Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry

Some years ago when she lived in L.A., my sister and her friends used to compete as to who could spot the most celebrities. Perhaps everyone in L.A. does this. It didn’t matter which celebrity it was; elderly Jack Lemmon counted as much as the then-young and glamorous Warren Beatty.

I first met a celebrity when I was still a shy and skinny kid. My parents were considering buying land on Piney Island, which is located next to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. While looking around, we visited the owner of Misty, the pony made famous by Marguerite Henry’s book, first published in 1947. I don’t remember how my parents connected with him; friend of a friend probably. What I do remember is that during the visit, my siblings and I got to ride Misty herself.

To be sure, it was just a brief walk around a paddock, Misty being pretty geriatric at that point, but still thrilling for this horse-mad girl. I’d only ridden briefly, during a couple of sessions at Happy Hollow Camp. The horse I rode there was named Ironic, a word I at the time thought meant iron-like and therefore appropriate for this huge, strong brown beast with an imperturbable air. Even now, when I know the correct definition, hearing the word ironic always brings back a brief memory of horse-smell and meadow grass, and my own secret meaning.

Regular lessons were out of the question—too expensive—so I compensated by creating a whole stableful of imaginary horses, each with an elaborate history. I exercised them regularly, cantering up and down the neighborhood alleys, but have to confess that I didn’t pretend to muck out their stalls, partly because I’d never actually done that part of caring for a horse and partly because, well, I wasn’t stupid. Imaginary horses have their drawbacks but at least they don’t poop.

At one point, there was a rumor going around the neighborhood that a family on the other side of Roland Avenue was stabling a horse in their garage. We didn’t have a garage, but I pleaded with my parents to let me turn the dusty place in back of our house, under the sunporch extension, into a stable. It seemed an obvious place: with the steep hill beyond, no one on the street below would be able to see that we had a horse there (one horse? perhaps several!) and the neighbors on either side were sufficiently elderly or far away that they wouldn’t notice our violation of city ordinances.

Of course it never happened. And it’s only now that I’ve gotten around to indulging that childhood passion by taking riding lessons. I will never own a horse, but welcome my weekly visits to the farm. I rationalise my distaste for imposing my will on an animal by recognising that the horses have a job to do, even if it’s only to teach me this skill, just as the cat’s job is to dispose of mice and crickets and the dog’s job (when we had one) was to protect the house. Just as, for that matter, my job is to sit at a desk for a certain number of hours each week whether I feel like it or not. And, since the horse can’t talk to me, riding has made me more conscious of—and I hope more adept at—reading body language.

Someone on one of my maillists mentioned this week, after hearing of Dick Francis’s death, that it was reading his mysteries set in the world of horse racing that inspired her to take up riding lessons in her mid-thirties. For me, it was this book that made me want to ride, back when I was a girl. What a treasure for any girl with no prospect of ever earning enough money for lessons much less a horse of her own, this story of two children with a dream of owning a pony, a story that actually happened! Paul and Maureen Beebe want not just any pony but the legendary Phantom, a mare who has never been captured in any of the annual pony roundups on Assateague. Paul participates in the roundup for the first time and comes across Phantom and her foal, whom he immediately names Misty.

It’s always a little scary to reread beloved books from childhood, but this one holds up well. The details of life on Chincoteague, which I didn’t notice as a child, delighted me: frying platters of oysters dredged in cracker meal, using a mixture of goose grease and onion syrup to prevent a cold, “treading” for clams by feeling for them with your toes and lifting them out on your foot. I confess I got excited all over again, reading about Pony Penning Day, when they round up wild ponies on Assateague, swim them across the bay to Chincoteague, and herd them down the main street to the pens. The event is a town celebration, and people come from all over to enjoy the feast, watch the annual race of local horses, and buy the colts who are being thinned from the herd. Then the remaining horses are allowed to swim back to Assateague and resume their independent lives.

I haven’t been to Assateague in years. I almost don’t want to know if the ponies are still there or if the annual roundup still happens. My vicarious participation in Paul and Maureen’s story is one of my most beloved memories of childhood, along with that meeting with my first (and still my favorite) celebrity. Maybe there’s still a part of me that believes the fantasy of buying my own pony at one of the Assateague roundups will one day come true.

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