True Grit


I called his number, a little nervous. It had been nineteen years since I’d see my former brother-in-law, Pat. I’m thinking,“why in the hell would he want to see me?“; the former sister-in-law, the outlaw, the one who’d asked for the divorce from his little brother.

Into every life, a little guilt must fall.

But it was in fact my first ex, the high school sweetheart ex, my favorite ex, who encouraged me to call his big brother, Pat, the retired Navy captain. I was only about sixty miles from where he lives. It was the same old Pat on the phone, “Come on, we love to have company, but I warn you, I may be mucking out stalls when you get here.”

Horses in Virginia Pasture

My view from the yard

He was. His “new” wife Becky and four dogs greeted me at the end of the long drive up to their home.

Rooster Cogburn and Toby

Rooster Cogburn and Toby the bloodhound’s hind end.

Having never laid eyes on me, she welcomed Libby and I and got me something cold to drink and I watched her put a cake in the oven. It would be a good half-hour before Pat made his way from the barn. Plenty of time to hear the sweet story about how they met.

Pat, an out-of-practice suitor in a cowboy hat and pickup truck, showed up at her place tracking down his misbehaving, one-eyed rescue dog, Rooster Cogburn.

Becky was in the finishing stage of building a house in Suffolk County, Virginia, on some property adjacent to her brother and sister-in-law. She was in need of being close to family. Rooster was in need of foraging for leftovers discarded by the construction crew, a fast-food run, right up the road, at which, he’d become quite adept. Pat would become more adept at the courting with time.

Shepherds at the Farm

Andrew, (grandson) Pat, Becky and Toby the vertical bloodhound

And raising horses. After a 37-year career in the Navy, his last duty station, the Pentagon, Pat did something that was a complete departure from anything he’d done in the past, he bought a horse, a pregnant horse. In fact, it was Pat’s urgent messages left on Becky’s voice mail, “when are you coming back?” he asked, which she thought a bit strange, considering they weren’t really dating, it was the surprise he insisted she hurry home to see, which undoubtedly helped seal the deal on this marriage made in heaven. A foal, while Becky was away visiting relatives, Pat’s first mare bore her first foal. Like a proud papa, he could not wait to show the baby to Becky.


Now tell me, gals, what could be more endearing than a blue-eyed Irish sailor, in a chilly barn bustin’ his buttons over his new baby horse and waiting impatiently to share his joy with the pretty lady friend up the road?

Baby Foal

New baby, born last spring.

The magic worked. Ten years, two different farms, and more than a dozen horses later, they’ll be the first to admit it’s a hell of a lot of work for “retired” folk, but their passion for this life is palpable. I could listen to the stories of every birth, every midnight watch in the horse barn, death-defying emergency trips to horse hospitals to save a mare with a complicated birth, the first time their first horse won — it’s captivating.

Frankly, I have always been one of those people who wince at horse races. I get nervous, makes my stomach ball up. I’m always afraid the horse will falter or the jockey will get hurt. But I’d been to the races a lot as a kid, at the State Fair and Santa Fe Downs. I did many a story on the horse racing industry in New Mexico as a journalist, but I’d never experienced anything like this. It has changed my view.

Splendor in the grass

Splendor in the grass.

I was riding with Pat and his grandson Andrew, out to feed the horses at sunset on the night I stayed over.

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As he was looking out over the picturesque green hills, I asked Pat if he misses the sea. He paused for a second before answering. I cannot describe what his mind’s eye sees, because I have not witnessed this. But he tried to explain what it’s like to push out, to leave the base behind – the wives and kids waving from the dock, the birds, the gun metal gray of other ships, growing more and more feint as the land disappears and one’s eyes are filled with nothing but ocean.

“Yeah, I miss it. But I’ll tell you, the first time you see a foal being born, now, that’s something.” Here is a man, who begged his parents to let him join the Navy when he was only seventeen, a desert rat from the pachuco North Valley of Albuquerque, who defied the odds, as a “mustang,” meaning he crossed over from being an enlisted man to being an officer, who has fought in every conflict since Vietnam, who acquired the rank of Captain, responsible for entire cities on the sea with crews in the thousands, here’s a guy who, after a storied military career, has completely reinvented himself and passionately enjoys what he does. I think this is pretty damn awesome. I know (because they told me)  there are some days when they say, “we must be crazy” because they work from sun up to sun down, running this 40-acre farm on their own. They could truly be “retired.”

But, horses are their healers.

When Pat met Becky, her hair was only about an inch long. Her head had been shaved because of an operation to control her tremors. She takes my hand and says, “Do you feel that ?” there’s a piece of metal there. She was recovering from the surgery when cowboy Pat came amblin’ up the driveway. He was recovering too. His wife Jan had died suddenly, just a few years earlier, complications from what was supposed to be minor surgery. They had married young, had three boys, a good, solid marriage. Jan trooped all over the country with Pat, they were quite the pair. Pat’s boys had urged him to do something different after she was gone, quit working so hard. They asked him what would he would do if he could do anything.

He told them, “I’ve always wanted to have a race horse.”

There’s a big old boy, who stands taller than the mares in the alley up closest to the house. He jumped the fence during a recent storm to be with his mama and he’s allowed to hang with the mares, for now. They’re indulgent with Steve-o, I forget his official name. He’s a source of delight and comic relief for Becky and Pat, they say he’s like a gangly teenage boy. They named him after Pat’s son Steve, who died from leukemia about four years ago. He fought it hard for years. I’m told they played bagpipes at his wake. Becky was already in the family by then. It was hard on everybody.

People who’ve experienced loss like this will tell you it can be as vast as the sea. It swells and rushes in, filling you up, rendering you defenseless in its wake. Loss rides with me daily,my brothers, my mother, the life I thought I’d have, I nod in his direction. I cry. I focus on the road and pat my dog.

Pat and Becky tend to their horses. Becky says it is a powerful force — this bond between human and animals.  She still faces challenges from the medical condition for which she’s already had one brain surgery. Doctors wanted to try again, but she and Pat didn’t like the odds. She didn’t opt for surgery and she’s off the nineteen-pills-a-day routine too. She believes her purposeful work of caring and tending to these magnificent animals and the abundant joy she derives from being their caretaker is her healer. I say amen.

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Pat says it takes three years from the time a foal is born until you know if you’ve got a horse who will run. Three years of love and attention, care and feeding, vet bills and horse stalls to muck, before you know if the horse can even run.

I have an abiding affection for folks who are playing the odds and betting on the come.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. And the answers keep revealing themselves at almost every stop.

  2. Amazing story Jean. I am so glad you were able reconnect with Pat and his new wife. I did not realize that they had lost a son. Keep the stories coming Sista.

  3. Wonderful.

  4. That’s truly beautiful.

  5. What a wonderful story, J says that he remembers that he saw Pat once all dressed up in he’s dress Navy blues, but that’s all he really remembers about Pat. So sad to learn that he lost his son. Keep the stories coming. XOXO

  6. Keep going. Keep writing. Strong work!

  7. Beautiful photos -and a beautiful love story. Good luck to Becky.