Department of English

Fall 2004 Edition

The Powder Box Horse

Susan Craw
Expressive 1010 Winner

We moved a lot when I was growing up because my father was a mining engineer. We spent most of our summers at mining camps far from civilization and the amenities. Independence and ingenuity were qualities we learned very young. We found we were capable of doing almost anything, but sometimes we couldn’t do it alone. I found that out when I tried to make a powder box horse.

A powder box is a wooden box, sturdier than an orange crate, about sixteen inches long by twelve inches wide by nine inches deep. It was used to ship and store sticks of dynamite as dynamite; they called it “powder,” hence the name powder box. Inside, the box smelled like pine and like the air smells after you fire a gun. The corners were intricately dovetailed to give the box added strength to protect the dynamite.

Powder boxes were used for everything, storage containers, shelves, chairs, and suitcases. My siblings and I used them as the basic building blocks of our adventures. They became railroad cars, boats, forts, huts and a thousand other things.

When I was five years old, my family lived in a mining camp outside Wells, Nevada, at a site called Spruce Mountain. The camp was situated in the valley between two hills and was surrounded by scrubby pine, cedar trees, and miles of sage brush. Because my father was the superintendent, our family lived in one of only two existing houses. Ours was the only place in camp with a flush toilet, and we only had that because my father had plumbed it himself.

My father could do anything. He could build anything, fix anything, weld anything, and there wasn’t anything he didn’t know. In my universe, Dad was next to God, and on most days Dad outranked Him.

At that time, I had three brothers and one sister. The oldest was Mike at 15, Sharon was 14, Alan was 9, Jim was 7, and I was 5. Mike was a serious, gangly boy who had two ambitions in life: the acquisition of a car and to graduate valedictorian of his class. Sharon was a talented pianist who drove Mike crazy because she never studied for anything and still got better grades than he did. Alan was the bane of my existence and the instigator of a thousand rule breaking adventures. Jim was the sibling closest to me in both age and size. We were normally best friends unless Alan wanted to play with Jim, and then there was no time for little sister.

One day, Alan decided to build a pony out of a powder box. He also decided he needed a servile helper so he invited Jim to tag along. I wanted to be a part of the whole thing, but when I asked, I was told I was too little. That made me as mad as fire, and I determined I would make a powder box horse of my own.

First the boys headed for the woodpile where broken powder boxes and bits of wood were stored for firewood. They sorted through the debris, and soon departed with two of the best boxes. I prowled through the remains, but the only boxes left were fairly poor specimens. Finally, I found one that was mostly all there and hauled it around to where the boys were working to see what to do next.

Alan directed Jim to find as many bent nails as he could, and straighten them out with the hammer. Jim was busily pounding away, so I went to find some nails. Most everything I found was rusty and bent nearly in half. I asked Jim if I could borrow the hammer, but he told me I couldn’t, I hadn’t been invited. That didn’t stop me. I went out and found a suitable rock.

I pounded and pounded under the hot summer sun. I smashed my fingers more often than the nails. The sweat dripped off my nose as I bent intently over my task. Covertly, I kept an eye on what Alan was doing, so I’d know the next move.

Alan went back to the woodpile and returned with several lengths of wood. He used a handsaw to cut them to the proper size. Using the powder box for the body, he nailed pieces of 2x4s together to form a head and a neck, and then attached them to the powder box. Then he sawed four 2x4s into pieces of equal length, and nailed them to the insides of the box’s four corners. The horse had legs. To my eyes, it looked perfect, even though the legs were a little uneven.

I headed for the woodpile. I sorted and rummaged through the wood until I found a piece a little too long for the neck and one a little too short for the head. Panting, I dragged them to my box. I had only been able to straighten about a dozen nails, so I had to use my resources wisely. I wasn’t strong enough to pound the nails in completely; I was satisfied to get them in far enough to hold things together.

The effort was exhausting, but gradually the horse took shape. I got the head and neck attached to the box, but legs were beyond me. There was no way I could ever find four pieces of wood the same length, and I just wasn’t strong enough to use the handsaw.

While I had been struggling, Alan had helped Jim build his horse. There they stood, two slightly rocky steeds waiting to gallop off into adventure. I looked at mine. There it was: a box with no legs, a too short head, and a too long neck. It looked more like a duck than a horse. Alan and Jim thought so too. They shrieked with laughter, and tried to top each other with their unflattering comparisons.

“It’s a turtle!” laughed Jim.

“No, it’s a duck!” chortled Alan.

“It’s a HORSE!” I shouted defiantly, and straddled my steed. Crack! As I sat down, the slants on the top of the box broke, and I ended up stuck in the debris.

My brothers howled with glee.

“I hate you!” I raged, as I crawled out of the wreckage and fled their laughter.

My heart was broken, and only Dad could fix it. I headed down the hill to the mine. Usually, the mine was off limits, but this was an emergency. I rehearsed my grievances as I went. Every step magnified my woes. Luckily, I arrived at the mine just as Dad and Mike were leaving the tunnel. As soon as I saw Dad, I began to sob and run. He bent and effortlessly scooped me into his arms. He listened attentively to my pathetic tale, and when it was done, he took a handkerchief from his back pocket, dipped it into the ice cold steam of water coming from the mine, and washed my hot, sweaty face. (Dad never found the mother-lode, but he always managed to find water.) Reaching into his other pocket, he extracted his keys and gave them to Mike. Dad knew Mike would do anything if it meant he could drive.

“Go and help this girl build a horse,” he said.

“Come on, short stuff.” Mike said, and lifted me over his head onto his shoulders. I felt like the queen of the world.

It only took moments for Mike to gather his supplies. He didn’t use an old powder box; he got a brand new one. He loaded a saw, nails wood, a tape measure, and a coil of rope into the truck, and then we drove home.

Alan and Jim stopped playing when they saw us drive up. I was sure they thought Mike was there to paddle them for being mean. Revenge was sweet. I maintained a dignified, haughty silence as I helped Mike unload the truck.

Mike didn’t say a word; he just started to work. He didn’t make me stand on the sidelines either; he had me hold the tools and keep track of the errant nails. He made me feel like an integral part of the whole process. First, he measured me to see how tall I was at the waist; then he cut the legs that length so it would be just the right height. Next, he cut head and neck pieces and two very small triangles of wood. I couldn’t figure out what they were until he nailed them to both sides of the head and I realized they were ears. The improvements didn’t stop there; large-headed tacks became eyes, and a piece of gunnysack became a saddle. Mike partially untwisted a six inch piece of rope and nailed it to the rear of the box. My horse had a tail! The last touch was a piece of rope nailed around the front of the head to look like a mouth with reins at both sides.

Alan and Jim stood in awe as this masterpiece of equine beauty took shape. With every improvement, they got quieter and quieter.

When it was finished, Mike lifted me onto its back. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged with all my might.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I cried into his sweaty, saw dusty neck.

“That’s alright, short stuff,” he said. “You can do anything.” He looked sternly at Alan and Jim, who were gazing forlornly from my horse to theirs, “but sometimes you need a little help.”

The powder box horse disappeared long ago, and I’ve given up pounding nails with a rock. However, every time I see a powder box I remember the feeling Mike gave me as he helped me to succeed. I can do anything, but sometimes I need a little help.