Toritto in Massawa, Eritrea in 1965 wearing the prize hat.
I learned to ride a horse in Brooklyn.
As a teen in the ‘50s I would ride regularly in Prospect Park or Gerritsen Beach renting horses from local stables for a couple of hours. It wasn’t cheap but I had a part-time job and saved my pennies for my outing every few weeks.
The bridle path at Prospect Park is a three and a half mile circle over varied terrain. Kensington Stables, at the park entrance still rents horses and gives riding classes.
I got fairly proficient over the years – not an Olympian mind you but this 130 lb. kid could gallop around the park or along the beach with the best of them.
No style points. No jumping. I could however tuck my right cheek into the neck of my horse and go. I It felt like flying to a skinny kid still too young to drive.
When I was 21 I entered the Army and ten months later was packed off to Asmara, Eritrea. Eritrea wasn’t an independent country then – it was under the U. N. Mandate to Ethiopia. The entire Horn of Africa and Ethiopia had been under Italian fascist rule.
The fascist Italian settlers were still there in the 1960s. They ran gas stations, night clubs, movie theaters. They sent their kids to Italy each year for education. They grew coffee and built churches. None wanted to return to Italy after the war.
They even had horse stables – where a visiting Italian-American G. I. could rent a horse!
My favorite was a small grey stallion – kind of diminutive like me. But he loved to run. Rather run than stay in an Eritrean stable. So run we did.
It was a couple of miles to the Asmara “Airport” – actually a building and a runway in an open field at the time. The only regularly scheduled flights were a couple of Ethiopian Airlines flights daily and a twice a week Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt. It was our favorite. It had blond stewardesses.
We lived three or four to a room on Kagnew Station, the Army base in Asmara. I lived with a couple of Pennsylvania guys. Next door we got some new guys – two Texans and an Okie. I introduced myself. The Italian kid from Brooklyn. They wore boots and cowboy hats.
Over the weeks the talk in the Oasis Club turned to home and family. They were ranch kids. (Smile). “Any horses ‘round these parts”? (Bigger smile).
“Why as a matter of fact there is a local stable.”
“Want to go riding”? they asked each other. Sure.
“Don’t suppose you’d want to go would you Brooklyn?”
Well, “I don’t know – but I’ll try anything once.”
We went to the stable on an off-duty day – I asked the owner in Italian to keep his mouth shut.
I saw my grey all saddled and ready to go.
We walked out to the Airport Road and rode along side it in the packed earth. I held on to the saddle horn like a rookie. The Texans had laughingly given me a cowboy hat for the occasion.
“Hold on there Brooklyn!” Then I smiled.
“Race you to the airport yahoos!!” And I was off.
Leaning forward in the saddle, left hand on his neck. Horsey and me, both young and free as the wind.
Behind three cowboys chasing a Brooklyn kid. Eritreans yelling and waving as we thundered passed at full gallop.
Crazy Americans. A honk from a Topolino.
Approaching the airport I slowed and we all laughed.
“Where did you learn to ride like that?”
“Brooklyn! What took you so long to get here?”
Smirks all around.
The Lufthansa flight was in – the blond stews were waving at us cowboys from the top of the movable stair case outside the plane door. Crazy Americans.
Just a perfect day. And in view of my performance I was permitted to keep the hat and tell the story at the bar for months.