I Owe My Childhood Imagination to a Washington Police Horse
I wish I could remember more of the memory that has been my fun fact at parties for the last twenty years. “I once rode a police horse on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House,” I’ll say, and then add, like a punchline, “but I was eight, and I wasn’t being arrested.” It’s a light, smile-coaxing story, a shiny anecdote plucked from a childhood otherwise unmarked by the extraordinary. But the sensory details, once so finely edged, are as grainy now as the photos my dad snapped of the moment on our then-brand-new digital camera.
We wore windbreakers, my sister and I, so it must have been a misty, cold day for early May. Our hair in the photos is damp, my face solemn, hers split wide in an uninhibited grin. She, two years younger, was the established “horse girl” of the family, but I read every equine-themed paperback I could get my hands on from the library, too.
I wish I could remember how it came to pass, or at least remember more vividly than just the fact that we were standing at the iron fence in front of the White House, peering across an impossibly wide, well-groomed lawn, wishing the famous mansion were closer and easier to see. Seeing it up close would have brought more of my wild fantasies to life. (I would not see the inside of it for another five years or so, and at that time my carefully-chaperoned educational tour would effectively quash all beautiful visions of what the surely-palatial inside of the executive mansion must be like.) For of course mansions were the stuff of stories; the settings where fascinating, bookish people lived, where fascinating, bookworthy things happened to them.
Uniformed police officers rode up and down the street on gleaming, beautifully brushed horses, and my sister and I must have drifted closer to watch. Maybe the one that would form this story had stopped; maybe we asked to pet him, though probably we were too shy, not daring to voice aloud the wish to touch him and to feed him a treat and even — impossibly — to sit on his beautiful back. The only thing I can truly remember is the words of the man who leaned down off the impossibly tall horse and asked in an impossibly deep voice if we would like a ride.