Cowboys & Indians, Harry Houdini, & the Aspiring Jockey: A Story About Surviving Older Siblings
It was one of the meanest rat snakes I had ever caught. It bit me three times before I was able to grab it behind its diamond shaped head.
I brought it into my sister’s room, put it in her jewelry box and closed the lid.
“Vomit Face!” I yelled. “Guess what? I found those earrings you lost. I put em back in the box.”
Even though we lived in Slidell, her scream could be heard all the way in Bay Saint Louis!
My brother was talking to our father in the driveway. Without saying a word, I walked up to them, clinched my fist and punched my brother as hard as I could square in the nose. There was nothing but blood and tears.
I knew I’d get in trouble; but, I also knew I wouldn’t get killed – at least then and there. When my brother finally stopped crying, he pulled me aside and said, “I’m gonna beat you up for an hour every day for a week.” I nodded my head and smiled; it was still worth it.
Cowboys & Indians
“Hey Zitmeat, ya wanna play Cowboys and Indians?” my brother and sister asked. “We’ll even let YOU be the cowboy!”
“Really?!” I said.
I was six years old at the time and, like most six year olds, wanted to be a cowboy. I had just seen the movie, True Grit, staring John Wayne and Glen Campbell. I envisioned myself galloping across the plains, reins clinched in my teeth and guns blazing.
“The Indians here lived on the other side of the bayou,” my siblings told me. So, we jumped in a pirogue and paddled across. There, too far from home to protest, my brother and sister informed me that I was their prisoner. According to them, cowboys had been notoriously cruel to “Native Americans.” They mentioned a Trail of Tears and a Wounded Knee. “You and all the other cowboys deserve to be punished,” they said.
So, they tied me to a loblolly pine with bridle leather, baling twine and duct tape. Then, they took off all my clothes, saying it was a Choctaw tradition. “You’re lucky we didn’t scalp you,” they yelled from the pirogue as they paddled away.
Facing passing boats in all my prepubescent glory, I spent the next hour and a half gnawing my way free.
Survivor’s note: When I finally escaped, I swam across the bayou, grabbed a can of Raid Yard Guard insect repellant and attacked my Indian assailants. And, like Custer at Little Bighorn, I got in trouble!
“Tying you up to a tree was a test,” my brother later confessed. “And, you passed! We were so impressed, we think YOU could be the next Harry Houdini.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Harry Houdini,” my brother said. “He was the greatest escape artist of all time. YOU could be an escape artist too.”
“Really?!” I said. “What do I need to do?”
“Practice,” my brother said. “Practice makes perfect. And, you’ll need an incentive.”
“What’s an incentive?” I asked. (My brother was 4 years older and obviously had a far more extensive vocabulary.)
“An incentive is why you do things,” he said. “Houdini escaped for fame and fortune. And, of course, to avoid death. Until you get rich and famous like him, your incentive will have to be staying alive.” (My brother failed to mention how Houdini had died!)
My father had an artesian well water pool. The water was ice cold and pitch black. My brother tied me to a teak chaise lounge chair and tossed me in the deep end. Squirming at the bottom, I somehow managed to stand upright with the chair on my back. Like Tigger from the house of Winnie the Pooh, I pogoed my way toward the shallow end. About halfway there, I bounced just high enough to break the surface and gulp much needed air. Near the stairs, I finally wriggled my way free.
“Nice job,” my brother said, “but that was way too easy. If you’re to be the next Harry Houdini, you’re gonna need something more challenging.” He then tied me to a metal chair, tied the chair to the underside of the diving board, and left me alone with nothing – but a strong incentive.
Survivor’s note: Over the course of my “training,” my brother locked me in a chicken coop with an ornery rooster, put me in a running dryer with only two pillows, buried me up to my chin in creosote contaminated bayou sludge (I sometimes glow at night and bugs want nothing to do with me.), and left me in a hole so deep I had to dig an escape tunnel like El Chapo. And no, I never got rich or famous, though I did manage to stay alive – barely.
The Aspiring Jockey
“Like you, Houdini was small,” my sister said. “If he hadn’t been an escape artist, he would have made a great jockey. YOU could be a great jockey!”
“Really?!” I said. (The gullibility of youth has no limits.)
“Yes,” she said. “But, of course, you’ll need to practice…”
My sister was an excellent equestrian, was much older and wiser than me and, I think, had just finished the book, Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. “To become a great jockey,” she said, “you have to become ONE with the animal. You have to BE the horse. To accomplish this, you’ll need to learn to ride without a saddle or a bridle.”
We had a Shetland pony named Frisky. Frisky was, well, true to her name. My sister put me on her back and advised me to hold on to her shaggy mane. She then hit Frisky on her rump with a switch and the pony took off like a thoroughbred.
I’m pretty sure Frisky knew exactly where she was going, a fresh clover patch on the other side of the property. And, I think she had a plan for how to get rid of an unwanted rider.
Along the way there was an enormous longleaf pine. It had one giant limb that ran perfectly parallel to the ground. It was about a hand taller than Frisky, in other words, level with my solar plexus. Frisky ran straight for it.
Hanging from the limb by my ribcage and desperately gasping for breath, I began to plot my revenge. Later that day I would hunt for snakes and practice my uppercut…
Survivor’s note: Over the span of my childhood, my older brother and sister shot me with a Benjamin Pump Air Rifle (I had to pick out the pellet from my thigh with a Swiss Army knife!), put poison ivy, cayenne pepper and fire ants in my underwear, abandoned me on a buoy in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain, and sold my horse while I was away at summer camp. And, they told me I was Hitler’s son. By comparison, adulthood, with its taxes, Trumps and colonoscopies, has been a leisurely walk in Audubon Park!
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him [email protected].