Some of my relatives have posted some Douglass Family stories recently, in anticipation of the clan gathering to take place soon in Maryland. I love stories. Stories form the basis of history and learning. It’s the first thing you do with a very young child: you do them a favor and read them (or tell them) a story. Stories teach us language and life lessons, and sometimes we learn a moral or two. We learn about love and bravery, and form opinions about who we want to be. The best of these Douglass Stories were written by my brother Dave, the one with the well-deserved English degree. I’d like to add a story of my own.
It was a summer back in the 70’s, and I think it was during our years at Washington College. (Really good years.) Dave was earning some money working on a Virginia ranch managed at the time by my cousin’s husband, Mitch. I drove down from Rockville, planning to spend a few days there, and looking forward to some time with my brother and our cousin Donna Susan.
One of the first things that happened after I arrived was a horseback ride with Dave. I think I was just stepping out of the car when they attacked me. It was, “Hi JD. Wanna ride a horse?” And before I could say, “What about insurance?” they had me in the saddle. Back then I carried a wallet like most men did, in the back pocket of my jeans. It struck me that the jarring of butt against hard leather might cause my wallet to be ejected from its haven in the pocket. Mitch said that in all his time in the saddle that had never happened to him. It would have taken less time than a golf swing to take my wallet out and put it in the car or Donna’s hand, but I decided not to. Heck, Mitch was an old hand at this, what’s the big deal?
So Dave and I set out on a cruise, just the two of us. We went through trees, by a meadow and a creek, alongside a nudist camp (just kidding!) and all over the place. It was great. The only times I had been on a horse had been at carnivals, when I was just knee-high to a cricket, and was led in a circle on a pony. This was a full-grown, adult horse putting out more horsepower than I was used to. We trotted, cantered, galloped and all those things one did on a horse. I was having the time of my life.
At one point we came out of a stand of trees into a clearing, and my brother looked over at me with that characteristic sparkle of trouble in his eyes. He said, “My horse is faster than yours” and downshifted. He took off, his horse kicking up dust right in my in my face. I thought, “To hell with that!” and took off after him. I don’t know where we went, or even how far we went. I didn’t know the territory and just tried to do my greenhorn best to not fall off the horse and hopefully keep him in view. We started going faster.
Dave looked good on a horse, that natural look that movie stars with big chins have. I looked more like someone sitting on top of an old VW bus used for drivers ed in the Swiss Alps. After a while we wound up back at the house, tired but happy. It had been great. Then I reached for my wallet and found nothing but a sore bottom. I panicked. “My wallet’s gone!” Plenty of bad words that I might have heard for the first time at Tom and Tillie’s came spilling out.
We organized a search party like someone had been lost on Mt Rainier, and began retracing our horses’ steps. Nothing. My heart pounded harder — money, ID, credit cards, an ancient, unused condom — all of it was gone. Donna Susan was a model of stoicism and a steadying presence, insistent that I calm down and eat dinner. The wallet wasn’t going anywhere, and it was getting dark soon. We could look for it tomorrow.
In the comfortable house, beers were produced without delay, and there may have been whiskey shots too; the memory can play tricks under duress and after a year or two. Dave, Mitch and I were in the living room, while Donna was in the kitchen preparing dinner. Then came the question I will never forget: “JD, can you eat a whole steak?”
What does that mean? What is a “whole steak”? A naïve boy from the suburbs, I said “sure.” We moved into the dining room and sat. Donna took my plate and shot me a glance I classified as ‘enigmatic.’ She returned moments later with a thick steak that was bigger than my plate in all directions. I stared. Someone scooped mashed potatoes onto a side dish for me while I was paralyzed; there was no room for anything else on the plate except for that large slab of cow. I found my knife and fork.
I had been angry, frustrated and frightened by the unnecessary loss of my wallet; I had been hungry. I lost myself in that steak, chewing and cutting and stabbing and chewing. I tossed down large gulps of beer, and tore into the steak, as if chewing more furiously and eating faster would bring my wallet back.
After eating, and then sitting on the couch in a meat-induced stupor, I couldn’t shake the idea that my wallet was gone. It grated on me. I pleaded with Donna Susan and Mitch to let me look for it some more. (I must have been a bigger whiner than George Costanza ever could be.) We enlisted some of the men who worked on the farm to go with us, and soon we had a posse, armed with small trucks with racks of high-intensity lights on top. We drove through trees and trails, turning night into day and trying to reconstruct our route on the afternoon’s ride. Now and then we saw the illuminated eyes of deer, but saw nothing else. They must have thought I was nuts. Dejected and exhausted, I returned to the house and tried to sleep.
The next morning brought contradiction, in that I really was capable of eating again. Cousin Donna served a large and delicious breakfast — she was my sainted angel, and kept my coffee cup full; I was sure she felt my pain. (I am so thankful for family.) Without the advantage of using cranes to stand up, Dave and I found horses, saddled up, and started out, the obvious plan being to once again retrace our tracks. We trotted slowly, eyes on the ground looking for a sign.
We covered a lot of ground, going through fields, meadows, and lots of other kinds of Mother Nature I have no words for. We came across one area that was a hay field, but we recognized it as a particularly bumpy part of our horseback ride the previous day. We dismounted — that was new for me, to ‘dismount’ from a horse — and started combing the area. I was frustrated and angry — I was NEVER going to find my wallet. I started going through all the steps I would have to take, cancelling credit cards, trying to resurrect my life, finding phone numbers and the other crucial detritus one couldn’t live without. I was dreich and lost in thought.
Dave was about 30 yards away and called out, interrupting my thought. “JD, what does your wallet look like?” I didn’t even look up. “Oh, it’s black leather like every other wallet.” “Does it look like this?”
I looked over, and Dave was holding up a wallet. It looked like MY wallet. I ran over for a closer look.
It was a miracle, a needle found in a haystack, a wallet lost on a miles-long horseback ride out in the country. I gave him a hug. We had a big steak again that night, and for some reason it tasted better than the one the evening before.
A few years later I lost my wallet again, this time in the wilds of Washington DC, and once more it was found by someone else when common sense declared that such an event would be impossible. But that story will be told another day, and it still won’t be as special to me as this one.