Vagneur: A bond like no other

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Christmas was long past, but we snuggled down anyway for a warm winter’s nap. I’d been baby-sitting my grandson, Cash, for the evening while his parents took a well-deserved respite from their duties. What do you do with a kid pushing 3 years old? Whatever it is, be aware that however much energy he burns, you’ll expend twice as much just trying to keep up.

With a final “race,” the second jaunt up the stairs for the evening, I convinced him into his pajamas. After reading him three or four stories, and although he knew the sandman was hovering overhead, he was unwilling to totally let go and asked if I’d stay for a while.

He, snug in his bed; I, laid out flat on the floor using a stuffed elephant for a pillow; the door cracked a bit, letting in light from the stairwell, and as I listened to his breathing, trying to detect his level of encroaching sleep, my mind began to wander.

What thoughts do grandparents have? Did my grandfather ever wonder about the day I would have grandchildren of my own? Could he see, in his mind’s eye, the grandpa I’ve become, lying on the floor, providing fleeting comfort to a grandchild who gives back unconditional love?

When I was about Cash’s age, I would climb up onto my grandfather’s lap after a family dinner and lay across his belly, or his “bread basket” as the adults liked to tease Gramps, and we’d both fall asleep until the unlit pipe eventually slipped from his teeth or my parents woke me up to go home.

Several years later, getting off the school bus on a December afternoon, the long shadows of evening rapidly intruding into the Woody Creek Canyon, I spied Spades, the horse I’d ridden all summer, tied up by the corral next to our house. Gramps was down the lane feeding our replacement heifers in a large corral above his house, about a quarter-mile away.

Always thinking, I supposed my granddad would be happy to be reunited with his horse, and the best way to make that happen would be for me to ride the big coal black steed down the road toward Gramp’s location. Spades and I had gotten along fairly well the previous summer so I summarily untied him, bailed on and headed down the road.

Winter can be brutal, and so can a horse’s attitude sometimes, especially one with a headstrong kind of disdain for authority. Spades wanted back into the barn with a welcoming bunk of hay next to his buddies and took off at a full-on gallop.

My God, we’d never gone that fast before. My 7- or 8-year-old skill and muscle were no match for the beast and we were in a heated sprint down the Woody Creek Road. My yells of “whoa” and “help” alerted Gramps to the situation, although even had I been struck dumb with fear, the thundering hoof beats on the hard, snowpacked surface would have announced my impending doom.

As we came into view, Gramps stood in the middle of the road, holding the pitchfork horizontally across his chest, and simply roared, “Whoa.” Spades, clearly out-psyched, locked up all four hooves and we came to a sliding stop that would have made any reining horse proud, just shy of my granddad, who seemed about 10 feet tall.

Years later, when I was 11 and we were coming off a cold afternoon horseback ride up Collins Creek, a helluva hailstorm ambushed us, coming too fast and hard to allow putting on slickers, and we holed up under a huge serviceberry bush alongside an irrigation ditch. As our feet dangled off the bank into the empty ditch, he placed his arm around me, an unusual comfort on a bitter, melancholic day. That was about as much physical closeness as we ever spent after those early days in his living room, until the last summer, when during our rides he’d sometimes have me rub Absorbine horse liniment on his back in an attempt to quell the pain from an undiagnosed lung cancer.

My grandfather never knew either set of his grandparents, as they remained in Italy, so he had no role models, but he seemed to like the job. He taught me that a child’s relationship with his/her grandfather is something very special, something apart from the rest of the world. My hope is that I offer as much to my grandchildren as my grandfather did to me.

Maybe someday, in a parallel universe, I’ll see Cash with — no, don’t even think it.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at