Some children are climbers. Some are jumpers. I am both. Or used to be. I climbed everything in sight, then jumped just because I could. Peering over the edge of a cliff was great fun. When you’re a child, life is like that. Maneuvering is easy: mountains, fences, trees, horses, etc. Nothing seems out of reach.
Somewhere in the family archives, there is a Super 8 film of my cousins and me trying our best to mimic trick riders we’d seen at the rodeo. We worked hard to capture various poses as Chico, the retired trick-riding horse cantered around in a perfect circle. We pretended to be the warrior tucked along Chico’s broadside, the circus performer standing high on his withers, and the goofy clown bouncing up and down on his rump.
This was summer, 1966. A summer spent ferried around by Chico and my aunt and uncle, both championship rodeo stars. They invited me to spend a few weeks sleeping in an RV camper. And when one rodeo ended, we loaded the horses and caravanned to the next. Night after night we swung on fences and gates, and chased our shadows under the glow of arena lights.
That same year “Batman” debuted on ABC. Activists (aka Hippies) protested the Vietnam War. Many American soldiers lost their lives. The Dow Jones Index hit a record 995 points. LBJ appointed the first black cabinet member, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” reached #1, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, and Medicare went into effect.
I don’t remember these events (with the exception of “Batman”), but I do have a vague memory of hushed conversations between my parents and grandparents, their rumblings about the protesters and the war, whose boys had been called up in the draft, whose had not.
Their tense voices echo today, and I am bound by their adulthood. It keeps me tied to the six-o’clock news, to a culture that is burdened by fear, a culture that remains poised for war, attack, and discriminating blows. At times this reality feels desolate, indefinable, alien—a world I do not know. The gravity of it overwhelms me, and I struggle to find my place, to know what to do. To know what not to do.
In 1966, my cousins and I knew nothing of danger, of school shootings, or weapons of mass destruction.
But we knew plenty. We knew how to shape shift and become the fated warrior, the beautiful circus performer, the goofy clown. We could trace the canopy of trees that floated above us as we posed atop an old horse, reaching our arms upward into the leaf-mottled sky.
We knew Chico. His trustworthy canter. We knew that when we jumped off Chico’s rump and hit the ground, our feet landing in perfect tempo just inches away from his pounding hooves, we knew he would keep us safe. He showed us our place and we knew what to do.
In our delirium, in our constant laughter, that safety net of childhood, all else fell away. The only thing left was to hoist ourselves up to straddle Chico’s broad, safe back, and ride away.
Photo by Jacqueline Jones