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."
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."
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
not possible anymore.
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.
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.
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'?"
mean, it was awful," said Cather. "That's just not a conversation
I really want to have."
Cather and his department drew a line in the sand: no more bench
dedications, period. Not for horses, dogs, people. Not for anybody.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
was one of Weidman's first days on the job.
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."
even offered to return Monday morning to pick up Wishbone's remains.
Was Hoffman grateful for his effort?
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
herself puts it another way.
was my hero," she said of Weidman. "I had never met him, but I was
so lucky he was there on that particular day."
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.
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.
responded with enthusiasm. He also knew all the city rules.
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
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
friendship solidified. Hoffman was not surprised years later to
receive an invitation to Weidman's wedding.
and Policy Making"
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
they left, a sour tinge crossed Hoffman and her daughter's faces.
doesn't seem fair," Hoffman said, "we get to have this this closure.
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.