The Last of the Pioneering Brumbachs

In 1495 history records an individual known only as Der Sohn. Prussian by nationality, perhaps German by blood, he resided in the Rhineland, West and South of the Baltic homeland of the Old Prussians, since conquered by the Teutonic Knights. He came from a farm “in der Brumbach” and so it was that the Brumbach surname sprang forth, with the clan content to stay in the shadow of forbidding Siegen Castle until the intrepid Johann Heinreich Brumbach sent the family tumbling West across Europe, leapt the ocean waters, and fell upon American shores, settling in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Johann Heinreich became Henry, became an American patriot, became a man recognized for his valor in the Revolutionary War. His grandson, Joseph, born in 1799, the year of his grandfather’s death, had inherited Henry’s fearless heart, and again the family set forth towards the setting sun, stopping in Illinois to take stock of where they stood. Joseph became more than just a man, he became a patriarch, burying four wives in the process and siring 19 children and giving 8 stepchildren the Brumbach name. His last wife was a lass from County Cork, who bore six children, the very last of which, Olive, was born to a father 72 years of age. The second to last, Ezra Herbert, known as Zeke, inherited the Prussian pioneering spirit, and once more they rolled on, flowing like water through the valleys and the low places, across the vast, forbidding wilderness of the American West. With him he brought his bride, an Irish girl like his mother, by the name of Mary Theresa Phelan. Zeke and Mary, who went by Mame, traveled by wagon to the Oregon-Idaho border, and there this tributary of the Brumbach family stopped, and put down roots, deep roots, all the more necessary in the softly undulating, treeless hills of that new frontier.

Irish fire forged Prussian stoicism into a substance stronger than steel. Mame was a woman who had taught school in Illinois, the sound of wolves howling accompanied her pre-dawn walks to the one room schoolhouse. In her youth she had encountered a traveling salesman proffering impervious pots and pans, when he challenged Mame to test the strength of a saucepan, she bent it double. The Irish-American proved herself more than equal to the uncompromising demands placed upon her by the role of frontier wife, and helped Zeke establish the family farm. It was anchored by a white American farmhouse, the sort that would permeate the imaginations of Wyeth and Rockwell. Zeke and Mame brought Joseph and then Rex into the world, followed by the twins, Ira and Irene, in 1908. Many years later, in 1917, along came Ezra, the last of the pioneering Brumbachs.

The Brumbach family epitomized the American pioneer, living the predawn life of the farmer, a life of darkness and of light, an Easter life, of Good Friday hardship, and joyous Resurrections. The family accumulated stories, as all families do. Of the Brumbach spirit that lived on in Ira, sending him still further West to the Alaskan wilderness, where he passed away, still just a young man. Of the daring spirit of the only daughter, Irene, who attended college and played on the basketball team while there. Of Ezra’s war hero record in WWII, where he fought in Northern Italy and was formally honored for his ability to keep up troop morale. The intrepid family was the first in the region to own a car, and quickly adopted the most cutting edge farming equipment, which they then rented to other farmers. Smart, pragmatic, quintessentially American, the Brumbach family thrived.

Eventually these Brumbachs, compelled by an unquenchable desire to see and do, moved on, seeking out life wherever they could find it. But Ezra, having returned from Europe and the ravages of war, having missed death by a matter of inches more than once and on one memorable occasion when his helmet, acting as a pillow, was shot out from under him, Ezra stayed. Blessed with the Brumbach intellect, he became a master of the game of chess. Blessed with the Brumbach stoicism, he lived the difficult life of a sheep farmer. Blessed with the Brumbach appreciation for family, he took up the task of maintaining the white American farm house, its barn and outbuildings, its farm land and sheep pastures. He did not marry, he did not have children, he did not move along with time, but stayed still, like a rock in a river, as it all flowed past.

A Roman Catholic, he did not turn away from the altar after Vatican II, attending the Tridentine Rite throughout his life. He kept with him his books, his chess, his way of life. He maintained a long tradition of letter writing, drafting compelling notes of wit and wisdom, treasured by those who received them, in much the same way his humor was treasured by his fellow soldiers. Long lived and sturdy, like most Brumbachs, Ezra maintained his farming life far longer than most expected. Finally, a degenerating hip forced his retirement and his movement to an assisted care facility. Stubbornly recovering from surgery, Ezra took up the habit of strolling to an old fashioned soda shop down the road from his new residence.

But no amount of stubbornness can indefinitely hold off the advance of time, even the rock in the river is eventually washed away. And so it was that Ezra passed on this March 19th  2008, having turned 90 last December 2nd. His funeral mass, held in the traditional Latin, will be taking place the day after today, the day after Easter Sunday, in the tiny town of New Plymouth, Idaho. New Plymouth, founded in 1896, was the first planned community west of the Mississippi. And so it seems appropriate that this stoic son of pioneers, this descendent of early American settlers, would find his final peace in a place named for the pilgrim’s progress in the land of hope and opportunity, a place whose name evokes the spirit of simplicity and austerity, the shedding of excess, and the bedrock of faith upon which this country was founded. 

It is cloudy in New Plymouth today, with rain predicted to fall through the night. But after the rain there will be moments of sun, and though I will not be there, I can already see Ezra resting within his pine box coffin. A man of the earth held by the warmth of clean wood, adorned by his overalls and boots – a true pioneering farmer, a war hero, a Prussian, an Irishmen, an American. And as I take in the sight, the sun breaks through the clouds, and lays a blanket of light upon him, beatifying his image. He lived an Easter life, of Good Friday hardship and joyous Resurrection. For all of us who carry his blood in our veins, his passing signals the end of an era. And yet, Ezra and Zeke and Joseph and Henry all live on in us. Their faith and stoicism, their fearless sense of adventure, their capacity to triumph over adversity, their very toughness, is honored whenever we, their descendents, express that fortitude we have inherited. Tomorrow, his body will be laid to rest beside his parents, Ezra Herbert and Mary Theresa. But it is with Easter joy that we celebrate the rising of his spirit to Heaven, where even now he is welcomed by the Brumbachs who passed away before him, including my grandmother, his sister, Irene.

Ebb and Flow

Elvis

Elvis, King of Dobermans

In June of 2004, my then newly wedded husband was working in the garage when he heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. He pivoted around in his kneeling posture in order to see who had walked in. Instead of looking at a person, as he had expected, he found himself eye to eye with a truly enormous Doberman Pinscher. The dog began to cry, and then laid himself flat out on the concrete. Evan came and fetched me, and that was the moment I first met Elvis. He was extremely thin, with open, festering wounds around his neck and between his shoulder blades. He was passing blood, and a lot of it. We gave him water and the only cooked meat I had on hand – a pound and a half of thin sliced frozen Virginia ham. He swallowed it in one bite. After a good deal of confusion and chaos involving animal control (who wanted to put him down because he was a male Doberman), animal rescue groups and neighborhood rumor, I eventually found Elvis’ rightful owner. He lived around the corner, and he was severely stricken by alcoholism.

 Because I could not legally wrest the dog away from him and have Elvis live to tell the tale, I decided on Option B. I approached him one day when he was outside his home, and said in a cheerful voice, “I love your dog! I was wondering if you might be willing to sell him to me?” The man was grateful, as he assumed I was coming to complain about Elvis’ wanderings through the neighborhood. I gathered that the man did love Elvis, in so much as he was capable of loving anything through the haze of his disease. I learned that he sometimes disappeared for long stretches, and when that happened, Elvis didn’t eat until he escaped to find his food on his own. That’s when the man wrapped the chain around his neck, and around his chest, and criss-crossed it between his shoulders. He said that the last time he returned, to find Elvis so thin and covered in sores, he was devastated. But he also was not yet ready to sell him. “Well, how ‘bout I help you take care of him?” I said. The man brightened considerably and took me back behind his house to show me where Elvis lived. “This,” he said proudly, “is Graceland.”

 Graceland was a screened-in porch so filled with detritus there was barely home for Elvis to lay down. As soon as he saw me the giant dog arose, his face nothing but a smile, his whole body wriggling in excitement. The man showed me where the food was kept, where the water was, and for three months I went to Graceland three or four times a day to walk Elvis and feed and water him. I got him a collar and a leash, better dog food, and took him to the vet for a preliminary exam. My vet diagnosed him with a severe parasite infestation, but unfortunately, it was more than that causing him to pass blood continuously – he also had cancer. That August, his owner told me that he wanted me to have Elvis. I asked how much he wanted for the dog, but he replied he wanted no money, adding, “I only have one condition – that you keep his name Elvis. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Elvis is the King of Dobermans.” And so it was that Elvis, King of Dobermans, moved one block down the road and became our dog.

Elvis P. Dog

Elvis, recuperating after one of his many surgeries.

During this time Elvis was in the prime of life. His weight quickly soared from 85 to 105 pounds. His energy, strength, and endurance were extraordinary. Tremendously tough, nothing slowed Elvis down. He had his first surgery to remove ulcerated tumors from his colon. They said it would take several hours before he came around – by the time the short car ride was over he was ready to go on a walk. He had another surgery, and another, for his horribly bad teeth, for additional cancers and tumors, he went through heartworm treatment and swallowed what must have been hundreds of pills. He became a favorite at the vet’s office, where he serenaded the staff with his signature “singing” – as they called it.

Throughout it all, Elvis’ joy for living was unparalleled. This joy permeated his being, and made him a very kind dog. Despite his experience with starvation he was never possessive over his food, and this was a dog who was quite passionate in his love for kibble and doggie treats. He was always kind, always a gentleman, and accepted his difficulties with grace. As our vet would always say, when his hand was halfway up the rear end of a truly powerful killing machine, palpating for tumors, “I’m so glad you’re a good dog, Elvis.”

Unpleasant medical procedures notwithstanding, Elvis saw life as one gigantic party to be enjoyed. Being a clever dog and quite the Houdini, if he ever heard the far off sounds of a college party, he would find a way to escape and join it. I will never forget the calls I received. “Um, your dog’s at my party? Take your time getting here, though. He’s really sweet!” “Your dog is at Spittoono. He’s eating all the children’s hot dogs.” The greatest lure of all was Spittoono. Where else can a dog find a live band, fried Twinkies, and hot dogs to steal all in one place? I took to writing in Elvis’ voice in notes to my friends. Elvis’ greetings always began in the same way, “Hi! I’m Elvis!” It was just the way he said hello to the world.

As time progressed, and Elvis added deteriorating hips to his long list of ailments, he began to slow down. He did not pull on the leash anymore – although he would still strive to figure out a way to make his walks longer – an Elvis trademark. No matter what he had going on, he was out to live life, and live it thoroughly. Last summer, Elvis developed an abscessed tooth. Nothing unusual, and we’d been down that road before. But then what had appeared to be an abscess grew and grew, and it became apparent that the inevitable had finally occurred. On October 13th 2007, Elvis was diagnosed with bone cancer in his jaw. We knew that his propensity for growing tumors would one day catch up with him. But when it finally did, it still felt like a surprise. Elvis had been cheating death for years. It turns out death always keeps an ace up its sleeve.

Our vet expected us to put him down within three or four days, as the cancer was extremely painful. He sent us home with painkillers to buy us time to say goodbye. Elvis, it turned out, would not be denied one final minor miracle. One day after his diagnosis I discovered him leaping up and down in front of the back door, his black head bobbing into view with excitement over his favorite combo – dinner and a walk. As soon as the painkillers reached his system he had rallied, and for two wonderful weeks he was as bright and bold as he had ever been. He rode in the car, he went on nature walks, he made new friends, he ate as much as he wanted, and life was a joy.

And then, on October 25th, it wasn’t anymore. The pain had returned, and this time there would be no rally. Our vet, who had tended to Elvis so carefully for so long, came to our house. He gave him a sedative, and explained that Elvis would be quickly dropping off to sleep. And we stroked his beautiful face, deformed by the tumor and the nerve damage it had caused, and told him what a good boy he was. Time passed. And more time passed. And then Elvis sat up, brightened, and looked like he was thinking a walk sounded like a good idea. Our vet walked back over, saying, “Elvis, I gave you enough sedative to put a 190 lb. dog under a surgical plane of anesthesia. You should not be awake right now.” I said, as I said so many times over the course of Elvis’ life, “he’s the toughest dog that ever was.”

Our vet administered another shot, and then Elvis did drift off to sleep.

In the weeks after Elvis’ death I felt restless. I kept thinking I needed to feed him. Kept wanting to check on him. Eventually this abated, and life returned to something like normal.

My husband and I recently got a kitten for his mother. She has a grown cat who we felt needed a friend. As we took the kitten home she took to purring in the carrier, and upon arrival, she immediately made herself at home. She dashes from me to him, and from him to me, purring and loving up a storm. Thanksgiving gatherings left her unfazed, as she went from guest to guest to spread her love and joy. “Hi!” She seemed to say, “Hi! I’m a Kitten!” in a very Elvisian manner. We then introduced her to the cat who would be her friend, and he tried to eat her.

And so now, as I write this, a little creamy colored ball of fluff with blue eyes and an uncomplicated, joyous heart, purrs beside me, as unlike from the giant Doberman as she could be, and yet, in the matter of spirit, beautifully similar.

The Misfit Mare

In the 1964 Christmas classic, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, Rudolph winds up on the Island of Misfit Toys because none of the other reindeer would include him in their reindeer games.

So too with Ginger, a small bay Morgan mare. Upon arrival at the equestrian center, Ginger was placed with the other trail horses, but they refused to accept her into the herd. Their refusal was violent, lasting, and Ginger found herself a home in the main barn, where she was befriended by the twenty year old Shetland pony Sugar. Sugar is adored by all horses who meet her, as she provides unconditional love to all she meets. And so Ginger made her first friend.

Ginger, having made this friend, was extremely protective of her, challenging any horse who came near Sugar. To say that Ginger was quirky is an understatement. By the time I arrived at the barn, Ginger had a serious attitude problem. We used her on trails only at last resort, as she would pin her ears, toss her head, and otherwise express her displeasure. She was, in short, an extremely unhappy horse when I met her. I wanted very much to see what I could do with her, but my manager at the time pronounced that Ginger was her project horse, and forbade me from working with her.

Two months passed and the manager threw up her hands – Ginger’s problems had only worsened. On a day the manager had off, I took Ginger into the round pen. Many people have heard of “horse whispering” or natural horsemanship. The idea is simply to work a horse in a round pen until they relinquish the leadership role to the person. Hugh Jenkinson watched as I worked Ginger that first time. Ginger was so angry, had so much venom built up inside her. Hugh kept voicing his concern as she raced around the ring, expressing all of her rage, expressing it by kicking out at me, rearing in front of me, striking at me. Horses don’t require words to scream.

Eventually, it was all out of her system. She came over to me, quietly, her sides heaving as she gulped for air. I talked to her, and she put her forehead to my chest, and I stroked her ears, listening to everything she had to say. We stayed like that for a long time. Just as horses don’t require words to scream, they also don’t require a voice to cry.

From that day forward I worked with Ginger everyday. Almost immediately, she came to love these one on one sessions. Looking back over the last two years at the barn, I can think of no memory more gratifying than that of Ginger, racing towards me as I called her name, coming from the far back of the pasture flat out, a blood bay blur against the green grass. She ran to me knowing no treats were in my hand, knowing that a training session awaited, a session with both discipline and approval. Ginger, however, was an extremely intelligent mare, and very little correction was needed. She learned quickly and drank up the praise as fast as I could pour it on. Ginger had made her second friend.

Ginger

Ginger, with her very favorite rider, Bryce.

Over time Ginger’s attitude continued to improve, and eventually she blossomed into an excellent trail horse, a horse who found a niche carrying children. Adults could wear on her nerves, and she remained a quirky soul with definite opinions, but no horse was more trustworthy with a small child on the trail. She understood vulnerability, and she was protective of it. She also understood mistreatment, and she had no tolerance for it. I never put a rider on Ginger that I suspected might be rough on her.

After working day in and day out with the rest of the trail horses for two years, the decision was made to put Ginger in with the herd a few months ago. To Ginger’s delight, this time she was accepted. She was low man on the totem pole, to be sure, but she was a part of the group. Her pride in this fact was evident, and we all celebrated with her when she earned the right to eat with everyone else. She was finally allowed to play the reindeer games denied her for so long.

People and horses either click or they don’t. Ginger and I clicked right off the bat. In my first week at the barn, I found Ginger scratching out her tail. Whatever was itching her was ferocious, as she was rubbing herself raw and bloody. Alarmed, I went to her head and said, “don’t move, Ginger, I’ll be right back.” I ran to the utility room to grab ointments and cleanser and ran back. Ginger remained frozen, right where I left her, waiting for the help that I had promised. She had been blessed with a gorgeous, thick, glossy black tail. I felt it was a travesty that half of it was gone, and made it a special mission to encourage it’s re-growth.

Ginger’s tail was halfway grown out when she died on Thursday, August 24th, of a severe bout with colic.

Ginger was a beautiful bay Morgan mare, possessed of good looks galore and a personality that defied categorization. She could lay her ears back and deliver nasty looks with the best of them, but she could also curl her head and neck around you, looking into your eyes with hers, impossibly large and black, slowly blinking in loving contentment. I understood her, and she me. We both understood the Island of the Misfit Toys, and that mutual understanding brought us both a great deal of peace and happiness.

Charron’s Shamrock

Foaled on St. Patrick’s Day in 1974, Charron’s Shamrock came into this world with an indomitable spirit, a head full of sense, and a strong sense of self. Rocky, as the bay gelding was known, came into Becky’s life when she was only 13. She instantly knew that this was the horse for her and made no bones about it. After negotiations and a lengthy battle to get Rocky into the trailer (a battle that would be repeated innumerable times in the coming years) the little bay gelding arrived at Becky’s home in Kent, Washington. Although only 1/8 of Rocky was Quarter Horse, the rest being Arabian, Rocky had a rear end that wouldn’t quit, beautifully correct legs, and though he also had a steep shoulder and a short neck, he had enough sass to make up for it. He was a wonderfully balanced individual and incredibly athletic – Rocky could, and did, do everything.

But before he got around to doing everything, there was the issue of making Rocky into a believer. There was the first halter class, wherein Rocky reared, there was the threat from Becky’s father regarding Rocky’s penchant for breaking free from the lunge line and tearing through the backyard on the way back to the barn, there were a multitude of lessons to be taken from Don Maelstrom and others. But eventually, Becky and Rocky’s relationship was forged into something indelible, with all the strength of tempered steel. Bad behavior in the ring transformed into winning ribbons, willfulness turned into willingness, and within a couple of years, Rocky and Becky had created what all riders aspire to find – that centaur-like connection between horse and human. Becky only needed to think it and Rocky did it.

Rocky

Rocky in his later years.

Eventually Becky set off for college and the now seasoned campaigner was loaned to her younger sister, Carrie. Rocky became her first show horse and together they had great success. Time moved on, Carrie got her own horse, and Rocky accompanied Becky as she finished college, became a teacher, moved to Georgia, back to Kent, and finally back again to South Carolina. It was here that Rocky found his final home, a lovely haven owned by Barbara Jiminez. Rocky was turned out with Copy, Barbara’s retired hunter, and life was good for many years. He had a clean, warm stall, green grass, good company, and a most important job – teaching Becky’s daughter Courtney how to ride.

At 26 Rocky developed a bladder stone that required surgery. If the surgery was not performed, he would eventually have to be put down. Becky searched the area and discovered Bonnie Brae Equine Veterinary Hospital, now Tryon Equine. Newly founded, Rocky would become Bonnie Brae’s first patient. Post-op, Rocky developed severe complications, going septic. Becky spent every moment at Rocky’s side, willing him to get better. And then Rocky began to founder. But Rocky was a fighter, and he was given time to see if he could somehow make a miraculous recovery. On October 13th, things began to turn around and he eventually made a full recovery. His framed portrait still hangs in the hallway of Bonnie Brae. Another two years passed, with Rocky picking up the accoutrements of old age. But despite Cushing’s Disease, trouble with his epiglottis, and other ailments Rocky was still Rocky – tough minded, determined, intelligent.

Finally, his front feet, for so long perfectly sound, began to turn on him. Dr. Hay, who had performed the bladder stone surgery on Rocky, drove from his practice in Columbus, NC to Greer, SC to put Rocky down not long before Christmas in 2002. Rocky, however, had other ideas, and was too defiantly alive to be taken that day. Dr. Hay said, “that truck made the trip once, it can make it again.” By the day after Christmas, Rocky was ready, and this time it was Dr. Bebe Freer who made the trip. With Barbara, Carrie, Becky and their mother, Irene, beside him, stroking his grey mottled face, Rocky left us. The next day dawned a lesser world due to his passing.