Ralph

“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?”

index2

       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.

index

       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.

thumbnail_Carnival 33

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. 

The Sign Shop

When I began working as a T-shirt artist for Wicked Wanda years ago, I learned the slang for reject. When Martha, in charge of the booth came across a shirt that was unusable due to a bad hem, tear or a blemish, she called it a ‘Larry.’ As I got familiar with how things worked at the sign company in Carbondale, I found out the original inspiration for that slang term.

Wildwood 3

Larry Weatherford, the owner, was the most unlikely person on the planet to have a sign shop. Not gifted with any visual prowess, design sense, or artistic ability, he had achieved a semblance of momentum just by being a fan of the industry. Larry made odd choices with his projects as he trudged forward. He had people with sense who worked for him and whenever he tried to participate, the project got bogged down. This frustrated the capable among us. He must have been aware of a need for good people and that explained his ongoing help-wanted ad in the trade magazine.

Being an admirer of industry-great Mike Jackson, from Oklahoma City, he hired a young man who had worked at that shop, thinking he would have access to greatness through him. The laborer only proved to be a good laborer. Larry seemed to have a Midas touch but what he touched didn’t turn to gold.

Married and adventuresome, his plan backfired when he persuaded his wife to do some partner swapping with another couple and she became infatuated with her new mate.

When an airbrush mural opportunity for an interior of a restaurant came along, rather than utilize my proven ability with that specialty, he brought in a man from a printing company to tackle the project – a decision neither the printing company guy or I understood.

Such was life at Larry’s sign shop – he had a way of deflating enthusiasm and promoting apathy in the ranks. I put in my time but took my energy elsewhere. I concentrated on my other ambitions.

My English teacher enjoyed having me in class and commented, “You seem to be the only one in here interested in what I am teaching.”

Bengel

Because the coursework was supposed to be typed and I didn’t have a computer, he allowed me to print my assignments with a pen. He still used the same scrutiny about capitalization, punctuation and sentence structure as the others.

I discovered Evy Karoli was nearby in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at Dave Hale ‘s exotic animal farm with his huge variety of animals. I made the trip to see her one weekend and enjoyed the amazing farm filled with many species of animals from all over the world. Their signature was a large herd of camels that could be seen walking single file across the vast pastures. During those visits, I fortified my understanding of the criteria I looked for in another horse from this master trainer.

The months went by. Once I became convinced that this sign painting situation wasn’t going to take me anywhere, I left Larry and resumed freelance sign work in the region to achieve greater results.

Exodus

Butch Webb had provided me with several restoration projects to work on at the shop during the summer months. Among the jobs to complete were several antique wooden merry-go-round horses. These were hand-carved out of wood and had seen service on carnivals during an earlier era. Part of the challenge was removal of multiple layers of paint, repairing the broken corners of ears, and making new legs. With all the features in his well-equipped shop and time during the summer months, I began the slow process of restoration. But recovery came first.

Butch Webb evidently had a resentment burning inside due to my not remaining obsessed with completing his work day and night, like I did during my drinking days. When his ‘A’ tour through western Canada was complete, prior to heading to Texas, the fleet returned to the shop.

I had been going to meetings and had begun the long tedious process of recovery and the fog in my brain was clearing. Through the fog, an idea for my future began to materialize. At thirty-four, I had the idea that perhaps I should get a degree.  Through asking the right questions, I found out that Southern Illinois University had the best graphic arts program in the country. 

While perusing a sign trade magazine – Signs of the Times – I found a sign shop in southern Illinois that advertised for a sign painter. I couldn’t stay here forever. As I made my plans to head out, Butch engineered a plan to screw me out of my money but never let on. Using the shifty manner in which he was famous, he found a way to short change me for the work I had completed.

One day he stealthily left on a plane for Vegas. I went to his secretary for my pay and she gave me only a fraction of what I had coming. She was simply doing what she’d been told. This is when I realized what Butch had done. Prior to my next meeting, I took one of the wooden Merry-Go-Round horses, and transported it to a safe location in Wichita in response to being shortchanged.

In Vegas, when he found out, Butch called and had his foreman park trucks around my rig to box me in. This foreman also had plans for the weekend. He left the shop confident that his efforts to thwart my travel plans were effective. With him gone, I had time to figure out a solution. Over the weekend, the Harder brothers helped me drop a drive shaft out of one tractor and pull the truck out of the way so I could leave. With my rig freed up, I left town. I went to get Betty the mule and then, the merry-go-round horse. Once loaded, I began my long trip east.

The long flat trip across Kansas gradually yielded to rolling hills as I passed into Missouri. The end of summer had passed. As I reviewed all that had happened to get me to this place, I entered the rugged coal country of Southern Illinois to assume my role at the shop I had contacted to become their sign painter. I also was in time for the first semester of school. My plan was to take full advantage of everything in Carbondale.

I checked in at the sign company and found he had room for my rig near the shop. He also knew someone who had pasture for Betty. I began a new routine with accomplishing sign work each day at the shop, and during the first lull on a quiet afternoon, I headed over to the campus to get acquainted with the Dean at the university.

While he looked at a portfolio of my work, I revealed my ambition to him.

“I’ve been thinking,” I began, “I should earn a graphic arts degree.”

He looked up from the work, paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and said, “I have students with a degree in airbrushing who can’t do this stuff. You don’t need a degree,” he continued, “just keep doing what you are doing.”

I explored what was available near the campus. I signed up for an English grammar class. I also became familiar with the nearby riding farm. These two learning opportunities became part of my weekly routine. I was still eager to develop my skills and stay in shape riding horses. I began taking lessons that provided access to a number of the school horses.

During that time at the barn, I reviewed the criteria again for a horse ideal for training into another circus performer. Young, but not too young (a five-year old is ideal). A horse who has never had any training means there aren’t any bad habits. Tall, kind and flashy.

 The focus of this barn was dressage. Their string of horses needed to be bombproof and easy going for the novice students. To join in, I became familiar with the procedure for dressage riding and practiced for upcoming tests. A formal horse show was scheduled for a few weeks away. I joined the rest of the students to get ready. The time to prove ourselves was here. 

The weekend finally arrived. We would ride proper tests in front of a judge and an audience. Like most specialties, the student rode through a series of maneuvers and transitions to earn acclaim as the aspects of each level was completed in secession to strict guidelines. This situation was not unlike performing as the seasoned school animals knew the routine.

Not knowing the school horse I rode was crowd-wise to this situation, I soon found out he knew he could cheat when an audience was present. Just like on a circus, when the animal knows the audience is gone they’d better act right, this horse knew that he could surprise the novice, and not do what he was being asked, and due to this environment, not get reprimanded in front of the judge.

When my turn came to ride my test pattern, I was ready and on my horse. I sat straight and proper and waited for the call of my name. After riding into the center of the arena, I acknowledged the judge with a tip of my hat. I then began to ride the sequence of this particular test. As I entered into the beginning of riding a ten-meter circle on one side of the arena, my horse began to veer back to cut off a significant amount of the shape I intended to ride. Using my whole leg, I gave him a swift thump to drive him back out onto the path. That got his attention.  The next circle he paid better attention to me.

Some of the students who knew this horse had been anticipating a scene. They commented on our performance when my ride was over.

I heard, “You got a pretty good ride from Cramer today.”

From the Depths

The time away from the pursuit of my livelihood to care for the mare had depleted my cash reserves. Now I was stranded and broke. This combined with having no direction for my life. I sunk into the deepest emotional devastation ever experienced during this life of continually having the ability to easily accomplish anything I set my mind to.

In this entry phase of my sobriety, I finally met the admission requirement. I hit bottom. From this low point, I found hope. I heard the message repeated from others who had found a life of happiness and productivity. They had experienced a shift in perception where we began to see things a new way through new eyes.

             Although I hadn’t had a drink in six months, my recovery started with the first word of the first step: we. I reached out. We are in this together. I joined the others. My response was to concentrate on going to meetings and asking for help from others. One guy in the group sounded good and what he said made sense. When the meeting was over, I took my hat in my hand and asked him to be my sponsor. We started to meet on a regular basis.  He started a process that began with going through the big book, the manual for recovery. One page at a time, he explained to me what those simple words, in that unique sequence, meant.

             From that start, I found a practical way to find, keep and expand a practical relationship with God by becoming honest, open and willing to uncover what kept me separate, and after discarding that, remain proactive with finding a new direction for my life.

             He introduced me to myself by relating his similar beliefs and the behaviors that kept him stuck. Then he told me about what he had found as the result of working the steps. Then he took me through the steps. Each step gave me a little more relief. Step four suggested I create an inventory of my behaviors, resentments and moral conduct; my greatest handicaps. With his help, I began to make this list. He made me understand their source and how my perception of others influenced the beliefs and decisions I made at that time.

He also showed me how fear drove my behavior. After uncovering this potpourri of kaka and having the written evidence stare me in the face, I admitted every bit to my sponsor, as suggested by step five. This deflation became the perfect segue for him to explain how these decisions, behaviors and beliefs contributed to the obsession I had developed with self that promoted grandiose desires, perceptions and withdrawal from others.

While I began to understand how fear, shame, regret and resentment drove my perceptions and behavior, he introduced me to an upgrade: spiritually driven responses that would also promote a healed perception of my surroundings.  A greater truth. Through this process, I found a design for living that started with a shift in perception called the turnaround. This is like putting on tainted glasses backwards and seeing for the first time all of my surroundings are beautiful.

         Through doing this work and while listening to others at meetings, I became related. I became connected, part of the group.  The concepts that kept me separate from those around me now became our reason for connection – having recovered from these same things. Through admitting my faults, embracing my humanity, and allowing connectedness to take place with my flawed fellows, for the first time in my life I felt the presence of God. I soon found my relationship with my higher power.

From this low point in my life, I found perhaps the greatest gift of all; freedom. For the rest of the summer I attended three meetings a day. I was immersed in the recovery process. I gradually healed. Then when the time was right, I received inspiration in regard to a logical destination to begin the next chapter of my life.

A Miracle Cure

 “Yes, we have experienced remarkable success with reversing the effects of founder,” the spokesperson announced over the phone

                Back at the shop, Butch used the usual pressure to get sign work tasks done on his fleet prior to the beginning of his season. My work ethic had changed now that attending meetings was important. I no longer worked late whenever he asked. This promoted a resentment in my client although he assured me that he understood and had respect for someone who had recognized they had a problem and did something about it. Never the less, my focus on caretaking for my mare and attending meetings interfered with his ambition.

I did get his fleet on its way on time. Then, I made an appointment to take my horse to be healed with the corrective shoeing procedure available in Oklahoma City.

For months I succeeded in keeping Sassy comfortable in her stall. During my regular outings to see her, I used a wheelbarrow to provide soft sand in her stall, topped with pine sawdust. Because of the pain in her feet, she laid down a lot.

In the dark Farrier College building, a dozen students were learning how to make shoes at the forge and anvil. I found the man who made the claim over the phone about being able to help. He had me bring the horse inside. When he looked at her feet, he gathered the class around to see her condition firsthand.

“This is what a horse’s foot looks like,” he stated as he held her foot up between his legs, “when the coffin bone is protruding through the sole.”

The students leaned in for a closer look. He pointed out the obvious. As the class asked their questions, it became evident to me that her condition was grave. Expectant hopes were dashed to the ground. After the session, he pointed toward a place where she could stay.

                He had only crude stalls and musty, old oat hay for bedding. Overnight Sassy developed open bed sores from lying on course bedding. The next day, I received the inevitable prognosis of what I had been in denial of – in the form of a demand by him to put her down. The roller coaster experience of having my hopes ride high during the trip south, shattered upon arrival, and now the command from this egoic, less than sensitive service provider left me in tears.

Still confused about what to do, I called Evy Karoli. I was ashamed to report to her what I had done. I was sure she would be disappointed. Instead, when she returned my call, she was a source of comfort with helpful advice. It was time to end her suffering.

                I couldn’t bear to witness the euthanization of, and the discarding of my beloved, once proud mare. I sobbed while I gave my consent. I was filled with fear. I left that place on a dreary day in a blowing rain with vision blurred by tears. 

Back at Wichita, isolated at the shop, I sank into the most emotionally devastating depression of my life. Alone and completely depleted, I sought relief at the AA fellowship. With no direction to go, resources tapped, and in the depths of despair, I went to three meetings the day I returned.

At the first two, I heard the usual angst about withdrawal, and reports of progress, mixed with confusion and dilemma. When it became my turn to talk, I opened up about my tragedy and the loss of my mare and, perhaps for the first time, began to open up and attempt to describe the depth of sorrow I was feeling. My crude testimony deteriorated into sobbing. The entire fellowship rose to wrap their arms around me in an effort to provide me with comfort and encouragement.

I returned to the next meeting. Again, when it became my turn to speak, this scenario repeated. My condition of untreated alcoholism and delusional thinking was compounded not only by grief for the loss of the love of my life but, not knowing it at the time, withdrawal from something else. I had developed co-dependency with my mare who gave me an image of myself that I approved of. Through finding out about these and other concepts, I became familiar with how I used her as an antidote for my damaged self-esteem. Unknowingly, I found a way to approve of myself while being a handsome prince on a stunning horse. With her gone, I had a brokenhearted void in my soul.

Healing was underway. At the third meeting I attended that day, I began to look at my fellows with relatedness. One fellow was having a tough day during his job delivering pizzas. His plight became the focus of everyone’s empathy as we, including me, rose to console and comfort him. The following days gradually turned into weeks and about all I could do was go to meetings.

Days later I woke to discover Nick, my canine companion, laying paralyzed, quivering and unable to breathe. I laid him in the back of the van and raced to see the vet but was turned away. They were too busy. The only option I had was to put him down myself.

Back at Maize, I went over to the welding shop. I asked the two Harder brothers to help me with this task. They did have a gun but were not able to consider shooting inside the city limits due to some strain with the sheriff in the past. They lent me their .22 rifle. While tears flowed freely, I carried Nicks convulsing body to the grass north of the shop. I had to feel my way to lay the end of the barrel on his forehead because my sobbing obscured my vision. One loud crack and he lay at peace. I dug a hole and placed my friend at the bottom. After replacing the dirt on top, I paused to say a prayer. I was now completely alone. 

Love at First Sight

In the midst of devastation, a wonderful mule named Betty found her way into my life. Betty proved to be a great distraction from seeing the pain in Sassies eyes. During idle time at the farm, I began training Betty to work at liberty, or the style of responding to my positions and gestures in the round pen while completely loose, thus the term. When I began teaching her to bow, I noticed her bright willingness to learn.

I saw understanding in her eyes.

‘Oh, you want this?’ Betty seemed to say as she folded one foreleg back.

When I patted her on the neck, she melted.

‘Oh, I get a pat on the neck?’

That was how my love affair with Betty the mule began.

betty 023

Over the years, this willing animal allowed me to train her to do more than any of my horses ever did. As her repertoire expanded, so did the composition of a routine to use for our act.

Fueled by ambition, the mule represented an opportunity to expand my professional offerings as performer. I aspired to develop another act. My days were filled with horse care and painting sign work for carnival folks in the area with various results, some wholesome, some not. I was distracted by this dilemma with my horse and my head seemed to be filled with cobwebs.

In the midst of all this confusion, I became a regular at the local AA club. I was still driven by intense independence. Although hungry for relief, an internal rigid streak mixed with demand resistance prevented my entering the process of recovery. The process described in the curriculum is achieved by following simple instructions.

          Like the shiny metal ball in a pinball machine, my direction was erratic, aimless, driven by self-delusion, misguided intentions and scattered fears as I continued on a self-induced path of ambiguity.

With the winter season over, the time came to travel to Wichita to paint for Butch Webb and his large concession operation. I loaded up the livestock and headed west. The trek had to be an excruciating experience for my mare, who did not have the ability to lay down during the entire trip. 

When Nick and I arrived at the tree-lined farm situated in the midst of vast flatland where I always boarded my horse, I fixed her stall with extra deep sand and fluffy shavings. It was fun being reunited with my horseman friends I knew from years of coming to this place.  My friends saw my way of going quite different now. Instead of practicing my dancing horse, I doctored her sore feet and nurtured her each day . I provided Sassy as much comfort as I could. No one was familiar with her condition so I received little help. I felt alone. As a group, we only had experience using our horses in health. 

By this time several people had attempted to reach me with the truth in regard to the reality of her situation. This irreversible condition in her feet had progressed into the affliction known as founder. I refused to consider what they were saying. I wanted only to find one more thing I could do that would work.

I was blinded by self-delusion. I over-did all of what I was doing for Sassy. I refused to believe that her dancing career was over. I continued to seek information from every source I could. I talked to university veterinarian schools for possibly a miracle cure or their willingness to use her as a study case to facilitate a breakthrough discovery.

The many conversations educated me to the reality of this plight, but instead of embracing the truth, I stubbornly continued looking for a cure. In the midst of all this misery, as the result of one lead, I received hope. A farrier college in Oklahoma City made the claim of being able to reverse the effects of laminitis. I gave them a call. 

Change of Direction

       The engine in my truck had been getting tired. Bobby Steele agreed to give it a rebuild. While wintering at the Morris family winter quarters, he hoisted the engine out and dismantled the engine. When the engine was almost complete, Bobby needed sawdust for bedding the cages of his bears. I had only one horse. I used the entire width of the back of my trailer, approximately 8×12, to make a stall. Sassy enjoyed the room in the back of the new trailer all to herself. I thought sawdust would be a nice addition on the floor so I joined Bobby on his trip to a cabinet shop.

     While we shoveled the dusty stuff into leaf sacks, he became satisfied with the coupe. Back at the elephant farm, we resumed the engine rebuild. Sassy was getting along fine in her new digs, now enhanced with sawdust. The engine project progressed nicely but Bill Morris didn’t have the ability for me to stay at his farm for the entire winter. Rain was coming. Plus, there was no pasture available for my horse.  I had to go.

    With the engine complete, I moved the rig temporarily to Billy Rogers’s trailer park nearby, during the wet weather. This place was not ideal either; no yard for the horse.  The parking location was on terrain that left the rear of the trailer elevated. While in this situation, the new metal ramp was useless due to the acute angle. Satisfied with the comfort I had created inside, I left Sassy loaded that day and continued my search for a better parking place.

    Having looked at a pair of mules recently, I thought to contact Gee Gee Engesser. I found out she had room for the rig plus a stall and pasture for the horse. I made plans to move out there immediately. That would also facilitate acquiring the mules. 

      Upon arrival, while leading the mare out of the trailer, I was horrified at what I saw. Sassy walked gingerly, obviously in pain. Her front feet were way out in front of her. Gee Gee called the vet who arrived in a hurry but didn’t know what he was looking at or what could have caused her condition.

    He shrugged and said with unenthusiastic resignation, “Let’s wait a few days and see what happens.”

       Not knowing anything else, I proceeded to care for her as best I could in her new stall.

     Not having any experience with this condition and not knowing anyone to confer with that had any knowledge left me at a disadvantage. Gradually I learned about founder. I also found out that the window of where treatment would have been effective had slipped by. 

       Sassy remained in pain. In an effort to get off her feet, she began to lay down a lot. I took every effort to provide comfort to this wonderful mare who also represented an important part of my future ambitions. I refused to embrace the truth. I began the relentless pursuit of finding out about something or anything I could do to eliminate this condition.

       A follow-up conference with the veterinarian who responded first established him as incompetent. Another doctor informed me that with the immediate introduction of an antihistamine, the inflammation could have been reversed, but only during the introductory stages. It ends up that the sawdust Bobby and I retrieved contained certain hardwoods that promoted a fever in her feet. Wood shavings traditionally used for horse bedding are pine or softwood because several hardwoods are poisonous. As the temperature in her feet went up, the laminae became inflamed.

       The resulting inflammation in her feet caused the tissue contained in the hoof to expand. Since the hoof wall acts as a container for this tissue, it can only expand downward like toothpaste coming out of a tube. That was why contact with the ground became painful. This condition gave her the inability to place her feet squarely on the ground and is why she sought to rock back on the heel in an effort to get off the uncomfortable, tender sole.

       I knelt down in the sawdust of her stall and gently stroked her neck. I looked into her kind eyes and saw her yearning to understand what was going on.

       “Everything is going to be okay,” I whispered.

    I was afraid in spite of believing there was something I could do to heal this horse. I spent time with here, gently tending to her every need. My attachment to my ambition of going it alone separated me from the truth. Sassies condition was grave. I bedded Sassy up to her belly every day to make her as comfortable as possible. I also provided her to a regimen of pain relief via supplements.

      As I tended to this wonderful mare, time seemed to slow down. In the first few months of sobriety, I was learning about life. This life is a dichotomy. I was finding out that life was not good or bad but that life is a blend of good and bad. As Sassies condition worsened, I was blessed with another to love.

A Love Story

Gee Gee was on the line. She had a colorful history that started with the Cole Bros Circus in the forties where she rode a roman team of sixteen horses in spec and adopted the gruff demeanor that brought about success in this tough industry. She had recently retired her husky dog act where she dressed in a revealing furry Eskimo outfit and made an entrance on a dog sled pulled by huskies that caused a sensation everywhere she performed. She still had three elephants. They toured the show circuit with her handler while she stayed home and ran the office. Gee Gee was a savvy operator. From her desk surrounded by 8×10 black and white photographs of circus performers, she coordinated acts with engagements and served as an agent.

“God dammit, Dave,” she shouted over the phone, “you just got to come see these mules.”

My first thought, what in heavens name am I going to do with a mule?

betty 023

Betty was a jet-black animal with an animated trot and a pretty face. It was love at first sight. There was also a pink-skinned white one with a juggy looking head that did not impress me.

As I studied this black mule, I came up with justification for having her around; ‘She’ll make a wonderful companion for the horse.’

One more mouth to feed wouldn’t be too much trouble. Gee Gee came out from her house, told me the story of how this baby animal came here and soon thereafter, Betty became part of my family. 

Mule Act 7


Enjoy these pictures of Betty and Dave as 
“Gold Dust and the Old Cuss”
from their circus career





Mule Act 4




Mule Act 1




Image (136)




Old Cuss




BettyCert




Image (138)




Mule Act 6