The dark, dappled Shetland tugged against a short lead-rope as he was pulled up the three side steps of the church platform. Everyone's eyes grew as wide as the pony's, blinking thigh-high beside our pastor who raised his hand for silence.
"This beautiful pony," Pastor Sedalia said holding back a warm laugh, "is going home with one of you next week—to keep."
Eyebrows rose in pleasant shock and smiles ricocheted through the pews until our pastor laughed out loud and again raised his hand to speak.
"That's right," he continued, "This pony is the grand prize for whoever brings the most people to next week's revival meetings."
(Much could be said about the decline of evangelistic "revivals" in the latter part of the 20th Century, and even more could be said about the methods used to revive them, but that is another discussion. This story is not so much about reaching out as it is about things out of reach.)
"Our speaker is coming here from his ranch next Sunday, and he’s eager to see who will be taking this pony home."
All around me heads nodded in approval, and I looked up to see if my dad's was among them. He simply patted my ten-year-old knee and smiled. Hope was alive.
I began studying the prize just twenty feet away. There beside the pulpit, the pony pranced nervously in place with twitching knees and trembling lips—the way lots of folks do when they stand in front of a church. He was scared. Fortunately he was escorted to the side hallway (beyond our eyes but not our nostrils) before making it obvious just how scared he was.
In spite of that fair warning, and in spite of the fact that we lived in a suburban grid of tightly-woven streets* and patch-pocket yards, I wanted that pony. Five minutes prior I had no thoughts of a pony. Never before had I considered owning one, but it was clear to me in that moment that a pony was just what I needed, and I had a whole sermon in which to daydream the possibilities and solve potential objections. By the invitational hymn, I was pretty sure I could fit a pony comfortably in the corner of our single-car garage—if we moved the bikes...and if Dad would leave the car outside... and if we moved his tool cabinet… and found a way to hang the lawn mower on the wall... small matters really. This could definitely work.
For some time, Mom and Dad had begun driving separately to church. (Mom liked to talk till the last friend left and the roast was burnt; Dad was less talkative and especially liked Sunday dinner. Driving two cars basically saved their marriage.) My older brothers and sister and I usually hung around after church and rode with Mom. Today was a special case, however, because step one of my strategy was getting Dad’s okay to have a pony (and step two was getting Mom’s help to win it). So at the last amen—Boom— I shot out to the car and waited on the front bench seat for Dad. We were still in the parking lot when I began my pitch. Dad laughed and patted my knee just as he had done in church.
"Whoa! Tom. Hold your horses—or pony—I should say. I'm glad you want to try to win, and there are lots of people we can invite to the meetings. That’s the important thing, but let's say you did win...where would we put a pony?"
"I knew you were going to ask that," I smiled, and I proudly told him about my plans for the garage. (In hindsight, I'm surprised Dad didn’t shoot down my boyish brainstorm. Perhaps he knew the difference between a moment and momentum and saw the value of letting this moment play out—a parental skill I wish I could say I've modeled more often in life.) Dad patted my knee again for a pause.
“Let's say you win the pony, and let's say we move the bikes and lawnmower, the cabinet, the car and all that... How big a stall are we talkin’ about here?"
"I was thinking the left half of the garage—maybe less—but it should include the side window so he could put his head out."
"But... that pony is a lot shorter than a horse, Tom. The window would be too high."
"Maybe we could lower it—no, that wouldn’t work and it would look dumb." I said, retracting my own idea before Dad had to. (He had thus far not used the word “no,” and I wanted to keep it that way.)
We turned into our driveway and pulled up to the chain-link gate that opened to our small backyard. (The twelve feet between houses left little room for drivers to open their door, but the passenger door cleared the neighbor’s house by a good twelve inches or so. That’s what I mean by a “tightly-woven” neighborhood—it’s like “close-knit” without the comfortable give.) I jumped out, opened both sides of the gate, and walked them shut behind the car.
Ol’ Duke, our erstwhile hunting dog, watched from his usual spot by the garage door. He hadn’t ventured out the open gate in years, but we kept it closed to maintain the illusion that he was still an able-bodied watchdog. He lifted his head as I approached... and he dropped it as I passed. There in the garage Dad stood surrounded by bikes. This picture did not help my case. Eager to resume the dialogue, I crossed to the window and tried to speak in a “carpenter” voice:
“We would definitely leave this window right where it is.”
"You're thinking,” Dad smiled, “That's good, but we could build a little platform up to the window and put the stall here where the bikes are--like this." He drew the stall with his hands in the air and paused. "There’s still a lot to think about, Tom, this is the easy part. We could build this in a day.”
"We could?" I squeaked, trying to imagine why it wouldn’t take longer—but more importantly… why Dad sounded ready to do it.
"Maybe two days, but like I said… this is the easy part. We haven't even begun to talk about caring for the pony—how much exercise it needs…how much hay it eats…where to store the feed…and where to haul the dirty straw and all the manure—we know he's active in that department." We both laughed.
"I'll find out all that stuff." I promised, straightening a bike as we spoke. "I know it's a lot of work, but I'd take care of him everyday AND find a way to pay for it."
"Believe me, Tom, I know how you feel. Remember. My brothers and I spent our summers out on Pearce’s farm. This sort of thing starts out fun—and it is—but there's a big difference between caring for a pony—as in wanting to have one—and caring for a pony—as in tending to its needs. It’s a responsibility, a daily chore—daily being the key word—365 days a year. It’s not like mowing the lawn once a week." He helped me straighten the last bike and added, "Keep thinking about it. There’s a lot involved and another question I’m not sure about: Can we even have a pony in the city? I really don’t know."
"The Hucks around the corner have a Great Dane—that's just as big as this pony."
"Pretty close," Dad agreed, "but it seems like there’s ordinance about farm animals. Let’s not worry about that detail right now. Let’s go get the roast out of the oven."
We finished setting the table just as the others came through the front door. The pony topic did come up at dinner—we couldn’t help but laugh about what happened in the hall, but other than that it wasn't mentioned the rest of the day.
At bedtime, I stared at the dark ceiling whispering different pony names. I decided on “Darktanyun” (which was how I pronounced the guy’s name from The Three Musketeers. I thought his name meant he had a dark tan. Many years later, I actually skimmed the book and saw the name spelled D'Artagnan. So I was wrong about his complexion all those years.) I whispered the name again into the darkness. Seemed like a big name for a pony. "If he weren’t so dark, I could just call him Tanyun," I thought, "I'll sleep on it."
Scrunching down in my pillow, my thoughts took a troubling turn: Dad's hunches were usually right. Maybe we couldn’t have a pony in the city. I'd seen horses on Main Street in the Memorial Day parade, but I’d never seen one in our neighborhood--not being ridden, not snacking on someone’s lawn, not corralled in a garage, not one...ever! (The absurdity of such a sighting did not occur to me, but a horse in that neighborhood would not only look out of place--it would look out of proportion!) I drifted off to sleep.
Somewhere in the night, I stepped into a dream that would stay with me for a life. I won the pony and kept him in our garage just as we had discussed. Strange though, in stead of dark brown, he was sort of tan with a light mane. (I’d always admired Roy Rogers' Palomino, Trigger, and dreams are allowed to shift from sense to nonsense at will.)
After school, I’d step out to the garage to see him. Evidently, we still weren’t sure he was legal, so we kept him out of sight. Each evening Dad came home from work and whispered from the back door: "Hey, Tom, how's your pony?" and I'd whisper back, "Great, Dad." Everyday, everyday, everyday I fed him and groomed him. Sometimes at night I let him graze the patch of grass beside the garage.
One afternoon when no one else was home, I opened his stall and straddled him --not to ride--just to sit there and pretend. I leaned over to see how close my feet were to the ground when he bolted out the garage door. I grabbed his neck tightly, but the rest of me vibrated like a short-strung paddleball on his bare back.
“Whoa-o-o-o-o-o-o…” my voice pulsated into his ear, but he just kept hobbling back and forth in strained pony steps, pinging from fence to fence. This frantic jostling about was considerably less fun than I had imagined. I felt nothing like Roy Rogers—in fact, I looked more like a Little Rascal in a flickering matinee, and I only hoped no one was watching. Finally the pony staggered into the garage exhausted, and I slumped off and stepped away, a sadder-but-wiser horseman. From a distance, I could see that his coat and mane seemed brown again.
Just as Duke no longer cared to pass our open gate, I too was cured of my curiosity and never tried to ride the pony again.
That would have been a good time to wake up, but like Dickens' Christmas Carol, the dream allowed much time to lapse and saved its worst for last. One afternoon some time later, I was sitting on the front porch watching an ant on my arm when Dad came home and asked: "Hey, Tom. How's your pony?"
"Huh?” I blanked, and then I thought, Oh, that's right. I own a pony. “Ahh...Fine… He’s fine, Dad.” I assured him, but I hadn't checked on the pony for days. After Dad stepped in the front door, I snuck off to the garage and caught up on my neglected chores. This happened more and more frequently as the dream went on. After a while, even Dad forgot to ask his routine question. Several dream-weeks later, I went out to the garage to get my bike, and over there in the corner was a sad looking pony that I hadn’t fed for who knows how long.
"Oh, that's right… I own a pony." I moaned. I grabbed a shovel to muck out the stall and stacked as much hay as would fit inside. In spite of my guilt, I kept forgetting I had a pony until I happened into the garage and saw it. Each time I was in deeper denial and deeper manure.
Years before these pony thoughts, I had once asked my great grandfather why the goldfish in his pond were bigger than the ones in my teacher’s bowl. He told me that they can only grow as large as their confinement allows. In this unfolding dream, the reverse effect was true. Each time I saw the pony, he was slightly smaller--he was shrinking! Near the end of the dream, he was as short as Duke and as gaunt as the Ghost of Christmas Future. The last time I saw him, I was almost afraid to peek into the stall. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes, and his dark quivering lips seemed to be mumbling something. I nervously leaned closer to hear what he was saying, and from nowhere a faint whisper echoed...
“How’s your pony?...How's your pony?... your pony?...”
"I don't want a Pony!" I shouted, sitting up in bed!
My brother Dave wrestled himself from his pillow. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t want a pony,” I said again, softly.
“You’ll never have one, so go back to sleep.” He rolled over to face the wall adding, “Debbie Kay is gonna win that pony and everybody knows it…she wins everything.”
Just like that, the dream had ended in every sense of the word.
I just sat there in silence, letting my eyes adjust to the shades of gray. I let out a sigh and plopped back in my pillow, happy that I did not own a pony.
Looking back on it now, the whole ordeal is strange in many ways—not just the dream but the reality. The church meetings were good, we invited plenty of guests, and Debbie Kay did win partly because she brought the town mayor. He may have been the one who told her she couldn’t have a pony in town, but I’m guessing it was her parents. At any rate, the pony was sold, and she was given a cash prize in its place. Considering I'd only seen him those two minutes on stage, I learned a lot from that pony.
I never told Dad about the dream—never told anyone 'til now—he would’ve felt bad about it, but all he was trying to say that day was: Be sure to care for what you care for. That’s true of ponies and people—anything that needs attention and attachment to thrive.
I do think there was something else going on that day. I think Dad was looking beyond my unlikely odds to a dream he had of his own—one that made mine more possible than he dared say at the time. I really don’t know. I do know that within a year we bought some land out in the country. And in the years to follow, we cleared its fence rows, hauled its timber, raised a barn, dug a well by hand, and eventually moved into the house we built, brick by brick, on those fourteen acres—an acre for every year we had lived on those tightly-woven streets with the patch-pocket yards.
Dreams are a good thing to have.
*If you click on the link at "streets," our house and garage is below the "k" of Buckhannon on the east end of the street. If you click on "backyard," ours was the middle yard with the tree (and no car in front of the house.) Below is an entry from my brother Dave who had a different take on the day the pony showed up in our church. Dave is an excellent storyteller in the spirit and tradition of "tall tales" of old. He's even better to hear in real life--ask my kids.
© Copyright 2005, Patterns of Ink, TK