My sister Libba recently discovered the photograph of me above, taken when I was six or seven. I remember that pony very well — it belonged to my friend Axel, whose
dad owned The River Forest Manor, an inn and sporting lodge in Belhaven, , North Carolina, the tiny town where my family was living at the time. Axel liked to offer rides to
friends, then poke the pony in the side with a sharp instrument and
roar with laughter as the pony went crazy and bucked them off. I don’t remember
having any adult supervision when we rode the pony — such was life for kids in the Fifties, at least in a rustic backwater like Belhaven.
Belhaven is located on the Pungo River, an arm of Pamlico Sound. That’s the inn above, the only elegant edifice for miles around, which often hosted fishermen and hunters — the area, watery and swampy, is a famous duck hunting region.
I remember even better the rubber wading boots I’m wearing in the photo. Life was never the same after I got them for Christmas one year. They were a special request. I wanted them so I
could penetrate deeper into swampy places in search of turtles. Capturing turtles was my obsession in those years — especially snapping turtles, because they could get to be so big.
Friends of mine would run halfway across town to report a snapping turtle sighting, because they knew how excited I’d get about it, and I would run twice as fast to where they’d seen it to try and grab it before it wandered off somewhere else. Big snapping turtles are dangerous — they can easily snap off the tip of a little kid’s finger — but I don’t recall ever worrying about this, or my parents ever trying to dissuade me from the activity. If a turtle I was after slid off a creek bank or a log and disappeared into murky water I’d try to estimate its submarine trajectory and reach down into the water with my bare hands to seize it.
Desire banished fear — because having a big snapping turtle was like having your own miniature dinosaur. Handling the creatures one you get hold of them is safe enough if you take a little care — grasping a snapping turtle by both sides of the shell precisely in the middle render its jaws and claws harmless. You just have to be quick about it. I adopted a professional attitude about the whole enterprise — hence the wading boots.
In the picture I’m wearing a cavalry uniform, which I didn’t remember at first, but then I realized it must have been a “Rusty” outfit from the TV show The Adventures Of Rin Tin Tin. Sure enough I located a photograph of the costume on eBay.
All the evidence would seem to suggest that the photograph was taken at Christmas, in 1956 or 1957. Axel had probably just ridden the pony, a Christmas gift of his own I guess, over to my house to show it off to me.