When I was six years old, I found myself lost in Ogden, Utah. Not lost like hey, where’s my house? But rather lost in that whoa, this isn’t my home, I’m all alone sort of way. I did a lot of sad meandering about, a lot of hanging out in my room with my toys, and a lot of dreading school because so many of the kids were less than friendly. All of this was made much, much worse by a father who hit and ridiculed, a mother who had a tough time getting out of herself long enough to care about her kids, and an older sibling who had no time for her clumsy, desperately sad little sister.
It was a rough time. Until Frank.
There I was, one long, miserable fall day, moping about the back yard. I heard a familiar noise from near the fence dividing our space from the neighboring yard to the south. A noise that made my heart leap and my eyes widen.
I heard a horse.
I crept closer to the fence and, sure enough, there was a horse. There were TWO horses, in fact. Two horses, and no humans to be seen. Being the timid, fearful child I was, I scaled the fence in seconds. I approached one of the horses (a blue-eyed vision named Zen, as it turned out), took him by the halter, and led him over to the horse trailer parked in the driveway. I climbed onto the fender of the trailer, then scrambled onto Zen’s back. No, I didn’t actually know how to ride. In fact, I’d only ever been on pony rides at Susquehanna’s Harford Fair before.
And Zen KNEW it.
He turned, blinked scornfully at me astride him, then wheeled about and merrily dragged me through the clothes line. I was scraped neatly from his back and thumped rather impressively to the grass, flat on my back. He considered me for a moment, snickered (I swear), then returned to his task of mowing the lawn with his teeth. I lay, sprawled in the warm grass, and gazed adoringly at him. It was love.
Imagine my surprise when, in the middle of this little one-way love-fest, two big, strong hands slid under my arms and yanked me to my feet. I closed my eyes and waited for the blow I knew had to come. My Dad had caught me. My Dad had found me screwing up and now he was going to slam me around until I cried . . . and then slam me around some more for crying.
But it wasn’t my Dad. It was my neighbor, Frank. Frank of the horses. My relief was only temporary, as Frank kept his grip on one arm and began marching me home. Oh, please no! The only thing worse than being caught by my father was being ratted out by someone who’d WITNESSED my stupidity. With my father, anger + embarrassment meant a whopper of an ass-kicking. I was dead. I was dead and I didn’t even have the strength to plead. I stumbled along beside Frank, knowing that this was it. This was the end of me. Frank pulled me up the steps onto our front stoop, reached out, and banged on the door.
Oh, please. Please.
My Dad answered, his eyes immediately narrowing at the sight of Frank beside me. He knew. He could SMELL my screw-up. And his eyes lit up with that manic glow—like they always did when there was an ass-kicking in the offing. Frank smiled, exchanged polite greetings with my Dad, and then it came . . .
“Would you mind if I taught your daughter how to ride horses? She seems quite enamored, and I think she’s got a knack.”
I goggled. My Dad goggled. We both looked at Frank, sure we’d misheard. My Dad, ever hopeful, asked, “Has she done something she shouldn’t have? Has she caused you any problems?”
Frank smiled and shook his wonderful head. No problems. No trouble. Would it be okay, then?
My Dad agreed, reluctantly. What he really wanted was to clout me in the ear, but since that wasn’t going to happen, at least he could get me out of the house for a while.
And boy, did it ever get me out of the house! Every afternoon after Frank got off work, we were at the pasture, caring for the horses. Every weekend, every holiday, we spent entire days doing the things that must be done for horses. And no, this wasn’t some easy thing. I wasn’t even allowed out of the paddock until I could catch my own horse, do a good job grooming, mount up by myself, and pick my mount’s hooves. I didn’t get to use a saddle and bridle until I could care for my own tack, saddle the horse myself, get that bit in there on my own, AND correctly identify, on command, equine anatomy.
Yeah, I still know my hocks from my polls, my croups from my pasterns.
For seven years, it was heaven. For seven years, Frank kept me alive with trail rides in the Uintas, overnighters on Monte, and the occasional rounding up of the chickens just for fun. Even baling hay and souping out chicken coops was bliss. Because with Frank, I was competent. I was valued. I was possessed of expertise that was acknowledged and appreciated. I trained horses, I filled in muskrat holes, I even drained wounds, de-wormed, gave injections, trimmed hooves, and, as a crowning glory, I stitched up wounds. I wasn’t ridiculed, belittled, or ever, ever hit. When I mounted a horse, I was someone worth admiring. When I say that Frank “kept me alive,” I mean that in the most literal sense. Frank, Janith, Susan, Brian, Nola, plus Zen, SiSi, Fairy, Red Cloud, Tony, Musti, and Shahla. My life preservers.
I let myself be jerked away from Frank in 8th grade. I’d say, “Blame my bad-ass Camaro-driving friend,” but that’s not fair. It was me. My Dad was finally gone, and I was angry. Angry, and looking to show the world that I didn’t have to buckle to authority any more. No, Frank never told me, “I don’t want some drunken stoner hanging out with me.” I told myself that the two were utterly incompatible, and then I made my choice. I chose poorly. I remember watching with regret and longing as he would back the horse trailer out of the driveway in preparation for a fishing trip or trail ride without me. I never dared walk over and ask if I could come along. He might have said yes. I’ll never know.
Decades later, I sat down for a few hours and talked to Frank. About what he’d done for me, about the compass he’d provided that, even through my darkest druggie days, never failed me. About the scared, self-hating little girl I’d been, and how his heart had saved me. I told him that my greatest hope for every lost, lonely child is that they, too, find their Frank. Every kid in trouble deserves a Frank.
A year after that, Frank told me that he was done. He was tired, and he’d done everything he’d ever wanted to do. It was years since he’d had horses—a bad heart and arthritis had spoiled that for him. He smiled and said he was all tuckered out. It was time to hang up his spurs. Three months after that, Frank fell in his kitchen, fracturing his pelvis. He lingered a few months in a nursing home, seemed poised to come home when he gave it up and—well, he went home. He was almost 85 years old. Born in the long-gone town of Devil’s Slide, he was a Navy man, he was a lineman for the power company, he was a horseman extraordinaire, he was a conservationist before anyone knew what that was, and he was the best neighbor anyone in this town ever had. But more than that, he was my hero. He was my proof that men didn’t have to be abusive, sarcastic, or mean. He was everything I loved about this place, and he saved my life. He was my Frank, and I will miss him forever and ever.
|That's me on SiSi (Cecil). Ignore the awful 70s attire.|