but I knew I had to do something. I took him to the bathroom, put iodine on the break and bound it over with adhesive tape. About a week later when we removed the bandages there wasn’t a trace of the injury.
We were ready to leave for Tampa and winter quarters again. Dr. Carver found a little box for the turtle, put him in it, and calmly boarded the train.
In the middle of the night I felt someone shaking my shoulder. “Wake up!” he said. “I’ve lost Tut. You’ve got to come find him.”
I slipped into my dressing gown and followed Dr. Carver back to his berth.
“How in the world did you lose him?” I asked.
“When I woke up,” he said, “and couldn’t get back to sleep I took him out of his box to keep me company. In some way he must have slipped down between the bed and the wall of the car.”
I scoured his berth for the turtle, shaking out sheets and peering under it, but Tut was not there. Obviously there was nothing for it but to get down on my hands and knees and crawl along the aisle, peering under each berth. I tried to see behind luggage by pushing and tugging. I pulled socks and stockings out of an endless assortment of shoes, patiently shaking out each one and hoping that the lost creature would reappear. As I searched I frantically racked my brain for a plausible excuse for my actions in case some passenger should wake and ask me what I was doing.
Down one side and up the other I crawled, but still there was no Tut. Just as I reached the end where the corridor curved around the ladies’ washroom, I met him, silhouetted against the dim light of the morning. Apparently his tour had been blocked by the door at the end of the car and he was returning to the main part of the car. As I picked him up I couldn’t help wondering just how much of a hullabaloo would have been created if some squeamish woman on her way to the washroom had met him.
When we were settled in Tampa, I began on the letters concerning the next season’s bookings and also took on Dr. Carver’s personal correspondence.
He had a set of old cronies dating back to his days on the plains. Most of the time he was too busy to correspond with them, or declared that he was. Actually, like many people, he enjoyed getting letters but procrastinated when it came to replying. That winter it occurred to him that he had me as a typist and began to write with renewed vigor.
One of the old-timers he kept up with was Dr. Richard Tanner, known in his days on the plains as “Diamond Dick.” Early in 1927 he wrote Dr. Carver that he had learned that the Newspaper Editors Association of America was planning a western tour in June and would be passing through Norfolk, Nebraska, where Dr. Tanner had settled down to the practice of medicine. He and some of his friends had hit on the idea of inviting the editors to stop off there to attend an Old-Timers’ Convention. He wanted to know if Dr. Carver could come.
Dr. Carver had me write immediately that he’d be there. He loved nothing better than talking over the old days with his friends. He had signed a contract for a season’s engagement at Lick’s Pier in Ocean City, California, which was to begin the first week in June, but he said he would send Al and Lorena to open there and we would follow later.
The eager anticipation with which Dr. Carver looked forward to the celebration reminded me of a small boy getting ready to go to his first circus. He had neither worn a big hat nor ridden a horse since he sold all of his Wild West show paraphernalia in 1911 and gone into the free-act business, but now he ordered an oversized hat directly from the Stetson company and had his saddle washed and polished. The saddle, appraised at ten thousand dollars, was a collector’s item, decorated with intricately etched silver and ornamented with silver coins which he had pierced with rifle bullets in the presence of the notables of Europe during his shooting career.
Having taken care of the externals, we left Tampa for Norfolk, Nebraska. On June 12 the convention opened and many of the old-timers who were still living were there: Diamond Dick, Pawnee Bill, Deadwood Dick, Captain North, Idaho Bill, and Evil Spirit (Dr. Carver). They spent every available minute together, and Dr. Carver had a wonderful time. When it was over, much too soon as far as he was concerned, we went to Omaha, where he had some business with a museum. It was while we were there that he received a telegram.
LIGHTNING INJURED. SUGGEST YOU COME AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. LETTER FOLLOWS.
He was more upset than I had ever seen him before. “Oh, my horse! My pretty horse!” he kept repeating. “I should have know something like this was going to happen. I had a dream about a month ago in which Lightning was hurt. Oh, my pretty horse!”
Worse was to come, however, and it came with Al’s letter:
The day after Lorena and I arrived here in California, I went out to take a look at the setup. As you know, I never liked the idea of diving the horses into the ocean, but since we had signed a contract to that effect I decided I’d better find out how they were going to react So the next day I took John out and put him through his paces.
He went in like a trouper and turned around and headed for the shore. The breakers near shore were hard for him to pull against and ended up turning him head over heels and buffeting him around until he could reach shallow water and get his footing. Still, he made it and I hoped that he and the other horses would become accustomed to the ocean. The next day I tried Lightning.
She made a beautiful dive, but when she saw how rough the breakers were she apparently attempted to find an easier way out. The horse swam around the end of the pier and disappeared under some pilings. I ran over and looked under the pier but couldn’t see her. Then she was spotted heading out toward the open sea, and some lifeguards jumped in a boat and started out after her. Lightning glanced behind her at the boat and seemed to react to the rescuers by swimming even harder and faster. She completely outdistanced them for a while but before long began to tire. As I was watching from the shore, she gave up—put her head down and drowned.
The lifeguards secured a rope around her neck and towed her back to the beach. By the time they arrived we had a pulmotor ready, but it wasn’t any use. Lightning was already gone.
Of course I already knew all this when I wired you but wanted to break the news as gently as possible. I thought that the wire might prepare you a little.
I have called off the contract until you can get here. We certainly don’t want to risk losing another horse and I think you will agree. . . .
I had been reading the letter aloud to Dr. Carver, and as I did so my voice thickened until I was forced to break off. I looked at him tearfully and saw that the ridges between his eyes had deepened as they always did under stress. Then he looked at me and said sadly, “Go pack your things.”
We took the first train west and, when we got to Ocean Park, Dr. Carver canceled the contract. From that moment on life seemed to go out of him, as if it were visibly ebbing. He was eighty-seven by then and it was time for him to be tired, but it was more than a physical tiredness; it was a weariness of the heart.