Revenge of The Broken Horse

Animals in World War I (1)

I KNOW WHERE WILD HORSES roam free as the wind. It’s a peaceful place, high in the hills, where there are no fences. I’ve taken a few friends there, when the sun was sinking behind the white peak of the volcano.

I’m not a cowgirl by any stretch of the imagination, but I do love horses in my own way. I always have. I think I’d hardly be human if I didn’t love horses. And horses in the wild are especially beautiful. They’re shy and curious at the same time, and violent and playful, and their thundering hooves drum the anthem of the free.

The Bible contains a famous eulogy to the horse–a poetic tribute that almost jumps off the page (remember that awesome scene in Secretariat, with the Edwin Hawkins Singers belting “Oh Happy Day”?)

Do you give the horse its strength, or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength, and charges into the fray. It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles agains its side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground; it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds. At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’ It catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.–Job 39:19-25 NIV

One day I realized that, although a circus of wild animals are described in this chapter, these verses are a picture of a warhorse, and warhorses are not wild.

I have to imagine a warrior on this horse’s back, even though a warrior is not mentioned, because he is implied by the horse’s disciplined and extraordinary behavior.

Wild horses, as beautiful as they are, don’t gallop into the clash of arms, “devouring the distance.” They don’t tremble with excitement at the signal of the trumpet, and they would almost certainly spook at the first glimpse of any shiny weapon. A horse without a master would perform badly in this context, but when a horse and rider function as one they become something truly amazing.

An unbroken horse, free as the wind, is beautiful to behold. But an unbroken horse never plowed a field, or won a race, or carried a king into battle…

The Genealogist (Revised)

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GRANDMÈRE IS REPEATING her favorite stories for my enrichment in a tidy room carpeted with green shag.

Grandmère has no filter.

On TV, Pope John Paul II is pretending to be God. A statue of The Virgin is enshrined among candles in a window. I should kneel in front of it, says Grandmère, and ask it for a good husband. (She was a naïve girl when she married Grandpère and definitely didn’t love him, but he was a fine husband anyway, and she was very content).

It’s wrong to worship idols, says my thirteen-year-old self, conscientiously. But ninety-one-year-old Grandmère isn’t listening…

Grandmère is so petite–when she plays the organ her feet barely reach the pedals. She has a memory like an elephant, though, and has traced her roots all the way back to 1695. She opens her album and flowing names like Jean-Baptiste reenforce the knowledge that my people came from France, ate snails, and died praying to the dead. (Ahhh, you say, that explains so much!)

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From Grandmère’s album.

They worked harder and played harder, these people of long ago–rising and setting with the sun. They were more present in the moment. They were better neighbors. Their memories were more vivid, their conversations more substantial. Their music was born in the dust of the field and the sweat of the brow. They wrote long, expressive love letters…

They are strangers to me, these people of long ago.

Yet I came out of them. Continue reading “The Genealogist (Revised)”

Like A Fire of Pine Logs on A Frosty Night

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FROM CASABLANCA TO NORMANDY, Ernie Pyle’s Pulitzer Prize winning reports were the link between civilian America and Americans in uniform during The Second World War. Ernie described logistical technicalities, personal encounters, and random incidents with intimacy, integrity, and nary a shard of sensationalism, and these unvarnished accounts were published in two books, Here Is Your War and Brave Men, which I picked up in an antique store and couldn’t put down.

One vignette from a field hospital was particuliarly striking.

The wounded man was still semiconscious. The chaplain knelt down beside him and two wardboys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, “John, I’m going to say a prayer for you.” Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer… Then he rose and dashed off on some other call, and the wardboys went about their duties. The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an isle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn’t be otherwise, but the aloneness of that man as he went through the last few minutes of his life was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn’t do it. I wish now I had.–Ernie Pyle, Brave Men

Saddest words ever written: “I wish I had.”

I wonder if anyone held Ernie’s hand…

IMG_1099The autobiography of Sergeant York (a conscientious objector who became America’s “one man army” during The First World War) is told in a hillbilly vernacular that makes me think the humble hero must have been sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch. It’s also one of the best books ever written.

The war brings out the worst in you. It turns you into a mad, fightin’ animal, but it also brings out something else, something I jes don’t know how to describe, a sort of tenderness and love for the fellows fightin’ with you. It’s sort of clean, like a fire of pine logs on a frosty night… It was as though we could look right through each other and knowed everything without anything being hid… I kinder think away down underneath I sorter loved them for their weakness most of all.–Sergeant York, Sergeant York and The Great War 

Virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (a Russian Jewish immigrant) knew what Pyle and York knew, when he took his musical genius and his robust sense of duty to the frontline.

One day, he told me, there was supposed to be pouring rain, the afternoon when Mr. Heifetz was supposed to perform. He was told that nobody was planning to come. He said that, ‘you know, when I am scheduled to play–unless I’m really, really deathly ill–I will play.’ So when the time came, he played. And to his great surprise, there was only one soldier sitting way in the back, holding an umbrella. And he told me later that that was one of his greatest, best performance ever.–Ayke Agus, in an interview for the PBS documentary, Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

The performance of a lifetime for an audience of one on a rainy day.

Imagine that G.I.’s disappointment, if Heifetz had not been there.