Sunday, January 21, 2007
Tilithia Adeline Whitley Churchwell, my great grandmother, died on August 8, 1963 at the age of 76. Our family had driven in our faux wood-paneled Ford Falcon station wagon to my great grandparent's farm near Brownwood for the funeral; I was nine years old.
I couldn't say that I remembered very much about my great grandmother, Addie, and the funeral did not leave a lasting impression on me. But, what did stand out about that hot August day was an old horse by the name of "MacArthur".
He was born in 1936 and Granddad Churchwell named him after a very decorated WWI soldier, Douglas A. MacArthur. The same Douglas MacArthur also happened to make five-star general rank in WWII. Just your average hard-working farm horse, MacArthur was as dependable as his namesake. For many years, Granddad Churchwell rode him for farming, checking fence lines, and for all round general transportation. By 1963, MacArthur was mostly just a big pet, virtually toothless with a swaying back. The old fellow might have been a fine looking horse in his day; the narrow white blaze on his face was still quite fetching even at the advanced equine age of twenty-seven.
Several of our Churchwell relatives had gathered at the farmhouse, and I was in awe of my second cousin, Aubrey, an impressive eight years older than me. Aubrey and his younger brother, Bobby, were right at home on the farm, and with Granddad's permission, had saddled up MacArthur.
I remember my mother's astonishment at seeing the old horse; she had ridden him when she was a young child and had handfed him carrots and sugarcubes. I was just as amazed - my nine year-old self had a hard enough time imaging my mother as a child, much less riding a horse.
While the kinfolk sat in the shade and visited, enjoying sweet iced tea and the Baptist church ladies' casseroles and pies, cousin Bobby, my brother and I were exploring the farm on horseback, courtesy of MacArthur. Poor old horse, most of the time all three of us were riding at once. Texas in August is hot as the dickens, too.
Mother was a little anxious about this, especially since we had never been around horses much. Granddad Churchwell just grinned his lopsided smile, and said MacArthur was the best babysitter on the farm.
Sitting up there on a thousand pounds of sweaty horseflesh, it felt like I was miles from the ground. It was scary at first, but then my body figured out the rhythm of MacArthur's gait and the riding was a little easier. Once I felt myself slipping a little sideways and I began to try to grab more of the back of the saddle (I was the third passenger), afraid I was about to fall off. Without Bobby reining him in, MacArthur stopped, swung his head around to look at me, as if to say, "Okay, little girl, get situated!". I scooted up closer to my brother, pushed my knees in a little tighter, and patted the horse on his rump. With a shake of his greying mane and a brief snort, MacArthur plodded on.
Granddad Churchwell would live another sixteen years; would ride his first motorcycle at the age of eighty-four; and met his great great granddaughter (my oldest daughter), Erin, at the age of eighty-nine.
Old MacArthur died in his sleep in 1965 and was buried on the farm. Granddad bought another horse, and in 1971 after his adventure on a Honda 500, told his daughter, my great aunt Vida, he believed he would trade that horse for a motorcycle. Aunt Vida was quite relieved when he forgot about his ambition for two wheels a few weeks later.