Chance

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Good morning from Whiskey Creek, where we (Lynn, the dogs, the cat, the llamas and, of course moi,) are waiting impatiently for the HEAVY RAIN the weatherman promised us for the day.  No sign of it yet.  Although he’s not delivered on nearly as many rain promises as he’s made this season, we are very much encouraged with the weekly snow storms happening another three or four thousand feet up the mountains.  Skiers are, in fact, swarming our little village here, which is way, way good.

So, those who follow such things know that first Saturdays are Loes van Schaijk days.  Loes, who is a young Netherlands woman, is very responsible when it comes to delivering her columns on time so we’re a little worried we haven’t heard from her.  Maybe we will later today.  In the meantime I’m going to post a recollection I put up on Facebook this morning to go along with Lynn’s horse painting (look left.)  For nearly a year now I’ve been posting each day a watercolor done by my girl, Lynn Stanton Cornish.  I’m just terribly proud of her talent and see no reason at all for not sharing it.  Most days I just stick it up there with maybe a sentence, but occasionally the painting I select brings to mind a story, usually from my life, so I share that as well.  Lynn’s horse painting did make me think of an experience I had fifty years ago, and so, unless I hear from Loes in the next six seconds, I’ll share it with you…

Horses are the only animals I’m aware of that Lynn doesn’t care for.  She’s afraid of them for some reason.  Me, I like ’em, was born and raised in the country and spent time around them.  Not a lot, but enough to be a decent rider and, under most circumstances, know how to be the boss of them.  Now, I say, “under most circumstances” because there was an incident, my senior year in high school, just a day before graduation, when I lost my boss status and almost paid dearly for it.

Karen Johnson, (not her real name, for reasons that will very quickly become apparent,) was a quite attractive twenty-three year old first year art teacher at my high school, and she was several months into a torrid love affair with one of my best pals, Billy Kane, (also not a real name,) when June rolled around.  Karen was an avid horsewoman and Billy, who, like me lived in the country, convinced his parents to let his teacher board her horse on their property.  Not many people at our high school knew of the student-teacher romance, but I did because, among other reasons, Karen and I became pals; she needed someone to ride her boy, whose name was Chance,  when she wasn’t able to and I gladly offered to help.

So then, school was almost out, Karen was headed to Europe for the summer and Chance needed to be moved from the Kane’s pasture to a horse boarding business, McCormick’s Double C Ranch, about ten miles away.  Now, Karen owned a horse trailer so was able to transport her horse, but the problem was the day she needed to do it was also the LAST DAY that she and Billy would have together before she was off to France.  Already a skilled and enthusiastic enabler by age eighteen, I came up with an idea:  I would use all the back roads, dirt trails, gravel lanes and canyon paths I’d grown up with to ride Chance to his new digs, and Karen and Billy could check into the Busy Bee Motel in Fremont, the next town over, which had become their little love nest during the winter and spring of 1966.  Ten miles…I could do that standing on my head…what could go wrong?

Okay, so here’s what could…and DID…go wrong.  What Karen had neglected to tell me, and I’ll never know whether it was inadvertent of she deliberately withheld the information so I wouldn’t back out of my offer, was that Chance, an ungelded stallion, was being dropped off at the Double C for more than just prolonged horse-sitting.  C was going to the Double C to impregnate a mare in heat.  Whether he knew that or not, I couldn’t tell you, but I sure didn’t.

We set out about 8:00 a.m. on a beautiful June morning in the hills above Hayward, in those days a sleepy little city of about 35,000 souls.  When Chance realized we weren’t going for our regular couple of mile ride I sensed in him excitement.  He tugged a little harder at the reins and his legs pumped a little higher…he was frisky and feeling good, and so was I; I was right smack on the cusp of a new life.  Probably two-thirds of the route we traveled was through private property, some of it on barely visible, rugged dirt road and some on nothing more than trails carved by dear, coyotes and the occasional lone mountain lion.  I’d grown up running around those hills and knew every inch of them. 

By eleven or so we’d reached the crest of the hills above Hayward and the expanse of the East Bay, the Peninsula and all the way up to the City stretched out in front of us.  Both bridges were easily visible, The Transamerica Building had yet to be built but San Francisco still glimmered like a jewel in the distance.  I jumped off Chance, fed him some oats and an apple I brought along for a snack and when I was done fed myself a bologna sandwich and a bag of Fritos.  The morning was gorgeous, tomorrow I’d graduate from high school, I had a damned good summer job at Hunt’s Cannery waiting for me and in September I’d start college and an independent life.  As I surveyed the vastness of the San Francisco Bay it was almost a metaphor for the boundless adventure that lay ahead of me.

Now back in the saddle, we had but an hour or so before we’d reach our destination.  We headed due south, along the ridgeline, staying on a narrow animal trail.  The sun was full up now and I was glad we’d be at the Double C before it got much hotter.  Forty-five minutes or so later I spotted the McCormick Ranch.  I was down on the right, maybe two-thirds down the treeless, grassy hillside that extended to the flatlands and Mission Blvd.  Almost the instant I recognized the outbuildings of the Double C felt Chance’s body go rigid.  It’s been a relaxed ride up till then, but now he’d begun to pull hard on the reins.  He attempted to break into a trot but I pulled back and told him “No…NO, boy.” 

Another hundred yards or so along the ridgeline, maybe fifty or so yards before we’d start our descent down a switch-backing trail, the horse and I spotted…I swear, at the very same instant…a mare in one of the ranch’s catch pens; even that far away we could see that she’d spotted us and was behaving erratically, even rearing up on her hind legs.  And that, as they say, was that.  The horse I’d been riding for the past four hours suddenly turn hard right, straight down the very steep hillside and was transformed into a locomotive.  That’s the only way to describe the animal.  He was a train, and, since, when he jerked right so suddenly and violently lurched forward, I’d lost the reins, he was a train without an engineer. 

Actually, Chance wasn’t running STRAIGHT down the hillside because the mare was down the embankment but ahead of us, so the train tracks extended in a perfectly straight but diagonal line…the shortest possible distance between the stallion and the mare.  With no reins to hold on to and utterly no possibility of controlling this very large horse at a full gallop, I hung on for dear life, one hand clutching the saddle horn and the other gripping some thin leather decorative lacing.  Down, down, down we hurled, Chance snorting all the more wildly as we neared his prize.  I don’t know how long it took to get down to the waiting mare…maybe ten or twelve seconds, maybe a day or two, but once we were there I made the split second decision to jump off just as the horse left the ground and flew over the fence.

After graduation I lost track of Billy and, of course, never had any occasion to think of, let alone see, Miss Johnson.  Actually, it wasn’t till our five-year high school reunion that I ran into Billy.  As we sat, just the two of us, in the cocktail lounge at the San Ramon Holiday Inn, I asked my old high school chum whatever became of his old art teacher.  “Oh,” he shrugged, “you mean Karen.  Don’t know.  She went off to France, I went to Merchant Marine School and, you know, that was that.  But my folks did end up with her horse.”

“Chance?  They bought Chance?”

“Was that its name?  Oh.  No, they didn’t buy ‘em.  Karen never came back for the horse so McCormick’s just delivered him back to our place.  They still have him.  I’ll bet if you’d like to ride him, you know, for old time’s sake, they’d be thrilled.”

I declined.

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