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.
July 2, 1967
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.
The weather did finally clear, we got to show our horses and Lady garnered enough money for me to think ahead. Nancy was at Anna also, and we all went on from there to Du Quoin and Marion and other fairs, always earning just enough to continue. One of the nice things about the fair circuit was that you did not have to pay an entry fee unless you finished in the money; then the fee was deducted from your winnings. Since we were in the ring every time the gate opened—under saddle, in combination or fine harness—we managed to be collectors rather than payers. A box stall cost two or at the most three dollars, so it was perfectly possible to start the circuit on a shoestring, as we did in the following years, and stay out all summer.
The next year Nancy had her own secondhand open trailer and a man named Jim working for her, and Jim more than occasionally gave me a hand, too. Jim was a lay preacher and claimed that he could speak in tongues, but we were never privileged to hear this talent. His constant complaint was that Flight snored so loudly he was kept awake at night—which was corroborated by grooms unlucky enough to be stabled in the vicinity. Nancy's and Jim's maiden voyage with the trailer, which was towed by a jeep, was almost a disaster. As they drove along a country road the tailgate fell in, giving Flight a smart spank on the fanny. Outraged as a goosed dowager, he leaped over the top of the trailer and into the back of the jeep. "There ain't room here for both of us," Jim yelled, and he scrambled out of the moving jeep and into a handy ditch. Flight, miraculously, was extricated with nothing more than his dignity wounded.
I caught up with Nancy that summer at Ashley. I was not showing Lady; she had popped a splint after the spring shows and was blistered. But out of the blue came a call from a man I'd never met, a Mr. S. J. Anderson, who wanted me to show his gaited gelding, Gypsy Baron. Anderson had parted suddenly with his last trainer when that gentleman filled himself with gin and fed some to the horse before a show. Baron, somewhat befogged, disgraced himself in mid-class by trying to climb into a box seat, much to the consternation of the rightful ticket-holders. When Baron was sober, I discovered, he had beautiful manners in the ring, except for a tendency to run off, which kept me on the alert. After hours he was an escape artist, an equine Houdini. What he couldn't unhook he would untie. Then, if he couldn't slide under the door, he would climb over. Mere walls were as nothing when the wanderlust overcame him, and leaky-roof stabling was generally of the most escapable sort. At the sight of an empty stall in the morning I would grab a shank, jump into the jeep with Nancy and start scouring neighboring farms. We would usually find him contentedly grazing with the cattle, easily recognizable among the Guernseys in his tail set, fly sheet and bandages.
It was at Ashley, too, that Mr. Wilfred Malan, a retired postman from Pinckneyville, first asked me to show one of his road horses in an under-saddle class. From then on the thrill of putting on colors, of being able to whoop and yell when they said "turn on," the feel of a horse trotting that fast, all obsessed me. I haunted Mr. Malan that summer and for many summers thereafter, and whenever he needed a rider he would come around with the silks of his second-best horse, Barbara Alan. He also let me drive The Saint, one of his harness ponies, in ladies' classes, while his wife drove The Sinner. To accurately reflect the tempers of the ponies those names should have been reversed; I regularly left the ring with arms trembling from the strain of being pulled. And I will never forget my total humiliation when The Saint ran off with me in a huge class at Du Quoin. The class was halted and I stood up in the viceroy like Ben-Hur in his chariot, able to do nothing but steer frantically between the frozen entries until some men leaped out by the gate and grabbed the lines, a miniature version of Stagecoach.
Mr. Malan had his bad moment at Du Quoin, too. In a road class, at the turn-on signal, he yelled with such a mighty roar that his plates flew out of his mouth. They were later retrieved, intact, from the tanbark when the class lined up.
That summer I did quite a bit of catch riding. One minute I'd be sitting on a bale of hay, the next up on a strange horse ready to show. A few minutes to warm up and get the feel, then I'd be in, under the lights, before an audience and, more important, a judge. I recall showing R.W. Brown's cocky walk-trot mare Fancy Frills in a ladies' class for the first time. I thought she was making a good show, particularly since R.W., standing in the gloom of the turn, was smiling encouragingly. We were wearing arm numbers instead of back numbers, and when we lined up I peeked down and looked at the judge's card as he jotted my number in first place and then proceeded along the line. There was no workout, so I had my happy winner's smile ready to flash when the number was called. I could scarcely believe it when I heard we were second. R.W. collared the judge after the show, and he explained with rare honesty, "Well, R.W., your mare was making the best show, but that other girl was so pretty I just had to give it to her!" I promptly went out and dyed my hair blond.
I also made the ghastly mistake of trying to dye Gypsy Baron's tail the following year. Gypsy was a plain chestnut horse with nothing to distinguish him except an unfortunate Roman nose, so I invested in gallons of the proper solution and started peroxiding his tail. Unfortunately, the flies were biting that day, and even a horse that is generally cooperative has to swish. I'd grab the tail, soak it in the solution and—whack!—off it would go. This went on for some time without visible results, so I decided I'd mixed the wrong formula. I washed out the peroxide but overlooked the flanks, which the tail had been constantly slapping. Soon they were covered with irregular blond stripes. I tried masking them with shoe polish for the rest of the season but, sadly, the polish ran when Gypsy worked up a sweat.
We made a lot of shows that year with no serious accident or illness, though fairgrounds cooking made mere survival a risky business. If you were lucky, the death throes of a fly in the murky barbecue sauce would catch your eye in time, and you had to scrutinize the coffee with extreme care before trying a swallow. There was always something in it, or in the sugar bowl or the cream pitcher. We bought a hot plate and canned foods, but our indifferent washing-up procedures were almost as lethal as the midway meals. Even today the memory of food hampers occasionally provided by Nancy's mother makes me as lyrical as Lucius Beebe recalling some Lucullan extravaganza.
There was a lot of idle time around a fairgrounds, not filled by eating, showing or the work involved in primping a show horse. Nancy and I would wander the midway in the mornings, as the crowds were arriving, and the carnival people, who got to know us, would invite us onto their Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds free, to laugh it up and look gay, in order to attract some real cash customers. A 45-minute ride on a Ferris wheel, we discovered, has a limited repeat value. Fortunately, we were not on the merry-go-round at Mount Vernon one year when the governor broke and the motor accelerated; the centrifugal force sent adults and children flying off into space and, ultimately, into the hospital.
We usually spent our afternoons watching the races, both harness and flat, from a vantage point on the backstretch where all the dirty work took place. Supervision was casual, and a grudge was generally settled in a direct and rough fashion, like knocking a fellow jockey off his horse in mid-race or the teeth out of the starter after the race. Horses met some very unpleasant ends. Once, at Vienna, after one had been killed and another seriously injured, I started across the track in a rage to protest, but the track was so gooey that I walked right out of my shoes. Standing in one's socks in the middle of a racetrack, with shoes sinking rapidly out of sight, is not a firm position from which to register indignation. It is not an easy position to get out of, either.
After the races one afternoon an elderly gentleman showed up with a Tennessee Walking Horse, and he put the horse into its easy-running walk on the half-mile track. It got dark, but they kept on walking around and around. The show started, and no matter what class was in progress on the straightaway they ambled right on through and continued their way around the complete circuit. By great good luck they arrived in front of the grandstand at the proper time for their own class and merged with the other Walking Horses. They won fifth place, to the delight of the crowd, which had followed their travels. I remember it was a white horse.
We showed well into the fall that year, and I commuted miles back and forth after school to be able to appear in one class. Mrs. Anderson read the maps while I drove through the clinging ground mists of autumn, running over in my mind the probable morning quiz questions. We got lost quite often.
The following season Mr. Anderson bought a four-horse van and a walk-trot mare named Mary Jane Peavine, and he hired a driver-groom, a student named Barney Barn-grove, who had owned and shown his own horses before he left for college. We also took on Lynn Kuehne, a 15-year-old St. Louisan who owned Gloria Dare, another walk-trot mare. My Lady Lightfoot was back in commission, and I had acquired a Dalmatian bitch named Delilah, who caused more trouble than the four horses put together.
So, with van full, we headed for Pinckneyville to begin our season. One of the real pleasures of arriving at the first fair is stall-hopping with old friends. Nancy was there, of course, with a new two-horse trailer, a new walk-trot mare named Blythe Spirit, Flight Command and Jim the lay preacher. There was Earl Jones, a student undertaker, who had two jumpers. One was named Cap and the other Rigor Mortis, whose spirit matched his name. There were the Logston girls from Shawneetown, who went to Stephens College in the winter and showed horses all summer; Esther Williams from Carmi, Ill., who once berated a judge and was later thrown out of a ladies' class by that same official on the grounds that anyone who knew those words was no lady; and Lil Jenkins and her sister Alice. Lil was a lady jockey. Her sister, who was quite tall, always wore a hoof pick dangling from her belt.
That summer our stops included Golconda, and if there was a basement to the leaky roof, Golconda was it. The grounds were situated in a hollow where not a breath of air ventured, and it was as hot as only a river town can be. Horses were dying all around us. A parsimonious management had not even provided electricity in the tents. Barney brought the van around and rigged up a system that worked off the battery, which was hard on the truck but gave us some illumination.
Harrisburg, by comparison, was the Elysian Fields. There were shed stalls, the temperature had dropped and spirits were high. Don Harris and Ruth Kauffman were stabled next to Nancy and me along the row, so to cut expenses the female contingent took a room in town while the boys stayed on the grounds. We let the boys use the room in the daytime for showers, and this conjured up dire suspicions in the mind of the landlady, who took to lurking in the hallway around the clock.
Since we had no matinees, there was ample time for chores. One afternoon, with plenty to do, the boys decided to go to town for ice cream and a movie instead. Ruth pointed out a fine-harness buggy that needed cleaning, and I rubbed a finger in a meaningful way over a saddle. Barney, Don and Don Gibbons withdrew into conference, then ambled purposefully into the Harris van. Ruth was summoned and disappeared, and then I was called. Two minutes after I had entered I was neatly tied hand and foot and stretched out in the straw alongside Ruth. Nancy soon joined us. The boys disappeared in Anderson's van. Our furious yells finally caught the ears of Jim and another helper who had been watching the races. After a consultation, however, they decided they didn't want to be involved and left us to fend for ourselves. Eventually we got loose and were busily cleaning tack when the Anderson van lurched through the gate. But we had plotted revenge.
That night, when the fairgrounds had settled and the boys were sure to be sleeping, we returned, creeping in via a loose board Ruth had discovered in one of the stalls. Each of us carried a full pail of water, and targets and timing had been coordinated. The operation went like clockwork. After dousing our persecutors, we melted back into the night and drove to town laughing gleefully. We were especially pleased to note that it had turned quite cold.
But there was little laughter on the ride between Harrisburg and Mount Carmel. This was a somewhat longer haul than usual, and I was settled comfortably in the cab with Barney and Delilah, admiring the fence posts overgrown with honeysuckle when a terrible commotion broke loose in the van. It was not just the occasional kick of a restless horse but a barrage of explosions against the metal walls. We pulled off the road, and Barney boosted me into the back of the truck, hoping I could calm the trouble maker, who turned out to be Mary Jane Peavine. She had been riding peacefully all summer but now had gone berserk, and the other horses were uneasy. Baron kicked sporadically, which was normal for him, but Mary Jane was literally climbing the walls. I tried distracting her with her hay bag and oats, but it was like offering an elephant a juicy mouse. Remembering the old adage about the mule—if you want to get his attention, first knock him down—I hit her with a broom, but that didn't help. By this time the other horses were past the uneasy stage; they were plain scared, and so was I. Finally I got a twitch on her nose, and there we stood the rest of that endless ride. When we led her off the track at Mount Carmel, she had a knee as big as a cantaloupe and her career was ended.
Baron had broken a shoe in half, which was serious, because he wore a type with a special trailer. There was no blacksmith on the grounds, naturally, so I found a hammer, pulled off the two pieces and went into town in search of a welder. After I explained my predicament at the town's only garage, the welder was pulled off the car on which he was working. He shook his head in a bemused fashion, and repaired the shoe. Back at the grounds, I found Mr. Margenthaler, a retired coal miner who could do anything with his hands, and he nailed the patched shoe back in place.
Now, more than 20 years later, Mr. Margenthaler is a full-time blacksmith and flies all over the country shoeing show horses and ponies. His daughter Joyce is a well-known professional trainer. She was showing in the northern part of the state when Nancy and I arrived at the Margenthaler home in Pinckneyville on our sentimental journey. We asked about the old shows. "No," said Mrs. Margenthaler, "they don't exist anymore. Why, even some of the fairs are gone, and the grounds are used for something else. If there is a show at all, it's western style. The old 'society' show is finished."
We dropped in on the Malans in Pinckneyville and found Mrs. Malan in the kitchen putting up jelly. Mr. Malan (age 82) was over in Missouri showing L. R. McKinley's Concoction. "Heavens!" I gasped. "How old is that pony now?" Mrs. Malan guessed he was 24. We went into the living room in search of the Pinckneyville newspaper. The walls were hung with ribbons, trophies and photographs of horses. The Pinckneyville Fair had ended the previous week, and we scanned the papers for familiar names. Lil Jenkins, it turned out, was the leading jockey.
Nancy and I drove out to the fairgrounds, now deserted and wearing the bleak look of a place abandoned after the show has moved on. The stables, grandstand and track were as dilapidated as they had been 20 years before. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed angrily as we strolled into the sagging, dim barns, trying to decide where we used to be stabled. "Did it really smell this awful then?" I asked.
We stood in the middle of the straightaway where we had lined up, waiting for the judge's decision. This time our numbers were not going to be called. "Come on, Alice," said Nancy. "Let's go see if we can't find a bale of straw."