There it sat in the basement, my old tack trunk, a relic of my grandfather's that years ago I had lovingly painted blue and yellow, the colors of the RR Stable, for which I had once ridden. I had to make a decision about the trunk. I was home in St. Louis for the first summer vacation in 15 years; my parents had sold the house and were moving to an apartment, and a lot of things had to go.
Blankets, coolers, bridles and brushes had been disposed of long ago, but the trunk had become a catchall for all the other things I couldn't bear to part with and was unable to contain in a Manhattan apartment. The mildewed miscellanea ranged from my St. Roch's kindergarten diploma to a silver-headed crop. The crop, its head now quite black, barely held the remains of once-translucent rawhide. The other slots for whips were empty, and I remembered saving this one because I had won it. It had been during the war, World War II. Most of the major shows had been suspended for the duration, while the local shows, those in reach of the gas ration, often offered in lieu of silverware such practical trophies as halters, blankets, coolers and this now-decayed whip. As I tossed it, plus a thick pack of exhibitor's cards, into the trash, I was suddenly depressed. The mid-'40s seemed light-years away. I realized again that the horse show life I once had led, as opposed to the one I now cover for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, doesn't exist anymore. Perhaps it's just as well—it was strictly leaky-roof.
Immersed in nostalgia, I phoned Nancy Flavell, an old comrade in battling the county-fair circuit, and suggested a trip to southern Illinois. The next day we were driving through the soft summer evening, the sun reluctant to leave a hazy lavender sky, through towns with white houses and brick sidewalks shaded by generous elms, past crossroads where the name on each sign was also on a ribbon back in the basement trunk. This was always a particularly peaceful time on a fairgrounds, the last quiet before the hustle of getting ready for the evening show. "Remember," said Nancy, "how Dad would arrive about this time and say, 'Nancy, the only time you look happy is when you're sitting on a bale of straw.' "
When I first met her, Nancy was showing a five-gaited gelding named Flight Command that she had bought from Don Hayes (now impresario of the Hambletonian). Flight was a little over the hill, which made him quite at home in the company he was then keeping, but he still was able to pull his aching shoulders together to win an occasional class. At those times, however, he was so liberally helped by the liniment bottle that one judge, who tied him first, remarked that he could smell Flight before he saw him. Considering the murky light of county-fair racetrack straightaways, where we usually showed, it was not an unreasonable statement.
Flight was especially fond of Malone's taffy, a white, chewy and practically tasteless confection that was sold on every fairground. The sound of a piece of paper being crumpled outside his stall would bring him pawing and nickering to the door, and more than once he snatched whole bagfuls of taffy from the hands of innocent passers-by. All of Nancy's horses seemed to have a touch of larceny in their makeup; a later one was inordinately fond of cigarettes, even lighted ones, which he would deftly nip from the lips of the unwary. The canvas stall covers or bunting now in use at most shows to protect horse and visitor from each other were not generally available where we were showing.
The gaited horse I was campaigning when I first met Nancy was a bay mare named Lady Lightfoot, called bitterly, after certain classes, "Lady Leadfoot" or "Lady Stumblefoot." Lady was a bit long in the tooth when the Reinharts, her owners, first let me take her into the ring. She was then 10, but she was a great pretender; she won her last blue that I know of when she was 18. Lady was an ideal county-fair horse because she was apparently made of cast iron and could go on, class after class, week after week, not winning many events but almost always finishing in the money, thus supporting both of us in our travels. She hated other horses, as Mrs. Reinhart and I discovered at the Salem, Ill. show. We were stabled in a tent, and as soon as Lady entered her stall she lay back her ears, squealed, reached over the top and bit off the tip of the ear of a strange horse in the adjoining box. We spent the next half hour stealing two-by-fours from nearby empty stalls and building up the walls like a command post. Fortunately, we were usually early arrivals. Since Lady never got over the urge to inflict damage on horses to whom she had not been properly introduced, my first job at any fair was a lumber raid. If there was nothing left to snitch, I usually managed to talk some friendly souls showing ponies out of their excess timber. Naturally, the owner of any neighboring horse was usually delighted to help.
Lady's attitude toward strange people was more Olympian than hostile. She would turn her head away and fall into abstraction. Occasionally a stable tourist who thought all horses were as friendly as puppy dogs would grab her halter and try to pet her. Lady's ears would go back and her nostrils would flatten into hard ovals. She never nipped, but it was clear she was toying with the idea.
After my initiation into the joys and uncertainties of horse show travel, I was determined to go again the following year. The Reinharts, involved in war work, turned Lady over to me, and I was all set to realize my dream of being able to ride, feed, groom and sleep with my horse. My parents, unfortunately blessed with good sense, firmly said no. But I was lucky. Along came Grace Rogers, a highly respectable St. Louis lawyer, riding to the rescue on her paint horse named Poncho Flash. Grace had the same idea I had. She agreed to be my chaperone, and soon we were off in the Reinharts' two-horse trailer for Anna.
Arriving there late, when everyone else had settled in for the night, we shook out straw, hung up hay bags, carried pails of water and finally made ready our own quarters in the trailer. We swept it out with care, broke open some fresh straw and made our beds on either side of the trailer's partition. Then, with a last look at the horses standing in a misty rain, we went to bed. I burrowed in, ready for sleep, but unmistakable animal aromas came drifting up through the straw, and slivers began infiltrating through the blankets. Then the rain started in earnest and soon was leaking through the roof. I kept telling myself how wonderful it all was.
The next morning—gray, cold and wet—was enough to dampen the zest of a campaigner in Napoleon's class. The mud was getting even deeper and the water was running into the stalls and constantly dripping from above. The term leaky roof is no misnomer. We borrowed shovels from some friendly neighbors and started trenching, making gullies to direct the water away from the stalls. At many shows after that I often sat on a bale of hay, watching the thunder-heads form and eying the slope of the land, wondering if I should start digging or if the storm would blow over. There is nothing more useless than a dry ditch. Most of the time I started when the first plump drops were splattering in the dust, and once I was saved the exertion when the tent in which the horses were stabled blew away.