Ode to Bruce

It began as a simple end of the day trail ride, but quickly turned into an incident that we would claim bragging rights to like an old war wound. My best friend, Barbara, came out to Flanders for a visit from our hometown, Queens Village. She wasn’t crazy about horses, but I was determined to change that. I had fallen madly in love with these beautiful creatures while hanging out at Hilltop Farms, a small stable, that was tucked away off Flanders Road near the Big Duck. On special occasions, the manager of the stable, Wendy, would let us all go out for a ride at the end of the day. We got the go ahead, and everyone tacked up their favorite horse minus saddles, and we were off. While there are some things about that day I will never forget, thirty-five years has blurred some of the details. I do remember that Bruce, an experienced and strong rider, rode the beautiful black and white paint, Zoro, who, to put it mildly, was a little high strung. Barbara, afraid to get on a horse by herself, doubled up with me on Katie who was fast and fiery like her sorrel coloring but also had a sweet and loyal disposition. Robby, another strong rider, rode Miss Kaye, a fast chestnut mare. Lisa rode her favorite, Jasper, who was a dapple gray and was as unpredictable and precocious as she was. Bob and Erich rode Poco and Shamrock, both were easy going horses that matched their rider’s personalities. Nathan, the youngest in the group, rode Pack O Troubles, a golden chestnut rescued thoroughbred who did not like to stop. We headed up a wide straightaway to the old quarter horse racetrack. The entrance to the woodsy trail branched off the track about a quarter of the way around. All the horses knew the way, and being that it was the end of the day, we were expecting a nice mellow ride. I’m not sure which horse started trotting first, but it only lasted about two hoofbeats, and the horses were off like a shot. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of black and white as Zoro passed. Bruce yelled to me that he was going around the track to cut us off. I could hear Jasper on my right and Lisa yelling, “I can’t stop him.” I wanted to yell at her to get away because he was just making Katie go faster, but I was concentrating too hard on staying on Katie. Barbara pleaded, “This isn’t fun. Make her stop. Make her stop!” What Barbara didn’t realize was that I was balancing on Katie’s shoulders, and was hanging on to her mane for dear life. I knew that if I let go, we would fall off and be trampled by the horses behind us. Katie, one of the fastest and in front, turned into the trail, and Barbara and I sailed off her and into the woods with Lisa following behind us. I woke up face down in the sand to the sounds of Barbara screaming, Katie standing over me nuzzling my head, and Lisa crawling over to me. I yelled for Barbara, but I couldn’t get up because my leg was injured. Bruce got there at that moment and jumped off Zoro. He saw that Lisa and I were okay, but heard Barbara and ran to find her. He came back and said that her arm was broken. Somehow he got me back on Katie, and Lisa walked us back holding Jasper and Katie’s reins, so we could get help back at the stable. Bruce was only seventeen at the time, but he knew just what to do. He had an easy going way about him, but when needed, he took charge. His looks didn’t hurt either; he was a wrestler at school and had broad shoulders, dark brown hair that was parted on the side and managed to slide over his sky blue eyes, and he sported a slightly crooked smile. Later, he stayed with us at the hospital, and wouldn’t leave Barbara’s side until her parents showed up and drove her back to Queens where she needed to have surgery on her arm. After the accident and a short recuperation, I went back to the stable, and Bruce and I returned to our routine. Each morning he would come down to my house and wake me up. I slept by the window and would leave the screen unlocked. Bruce lifted it up and woke me up by gently shaking me. Then, we would take a short walk to the stable where we filled up the grain pails and let the horses down from the field. With the exception of my children, I don’t think anything has given me such joy and satisfaction as having a small herd of horses whinny their thanks as they dove into their grain buckets that lined the fence. Then, we’d sit back, wait for everyone to get there, and discuss the trial riding order of the day. Before wrapping up our day, we all loaded up the station wagon with bales of hay, headed up to the fields, and spread out plates of hay and made sure the tubs in the fields were filled with water. Bruce usually drove because he was the oldest and had his license. When we returned, we brushed down the horses, grain feed them, and let them up into the field. Once the hook was snapped off their halter and they were free of their leads, they were like little kids let out of school for the day. I loved watching them canter away until they got a safe enough distance away from the gate, and then they would drop and roll in the sand, get up and shake off the day, and trot away to the waiting hay. My birthday is at the end of the summer, so I was always lucky enough to spend it at the stables. The year of the accident, everyone chipped in and bought me a pony, Raquel. She was a beautiful strawberry roan. All too soon, summer ended and we all went back to school. Bruce promised to take care of Raquel for me, and when the stable closed and the horses were moved for the winter, he brought her over to a house on Pleasure Drive where I boarded her for the winter months. He wrote me often to tell me how she was doing, and how he was saving his money to get insurance for the station wagon that we used at the stable. Wendy was giving it to him, so he could get a job, save some money, and move out of his house, because things weren’t good or easy for Bruce at home. He could have left; friends offered space at their homes, but he stayed in the house as long as he could, so he could take care of his sisters. That’s the kind of guy he was. I looked forward to the horses, Bruce and the others, and the slow pace of life all year long, we all did, but before school ended that year, I got a phone call from Bob. I knew there was something wrong by the tone of his voice. There was no easy way to say it, Bruce was killed in a car accident. I refused to believe Bob, but my mother, hearing me yell, took the phone and spoke to him. Bruce’s family had a graveside funeral the next day. All I remember is the enormous crowd that was there; I’d forgotten that each of us had another self outside of the stable. We stable rats numbly stood on the outer fringes of that group. That following summer, we sat under that willow tree waiting for Bruce to show up knowing that it was impossible. The only thing that seemed to bring us any comfort was the horses. They knew; they could feel our grief and our loss. It was the way they carried us when we rode them, a soft nudge of their muzzle, or whinny or snort when words were in short supply. We were all a bit slower that year; we were broken. Bruce was one of those really good people that you just can’t understand why he was taken. Billy Joel helped us a bit by penning “Only the Good Die Young, ” and that was our anthem for the summer. We had two more years together at the stable, but never being financially sound, it folded. The stable was replaced by the likes of: Ed’s Bay Pub, The Boardy Barn, CPI, and Neptune Beach Club, but eventually we drifted apart. Two years ago, we reconnected with a visit to the site where the stable once stood, where time disappeared, and memories and love flooded back and connected us again like Bruce and the horses once did.