For much of my young life, my parents owned a small cabin on the shore of a narrow lake formed by a dam in the Guadalupe's headwaters in Hunt, Texas, the heart of the Hill Country. I spent many long weekends and summers there, learned how to swim there, how to catch Perch with a worm on the long line from a bamboo pole there, painted and searched for Easter Eggs, dug for arrowheads, learned to canoe, rode horses and generally lived a carefree time of discovery and happiness.
The summer of my seventh year was the third full summer we spent at that little cabin. My sister Marianne was eleven and by that summer, and my adoration for her was full blown. She was tall and tan, had long hair that she never brushed but always looked perfect in its fall across her shoulders. She had long muscular arms that matched her tall muscular legs. With every ounce of my young being, I wanted to be her, but since I could not, then being beside her was the next best thing. Where she was, I wanted to be, where she went, I wanted to follow. Bless her heart, I shadowed her so closely that I knew the warmth of her breath, the breeze of her skin.
On the backside of the cabin, my father had configured a compost bin and when Marianne (and therefore me) wanted to fish for Perch from our dock, he'd direct us to the bin to collect worms for bait. On my knees beside my sister, my hands would wriggle through the dark dirt. I remember it smelling earthy, moist and fresh and delighting when I scooped a handful to find a fat and squirming worm wriggling across the top of the mound. I held out my prize to Marianne and she smiled at me as if I’d found a diamond there. She took the worm from my open hand and put it in the cardboard bucket from the fried chicken we ate for lunch earlier in the day. She told me, The active ones are the best 'cause when you put them on the hook they wiggle and that’s what the fish notice. She knew this. This and everything. I worshipped her for it and she knew that I was always a blank slate for her to impart her knowledge upon.
When the idea hatched itself inside her head one evening that summer that she wanted a goat, she lit it like a fire to light up all the darkness in the starry hill country night. She had a plan and she wanted me to help her. I was thrilled to be asked. In low voice after dinner, while we sat on the front porch eating our ice cream, she secretly whispered her plan: Before the sun came up in the morning, we were going to sneak down the stone steps of our backyard, get the canoe and row across the lake. Once on the other side we would climb what was then a mountain to me but in reality a rocky but steep hill. On the other side of that hill was a farm with sheep and goats, and most importantly to my sister, baby sheep and goats. To this day I do not know how she got that piece of information. I also don’t know how she woke up on her own before the sun but she did that also, and she jiggled me awake with much effort as I had lost a huge portion of interest when weighed against my desire to sleep. "That’s okay, I’ll go without you," she said in a cool and dismissive whisper. Desperately not wanting to be left behind, I threw back the covers and wiggled out of my pajamas and into the first thing I saw, a damp bathing suit on the cold slate floor. Putting on that bathing suit naturally put me in whining mode of chilly discomfort as we snuck down the hill in the darkness spread out like forever before us and forever behind. Marianne had a certain way of cutting me off mid-whine, which was to take my chin in her thumb and forefinger and turn my head however far it needed to be turned until my eyes were locked solid with hers and she’d hold us there for a minute and it would get me quiet as suddenly as the new sound of silence following the blast of a firecracker.
Down the rocky steps we walked, her feet as silent as a shadow while my stomping was surely disturbing all the wildlife. Being quiet was second nature to Marianne, she moved as quiet as a snake on the water and only spoke when she needed to, when some need or instruction was to be conveyed. She held the canoe steady while I stepped in, then she stepped in and released the lines from the dock. Pushing us away, she sliced her paddle into the water. Sitting in front, I charged myself with looking for hazards, and I turned my head back to smile at her. I could only make out her dark square shoulders and strong arms expertly handling the paddle, moving it back and forth, right side to left, in a gently rhythm. I could hear the paddle moving in a slide through the water and then the ripple behind the boat followed by the drops of water flying from the oar as she shifted to the other side. And then again, the slide, ripple and drops of water. Such music discovered by such young ears.
My memory at this point fades into another, turns a corner from my own to that of my father’s voice telling the story, something I heard him do so many times that it has consumed my own recollection. For reasons unknown to me, I most clearly remember him telling the story at one of my parents’ many cocktail parties, as they called them, one evening at our house. Those early-evening cocktail parties were always wonderful for me. I could roam the house and see my parents’ friends dressed smart, smell the women’s grown-up perfume, and hear the wonderful and adult sound of the ice clinking in their drink glasses. That sound to me was the definitive sound of adults, the sound that announced the difference between them and children, and I relished in hearing it.
Dad is sitting in his chair, the red leather wing back chair that in my memory has stretched its proportions to being that of a throne. I’m standing at his knee, leaning into the familiarity of him but facing the guests to watch their eyes on him. One of his enormous hands is on his drink and the other is in the air punctuating the story.
"Well, I wake up and I don’t see the girls. Betty is still asleep and so is Carl so I walk out the back and there they are. I see them in the lake, in the canoe, Marianne paddling towards the house, Alison in front. There is something else with them in that canoe but, for the life of me I couldn't figure out what it is. I have to go back inside the house for my binoculars."
At this point, he puts his drink down and fills his hand instead with my shoulder.
"Alison is just a tiny thing and she’s sitting in the front of the canoe holding onto a young goat, of all things. Marianne is paddling like a pro and she has hold of a small lamb with her legs. If it wasn’t for Alison’s white hair, they’d look like two little brown Indians crossing that lake!"
I look up at him and smile and then turn to smile at their friends, all giving him their full attention.
Dad continues the story, chuckling, “When the girls get to the dock, I’m standing there and I tell them ‘Girls, the sheriff is here.’ ” At his knee, I nod my head up and down to the guests to confirm his words and I squirm with excitement because I know what’s coming next when he says, “And I tell them, 'He’s looking for goat thieves!' ” At this, my parents' guest break their silence into a shelf of laughter rising over my head and Dad pulls me onto his lap, his massive shoulders moving up and down with his own laughter. He says, “And you should have seen them. Alison sitting there with this damn baby goat, wriggling in her arms, her eyes as big and white as her hair and turning back and forth from me to Marianne saying, ‘It was her idea Dad, it was her idea.’ ”
And I did do exactly that. When I heard “sheriff” I pictured jail and not having any idea what jail was beyond the image of striped clothes and bars in a window, I still knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to be and figured I would be somehow excused if I wasn’t the one who thought it all up.
What we didn’t know at the time was that when my father watched us gliding across the lake with our bounty, he called the man we stole the animals from and arranged to buy them from him. I loved him for that, right then and there realizing what a great father I had. My mother though, was not at all pleased. The goat, which we named Billy, and the lamb, Ramsy, accompanied us several weeks later in the back of our station wagon on the six-hour drive home. The drive home was a thrill to me as I had secured top position via temper tantrum, between my parents in the front seat, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass playing in the eight-track, at my insistence, for most of the journey home. “It’s fun to be in America…”
I share this story with you today because today is my father's birthday and this is one of my favorite memories. One of many.