Riding Tiny

Oct 5, 2008

Murray, KY – In the picture, my sister Alice Jane and I are perched atop a fat pinto pony with silver studded halter and harness. On the stirrup are the pony's name, Tiny, and the date, 1941. Tiny belonged to a traveling photographer who walked Louisville's neighborhoods snapping pictures of smiling youngsters right in front of their houses. In the background is my Grandmother Schroeder's house. We lived there. Alice Jane was five. I was only two, but I remember the whole experience.

Some people tell me it's a gift to remember back that far, but I'm not so sure. I've never been able to edit my recall - to erase the darker memories. I'm certain my mother saw the photograph as an opportunity to capture a happy moment in her children's lives. Alice Jane was certainly excited about it. She couldn't wait to get in the saddle. And I was excited, too. But when it was time for the photographer to lift me onto Tiny's back, I balked. I twisted away and said, No. I don't wanna. Mom urged me to get on. Come on, Buddy. Tiny won't hurt you. Look, isn't he pretty? But he didn't look tiny to me. He looked as big as a house. There was foamy slobber around his mouth where the bit was. And he constantly bobbed his head up and down and shuffled his feet. I thought he might run away up the sidewalk. Yeah, Buddy, my sister chimed in. Don't be a baby.

That was exactly the wrong thing to say. I muttered another No! I don't wanna! and ran behind Mom. She shrugged and told the photographer, Well, I guess he doesn't want to. Just take one with his sister. I guess the photographer had run into my type before. Without a word, he just stepped around my mother, grabbed me under the arms and swooped me into the saddle. Before I could say anything, he stepped behind his big camera and disappeared under his big black cloth. And Tiny - with no signal or command from the photographer - arched his neck and set a pose as solid as the Rock of Gibralter.

In a blink, it was over. Alice Jane and I were back on the ground and, while Mom was filling out the order form, Tiny was already clopping up the sidewalk to the next encounter. But I was not happy. Partly because I was afraid of Tiny, but truth be told, I was afraid of a lot of things and I already had a reputation as a scaredy-cat. Mom blamed it on Aunt Bell and Aunt Emma Pruitt, who lived in the shotgun house next door. They weren't really my aunts. We just always called them Aunt Belle and Aunt Emma. Both of them wore their hair parted in the middle, pulled straight back, and tied into tight buns behind their heads. Dad called them old maids, but Mom said they were spinster ladies. Aunt Bell and Aunt Emma doted on me. They loved for me to come visit them. They let me play with their library books. They fed me homemade biscuits with butter and jelly. And they took me for long walks up and down Brandeis Avenue, stopping to talk with neighbors, bragging about me as if I were their own flesh and blood. I don't remember the walks well, except that their sole purpose seemed to be to look out for dogs - big, mean dogs. And Aunt Bell and Aunt Emma seemed to believe all dogs were big and mean. It made no difference if a dog was six feet or six blocks away. Their response was always the same. Oh! Buddy! they'd say. There's a big mean dog. He's gonna bite you! Then they'd rush me across to the other side of Brandeis and scurry back home, then clucking and twittering, and me screaming and shaking. To calm me down, they took me in their kitchen and fed me cold biscuits with butter and homemade jelly.

Eventually, my family bought a new puppy, Peanuts, into our family and I got along with him pretty well. But, even though Peanuts and I became tight friends, it took me a long time - several years - to shake my fear of strange dogs. It took even longer to think of myself as something other than a scaredy-cat. And it's only now that I realize that all that fear had been misplaced. Someone should have warned me to beware of well-meaning spinster ladies with a bottomless bread-drawer full of homemade biscuits.