My father, Bob Bonifer, died on July 15, 2003, at the age of 81, after living a rich and productive life that was filled with love, laughter, tears and joy. This is a story about him…
My father grew up on the Great Depression. In the 1930s, his father, my grandfather, lost his job as a Cadillac mechanic in Louisville. When my dad was thirteen, they moved from the glamour of movie theaters and racetracks (they lived three blocks from Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run) to the quiet and unglamorous town of Ireland, Indiana, where my grandfather opened a small garage and machine repair shop.
It could have been depressing for him, I guess, but my father clung to his love of movie cowboys and horses, and got to be known to the people in his new hometown as ‘Cowboy Bob’. They moved to a farm. He got a horse. This was the beginning of my family’s nightmare.
He claimed that ‘horse aroma’ was the first thing he smelled when they brought him home from the hospital as a baby, and whether that was true or not, what’s true for sure is that he was intoxicated by horses, drunk on them, and my mom and my five brothers and sisters and me were his co-dependents.
We grew up on a small 200-acre farm, and all the while I was growing up, my dad would arrive home from some business trip on one of the many jobs he held down off the farm, hauling a horse he’d acquired that someone was otherwise going to sell for pet food. A horse with one lung, a horse with one leg shorter than the other three, who ran like an out-of-balance washing machine. A blind mule. Biters and kickers and malcontents. He had some fabulous horses, too. Arabs and Quarter Horses and Tennessee Walkers and Thoroughbreds. But these got to be out-numbered by the bad ones. Regardless, He loved them all indiscriminately and gave them all a home. At one point, when I was growing up, we owned as many as 40 of these horses. It was like we were running a rescue shelter for horses. And if you think this was a nightmare, it was at times a nightmare for me, but it was not the nightmare that I’m talking about.
And then, in a move that only my father would make, we opened our farm to the public, as a kind of outdoor recreation facility centered around a riding stable and a half-mile track we’d built. And let me tell you, there’s nothing funnier than a dozen or so members of the riding public trying to control horses with the kinds of issues our horses had. A fat lady bounding around on the washing machine, whose name was Queen. The horse with one lung, whose name was Old Grey, who, on the rare occasions she could be coaxed into a run, made a sound like a saw going through wood. We had this one little half-pony, half Tennessee Walker named Duke. His best friend was a gigantic half-Morgan, half Quarter-Horse named Tony. Little Duke would walk so fast, and big Tony would walk so slow, that Duke would have to turn in circles every ten yards or so to let Tony keep up. And this is how they had to be ridden. Duke’s rider turning in circles while Tony ambled along in slow motion, like he was pulling a plow.
Every now and then something bad would happen. A girl got thrown from her horse and sustained a concussion. Old Grey’s saddle would come off mid-ride. Queen would wade into our lake with a rider on board and refuse to come out. These were depressing. I began to want to move away from all this madness. But none of it was anywhere near as depressing as what happened after I did move away.
When he was 19, my younger brother, Brian, quit music school and moved back home to the farm, to go into business with my dad. Their ‘start-up’ was thoroughbred horses. Brian became the Trainer. My dad was the Owner. It was a real Don Quixote/Sancho Panza situation, let me tell you, because the horses in their stable weren’t much faster than Sancho’s burro. My father did a terrible thing to my brother. He inflicted his dreams on Brian. Cowboy Bob wanted a sidekick, someone who’d inhabit the same singing cowboy fantasy world he did, in which burros had wings and would win the Kentucky Derby someday. They fought one night over Christmas holidays, my father slapped Brian and it was bad and there were lots of loud voices and lots of tears and wounds were opened that would never fully heal. It hurt us all to experience it, but the hurt was nothing, a paper cut, compared to what we were yet to experience.
My brother finally started seeing things his own way when it came to the horses, quit listening to my dad, snapped out of it, began keeping his own counsel, and trained and fed their most promising colt, a smallish horse with a biggish heart. He won a race, the first race of his career. The horse was 40-to-1. And while I, Mr. Hollywood cynic, wondered if some kind of fix might have been in, and had visions of some of the other jockeys in the race cashing their own 40-to1 tickets on Denny’s Gold, I was happy for Brian.
A month later he was dead. He drowned in the lake on our farm while swimming with a horse. My sister who was there and could swim tried to save him and almost drowned herself…my mother who was there had to scream at my sister to let him go and then ran for help as my sister crawled out of the water and watched our brother’s hand wave goodbye.
This was the nightmare. The most depressing thing I’ve every known. Anyone who has lost a sibling or a child can tell you that it does not get any worse. And as bad as it was for me, it was much, much worse for my parents. They didn’t sleep, and would walk the country roads all night, just to keep moving, because to keep moving was the only way they could know for sure they were still alive. They sold or gave away all their horses, and for the first time in my lifetime, there were no horses on our farm.
In the spring after the summer my brother had died, the farm was weeks away from getting foreclosed. And then one day my father disappeared. The child of the depression, the father of the depression…we wondered if it had been too much, wondered if he’d taken his own life. He had threatened it. My sister had found him one day sitting at a picnic table under what we called the shade trees, staring at a loaded rifle on the table in front of him. He did not own a rifle. So we wondered.
But no, he did not take his own life. And this was the first hand-hold out of the depression, the dark hole of nothingness in which we were all living. Three days after he’d disappeared, he showed up back on the farm with a couple of guys driving a truck loaded with heavy equipment. They drove it back to the lake where my brother had drowned, unloaded the equipment, and began drilling for oil.
Three days later, they hit oil.
I happened to be there on the day it happened. I kid you not, it was Easter Sunday. My father was back there at the lake wearing a red nylon Indiana University Basketball jacket, standing at the well-head, filling quart jars with the oil that was bubbling up from the ground and handing them out to friends and neighbors as souvenirs. Unbeknownst to any of us, he’d gotten several of the neighbors to invest in the well. And so it became a kind of party. All of a sudden things were not so depressing any more. My mother and sister came back to the lake for the first time since the day my brother had drowned. And my sister, who had not shown any kind of emotion since that day, cried.
It was not a gusher by any stretch of the imagination. Well, except for my dad’s I mean. I am sure Cowboy Bob saw it as the scene from Giant, where James Dean stands in the shower of oil coming from the gushing well and screams with joy. He came up to where I was standing, threw an oily arm around my shoulder and said to me, ‘Well, we’re oil people now.’
What could I do but laugh with joy at the idea that Cowboy Bob was back in the saddle again? From that instant on, everything turned around. The oil from that well paid off the last of our student loans, and there was enough left over for my father to buy a couple of questionable thoroughbreds, you know, the kind only he could see the beauty in. We were back. And all because my father remembered who he was, and acted on that. He was a dreamer, a cowboy, a rider-to-the-rescue. He was oil people. At least, in the movie, it’s oil. In life, In life, it’s love we drill for and re-discover. Only love can remind us that no matter how rough the ride or how sad the horses may be, our best day is somewhere on the trail ahead of us.
* Submitted by Mike Bonifer