by Christina Lippincott
I saw a cowboy cry. Not some 1950s Roy Rogers cowboy on an AMC rerun, but a real cowboy in real life. Real tears.
It was June, two summers ago, and the great ball of humidity was just beginning to roll up the East Coast. Summer was off to a lazy and tranquil start. I remember smelling the thick, sweet scent of the night-blooming jasmine as I got out of my car that evening. I remember walking into my house and making my way towards the answering machine. And then I remember hitting the play button and hearing that message that had been lurking on the machine like a hidden landmine, waiting to shatter summer.
I had to listen to it twice. No. Things like that don’t happen to girls like her. Not to sweet, young, alive girls. Not to girls who solo an airplane on their 16th birthday. Not to the first girl who smiles at you on your first day at a new school. When your 21 and have the world laid out before you, things like that aren’t supposed to happen. When you’re a mom and a dad, you’re not supposed to watch an 18-wheeler put your baby girl in the ground.
But it did happen. And two days later, I was heading back to Vermont, to the tiny little town where I had gone to a tiny little high school in the mountains. In a graduating class of 16, there wasn’t much we didn’t know about one another. And we all knew that we were going places, especially Debby Brown.
She was a stunning girl, with soft brown eyes and long chestnut curls. She came from a grounded and modest family of farmers. When her grandfather invented a device used in heart surgery, their lifestyle didn’t change much. Her dad was still a farmer, and her mom still had strawberry-rhubarb pies baking when the kids got home from school. And Debby and her brother still mucked the stalls before school.
What did change were the opportunities. Her dad bought a biplane and a membership in the Flying Farmers Association. The entire family took flying lessons. Debby had her pilot’s license before she had her full driver’s license.
I met her in 2000, the year my family bought a general store nestled in the valley of the Green Mountains. She invited me over to her farm one day after class to see her prized horse, Penny. We drove for what seemed like miles up a dusty country lane, ending at a beautiful white wooden farmhouse perched atop acres of rolling hills. Walking down to the barn, we passed a long, narrow stretch of cleared land. I asked her what it was.