Tall In the Saddle
My 91-year-old father had many jobs: taxi driver, fireman, farmworker. But nothing defined him more than the time he spent on horseback patrolling the mighty Rio Grande.
MY FATHER DOESN’T WATCH TELEVISION ANYMORE. He used to follow the Astros, but since going to the nursing home, he’s lost his patience for watching them lose. With no television, no desire to talk to old men who fall asleep midway through a conversation, and nothing to occupy his time if he isn’t in physical therapy or eating his meals, he tends to get restless. His bed sits at an angle that makes it difficult for him to look out the window. If it’s not too hot, my mother takes him outside in his wheelchair so he can look at the passing cars or maybe at the resaca, where the ducks come waddling onto the lawn.
When I stopped by for a visit a few weeks ago, he was lying in bed, on his right side, staring at the blank wall.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“About nothing,” he said, and kept staring.
This was not the first time I had found him this way. It’s been almost a year since he broke his hip, just a month after his ninetieth birthday, and then began losing what little strength remained in his legs.
Later that night, I dug through some of my parents’ photo albums, made copies of a dozen or so pictures, mostly in black and white, and created a collage for my father’s room. There was a sepia-toned photo of him as a young man in 1934, before he left for the CCC camps. Near the center of the poster I placed his wedding photo, from 1939. A few of the surrounding images were of his twelve brothers and sisters, almost all of whom have passed away. In several of the photos he was dressed for the different jobs he’d had—farmworker, taxi driver, deliveryman, policeman, fireman—including the one he’d started with the federal government in 1950.
The one color photo that stood out to me was taken several years after he joined the USDA. My father was sitting on a quarter horse, chestnut with white patches covering parts of its forehead and chest. He and the horse were partially turned away from the camera, as if they were about to ride off and something had caught their attention. My father and the horse stood at the edge of an open field, the shade of a jagged mesquite on the left side of the frame, the rise of the levee on the right, the haziness of the clouded sky in the background. As I looked at the photo, I noticed how after so many years the image had faded around the edges, as if slowly dissolving.
The USDA paid more and provided better benefits than my father’s other jobs, but it wasn’t necessarily easier work. Along with visiting farms and ranches to inspect cattle and horses, he spent a good part of his workday patrolling the banks of the Rio Grande to make sure livestock weren’t being smuggled into the country. The men who did this work along the border were helping to prevent Texas cattle fever, which had devastated the cattle business in 1885. But I didn’t know this history back when I was a kid; all I knew was that my father had a horse. I grew up thinking my father ate and slept in the house with us but then in the early morning would ride off, looking for whatever adventure awaited him along the Rio Grande.
He kept the horse on a farm not far from the house. On the weekends he and I would drive out there and together feed the animal its oats and hay. The best, though, were those summer days when my father would drive home for lunch and bring the horse. We lived on the east side of Brownsville, in what now and back then, in the late sixties, could be called a working-class neighborhood. Our next-door neighbor was a dogcatcher; the man and his family across the street were migrants; next to them lived a man who managed a rental car agency and his wife, who was a schoolteacher; next to them was a man who worked on a shrimp boat; and across the street from him was a man who sold furniture at a big store downtown. And then there was my father, who every day at lunch drove home in his lime-green government truck, pulling with it a small trailer that carried his horse.
After eating, we’d go back outside, and by then the neighborhood kids would have gathered to catch a glimpse of what was inside the covered trailer. From the outside, seeing only the bottom half of the animal, the four hoofed legs seemed unreal, detached from the rest of it. The stirrups dangled from the horse’s sides like distorted limbs. If you stood at the front of the trailer and turned your head just so, you could look up under the dome and see the snout—the sage chin whiskers, the enormous nostrils, the grass-stained teeth. Occasionally the horse would stomp one of its hooves, rocking the small trailer and, in the process, jolting all the kids back into the street.
Usually my father was in a hurry to get back to work, but there was one day I remember when he walked to the back of the trailer and lifted the heavy iron bar that secured the gate. Then he made a clicking sound with his tongue, and the horse inched backward to the edge of the platform, where it gracefully stepped down. On the street it snorted and freely swished its tail, as if it were some mythical creature that had descended into our neighborhood.
My father looped the end of the reins around one of the trailer bars. After cinching the saddle another notch and tugging on the horn, he turned and said, “How ’bout a ride?”
At that point, every boy on the street started begging, “Me, sir! Pick me, sir!” frantically waving his hands. Then my father reached down and lifted me high into the air until he gently sat me down in the saddle. Once I was secure, he tugged on the pommel and cantle.
“Does it feel tight enough?” he asked.
And I nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”
He gripped my hands around the horn. “Hold on then.”
The stirrups hung far below my feet, but my father was guiding the horse by the reins. I could see the other boys trailing us—some jogging so they wouldn’t fall behind, others keeping pace on their bikes—as we walked to an empty lot, made a huge circle, and headed back home.
After 33 years of service, my father retired from the USDA and sold the last horse he would ride. For the next 22 years he stayed at home, mainly working in the yard. He was in good health for a man in his seventies, then eighties, and eventually nineties. About the only thing that bothered him was a weak left leg—the same leg that caused him to fall, break his hip, and wind up in the nursing home.
As I put together the collage for his room, I made sure to include the color photo of him on horseback. I tried to use only the best images, but I knew anything I chose would be better than his staring at a blank wall.
When I walked in the next day, my father was lying in bed, waiting for his physical therapy class.
“What do you have there?” he said as he watched me tape the poster to the wall.
When I stepped away, he looked at the images for a long time, allowing his eyes to focus on faces he hadn’t seen in years. Each photo had a story that he wanted to tell me, some of it as clear as if it had happened that morning, other parts fogged over by his medication and years of living. I helped him where I could, giving him clues to see if he could recall the name of an old friend or one of his partners from work. A couple times he had trouble remembering relatives who’d died years ago. Once I said the name, he’d nod and repeat it—“Rodolfo,” “Rodolfo”—as though all along it had been on the tip of his tongue.
After a while, he squinted and pointed at the color photo of himself on the horse.
“And that one?” he said.
“That’s you. Remember?”
My father glanced up at me and shook his head. “No, I mean the horse. Which one is it?” Then he grabbed ahold of the bed railing and pulled himself up for a better look.
“Junior?” I said, reminding him of his habit of naming each horse after the man he’d bought it from.
“Nah, you don’t know what you’re saying,” he told me. “Junior was a lighter color.”
My father stared at the horse for some time, as if he might will the name back to him after so many years. Finally he lay down and looked off at the retractable curtain to his left.
I wanted to ask what year he thought he’d bought the horse, but I figured this would frustrate him even more, since over the years he had bought and sold several horses. The photo looked old enough for anyone to forget some of the details. Still, I could tell he was upset that he couldn’t remember the name. For years after he’d retired, he’d spent his nights dreaming that he was still patrolling his 35-mile stretch of territory, starting alongside the dusty farmlands and ending at the mouth of the river, where he would gaze out at the Gulf of Mexico.
A few minutes later, my father looked at the photo, again. A nurse’s aide walked in about this time, ready to take him to his physical therapy. She was a young, heavyset woman, big around the shoulders, in a way that must have helped her when she had to move a patient.
The aide greeted both of us but then quickly got distracted and walked straight to the collage on the wall.
“¿Un vaquero?” she said, widening her eyes as she glanced over her shoulder. “Ay, sir, why didn’t you tell us you were a cowboy?”
My father pretended he didn’t hear her and adjusted the collar of his pajamas.
The aide shrugged and then pulled out the wheelchair, parked in a corner. She was lowering the bed railing when an older nurse rushed in and said she needed her help.
“I’ll be right back, sir,” the aide said, before hurrying out the door.
My father mumbled something and sat up. I asked him to wait for the nurse’s aide to get back, but he wasn’t listening. He turned so his legs were dangling off the side of the bed.
“Come closer,” he said.
I moved the chair up a little and locked the wheels. Then I squatted and put my arms around my father’s waist, as he took ahold of my shoulders. I counted to three and slowly raised him, surprised at how light he felt in my arms. When I had him standing, he turned his feet enough for me to lower him into the chair.
I was adjusting the footrests when the aide walked back in.
“Already you got in the chair?” she said.
My father nodded and looked to his right, toward the photo. The aide turned the wheelchair away from the bed. They were almost out of the room when he raised his hand and asked her to stop. Then he called me over.
“What is it?” I said.
“What?” I leaned down so I could hear him.
“The horse, in the photo—his name was Billy.”