"Misty of Chincoteague," Marguerite Henry's beloved children's book, put the dream of owning a Chincoteague pony into the heads of a generation, dreams that have been passed down to subsequent generations who come to the Chincoteague pony penning with their savings and hope in hand.
Every year, some of the wild ponies that populate the southern part of Assateague Island, one of the mid-Atlantic barrier islands off the Delmarva Peninsula, are rounded up and herded by boat across the channel to Chincoteague, Va., where they are auctioned off. The auction is a conservation measure (it keeps the wild-pony population at sustainable levels) and a fund-raiser. The proceeds benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.
When the auction began in 1925, A pony could be bought for $75. Now the cost usually runs to four digits, a price that staggers youngsters armed only with earnings from baby-sitting or cutting lawns. But the dream of Misty lives. Every now and then, someone comes to the auction with a dream buttressed by a prayer.
It was that way with a young girl, not yet a teen, who came with $600 stuffed into the back pocket of her jeans.
She was positioned up front so she could be seen, chin tilted up to catch the auctioneer's eye. Each time a new pony was led into the ring, she put two fingers in the air to start the bidding. Each time, she had to quit at $600. Though she had begun with a sparkling anticipation in her eyes, the sparkle faded as the auction wore on, and her shoulders began to slump.
By then, the crowd had noticed her. What had begun as a disparate collection of people, each in competition with the next, became (as many crowds do, given time and focus) a temporary community. Many began to feel for her. Some cheered her on. But each time, she was handily outbid by someone with more cash.
Finally, the next-to-last pony was trotted into the ring at the end of a tether. It was a small, pert animal with the proud gait of a champion, a dignity brought to perfection by its size. The girl walked out with the other prospective buyers to inspect it. When she reached it, she knelt down, looked into its eyes, and wrapped her arms around its neck, holding the pony in one long embrace, one single moment of loving ownership.
Then she stepped back into the crowd and the bidding began.
"Who'll give me $500?" the auctioneer called.
The girl's two fingers went up.
"Five-fifty!" called someone in the back.
She thrust two fingers into the air again.
"Five seventy-five!" she cried.
The bidding was going in small increments. She was getting excited. Five-eighty in the back. Five-ninety on the other side.
"Who'll give $600?" The auctioneer called, looking at her.
She raised two fingers.
"Six hundred to the little lady!" The auctioneer crowed.
Then another hand came up. The bid was $610.
The girl's head went down, and the tears started. She had lost.
We often hear that it takes a tragedy to bring out the best in people, but it's not true. Kindness abounds - the helping hand, the generous offer. Each is an act of love, an acknowledgment of our human connection.
Someone in the back captured the bid at $610. But in the crowd, a hand went up, holding a $20 bill. Someone was helping her.
"Six-twenty!" the auctioneer shouted.
A man across the ring raised the bid to $630. Another hand came up with another $20 bill. It waved in the breeze like a banner.
But the man refused to yield. More hands with money went into the air in an effort to salvage the child's dream. The man kept bidding. Then the girl's grandmother, who had watched her struggle and seen the generosity of strangers, offered to help. But the man across the ring was determined.
The fire company, which depends on the money the auction raises, is practical. But by its very nature, it is also idealistic. Its business is preservation - be it a house, a town, or a child's hope.
The auctioneer watched the bids rise: $700, then $800. No more hands came up to help. He watched the grandmother's face and the child's. He knew that the purse, if not the heart, has a limit.
The man across the ring raised the bid again. Encouraged by her grandmother, the child bid once more. Immediately, the auctioneer brought his gavel down.
"All in!" he cried, glaring at the man across the ring. "Little lady," he grinned, "you've just bought yourself a Chincoteague pony!"
*The story was told to the author by a couple who bought a pony for their son at last year's auction.