Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How I Came To Own My Mother's Zebra

I grew up watching Western movies.  Every Saturday afternoon I hightailed it down to the Lyric Theater in Earlville, Illinois for The Kiddies Matinee.  There I spent a thrilling, popcorn-fueled 90 minutes vicariously riding along with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the rest of their fearless, rootin' tootin', cow punching compadres.  I cheered them on as they chased outlaws and renegades back and forth across the Technicolor expanses of the Great American West.

With my weekly allowance and ample help from Woolworth's Five and Dime, I outfitted myself in my heroes' images.  I sported a matched set of nickel plated cap guns, genuine imitation leather holsters, a two gallon hat, plastic spurs that didn't jangle but did glow in the dark, and an oversized pair of tan corduroy slacks which, if you squinted and used your imagination, resembled chaps.

I always lacked the one essential cowboy accessory I wanted more than any other; a horse, a trusty steed, preferably one named Trigger, Champion, Topper, Silver, or Scout.  I longed to sit tall in my very own saddle, wave my hat in the air, shout "Whoopee-ti-ti-yo.", spur my mount, and ride off like the wind.  Palomino, pinto, bay, paint, I loved them all.  Any size, any breed, any color, didn't matter.  I wanted a horse of my own.

I never got one.  The closest I came were my yearly trips to Chicago's immense and wondrous Riverview Amusement Park.  Forget the roller coaster, Tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars, and fun house.  I went for the merry-go-round.  Specifically to ride one magnificent wooden horse.  He stood strong and proud on the outside row.  He was jet black.  His tossed mane, barred teeth, flared nostrils, and wide-open eyes gave him a savage, fearsome expression.  He had a rifle tucked under his blanket and a coiled lariat looped over his pommel.  He was everything a budding cowboy could want.  I named him Lightning and rode him to exhaustion (mine, not his.) once every summer.  I never forgot the thrill I got from sitting astride that beautiful wooden steed, and I never will.

I gave up on my fantasy of owning a real horse.  I had to.  I now live on the top floor of a high rise co-op.  I suspect my downstairs neighbors would strongly object to the clip clop of horse hooves overhead, let alone that pungent manure smell wafting through the hallways.  Even worse,  turns out that exposure to horse hair gives me a severe case of sneezing fits.  A singing cowboy, yes.  A sneezing cowboy?  I don't think so.

Instead of a real horse, I now a merry-go-round horse.  Even though I may never ride my beloved Lightning again, I can still climb aboard his first cousin.  My merry-go-round horse was hand carved by the very same fellow who created that fantastic animal I remember so well from my youth.

A friend who knew of my interest in merry-go-round horses once sent me a photo showing a rather goofy looking horse.  All white from head to foot. missing both ears and one front leg.  The horse’s real horsehair tail stuck up at an odd angle high up on its rump.  Somebody had gouged out the eyes and had replaced them with red bicycle reflectors.  The saddle had been wired up so anybody sitting on it would get a shock when the leads were connected to a battery.  Still, the horse had charmingly dainty lines.  I suspected thick, multiple coats of paint might be covering up a rather nice piece of carving.  The horse was for sale, so I bought it.

Through research, I discovered this horse had been part of a long-dismantled carousel which had operated at Riverview Park (a different Riverview, not the one of my boyhood memories) in Aurora, Illinois. 

When I told my mother about my new acquisition, she remarked that she and my father had visited that park many times when they were courting.  Her favorite animal had been a zebra.  She rode the zebra every visit, the same way I had ridden my favorite Lightning.

I turned this odd-looking animal over to a carousel restorer.  The restorer took one look and told me why this was such an odd looking horse.  Because this wasn't a horse.  This was, surprise, surprise, a zebra. 

As merry-go-rounds aged, and park attendance declined, carousel owners could no longer afford to maintain the rides in pristine shape.  When time came to repaint a thirty or forty year old merry-go-round, rather than laboriously redoing the zebra's stripes, owners eliminated the stripes and turn the zebra into an ersatz horse.  This necessitated cutting off the wooden zebra tail, drilling a new hole, and inserting a horsehair tail.  That accounted for the tail’s weird high-up angle.  The rest of the alterations, the eyes and the hot-wired saddle, came when the zebra-horse eventually landed in a college fraternity's rec room.

I called my mother and asked her to describe that zebra she had ridden so long ago at Riverview. 

She had no trouble whatsoever.  She still remembered that animal vividly, especially the monkey heads carved on either side, just behind its saddle.  When I checked. I discovered, low and behold, twin monkey heads behind this zebra’s saddle.  I had purchased the very same animal that had enchanted my mother so many years ago.

My restorer put the animal back into original condition.  New ears, eyes, tail, and leg finished off with an authentic zebra paint job. 

After the zebra was completed, I showed the animal to my mother.

She started to cry.  “Yes,” she said, “that’s the same zebra I rode when your father and I were courting.”

I helped her climb up and sit in the saddle.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy.

What’s even more amazing is the fact that no other animal from that Riverview carousel has ever surfaced.  Only this one.  My mother’s favorite.

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