Willie’s formal name is Hog Back Willie Dew and he first came into my life when he was 8 months old. He was castrated on a bit of fresh snow in the barnyard and for many years I thought he would never forgive me. Willie is a draft horse, a Suffolk Punch who is now closing in on 15 years of age and one ton of flesh and emotion. He is my teacher and friend who helps me shed light into my dark places and may hold a key to my happiness as I enter the last quarter of my life.
I am writing these first words on a paper towel that I scavenged from the bathroom of a Russian train heading south towards Moscow. My wife is asleep in the adjoining seat and my normal writing materials are in a knapsack wedged under her legs. I have put off writing this story for too long now. I am at a stage in my life where due to my youthful but mistaken belief that I was invincible, I am starting to come undone physically. With my own mortality staring me in the face I wonder if it’s time to consider leaving something behind for my children and grandchildren to read.
I have always been a storyteller, mostly of the spoken word variety. But today with a pen made in Turkey and a paper towel from the Baltic Republics I will use written words to tell you one last tale. I would be honored if you would join me on this train heading down from the north so I might introduce you to my friends, both two and four legged and the ghosts and spirits that have accompanied me through the years.
I was born on what is fondly called “the Irish Riviera”, a small seaside town south of Boston. My father worked first as a boat builder, then as a furniture maker. My mother’s job in life was to craft me into the first Irish Catholic American president. I was 15 when John F. Kennedy beat me to that job but his victory only reaffirmed for her the road her son was meant to travel. Before you could say “fish on Friday” I was sent off to the proper boarding school, then on to Harvard and finally stuffed into a Naval officer’s uniform and pointed to a war in Southeast Asia. If all the PT boats were not in mothballs I am sure she would have found one for me to captain.
It’s not that I was all in favor of this program. Sometimes things just happen, especially when you are young, confused and a child of loving parents who have strong ideas for their children’s future. I was a pretty good kid, wanted to be liked and had little experience in making waves. It was really quite impressive how far mom’s program got me before it finally came apart.
The USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) was a destroyer build in 1944 for one purpose, to cross the Pacific and support the massive ground assault that was to end the war with Japan. The atom bomb put an end to her mission and she sat around for 30 years waiting for her moment in the sun. I joined her crew as a Navy Ensign shortly after graduation from Harvard in 1968 and worked hard with the men in Deck Division to keep this bucket of bolts from sinking. We chased Russian subs off of Nova Scotia and shot our guns at targets pulled by airplanes in a desperate hope of joining the war in Vietnam before it was over.
In the spring of 1969 we were stationed in Newport, Rhode Island with a large contingent of naval vessels preparing to deploy to the Pacific. I was asked by our captain to do a check of the ship’s 5” guns to see if they were combat ready. Our weapons were to be used to support our troops on the shore of the Tonkin Gulf. My battle station was on top of the forward gun mount and my job was to make sure the barrels were pointed in the right direction when being fired. Never having examined a barrel of a 5” gun much less having ever shot one, I went to the manual for advice. “Look for hairline cracks” the manual advised, so in I went searching with a flashlight and mirror. Much to my surprise the interior surface of the barrel had more cracks than a Bedouin’s shepherd’s forehead. I dutifully reported to our captain that our guns were compromised and not ready for combat.
“Do you know how long it would take to replace those barrels?” he asked as I faced him in his cabin. He took the inspection notice from my hands, put his own signature on it, and that was that. The whole exchange took less than 30 seconds but he set in process a chain of events that changed my life forever.
I began working in the woods of Maine on a logging crew when my wife and I moved to our small farm in the early 70’s. Marty was a potter and quickly set up her own business complete with a small studio and wood fired kiln. Ever since I was a child I had dreamed of being a farmer but now that the time had come, I found I knew nothing about growing our food much less cutting wood for our heat. And the demand for a psychology major was somewhat thin up in Porter, Maine so it took me months to find any work at all. Finally a logging contractor named Larry Walker with a sense of humor as big as his tummy hired my neighbor Bob and me to cut pine logs with his woods crew.
The first day on Larry’s logging job Bob and I chose to work in the forest as far from everyone else as possible. We did this to hide the fact that we had no idea what we were doing. We would notch the tree with a chain saw, make the back cut, then pull out the saw and run like hell, unsure of which way the tree would fall. A man named Wilbur showed up with a sled pulled by a team of big horses to examine the mess we made. It turns out that he was born in Bob’s house so he quickly took pity on us and for the coming months guided us in the technique of felling trees. When the job ended in late summer, I had fallen in love with horse logging. Marty and I have had draft horses on our farm ever since.
Years later I helped start a logging school here in Maine with a group of like-minded friends. I was convinced that learning to work with horses in the woods did not need to be a near death experience. Today horse logging is an art that is struggling to survive in the face of tractor-like “skidders” and large mechanized equipment. But there are still a few folks doing it the “old fashioned” way and it is not unusual to have some of the old timers visit when I’m working with my team, sit down on a log and relive those days when life was slower and somehow better.
It was during one of these workshops at our school that I was approached by a man and his wife, both in their seventies. Mrs. Abbott introduced herself to me and then turned to her husband.
“George, tell Peter here what’s going on”.
“Well”, he began somewhat reluctantly, “I’ve had draft horses since I was a kid and my father and grandfather had horses before me. Last year I bought this mare and I can’t do a god-damn thing with her. She won’t step up when I want her to move, she won’t stand still when I want her to stand. I don’t know what got into me to choose to buy this horse.”
I could tell that the last place George wanted to be at this very moment was standing in front of a person half his age and asking for advice. Then I said either one of the wisest things I have even said or one of the stupidest.
“Well sir, maybe you didn’t choose that horse, maybe that horse chose you.”
George looked at me the same way he might have looked at a blown out tire on his pickup on a dark night with 10 miles still to go till home. I hadn’t meant to be disrespectful. Clearly this man had much more experience with big horses than I. The words just came out of my mouth. But before I could begin my apology his wife broke in.
“I told you so, George, didn’t I?” she exclaimed. ”I told you there was a reason why Bonnie came to our farm. We just got to figure out what she is trying to tell us.”
I never saw George Abbott or his wife again. I hoped they worked out their issues with Bonnie. But that little voice of mine had told me a powerful truth, one that would take years for me to fully understand, for I was slow to learn we have little or no control over the animals or people that come into our lives.
My wife stirred next to me as the Moscow train slowed for the town of Sergeiv Posad. I had taught here at the agricultural college and it was one of the loneliest periods of my life. I leaned forward to look out the opposite window to see if I could pick out the cold and remote dormitory where I lived during those weeks. It really wasn’t that long ago, maybe 15 years. No one in the college spoke English. I spoke some Russian, had one friend with whom I could chatter on with in French but when it came to the end of the school day, I would find myself walking many miles over vast fields of grain and dark forest just trying to get tired enough to fall asleep at night.
People I would pass on my walks could see I was a stranger from far off. It seemed they were all on their guard for when we grew close their eyes would drop to the path. So I would smile and say in a strong and loving voice, “do-bre dein” and watch them momentarily falter, then see a thin smile cross their face. Wherever I have worked in foreign countries, as an American this has been the role I have played, to say hello and smile in spite of everything.