Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.

This story was first published Sept. 30, 2010.

Robert on Horseback, a painting by my uncle, William Patton


After high school, I finally got to be a cowboy.

I spent most of the year after graduation helping my grandpa, John Digitale, on his cattle ranch near Jackson in California’s Gold Rush country, the Sierra Nevada foothills. It took some effort, but I was able to persuade my parents to let me take a year off before college. I had it all planned out. I would get the horse I’d wanted all my life. I would ride it all over that ranch and take it the following summer on a pack trip alone into the Sierra wilderness.

This meant entering Grandpa’s world. He was 78 years old, and seemed determined to work his ranch until he died. His family knew he cared about them, but his words could be hard as stone. When I was a small child, he warned me not to go exploring in his cellar. “There’s lions and tigers in there,” he said. Yes, he could scare me.

Well, my father and I went out, and for $300 I bought a small, coal-brown mare. My Oakdale cousins, the real cowboys, winced at our methods. No, we first didn’t try the horse out on the ranch for a week before coming to terms with its owner. No, we didn’t even put a saddle on it, though I did climb aboard. Yes, I did mind the last words of the seller to watch that mare because she could pivot real, real quick.

A week later, Grandpa and I put tall sideboards on his old red Chevy pickup and headed down to Roseville to get the mare. We brought her back to his ranch and unloaded her beside his immense hay barn — two stories tall with a siding of unpainted, aged wood. I put an old work saddle on the mare and Grandpa helped me lengthen the stirrup leathers. Ready to ride, I eagerly put my left hand on the horn and my right on the cantle, the back of the saddle.

“That’s not how you get on a horse!” Grandpa barked, his tone suggesting that he wondered if I’d learned anything from riding his horses all these years. “You can’t control the horse. Put your right hand on the horn and keep the reins in your left. That way you can hold her still.”

Red-faced, I learned how to mount a horse. Satisfied, Grandpa let me ride the mare out of the barnyard and up over the east ridge.

Within 15 minutes, I knew the horse I had purchased. Atop the ridge,  passing beside a few scraggy pines, she wearied of my direction and turned back to the barn. When I sought to swing her around and resume the journey, she reared up on me. I stayed in the saddle, but knew I needed help.

Back at the barn, Grandpa’s eyes flashed when I told him what had happened. “Let me have her,” he said. To my wonder, he took the reins and mounted. He swung the mare around the barn and set her walking up a gentle rise in a field where the last remnants of old grapevines still clung to red earth. It was then I saw Grandpa anew. I’d always thought of him as a small, aged man who walked with a slight limp and needed suspenders to keep up his dark green work pants. But atop that mare he sat confident in his saddle, his frame smartly aligned from head to toe, a skilled horseman. My mind flashed back to an image I’d once seen of a mounted conquistador.

Even so, my heart raced as he passed over a small hill and out of my sight. What would happen if that mare tossed his bones onto the hard ground? He probably would never walk again. Why hadn’t I tried to stop him?

A few minutes later he rode slowly back to the barn and carefully dismounted. I sighed with great relief. Grandpa looked at me and declared, “We’ll teach her not to rear. We’ll teach her.”


I never saw Grandpa mount a horse again. Even so, I never doubted his fearlessness, whether barreling through some tight passageway in his pickup or stepping forward to try to flush a rattlesnake out of the barn.  More than once he made me hold my breath.

I had no idea beforehand what that year with him would be like. He would use that cantankerous mare to teach me a lesson or two. And I would come to better know this man of few words, and to recognize parts of him in me.

This is the fourth vignette in the saga of an American family. Next week: Elaine Fongson, “World Turning Upside Down”

To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.

The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother