Sunday, May 2, 2010

When the Words Stopped

When I think of men like Calvin Borel and Kent Desormeaux, I think of my father and all  those people who have found salvation, even redemption, through horse racing.  Training and guiding those magnificent beasts to the finish line is an exhilarating, totally absorbing experience.  Sam, my father, was a horse trainer.  . . .

When I was eight-years-years old, my father stopped speaking.  He had a heart attack and massive stroke while racing horses in Chicago.  When he returned home, his emaciated physique, confused stare, and inarticulate mutterings baffled and embarrassed me.  My father aged fifty years in a few short weeks.  I dreaded the ridiculing comments of the rich, snobby brats infesting the bowels of the suburban school I attended.  

My father, Sam, was undoubtedly more angry and humiliated than I, his only daughter, could ever have been.  Sam was a healthy man, and  no one expected the heart attack and stroke that felled him while he was racing horses in Chicago in 1971.  He returned to us a changed man.  He could no longer say my mother's name or mine.  He couldn't articulate even the simplest ideas, and the frustration level at home was high.  Once, consumed with anger, he bellowed, "I ca--an--'t say what I wa--nt to--"

Sam had been a man's man.  He'd done everything in his life and lived to tell about it.  When the Depression robbed people of their lives and homes, he sold liquor and kept his family alive during the lean years when no one had a dime.  His second son died in infancy.  His first wife succumbed to tuberculosis during those hungry years.  She died a painful, lingering death.  Sam and Emile, the man who would be his business partner for life, made the hooch and sold it.  Sam and Emile's teenaged sons helped pack the stuff.  

Leah, his mother, crossed herself and said, "Your father would roll over in his grave if he knew you were doing anything illegal."  

My father responded, "He'd roll over in his grave if he knew we were starving, too."  

Leah shook her head in horror but cooked the food the liquor bought without further comment.  Sam and Emile were sometimes arrested, but they never spent a night in jail.  Most of the New Orleans Police Department were customers.  

When Prohibition ended, Sam and Emile opened a bar on Canal and Broad.  They worked in it day and night, providing lunches for downtown businessmen during the day and drinks for many of the same men after work.  Politicians and cops frequented their establishment.  On the side, Sam and Emile trained and owned prize fighters.  Images of my father standing beside many of the Italian-American boxers grace the walls of the Italian-American Cultural Society.  One of their fighters went on to win the Feather Weight Champion of the World.  

Sam eventually developed a hobby of his own--horse racing, and a business that paid well for some time, booking. He was a natural at both.  Sam acquired three more wives after the death of his first wife.  My mother was his fourth wife.  At thirty-eight, she was one year younger than his surviving son.  My cousins remember my mother telling them, "Never answer the phone! Never!" When he became a father again at fifty-seven, Sam told my mother, "I'm shutting this operation down.  We have a little girl now.  I don't want her disgraced if the place is raided."  He sold his elaborate phone system and concentrated full-time on raising and racing thoroughbreds.  

The horses respected him and heeded his commands.  Other men willingly rode his horses and accepted his direction. In a time of rampant racism and discrimination, Sam didn't care if a jockey was black or white, country or city.  The animals that bucked, reared, and kicked others walked passively beside my father as he led them with the flimsiest of halters.   I walked by his side, feeding the horses carrots and sugar as he stroked their mane and brushed their coats.  My father lived for the sound of the starting gate opening and for the smell of fresh hay in a stable.  

When he first became ill, the doctors were uncertain if he would even be able to walk.  He did.  My father was the most stubborn man in the world.  Determined to race again, he reapplied for his trainer's license and passed muster.  His clients stayed with him.  Jockeys were still willing to ride his horses.  My father was not given to whining or quitting. 

Men like my father, Borel, and Desormeaux find beauty in horses and in racing.  The sport offers them the opportunity to greatness.  . .  .

On the morning he died, I saw the light shining in the bathroom. Sam, as usual, was awake at dawn so he could go to the track.   I was tired and turned over, shielding my eyes from the crack of light coming from the bathroom.  We were having our last cold spell in March, and the bed felt snug.  Only a few hours later, my half-brother pounded on the door, screaming that Sam was dead.  At the time, I only felt hollow.  I remember a fern blowing in the dying March wind.  I've hated fern to this day.  

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