The Horses

On the Army Post, where I lived five years of my childhood, a large glass display case reigned next to athletic trophies in the Officers’ Club.  This case contained a complete diorama of the desert – a rattlesnake, curled to strike; several scorpions creeping out of the sand; and two sleek lizards perched on rocks. Three mustangs grazed on sparse dry grass among tumbleweeds at the rear.  A huge black tarantula crawled so close to the front perimeter that people always startled and jumped away the first time they saw it.  

You could watch as parents guided their children past the familiar trophies, then paused at the case with a reverence learned at museums “back home.”  I always thought this stuffed-and-mounted display was meant to reassure us – to make the vastness of wind, sun and sky seem finite and comprehensible.  When desert gales howled in your ears and assaulted your skin with sand, the glass case created an illusion that humanity, not hostile forces of nature, maintained control.

Enlisted men, the ordinary soldiers, came to remove real rattlesnakes from our school’s hot asphalt playground.  They caught live scorpions in medicine bottles and carried them from house to house every spring, warning small children not to touch them.     “If you see one of these,” they told us, “find a grownup.” 

The Paiute Indian boys kept harmless bull snakes wriggling in their desks at school, to frighten girls and annoy the teachers.  These boys brought bandanas, filled with the rattles of poisonous snakes they had killed, for Show-and-Tell.  Their daily counts became an intense competition.

This valley, just west of the Cedar Mountains in Utah, was then the territory of an exuberant band of wild roan mustangs.   The proud native horses ran free all around the Army Post, though they rarely ventured inside the housing area.

We lived in the outer ring of houses.  Every day I would lie on my bed, waiting and watching for the horses.  First, I would hear the distant rhythm of their pounding hooves.  Then I could smell dust, and I would know they were getting closer.  I could feel the ground shaking as their powerful bodies came galloping around the dirt ring-road that separated our settled area from the hard desert. 

On the hottest summer days, they would come into my yard to graze on its thatch of brittle lawn, and rub their rumps on my window screens.  These horses did other things, too, in my backyard, which drew flies, and made the hot air pungent with their scent.  But they trampled the rattlesnakes, through the worst of the season, before those vipers could reach our sunny rear stoop to lie in wait for an unwary child. 

One early spring morning my father woke me well before dawn.  He took me to the kitchen and pointed out the window.  A mare was foaling, all alone in the fresh, new grass just outside the backdoor.    We stood there, watching in silence, while the colt emerged.  He lay on the ground and rested for less than an hour before he stood, on still-wet, wobbly legs.  By the time the sun came up, that colt and his mother had vanished into the desert. Within a few days, he was running the circuit with the rest of the tribe, kicking up miniature dust clouds with his own tiny hooves.  I watched that colt grow up.

Many years later, during the summer of America’s Bicentennial, some Navajo friends and I headed off one day for the Arizona high country.  We were searching for a remote hogan, the home of a bashful medicine man.  Martha was amazing us with her ability to drive a jeep straight up the forty-five degree slope of a sheer red rock face, when the radio’s tinny music broke off, interrupted for a crackling news announcement:

“Forty wild mustangs found dead around their water hole, in Skull Valley, west of the Cedar mountains.”

Through the static, a spokesman for the Department of the Army denied that chemical warfare testing in the area had killed them. 

We stopped the jeep at the top of the mesa.  Kelly and Martha both hugged me while I cried.  They understood.  To the Dine, any horse is a person.  But they said that this was exactly what you could expect, from the Government.

We did find the medicine man, and he agreed to an interview about pregnancy and childbirth.   He pointed to his great-granddaughter, a rosy-cheeked toddler who was playing with a ball of yarn at his side.  “That one,” he said, “fell out into the snow.”    

I still wonder, from time to time, if the Officer’s Club ever removed the horses from their glass display case.  And I wonder, what did they do with them?  Without the mustangs to guard the horizon, the cruelty of that desert outpost would no longer have been disguised.  Without the horses, it could not have been endured.


Different versions of this essay have been published in The Serra Club Newsletter, and
The Catholic Mirror of The Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa.


A long time ago, when my sons were still small, no dessert found a more enthusiastic welcome at our family dinner table than fresh watermelon.  It wasn’t just that the boys loved its chilly, succulent fruit at the end of a sweltering Iowa summer day.

No, the real excitement was the thrill of spitting those round black seeds; if possible, right in your brother’s face.  Sometimes even Dad joined the fun.  Although I was blessed with a large country kitchen, I soon tired of cleaning up after one of these lively engagements.

The watermelon parties moved outside, onto a back patio overlooking three tiers of lawn which swept down to the banks of the Raccoon River. Here the boys found a worthy spitting range, enough scope for a real competition.  Those seeds now sped towards the river. They flew farther and farther every week.  Any that might have sprouted soon fell victim to the lawn mower; or so we thought.

The spring before my mother died, we had to replace the patio.  We hired a crew to carve the slope, and to build a timber staircase from the patio down to the main garden.  Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow loaded with sod and soil from the two upper tiers went down, down, to be dumped on the wild bank closest to the river.  As early summer progressed into what would be her final weeks, I filled the central beds with my mother’s favorite vegetables and flowers.

By State Fair time, she had already departed for her heavenly home.  One day not long after her funeral, doors slammed and childish footsteps thundered up the stairs to interrupt my grief.

     “Mom, Mom, watermelons are growing in the bottom back yard!”

     “No, boys,” I said, “I didn’t plant any watermelon.”

     “But they’re watermelons, Mom!  Really! Come and look.”

     So down we went together, and sure enough – that whole south-facing slope was covered in thick, tangled vines. Tucked beneath their leaves I found dozens of rapidly-expanding watermelons. Five- and eight-year-old hands stayed busy thumping them for weeks, until they were finally ripe enough to eat. Nothing I planted that season tasted better than the watermelons that grew by themselves.

     This month and next, I celebrate with several priest friends their anniversaries of ordination.  I’ve been reflecting about vocations, and how much they resemble our miraculous melons.

  No one really knows where vocations come from, or where they will land. Their seeds fly forth on the wings of the Holy Spirit, launched by the breath of God.

Some sprout and grow right where they are planted; in a rural farm county, or an urban ethnic neighborhood.  Others,lie fallow for awhile in the garden of life.   They survive the storms and the passing scythe; until one day, the soil turns, and encourages them to flower and fruit.

Clergymen like to appear tough, sleek and resilient on the outside.  We laity love to thump on our pastors; it’s a good thing they know how to take it.  But inside, where it matters, they are tender, sweet, and sometimes even a little mushy.  They share our sentimental feelings when they baptize our babies, bless our marriages, and help us to mourn our dead.

They offer us the cool refreshment of Reconciliation and Eucharist, whenever the cloying heat of sin would oppress us.  From their compassionate hearts, nourishing waters flow, as they carry our Lord’s promises forward into the future.

Thank you, God, for watermelons.  Thank you, God, for our priests.

Mass on the Rock

This true story has been published in print by Leona Kavan of Miraculous Journeys, and the St. Theresa Parish Bulletin.  My narrative here honors the legacy of Father Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys’ Town in Omaha, Nebraska, who grew up in Ballymoe, Ireland.  I’ve told the tale in a tradition of Irish folklore, with just a wee drop of poetic license taken.  It owes a debt to W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, who first recognized and recorded the contributions made by folk myth to Irish Catholic practice.  And if my story encroaches in any way on the domain of the Gentry, I beg their pardon; and I thank them for their forbearance.          

Twas what the Irish ironically call a ‘soft’ day – a drenching afternoon rain falling close after the cold and misty morning.  There were some among us who worried, that it mightn’t be worth the effort.  ‘Twas difficult enough to walk when the ground was dry, never mind through a spooky meadow that rolled under your feet like a ship on the waves. 
It looked to be quite a distance, too, at the end of what had already been an exhausting agenda that day.  You’d understand if you yourself had a knee or an ankle or a hip needing surgery.  We had eight or ten of them.  Our hosts, who’d spent the whole wet day in the field preparing for our arrival, did indeed understand.  They kindly offered us the church in town to celebrate Mass for any of our pilgrims who felt they couldn’t make their way to the Rock.

Then somebody said, “The rain’s letting up!”  Somebody said – I think it was Father Jim – “Let’s those of us who feel we can go, let’s go, and give it a try.” 

With Father’s encouragement, everyone managed to clamber off the bus and onto the gravel road.  At the open fence gate, a bright-eyed young woman smiled and said, “You’re very welcome!”  Just beyond her, Himself inspected our eyes, pilgrim by pilgrim, nodding his personal welcome to each as if ‘twere a matter of life and death.  For over three hundred years, it was.

Everyone helped someone and everyone set out across the fields together, breathing in the thick green air.  We shivered in our raincoats.  Most of us had no idea where we were headed.  If you knew what to look for, you might be able to recognize the place by spotting an ancient grove of sacred Druid trees perched on the far horizon.  But eventually our guide pointed out the entrance, hidden among shrubs that grew towards the front of the grove.  We pushed through a narrow opening to discover steep steps cut into a muddy hillside.

Six feet below, the freshly-excavated chapel stretched out in an ell.  A pearly grey boulder held the corner. Heavy cinder blocks had been stacked along the sides of the ell; new boards had been laid on top of the blocks for benches, and boards laid below for walking across the mud.  The atmosphere surged with vital aromas – freshly sawn lumber, damp peat and fertile earth.  We felt humbled to see so much labor expended to offer us hospitality. 

“Why, they wouldn’t have known that we’re Father Flanagan’s people,” one of us said, “If we hadn’t had the courage to come!’

The Rock itself turned out to be a smooth but asymmetrical chunk of granite, nearly three feet tall, and four to five feet in diameter.   It sparkled as if it had been scrubbed with rainbows.  Pictures of Our Lord and Our Lady with bouquets of autumn flowers stood vigil on either side of a simple Crucifix. 

Father Jim laid his communion kit directly onto this altar.  He passed the scripture book to lector Tom and handed off his coat to Lee.   Our holy priest vested for the Mass right there on the soil among us.  Worn over a short sleeved shirt, his surplice flew in the chilly gale.   But the flame of the Holy Spirit emitted a visible glow as he made the sign of the cross to open our liturgy. 

While Father distributed Eucharist, Marsha and Margaret and Mary June together began to sing at the same moment, the same inspired song:   “This is holy ground.  We’re standing on holy ground, for the Lord is present and where He is, is holy. . .”  Across the ell, Lucy mimed the words for the verses while everybody sang:  “He’s given us holy hands, He’s given us holy lips.”  Father Jim maneuvered from plank to plank, carrying the Lord to His people, as if he’d never celebrated Mass in any other way.

We sat together in silence while the Body and the Blood dissolved on our tongues.  Stalks of ripened grain swayed in the breeze, blessing us like banners in the fields above our heads.  Though we knew we would be invisible from the road, we could almost hear the tramp of soldiers’ feet on the wind.  We reflected on Father Jim’s homily, thinking about how many generations of Irish people had gathered for a Mass like this, under penalty of death.  They hid below crops they were forbidden to eat, celebrating Eucharist without the luxuries of raincoats, candles or songs.  All that nourished them was the Lord; they did not consider His Feast a meager meal.

In the pregnant silence, Father Jim asked if anyone had water, to purify the chalice.  We all sat sheepish, embarrassed that none of us had thought to bring it.  Then Ginny looked lovingly over at Dick and Dick gazed back at Ginny.  Dick reached a hand into his bag.   Like a miraculous Celtic monk of old, he drew forth a bottle full of water and passed it to Father at the altar.  
The Sacred Heart provides.

When we returned to ordinary time and contemporary place, that luscious green labyrinth still shimmied under our feet.   But this time the walk did not seem long.  
Three-year old Michael led the charge to the bus.  He scampered across the landscape with a wild flower in his hand.  He went spinning around the meadow, cavorting in tall grass under the wide sky.   He shouted out greetings to his sister Deirdre, to his elder brother John. 

And every single one of us danced right along behind him, all the way back to Ballymoe.