Fatty Fitzgerald And Fred

by Dianna Dandridge-Rystrom

I met Fatty Fitzgerald close to the end of my sixth grade year. His family came to town with one of the harvest crews and never left.

His father wound up working at the local John Deere dealership as a mechanic. Everyone in town thought he was good at what he did. His mom helped with the church nursery on Sundays, but with five children of her own she never tried to work outside the home.

All the Fitzgeralds had lots of red hair, pretty green eyes and a smattering of freckles.

Then there was Fatty. He kind of took everything to extremes. His thatch of red hair rivaled a clown's wig. Thick, coke-bottle lens glasses magnified the green of his eyes. The freckles looked like someone had shaken a partly cleaned paint brush at him. His jeans were always rolled up about six inches and tucked inside his well-worn cowboy boots.

Fatty was the middle child and as different from his brothers and sisters as he could be. His brothers both played all the sports and were well known for their athletic talents. His sisters marched in the band, tried out for cheerleader and drum major. They were popular and well liked. His brothers and sisters made good grades and never gave the teachers reason to frown.

Then, there was Fatty. I don't think anyone ever really thought he was stupid, just disinterested. I think, I heard one teacher call him Philip, one time, but when he didn't respond, the teacher called "Fatty" and got his attention.

Fatty had one interest, his horse, Fred.

Fred was a likely match for this overweight, educationally disinterested youth. Fred was undoubtedly one of the ugliest horses I had ever seen. He was black. Not a pretty, shiny, silky black, but a flat, no-luster, frumpy, dull black. There was no white. Even the dark brown of his eyes looked black under the black eyelashes.

As visually unappealing as the two might be when viewed separately, together they were different. Together they were a knight in shining armor, charging off to battle. Together, they were a lonesome cowboy and his trusty steed, riding herd, sun up to sundown. Together, they brought out the best in each other.

Fatty would have ridden Fred to school, had it been allowed. As it was, he rode the bus home and every afternoon, like a faithful hound Fred would wait at the fence gate. Fatty would step off the bus, squeeze through the barbed-wire and somehow manage to get on Fred. Bareback and bridle-less, Fatty would ride to the barn and attempt to do whatever homework he was going to do.

Word had gotten around school that his folks told him if his grades didn’t improve they would sell Fred, so every afternoon, Fatty made as much effort as necessary to improve his grades without making anyone think he really cared.

The one class that Fatty excelled in was art. He didn’t get into basket-weaving, or pottery, but if he could make it revolve around horses he could do it. During the six weeks we did sculpture his work was amazing, of course, every piece he did was a horse. Running, galloping, grazing or working, his artistic ability far exceeded his age. If anyone ever asked where he got his ideas, he would tell you, “Fred.”

I guess we all thought that was pretty funny since Fred was so ugly and all of Fatty’s art pieces were of beautiful horses with nice clean lines and long legs. As nice as the sculptures were Fatty really got into the painting. He liked watercolor, but with oils his pictures came alive.

Down to the detail of the whiskers on their chins to the fuzz in their ears, Fatty brought his work to life on the canvas. When we got into high school Fatty got involved with the Ag classes just so he could learn to weld. With his welding he did some marvelous cut outs of horses.

A few of us kids, that were as horse crazy as Fatty was, would occasionally talk him into selling a piece of his art. He was very selective who got anything. If he thought someone was making fun of him, he wouldn’t sell. A few people, a very few, were gifted with one of his pieces. They were all done on 10X14 canvas.

The one I got pictured a raging mustang stallion stomping a desert rattlesnake. I carried that picture with me for years, never really understanding the gift of the beautiful piece of art. Not until years later did I understand that these gifts were only to special horse people. I lost that picture in one of many moves through the years.

We moved the middle of my junior year, so I never knew if Fatty managed to keep his grades up enough to graduate or not. Like most of the people I knew I lost track of Fatty. Sometimes I would see a frumpy old black horse and think of Fatty and Fred.

Just after I turned thirty I was at some kind of horse event and vendors of all sorts were there hawking their wares. One booth, set back in a corner drew my attention. Hanging on the back wall and on two portable walls were beautiful paintings of some of the most astounding horses imaginable.

One in the corner caught my attention. Compared to the others, the horse pictured wasn’t beautiful. It was kind of old and worn out, standing beside a water tank that was being fed by an old-fashioned windmill.

As I looked at the picture, a very country voice asked, “That is the only one that’s not for sale. Can I help you with something else?”

I turned to see who was talking and nearly dropped the painting in my hands. I knew without asking that here was Fatty, all grown up. He had changed some. His still-bright red hair was cut short and the thick coke-bottle glasses had been replaced with contacts. He now wore well-fitting western cut jeans and a tailored western shirt. Full quill ostrich skin boots replaced the well-worn cowboy boots of years past. Fatty, was no longer an appropriate nick name. He was still chunky, but not fat by any means.

Strangely enough, he recognized me as quickly as I recognized him. Briefly, he told me that he did manage to graduate. From there he moved to New Mexico and worked with the Bureau of Land Management. His job gave him the perfect opportunity to watch and experience wild horses in their native lands.

He never lost his love of horses. He said he owned a small ranch, only 300 acres or so and about sixty horses- some quarter horses, some mustangs, some rescue horses. He owned the ranch and horses, but he made a living with his art.

His work was definitely art. Watercolor or oil were all beautifully done. One in particular showed a mare and a young foal beside an icy creek. Looking at the picture you could almost feel the breath of the foal that had arrived to such a cruel cold world. The tired mare nuzzled the baby beside her, warming him with her breath. It was amazing.

Before I left I asked him about the picture that he said was not for sale.

“I won’t sell that one. He’s how I got started. That was Fred the last time I saw him alive. As close as I can figure he must have been about thirty-seven. He spent a lot of time at the trough the last year he was alive. It’s just outside my back door. That’s where I found him the next morning,” Fatty said.

I looked down at the painting and looked a little closer at the signature in the corner. Signed in an elegant script was the simple name “Fred.”

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