When I was a lad, we had a big red Morgan gelding named Timber. A previous owner had scarred his head and withers with a 2×4, and whether this was a cause or effect of this abuse, Timber was the fiercest animal I have ever known, and by far the meanest. He loved to behave defiantly. He particularly wanted us to understand that no fence could contain him. I once saw him lift a strand of electric fence with his nose and slide under it on his knees, pausing and stiffening each time a pulse of electricity jolted through him, until he was free on the other side of the fence. With a look of malevolent triumph on his disfigured face, he cantered off down the road.
One summer morning at dawn he escaped from the pasture into the orchard, and gorged himself on windfall apples, which fermented in his stomach. Soon he was colicky, and staggering drunk. We woke to the sound of his head pounding a loud and mournful tattoo against the side of the house.
The veterinarian came and announced he must pass a nasogastric tube, which was actually a green rubber garden hose with the coupling removed and the edge rounded by melting with a blowtorch. This would be passed through the horse’s nose to his stomach, releasing the painful fermentation gasses and allowing the offending fruit mash to be removed.
The struggle to get Timber back into the paddock left him agitated, but after a while he calmed to merely twitchy. The vet handed me the halter rope and said, “Kid, whatever you do, DO NOT let go of that rope!” Obediently, I turned it twice around each hand to augment my grip, and braced myself.
After several false starts the vet was able to get close enough to the horse to attempt the procedure. When that hose touched the horse’s nostril, the effect was immediate and violent. Timber reared back, lifting my 12-year-old, 100 pound self right off the ground. The world was a blur as I flailed about on the end of that rope, while steel-shod hoofs made a terrifying whooshing sound as they circled past my ears. My precautions had so entangled my hands with the rope that I probably could not have let go if I had thought of it, but I heeded the vet’s orders, and hung on for dear life.
Oddly enough, the horse did not thrash from side to side, hurling me into those churning hooves. He reared straight back and flung himself straight forward, while I helplessly played vertical crack-the-whip at the end of the rope. Looking straight ahead I could see Timber’s dark brown eyes, circled in white. As a result of his peculiar restraint, neither of us was injured. The horse did not flee across the paddock, either, although the vet did, leaving his green hose in the dirt.
After what seemed an eternity of dangling at the gates of Hell, the horse’s terror was finally spent, and I soon calmed as well. As I disentangled my bleeding hands from the rope, the vet padded tentatively back towards us. The words he spoke then made anger surge into the space where my receding fear had been:
“Kid,” he said, ”why the hell didn’t you let go of that line?”
I’ve kept the memory all my life. This image brought it back. I do not remember how the episode ended, though I can’t imagine that the vet’s plan to intubate the animal’s stomach was ever consummated.
Is there a lesson here? Perhaps. Even enormous amounts of book-learning don’t make you smart?—the vet was a doctor after all. Don’t trust anyone over 30?—this seemed right to me for a while, but soon I was over 30 and a doctor myself. Perhaps there is no lesson at all, just an episode of foolishness and neglect, a clusterfuck that led to terror but no lasting harm, imprinted on my young mind forever.