My friend Adrianne Hurtig, who originally posted this on her Facebook page, calls it “one of those odd memories that haunt an old mind.” While I disagree with the “old” bit, I thank her for allowing me to republish it here:
When my brothers and I were growing up in a small town in Washington, we lived on a ranch. The Ponderosa Ranch, my father called it. His piece of America. Immigrant-minds take an over-abundance amount of pride of land ownership. You were a man if you owned land, animals and had sons. In that order. So, in order to fit in and claim my piece of my father’s stern heart, I behaved like a son.
My father rodeo-ed. Brahma bulls, the bad boys of the arena, is what he fell off of. Said he ate a lot of dirt, but that was modest talk that cowboys say to each other to remain humbled. He actually claimed many purses or else putting your body through it for nothing was just insane. That’s also what cowboys said to each other to test their theory of sanity, when they all knew they did it for the rush of it. Maybe some rodeo-groupie with steak-house- hostess-hair on a Saturday night.
All of us kids rodeo-ed. Whether or not we wanted to. Mostly we didn’t. My dad didn’t make it a whole lot of fun. It was work. Hard work, that you never got right, and had to do it all over from scratch each time. “Climb up on that damn horse and quit your god damn crying!” I’d heard more than enough to last a lifetime. My dad only brought home green broke horses. He figured he had enough kids to break them for him. Thankfully, I did cry harder than my brother’s and didn’t have to break but one in my childhood. My brother, David, younger than me by fourteen months, didn’t fair as well. He broke quite a few of my dad’s horses on our front lawn. Closer to the fridge for my dad. He liked his whiskey cold, and there was no electricity down by the round pen.
Down by the stables is where we spent most of our time. Thoroughbred horses and Appaloosas. We raced the Thoroughbreds and rodeo-ed the appys. “They’ve got a better disposition for you dumb kids,” he’d told us. Since we lived on a racing ranch budget, meaning basically steak one year and food stamps the next, he did everything to keep his overhead low. Enter the kids again.
My bad luck was that I was tall, and thin. I could jockey. My youthful body still bent like a contortionists dream, and I could lay flat over the horses ears and keep my ass down. He kept the mane shaved so there was no cheating and trying to hang on for dear life to a thick, rich, mane. Some horses didn’t realize they were Thoroughbreds and bred to run. My thighs had “natural gripping ability” since I was a girl, he’d say. I learned later what he meant by that. So, I’d pony the Thoroughbreds around and around the track. My leg’s getting damn near torn off at the knee, easing them into the make-shift starting stalls. Having a thousand pounds of scared to shit animal under my scared to shit thirteen year old body was not my way of spending the summer. Or, the weekend.
On the weekend, we mucked out the stalls. It wasn’t something we looked forward to, but there was no grumbling. We thanked our lucky stars that our mom put here foot down and said we didn’t have to muck before school. But, on Saturdays there we were, mucking out the old dung onto a very large, very tall, pile of dung. The Dung Pile, of which I was King!
My brothers and I would grab on to each other and literally toss each other off as we’d scramble to be the first to top the dung pile. Sometimes we’d dig in with our toes and fingers to cling to as we fought for control of our climb. Arms flailing, legs kicking the living crap out of each other. I could scrap with the best of them back then.
In the winter, the dung pile would freeze. If we wanted any peace or fun in our lives, we knew to stay outside. Didn’t matter how cold it was, we’d be out there playing. Like racing ranch kids; before we knew all we know about germs and self esteem. There we’d be, the boys and I, fighting it out to the top.
It was during one of our winter games that we discovered, if we kicked a hole out of the dung pile, warm steam escaped. I grimace now to admit that I buried myself in many a dung hole for warmth. Stuck my frozen pink fingers inside to thaw them before frost bite got them. Warmed my cheeks for a moment, as I caught my breath to scale my way to the top. Once there, surviving the brothers, the near mis-steps that would have broken my slender body to pieces had I ever hit the frozen ground from that height, I’d scream, at the top of my lungs, for all to hear and bear witness, that I was in fact King of the Dung Pile.