The Circus Festival

We pulled into the Sarasota Fairgrounds just in time to participate at the International Circus Festival. This was a contest venue and all kinds of acts were here to perform in front of judges for awards and to impress the talent scouts in attendance. Since my livestock didn’t have a complete act yet, this was an opportunity to crowd break, or expose them to the chaos of large masses of people. My animals had never been away from the farm.

I pulled onto the grassy fairgrounds amidst several big tops in the air. Flags flew, elephants swayed and the rhythmic roar of lions could be heard in the distance. The purpose of being here was to get the livestock exposed to the strange sights, sounds and smells of the circus, and for me to get the horse and mule to do everything they learned back at the barn.

There is a joke among animal trainers, “it’s easy to get them to do it at the barn,” (and quite another feat to get them to do it in front of an audience)

I parked my horse trailer, with all the comforts of home in the small living quarters, amongst the myriad rigs that brought apparatus and accouterments for various flying acts, tumbling troupes, jugglers, thrill acts, bareback riders, clowns, musicians, and of course every kind of trained animal act under the sun. I set up my canvas awning/stall arrangement on the side of the trailer for the horse and mule. Hurricane made a comfortable bed for himself with several bales of hay.

The livestock had never seen such a collection of strange sights and smells like this before and were quite reluctant. It took time for them to settle but being tired after that long trip soon promoted sleep.

Although competition among the performers took place during the many shows that were underway throughout the week, I was here to practice. A spare circus ring had been set up at the front of the festivities area for this purpose. The first morning here, I saddled up my horse and attempted to ride him around the grounds and up to the practice area.

Due to the long, tedious training processes that had taken place back in Michigan, I discovered willingness as one of the strongest attributes of my equine partner. I had never known him to refuse or to be extremely fearful. In this environment, he experienced terror. Regardless, he did have to go to work and had to learn this lesson now.

Once mounted in the saddle, I coaxed him forward. Due to the level of fright in my horse, he refused. I did not dare allow him to learn he could refuse. To fortify my request for him to move forward, I used aggression. I would not be satisfied with any response except what I asked. He moved forward.

On the way to the practice area, my horse attempted childish behavior. I insisted he go forward. He didn’t want to. Suddenly, he reared up. His awkward rear was so aggressive that he went up, up and up and then over backwards. He busted one of the reins in the process.

                Thank goodness, my first horse was a lay-down and sit-up horse with the ability to rear. I developed a reflex as the result. As Souveran went up, I threw my leg out and stepped off the horse.

While he laid there with me standing over him, I commanded him to get up. He was shaken. Once up, I sternly told him to stand there. While he stood there, I rapidly tied knots in the busted leather and re-mounted. I commanded him to move forward while he was still in a daze. As he responded with a few steps forward, I relaxed and comforted him with encouragement and affection on his neck. While still stunned he became somewhat compliant. We progressed to the practice area. I guess he learned something that day. He never tried that dangerous stunt again.

As we approached the ring in that isolated, grassy area adjacent to the midway, Souveran noticed everything. Concession trailers, ticket boxes, inflatable playgrounds, elephant rides and the old-time automatic music machines shared the area with big tops, thrill show rigging and a multitude of animals on display.

Reluctantly, he approached the first set of ring curb he had ever seen in his life and passed through the entrance gap of the circle. I recalled our earliest training criteria and made it simple for him to comply by just asking him to walk. As soon as we quietly made a few revolutions of the ring, a few of the curious attendees of the festival saw a man on a horse and gathered around to watch.

Souveran had only seen a large gathering of people one time in his life. During a training workshop at Vi Hopkin’s place, a guest instructor had a gathering of students in the class. Prior to that day, Souveran walked alone down the corridor between the stalls at a leisurely pace and went through the doorway into an empty riding arena. But on that particular day, a semi-circle of people was eager to see the guest instructor work with a horse. Vi asked me to go get mine.

                Souveran casually walked down the aisle as usual but upon turning the corner he saw a frightening sight – a multitude of people. He was startled. He snorted his surprise. This episode happened again. The memory of that experience came back.  I attempted to get him to move forward in the middle of another scary scene.

Soon the circus ring was surrounded by people standing three deep. They commented, waved, talked and gestured. As I rode my frightened, snorting horse in this scary situation, a gentleman cowboy, who I did not know, came to our rescue.

“As you can clearly see,” a soothing voice began, “this is a young horse who is in the early stages of the training process of becoming a performing horse with the circus.”

The man in the cowboy hat continued his talk to the crowd in a confident, reassuring and gentle manner.

“Part of the training procedure,” he continued, “includes getting the animal used to the sights and sounds that are unfamiliar to a horse who just came from living on the farm.”

I tried to disguise my frustration with the horse’s seeming unwillingness to cooperate. Souveran was scared to death in front of this audience. As I tried to coax him to walk forward a little, my new friend continued.

“Watch as the trainer gently reminds the horse of his earlier training and encourages him forward. When he feels the time is right, he will ask for another desired response.”

By this time, all I could manage was to get Souveran to walk around the ring and reverse direction through the center. My self-appointed announcer kept up his soothing explanation. When Souveran calmed down a little, I felt this might be the time to try to get him to bow, something he had taken to nicely at Chuck Grant’s. I coaxed him into the center of the ring and, being in no hurry, gently asked him to relax and then bow.

When he finally began to allow his posture to relax and began to lift his foreleg to give me what I asked, the crowd noticed this new behavior and abruptly began to applaud, startling him back into an upright position. He snorted displeasure. Thanks to the non-stop patter that came from my volunteer announcer, the crowd appreciated the efforts being made. This was Souveran’s first experience with applause.        

Once the practice session was over and the horse was back under the awning, I had a chance to meet the man who came to our rescue. Hub Hubbell was a rodeo announcer who saw an opportunity to lend his talents to help make the best of an awkward situation.

Part of the reason Hurricane rode with me here from Michigan was so he could go see his shrimp boat. Now here at the fairgrounds, he didn’t seem to be making any plans to do anything. We went to the local AA club for meetings and as the reality of his situation settled in, I began to ask him about the quality of his sobriety. This was a new concept for him. He thought that being sober was enough.

 I invited him to consider the qualities of peace, joy and freedom from our self-inflicted suffering has different levels achieved through our honesty, willingness and working the steps with the help of another. I attempted to describe my experience. His condition was complex, amplified by untreated alcoholism and remaining grief for his dead wife. After a few days, he contacted an old friend nearby who came and got him. I wished him well. We vowed to get back together during the upcoming summer, back in Jackson.

The festival culminated a few days later with a parade on Sunday morning. The gathering marching bands, floats, wagons, vehicles and animals added to the frenzy of this already hectic situation. Souveran was dripping with an anxious sweat and pranced with a rebellious attitude while we waited in the line-up.

He was nervous, and as the result, could not stand still. When I asked him to move towards the mix of parade features that slowly left in single file, he refused and went backwards. When the parade floats we were to follow began to move into position, rather than to hold up the already slow pace of a parade, I turned the horse around 180 degrees and made him walk backwards to stay in the flow.

I chose a group of cowboys and cowgirls on horses to accompany through the parade route. I thought the herd instinct would provide him with some comfort. He was too flustered to notice the other horses. I had my hands full that day.

Once en-route, the parade features spread out in a single file line between the sparse crowds on either side of the blocked off streets that led downtown. The start of the parade allowed things to quiet down for my horse. The cowboys in the group gave me plenty of room. They let me take the lead with my hot, excited horse.

My first circus boss was a fan of old-time cowboy movies. Melvin Timberlake was on horseback too. Mel confided to me after the parade that he did not think I was going to make it all the way through the parade route on my horse. There were times when Souveran walked forward for a while but each time he refused to continue forward, I simply wheeled him around on the spot with my legs and had him walk backwards up the parade route. My horse probably walked backwards seventy percent of the parade.

The environment changed as the procession entered downtown. Tall buildings on either side of the parade route reflected noise. The crowd was packed onto both sides of the street up to the curb. My horse saw the most terrifying element of the route thus far – hawkers with shopping carts laden with tall bouquets of bags of cotton candy, blow up toys, balloons and confections. They walked between us in the parade pushing those monstrosities up to the people at the curb and, often times, this stuff brushed against the parade participants.

I had the thought, ‘this is surely the point of no return.’

There was no plan B if my horse went ballistic. I had no escape route – and no option except continue. Souveran walked backwards through most of that area, too. We did make it.

Of the myriad things to be fearful of, we somehow made it through to the very end. The parade route was four miles long. When complete, we walked that distance back to the fairgrounds. All the participants had to walk back.

During the return trip, Souveran was tired. Among the participants headed for the fairgrounds was an elephant that belonged to a friend of mine. I rode my horse close to this elephant. Souveran, at that point, was so worn out that he quietly walked alongside the large gray animal on a similar trek back to our digs where he could get some rest.

Once the stock was bedded down and fed for the night, I had a chance to go to the Show Folks Club of Sarasota to fraternize and celebrate our accomplishments with many of my circus performer peers. Especially memorable that evening was an opportunity to jitterbug on the dance floor with my favorite circus friend Joanne Wilson.

With the festivities over, I moved my rig and livestock over to the farm of John Herriott, who had a training facility and a background of schooling everything from horses, ponies, elephants and camels. His specialty was Liberty horses. During the next few weeks, I resumed the training of my horse and mule at his farm while he trained a liberty act of eight horses.

Soon, in addition to the bow and the camel stretch, Souveran mounted a pedestal and did a 360 degree turn on the forehand, the three-step and march, plus the double-backwards three-step.

Many times, while accumulating knowledge of the training processes of performing animals, I found trainers zealously guard their secret techniques. John was helpful with my aspiration to learn. With his help, I received additional pieces of the puzzle, even though he was first to claim being a liberty horse man, not high school (as it is called in show business) or an Haute E’cole horseman.

Mid-winter he had to go north to work some Shrine dates. I moved my stuff over to the farm of Russ and Doris who had a barn with stalls and a circus ring.

While I perfected my riding skills, training Betty the mule also continued. She was a novelty at most of the barns we frequented. A bright student, her growing repertoire became quite admirable. She now had a handle on liberty work, ran around the ring, reversed direction, halted at the back, mounted the ring-curb with her front feet, walk the curb, bow, laydown, sit-up, and what became her greatest attribute of all, the waltz.

Betty the mule, whom I’d had for two years, had quite a repertoire. I would use this routine on the upcoming circus tour. Gail thought securing a contract to perform prior to the acts being ready qualified as some kind of crazy plan. She didn’t know that this sort of insanity was standard procedure for show business. With a looming contract for an upcoming tour, I had a goal with a deadline.

                Training both animals progressed. In an effort to develop a themed act, I started to experiment with mouth tricks. One popular trick I had seen others use utilized a blanket. I took a towel and painted ‘mule for sale’ on it to use.  Once laid across her back, Betty would crane her neck to reach it and pulled it off for a funny effect.

Soon, the choreography and deftness in the ring with my two animals became apparent. There were other responsibilities to take care of. One was earning money. There was plenty of sign work to do in the area. One opportunity lead to a project that opened up a whole new world to me.

While painting for the local showmen, I met a lady with a frozen custard and fruit cup concession who wanted a spectacular front. That project rocketed my career into a significant chapter of my life, but only after a mishap.

Meeting the Master

Fascination with classic horsemanship brought me to this barn fifteen years earlier. My first riding instructor, Clarence Hastings, had a hunt-jump background, and provided a good foundation for my ambition with my first circus horse. As I expressed a desire to become even more finesseful on a horse, he realized I would need a specialist. Clarence knew where all manner of upper level dressage work took place and encouraged me to observe at the barn of Chuck Grant in nearby Brighton. Clarence was the director of Chuck Grant’s Horse Capades. At first opportunity, I drove over.

check grant

The indoor riding barn had a low set of bleachers at one end for the guests. I found my place to watch. Chuck’s sense of humor was evident by the items hanging from the rafters and various signs that decorated the walls. I noticed a pair of riding boots that appeared to have been left behind by some hapless horseman who sailed through the rafters, among other interesting artifacts. I didn’t have long to wait to see the rehearsal.

At the appointed time, a group of horses and riders entered the arena and began to follow Chuck on his horse. Once they became organized, he began to bark out orders, military style, to the group who then complied with their best efforts. Arranged in a neat single-file row the work began.

Trot work started the session. Shoulders in, shoulders out and small circles on the middle of one side required the horse parade to be spaced out just right. The half-pass across the diagonal line was spectacular to observe, after which they were all asked to walk the perimeter to cool down a bit while Chuck went to the center. He shared what he saw and enlightened them on what they could do to improve.

Next, from the walking procession of ten tightly-spaced horses, individual canter departs from the lead position gave each rider a chance to perfect his skill with this gait and travel half the arena distance to make the transition back to a walk at the rear of the line.

Countless other movements followed as I watched this group of dressage aficionados practice aspects of horsemanship I was interested in, all for the sake of visualizing and developing my show business aspirations.

Occasionally, the entourage lined up across the center line to practice the bow or the stretch. Then, after those exercises, with everyone adequately warmed up and dialed-in to their horse, the finale began. Chuck had the entire group follow spontaneous directions for a rapid military drill that resembled square dancing, in which orders were barked out for immediate execution.

Volte meant a small circle. While all of them were on the long side, the sight of eleven horses all turning at once to reverse and complete a small circle, to conclude into the forward moving single file line was spectacular. Having the group space out and increase speed created an opportunity for a giant figure eight pattern. This allowed them to ‘thread the needle’ between their fellows as they traveled the diagonal lines and reversed direction.

The visual experience expanded my awareness of goals achievable with a horse. When that first night was over, although I waited outside for some time, I didn’t make contact with Mister Grant. He was busy with jovial interactions with participants and the duties of putting horses away for the night.

I later mentioned this to Clarence. With a knowing smile, he encouraged me to continue to go regardless. I became a regular visitor on Wednesday nights. Eventually, as the result of seeing a familiar face in the seats, Chuck realized I was interested in what was going on and came over to initiate conversation.

Once he understood my ambition, and that I was already a liberty horse trainer taking riding lessons from Clarence, he enlightened me with little facts about the movements I was interested in and how they were facilitated by the rider. 

Over the years, Chuck remained a special friend who helped me when he could. He knew my circumstance – I had to fund my horse ambitions between performing opportunities with artwork projects for a variety of customers. He became a special mentor. The occasional circus tour gave me a goal to work toward and, in spite of the vacillation from training to painting, progress occurred. At best, I could only invest occasional spurts of time to horse training and lessons. Right when I began making progress at the barn, funds would run out and I’d have to go hustle some sign work. Fortunately, there was always plenty of sign work to do.

We clicked on several levels. When my work called me away, we became pen pals. I wrote to share stories that occurred during my stints on the circus. His response was how I found out about my hero.

Chuck was a brassy fellow with a background in the U. S. Cavalry. Part of his unique military background was to do numerous exhibition demonstrations as a cavalryman. The entertaining manner of handling men, women and horses was evidence of his ‘show business’ inclination.


This mixed with what he learned later while running a stable in Chicago. The Konyot family of circus high school riders (who brought dressage to this country) wintered at his barn. Chuck watched as they practiced during the off-season of performing with various circuses. A friendship ensued. Arthur Konyot became the source of Chuck’s dressage knowledge. 

Chuck’s barn ran the opposite of Vi’s, who stopped a lesson to pick a flake of shavings out of a horse’s tail. Chuck took a saddle into the stall to prepare to ride while the horse was still eating his oats. He didn’t wait until the horse finished eating. He took the horse, often with a big manure stain on one side, over to the arena to put him through his paces. Most mornings, seven horses were worked, assembly line fashion, prior to lunch.

 His barn was very tall, with stalls on two floors. A roomy attic high above was for the hay. An unused antique silo stood alongside. The riding arena was added when Chuck transformed the property into a riding academy.

His stalls were confined, not cleaned as regularly as Vi’s, and used a variety of door latching systems that often required a particular procedure to get them to work. The wooden floor in the aisle had a worn pathway that lead to each stall.

When the Shrine Circus came to Detroit, when possible, I made a special trip to take Chuck to see the show. He welcomed the opportunity to get away from the farm. We made a day of it. After lunch along the way, we bought tickets and found our seats in the coliseum. One of these excursions was extra special.

At the beginning of one show, once the Shrine Color Guard was done with their routine, the grand fanfare began with the introduction of Ringmaster John Herriott, who rode into the arena astride his Appaloosa horse Apache Bandolero. They did a nice passage that commanded the attention of everyone in the arena. John acknowledged the crowd with one arm extended toward them as the horse maintained the slow elevated gait in time with the music. They encircled the three rings all the way around the track.  Once the grand entrance was complete, he dismounted, took the microphone and started the show by introducing the first display. I leaned over and told my friend Chuck that I knew this man.


The entire circus performance was filled with traditional spectacular acts that we both enjoyed, especially the bareback riding act and the performing animals. After the show, we went backstage. I introduced him to John Herriott. I became filled with awe while standing backstage in the midst of these talented men. Another time, I introduced Chuck to circus horse trainer Gaylord Maynard who presented another fine act. The conversation was rare as we discussed nuance that only horsemen with our experience are aware of.

Chuck admired my aspiration to perform and wanted to be my patron with the training of my new gelding, but his partner had a business head and insisted that I provide the customary fee for board and training. So, while Souveran was at his barn, I spent more time pursuing sign work back in Jackson, and less time at the barn than we wanted.

I emerged from my day dream. The light snow continued to fall. With the task of loading hay complete, my summer of sign making in Jackson, painting T-shirts at the county fairs, and helping Gail with her house was over. The time to head to Florida had arrived. With these preparations complete, I savored the boost received over the years at Chuck’s place. From a humble beginning, he encouraged my progress and became a trusted mentor.

I thanked my friend Chuck. He encouraged me with my ambitions again and wished me well on my trip to Florida.

I then loaded the American Saddlebred named Souveran.  Next, the little jet-black mule named Betty walked up the ramp to get in the trailer.

I remain grateful for the all the help received with this horse, I bid adieu to my friend as the snow continued to fall. I climbed into the truck to start driving. The year was 1989.

Downtown Signman

The spring of the year was a time with plenty of sign work to do. The stockbroker downtown wanted a face lift for his building. That project required scaffolding which I rented and stacked onto my truck. When I got to the job-site and onto the sidewalk in front of the building, I erected four sections of scaffolding on top of my truck. That way I could drive back and forth on the sidewalk and reach all the areas that required new paint. This project also led to the neighboring photography store sign and also a gold leaf on glass logo for the entry door of Butterfield’s.

Gold leaf sign work on glass was considered the epitome of the sign trade. With my ambition of becoming the best sign man in all of Jackson, receiving this commission brought me closer to that goal. I was fortunate to have Ken as my mentor who helped me get a grasp on this specialty.

Butterfield_Gold Leaf on Glass

Among the plethora of sign jobs accomplished in Jackson, the auto glass company soon sported a cartoon image of a man holding a windshield on an exterior wall. The tire repair place got a clever design made out of tire shapes.

Still obsessed with producing on many creative fronts, Gail introduced me to another aspect of contemporary life – occasional leisure. After the long cold winter, one beautiful spring day the sky was clear. She wanted to drive up to Eaton Rapids to have a picnic in the park next to the water.

I asked “what will we do?”

She answered, “just relax”

When we got there, the first sunshine of the year warmed us to just the right temperature. We laid on the grass bank that flanked the river. Her lovely hair glowed as she took command of this opportunity for sunshine and quiet. Still unsure of myself during this mysterious ritual, after fidgeting once we were reclined and quiet on the blanket, I had a question;

“Gail,” I asked…, “am I relaxing right?”

She turned to encourage me and revealed a secret smile, “just keep doing what you’re doing.”

By this time, I had built a new improved T-shirt stand to take to the county fairs. Gail, at first, did not understand why I was doing this with all the sign work available and Ken with plenty of work for me to do for him. But that summer, after seeing how much money we made, she understood perfectly. As the professional she was, she stepped up to help me.

Carnival 9

When the time for the Jackson County Fair arrived mid-august, I had an arrangement with Herman Gumpertz for my T-shirt stand to be on the midway. At home Gail had been chewing on a resentment for my obsession with getting ready and had withdrawn. At fair time, she stepped up to be my assistant. She provided me with outstanding service, to resume our spat after the fair was over. That impressed me.

The most admirable characteristic Gail possessed was her dedication to being professional with whatever she was involved with; her demeanor at the Department store, among her fellow thespians at the theater, and with me in my T-shirt booth as my sales persona.  I could always count on her.

Although not immersed in the horse training process as much as when I worked with Vi, when I did get to Chuck’s barn, the one-on-one lessons about the higher levels of horsemanship were intense. Perhaps the most important piece of the advanced horsemanship puzzle I received from Chuck was understanding the importance of forward impulsion. At Grant’s barn, work with the horse progressed rapidly. Winter approached. In true show business fashion, I put the cart before the horse, so to speak.

Through a circus contact, I secured a six-week contract to provide both my horse and mule acts and announce on a circus in Canada the following spring. Now I had a goal. Gail thought this was crazy because I didn’t have the stock doing anything yet. My plan was to spend the winter in Florida. I knew I had the entire winter to train and perfect two routines. 

The final sign job of the year was a twenty-four-foot wooden sign for the face of a shoe store building in Mason.  I installed this with the help of two guys while large snowflakes came down. 

Store Front

The end of December became the perfect time to resume my pattern of making the annual trek to Florida for the winter.  In the warmer climate, I would train my acts and paint signs for nearby showmen and Gail would join me briefly at one point.

Hurricane wanted to ride along with me. I heard his story again about the shrimp boat, plus his explanation about how he wanted to go see how things were going.

 When I had all my loose ends intact, I left Jackson with my rig. My Ford pulled the horse trailer with the VW bus hooked behind.  Hurricane rode shotgun. We headed for Chuck’s.

At Chuck’s the threat of snow made the last task, loading hay on the roof of the horse trailer, necessarily expedient. The rich, nutritious, Michigan variety of sustenance for the horse was better than anything available in Florida. I had the long horse trailer backed up to the giant old barn, with ‘C W Grant’ in big block letters across one gable end. Underneath the sliding door of the loft, high above, the hay was stacked inside.

            Hurricane stood in the doorway. He tossed bales down as I created neat rows on the roof. As I received the bales of hay being tossed down, my mind went into a day dream. I remembered how it all started and what brought me to this place years ago.


Ken Soderbeck always had work for me helping him with the antique fire engine restoration projects underway but my sign business was more lucrative. Spending half of each week at Violet Hopkin’s barn consumed time. In each locale, I stayed busy.

The time away from Gail might have actually helped us both. The dynamic between us resembled a yo-yo. She wanted me at her side yet pushed me away. Relational stresses prompted me away more than once. After one breakup, once we were back together Gail confided that, not knowing where I was, she drove all over town looking. When she saw my van at friend Craig’s she was relieved. She then went home and was able to get some sleep.

At one of my meetings, I met a wiry old skinny man with a worn-out voice. He had the largest plastic coffee mug with a lid I had ever seen. The picture of him dwarfed by this coffee mug still conjures up a smile. He introduced himself as ’Hurricane.’ I soon found out about the appropriateness of this nickname. He could talk and talk and talk. None of what he talked about had much depth, he just liked to talk. He told me about his shrimp boat in the Keys, his CB handle and plenty of stories from road trips. One story was about when he drove nonstop from Florida with a load of fresh shrimp in the back of his Monte Carlo.

He wanted his nick-name painted on the back of this car so the truckers would know who they were talking to on the CB. In Gail’s driveway, I lettered his name in script on the trunk and created a little cartoon of a twister next to it while he watched. When Gail came out to see what was going on, she recognized him. I found out later that his wife had taken care of her grandmother for years. Now both his wife and her grandmother had passed away. He was glad to see Gail but those memories of his wife came back to promote an unresolved grief.    

The routine of half of every week at Vi’s allowed for a perfect segue prior to winter. This became time for a completely different range of tasks than I was used to from my circus days. I hadn’t been north for the winter since high school. The list of duties at Violet’s barn soon became endless when she discovered I had handyman talents.

Vi’s method was to get every aspect of what we were working on at the time absolutely perfect prior to going to the next step of the training process. When I finally became willing to have faith in her strategy, I began to see evidence of its value.

Vi never made an upper-level horse. Due to her thorough nature and the amount of time required, she never made it that high. A third level horse that performed in the upper percentile of test scores was as admirable a feat as she ever achieved. A horse needed a longer lifespan for her to get him proficient with the upper-level abilities.

One day, her head groom took me into the tack room to show me something. She pointed at her saddle. I saw the wear in the seat of Vi’s personal saddle. Two distinct worn places the shape of her seat bones told me her seat was impeccable. From that evidence, I knew her seat always maintained the same position. Vi had achieved perfection with the classic and proper posture in the saddle.

Once I set my sights on becoming just as proficient as she demonstrated and received all she had to teach, I became highly motivated to accomplish the stringent list of requirements she had for my aspiration to become a classic dressage horseman. The length of time invested, and her relentless attention to many miniscule facets of my demeanor with the horse became valuable.

The winter living with Gail required flexibility with my schedule due to the influence of nature that affected my ability to work outdoors. One day I was scheduled to make the drive from Jackson to Tristen Oaks. The sky grayed up and began a gentle spitting of rain as the temperature dropped. The result was a thin coat of ice on virtually everything. The sight of this ice on everything was beautiful. 

I actually attempted to start the trip in the old dodge but after slipping and sliding as I attempted to reach the edge of town, I realized the attempt to make the long trip would be dangerous. I returned to Gail’s and called Vi with the news.

I had to refrain from teaching my horse to bow while at her barn because she frowned on making animals do tricks. I secretly aspired to begin teaching him leg extensions and the passage but in order to remain in harmony with her strict criteria for my guidance, I refrained.

This training exchange lasted for eight months. We started in autumn. Our work progressed through a Michigan winter, emerged in spring and into early summer, during which the gelding named Souveran and I progressed into a harmonious working partnership.

The reason Vi had to cut off our arrangement was because the annual USDF Instructors Clinic was coming up and she needed room. Paying attention to every little detail of the task at hand was clearly the most valuable of the teachings acquired from Vi Hopkins. Paying strict attention and using diligence to apply myself with scrutiny has turned up in all areas of my life.

A New Name

I was responsible for chores at Vi’s barn that included feeding and watering, bringing in the tractor with the manure spreader through the aisles between the stalls for the early morning muck, grooming horses, tending to various aspects of maintenance around the property and sweeping. A micro manager, Vi had a peculiar way of removing only the stained sawdust and manure and stressed the importance of not wasting a single flake of shavings. Every aspect of the tasks I was responsible for had a concise way to be accomplished and she provided clear instructions for me to follow for each procedure.

Not at all eager to use the registered name of my horse; ‘Long Shot Deuces Wild,’ as a moniker, I called him Bud for a while until I found a suitable name. While perusing a German/English Dictionary in Vi’s tack room, I found a word in German that meant extremely good … ‘Souveran.’ Delighted with this find, I set out to find exactly how a German pronounced that word and I began using his new name “Zoo-vel-rain”

With the horse introduced to and responding to the series of verbal and visual postural commands that take place at the lunge, the time finally came to begin ground driving. I still had the bitting rig used in the preliminary work with Sassy, and the long lines. In the arena, once the horse was accurately fitted, he began to respond to bending, holding and driving effects to prepare him for the next stage. With plenty of time working together with my horse, Vi noticed areas of my understanding that required more of her tutelage.

One particularly valuable lesson took place in the tack room while I held the bit in front of my face. Vi, behind me, held the reins. She signaled and clucked the way I did.  I began to empathize with the signal coming from the rider’s hands and the horse received this information. My attitudes had been misdirected. The result of this session was that I became a finesseful communicator with my horse.

The ground driving took three months, during which the horse responded nicely to the aids at all three gaits; walk, trot, canter. Finally, my horse was ready to begin work under saddle. Not being in any hurry, I learned the importance of having a strong foundation of remaining calm at the walk. I later realized the value of this strategy.

I thought Vi’s slow and thorough manner of going about every facet of the training process approached being silly but looking back I see how effective and memorable the long-drawn-out experience is for the horse. With the slow introduction of everything that lead up to carrying weight on his back, there was no surprise at any point. The animal willingly accepted each new request and as an additional positive result, also learned a good work ethic.

My mentor had a background as a teacher and had been imprinted with an interest in teaching horsemanship as the result of attending the circus where she saw the Konyot family perform on their horses. Soon thereafter, she began to study under Arthur Konyot, the patriarch of the family. Although she learned from circus performers, she made me promise I would never use this horse for circus-style performing. I modified my goal while in her presence to become proficient at contemporary dressage and all aspects of trot work under saddle, bending the horse around the circle, two tracks down the straight line; Travers, or shoulder-in, and Renvers, haunches-in, halt and back up were all perfected under her watchful eye.   

About two months into our exchange, I became aware of having a chip on my shoulder in regard to resisting her long, tedious manner of teaching. The thought occurred to me that this was silly. I was investing time to be in her proximity while I resisted and was mentally belligerent. So, I lifted the dynamic, whatever it was, up to God. I even admitted these faults to Vi. I then entered into what became a close relationship with her. Soon thereafter, we became good friends.

The Big Sorrell

The Big Sorrell

“The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today”

H. Jackson Brown Jr.

The Making of a Horse

The shrill, vibrato equine voice conveyed terror and filled the barn. I stood in the sawdust and peered through the stall door at my young horse. Moments before, I led him inside. For a full year I had been seeking a five-year-old who never had any hands on it, or one yet untrained. An ideal animal was somewhat mature yet hadn’t accumulated bad habits learned from man.

My quest yielded a 16.2 hand chestnut gelding who had never been away from his mother. That was until today. Now I got a taste of his severe withdrawals.

Combined with the horror of having been hauled to a strange place and being locked into a 14×14 wooden stall, he was far from everything he was familiar with. His frantic pacing and gyrations in the stall were occasionally interrupted with additional shrill yells that took every ounce of participation from his 1200-pound frame.

Beauty was evident as I studied the physical makeup of this majestic horse. I admired the muscles that layered in ways that sculpt a being who truly is the wind manifest. My contemplation was interrupted yet again by the magnitude of his decibels. And as I observed the extent of thrust behind the yell, I saw the rhythms that supplied the sound extend all the way to his hind feet raised up on tip toes, vibrating and forcing with the same rhythm his loud expression of terror.

Soon, his demeanor included another action; he began rearing up, as if to find a way to escape over the walls. This tall horse had a neck like a giraffe and could easily reach all the extremities of the confining space. The over-head trusses that support the roof, with their characteristic geometric voids left by the gussets and support beams created concern. I watched this young horse repeatedly stand to the full extent of his stature and thread his head and neck through the triangular shapes overhead and in the nick of time, withdraw back again and return to all fours.

Souveran_training 3

As this behavior repeated amidst the sounds of terror, my thought became “Oh God, let him break his neck now rather than after I have fallen in love with him.”

I reviewed the story that preceded this scene: a miracle in many ways.

Friend Chuck Grant told me about an opportunity to work with Violet Hopkins, the riding instructor who originated the USDF Instructors Clinic in nearby Union Lake. I met with this elderly dynamo and found the first missing piece of my puzzle; she needed help around the farm and was willing to exchange board for the horse and instruction for me for my labor. She also recognized my need to thrive and agreed to an exchange for half a week at a time. This gave me time to continue sign painting in Jackson.

I loaded this horse in Reading and hauled him to Tristen Oaks. At the end of the trip, I found the canopy road that lead to the driveway of a tightly manicured place with several level and accurately delineated grass riding fields and fenced paddocks that flanked the barn complex. I unloaded the 16.2 hand gelding at Violet’s adequate facility and that led to the scene at the beginning of this story. I discovered early the next morning that my horse settled down.

Tristan Oaks had sturdy stalls with barred doors that roll efficiently open and closed. The aisles are concrete and the wash area and cross-tie area adjacent to the tack room had every possible convenience for horse maintenance during both winter and summer. Inside the tack room was a large picture window that looked out onto the large indoor arena connected to the barn complex. With this horse and me as players, the stage was set for an interesting process to begin.

With Vi’s guidance, the training process began with hand-walking, grooming, and later with lessons in lunging the horse, both on a tether, called a lunge-line, and at liberty or completely loose. Vi Stressed a foundation of calmness at the walk. Many exhausting processes followed as I learned to adhere to the philosophy of training that Vi was in my life to teach.

Although already experienced with many unique aspects of performing horse disciplines, Vi first taught me to see while lunging the horse. My mission became to observe every aspect of the horse in motion; compare both foot-falls and the regularity of rhythm along the top line to make sure the horse was supple and free.

Extensive work at the lunge with her relentless demand for me to see yet another miniscule aspect of the exterior of the moving horse accomplished two things; I began to keep looking farther than the casual observation I was accustomed to and satisfied with, and I began to develop resentment for her particular demeanor during our sessions.

The rhythm of being at Tristan Oaks for a half a week and back at Gail’s home in Jackson to pursue sign work became established. As the autumn season yielded to winter, this routine provided income, hope and my horse made progress.

The time away from Jackson actually helped Gail and I with our relationship. Stepping away allowed us to see more to appreciate in each other and allowed a longing to steep.

The spiritual path of Alcoholics Anonymous promoted my being intentional in my relationship with Gail. I used integrity as I applied myself to promote affection, regard and love. I found the love of my life and intended to apply regard to lift what we had found to promote an even higher level of union.

The fall of the year was a wonderful time in Michigan. Bright orange and yellow leaves filled the trees. Gail and I enjoyed a social function that combined sights of autumn splendor with the smells and the taste of hot spiced apple cider.

Gail was impressed by the wardrobe created for my circus performing ambitions. We had a church function to attend with the option to come in costume. Our first Halloween together we dressed up as circus performers. I wore one of my outfits and she combined accessories from her massive collection, took one of my other jackets, temporarily tucked in the excess with pins to modify it in a special way she did every time her hand touched something.

dave_Gayle 3

Prior to our party, we stopped in to show off to Ken. We made quite a sight.  He took our picture. That photograph of our special time together remains a cherished memento. I kept discovering more and more about this woman I loved.

One day in autumn, Gail withdrew. Whenever I entered the house, the usual exchange was not there. I wondered what to do.  I offered comfort but she turned away. Several days went by without a word.

Finally, and suddenly, she opened up from her stance in the kitchen, “I found some old gingham at the consignment store that will be perfect for the sister-in-law in the play. Will you get some grass seed for the bare place on the terrace out front?”

“Ken has work for you out at the shop,” she reminded me.” I love the cool air at night and the crickets chirping.”

Her posture stiffened as she turned toward me, “I am actually infuriated with the treatment coming from retail management into the art department at work – Mister Keating just laughs it off but I know he is hurt.”

I remained attentive and glad to hear her voice.

“The phone just keeps ringing and ringing. It rang this afternoon and Craig wants another Coney Island sign. My schedule is filling up and I don’t want to hear about you missing another opportunity because I wasn’t here to answer the phone. I want you to think about me every once in a while, instead of always rushing out the door to accomplish something for others. I get tired of being left out and I just want to get the feeling that I belong.”

I tried to keep up with her, but the information did not appear to have any logical sequence. I found her difficult to understand as this fusion poured forth. I wanted to do the right thing, but I was getting frustrated.

“For once can you be early and ask me how I am?  Can we talk the way you talk to your AA friends? Just forget about those guys and be with me. I don’t want to be humiliated in front of the whole class anymore – I get tired of the belittling from all the rest.”

She slapped the counter with the flat of her hand, “you don’t care about how I feel – you just want to get what you want and to hell with everything else. I’m sick of it.”

I was stunned, “all you do is just sit there and glower at me. Well stay silent you son of a bitch.”

During this great purge, a feeling came up from the center of my gut and grabbed me by the back of my throat. In that spike of emotional intensity, I could relate to how a man could punch a woman. That feeling scared me. I rose and did an about-face. Without a word, I left the house and started walking down the sidewalk.

As some calm sensibility began to replace the shock, I looked at my watch and realized I could go to a meeting. I kept walking toward town. The quiet time in the midst of my fellows and getting to talk this over with my sponsor soothed my confused mind. I was learning more about this woman I love. I was being introduced to an aspect of a woman damaged in childhood by abandonment. 

I learned later how trauma affected the development of the personality of the child. These discoveries did not make me love her any less. I returned to her that evening and sought to provide what comfort I could.

I learned as the months went by that this verbal eruption coincided with a monthly biological rhythm. Understanding this source gave me access to an altruistic confidence. I became able to be with her when she purged verbally to simply listen and radiate love. When the eruption was over, I embraced her.

               “Thank you for getting that out,” I soothed, “I would not want that to stay inside.”

My regard for this wonderful woman accompanied me mid-week as I made my way back to Tristan Oaks.

There Are No Small Miracles

Life with Gail was a creative time on many fronts and our love grew. I found connection in Jackson using integrity as I pursued my contemporary role in the community.

As our lives merged, I found out more about the woman I love. An episode during her childhood had significant impact. One day in grade school, the teacher announced to the class that she read in the newspaper that Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson were getting a divorce. Gail was shocked. Nobody told her. Her parents hadn’t confided something this important to their own kids.

Finding this out in front of her peers had a shaming and shattering relational effect. It set up an inability to trust others, especially men, and drove a wedge between her and her father. I didn’t know it, but this event influenced a relational style that had manifested itself into a series of broken relationships.

At the threshold of this new manner of living my life, I entered into providing what I could to this loving exchange by applying the recently acquired spiritual principles. We had the blessings of her stepfather and her sister. We entered into true love.

Immersed in the fellowship of AA, we found additional ways to enrich our lives through a special relationship. A man who encouraged me to meditate, taught me relationship skills and loving responses to the usual bumps in the road.

With the guidance of my sponsor, plus his wife, an avid Alanon who influenced Gail, our love began to expand. We began to build a relationship on a foundation of spiritual principles. Immersed in a permanent contemporary lifestyle, I began to expand my role in the community. I sought to develop all areas of my life – business, connection with community, and family.

I sought God’s will. I had no idea, or knew how, this prerequisite would impact my life. Things came into perfect alignment for me. Several dynamics moved to shape my future. A miracle was in the works.

During another visit to see my friend Clarence, I received a message to contact Chuck Grant. Chuck had some news. During a conversation with his colleagues in the dressage world, he found out about an opportunity that existed at the barn of Vi Hopkins. Violet was best known as the pioneer who wanted all the dressage instructors on the same page, so to speak, to promote a standard for teaching. Violet started the USDF Instructors clinic and hosted it at her farm each year. She needed help with the chores around the farm and the situation came with riding lessons and horse training. Although I recognized a tremendous opportunity, not having a horse frustrated my ability to take advantage of it.

My saddlebred horse friends in Fowlerville had gotten the word out in their conversations with colleagues out about a guy who had lost the saddlebred he made into a circus dancing horse. A couple in Reading, Michigan, who raised saddlebred horses had been in an automobile accident. The husband figured that when he got his broken leg out of the brace, he would resume training the colts. A few years had gone by and his leg was still in a brace and the colts were getting older. He finally started selling horses.

He kept his two favorite mares and his favorite colt; a 16.2 hand sorrel gelding who was five years old. The colt had never had any training. He was still out on pasture with his mother.

Through my friends, he heard about what I had accomplished with my last horse. He liked what had been achieved. He had empathy for the tragedy that interrupted my career and recognized an opportunity. He wanted me to have his favorite horse. He contacted me.

At that time, I was getting my meager finances back in order.  When I received word about this horse, I had to be prudent and reluctant due to my situation. I did not have the resources to pay what this horse was worth.  Still, this man wanted me to have this horse.

He encouraged me to come look at him and when I did, to make it work, he made this tall, flashy horse a gift. I became overwhelmed with gratitude. I immediately recognized that the door to a unique opportunity had opened. My ambitions with classic horsemanship were not over. This opportunity opened up a whole new world. I now had everything I needed to take advantage of the opportunity at Violet’s barn.

The process of training a horse to the highest level – a High School horse – starting at the beginning, using basic concepts would reveal a vast, time- honored artform. Starting with Vi, the coming years provided an impressive series of top-shelf horsemanship mentors who took me under their wing. There would be times I doubted my sanity for taking on the daunting project of making a high school horse from the ground up.

At Tristan Oaks, with the watchful eye of a perfectionist guiding me, the long arduous process combined time, specific technique and hard work. As I attempted to accomplish the peculiar demands of this particular woman, I wondered if I would ever realize success. But just as anyone in the miracle business knows; more would be revealed.


“How’d it Go?”

 How’d what go?  Doesn’t this guy know I’m busy?  My eyebrows formed a quizzical stance as I frantically searched recent memory for whatever it was he was asking about.

I pulled open the heavy aluminum and glass door and entered the A.A. clubhouse and left the bright sunshine behind me. I can’t see anything. With eyes yet unadjusted to the dimness, I squinted as I negotiated the irregular slope of the foundation.

The original architecture of this building had settled over the years into an outcast dwelling that shared many of the features of a fun house. Stupid floor. The once red carpet was shiny with the dirt that a decade of shuffling feet brought through the door. My mind was a centrifuge still reeling from the day’s activities.

            My work day was over and I was barely on time for the meeting.  With a good work ethic, I squeezed in another task before leaving the job site to come here.  My lettering and striping brushes had been carefully cleaned and put away, along with the ladders, paints and paper patterns designed for the current project I was involved in as a sign painter in the city of Jackson, Michigan.

            As I moved through the faded interior, I found a rusty chrome and wooden chair with worn upholstery. I was glad to see my sponsor and pulled the chair out from underneath the warped and worn table. I glanced at Ralph.  He beamed.  His smile was mostly a stained ivory color with some tell-tale metal clips that hugged braided bicuspids. 

        Unconcerned about his less than perfect dental work, Ralph smiled all the time. He greeted everyone with a laugh as they entered our midst. His hands explored the contours of his bald head in a nervous manner every time he interacted with jocularity with one of his many friends. Heavy active eyebrows rapidly provided expression to a face that although wrinkled with wear, now radiated the love he was filled with.

            Ralph was at peace and dedicated to uplifting others.  When I first witnessed the energy radiated by this man I found myself attracted to his love.

            In a way, his voluminous and boisterous manner accompanied by constant laughing appeared grotesque at first. Yet he clearly didn’t care what others thought as he expressed the joy in his heart. He gently patted me on the shoulder as I sat down. 

Ralph then asked me again “How’d it go?”

With an impish grin and a relentless stare, Ralph awaited my response.

            My mind reeled with thoughts that lingered from the demands of my work. My aspiration was to be the best contemporary sign man in the hometown I adopted two years ago. The demands of my clients, rigors of the process and the creative discipline was relentless. Even now, in a peaceful haven, I was distracted.

            While I thought about the supplies I would need for tomorrows tasks and pondered the design possibilities that awaited a few jobs out, I wondered again about Ralph’s request. 

What was Ralph referring to?

            He saw the quizzical expression on my face and laughed.  As I sat next to him I painstakingly made a mental review of the possibilities he could be referring to.

            Finally, the laughing subsided and he asked, “How are you doing with your meditation?”

Oh, a light went on.

 A few days ago, in the role of my sponsor and advisor, Ralph made a recommendation that would assist me on my spiritual path.  He wanted me to meditate as suggested in the eleventh step.  “Sought through prayer and meditation to….”

But I didn’t know what that word meant much less how to go about this mysterious procedure.

            Ralph promised that meditation would open a door that would expand my relationship with my higher power. My curiosity piqued, I asked him how and he offered the manner in which he learned to meditate years ago.  His demeanor shifted and he became serious as he offered these instructions. He suggested that I set aside a quiet time in the evening to sit with my feet flat on the floor and close my eyes and just be as mentally still as possible. He went on to add encouragement and reflection on how the inclusion of regular meditation had positively affected his life.  Then he paused dramatically and laughed again. I went away from that meeting filled with enthusiasm and every intention of accomplishing this new to me, spiritual objective.

As I sat next to Ralph, I remembered the experience I had. As I reviewed, I remembered that I had started just as he suggested. Yet, I hadn’t remained sitting still for long.  My active mind started to not only visualize the next day’s duties as a sign man but to formulate design ideas, a list of supplies and reference materials I would need for the upcoming tasks.

With so much to get ready, I jumped up out of my seat and began to jot things down, gather up the stuff on my list and put it in a box situated next to the door. While I was at it, I thought, it would also be a good idea to pay a couple of bills and write correspondence to respond to a recent query for other work.

            The evening turned into a flurry of activity and finally at bedtime, I accomplished one more task before a quick prayer and off to sleep, eager for the new day.

            As I recalled this behavior and described it to Ralph, He laughed the whole time.  When I finished the story, I felt somewhat ashamed.

He beamed, “that’s normal.”

I was stunned. He recognized my dilemma and went on to explain about the voices in my head that came up with all the activities to do instead of allowing me to remain still and meditate. He taught me that only through becoming able to mentally move past the racket going on in my head and by remaining steadfast and seated quietly would I develop the ability to quiet my mind and be still with God.

Ralph’s gentle encouragement echoed in my mind. I went away from the meeting that day with a new-found determination to continue on my quest.

            I had adopted the policy of being self-sufficient as a child. Through discovering the ease and ability to do just about anything I desired, skills came easily to me.  This additional exercise in mental discipline, I was sure, would be just one more skill to add to my repertoire.

            Several attempts to do as Ralph instructed followed the next few days. I caught myself springing up out of the chair to fetch a roll of pattern paper or a yard stick in my effort to prepare myself for the following day’s duties a couple of times.  During each incident, I recalled Ralph laughing at me and returned to my seat even more determined to sit still.

            I met with my sponsor several evenings each week.  Ralph taught me the way to a healthy happy mind, to find things to be grateful for and introduced me to my higher power.  During these regular get-togethers, I reported progress with my attempt to be still and asked questions about what to expect.  He mostly just laughed and continued to gently provide encouragement.

            One evening session was pivotal. As I sat and noticed all the mental activity going on, plenty of thoughts were rational for jumping up and out of the chair and becoming active retrieving materials and organizing the next work day. With each attempt at being still and noticing these temptations, I became more determined to sit still.  As I sat with my feet planted firmly on the floor, I refused to respond to the mental ideas that wanted me elsewhere.  I was inundated with luring thoughts but I held steadfast.  The experience was quite unnerving as I monitored my thoughts and attempted one at a time to ignore them.

            Whenever I noticed a thought pattern going on in my head, another voice would sound; “hey, there’s another pattern of thinking.

Then I had to discard that thought and wait for the other voices to quiet down again.

            Eventually I made progress with ignoring my thoughts and they gradually began to decline. When I noticed the change in my mental status another voice piped up; “hey, the chatter is beginning to subside…” Then the noise started all over again. 

I slowly learned to let my mind quiet down and not notice.  With each session, I became better at allowing a void in my brain to occur and grow.

            Ralph continued to display interest in how I was doing. After each evening meeting, we went outside and found a quiet bench. In solitude I would describe my progress to him.  He laughed and laughed.

            One evening I arrived early, excited to report an interesting occurrence.  During my attempt at meditation the night before I had managed to quiet down all the voices but this time I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before.  Once the chatter quieted down, a faint ringing began.  I concentrated on listening to the ringing without mentally noticing it as to avoid the chatter that would drown it out. As my attention stayed on this new discovery the tone became louder. In the midst of this faint sound, made prominent by the elimination of all the others, I found a simple peace. I now had a familiar destination to go to each time I meditated.  With each additional attempt, I slowly became proficient at finding this refuge.  Ralph reflected my excitement with the glow in his eyes as he slapped his knees and laughed.

            Ralph encouraged me to lengthen this exercise a few minutes each time. I was now comfortably patient with this process for ten to fifteen minutes.  One session changed my experience for good. I quietly calmed everything down and became at peace with the ringing sound. As I sat and succeeded with my attention on the Holy tone, an emotion began to sweep over my entire body.  The sensation was quite subtle at first but in the quiet I noticed this feeling started to grow. Starting in my gut and rising through my chest was an energy I had never felt the sensation of before.

            I sat still.  The feeling was a blend of fear, apprehension and a comfortable energy that harmonized with the peace I enjoyed.  The emotion gradually became more intense. But now, adequately trained, I remained still and stayed with this new presence. I began to weep.  I wept tears of joy for several minutes. As I came down from the experience, there existed no questions, no need for explanation or intellectualization about what had happened.  I was filled with acceptance.  It just is.  That night I had no trouble falling off to sleep.

            The next day when I told Ralph about this experience he laughed with joy. He later explained to me that the feeling I experienced was a normal fear mixed with a few other emotions that were all a logical part of my entering new territory. I had never been in the presence of God before and to experience fearful feelings was quite normal. Since that time, I have not experienced the magnitude of that initial sensation again, because now each time I meditate I return to a familiar place.

            Now I sit comfortably during the evening and gaze at another perfect glowing sunset. My mind relaxes as it ignores the chatter and the guilt for not preparing or producing something. While my consciousness lets go of the chatter that wants me busy, I slip into the familiar peace that is now a regular part of my life. I find love, gratitude and wonder for all that God has graced me with.  I become filled with a peace that surpasses all understanding. I think again about Ralph and his sincere regard for me and the gentle way he introduced meditation to my life. To honor this loving, caring, transformed man, I gratefully start laughing. 

Lettering Race Cars

Lettering Race Cars

We love our cars. The power, speed, sound and thrill that accompanies the utilitarian part of our lives revels in the delight of freedom and independence. We love the sight of a beautiful automobile. The shiny sculpted designs imply speed, opulence and comfort, even when they stand still. These wheeled machines are often altered to suit specific needs. Intensifying the power is a constant for those in search of the holy grail of speed. As the sport of automobile racing became available to the masses, backyard garages cranked out a relentless stream of cars that could really scoot.

The task of lettering race cars was one of the interesting facets of my sign painting career.  Typically, home built street racers, round and round cars and dragsters of all types populated the Michigan suburbs where I plied my trade.  The backyard garage was a gathering place for the similarly obsessed and four-wheeled projects became a focal point for these aficionados of speed.

I usually met these prideful owners at either a restaurant or near where I worked on an outdoor sign.

“Hey,” my line of thinking was interrupted as I looked up from my meal.

“Is that your painted-up van out there?”

I gave him an affirmative nod.

“I have a dragster to letter” my admirer offered, “can you come over to paint it?”


       The invitation to decorate a car would be accompanied by directions to get to the waiting metal canvas.  Upon arrival, I followed him into the garage. After I negotiated my way through piles of miscellaneous auto parts, toolboxes, stacks of lubricants, creepers and various hoses and cables, I carefully considered the meticulously assembled four-wheeled apparatus that sat in the middle of the chaos as I listened to my customer’s request.

       Once I visualized a plan, I began a pencil sketch of my idea.  A rough outline depicted the available space on the car.  On this drawing, essential elements of the design were arranged. I utilized an artistic manner that would imply speed and domination.  After approval of my design, the painting process began. All areas to receive lettering and design paint were cleaned and made ready. Paper patterns were prepared to facilitate duplicate renderings on each side of the car. The remaining elements were drawn lightly with a special pencil and the layout was complete. I was ready to paint.

The tedious application of lettering enamel took place with special brushes, one stroke at a time.  With each stroke, the customer’s satisfaction grew along with the visual improvement to the appearance of the car.


       The labored process continued until finally, emblazed with color, completion arrived.  Inevitably the customer, whose pride was piqued, and in an effort to reward me for my troubles, made an offer:

            “Hey, want to hear it run?”

           Predicting an uncomfortable decibel level in the narrow confines of the garage, I frantically responded, “NO, that’s okay, you don’t have to do that!”

My statement was lost.

He reached for the ignition key and replied, “it’s no trouble.”

          In one moment, the tranquil setting where the careful artwork had taken place was transformed into a loud noxious environment with an ungodly decibel level.  The noise resembled a dark, hideous monster.  I vividly imagined a beast with a gastronomic rumbling on an irregular cadence.  In an effort to warm the fiend up and get it to hit on all licks, my host reached into the engine compartment to skillfully manipulate linkage immediately followed by a furious, fuel-consuming scream.

      This stimulus, although damaging to the auditory senses, usually stimulated mental recollections of all the components that went into the engine. My host immediately felt the need to yell all this information at the top of his lungs.  I was bombarded with information about the cam specifications, the particular carburetor and crankshaft put in the engine along with additional specs of innumerable features he apparently thought I was interested in.

           As I think back, I remember my reluctance. I may have been partially concerned with being polite as the reason for not running out of that confined space with all that noxious intensity driving up my adrenaline level.  Or maybe on some other level, I too had a deep admiration for this beautiful car with massive quantities of horsepower. I secretly felt lucky to be intimate and up close with this incredible race car.

Going Home

The move to Carbondale occurred at a time when I was ready for change and had momentum in my quest for recovery. The devastation of recent experience made me willing to go to any length. In Carbondale, I attended meetings regularly, yet a defiant, demand-resistant stance remained.

The guru of the community, a man called Rocky, had a unique deviation with the format of the program. Although small, his deviation promoted a resistant feeling in me that short-circuited my flow of gratitude. I remained secretly agitated at what I perceived to be his intentional infliction. My secret angry attitude short-circuited my healing Thankfully, a gradual change began. I mustered up courage and began to share. As a participating member of the group, I began to share internal thoughts. I began to share about feeling valued less than others, being bombarded by an inner critic who was never satisfied and how impossible it would ever be to measure up.  In the emotional eruption that followed, I even shared thinking I would be better off dead. This intimacy provided a connectedness plus I became an example to the newcomer. Over time, the group became familiar with me and this issue, and I began to feel safe.

In group discussion, I revealed my predicament – I chose being on the road with no roots. My ambition was interrupted by my self-inflicted calamity. These were foreign concepts to these non-showmen.  The helpful ideas received were from people who lived in community, a vastly different lifestyle than the one I chose as a teen. Nevertheless, they suggested several workable suggestions. Out of the blue, I heard an idea from one innocent member that made me start to weep.

 “Why don’t you just go home?”

A floodgate of emotion opened. Years of dammed up feelings about the frustrating situation I grew up in that made me discard home and family, perceptions of a cruel world I found out on the road and how it  became necessary for me to fix things myself flowed out. I wept.

 “I don’t have a home.”

“If you had a home, where would you want it to be?”

This concept interrupted the grief and started a new cycle of thinking. I had been to hundreds of towns during my wandering career. I began to realize that I enjoyed one place more than all the rest – Clarklake, Michigan. This realization gave me hope and a starting place.These thoughts began to sooth me.

 I recalled a conversation that had occurred years ago at the back door of Kelly Imports, where I gathered with the mechanics after work to imbibe in amber beverages. This had been our tradition since meeting them in the seventies. As the years went by, one at a time, they quit drinking. We still gathered at the end of our workday to unwind, but I was the only one with a beer. During a lull in our conversation, Kelly had something to say.

“If a man came to me and asked me for my help,” he began, “and he was still drinking, I believe I would tell him to go get off that stuff and then come and ask me for my help.”

At the time, his announcement had no meaning for me. Now, immersed in what I was fully present to as my self-inflicted quandary, I understood his intention. I got the message. I saw hope. I wrote him a letter. Here is a synopsis;

Dear Kelly,

I am now a sober member of AA with the ambition of becoming the best sign painter in Jackson, Michigan, and need a place to land.

Sincerely, Dave

I received a response from him that said; you will be welcome to set up your sign business in the back of my shop.

For the first time since turning my back on my home as a teenager, I had a place to call home.

On a quiet afternoon, I got together with one of the men of the fellowship and entered into the purge process that promised healing. This was a scary proposition. Revealing the grosser behaviors of my past could promote shame, but my understanding host pointed out that if the deed had a name, probably others had done it too. As I shared the hatred I had for my brother and the odd behavior he produced as a child, the resentment for being cornholed as a youngster, the anger for the treatment from Frank the carnival owner and the cruelty from bullies as a child that made me withdraw from others, my host simply listened while calm and accepting. When I was through, he shared some of his story with me. He repeated many similar episodes.  I discovered I not unique.

After this purge this man accepted me regardless of my disclosure. He demonstrated unconditional love.  As I listened, he explained what we had gone through. Others suffered from perceptions of the world tainted by cruel behavior from others. There were other victims of selfish agendas who experienced rejection for being who I am. For the first time, found a commonality with others. I felt release from this stronghold in my heart that had kept me separate. As my heart softened to include others on a similar plight, I also noticed an emerging feeling of the presence of a loving God. I savored my new connection.  With this epiphany, a chapter of my life arrived at a logical conclusion. I was part of the herd, a man who could lift his head and walk confidently in union with my newly found higher power. I could use my talents, the love in my heart and this discovery to bless my surroundings.  The time came to travel ‘home.’

thumbnail_Beach Bar

I took the rig with Betty the mule and the merry-go-round horse to Michigan. In Clarklake, Betty enjoyed the summer on pasture and Tom Collins let me park the rig behind the Beach Bar where the campground used to be. I missed my friend Hayes, who had passed away a year earlier. I then became reacquainted with the countryside and the people in this state I loved.

My daily commute into Jackson included stopping in to see Ken Soderbeck, Clarence Hastings and the other businessmen I had met over the years. I set up a simple easel in the back of Kelly Imports and got to work. A little at a time, I found work to do, trucks to letter, signs to design and paint, and store fronts to embellish.

Every day at noon, I walked from Kelly Imports two blocks to Michigan avenue downtown, to the side door on the Economy Art Supply store and went upstairs. A small AA meeting took place in one of the empty rooms on the second floor. Ruth, an elderly black lady was usually in charge. I also met Larry who became and remains to this day, a great friend.

The recovery process resumed around my new friends and gathered momentum. After being ‘home’ for a few months, my one-year sobriety birthday arrived. Ruth asked me what kind of cake I wanted.

“I want a chocolate cake with chocolate icing,” I blurted out.

Then I thought of something else, “with chocolate sprinkles on top.”

On the sixth of June 1988 at the noon meeting, we had my birthday party after the meeting.

Participating every day with the like-minded folks of this fellowship slowly influenced a new way of thinking and revealed a new design for living as I assumed my permanent role in this community.

Staying put for the first time in my life provided the stability needed for the process of recovery to become firmly established and bring about real change, something that did not exist in the whirlwind life of a showman. As the process brought about healing, instinctual parts of me that had been denied due to my consumption, now came to the surface. As I found alignment with the contemporary way of living my life, and the spiritual manner of thinking – as accumulated due to my relationship with AA – I had a welcome surprise. The circus was coming to town.

Two months into my role as sign man in Jackson, the indoor Nordmark Brothers Circus came to perform two shows in the theatre downtown two blocks from Kelly Imports. On the morning of their arrival, I went to see who was on the show and discovered my friend Joanne Wilson with her baby elephant. Our conversation picked up right where we left off the last time I saw her. For the first time since the compulsion to drink had been lifted, I had an audience with someone wise about the ways of the road. From this relatedness, affection grew. She also had an issue with the cube-van the elephant rode in.

“Hey Dave,” she asked, “Do you know a mechanic?

I contacted Kelly to see if he could help her out. Soon we had her elephant truck in one of his service bays.

Working on the issue underneath her truck was a challenge for the mechanic, as the baby elephant kept swaying. She caused the truck to move back and forth while he worked. The underneath also dripped the entire time. At one point the little elephant had to relieve herself. The mechanic then had to deal with both working underneath and finding the right place to avoid the deluge. While the elephant was at the garage, I had an idea.

Inspired, I had a vision of a photograph opportunity. When Joanne’s truck was fixed, I told her my idea. She then unloaded the elephant while I assembled the mechanics for a photograph. I rolled the Snap-On diagnostic machine over for effect and had Rick climb up on top of the elephant. I took a group photo of the elephant with the crew that day. Later I made a framed sign with the Kelly Imports logo over the top with the slogan ‘we work on most imports’ underneath.

Back at the theatre while I interacted with my friend, I discovered she was no longer married. Now my overactive imagination started percolating. My instinctual desire combined with our already relating on many levels due to our common vocation. I began to entertain a romantic notion.

The thought of love had occurred to me many times while on the circus but due to this life of going up and down the road, love eluded me. This part of normal life was made difficult by the touring lifestyle of the circus. Seeing Joanne’s radiant smile and being reunited with the reality of her charm and ability as an all-around circus girl, sparked an internal desire that had lain dormant for all these years.

When circus day was over in Jackson, Joanne went to the next town. I arranged to have a bouquet of roses delivered backstage at her next town. She later reported having fun since the roses aroused curiosity and envy from the rest of her troupe.

Romance was difficult. Especially now.  I was planted in a town and my romantic interest was a touring circus star. I was grateful for being reunited with my special friend. This special interlude awakened part of me. I would see Joanne occasionally over the years, but for now all we could do was stay in touch, dream about tomorrow and attend to our different individual lives.

Among the painting projects that kept me busy around town was one I entered with gusto – a shop sign for myself. My intention was to showcase all my talents with this one special piece. I designed a 4×6 panel to include the recent painting specialties learned – dimensional scrollwork, a marbleized background featuring a central Merry-Go-Round horse image accompanied by incised letters with the name ‘Letterfly Sign works.’ When complete and mounted on the face of the Kelly Imports building, my new sign caught the attention of Herman Gumpertz the fair manager.

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The next thing I knew, I was on the fairgrounds freshening up all the pavilion signs as I helped him get ready for the fair. I included my Merry-Go-Round horse in the homespun display section of one of the exhibit buildings. Herman also thought having a large spectacular painting underway during the fair would be another attraction for the patrons to enjoy. So, we put our heads together and designed something big to go on the end of the grandstand, fifty feet up.

Every day of the fair, I ascended scaffolding and began my task of painting the large depiction that stated ‘Jackson County Fair’ completely surrounded with flowers. The weather proved cooperative although the temperature reached into the nineties. I was in the direct sun all day with the exception of when I walked downtown to the noon meeting. A friend at the meeting made an observation three days into the project that proved revealing.

“You look tired,” Larry observed.

He introduced me to something new. I had never directed the focus of my attention on myself. My mind was always consumed with the project at hand – idea percolating, composition planning, layout delineating, and painting. Larry was a good friend. He introduced me to paying attention to my body to notice what it was telling me. As I zeroed in on this new responsibility, I began to monitor my body and provide myself rest and nutrition as needed. I became proactive with my health.

Ken Soderbeck enjoyed my ambitions in town and invited me to attend a civic group luncheon at the nearby Elks Club. He had the idea that I would make a good companion for his step-daughter – Jana’s sister – Gail. He knew she was grieving due to the recent end of a relationship and made sure she would be attending the luncheon too.

On that special day, I found my way into a large group of people enjoying lunch. I sat at the table across from a tall, dark haired, somewhat reserved, beautiful lady. I recognized the physical similarities of my friend, her sister. Her lovely almond-shaped face was framed with long, straight hair that cascaded down past her neck. She radiated an ambiance that aroused my curiosity.

As she warmed up to my presence, she began to reveal a pseudo, exotic air of mystique. I found out she enjoyed many creative connections with the community.  She dressed display windows at the main department store downtown called Jacobson’s. Also involved with civic theater, she was directing a play with rehearsals most evenings. As I accumulated more information about this wonderful, creative soul, I began to appreciate Ken’s plan for me to meet her. As lunchtime wound down, I asked if I could call on her at the store. She perked up, seemed to glow and responded “yes.”

Soon after, I met her downtown. She worked three blocks from me. Gail introduced me to her world. At Jacobson’s she decorated each display window with an apropos setting, chic accompaniments and the latest fashions.  She showed me one window in particular. Her latest arrangement of the new fall fashions included a faux brick wall with a chalk graffiti heart on it with our initials GJ+DK on it. My heart flutter-pated a beat.

Not unlike an entire city, the department store is a whole entity unto itself. Inside Jacobson’s a whole culture existed, with make-up experts, fashionistas, clerks, art directors, marketing experts, and the support staff that augment a large company infrastructure for a large operation such as this. This complicated layering of egos and personal agendas in the chain of command provided me just a glimpse of corporate insanity, although since I was on the outside looking in, none of it impacted me.

I began to meet Gail for breakfast at Jacobson’s regularly.

“Good morning mister Keating,” Gail began, “will you be having those little round white potatoes?”

“Oh,” he dreamily pondered for maximum effect, “those little white potatoes?

“I think I shall,” he finally responded, “after all, they are quite heavenly.”

  While there, I watched Mr. Keating, her art director, break a plate in the restaurant each morning by tapping the edge repeatedly with his knife. I learned he did this every day. This act of creative destruction I never understood.

“Why do you call him mister?” I wondered.

“I use it as a display of respect,” Gail offered.

She enjoyed the hierarchy protocol in place at this interesting social blend.

Gail was also immersed in the theatre. She had a collection of vintage clothing utilized during her dramatic contributions. One evening, I attended the play she directed, called ‘Pizza Man.’ While I watched the production, and afterwards, mixed with the actors and crew, I became aware that her talents, observations, insights and encouragements were easily transferred to others, this reflected her regard for lifting others to greatness.

While meeting Gail throughout our work week, we responded to each other favorably. I received an invitation; “will you please house-sit this weekend while I am out of town?”

Her house, a tall, brick home with four apartments, sat on Washington Avenue. I didn’t completely understand why anyone was needed in her home during the weekend away, but when she returned and I was there, we seamlessly entered into coupledom and true love took off like a rocket.

Autumn approached. The living situation in the horse trailer at Clarklake would not be adequate during the winter at all. Gail invited me to move in.

I had not lived in a home since I hit the road as a teen. Soon, I participated with leaf raking, snow shoveling, interior repairs and painting.

The home had a dug-in basement with a small garage on the face and a large terrace with front steps that led up to the front door. Once inside her tidy home, she explained the wall color remained from when her grandmother lived there. She had another color in mind. Soon, we tackled the job of repainting the interior walls with the warm Parsley color that Gail selected.

She encouraged me to utilize the basement that opened from the garage for my projects. This was the perfect place to make sawdust and apply paint. Sign carving and other building projects were also handled in that space.

T-Shirt Booth

Inspired by opportunity at the fairgrounds, I rekindled the idea of resuming my T-shirt enterprise. During the winter, I started to build the components of a new improved T-shirt painting booth to use the following summer, a project Gail was mystified with. The basement had a boiler that made steam to heat the home. Because of this, the basement was a great place for my woodworking and sign making projects when it was cold outside.

I attended church with Gail every Sunday morning. The Unity church met at the Woman’s Club building, a one-time home of an affluent family. The large home was still filled with fine furniture, paintings and interesting appointments. The small group that met each week enjoyed a spiritual analogy that was a perfect fit for me. Because of my exposure to a variety of spiritual concepts at Shiloh, I had spiritual questions that the AA community did not have answers for. The Unity church became the perfect place for me. Unity has a foundation in the Gospel and addressed contemporary concepts in a practical and positive way.

As my presence in this town expanded, I became part of the community – something that, as I look back, God knew was essential for this entry phase of my recovery. Regular attendance with a variety of community groups promoted my ability to enter intimacy with others necessary for my growth.

Living near Clarence Hastings, my original riding instructor, allowed for frequent visits. Our camaraderie rekindled my passion for horsemanship. The conversation about the criteria for my next horse had an appropriate audience. Clarence and I went on an excursion to see Chuck Grant. There our conversation expanded. This piqued my interest in resuming my passion and also reminded Chuck know about my interest in classic horsemanship.

 I also made contact with my saddlebred horse friends near Fowlerville. They heard my story of tragedy; the debacle of having to put my big mare down that interrupted my career. I shared with them my desire to find another horse. Sharing this planted a seed. I went back to my life with Gail in Jackson. Without my knowing, they put things into motion among their friends that would influence my future.

Elaborate sign jobs that utilized skills developed around the carnival began to materialize. Through contacts with Gail’s retail friends, I was invited to create an elaborate Victorian scrollwork design on an old storefront downtown being renovated into a high-end dress shop. I created a stunning design. My idea was for each large show-case window across the front of the store to receive a large oval surrounded by scrollwork. This allowed the featured merchandise to appear in a picture-frame of sorts. When complete, I sent a photo of the store front to the Sign of the Times design competition and received an award or my efforts.

thumbnail_Store Front Windo

I had plenty of trucks to letter, business signs to make and creative logos to design. Those were the days when, for a four-color logo design to enter the printing process, four individual pieces of art – overlays – had to be generated by an artist. While I made these overlays, I had to visualize how the finished art would look.  When complete, each overlay was photographed to make each color plate. With careful registration, the four-color printing process began. When the finished product rolled off the presses at ABC Reproductions, I finally got to see how my concept looked in full color.

I had fun stuff to do too. Tom Collins at the Beach Bar was always expanding and making his business better. He connected the main bar building with the building acquired next door to utilize as an office. Between them, he created a banquet room. Inside, he had a railroad train that ran on shelving around the room and behind the fireplace. He wanted the wall surfaces behind the train track to receive specific airbrushed scenes. The reference for these paintings were taken from old photos that showcased the historic past of Clarklake, of which he spear-headed the Historical Society. This sort of project and the contacts made while underway, lead to many others.

In a bar downtown, called the Bear’s Den, I painted a comical scene with cartoon bears on an interior wall. I also helped with theatrical scenery for Gail’s ambitions. 

A paint contracting company had finished re-coating the exteriors of the mega fuel tanks at a fuel depot outside of town. They needed the Citgo logo painted huge on the outside of one tank, fifty feet up. They left the swing stage up so I could use it.

thumbnail_Large Fuel Tank

I had never tackled a job this big or high before but I had everything needed. The job was just on a big scale. Because the swing stage had a motorized winch on either end, the sensible thing to do was to hire an assistant. I recruited a man from the fellowship. After we loaded our painting supplies we climbed onto the stage. With one of us at either end, we activated the winches simultaneously and the apparatus rose to the level of the job. 

The first day of rising to this height, I laid out the huge logo on the fresh paint. I stayed busy with the creative tasks as my assistant filled in large areas of color with a big brush. By the end of the second day, our efforts had produced admirable results but my assistant began to exhibit behavior that made dismissal apropos. I let him go.

Although this job was appropriate for two men, the third day I figured out how to complete the project myself. I arrived in the usual way. I loaded my paints and supplies onto the stage and climbed aboard. I walked the length of the stage to one end and activated the switch. That end started rising. As I made my way to the other end my downward path became steeper with each step.

At the other end, I switched the winch on and the stage began to rise albeit at a dramatic angle. As the unit rose, I walked up the steep gangway to reach the first winch. When I arrived at the level where the work waited, I switched the first winch off. I then walked down the other end to switch the other one off as the stage leveled off. Then I sat down. My heart was pounding and my blood was full of adrenaline. I had to wait for a while to calm down enough to resume and finish the painting.