Gary, Indiana - 1938
Wildfire was born with an unbridled taste for adventure. All he wanted from life was to take on the world and absorb all the sweet mystery it had to offer. He was a beautiful animal, what one might call a horse of a different color, and that is exactly what he was. He was handsomely painted in the most vivid shades of red and purple, trimmed in metallic gold. He was fashioned after a black stallion with a massive chest, well-muscled flanks and a tail that was designed to appear as though the horse were in permanent motion. His tapered ears heard everything and had the flared nostrils of a horse in battle. His silver-gray mane was painted with precision and was a perfect compliment to his magnificent head. Every detail of this wonderful beast was created with meticulous care by the artist who designed him. There were other colorful horses on the carousel however; Wildfire outshined them all with his brilliant eyes so real, riders mounting him half expected the horse to wink at them.
The carousel took more than a year to complete and had its debut at a country fair twelve miles from the city of Gary, Indiana, during the summer of 1938. Gary was becoming a booming town and local carnivals were a welcome way to attract tourists during the spring and summer season. Wildfire was made of wood but had been gifted with a consciousness that allowed him to observe the changing world around him. The days were pleasant enough when crowds came at a steady pace to enjoy time with their families; when nighttime came Wildfire found his true enjoyment in people watching. He’d witnessed the occasional restless teenager who jumped on him after the carnival closed for a cheap thrill; but it never happened more than once. Wildfire would buck them off, sending them to the ground with a nasty bruise for their trouble. No one ever told anyone if it happened to them. Who would believe it anyway?
Since his creation, Wildfire had been hungry for freedom to run like a real horse. Unfortunately, his hoofs were mounted to the carousel making free movement impossible. More than anything, the carousel horse longed to spend time among real horses, like the ones he saw when townspeople took their horse carts to the fairgrounds. The summer of ’38 passed quickly as more talk of war reached his painted ears. Children didn’t talk about this of course, but adults did. They often rode the carousel with their children and that is where Wildfire learned about war, family life and about the secret longings of the human heart.
World War II became an official American initiative, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The fairgrounds were closed when it happened but Wildfire picked up bits and pieces of information from locals who occasionally passed by talking about current affairs. Old timers liked to hang out at the fairground even during the winter months, building small fires for warmth as they repeated stories their companions had long ago memorized. The abandoned fairground was a place for men to get away from their wives and sometimes just to pass the time. Wildfire listened to them and absorbed every word they said about his hometown; more importantly he learned everything he could about the human world.
Summer came again as the war continued into 1942; when the modest Indiana town saw the most powerful storm in recorded history. Wildfire knew something was up when wagons and pickup trucks arrived filled with townspeople, who came to help secure the fairground against impending disaster. Men worked side by side tying things down, but no one gave the carousel a second thought. Wildfire didn’t mind, he was even a little intrigued to see what might happen; he’d weathered many storms before and all it meant was that he got a thorough cleaning.
The frantic activity died down as the sky grew more ominous. Everyone had fled to the safety of their homes and Wildfire stood alone with the other painted horses. The first flash came as the sky blackened, changing the horizon to night. Lightning finally made its way to the carousel and Wildfire winced when the sky exploded with blinding light as a huge thunderbolt made a direct hit, shorting out the carousel mechanism with a loud zapping sound. The lightning was promptly followed by hurricane winds and a soaking rain that lasted for nearly an hour, and then it suddenly stopped just before nightfall. Wildfire dried off as the moon rose and that is when he realized he was able to move his right leg. He looked down in amazement and tried to move his left leg as well; his left hoof easily pulled free of the carousel platform. Delirious with the thought of impending freedom, Wildfire pulled all four legs free and leapt from the carousel that had been his jailer since the day he was created. He landed in the mud splashing as he hit the wet surface, but he didn’t care about anything except the euphoria of being free at last. Wildfire pranced around the fairgrounds for a few minutes trying to get used to his new ability, grateful for the magic of motion.
The next morning, the fairgrounds were surveyed for damage and just as Wildfire feared the carousel was damaged beyond repair. Jake, the groundskeeper studied the carousel more closely and was dismayed when he noticed that although the black stallion was in his usual spot; all four hooves were covered with dried mud. He scratched his head and shrugged as he moved on to see what else the storm had destroyed. As Jake walked away, Wildfire followed him with veiled eyes trying his best to look innocent.
The fairground closed a few weeks later as an early fall made its appearance, which meant that many items would be taken and stored away for the season. The carousel was left untouched and uncovered; the metal fence gate was padlocked against vandals. Wildfire and the other carousel horses would be ridden and loved by children no more. Without the laughter of children, his magic faded; Wildfire remained tethered to a lifeless carousel as the autumn leaves began to fall. Snow came next which Wildfire didn’t mind, only this time, there would be no summer carnivals to look forward to. There he stood as seasons came and went turning months into years. The beautiful horse held out hope that the carousel would be restored some day but instead, Wildfire’s colors started to fade and peel as he lived year after year alone and unloved in the deserted fairground.
Brownsville, Indiana – 1965
Compared to Gary, Indiana, this town was a hovel. It was called Brownsville and could not have been more aptly named. The town had a total population of less than two hundred people which meant everyone knew everyone else, giving a whole new meaning to the term “kissing cousins.” Second cousins married on a regular basis and it was often said that Brownsville citizens knew how to keep it in the family; this comment was always followed by a sly smile.
To say the town was small would be an understatement. The town square consisted of Jeb’s Grocery Stop, Mr. T’s Cigars, Jim’s Barber Shop and Hannah’s Coffee House. Across from the small strip of stores were Hap’s Tavern, a recently built Ace Hardware and the only church in town, Saint Luke’s Episcopal. In the middle of town there was a small park with a whitewashed gazebo where the Fourth of July Parade and annual church picnic were celebrated. The only other buildings located a few blocks from the town square were the public library and Brownsville Courthouse which also served as a place for public meetings or as shelter during severe winter storms. Behind the courthouse was the elementary and high school combined into one building, nestled alongside the town’s only cemetery with gravestones dating back to the 1700’s.
Nearly all of Brownsville’s adult residents worked in the steel mill just outside of town, while others either owned one of the small businesses or were farmers. Most of the year Brownsville was actually well, brown. The arrival of spring brought with it a short burst of color but during the summer months it was just too hot to grow anything, including a green lawn. While most of the Midwest looked forward to a colorful autumn, Brownsville’s foliage just went from yellow-green to brown before dropping to the ground. Winter brought a purifying whiteness to the town, but color was still absent during the long winter months as well.
It was the summer of 1965, still early in June so the heat had not yet arrived to chase residents indoors. Every year about this time, the BoJo Man came through Brownsville with his rickety cart full of wares. No one knew his real name, they just called him the BoJo Man and that suited him just fine, as long as they were paying customers. His cart was pulled by a tired old nag named Agnes, but he treated her tenderly because she was the only company available to a traveling peddler. He didn’t have much this year, but he had one special item and was certain of a ready buyer. Mr. T, the proprietor of the cigar shop had an eye for antiques and was always looking for exotic things to collect. The BoJo Man happened to know Mr. T had a keen interest in carousel horses. He had a beauty in his cart, Mr. T was sure to love. The horse needed a little paint but otherwise, it was a fine specimen.
As the BoJo Man walked down the dirt road into town, Wildfire started to feel himself come alive with breathless anticipation. As he got closer the painted horse used every bit of his special talents to replenish the colors that used to be his so that by the time the peddler made it into town, Wildfire had nearly restored himself to his original glory.
The townspeople looked forward to visits from the BoJo Man; movies and Wednesday night bingo games only provided so much entertainment. Mr. T was already standing out in the middle of street as the peddler entered the town square. Jim, the barber was waiting too, wearing his signature white apron as he stood with hands folded across his ample chest.
“Looks like a full cart, James,” Mr. T commented as the peddler got closer.
“Ah-huh,” was all he said.
“Hullo, gentlemen,” the BoJo Man called through coffee stained teeth.
Mr. T didn’t wait for any further pleasantries; he just ran to the cart and of course, fell instantly in love with the lone carousel horse. He stroked its painted head and blurted out, “What are you askin’?”
The BoJo man looked at the ground shuffling his feet as he stalled for time. “Well, he’s a fine specimen you know…built ‘round ‘36 or ‘37, I’m told.”
“C’mon, you’re killing me,” Mr. T complained as he continued to study Wildfire.
“Guess I could let him go for two hundred bucks.”
“You’re a thief…my man, make it one-seventy-five and you’ve got yourself a deal!”
“Fair enough,” said the BoJo Man agreeing to the price. “It does need some work though.”
“Looks good to me, here Jim…give me a hand,” Mr. T beckoned as he and the barber lifted the horse out of the cart.
“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?” Mr. T turned to ask Hannah, who had left her coffee shop customers to see what the BoJo Man had brought this year.
“Well I’ll be damned,” the BoJo man said rubbing the back of his neck. “Paint job wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
“Let’s go back to my place, we can settle up there,” Mr. T replied as he and the barber carried Wildfire back to his new home.
The cigar shop and Jim’s Barber shop were next to each other and after much deliberation, they agreed to have Jim’s barber pole redone so it could be used to turn the carousel horse into what Mr. T insisted would be a tourist attraction. Jim reluctantly agreed as long as his so-called “business associate” agreed to pay for the cost of the renovation. When the horse was mounted, both agreed it was a colorful addition to their mutual establishments and was indeed a perfect compliment to Mr. T’s token cigar store Indian, Big Red. Also obtained from the BoJo Man, Big Red had been a permanent fixture in Brownsville since the store opened in 1949.
The first few weeks Wildfire took up residence in Brownsville were uneventful as he stood next to Big Red watching townspeople pass by. Once again trapped by the mechanics of man-made construction, Wildfire waited for another storm to release him from bondage. Big Red stood sentry next to Wildfire, but was clearly nothing more than a cleverly carved hunk of wood. Many patrons of the cigar and barber shops were used to rubbing the top of Big Red’s head for luck before going inside.
Wildfire and Big Red stood proudly together as days turned to weeks but still no storms, just an occasional drizzle. Children sometimes rode the painted horse and poked fun at Big Red as he stood stone-faced against the cigar shop window. The oldest joke in town was about Big Red’s name. People would joke with Mr. T asking the same tired question “Is it Big Red, like the gum?” Mr. T would roll his eyes and simply nod with a forced smile.
Summer turned to fall in an endless string of boring days and then one cool day in late October, the big storm Wildfire had been waiting for finally came to Brownsville. The wind came first followed by a blackening sky and then lightning struck Jim’s barber pole, electrifying everything it touched. There were a few sparks and then the rain came down in buckets drenching the little town in a steady rain that continued until nightfall.
The next morning left a mess for the citizens of Brownsville to clean up. Debris was everywhere, including dozens of downed trees. Trash cans had been lifted into the air and deposited blocks from where they stood before the storm began. Jim walked to his shop anxiously surveying the damage as he entered the town square. Mr. T pulled up in his truck behind Jim, rolling down the window to say good morning.
“Got us a real mess to clean up today, I guess,” he called out as he pulled his truck into a parking space.
Jim met his neighbor on Main Street as they walked toward their mutual storefronts and both gasped in surprise at what they saw. Big Red was gone, not a trace of the old relic was to be seen anywhere. Mr. T’s face went white as he realized that his painted horse was gone as well. Jim’s barber pole was damaged beyond repair, but the antique carousel horse had completely vanished. The two wordlessly cleaned up garbage, bundling up tree branches and securing overturned trash cans. It was a Sunday so shops were closed, which gave them time to attend to the damage the storm had caused. Jim held the broken pieces of his prized barber’s pole and knew there was nothing left to salvage. He still couldn’t understand how the horse could’ve been taken by the wind, but they couldn’t find it anywhere. The two worked tirelessly through the day, both silently lamenting the loss of their cherished possessions and finally finished as the sun went down.
“I just can’t understand it, Jim,” Mr. T finally broke the silence, “there’s not a trace of Big Red or my horse anywhere…not even a broken fragment of either one.”
“Can’t imagine where they went, I guess the wind took them,” the barber replied as he looked up at the darkening sky above them.
“C’mon, let’s go over to Hap’s and grab a beer,” Mr. T offered as he pulled down the iron gate to secure his shop.
Nighttime had always been special for Wildfire, but this night he would remember forever. It was the night Wildfire was finely set free. He soared through the air above the rooftops of Brownsville, exhilarated by the feeling of cool air on his face. As the wind took him on his new adventure, the town was transformed by the richest and most vibrant autumn foliage Brownsville had seen in decades. His rider, Big Red took in the breathtaking view with relish as he rode Wildfire with a vengeance, continuing their flight past the edge of town and into the woods where they were certain further adventures awaited the rider and his enchanted horse.