Ride the Wild Pony
My conception came about on a short army furlough in late 1944, right before my father went back to the war in Europe. My father was a cook in the famous “fighting” 69th Infantry Division. I was nearly a year old when he came back.
It’s really hard to discern what you actually remember when you were young from what you have been told. I know I have very vivid memories from an early age, with details that amazed my parents and relatives. The day I got to ride the Wild Pony is one of those memories.
We didn’t go outside of my grandmother Bessie’s house very much in the late 1940s. It wasn’t because the neighborhood was unsafe, but rather to avoid a very fine, light, and constant dusting of soot and other dirt that came from the steel mills. The falling dirt was particularly bad in the neighborhoods like ours, which were closest to downtown. When we did go out, we usually wrapped a cloth around our mouth and nose for protection. As a child, I couldn’t wait to get inside where I could really breathe!
One particularly hazy Pittsburgh morning, my mother and grandmother said I had a big surprise coming, but I would have to wait until the afternoon to discover it.
Like most kids, I didn’t like the idea of waiting. I wanted the surprise to happen right now! I was so excited I couldn’t eat my breakfast, couldn’t sit still, and certainly couldn’t keep quiet. I knew I had gone beyond the limits of my mother’s patience when she uttered those dreaded words, “If you don’t calm down right now, there will be NO surprise.” I got the message.
The morning went by pretty much like most mornings with quiet knocks at the kitchen side door and lots of people coming in, sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee, talking about their dreams, and picking their numbers to play that day.
I played with my toys on the kitchen floor for the next couple of hours, but it was a struggle since there was no passion or imagination about playing with mere toys on this exciting day. All my mind could think about was, “What’s the big surprise?”
Occasionally someone sitting at the kitchen table would bend over and ask me to pick a number out of a small book. “Just put your finger on one,” they would say, “it might bring us luck.” I was always happy to do whatever they asked because they seemed so happy when I did. Some would even give me a penny for my work!
My grandmother made a trip up the street every day to give her numbers bets and money to a street runner (someone who delivered the betting slips to the Italian “family” who operated the betting in our part of the city). On this day, when she returned from her trip, my mother said it was finally time for my surprise. My eyes got very wide, and I started jumping and screaming, “surprise, surprise,” until I had to go to the potty.
When I finished my business and came out into the living room, my mother and Bessie were holding two small, colorfully wrapped boxes in their hands. They put the presents on the floor, and I opened each one like I open gifts today—ruthlessly!
The first box contained a big piece of red- and white-checkered fabric that looked a lot like Bessie’s silk babushka (headscarf). My mother took it from me and tied it around my neck. She said all the cowboys wore these bandanas so they could keep the dust out of their mouths when they were driving cattle across the range.
The next box held a holster and two little cap pistols. Bessie put them around my waist, and I tried drawing them out, one at a time—then both at once. I remember having a very hard time drawing both together with my little hands! Still, I had everything a good cowboy needed—except a cowboy hat. Just then, there was a knock at the front door.
When my mother opened the door, I could see an older man standing there and holding some weathered and beaten leather straps. Whatever was attached to the straps was hidden out of my sight. He said to my mother in very broken English, “We’re ready for young boy.”
Bessie and my mother walked me out past the door, and right there on the street was the most beautiful little pony in the entire world! It was black and white, with a very shiny silver heart hanging around its neck. The old man said to me, “Dis is da vild pony, and you are going to get ride.”
Before he lifted me up on the pony, he took out a cowboy hat that was hanging from the saddle heel and put it on my head. With my cowboy hat, bandana, and two guns, I was ready for the ride of my life. I put my little feet in the fancy, polished leather stirrups that reached almost to the ground. (The stirrups were obviously meant for a larger horse.)
This was my first time on a horse. To this day, I can remember how that pony smelled and the power I felt in my hands as I took the reins. Sitting tall in the saddle, the Wild Pony turned, and we began clip-clopping up the cement sidewalk on Steuben Street. My mother walked alongside me just to make sure I wouldn’t fall off. But to me, she didn’t even exist. I vaguely remember hearing people talking in different languages as I went by. Some of the Black kids from across the street yelled excitedly. But my mind was focused. I was “one” with the Wild Pony.
I can tell you now that I went someplace special in my mind on the back of that pony. I really don’t know where it was, but I don’t think I have ever been there since.
They took a photo (which, let’s face it, was probably the original purpose for the Wild Pony ride), and it proudly occupies the cover of this book. It shows a two-and-a-half-year-old who had just finished the first real ride of his young life—on Steuben Street.