I struck up an acquaintance with an old friend this week, someone I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of since I was in the sixth grade at Greenway School in Bisbee, Arizona, some sixty plus years ago. Before I tell you about that, however, I need to tell you the back story. As my husband is wont to say, “With Judy there’s no such thing as a short story; only long ones.” So here goes.
Three years ago when I attended ThrillerFest for the first time, I encountered a stranger, a fellow writer, who is, for all intents and purposes a geographical next-door neighbor. Lisa Preston is a retired cop and current mystery writer who lives in Sequim, some fifty miles from here as the crow flies. She’s also a horsewoman and a trained farrier. For those of you who are city-slickers, farriers are people who shoe horses. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m guessing that female farriers are, as my mother would say, “scarce as hen’s teeth.” I read Lisa’s first book, The Clincher, and found out more about horses and horse shoeing than I ever would have thought possible.
Since then, Lisa and I have become friends. This winter she sent a video of her out riding bareback in close to four feet of snow. We met for a second time at last year’s ThrillerFest, and this year during the Tucson Festival of Books, we not only shared a panel but also had dinner together at the Guadalajara Grill afterwards. A few weeks later she sent me a thank you gift. More on that later.
So back to me as a kid. I was a reader who loved dogs and horses. As far as dogs were concerned I gravitated to collies. I read Lassie, Come Home and as many of Albert Payson Terhune’s books as I could lay hands on: Lad, a Dog; Wolf; Lad of Sunnybank, Grey Dawn. I loved the idea that those dogs enjoyed hiding out in a cave under the piano in the living room. The upright piano at our living room didn’t come equipped with a cave.
As far as books about horses were concerned? My Friend Flicka was close to the top of that list, and next up was anything by Walter Farley—The Black Stallion and The Black Stallion Returns. But my all time favorite was Frog: The Horse that Knew No Master by Colonel S.P. Meek.
At dinner in Tucson, Lisa and I talked of our mutual love of horse books, and a few weeks later, a “bread and butter” gift from her arrived on my doorstep—a crumbling copy of Frog
I love horses, true, but only from afar. I never owned one and rode only a couple of times in my life. One of those occasions was an ill-fated dude ranch trail ride in the Wonderland of Rocks. My horse, an aging nag named Lightning, practically had to be carried on the way up the mountain. On the way back down, however, he lived up to his name, took off like a shot, and would have swept me off under a fast-approaching tree branch had not my visiting cousin from South Dakota, Polly Johnson, come thundering up behind me to the rescue.
Years after I left home, my younger sister, Janie, had a horse–a palomino mare named Honey. For years I’ve teased her about being the spoiled baby of the family because she had a horse and I didn’t, but the truth is, she bought her own horse and paid for its upkeep with monies earned from delivering both newspapers and the TV Guide. But I digress.
Back to Frog. My grandson, Colt, is currently in the seventh grade. This spring, I struck a deal with him. Grandkids who come to book signings are automatically eligible to go home with the book of their choice. The one Colt wanted that night was a 1200 page behemoth of Sci/Fi fantasy that is Colt’s hands’ down genre of choice. So I struck a deal with him. I’d cough up money for the BIG book if he would agree to read one of my childhood favorites first. Which is how Frog ended up in my grandson’s hands. He read it and loved it. Frog is a horse with the US Cavalry stationed in the Panama Canal Zone in the 1920’s. One of Colt’s first questions about the book was “What’s polo?” I gave him as clear an answer as I could muster at the time. Now, considering he’s someone who cut his reading teeth with Harry Potter, all should have just said, “Polo is like Quidditch only on horseback instead of brooms.”
So this week, when Colt returned the book, it occurred to me that maybe, after all this time, I should read it as well. And with a few free moments between floor refinishing and rearranging furniture, I sat down to peruse it. When I read the book the first time, I doubt I bothered with the author’s foreword at the beginning. Now, being an author myself, I was interested to see what Colonel Meek had to say. The book was first published in 1933, and the author expressed concern about publishing a book in “uncertain times.” My response to that was, “Wait a minute? Aren’t they all uncertain times?”
As soon as I started to read, I was struck by the differences in vocabulary and diction. Other than the polo issue, however, Colt swam through that with little difficulty. After all, he’s already read Dame Agatha, another time-machine reading experience as well as another side effect of having a mystery writer for a grandmother.
Within minutes of opening the book, I remembered why I loved it. Frog is one of those incorrigible horses whose entire purpose in life is tossing off anyone and everyone who tries to ride him, most especially the exceptionally evil Lt. Glover! When a kind and extremely able horseman named Lt. Scott appears on the scene, he’s able to keep his seat most of the time, but even he regards Frog as dangerous and untrustworthy. Frog is on his way to being put down by the vet when Scott rescues him from certain death inside a burning stable. From there on out, man and horse are partners.
Several things struck me about this book. When Colonel Meek speaks of “the World War” he means World War I because World War II hadn’t happened. (And by that I mean World War TWO not World War Eleven or even World War Pause!) The idea that Lt. Scott and Frog would venture off into the jungle to raid a leopard’s den in order to steal two kittens so the commandant’s daughter could turn them into pets wouldn’t pass the conservationists’ smell test these days much less be a feat worthy of bragging about. But despite all that, what I liked most about the book was the partnership between man and beast. The relationship between man and your basic Ford Mustang just isn’t the same.
So I’m glad I took time out to revisit that old friend of a book this past week, even though the cover was literally crumbling in my hands as I held the book. That was a real gift, both to me and to Colt. (With a name like that he OUGHT to like horse books! Next up I guess I’ll need to go looking for a copy of Lad, a Dog so he can read that, too.)
Thank you, Lisa. And here’s a word to my readers. Maybe it’s time you picked up one of your favorites from long ago. Taking a trip down reading’s memory lane may provide some insight into how you came to be who you are today.