When I was five years old, my stepfather Ed Dorn connected with Jack Kerouac, probably through their mutual friend Robert Creeley. We called him “Happy Jack Kerouac.” It was a happy sing-song phrase that sounded often in our family during that period. I loved the rhyme and rhythm of it and even though I had no idea who Happy Jack was I ended up believing he was somehow part of us, part of our family, a kindly uncle or close family friend.
One night after we had all gone to bed, Ed and Helene woke us up and told us to grab our pillows and get into the back of our beat-up old station wagon, where they had laid out sleeping bags so we could go right back to sleep. We were going to see Happy Jack. It was a long time ago, but here’s how I remember it. We drove through the night, finally arriving at a secluded cabin somewhere deep in some forest. I know now, because I researched it, that it was a cabin Gary Snyder was borrowing from a friend for the summer, in Marin County. But I did not know that then.
I remember piling out of the car in the dark, the three of us racing into the cabin, which was full of people, people in every room, drinking, talking, smoke hovering, kerosene lanterns lighting it all up, our parents stashing our stuff in a room littered with mattresses and rolled-up sleeping bags and overnight bags and rucksacks and duffels and coats, telling us we’d go to bed in there in a bit but they had to talk to some people first, and then disappearing into the crowd. I remember wandering through the rooms, not recognizing anybody, adults in knots here and there, clustered around chairs, leaning against walls, in doorways, all engrossed in each other, in animated, intense conversation.
I ended up in the kitchen. There I encountered a man with thick dark hair wearing a red and black plaid flannel shirt tucked into jeans. Maybe Ed and Helene were talking with him, I don’t remember, but somehow he and I got talking, and in the process he discovered I was horse-crazy. Either then, or maybe later before my brothers and I bedded down for the night, he told me about a magnificent red stallion you could see at sunrise in a pasture not far from the cabin, that he was the most beautiful stallion in the world, fierce and strong, brilliant red, and that he would paw the ground and it would shake, and that he would whinny and you could hear it for miles, and that the breath from his nostrils was like smoke or like the billowing clouds from a steam engine, and that his eyes flashed fire, and that he only came out at dawn, and that you had to see him then or you wouldn’t see him at all.
I was transfixed. I was looking up into his face and I was caught up in the vision. This sounded magical to me. Mythological. My mouth dropped open. Everything about this man, the story he was telling me, was magnetic.
He asked me if I wanted to go with him. If I wanted to go with him in the morning and see The Stallion. Yes, I said. Yes. I do. He said he would wake me up in the morning and we could go. Was I sure. Because it would be early, Baby. Really early. It would still be dark and it would be cold. He’d have to wake me up. We’d have to be very quiet, and sneak out, because the other kids would be sleeping and maybe some of the adults would be too. We’d have to whisper, and tiptoe. Did I really want to. And I nodded my head. Oh yes. I said. Yes yes. I want to go. You wake me up. He said Okay then he would wake me up in the morning before it was light and we would go. It would be an adventure, Baby. We would see this magnificent Red Stallion.
And sure enough, true to his word, he woke me up.
I was sound asleep in my sleeping bag, lying between my brothers on a mattress on the floor. Someone grabbed my toes and gently shook my feet until I woke up. I sat up in my bag and looked around, not remembering. I didn’t know where I was. It was dark. My eyes were all squinty and getting used to the dark as I tried to make out what had woken me. Then I saw this form squatting at the foot of the mattress, still in the clothes he’d had on the night before. Probably he had stayed up all night talking. There were still grownups out there in the dimly lighted rooms beyond, it was only lights-out in this room where the kids were sleeping among the stashed stuff the weekend guests had left in there. “Shshsh” he said, putting his finger to his lips, “Sshsshssh.” I followed suit. “Shshsshsh” I said, putting my finger to my lips, to show him I knew what he meant.
“The sun’s almost up,” he whispered, “do you still want to go, Baby? Do you want me to take you to see the Red Stallion?” I nodded yes yes I do yes, and reached out my hand to him. He pulled me up out of my sleeping bag.
I was still dressed. We had crawled into our sleeping bags in our clothes when we got tired and just fallen asleep, the way we often did in situations like this, the grownups being busy with their grownup things. He helped me find my sneakers and my coat and the red-and-white stocking cap my grandmother Bonnie had knit and sent for Christmas. We tiptoed out of the darkened room into the light of the rooms beyond and made our way into the kitchen. He had a cup of coffee steaming there and a cup of hot chocolate steaming beside it. He picked up the hot chocolate and handed it to me. It had marshmallows melting on the top. We sat there for a while and drank our morning drinks in companionable silence. I kept looking at his face. I liked it, very very much. It was open, and handsome, and strong, with dark stubble on the cheeks and chin and above the lips. I liked his glossy dark hair. I wanted to touch it.
This was Happy Jack, and I could see, from my five-year-old’s place on the kitchen stool in the semi-dark and cold of early morning in a cabin under tall pines, why they called him that. His eyes were sparkly, shining with excitement, and there was a comradely, conspiratorial air about all his movements. He was as caught up in his own narrative magic, in this adventure he was creating for me, as I was.
“Come on,” he said, after we’d had a few sips of our hot drinks, “We better hurry now or we’ll miss him. We have to get there just as the sun rises, not before, not after.” He lifted me off the stool and set me on the floor, and then took my hand in his and led me out the back door of the cabin into the clearing behind it. On the other side of the clearing was a narrow path that disappeared quickly into a copse of tall pines.
We crossed the clearing and followed the trail into the trees, and were soon swallowed up by the landscape. We made our way along that trail, up rises, down slopes, around bends through the trees, across small rocky streams, up hills. It was damp and cool and we could see our breath as we walked. All the way, Happy Jack held my hand and talked to me about this magnificent horse, told me stories about him, how he had first encountered him out walking one time when he hadn’t been able to sleep and it was getting to be morning, and how powerful and special and inspiring he was, and he described his powerful shoulders and withers, his powerful hindquarters and neck, how his mane and tail flowed and his neck was a perfect arch, how his ears pricked up at the slightest sound, oh he was wild Baby, just wild, wait till you see him, and how brilliant his color was, how his red coat glistened in the rising sun, like fire, like rubies, like blood.
It got lighter and lighter as we picked our way through the landscape Happy Jack was filling with the magic of his story. He began to worry that we might have started out too late. The sun was coming up and it might be too late. The stallion might not be there after all. He might not be there until the next morning at dawn, and that would be too late Baby because we’d all be gone home by then. And that would really be a drag, Baby, because I really want you to see him, I know you’ll dig him, and he’ll dig you, like, the most.
Finally we came to a steep rise, and at the top of the rise and a little ways beyond it I could see a barbed-wire fence, and beyond that a meadow. Happy Jack and I clambered up together, hand in hand, and found ourselves on a level patch of ground, a few feet from the fence. It was past dawn. The sky had turned from black, to dark, to pale while we had walked through the forest, and now it was light grey, streaks of pink at the horizon.
Happy Jack picked me up, swung me up onto his shoulders the way Ed did sometimes, and I put my arms around his neck and leaned my chin on the top of his head, into the thick black hair I had wanted to touch in the kitchen. I was glad. I was tired from the hike. Out of breath. Game, but tired and out of breath. He carried me the few remaining feet to the fence, holding onto my ankles to balance me. On the other side of the fence was a wide expanse of meadow, just as Happy Jack had promised. Mist was rising from the ground, light breaking from pink-tinged piled clouds just above the horizon in the distance. The earth looked like a half-circle from where we stood, the meadow sloping down on the far side, down into some valley I couldn’t see.
I peered out into the brightening grey of the new day, and in the distance, halfway across the meadow, I saw a plain, brown, broken-down, ordinary horse. Grazing placidly. Swinging his head up to look at us for a moment, looking at us, swinging his head down, going back to his grazing.
I looked around. This couldn’t be it so where was it. Where was the Red Stallion. I put my hand to my forehead the way my mother did when she wanted to shield her eyes from the light and REALLY see something. I looked all around that way, from one end of the meadow to the other. I saw nothing. I saw nothing but this lanky, bony, rangy brown horse.
Grazing. Moving a foot or two. Grazing. No smoke from the nostrils. No flowing mane and tail. No fire from the eyes. No ruby coat glistening in the red light of dawn. No powerful rounded hindquarters. No arched neck. None of it. I was quiet. I was confused. I misbelieved my own eyes and I was waiting for Happy Jack to say something.
After a while, he broke the silence, a hushed tone in his voice. “There,” he said. “There, Baby.” He pointed at the brown horse in the meadow. “We’re not too late. Do you see him? There he is! The Red Stallion! Can you dig that!”
I looked again. I squinted. I looked and looked. Then I tightened my arms around his neck. I leaned my head down so that my cheek was against his cheek. I hugged him tight and closed my eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I do. I see him Happy Jack. There he is.”
Chansonette Buck grew up as the stepchild of a Black Mountain poet, living all over the American West, in England and in Spain. She holds the PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won awards for her poetry and her teaching. She has recently completed a memoir: Unnecessary Turns: Growing Up Beat, a chapter of which appears in Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press, May 2010). She lives in Berkeley, California with way too many pets.