Wishbone's Law


A memorial in the open space gave one family peace, sparked a lasting friendship — and led to a new city policy banning memorials

By Joshua Kors


Janet Hoffman still remembers the sound he made before he died, a bellow that came deep from his throat, as if suddenly he couldn't breathe or had been stabbed.


Hoffman had been riding her horse, Wishbone, along the trail near Castle Rock Park, trotting as she did every week with three friends and their mares. The rest, she says, felt like it were ripped from an old horror movie: The four riders stopped to watch the dry grass blowing back and forth, the cows wandering, chewing. Without warning a cowboy appeared and rushed one of the cattle. The cow being pursued darted out from the underbrush, spooking the horses.


"Wishbone just made this sound — it was an awful sound, one he'd never made before. I couldn't figure out what was happening," said Hoffman. "I loosened the girth and tried to lead him up a side trail." But it was too late. Wishbone groaned, gasped, then collapsed on top of Hoffman. A vet later said it was an aneurysm, the bursting of a central artery. At 19, the horse she and her daughter Casey had raised — the gelding with both an untamable gallop and a ridiculous fear of hopping up onto the curb — was dead.


                       September 16, 2004


Casey Hoffman polishes Wishbone's memorial plaque as mom Janet Hoffman watches.





As sadly as it ends, Hoffman tells this story with a glint of joy in her eyes, as she thinks back about her first horse and polishes the bench now dedicated to him in the Walnut Creek Open Space. The bench is just off the trail that runs from Rudgear Road and Benham Court, the same spot where Wishbone and a friend's mare loved to stop and watch the clouds. "In memory of Wishbone and Dora," reads the bench's brass plaque, "two special horse friends."

Hoffman and her daughter returned to that bench recently, as they do every summer, to polish it and reflect. "I'm not so good with death, but coming here makes me remember the happy times, galloping along this trail," she said. "This bench, it means so much to us. You don't realize that until you're out here, but when I've ridden past it and seen people sitting here, enjoying the view Wishbone loved, it brings tears to my eyes."


In a way, says Hoffman, her family is lucky — not just for the years they had with the rambunctious little horse but because Wishbone died when he did, back when families like the Hoffmans were able to erect memorial benches like the one they installed along the trail.

That's not possible anymore.

In 1996, just months after Wishbone's death, the city changed its memorial policy. Benches are no longer permitted to be dedicated to anyone: horses, dogs, parents or children. Family members who approach the city are simply told, Sorry, no can do.

The reason, said Dan Cather, manager of Walnut Creek 's Parks and Open Space department, is that a limited number of benches can fit in the open space. When families who had suffered losses and wanted to mark those losses with a memorial started jockeying for the remaining benches, the city's gesture of good will quickly turned into a nightmare.

"Originally we allowed the dedications, but that landed us in some terribly difficult conversations," said Cather. "Once there was no longer a need for more benches, families still came to us. A mother, a daughter had died, and she had loved walking with them in the open space. Well, what could we say? 'Sorry, we don't have a bench for you. All of ours are already dedicated to somebody's dead dog'?"

"I mean, it was awful," said Cather. "That's just not a conversation I really want to have."

Finally Cather and his department drew a line in the sand: no more bench dedications, period. Not for horses, dogs, people. Not for anybody.


That policy has been in effect for eight years now, making Hoffman and her family one of the first and last who were able to commemorate their loss with a dedicated bench.


Hoffman's not happy about that. And neither is her daughter, especially in light of the wonderful friendship the brass plaque sparked between her family and the city ranger who installed it.


Death and Friendship


In 1984, when Hoffman moved north from Pasadena, she took the farm with her: one dog, two cats, some birds, two kids, a husband and a horse. Wishbone actually traveled a little further to be with the family. He was a reject from a racetrack just south of Tijuana, let go by a disappointed owner.

"He loved to run up to other horses and gallop along next to them, which is great for being friendly, not so good for betting or racing," said Hoffman. Wishbone lost so often, his original name was Tony's Lemons, as in a car that's a lemon, a name Hoffman said she had to change, if only "for self-esteem purposes."


Once in northern California, Hoffman made riding in Walnut Creek's open space a regular routine. "Oh, I thought we'd moved to heaven," she said, "a place with no rush hour — and the trails. It was just me, Wishbone and the cows. We had all the hills to ride in."


The two became so attached, the day Wishbone collapsed on her Hoffman barely gave the ripped muscle in her shoulder a second thought. Instead she rushed to a nearby stable and called the park service. The service sent ranger Bruce Weidman.


It was one of Weidman's first days on the job.


"At this point," said Hoffman, "I didn't even realize I was hurt. Bruce came out there, and he said, 'Are you okay?' He got me some ice. Then he draped a tarp over Wishbone, put some rocks over the tarp, then offered me a ride back to Sugarloaf (Stables) in his official, green pick-up truck."


Weidman even offered to return Monday morning to pick up Wishbone's remains. Was Hoffman grateful for his effort?


"Oh yeah," said the ranger, a chuckle interrupting his words. "The Hoffmans are horse people, and you know how it is with them: Take my life, just don't take my horse. Or, take my horse just as long as you feed it."


Hoffman herself puts it another way.


"He was my hero," she said of Weidman. "I had never met him, but I was so lucky he was there on that particular day."


From that day — a random misfortune and act of kindness — a connection grew between the proper local schoolteacher and the headband-wearing, shot glass-collecting ranger. Months later, after a friend's horse tore her anterior cruciate ligament and had to be put down, Hoffman and her friend returned to Weidman.


"We never had a funeral for either horse, and when we talked about it, there was no closure," said Hoffman. "Some people have their horses cremated. We just kind of let them go." Hoffman and her friend asked Weidman about dedicating a bench in the horses' honor.


Weidman responded with enthusiasm. He also knew all the city rules.


Soon enough the ranger had found a $600 Litchfield-brand bench and a brass plaque from the J.W. Bentley Company in Danville. When Hoffman and her friend approved the deal, Weidman not only bought the materials — he hiked them into the hills and nailed them together for free. With the help of a city maintenance official, the ranger cemented the bench supports and drove the legs into the ground in a single morning.


In gratitude, Hoffman worked to turn the tables on Weidman, volunteering for one of his pet projects, the "haunted trail" he set up aside his home in the Sugarloaf Open Space. That Halloween, to the delight of many young trick-or-treaters, Hoffman arrived at Weidman's house in a gown of purple and gold sequins and began a multiyeared reign as Cleopatra.


A friendship solidified. Hoffman was not surprised years later to receive an invitation to Weidman's wedding.


"Politicking and Policy Making"


Clearly Weidman is still happy about the bench he installed for Hoffman and the significance it has held for her family in the years since. But when it comes to open space manager Cather and the current-day policy on dedications, well, politics is politics, he says. And thank God he's not involved.


"Thank heavens for us field staff," Weidman said. "We empty trash, we rake the fields, and we don't do all the politicking and policy making."


Weidman adds that he empathizes with Cather and other city officials governing the open space. "It's a very delicate issue because there aren't enough benches for every dedication. So whenever you print the name of somebody, that gets somebody left in and somebody left out."


The group that's feeling left out is likely to be more vocal in the coming months than ever before. That's because, as manager Cather explains, the city has worked out a new deal in coordination with the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation, the Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority and the Boy Scouts of America. The deal calls for 10 to 11 new benches to be installed throughout the city's open space.


The foundation and the waste authority would pay for the benches. Eagle Scouts would earn badges mounting them into the ground. The first of these benches has already been installed on the ridge overlooking Borges Ranch.


Will new benches mean new, available space for animal or family dedications? No, says Cather. Because of the cat fights that erupted last time dedications were permitted, plaque space will not be given to anyone. Instead each bench will bear two to three lines of text noting the bench's source material: recycled plastics.


Upon learning about the new benches and the continued ban on dedications, 23-year-old Casey Hoffman looks up from Wishbone's plaque, the metal polish and scrubbing sponge still in her hands. "It's sad," she said. "This bench means so much to us. It would be nice to know it could still be possible for other people too."


After she and her mother had polished Wishbone's engraving to a shine, they finished their annual excursion by driving down to Weidman's house, to give thanks once again to the ranger who made their memorial possible. Weidman smiled and invited them inside, past the collection of DVDs and shot glasses, to sit beside him on the couch. Hoffman talked about how comfortable it was to see an old friend. Weidman talked about both families getting together for dinner sometime.


When they left, a sour tinge crossed Hoffman and her daughter's faces.


"It doesn't seem fair," Hoffman said, "we get to have this — this closure. Others don't."



Have a solution to the bench dedication issue? Share your thoughts with Parks and Open Space Manager Dan Cather and your representatives in the city government.


Cather's phone number is (925) 934-5800, ext. 440. You can also reach the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation at (925) 939-6610.


Tel.: (646) 456-7738                                                   joshua@joshuakors.com