Saturday, October 15, 2011

Of Riding on the Road and Ashford & Simpson Redux - a reading for The Mane Event, a fundraiser for The N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center

Before I read you a story, I have a confession to make - I’m not a volunteer, I’m a thief and I steal joy.

I am a vagabond, and the people, horses and riders of The N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center are the sultans.

Oh I’ve got everyone fooled into thinking that I give my time to people less fortunate than myself, but just the opposite is true.

The trick is in the continuous feedback loop of healing and joy that exchanges between us and the riders as we work -  a centrifugal force that holds us together and a valuable currency that I fill my pockets with every time I leave the farm.

I should be ashamed, but I’m not.

Right from under their noses I steal patience, peace of mind, inspiration and perspective in an ever changing and confusing world. I feel so privileged to work with NCTRC - it’s more than my Happy Place, it’s my Nirvana Place.

When I was a kid, any time I fell off my pony I was told, “it’s a long way from yer heart” in other words, “Yer not dead, get back on the pony” - as though the heart were this mystical temple that could never be breached, never be violated by mere bumps, bruises, and broken bones.

NCTRC is a testament to the distance of the impenetrable heart .

We can ride, no matter what . . .  and that is the key to life, isn’t it?

That’s finally off my chest . . .

Now I can read you a story, a story from my memoir My Mother Jumping. There are a few things you need to know about this story; my childhood was largely unsupervised. I was raised by horses and my grandparents, while my mother pursued a career in horse racing. One of the characters in the story is Nick Ashford of the R & B husband and wife duo Ashford and Simpson, who wrote hit songs for the likes of Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. Mr. Ashford recently passed away following a long battle with throat cancer. He was not only a marvelous musician, but he was a kind philanthropist who supported struggling inner city children.  Tonight, I dedicate this story to him and all those who work to make the world a slightly better place.


I used to ride my pony from my home on Bayberry Lane to get to the Fairfield County Hunt Club. It was something I did from the time I was six until I was eighteen. The Hunt Club was where many of my friends rode and it offered me horse shows, a polo field to gallop around, an indoor ring to school over jumps during the winter time, and access to miles of trails.

I didn't ride the road every day. I could ride my neighbor's property -- approximately 100 acres of woods and open fields, but the Hunt Club was the hub of riding activity and like my mother before me, I rode the road to get there. The trip by horse didn't take long, probably 20 minutes to cover three-quarters of a mile and I had to negotiate a busy intersection, that of Long Lots Road, Bayberry Lane, and Maple Avenue. Of course, my pony had to deal sanely with the road at all times -- he had to be fearless of school buses, trucks, bicycles, dogs, and Westport's then-form of public transportation The Mini Bus, a Mercedes bus who's diesel engine trilled loudly and spewed an acrid cloud of exhaust the color of coal.

People used to consider Connecticut The Country back then -- New Yorkers would move to Westport or keep a weekend house there and they called it their Country house. I think this still goes on up there -- this describing the area of western Connecticut as some sort of rural respite from the City, but last time I looked, it had transformed to something beyond suburban, despite the beaches and the emerald throngs of maple trees. Its no longer that idyllic location for Mr. Blanding's Dream House or Christmas In Connecticut. The thought of riding a horse down one of Westport's roads today only fills me with visions of disaster involving an oversized SUV blindly guided by a GPS. But back then, in the days of my childhood, most people in Connecticut knew what to do when they saw a horse and rider on the road -- slow down and give the horse some room.

I was a familiar sight on Bayberry-- I kept to the pavement, but once, once I was in a hurry and I took advantage of Mr. Kent's long beautiful sloping lawn to canter part of the way...my grandparents got a call that night, Mr. Kent said only one kid in the neighborhood could put that many divots in his yard. I was sent to Mr. Kent's house on my bicycle the next morning to apologize and promise that I wouldn't gallop my pony on his grass anymore.

On horse show days, I would ride to the Hunt Club just after sun up. My pony was turned out for the show with his braided mane, and I carried my supplies needed for the day in a bucket in one hand and the reins in the other. Sometimes in addition to the bucket, which had a brush or two, towels, and a hoof pick, I’d have a bag containing my show jacket and other necessary appointments for my classes. This made for a small feat, to get my gleaming pony down the road carrying all this. And of course, I was hopeful that at the end of the day I would return triumphant with a ribbon or two added to my load.

There was one bright afternoon I was riding down the road to meet a few friends for a trail ride and a Westport police car passed me. He put on the brakes, and quickly reversed. He swung the cruiser onto the shoulder of the road blocking me and my pony's path. The officer got out of the car and like all cops about to inform you of your trespass on the law, he straightened his hat and pants and cleared his throat. He was young, much younger than most of the policemen I knew. My family was great friends with many of the longtime Westport cops and being so young myself, I saw them all as Old Men, men of great authority and stature. I stopped my pony and said hello to the officer. He squinted and squared his shoulders, "How old are you?" he asked me.

"I'm ten, ten years old. Sir."

"And what's your name?" He had his ticket pad in his hand and he began to write something down.

"Shannon."

"Shannon what?"

"Shannon Woolfe. Sir."

"Miss Woolfe, do you know that horses are not allowed on the streets?"

"No sir. I've been riding on the road for a long time now. And my grandfather rides his polo pony on this road too. And...and..." Never talk too much to cops, it only annoys them.

"But its against the law,” he said, “Horses don't belong on the road. Just not safe, you know."

"Oh..." I was confused and my face felt all hot...I wanted to cry, but at the same time, something told me he was wrong. He kept jotting things down on his ticket book. I thought, gosh, he's going to give me a ticket!

"Miss Woolfe, where do you live?"

I turned in the saddle and pointed back up the road, "51...51 Bayberry Lane. I live there with my grandparents, Tom and Mabel Glynn."

"Miss Woolfe, I want you to turn your pony back around and go home. And I don't want to see you out on this road again."

"Yessir." I was near tears, but I did as he told me. He followed us, my pony and me, up the road with his car. We must have looked like a very short parade. He chided me once again when I turned into our driveway, "Remember, I don't want to see you and your horse out on this road again." And then he drove off.

I trotted up to the house and called for Pop. Out he came and asked me why I was back so soon? Why wasn't I riding with my friends? I told him about the policeman sending me home and Pop got all red-in-the-face-mad, "Jesus Christ...what the hell is going on around here? Listen, go for your ride, I'll call Mac." Mr. MacLeanan was a Westport policeman from way back. He taught me how to swim and had even ridden horses with my mother when they were growing up.

Pop called Mac and Mac called the Chief, who then found out who was patrolling Bayberry Lane that afternoon. He was a rookie, a new hire, a City Boy. He had never seen someone riding a horse down a road and he just assumed it was against the law. The Chief apparently called him in and showed him a copy of the Connecticut Driver's Handbook that explicitly stated that a driver must yield to pedestrians of all kinds including horses and riders. I would see the young officer every once in a while after that. He would pass me on his patrol down Bayberry and oddly salute me, never looked at me, just held up this stiff white hand as he drove by.

I rarely had trouble riding on the road, sometimes people didn’t slow down enough or give me ample room, the same thing that bicyclists encounter. It was times like those that I was glad to have a road tough pony.

But there was one driver who was downright murderous.

I was riding home and hurrying to beat the sundown, it was a gray winter afternoon, the kind that makes Connecticut seem like the last place you want to be. The trees were black and bare and there were remnants of a snow storm on the edges of the road...gray snow, dirty snow, the way snow gets when its been beaten into submission by the salt trucks and that black exhaust that pours from the school bus and the Mini Bus and the weird neighbor's old Mercedes station wagon. I was riding my new pony named Snow Poppy, a bay mare I had received for Christmas just a month earlier. She was new to this road work, but she was getting the hang of it. She was extremely sensible and I was smitten with her.

We were only a couple of hundred yards from my driveway when I heard the roar of an engine behind us. I turned to see a white van lurch as though it was raising up on its hind legs while the driver stepped on the gas. It sped up the hill toward us, the headlights were ablaze and it was coming right for us. Poppy and I were in a bad place too...there was no shoulder, we were riding next to a high bank, with a wall of saplings covering its top and there was just no time to cross the road to take refuge in the Goldstein's driveway. So I did the only thing I could with so little time to save myself and Poppy. I made her stand as close to the bank as she could and she miraculously stood stock still for me and I threw my leg, the leg that was exposed to the road over her neck, so that I was now riding sidesaddle. The van catapulted by us at a terrible speed and its sides brushed Poppy's flanks and shoulders -- and the stirrup that I had left empty by taking my leg up and over Poppy’s withers, rang a terrible metallic song. I held my breath and Poppy held her breath and then as quickly as he came, like lightning striking, he was gone in a filthy white blur up the road. But I did get one thing off that truck as he squeezed Poppy and me into that bank on the side of the road, I got the big blue word SEARS tattooed into my brain.

Poppy could have panicked but she was as resolved as I was to get home after the SEARS man had tried to kill us. We trotted, clippity-clippity-clippity up the center line and in the gate for home, where I found my grandfather making hot mashes for our horses’ dinners. My story sent Pop running up the hill and into his car. He sped out the driveway and disappeared. I untacked Poppy and looked for some sign of injury on her -- nothing, not a hair out of place. The only evidence was a gash in the flap of my saddle, and it came over me like a terrible wave that my leg could have been ripped open the way my saddle had been.

Pop found the SEARS man at the liquor store up the road. He took him to task in the doorway and told the shopkeeper to call the police. The SEARS man was arrested and I suppose he lost his job. For years after that Pop fretted that the SEARS man would come back to the neighborhood for revenge, but he never did.

Sometime in the late seventies, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson of the legendary R&B team of Ashford & Simpson moved into a grand old house at the far end of Bayberry Lane. This caused a bit of a stir around town, of course, being that they were Black Celebrities. Westport was very accustomed to celebrities-- it’s proximity to New York City made it a quiet haven for CEOs, actors like Paul Newman, and internationally acclaimed writers and artists.
But they all tended to come in one color: white.
Old Westport wanted Westport to stay a certain way, a battle they would fortunately lose. There were fears the wonderful clapboard estate would be turned into some sort of a MoTown Den of Inequity.
But Ashford and his wife lovingly restored the home to it’s 1920s grandeur.
Ironically, when they sold the home 20 years later, the house was demolished by a young couple, who made millions on selling children’s educational puzzles, to make room for a glitzy forty thousand square foot mansion, now the largest home in Fairfield county.
Not long after he moved in, our new neighbor drove by me and my pony on the road. I always turned round when I heard a car coming from behind and on this day, my young heart skipped a beat when I saw this spectacular car rolling toward me.
It was a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a fantastic looking car, like nothing I had ever seen before, and it slowed way way down as it went over to the other side of the road to go around me. The window rolled down and there he was at the wheel of his shining ship, this gorgeous black man smiling this starry smile at me and wearing a deep purple velvet suit. He waved his lovely dark hand at me and I knew who he was, he was Nick Ashford! It would be like that for a couple of years...he would drive by and smile that smile and sometimes She would be with him, Ms. Simpson, and she radiated this unbelievable warmth as they glided by me in that car. No wonder they could write songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need To Get By! They seemed to emanate waves of Love everywhere they went.

Finally one day, he stopped and I stopped my pony and leaned over to see Mr. Ashford beaming at me from the helm of his magical car. And then he spoke -  "I just want to tell you how happy I feel when I see you riding that beautiful horse. It reminds me of my childhood in South Carolina and it makes my day every time I see you."

"Thank you Mr. Ashford!" I answered.  I wanted to tell him how it made my day every time he drove by me in his Silver Cloud. But I couldn't get the words out.

And then he drove off, and I felt like some must feel after they have been blessed by the Pope or have knelt in front of the Dali Lama. And I hummed “Ain’t no mountain high enough...” all the way down the road.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Thanks for this! Great story! I wish I could think of something more original to say but hey, I am not a writer, OK?