Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Recollections of a Band Geek


My earliest memory of being a band member is fifth grade, about 1953. Mother and Daddy bought my clarinet on time. This is also one of my earliest memories of the sacrifices our parents made for Joan, Sue and me to have special opportunities. Maybe to any other kid seeing that little payment coupon book from Parker Music Company wouldn’t have meant much, but I knew how hard our parents worked.

I wouldn’t trade my band years from grades five through college graduation for any amount of other treasure. Call us geeks, fairies, if the joy that a percussion line still sends through my body could be bottled, I’d be rich.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as I alternately sat and stretched out on the grass in front of the bandstand in Federal Park, I was reminded of gifts untapped for four decades. And this took me to the music store in De Vargas Center the following Monday morning to rent a clarinet. I hadn’t touched a horn for 30 years, the last time I owned one that I bought used from one of my eighth grade language arts students who was a band dropout. Any thought I had back then that I would do something interesting with that clarinet—like play it—quickly got lost in other passions pulling me one way or another. I moved that horn through a series of residences, and now I have no clue about what became of it. I guess I gave it away, hopefully to some deserving kid.

As the music store owner and I talked about my revived interest in playing, I truly had no idea of what would come out of the horn the first time I put it to my mouth. Would it be that evil squawk that has annoyed scores of thousands of parents and siblings as aspiring musicians have practiced their instrument since the advent of school bands? As bizarre as it seems, one of the dreams I still have has me with an instrument in band and no reed, or a reed that is too damaged to be of use. Monday morning of course included a discussion of reeds, along with the quality of instrument I was renting for the requisite three months, an elementary clarinet book, and my options if I should decide down the road that I want to purchase a quality instrument. That $200 used Buffet clarinet that my parents bought my senior year in high school—and which I stupidly let be stolen from my unlocked locker in the music building of Sam Houston State Teachers College—is at least a $3000 instrument these days.

The proof is in the playing. Back in my condo, a little concerned that my noise would travel out my balcony door into the unwelcoming ears of neighbors, I opened the instrument case, greased the corks of my rental, assembled it, and finally, moistened the reed between clenched lips before securing it on the mouthpiece. Then I pulled the balcony door almost completely closed. Keying chart unfolded on my make-do music stand, I brought the clarinet to my mouth, covered the holes to play a lower C note, and blew. An amazing solid sound emitted from the horn, and my bodily memories, the same ones that enable us to get on a bicycle after years of absence, kicked in. I quickly made my way through Lesson 8, two octaves, and exercises from whole notes to eighth notes, nailing simple intervals with unexpected aplomb. I beamed with satisfaction, puzzling over routine things like how to get rid of saliva buildup inside the barrel of my horn.

So I’ve made my initial re-commitment to musicianship. For the past several days I’ve had company from Texas, and the horn has stood assembled, leaning against the living room wall. Alone again, I am returning to my journal, to my clarinet, and to the continuing rediscovery of the boy to whom my older cousin Jimmy from Santa Fe said with a friendly, 17-year-old clever smile, in the summer of 1954, “I understand that you are a mugician”.  “Musician,” I innocently corrected. Make me a mugician any day.

Recollections of a Band Geek—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 30, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trust the Journey


A while back I was a guest, along with several other new members of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, for dinner at the home of the rector. For this Sunday evening affair we received printed directions to the rector’s home on the far west side of Santa Fe, and in those directions were the clear instructions “trust the journey”. As it turned out, trust was not of solid value because the directions contained a critical error. Only after stopping at what appeared to be the end of the road, where the road actually seemed to go out into nowhere, retracing my steps to a street that had a name similar to the one in print, wandering futilely through a maze of streets and endless faux adobe houses and then returning to the main artery and back to the end of the road, did I by accident find the rector’s street and house. As he answered the door, he was on the phone giving directions to someone who was lost, someone who had called. I wasn’t willing to admit that the directions confounded and frustrated me, especially with the clear instructions to “trust the journey”. He received several other calls for help as we sat making small talk in his living room.

Ah, but to trust the journey, especially when the road isn’t so clear, the markers misleading, the instinct to ask for help is confounded by a willful need to figure it out, and an unwillingness to admit that we are indeed lost, at least for the time being. A friend visiting here from Texas has asked me a couple of times how I came to realize that I wanted to try living in Santa Fe and if I’m happy with the choice. And as I answered the question, I was reminded once again that I didn’t plan this journey. It seems that a year ago I somehow answered a call, as I anxiously considered spending part of my inheritance on a frivolous apartment here, an answering that another friend has described as an act of courage. At this late stage in my life, as I spend my days and money in a place where thousands of people over the years have come to find themselves, heal themselves, re-invent themselves, hide themselves, realize themselves, I am reminded often that I must trust this journey.

Watching the news these days is a painful experience—all the reminders that we are living in especially tough times even though by comparison most of us need to say often, there but for the grace of God go I. Lately I’ve seen much to nudge me into keener awareness. At a ceremony a couple of weeks ago honoring a local man and woman who have multiple handicaps, the generosity of spirit of these two challenged yet gifted human beings was enough to send us all out into the world to do good. This doing good is something we need to offer not only to others, but to ourselves as well. In the film, Away From Her, which examines the journey of a couple as both of them struggle with her disappearance into Alztheimer’s disease, a husband must come to terms with a loss that his wife accepts more willingly. As she forms a bond with a man, also a resident at the home where chooses to go, her husband draws close to this man’s wife. Those who remain behind are left to find meaning in loss, and as this woman, who must sell the home she and her husband have grown older in for many years finally concludes, happiness is a choice.

Another friend has said that she hopes I am happy in New Mexico, and if not happy, at least content. Last night, as my visitor from Texas and I listened to great Texas/New Mexico troubadours, their resonating bar room tenors set against the accompaniment of acoustic guitar, mandolin and bass, we watched a crowd of people moving around the concrete in front of the plaza band stand in old Santa Fe. Mostly they were couples, surely some on vacation, others local, but there were a few older women who came to dance solo. Swaying to the rhythms, lips moving with the words of familiar songs, maybe a couple of these women weren’t playing with a full deck, as the saying goes. Regardless, their bodies testified to the affect of the music on their souls. My friend commented, “I’m having a great time.” “This is wonderful,” I replied, as I gnawed on a problem or two—always at work in the back of my mind—even though my own feet and hands kept time with the music. As the performance drew to a close, a couple of old hands—Texas transplants who have made Santa Fe home for a more than two decades—mounted the stage to help sing “New Mexico Rain”. The sun had set and the stage was lit with spots. I moved from the bench where we had been sitting to stand at the base of the stage stairs, my heart intent on the lush harmonies pouring into the cooling night air. “…if I ain’t happy here, then I ain’t happy nowhere…”.

Trust the Journey—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 29, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

 

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Out of the Corner of My Eye


I don’t believe in chance meetings, although I do have a habit of assigning meaning to those seemingly unplanned junctures that occur in our lives, sometimes to my disappointment. Pick any place, name your players. You will have to pay attention. If you’ve concluded that your life is pretty much set, you may have to re-think your reading of life.

Yesterday alone, I had a lion’s share of opportunities to take notice. Not the least was an ancient couple I watched making their way into a Church’s Fried Chicken, as a friend and I left Roswell. I had tagged along on this museum-related business trip, mostly for the company, but as it turned out I had my own museum experience. As we accelerated onto the highway after refueling for the trip back to Santa Fe, I had to turn in my seat so that I could watch a stick-like woman and man make their way across a concrete parking lot header that separated them from the sidewalk and a mid-afternoon fried chicken treat. I couldn’t tell which one was helping the other. From where I sat they seemed to lean into one another as each gingerly raised a leg to set it forward—she on the left with her right arm raised to grip his raised left hand, eyes cast downward so as not to be tripped up by one of those evil concrete curbs that mark each position in some parking lots. In another time and place, this very lean couple could have been positioned for a folk dance, a promenade. I didn’t see their faces. I didn’t really need this information to observe that they were on a Thursday afternoon outing, the outings most of us take for granted, but an event from a shared life that I want to believe is filled with meaning. They are past the time in life where many of us continue multi-tasking to distraction. This couple was just trying to “make it to the sidewalk from here”.

My thinking on life is that if you’re not growing you’re dying. Okay, we’re dying anyway—from the beginning. But I’ll have none of this sitting with your hands folded in your lap, as if to say, “I’m done”.  A neighbor told me over coffee the other morning that he hates change. Yet, he came here from farther west, and his life has been variously defined over four decades of adulthood. Probably no one welcomes those things that try to turn us upside down, upheavals that threaten our earning power and consequently take aim at just about everything that defines living, at least in our western culture—like our home and other necessities grown more precious in tough times.

For some, changing residences and risking that something we think we cherish might have to be jettisoned in the process throws them into a tailspin. Many of us are stuff magnets, hoarders, and in the course of plying our instincts and habits we live our chosen destiny, proving for ourselves that the more things we own, the more our things own us. Another neighbor here said recently that dying was going to be hard for her because she doesn’t want to leave behind her stuff. Finally, though, we likely will just give thanks that we can lift our withered, arthritic limbs, and will acknowledge that we are blessed to have someone’s hand—perhaps even a partner in love—steady us as we slowly make our way forward. As the saying goes, change is inevitable—growth a choice.

Every day life keeps on requesting, sometimes demanding, and if we take heed, we answer the call. Maybe it is with our hands folded, but in steely resignation that molds and mends souls and hearts. Perhaps the greatest fear any of us has is not being able to make it on our own. Our mother mourned the loss of her independence and suffered an anger that she couldn’t reconcile. She had been without her partner and spouse for over a quarter century. She clung to her losses, but when her own death sentence had been put into words, she didn’t talk so much about Daddy, Grandma, and the others whose deaths had tried to re-define her. She completed her journey, mostly trying to keep her own terms alive, arm raised in the end to her children, they old enough to contemplate seriously the prospect of their own crossover on this journey that asks much of us.

Out of the Corner of My Eye—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 19 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Opening Hands


Yesterday, while I was finishing a small garden project in the courtyard at Open Hands, an organization here in Santa Fe that provides services to the elderly and disadvantaged, a young bearded guy dressed in college cap and t-shirt appeared in the courtyard. We greeted one another and began a conversation. As we talked I learned that he was the staff leader of a large group from Glorieta Baptist Conference Center that had been volunteering at Open Hands all week. Most were teens, but there were also adults in the group.

Our conversation centered on this young guy as we made our way with words. I’m naturally curious about people, but his strong southern accent in this land of many accents caught my attention right off. “You’re from the south?” Affirmative.

“Where?”

“Alabama,” smiling.

“I have Alabama roots,” although I’ve been there only once, and that trip just a year ago.

 I immediately became curious about this Southern Baptist boy who later revealed his dyed-in the-wool conservative leanings when I asked him his opinion on women in the ministry. “It depends…” he responded. I was ready to tell him about  someone I have finally started reading only recently. Barbara Brown Taylor, an ordained Episcopal priest, now teaches religion at a small college in northeast Georgia, after a 20-year career in parish ministry. In 1995 she was voted one of the 12 most effective preaching voices in the United States by Baylor University.

“Oh, well, never mind,” I replied.

“Wait,” he protested in his most earnest southern drawl. So I gave him my short story’s worth of information on Barbara Brown Taylor.

After listening to this guy’s young story, learning that he’s confused about what he wants to do with his life, after three years of college, the most recent semester an apparent wipe out, I instinctively started mining his short academic life, as always eager to question and suggest, and finally throwing in a little of my own life of missteps and saves. Somehow he’s convinced that he’s made too many bad choices already—from engineering to computer programming to, I don’t recall. He loves acting. He also loves his summer work on the staff of Glorietta, where his job includes acts of generosity, such as he led this last week at Open Hands. IN a very telling comment, he observed that the young people he’s leading come from parents whose generation doesn’t give much thought to serving others.

As I finished watering my new plantings, he sticking to me as I moved around the garden, the group inside the center began a chorus of standard Baptist hymns. “How Great Thou Art…how great thou art.” “When they get to ‘Amazing Grace,’ I want to sing…my favorite,” I smiled. “Oh, I’m sure they will,” he smiled back.

Tools and supplies put away, new plantings watered, I made ready to leave, my brief job here complete. We walked into the great room where everyone else was gathered. It was already past time for the clients to start boarding the vans for their afternoon return home The ad hoc choir finished a hymn and began chattering over one more selection. I wished my new friend the best and put my right arm around him in a half, but heartfelt embrace. He returned the gesture. I would have given him one of my bear hugs, for which I am known, but I held off. My friend Peggy says that the Holy Spirit was present for this Friday afternoon meeting in the garden, that we were blest. I’m inclined to agree.

Opening Hands—Santa Fe New Mexico (July 12, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friends


It seems na├»ve and a little embarrassing to go on about how a little human affection makes a big difference in the quality of any day. I do pride myself on my sense of self-reliance, but I understand to my bones that no man is an island. As I sit here alone on a Friday evening, the gorgeous, cleansing rain that has brought cool temperatures to this particular spot on the high desert and the birds vocalizing their appreciation outside my balcony door seem somehow not enough. I am simply and miraculously the product of that mystery which lies behind creation. I am somewhat an introvert, sometimes a loner, sometimes gregarious. Like most of us, I like being liked and love being loved. I relish my role as well in those dynamics. Today my share of time and space with others was small—ample conversation, but little connection. This day was mostly about solitary quality.

Although I can be just about as friendly as the next guy, I don’t make friends easily. “Friend” is not a big player in my vocabulary. I have lots of acquaintances, some that I know fairly well, but those who know the best and the worst of me, their numbers are small. Maybe that’s as it should be. A couple of friends, Joy and Judy, are vacationing at their summer place in northern New Mexico right now. Earlier this week I decided on impulse to drive the 70 miles north to Taos, and because their place on the mesa is in the general vicinity, I called from Santa Fe to see if they had plans to be in Taos, which is somewhat a safari-like 45 minute journey from their casa among the chamisa.

You have two choices from their place to Taos. Either way you begin with a buckboard-like ride to the highway, a road that becomes virtually impassable in the aftermath of heavy rains. If you’re a newbie who hasn’t internalized a sense of the trail from highway to house, you might end up visiting someone else, likely an empty house, out on this mesa with an unobstructed view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From their place, one route to Taos takes you several miles across land down a dirt road before you reach the highway on the north side of Taos, that which takes you across a high bridge with breath-sucking, soles-of-the-feet tingling views of the Rio Grande deep below. The other takes you down in the gorge where flows the Rio Grande and to the highway on the south side of Taos. Either way, the terrain is a little tough or a little scary, and the scenery stunning. “If you come to Taos without coming here, you’ll be sorry,” I’m kindly advised by Joy. From the background, “I’ll kick your butt…” (if you don’t come see us). Now, that’s friendship. Call me to task, even though it likely won’t change my Virgo impulses.

As it turned out, I didn’t make it to the mesa, but I did meet up with Judy and their neighbor Gregg, and we paid a call on friend Jana, who lives in the mountains at Ojo Sarco but was working this day at one of her gigs, situated on the Taos/Santa Fe highway. Jana is a friendship in progress, and even though we haven’t earned our stripes with one another, we have no-holds-barred conversations. Gregg has become a summer buddy. We’re easy with one another. We connect at soul level, but I see him only in the summer. Joy, Judy and I go back 35 years, to when Judy was a high school senior. They are, with no one else in sight, my longest standing friends. Judy drove 175 miles to bring me food, fresh cut flowers and solace the weekend of my mother’s death. We drank too much wine and danced to Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”, and the next day we took our picture, squinting in the early afternoon sun, before I made the solitary journey to west-west Houston to see my Mother, for the first time, dressed for burial.

Joy has been friend and mother to many. I was a young teacher when we met at the inner city middle school where many of us felt abandoned during the 1972 court order requiring the Dallas schools to integrate. Joy was getting a divorce. I was coming out. I took a long time. Mother, daughter and I became fast friends, and though the years have kept us mostly apart, and at times not in communication with one another, we’ve always reconnected, and it’s always the same, but different, better. Only a month before Mother died early last year, as Joy and I sat in a Ft. Worth parking lot while Judy took care of some business, Joy advised me that I would likely have to make my mother’s journey home a little easier. I pray that I did.

So I am a little lonely this evening. It would be nice, sitting on the mesa after a rain, talking about the ocean of things that friends talk about, reading by flashlight and drifting off to sleep listening to the breath across the room of someone who hugs you soundly on greeting and really wants to know how you’re doing. “I hope you’re happy,” Joy said in an email last winter about my new journey here in the high desert, “or at least content”. Yes, I want to be here, even during the lonely times. Somehow I take comfort, right now, knowing that my friends—those who know my best and my worst—are not so far away.

Friends—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 11, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

 

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Good Intentions


After my two sisters and I were grown, Mother got a toy poodle that she named Jacques. Why a toy poodle, I don’t remember. While we were at home dogs were not allowed in the house, except for the occasional few nights when a new puppy joined our family. It might have been Daddy’s first cousin EJB’s third wife who talked Mother into a poodle. I can hear MLB, sipping a cocktail—she and EJB always brought their own booze because Mother and Daddy didn’t really drink—and taking a long draw on her king-size, filtered, menthol cigarette, pronouncing the breed’s name…”pooh-tell”. Like Roger Clemens claimed in his Senate interrogation last winter, I could be misremembering. It matters not because what I’m really reminded of is Jacque’s good intentions during his season of house breaking. Mother had been advised to put newspaper down on the kitchen linoleum floor for when Jacque’s needs arose indoors. Sometimes when he went to the newspaper to relieve himself, his little white furry paws would be responsibly planted on the paper, but his tee-tee went smack on the linoleum—E for effort.

Like young Jacques some 40 odd years ago, sometimes the good intentions of we humans miss the mark. Recently, as I sat outside the coffee shop, I watched the guy who takes care of emptying the waste receptacles and watering the flowers thriving in large ceramic containers in this part of a large commercial center. He was a friendly guy whose first language obviously is not English. This was unscientifically confirmed when I overheard him on his cell phone speaking fluent Spanish in rapid-fire fashion. Of course, any foreign language sounds rapid fire to a non-speaker. He went about his work systematically, pulling the liner from all of the trash containers before placing clean liners in them.

The container in front of the coffee shop sat vulnerable for a time while people continued dropping trash from their vehicles into the unlined container—good intentions, yes, except for moist, sticky waste. I suppose that at some point someone will face the job of scrubbing out these containers. I guess it just goes with the territory. Perhaps the kitchen garbage cans of some of these folks are caked with who knows what because trashcan liners don’t cross their radar screen. And no doubt, future-encrusted waste is far better in an unlined trash container than littered along the roadways, especially my roadway.

At home in rural Leon County, Texas, our county road is a target for everything—spent bags and containers from any number of fast food places, unwanted parts of out of season deer carcasses, any season wild hog carcass remnants, worn out tires, lots of beer cans, entire empty cases of beer, bags bursting with trash. Hello, God-fearing, conservative-voting Leon County. Unfortunately, there are no good intentions expressed in the garbage disposed of along County Road 456. The spirit expressed there is well illustrated in the story of the papa dog explaining to his son why he raises his leg on every tree in the yard. “Well son,” he says, “if you can’t eat it or fuck it, piss on it”. So there you have it.

Unlike dogs, who know no better by instinct, and left to their own would pee on any floor at any time at any point in their lives, humans, especially those driving the BMWs, Lexuses, Subarus, and even cars of lesser pedigree that populate this parking lot every day, most likely have been taught differently. I guess it’s my Virgo personality that prevents me from dropping a paper cup half filled with cream and sugar laced java into a bare waste container. Do I remember my Virgo mother tossing a wadded up Dentyne wrapper through the window of her Blazer? And didn’t I scold her for littering? Maybe that happened earlier in our lives before lots of us became mindful of trash along the roadways, around the time that litter campaigns called us to awareness.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions—so say the more hard-nosed among us, those who likely should sweep under their own doormats for all kinds of evidence of some sort of guilt. Perhaps a lot of us are in trouble with the Judge, in spite of our good intentions. I doubt that we’ll ever get that settled. What we can do is take another collective hard look in the mirror. Go on and love me until it hurts. Discipline me for my own good. Give me lots of opportunities to observe the well-intentioned behavior of others falling short of the mark. Bring it on. Finally, though, remind me that we’re all responsible for keeping the same boat on course and in reasonable order. Just help me keep on paying attention.

Good Intentions—Santa Fe New Mexico (July 8, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

 

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Home by Another Way


“I have seen the eyes of the enemy and it is me.” I should have this tattooed on the palm of my left hand so that I can remind myself frequently. Another, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself. “ That can go on the right palm. Even Raven, this morning sitting atop a pole housing lights that in darkness illuminate the DeVargas Center parking lot, knows these lessons and others. I can’t say what he talks about so noisily, but I sense that he’s convinced of his take on life.

All the self help gurus and preachers of the gospel of prosperity can continue on their circuits and count their return on the way to the bank, but none of what any one of them has to say matters a tinker’s dam. What does matter is that I finally change my habits. Life is a mighty teacher, and if we pay attention even a little bit, we can read its lessons, which sometimes most profoundly are simple. We make the journey complicated.

The volunteer organization for which I help prepare meals every Thursday afternoon to be delivered to 70 or so shut-ins depends on the kindness of people like you and me for funding and to do the daily labor, along with grant money and support from the City of Santa Fe. It is my first ever relatively sustained volunteer effort, and in only four weeks my nature has been challenged over and over—resistance of authority, dislike of pettiness, turf war where no one owns anything of value, rejection of expectations leveled by someone else. No slacker am I, nor have I ever been, but I thrive off of setting my own bar. Even when I’m being a curmudgeon, as I balk at the arbitrariness of others, my intent is almost always fair, reasonable—in my mind, indeed in my heart.

An old dog can learn new tricks. Slowly, slowly, over and over, I’m learning life’s mighty lessons. I’m recognizing that humility when I’m most fearful can be a good thing. I’m putting myself in the path of opportunities to be reminded that pride is not always proud, especially when insecurity is at the heart of it. From my dear mother I got a good dose of some kind of messy mix of pride and fear hardened to steely resistance. It never served her well, although I never heard her say otherwise. I’m saying it for myself, however. It hasn’t served me well.

Awhile back I volunteered for a task that had to be performed this weekend. Having made the commitment, I began feeling vulnerable, naked, and though I tried to worm my way into the background of this project, I was forced to step up and out. The actual service required of me matters not. The potential reward was the satisfaction of having done a good deed and good job, the by-product precious growth. Mission accomplished, but the list of assignments remains long.

A walk in the wilderness this Sunday morning with a group of like-minded pilgrims where some of us learned a little more about each other and all of us gave thanks at 10,000 feet was a suitable juncture to the weekend—a place on the calendar where some celebrated with fireworks and barbecue and fire water over the course of a few days, perhaps acknowledging the actual reason for the celebration. Imagine Christmas without store-bought presents, with only what we bring to one another. Imagine a greater awareness focused outside oneself, where we can lay down the burdens of who we are or who we fear ourselves to be in exchange for offering gifts of kindness and service instead, even to those whom we are surprised to reveal that we are indeed the Magi heading home by another way.

Home By Another Way—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 6, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

 

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Horse Flesh


Having grown up around the rodeo, another rodeo is just another evening of ridin’ and ropin’, although that changes somewhat when the event draws the competitors who have chosen to call themselves professionals. They have extra talent, and in the cases of those whose sport requires high-powered horse flesh, they apparently either have deep pockets or a supportive local banker.

Our experiences as kids and teenagers were of the extremely low-brow variety. The horses came from Dude Davis’s Mule Barn on Washington Avenue in Houston, Texas, and our rig was at first a small, open stock trailer and later a second-hand, covered two-horse trailer, both pulled by the pickup truck our family used in its meat company business for transporting animal carcasses from the slaughter house to the processing plant. Hand-forged tall railing could be put in place and removed by a couple of men of average strength.

A favorite time for me after we moved to the country where our parents started their meat processing business was going into Houston—a 25 mile drive—with Daddy on a Sunday morning, his only day off, to look at horses. Daddy did the looking and the talking with Dude, a crusty, old guy who wore suspenders on his pants and a well-loved rancher-style Stetson atop his balding gray head, which topped the face of someone who had had sandy red hair in his younger days and now bore the evidence of dangerously too much sun. His style of Stetson would later gain importance when companies began calling it the LBJ.

Anyone old enough to remember the Kennedy-Johnson years knows Lyndon Johnson’s small brimmed, good-looking Stetson. Dude’s hat had earned the look that wannabes of the 21st century can mostly only play at. The authenticity that characterized Dude was not uncommon in the 50s of my childhood, even in the city, but that’s not to say that Dude’s M. O. was anything other than that of a horse trader. I don’t remember much conversation. Good-looking, South Texas ranch working horse, chestnut sorrel, nice rein, gentle, seven years old—those were the terms that would have been exchanged, and of course, the price. One hundred dollars was a good chunk. Our prizes from the Mule Barn were Sue Anna and a much less sterling find we named Ginger. About the most you can say about Ginger is that she was a nice-looking red sorrel with a flax mane and tail. Aside from being gentle, she was short in the talent department, and probably the product of mediocre genes.

Sue Anna, of South Texas provenance with no registration papers, was clearly from good stock, well trained, what is commonly called a grade horse. She became a champion barrel racing horse—she could turn on a dime—seeing my oldest sister, Joan, all the way through her senior year in college. My brief rodeo career came during a couple of years where I rode Sue Anna in the junior barrel race, after Joan had gotten a new mount, a registered quarter horse mare. I never lost an event over those two years. I stashed my winnings in a metal box under my bed. Over 50 years later I can see the box, resting on the hardwood floor, a chenille spread hanging low enough that I somehow thought my treasure out of sight—protected from whom I don’t know.

Being the youngest of three, I was the one still living at home, even though I had graduated from college, when in 1968 Daddy and I found Sue Anna back in the woods on a hot, August Sunday morning, dead from what must have been a respiratory illness. She had suffered for a good while by then, and she must have been at least 20 years old. Daddy used a tractor and blade to scrape away enough dirt from the summer-baked clay pasture surface to make a suitable burial place. Over the years—before and later—we always compared any barrel horse we saw to Sue Anna, and of course, no horse compared favorably in the reining department.

I don’t know why, but I was a little surprised last Saturday night to realize how much excitement is generated around the barrel racing event these days. Overall, the horses are a lot faster—many of them from racing stock—and their cost can range from that of a modestly-priced new vehicle to the cost of a 3-bedroom brick home in the suburbs, or an old, fixer-upper on valuable land in a city neighborhood working its way back to respectability. Add to that the cost of a fancy rig and the expense of traveling from, say, San Antonio, Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and you’re looking at some serious money. Although almost half of the girl-women riding in the Saturday-night go-round knocked over a barrel—a five second penalty that used to result in a “no time”—the good-looking, pedigreed, well-bred horses made their way around the barrels in lightning-like speed. One competitor was mounted on a horse so high strung, so bred to run, that someone on the equivalent of a track “pony” escorted her to the starting point out of the arena chute. With each rider the anticipation was high, the grand stands cheering for a better time. And the stakes were high because money sufficient to make a big difference in the life of a less-fortunate family had been spent all around to get horse and rider to Rodeo de Santa Fe.

I’m glad I made it to the final performance of Santa Fe’s annual PRCA rodeo, even though I’ve seen way more than one person’s share of bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc bustin’, roping and heeling. I will never get over the amazement I feel when I see exceptional talent. I never had that talent, although I was blessed enough to ride well enough to accompany Sue Anna around the barrels. Joan owns a beautiful, collectible sterling silver and 10k gold trophy buckle, earned jointly with our family’s grade-quality gifted mare. As the credit card commercial claims, “the memories…priceless”. Although I own several saddles, mostly a collection of older Texas-made saddles, I own no horse. A few years ago, I sold the grade-quality gelding that I owned for a while. He was a gentle spirit, a well-trained young cow horse who deserved more attention and use than I gave him. He was my very own Sue Anna in the late years of this journey.

Horse Flesh—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 1, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis