Fair Girls and Grey Horses
Life lessons my father left me with
When I saw the Coming of Age challenge on Vocal a few days ago I thought that this could be something I might be able sink my teeth into, but even after thinking about it for a while I found it difficult to come up with anything that I may be able to write about. As I lay awake at 3.45 a.m. this morning, however, it finally dawned on me, as memories from my childhood and memories of my late father came flooding back to me.
I grew up on the land, with my father working on farms and with livestock. We moved around a bit when I was younger, until finally my father got a more regular job and my parents were able to buy a farm for themselves when I was around ten or eleven years old, where they would raise their three kids as well as sheep, cattle and horses.
My father and I were very different people in many respects, yet at the same time we were very similar. He was old school and could be a hard man at times, but he also had a soft side, even if he didn’t often show that. It was from him that I developed a love of horses, something that has lasted all my life. The title of this piece comes from his favorite poem, by a Scottish-Australian author and poet by the name of Will Ogilvie.
I guess for most people thinking about Coming of Age stories they think of their first love, of how they felt that first time they kissed, or made love. For most boys there is usually a girl involved, but for me when I think about my own coming of age it is more about life lessons learned, handed down from my father, than it is about first love.
On the day that I believe marked the beginning of my own coming of age it came about as we sat, both with tears in our eyes, looking down at the body of a horse we had tragically just lost in an accident. We called her Flossy, though I am sure she had a far more fanciful name on her registrations papers, from the days when she had graced the racetracks around our area. She was dark brown, almost black, and a highly strung and excitable creature, as most Thoroughbred ex-racehorses tend to be, but she was a stunning mare all the same. When mated with my father’s champion grey Arabian stallion she was the mother of some gorgeous foals. My father was proud of that stallion and the many awards he had won – which our family still have to this day – and he was planning on building a lasting legacy with these horses.
On the day that we lost Flossy, my father had just given his teary-eyed son a piece of advice that has never been forgotten. He had just said to me, “Sometimes when you are a livestock owner, son, you also have to be a dead stock owner!”
Yes, you guessed it. What you are thinking now is exactly what was going through my mind at the time as well. What? The? Fuck?
They were certainly hard words for a thirteen year old kid to digest, especially while looking at the body of an animal that had been loved, despite her foibles. They were also words that were very true, as I would find out over and over again in the years that have followed. Anyone who has grown up on a farm will know that life’s lessons begin early, and you really never stop learning. The facts of life, the birds and the bees and all that stuff has usually been ingrained into us well before we hit our own teenage years. Whether or not that makes life easier for farm kids hitting that age when their minds become filled with romantic thoughts (and the bumbling and fumbling activities that usually follow) I couldn’t say, though on a personal level I think I would admit that it was easier already knowing the mechanics of how things worked . . . even if, being a country lad, I was sadly lacking in social skills and confidence as to how the human interactions were supposed to work.
As tears continued to flow on the day of Flossy’s demise my father added, “Suck it up, kiddo,” then he began making arrangements to take her away for burial. As he was doing so he began telling me the story of how he had learned the very same lesson.
“We were not rich back when I was a kid. Far from it in fact. But we made do with what we had,” he said to me. “Your grand-parents had come off the land, but had settled in town. Dad took what he called a regular job in town and they had forbidden any of us kids from pursuing a career on the land. I guess it was inevitable that some of us would end up doing just that, though.”
My father told me that he left home when he was fifteen, catching the train after finding a job working on a large outback station; what would be called a ranch in other parts of the world. He set out to make a life for himself. Up until then he had only ever ridden a horse a few times, and he couldn’t drive a car, so these were the first lessons learned.
Through the week, at least when my father had first started working there, his quarters were off the back verandah of the old homestead. He ate his meals with the owner and his family and the owner’s wife made sure that the kid from the city was looked after, even helping to continue his education in small ways, which included loaning him books to read, amongst which were several volumes written by Will Ogilvy.
The station was about forty miles from the nearest town and the workers would usually go to town on weekends, or on payday. On one of these trips to town my now sixteen year old father met a local lass at the one and only milk bar in town. Her name was Dorothy and she was the daughter of the local mechanic. They also met again on his next trip to town and by the end of this visit he was smitten.
Back on the station, all stock work was done the old fashioned way . . . on horseback, and he was allocated a horse to ride, a grey stock horse mare named Trixie. She proved to be a great horse for a first year jackeroo (the term used in Australia for a newbie wanting to start out and work their way up the ranks of workers) and they developed into a good team, he told me.
Suddenly there was little doubt in my mind where his love of the work Fair Girls and Grey Horses came from. I had always wondered about that.
One of his duties each morning, he said to me, especially when there was stock work to be done, was to round up all the stock horses at daybreak for the other men who worked there and bring them into the cattle yards. For this he rode an older semi-retired horse they called Sam and they rarely had any trouble completing the task, unless there was occasionally a new horse in the team. One day there was a new horse in the team and the morning round up did not go to plan.
As my father told this story I could see that he was getting emotional, so I figured something must have happened. As it turned out, when the horses were all approaching the stock yards the new horse in the team tried to assert himself in the pack and tried to bite another. This caused a chain reaction with one horse veering away and colliding with another, which in turn crashed into Trixie, causing her to smash into a very poorly maintained fence. There was nothing anyone could do, let alone a sixteen year old kid on his own. The grey mare became impaled on a steel fence post and as my father came to a screeching stop and jumped from Sam’s back, running to his favorite, and as he cradled her head on his lap she bled out and died, the red outback dirt now stained a totally different shade. The boss and the other men found him there, still cradling the mare’s head on his lap, when they came out to start their day.
I looked at my father, a man I had always thought of as being as hard as nails, and could see his eyes were brimming with tears for the second time that morning.
“W-what happened next?” I asked him.
“I was told to suck it up,” he replied. “And I was told that being a livestock owner also meant that you sometimes had to be a deadstock owner as well. I was so pissed off with the boss . . . I was almost ready to quit, but his wife wouldn’t let me. Later that day we went into town. I ran into that girl that I had met, Dorothy, and we went for a walk through the park by the river. She could see I was upset and asked what was wrong, so I told her everything. When I was finished she hugged me. We kissed. And by the end of that day I knew that she would be the girl I would marry. Lucky for you that I did, hey?”
I had no answer for that.
After we had finished burying Flossy we returned to the house. We were supposed to be going into town that afternoon for a farm yard auction sale and despite my not wanting to go I didn’t really have a choice. I had to suck it up, just like my old man said.
When we got to the venue we soon bumped into some family friends, the Millers. Mr Miller worked with my father. They had a daughter, Megan, who I knew quite well as we had been in primary school together a few years earlier, though these days we went to different high schools. As our parents talked Megan came and sat beside me and started asking how I was. It was all I could do to not start blubbering and I think she sensed that.
“Come on,” Megan said as she got to her feet and tugged at my shirt sleeve. “Let’s go check out everything in the sale.”
Reluctantly I got to my feet and followed. As I glanced back at my father and Mr Miller I noticed them grinning after us.
“Okay, spill it,” Megan said to me as we walked amongst some farm machinery that would later be sold.
‘What do you mean?”
“Geez! Boys!” Megan exclaimed. “What’s your problem? Why the long face?”
I knew she wasn’t going to let up, so I started to tell her about our morning. About losing Flossy. About everything that my dad had told me. As we passed some pens of calves I felt her slip one hand into mine. As we entered a barn where some riding horses were being held before the auction later in the day I was pushed into a dark corner, my back against the wall.
“What are you doing?” I asked, total clueless. The response I received was my first kiss.
Apparently my coming of age story did involve a girl after all.
That was many years ago now and I am still friends with Megan. I don’t have kids myself to whom I can pass things down, but I have one particular nephew who is keen on a career on the land. He is already learning that life is tough and that we all have to learn some difficult lessons along the way. There is a girl in his life as well and I think he is working on his own coming of age story.