When a scruffy, jet-black pony with a thick, unruly mane was given to me on my 13th birthday, I was in heaven. To my eager, adolescent eyes, the pony was as magnificent as any race horse - and, as my dad discovered, just about as costly.
Our family lived in the suburbs, not on a farm, so preparing a suitable shelter and grazing area for a pony was no small undertaking. My dad turned the property in front of our house into pasture by building, at considerable expense, a proper wooden fence. He also had a number of trees leveled in the woods behind our house so that a double Dutch-door barn could be erected. Feed bills were steep, as were bills for the monthly visits of blacksmith and veterinarian. We also had to purchase a bridle, saddle, and horse blanket.
It seemed that every time my dad turned around, a huge portion of his paycheck had evaporated. "This pony takes every cent I make!" he moaned, "I oughta call him Uncle Sam!" The name stuck.
Although Uncle Sam was only big enough to be classified as a pony, he had a hearty appetite and routinely ate enough hay to fill a draft horse. Three meals a day never seemed to be enough for him. When Sam was allowed to nibble on our small back lawn, he took to this task with wild abandon, eating not only the grass, but also the roots, some dirt, and even a few earthworms.
Even while eating, Sam kept one eye glued to the lush green lawns of our neighbors, much the way a restaurant patron might glance at a passing dessert cart while having dinner.
One fall day Sam got tired of just looking. He sailed over his four-foot- tall enclosure in search of greener pastures. My parents, astonished that he could accomplish such a feat, jumped into our station wagon in hot pursuit. When, at dusk, they still hadn't found Sam, they called the police. That's when they learned that the police station had been besieged by calls from frantic homeowners reporting that a furry black eating machine was turning their manicured lawns into mud. We didn't have a horse trailer, so when Sam was eventually captured, my dad had to walk him all the way back to our house, a distance of roughly 24 miles.
We hoped that Sam had learned his lesson, but no. For him, the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence. Whenever he escaped from our property, he could always be found with his head lowered, chewing the dickens out of someone else's lawn.
While he was loose, only the promise of more food could coax Sam back into captivity. One afternoon during an attempt to retrieve him from an irate neighbor's property, I discovered nothing in our fridge except lemons. Grabbing the plumpest one, I ran outside and waved it about. This caught Sam's attention, and he ran over and took a healthy bite. The expression on his eyes as the sour juice filled his mouth was priceless. I grabbed his halter and held on tight while he dragged me all over our property with a lemon stuck on his front teeth. That was the last time we could ever entice him with treats.
I rode with other horses in the neighborhood; they were gorgeous proud animals the color of melted caramel and as smooth and as sleek as racing cars. They had something else Sam didn't have: ribs. But for some reason, neighborhood kids flocked to my pony's side, and in spite of his shortcomings, Sam was always willing to give any child a ride. He patiently walked up and down our long driveway, or in endless circles, for as long as they wanted. And what Sam lacked in stature, he made up in speed, for no horse could beat him galloping down dirt roads. Sam flew. He had the heart of a steeplechase winner and seemed to take particular delight in chasing cars. Once, while I was on him, he passed a family headed for the beach in a Buick.
We had to sell Sam during my senior year of high school. I'd be going off to college, and it didn't make sense to keep him. I watched sadly as Sam was led into a trailer. A big part of my childhood seemed to disappear when he vanished down the street. Two weeks later we got a call from the new owner, the director of a summer camp. He asked if, perchance, we wanted to take Sam back. My dad, who had been spreading grass seed on what had once been a lush green lawn, politely declined the kind offer.
The last time I saw Sam was during his twilight years in a paddock in New Hampshire. He was eating as if there were no tomorrow (big surprise). But when Dad and I approached and called, Sam came over. He passed me by without so much as a backward glance. But after inclining his head toward Dad, he sniffed, and then let out a low nicker of recognition. Perhaps he remembered the long walk they'd taken the day he ran away, or the years Dad had filled his water bucket, or the times Dad had buckled him into his warm winter blanket when the temperature dropped.
Sam was worth every penny my dad ever spent.