It started like this.
The summer before fourth grade, Gail, my best friend, moved to an apple orchard in Marengo, Illinois. Her dad made apple cider from the Golden Delicious, Jonathan, and McIntosh apples not pretty enough to sell at their orchard. The cider was crisp and delicious and a necessary ingredient for apple cider donuts.
I’m not sure how we were recruited, but one autumn weekend in the early 1980s, Gail and I were the official donut makers. The gray barn which housed the apple shop had a small donut “kitchen” with a Plexiglas window so orchard goers could watch the donuts being made.
Like Santa’s elves on display, we plopped the doughy circles into the deep fryer while trying to ignore the people standing in front of the window, mesmerized by our labor and the mysteries of the deep fryer. When the donuts were done, we’d fish them out and blot off the grease and swirl them around in cinnamon and sugar. When no one was looking we’d test out the donuts as self-appointed managers of quality control–the best part of the job.
One by-product of the apple cider process was bushels and bushels of apple peels—a gold, red, and green melange. Gail’s dad delivered the sweet-smelling, mushy leftovers to their dairy-farming neighbors up the road. The neighbors used the pungent concoction to slop their pigs. The farmers said Gail could ride their ponies. I’m not sure if this was in exchange for the free pig food or if they were generous neighbors. Maybe both.
The farmers had two Shetland ponies named Taffy and Silver, and a few other horses who spent their days grazing off in the field. Taffy was a fairly sturdy looking middle-aged chestnut mare and Silver was a brownish color like coffee with cream. He had a white fuzzy long mane and tail and bony back; he looked like he’d seen better days.
The ponies were ours for the riding, whenever we wished, which meant on a weekend or during the summer–whenever my parents could drop me off at Gail‘s new home 45 minutes away from South Elgin. Gail got to ride Taffy and Silver almost every day—she was so lucky.
Somewhere in my parents’ garage, in a storage box there’s a VHS tape compilation of all our family movies from when my sister Linda converted our home movies from reels into one single video tape. In the middle of that tape are silent images of Gail and me, on the brink of adolescence, bopping around on her neighbors’ ponies. Our legs dangled down way beyond the ponies’ bellies, almost touching the ground. It seemed as though in Fred Flintstone fashion we could have helped move the ponies along by using our own foot power. We weren’t giants; tall for our age maybe, but these diminutive mounts made us look huge.
Once we were riding along a stretch of country road and a passing car slowed and the driver yelled, “Those ponies should ride you!” How insulting.
Soon thereafter Gail asked the Kanalys for an upgrade and was granted permission to ride their horses, a palomino and big bay. Taffy and Silver finally could retire.