WE DROVE OUT in late evening, the pastels of the setting sun giving way to the thick black and blue of the night sky.
I was the last passenger to be picked up, and I jumped into the back of the yellow pickup at my parents' home in East Baltimore. We hit the winding Windsor Mill Road, and then we were in real countryside. The truck bounced and rattled. Finally, we hit the turn for our destination, a tiny driveway with a mailbox on a stick. After a few minutes, the truck stopped in a field lighted only by the headlights of the truck. In 1966, it didn't look like a horse farm. In the morning, it did indeed seem like a horse farm, and it was not just the mere appearance of the barns and fences. It seemed so also because of the enthusiasm of the people who owned it, Ashton and Lenora, the folks who drove me out there that night and who would drive me out to Woodstock for many other weekends in the next four years. At times it seemed as if I were there every weekend with them as they planned and built their Arabian horse farm, as they taught me the better part of what I know about the Arabian and other horses. Their pedagogy was exceptional because they loved their subject.
The time I spent with Ashton and Lenora has proved to me again and again the value of allowing youngsters in the city to be exposed to good living in the country, or, if I may be allowed to wax philosophical, the value to any of us of knowing the "other" in our lives.
Weekends with Ashton and Lenora allowed me to glimpse the middle-class lifestyle of breeders of fine and expensive horses, and those weekends allowed me to grow in ways I had not dreamed of.
Before long I knew the differences between the Arabian and the other light breeds, so that now I can still easily distinguish among them. I became aware of the various lines of Arabian breeding, such as the Egyptian and the Polish. I studied confirmation with Ashton, so as to learn what he was looking for in horses to breed for show. Before long it became apparent to me that only the wealthy could play this game very well.
Once we went out to the farm of a congressman in Western Maryland. It was a rolling estate much larger than Ashton's small farm in Woodstock. The occasion was marked by an auction, at which I saw a gentleman buy an Arabian for $25,000 to serve as a playmate for his child. It seemed like opulence, but it also seemed terribly exciting. Later we went walking around the farm and stopped to gaze at a stallion that had become white with age. His lines were impeccable. When he extended his head, his neck arched to a regal crest where the long, wavy hair of his mane fell in the most beautiful coiffure. I asked what he was worth. The answer was that he had no price, that he was a not-so-tiny apotheosis.
I was not so sure that I wanted to spend my money the way those polite and fun-loving people did, but I was sure there was a world of vast possibilities beyond my own East Baltimore neighborhood. In moments of trial and tribulation in my life, this realization has been a wellspring of hope.
We had great fun out there. Usually I was accompanied by two cousins. One of them once decided to have a horse race with Ashton. My cousin had an old mixed-breed horse, and Ashton had his stallion, who he had more or less decided lacked the virility to sire a foal of championship show quality and was near to the snipping shears of castration. Ashton gave the signal, and they were off, at least my cousin was. He had not sufficiently tightened the strap on his saddle, so the horse left without him. He was on the ground in clouds of dust. My other cousin and I laughed until we were ashamed.
I was never a great rider. I preferred to admire the horses more as objects d'art and never really placed a greater value on mounting them. Ashton gave me a horse once, an appaloosa. He bred a beautiful black mare of his to an appaloosa stallion at a nearby farm and promised the foal to me. I anticipated her birth with eager eyes, poring over books explaining the history of the breed. When I learned that the Nez Perce Native Americans had developed the breed, I named her Neza, and I loved looking at her. She was beautiful; the admiration of her beauty, the indulgence, was all I wanted. Ashton sold her when she developed the incurable illness of "cribbing," or eating wood, so much so that she preferred fences to her grain.
Ashton and Lenora made history. At the time they operated their farm, it was one of a very few Arabian farms owned by blacks. I visited many farms and shows with them, but I never saw other blacks in the business, nor did I hear of them, although there may have been some. While making their own history, my Uncle Ashton and Aunt Lenora helped me to build bigger dreams and fashion stronger hope.
For me, Black History Month spells horses and dreams.
Michael S. Weaver teaches at Rutgers. In June, the University of Pittsburgh will publish his new collection of poems, "My Father's Geography."