That Summer, with Horses

When I was sixteen I spent a summer working for my father, Jack Leroy, who fancied himself a trainer of racehorses. It’s true he had a way with thoroughbreds and could ride with the very best, even leading pack trips into the Sierra Nevada when he was my age, but he had no head for business and more enthusiasm than common sense. He was almost entirely honest too, and that put him at an awful disadvantage in a sport where low cunning is a virtue.

I had all that to learn, of course. At first I shared my father’s notion that we’d be great pals as we traveled the county-fair circuit from Pleasanton to Ferndale up the coast. He’d be on the comeback trail, as he kept reminding me. His earlier failures were behind him. Life had granted him a second chance. When I was young I tended to believe such oaths and declarations, though, deep down, I realized I should know better. Blind optimism still had me in its grip.

“From now on call me Jack. It’s more grown-up,” he instructed me after I agreed to be his groom and muck out the stalls. Well, I did feel more grown-up to be included in his plans, and I liked the idea of working as my old man’s sidekick. It gave me a sense of identity I needed.

At sixteen I was as confused as anybody could be. Lately I’d become a loner, a total outsider. Instead of messing around with my pals, I’d started reading poetry and even owned a copy of Howl. I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I responded to Ginsberg’s passion and intensity, and felt a similar howl trapped inside me. What puzzled me was the nature of it. On the surface I had no cause for complaint. I kept all that a secret, though. I didn’t dare let on I admired a gay poet, not in the Sacramento Valley in 1977.

Girls were certainly part of my problem. I understood that much. My school friends had no trouble chatting them up, but I was too serious to follow their lead. I wanted to speak from the heart, but the words wouldn’t come or they came in an awkward rush, and my ears would burn and I’d hem and haw and fall back on a trivial subject like our football team’s big game against the Chico Panthers—and I had no interest in football, none whatsoever! Something’s wrong with the world, I thought. Something’s definitely out of kilter. Ginsberg recognized it, and so did I.

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