Eli and I attended the last Stuttering Group Meeting at UW River Falls last week … at least the last one Eli will be able to join in on for a while as he’s off to college. To give you a feel for the nature of these gatherings, we spent an inordinate amount of time admiring Jerry’s feet. He had gotten his first pedicure. Oh, and we talked about fear of speaking.
It’s been over nine years ago that we first connected up with the eccentric, unconventional and supposedly retired Dr. Jerry Halvorson. The first three years were a covert operation – we would visit Jerry at his ranch, overflowing with horses and horse stuff. I mean overflowing. Seriously.
I originally had a full chapter in my book about our first visit to Jerry’s ranch. The content didn’t make the final cut in its entirety, but he insisted that I read it to his students whenever the chance came up. In honor of Dr. Halvorson and nine years of ridiculous and brilliant speech therapy, here’s the chapter in its entirety. Enjoy…
… The next day we made the trek, just Eli and I, to Jerry’s ranch. After driving 80 miles, the last half on a beautiful winding road down into a river valley, we spotted the weather-beaten “Halvorson” sign Jerry had told us to watch for on the side of the road. The driveway took us past a small chocolate brown house, probably at least 100 years old. As we passed that building I realized there was another much newer, albeit somewhat unkempt, chocolate brown house attached to the back. I parked the van expecting Jerry to appear from somewhere to greet us, but all was quiet. We approached the newer part of the house and knocked on a door adorned on each side by dusty saddles. When there was no answer I hesitantly ventured into an entryway area. It was lined with cardboard boxes, a few pairs of old cowboy boots and a few more saddles, all coated with more dust. I knocked on an inside door and heard a muffled voice. When I opened the door a muffled voice called out “come’on in.”
We climbed some steps, rising above more saddles perched on a long railing, all covered with more dust. I spotted him on the other side of a large room (a sort of “Where’s Waldo experience). He was nestled in his recliner, bare feet crossed, wearing a ragged pair of sweats and an old t-shirt, not looking quite as much like a cowboy as the day before, and even less like a speech professional. But the room left little doubt about the cowboy part. In addition to at least fifteen saddles, there were reins, horse blankets, horse posters, horse paintings, horse figurines, and even a horse rug. Yes, just like a bear rug, only a horse rug. A dead horse rug. This was clearly a collection (or collector?) gone amuck.
We continued through the big room, passing an old kitchen cook stove. It sat in the middle of what should have been the living room, giving off warmth and the wonderful smell of wood burning. This scent, combined with a scent of horse dung and fried food, permeated the room.
“Glad to meet cha,” Jerry bellowed out to Eli, thrusting out those muscled cowboy fingers from the depths of his recliner. “I hear you like horses.” Eli grinned and shook his hand and continued to peer around the room – he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Neither was I.
The area where Jerry sat was loosely defined by two large couches loaded with clothes, papers, and boxes overflowing with God knows what. His recliner faced both the TV tuned in to a soap opera and sliding glass doors. His view included a pasture with a herd of horses, a meandering trout stream, and a large bluff of trees in the distance. Just as I started to admire that view, Jerry gleefully pointed out his latest deck ornament — a dead coyote hanging from the clothes line. I let out an involuntary groan. Eli squealed in delight.
He told us to have a seat, but didn’t seem to notice that the only one not filled with stuff was his. Having confronted two dead carcasses in a very short period of time (not to mention the goat-haired vest he was wearing when my husband and I had first met him the day before) I was feeling the need to either sit or run. I decided on trying to sit rather than bolt and boldly removed a pile of clothes from a chair only to expose a small pile of corn in the seat cushion. My eyes opened wide as I now imagined live animals instead of dead carcasses co-existing with him here in cowboyville. I asked what kind of creatures he was feeding.
“Oh yeah,” he threw his head back and chuckled. “There’s a grey squirrel around here somewhere. I heard him dancing on the piano keys just last night!” Now I really truly was ready to run, but Eli clearly wasn’t as he’d already nestled himself in between some piles of clothes on the couch next to Jerry’s chair. Jerry chuckled and assured me that the pile probably fell out of his pants pocket – treats for his trick horse. Besides, he feeds the squirrel apples — in a trap he had set in the older part of the house. I gamely scooped up the corn, dumped it in a plastic grocery bag hanging from a kitchen cupboard, and finally sat down.
Jerry still hadn’t moved and I later came to understand how the old wrestling injury in his knee limited his mobility. He stayed comfortably in his chair, mostly watching TV and making off-handed comments to no one in particular. Eventually Eli jumped in and together they discussed the dead coyote hanging on the deck (found it on the road, saving it for a buddy who collects hides), the bald eagle flying overhead, and the types of horses in the pasture.
They continued to banter back and forth and Eli became more relaxed. More than I could say for me. I was working hard to block the image of a grey squirrel running up my pant leg and my fleeing out the door, leaving my nine-year-old to fend for himself.
After about a half-hour of small talk, Jerry announced that it was time to feed the horses. “Got a bad knee, could use your help.” Eli was more than willing and we all put on our coats and headed for the barn. The smells of horse dung, hay, dust, dry and cold were all-familiar to this farm girl, taking me immediately back to my childhood farm home in southern Minnesota. Jerry introduced Eli to a few horses that were being kept in the barn, and then led us upstairs to throw down hay. He showed Eli how to push the bales down from the highest rows and heave them out an opening down to a waiting pick-up truck. Several times Jerry had to grab Eli’s coat to keep him from going down to the truck bed with the bale of hay. Eli laughed a lot every time that happened. Then we all loaded into the truck and drove out to the pasture.
After sliding through some mud, as it’s a rainy December, we drove right through the trout creek and up onto drier land. Jerry threw the bales out, cut the twine, and instructed Eli to break them up and strew them around. I had gotten out of the truck and was busy snapping pictures when I became aware of a growing thunder coming from behind me. I turned to see the whole herd of horses galloping at full speed toward us. Jerry calmly suggested that it might be a good idea for us to get back in the truck. I took heed, quickly pulling Eli in behind me (I reckon a good mother would have shoved him in first). We shut the truck doors just in time to be surrounded by the galloping horses. It was quite spectacular and Eli begged me to let him take pictures. I handed him the camera and he leaned far out the window to shoot. Jerry got in the truck and told him to keep taking pictures. “Just let me know when you want me to start and stop. “You’re in charge boy!” Jerry bellowed. Eli hung out the back window, yelling stop and go commands at Jerry as the truck lurched through the herd of horses.
As my concern for whiplash was starting to mount, we finally headed back to the house. Jerry invited us back in for tea and we accepted – although I wasn’t crazy about ingesting anything that had been prepared in his kitchen. But after the cold and dampness of the pasture, the tea actually tasted pretty good. As we got up to leave, I noticed two pictures on his refrigerator. The first was an 8 x 10 of a beautiful baby boy with curly hair and brown eyes looking for some really fun trouble — presumably a grandson. Next to it was a magazine tear-out of a bikini- clad woman feeding a horse. As we walked toward the door, back through the maze of saddles and horse paraphernalia, I wondered what I had gotten us into now?
There was certainly no pretense about this guy. Somehow in the midst of the chaos of saddles and leather and dust and horses there was a sense of honesty that I was beginning to appreciate. He wasn’t hiding behind clean white walls, rhetoric, impressive goals I did not understand, or speech tests and fancy techniques. His walls were filled with horse paintings and bullhorns instead of degrees and certificates. He didn’t have a waiting room filled with moms reading People magazine and writing out the check. All he had was a bunch of horses, a few dead animal carcasses, a gray squirrel, and now a befuddled but weirdly hopeful mom with a little boy who stuttered.