Time Will Tell

"Mama, are you busy?"

"Yes, baby, you know I'm canning tomatoes today. Go play." Daddy always planted a big garden, and it was Mama's job to fill the freezer. Of course, we three kids were drafted to do the picking, digging, shelling, and shucking. Daddy loved to see u s busy doing stuff like that. Like most seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds, we initially complained about the work, but we could turn almost anything into a game.

I knew I was not allowed to ride my horse without an adult nearby. However, Mama was busy canning tomatoes, and Daddy was baling hay.

"Mama."

"I am very busy today. What is so important? Stop pressing on that screen."

"Mama, please don't be mad. I don't want a spankin'!"

Now stopping to pay more attention, Mama turned around to see the brown-haired, brown-eyed little girl standing with her nose still pressed against the sagging screen in the front door. Tears had washed clean streaks down her dust-and-dirt covered fa ce. "Where are Terri and Little Earl? Have you three been fighting?"

That was the familiar scenario when one of us was crying. We did not have any close neighbors and were not allowed to spend the day inside in front of the television. Entertainment, therefore, was self-contrived. My brother was the oldest of the thr ee children and the only boy, so he was the self-appointed ruler over whatever game we invented for the day.

Without waiting for an answer for her first question, Mama started toward the door. We were always getting into mischief, and I could almost read her mind from the familiar expression on her face, Spare the rod and spoil the child. "Have you b een on that crazy horse again? I told you to stay off that thing and out of that barn unless your daddy was with you." She must have had a crystal ball hidden somewhere because she always knew what we had been doing.

"I'm sorry Mama."

"Good Lord! What did you do?" It was obvious that Mama was in somewhat of a panic as she tried to touch the bone protruding from the skin around my elbow. Even though I had broken a rule by riding unsupervised, I was also pretty sure by now that I was not getting a spanking. Amazingly, she began a plan of action like she had rehearsed it a dozen times. She first instructed me to sit very still at the small breakfast table near the front door. Then she pressed the fog horn button Daddy had positi oned under the garage. That horn was very loud and could be heard for a mile or so. We were not allowed to play with it because it was for emergencies only. After hearing the signal, Daddy quickly drove up on the tractor wondering what could be wrong. Just as he opened the front door, Mama had me wiped off and ready to go to the hospital.

After two weeks in Albany at Phoebe Putney Hospital and a couple of surgeries on my right elbow, I was back home and soon back on my horse. Even to this day, Mama's eyes fill with tears as she retells this story and recalls how close I came to having my arm amputated.

Rather than just riding for pleasure, my sister and I eventually began competing in barrel racing. A strong but silent competition drove the adults in our small-town saddle club because they each wanted their child to be the best. For the most part, we kids were unaware of this silent war raging among our parents. The horse shows for us were just fun. The annual State Horse Show was in September in Warner Robins, Georgia. The riders competing at State must have competed in Association Point Shows throughout the year to be able to ride in this show. As a member of the South Georgia Association, I had qualified to compete at the state level in the five timed racing events: Poles, Baskets, Arena Race, Texas Barrel Weave, and Cloverleaf.

"Daddy, why does the State Horse Show have to be so far away? Warner Robins is a long trip."

"Hurry and get to bed. We have to feed the horses a couple of hours before we leave for the arena."

"Daddy, I am nervous. This is State! What if I mess up?"

"You better not." He forced a half smile, but I could sense the seriousness in his voice. "This is a one-time shot. This is what we have worked for all year. We are going to have some of those big trophies under our tent this year. Let us get some sleep." Daddy knew how much I loved barrel racing, and I knew how much he wanted my sister and me to win.

Early the next morning, I could feel the tension building inside me as Mr. Johnny and my dad exchanged handshakes and small-talk. They were raised in the same small town and knew each other very well. A little spark of competition, though, was foreve r present between them. My dad thought Mr. Johnny was a show-off who went to ridiculous extremes to win. For instance, Mr. Johnny was so adamant about his son, Gary, winning and always being the best that he once made Gary ride eight days after having a n appendectomy. Also, if Gary did not win first place, he was not allowed to pick up the trophy. My dad was not like that. He insisted that I pick up every trophy whether first or sixth place, and he would not tolerate sulking or pouting.

Mr. Johnny was always suggesting new things for me to try with my horse instead of sticking with what had been previously successful. So I was not surprised when he came over to me with his usual advice just as I was about to run the first event. As he stepped back, I glanced over to my dad. Giving me his most serious look, he imperceptibly shook his head from side to side and then motioned me forward with another head nod. I knew exactly what he was silently saying.

My horse, Sandy Lisa Jet, seemed as nervous as I as she pranced into the running shoot for the Poles event. We qualified, but I knew nineteen seconds was not a winning time at State. As Lisa skidded to a stop, I instantly looked in the direction of my dad. He was walking away shaking his head.

The next event, the Baskets, was my least favorite. Lisa was a tall horse, and I could not see the baskets as we ran past them. I was sure winning this event relied on pure luck. Like a true champ, Lisa ran down the arena weaving in and out the bask ets just like we had practiced hundreds of times at home. Suddenly the standing crowd let out a sigh as Lisa's hoof toppled the last basket. This time I did not even look in the direction of my dad. I just walked straight toward our hitching area. Ins tead of returning to the tent, I lay down on Lisa's saddle blanket and cried. Lying there next to Lisa and the horse trailer, I eventually slept.

After a while of resting, I felt a shoe nudging my leg. It was my dad. I can still picture his smile. "Come on sleepy head. Ya' hungry?" He never mentioned those first two events.

When the next time came for me to ride, I was feeling much better. Instead of a serious frown, my dad gave me a smile and a wink. I was not sure if he knew he needed to lighten up or if he knew the next events were our best chances to land one of tho se big trophies ultimately signifying that we were the best. Lisa and I lined up for the Texas Barrels. The run was our best ever! No one can beat that timeónot even Gary, I thought as a crowd of family and friends came running over to celebrate .

As the day came to an end, we had two first, one second, and one fifth-place state trophies under our tent. That was indeed a day to remember.

* * *

I have recently had to live up to those famous stories of my barrel racing days. The family had gathered at my sister's house for Mother's Day. Everyone had enjoyed a nice dinner and was outside on the porch relaxing. My nephew, Chad, saddled his n ew horse and asked me to ride. I instantly wished I had not told him quite so many when I used to ride stories. He admired my past barrel racing accomplishments, and I knew he would be disappointed if I did not ride. Kids can unintentionally put adults on the spot sometimes. My mind was racing. What am I going to do? I have not been on a horse in fifteen years. We still have horses, but because of college, work, and kids, I just quit riding. I glanced over to Scott. His expression w as saying Well? Our wedding video begins with a series of photographs which includes one with my turning a barrel at the state show, but Scott has never actually seen me ride. There was nothing else to do but ride this horse.

I had first started riding horses when I was three years old, so the mechanics of riding were no problem. It was the after-effects that worried me now. I carefully mounted. After a few laps around the pasture and a slow gallop around some barrels, I felt as though I was fifteen again riding my state-winning horse, Lisa. "Hmmm, I can still do this," I muttered with an oversized smile and a little pride. In hindsight I was probably trying to show off a bit since I did have an audience which include d my husband.

As I neared the porch where everyone was sitting, my sister had a little sarcasm in her voice as she somewhat dared me to run the barrels set-up in her pasture. This horse will kill me, I thought to myself. Thank goodness Wade let out a sleepy whine, and that was my excuse to end the riding time.

Monday morning at school my dreaded fears were evident. Every muscle in my body ached with pain. I can't believe I am so sore, I remember thinking. I was a state champion barrel racer. How could thirty minutes of pleasure riding on a Sund ay afternoon have done this to me? I could not even walk down the hall to my classroom without a crook in my back and a wobble in my legs. As luck would have it, my best efforts to maintain my customary stride failed, and it was obvious to my cowork ers that something was wrong. The questions would soon follow. I thought about attempting to explain or at least trying come up with some viable excuse to preserve my dignity. Realizing, though, that my ego was as bruised as my body, I simply smiled an d said nothing.

Melissa Whitley