Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
She’s almost always been there, taking a position in my peripheral vision, arms folded across her chest, one ankle over the other, a slight smile upon her face and a shine deep within her eyes. The antithesis of any imagined matriarch, she was out-of-place sexy in a khaki skirt with a blue silk scarf around her neck, just enough older to maintain an intellectual integrity that enticed and allowed my young mind to blossom.
She arrived at the old red brick Aspen High School late, a couple of weeks into the fall semester, bringing with her an air of excitement, although I doubted she’d ever earn my allegiance. Her charge, and I doubt anyone fully explained it to her, was to keep vigil over a small group of misfits, six of us in the beginning, somehow labeled as “gifted,” although an attempt to put any two of us into the same category would have been a misappropriation of the original intent. Advanced English? I could fake it an hour a day.
If we can believe poets, life is about roads less traveled or fates twisted tortuously between light and dark, passion and indifference. Once a star pupil, a seriously considered candidate for “skipping” a grade, certain events in junior high had started me down an academic path of intolerable consequences, a downward slide that could not have ended well.
If I wasn’t entertaining cheerleaders in the back of my ’58 Ford coupe or carrying the pigskin on the gridiron, I was locked in my second-floor room, feet propped on my desk, reading maudlin poetry, short stories and encyclopedias from the 1940s and ’50s. Each year, every textbook I owned sat on an easy chair, as unopened and untouched as the day I received them. Until that fall of my senior year.
Meg Heath wanted us to write, to express ourselves, to dig down into the depths and express what we held inside. She didn’t tolerate insincerity. If it was teen-age “saccharin-sweet” crap, she let us know, in front of the class. It had to be real and it had to be well-written. And I thrived on that, almost impervious to the flow of red ink that accompanied my neophyte attempts as they were handed back to me.
But we didn’t just write; we read, probably the most liberal reading list of any public high school in America. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was on the list, and we did “Tropic of Capricorn” for extra credit; “On the Road,” of course; “The Lord of The Flies,” Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and then we moved to Shakespeare, wrote sonnets, delved into “Canterbury Tales,” including the Old English prologue, and Dante’s “Inferno.” Poets Milton, Byron, Dickinson, Bronte, Service, Thomas and T.S. Eliot entered our thinking. And she went to my football games.
My first college adviser (and football coach) was not happy when I insisted that my major be English literature. “You’re making a big mistake,” he said, as I walked away with a sense of academic liberation, silently thanking the woman who had made it possible.
Had I followed my passion for written creativity instead of that for powder snow and whiskey and crafted a life out of the artistry of writing, she and I might have stayed in touch and I may well have spread my dreams under her feet, entreating her, as W.B. Yeats wrote in “The Cloths of Heaven,” to “… tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” For years, she was my unattainable Maud Gonne, something known only to me.
Through the short months we shared, she became my Muse, a force of inward strength, who still looks over my shoulder when the verbs and nouns don’t add up, nudging me deeper when I think I’m done. I have kept her close in my thoughts because I cannot do otherwise.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.