I’ll be alone each and every night
While you’re away, don’t forget to write
Bye-bye, so long, farewell
Bye-bye, so long
See you in September
See you when the summer’s through
Here we are
Saying goodbye at the station
Is taking you away
Have a good time but remember
There is danger in the summer moon above
Will I see you in September
Or lose you to a summer love
“It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful!”
Oh were the Happenings and the song that sticks in everyone’s internal AM radio to this day. Four track recordings were for the rich and the infamous eight track players were only days away.
The song and the words were special without knowing it in the year of the Mudbug, a friend, a co-worker and a significant model in my life of roles.
Okay, let’s not get to far off the track, so to speak. Here’s the story,
Leaving Phoenix for the track circuits in ’71 was not my idea of adventure nor was having fun doing it an option most of the time. Work, work, work. When Dad said to pack up and go, we went even if I had to leave a girl I had a lot of interest in behind back at home. For years I knew his seasons were already planned ahead of time but he never gave me any clues on when they were or where they would take us. Without anyone knowing and if circumstances with one girl worked out, this would be my final trip to Arlington.
One year we left early, the next year we would leave late. Omaha was always first and Denver was usually second. We changed it up due to the damaging floods in Colorado, poor family relationships and what appears today, a lack of money. The new found money was in Illinois. This year was Arlington.
Dad had rented a really nice place in the village of Arlington Heights and had with him D.E. Whited and Bob Yeager as Jockeys. I think this was the year he was also eyeing Jerry Bailey as a bug. I had just turned seventeen and yet to get my drivers license. Traveling with Dad and Mom, plus the fact there were plenty of cars and trucks to drive around both on the track and outside never made getting one very urgent.
Dad had made arrangements for me to groom three horses for the great trainer Jack Van Berg. I had walked hot horses for him the year prior at AK-SAR-BEN in Nebraska where Jack was born and was leading trainer for nineteen straight years. Jumping up to grooming was a big step in my short career. We moved into the sleek and modern Arlington Heights home in just one day and helped David and Bob get their belongings into their rented apartments the next. By day three, the alarm went off at 3am and Dad and I were off to the track. Feed was around 5 and Mr. Van Berg spent little time showing me anything after I was dropped off and introduced at the shed row.
“Here’s your grooming box. These are the three you have and this is Mudbug. He’ll show you what you have to do.” he said, as he swept his hand across the length of the last three stalls and stopped as he pointed at the jockey-sized black young man sitting on his groom box rolling bandages a few stalls away. Mudbug never looked up. With the training over, Jack turned and started walking back to his office at the other end of the barn. He stopped halfway, “Hey Billy, I forgot to tell you. The red colt is The Redeemer. Watch him, he’s only got one eye,” he said in a John Wayne style. He turned away and then I knew for sure my schooling was over.
I watched the large man move away quietly and without concern. At the time I would have never known the caliber of the horses this soon-to-be hall of fame trainer allowed me to take care of but today I’m sure the last three horses on this side of the shed row were low level claimers.
Heading up the elite group of horses under my protection was Nakanoyo Miss, a five year old mare and winner of one in 30 or so starts. A sweetheart of sweethearts. Instead of bobbing her head at you she would nuzzle up to your chest and had a weird way of purring like a cat. Nakanoyo had with her as a stall mate, a female black goat named Spider.
Middle stall of this pack of champions was a nearly black colt named for no known reason, Blue Patient. A small white blaze on his head was the only thing keeping him from being designated as black. This unruly two year old was destined to be gelded as his nature in the barn was not one of reason. Always studdy acting and forever charging the chains was his favorite thing to do in the world not to mention his sexual self-satisfaction methods were above even a young man’s creativity.
The end of the barn nearest the groom housing and turn-in to the other side of the shed row was the infamous and charismatic red colt, The Redeemer. This baby was not born with this one-eyed affliction as I was later told and had raced with complete vision before I had the honors of cleaning up after him.
Even with the loss of his right eye from disease, it had not stopped him from racing although it gave to him an anger beyond explanation. I called him ‘The Biter’. He too was destined for a later in life testicle clamp. All I can say is when he ran the two times I had him, he was super fast and I would scream as loud as I could when he started passing horses in the stretch.
Although Nakanoya and I had a short relationship and I sort of fell in love with her, The Redemmer was my favorite because he could do one thing better than all the horses I ever groomed. He could run so fast late in the stretch on grass and seeing him doing what he did best would bring tears of joy in everyone’s eyes on the rail as we rooted him on. Even Jack would get misty.
As if I would’ve known the future of John Charles “Jack” Van Berg, I might have paid more attention. Moving up in the ranks in the circle of such a great man and have that part in racing history with you forever might have made me stay working on the track. His father, Marion was already a Hall of Fame trainer and Jack was hot on his heels. Later on after I was long gone and forgotten, Jack trained horses like Gate Dancer and is best known for training Alysheba who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In 1984 he was awarded the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer and in 1985 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. In 1987 he received the Big Sport of Turfdom and is also an inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame. On July 15, 1987 Jack Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he sent Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park. In 2008, Jack Van Berg ranked second all-time in career wins among American Thoroughbred trainers. Today, Van Berg now ranks second all time in races won with 6,411. Without saying, those were some great coat tails to ride if only I would’ve only known.
“Hey”, I said in Mudbug’s direction as I sat down on the stool. He responded to my greeting with only a nod. His attention was entirely on the rolling of the bandage down his thigh. He would start the roll very tight and roll the loose bandage with his palm the length of his thigh. Once out of leg room, he would bring the roll back up as tight to his waist as he could and do it over and over until the bandage was wound tightly in a four inch tube.
Standing up with the roll in his hand he’d walk over to the stack of rolled bandages and place it in the cabinet. He’d then snatch another bandage from the clothesline and start over. “Toi besoin to do ya’ all ton wraps,” he said in a Cajun French accent while still not making eye contact.
“Sure,” I answered. I sat on my white groom box and stared out over the railing of the shed row at the barn across the grass alley. What seemed like five minutes later Mudbug spoke up again but this time he looked at me.
“Wraps. Bandage,” he pointed at the clothesline and motioned as if rolling a bandage on his thigh. “You besoin to do.” His Cajun accent trailed off sharply at the end of each sentence.
“Oh, I need to do the bandages? Okay.” I stood up and walked over to the line and pointed at one of the hanging strips of cloth. “These?” I turned for approval.
Mudbug was already half way down the shed row walking in a rapid pace and didn’t hear me. I grabbed a bandage and sat down on the stool next to Nakanoyo Miss’ stall. She was facing away from the door, her dark brown tail whipped furiously at whatever bug it was that was irritating her.
I had rolled bandages before helping a groom at another stable after hot walking all morning but I never had my own horses. Rolling them was harder than it looked but after several attempts I had the art mastered.
The entire length of the shed row was open except for three wooden feed enclosures. Two of them at each end and the larger of the three in the middle. The barn across the way was identical and there was around a hundred feet of grass between us and the neighbor.
Three washing areas were in the middle of the grassy strip and followed the feed enclosure’s placement. I paused during a roll and looked out to the next barn as a young girl walking a hot horse passed by in their shed row. The sight of the girl stopped my breath as I thought of the girl I left in Phoenix.
The morning came with smells and sights like no other in the world. The scent of molasses and oats mixed with pungent odors of horse manure filled the air. A wispy trail of a fog cloud moved through the grassy area only a few feet above the ground pushed by the slight breeze caused by the sun warming up the grounds.
I shivered slightly from the crispness of the early hours. Neighs and whinnies, nickers and snorts could be heard in every direction. The horses were talking to each other, heads high for some and heads bobbing up and down for most as the anticipation of feeding excited the time.
The clicking of heels of horse going to the workout on the paved road made a sound one would not hear due to familiarity. Water running everywhere from the hundreds a baths the horse would have this morning. Occasional yelling from a barn in the distance could be heard as trainers and jockey, grooms and hot walkers disagreed.
The dreaded, “Loose horse! Loose horse!” coming when you least expect it and the sound of furious hoofs sliding and sticking across the grass and asphalt as the escaped animal raced to a freedom they thought they wanted.
The calls would get closer, “Loose horse, loose horse!” Everyone in every shed row raced to the alleys and roads hoping to help stop the horse from hurting someone or worse, hurting itself. Wounded horses are a sad sight and makes even the hardened hearts of trainers ache.
Horses going to or coming back from the workout reared as the commotion passed. Ponies whinnied and squealed with their mouths tightly shut as if yelling for the craziness to stop.
Then as quick as the excitement started it would come to an end with one person waving their arms in the air standing firm in the way of the running horse and grabbing the reins as the horse stopped in fear of running into the fearless person.
The calmness of the barns would come again with the sounds and smells softening everyone’s demeanor. Rolling bandages and more bandages. Feeding and mixing feed. Hot walkers in repetition with their lead chains snapping and rattling. The track gets back to normal.
“Here Billy, cannelier and café. I buy you.” Mudbug had snuck up without me knowing it and in his hands he held a gray cardboard tray with two steaming cups of coffee and two very large cinnamon rolls. He offered the tray toward me. I pinched the roll between my fingers and slid the cup of hot liquid from the holder.
Steam rolled out of the cup in my hand as Mudbug set the tray with his on the top of a hard-paper fifty-five gallon barrel of oats. He walked to his stool and picked it up and placed it near the barrel across the row from me.
“Thanks,” is all I could mutter as the surprise was welcomed.
“I buy this week, buy for me next when Carl pay you. Agree?” Mudbug waited for my answer before he started in on his sweet roll. “Agree you buy?” he asked again.
I had already taken a bite of the cinnamon. “Yep. Sounds good and tastes good too,” the words barely could get out of my full mouth.
“No, no, no,” Mudbug said waving his finger back and forth. “You trempé like Mudbug,” his voice slowed. He tore a piece of the roll off and dunked it into the coffee, waiting a couple of seconds to let it soak and lifted the moistened roll up and tilted his head back and lowered it into his mouth.
He swallowed and said, “Trempé.” He acted out the dunking of the glazed delicacy with his hand, “Trempé.”
I dunked and dunked and dunked from then on. Mudbug and me, dunking every morning was a memory of a lifetime. I actually became seriously addicted to dunking. That’s what probably turned me in to a gravyoholic. Much like the normal transition from smoking weed to shooting heroin, dunking eventually leads to a more serious gravy problem. I don’t dunk much today but reliving the feeling you get when the coffee mushed out of the chunk of cinnamon roll in your mouth is better than saffron. The need to press your tongue against it turning it into a cinnamon-coffee-roll porridge mixture is obsessive. Doing that again at this time in my life could easily knock me off the wagon. Where’s Dr. Phil when you need him?
We finished our morning break and Mudbug scooted his stool on the same side of the row, “I teach you the horse Billy, okay?”
I wiped the drips from my chin and said, “Thanks.”
Mudbug was a true Cajun French who spoke Prairie French being his parents were residents of southwest Louisiana. He was bilingual and looked much older than his 18 year old body. His passion was racing and he wanted to be a jockey in the worst way.
He would groom for Jack most of the time and do late workouts for other trainers. He kept his hair short and had a natural smile even when he was upset with the horses or Carl, our foreman.
Every day as the last hot walker would pass us Mudbug would follow them around to the other side and I would give him a leg up onto the horse. He would play ride the horse up until the next turn because that was where Jack’s office was and he knew Jack would kill one of us for harassment of the animal or for putting the horse at risk by it getting loose of the walker.
Mudbug hated Carl. Carl was a true Acadian from Canada and spoke full-out Acadian French with very little English mixed in. A very dark black man with a huge head. I always suspected he knew English well but would use not knowing it as an excuse to smooth over a bad situation.
Carl was tall and fat, much larger than Jack. He paid us Friday mornings in cash and then in the evening he would hold his weekly Black Jack game and you had to play and he had to be the dealer. The part of winning and being a dealer finally hit me years later and explained why Carl would always take back most of my paycheck every time we played.
Within days, Mudbug and I are acting like we’ve been friends forever. He gave me a cot in his bunk about a week later and I stayed with him the rest of the meet. Carl and the rest of the group of grooms left us alone most of the time hanging with Carl as his bunk was on the trainers end of the barn.
We had several pets not including the six ponies we used to take horses to the track or workouts. Among the characters were a monkey on a leash named Spider, a Mama Goat named Spider and her offspring male black goat with tall horns named Spider. No chickens or dogs were allowed in the barn area but there were a lot of cats.
Spider would butt anyone who came near him and hung out in the middle feed shack eating any trash the hot walkers would throw in there. One of Carl’s friends would take him out for a walk and sometimes put him in with Spider, his mom, in Nakanoyo’s stall. The visits stopped one day as someone caught Spider mounting Spider and it freaked everyone out as to how a son could ever think of doing that to his mom.
Occasionally owners would come to the barn to talk to the trainers or want to look at their horse and where the money is going. They would walk down one side of the shed row to the breezeway, through it and down the other side to where they started. During this time they would walk two abreast and as close to the outside of the row to avoid getting bit by a horse as they walked by.
Mudbug would go find Spider, the kid Spider, who was normally tied up inside the center feed stall and let out a little rope to lengthen his reach to about four feet. This would give him just enough rope to get out to the center of the row to do any head butting. I never seen him pass up a good butt or two.
On his ornery days, which was most, Spider would stand up on his back legs, rearing like the pygmy black stallion he wished he was and thrust himself and his cock-eyed horns against your thigh or rear end. No one liked using the center feed stall because they would most likely have to contend with the first attempt of Spider to butt you back out of his territorial shack. Once he tried you could get hold of his horns and he’d settle down and jump back up onto the bails of straw content with his failed attempt.
With Mudbug’s ‘Spider Trap’ set, he and I would sit on our stools and wait for the suits to come around the corner walking side-by-side talking about whatever they talked about. Eventually they would come around and start the walk toward the feed stall where Spider was silently awaiting their arrival.
Bam! Out would come Spider and nail the outside person right in the side of his leg and then like dominos the other one would be pushed into the chains of the opposite side stall. Spider would retreat back into the safety of the shed. Mudbug and I would act like we didn’t see the commotion, that is, until the targets left. Once they were gone we would break out laughing so hard I’d pee my pants.
“Billy, sa copain in Arizona?” Mudbug asked. We were sitting together on our groom boxes waiting for sunset.
“No not really. You?”
“No, no, mère is all. J’aime ma mère de tout mon cœur. She is best mama to me.” I knew what he meant as he had told me he loved his Mother with all his heart during the first day I met him and had repeated it sixty times since. Amazing how you pick up on someone’s talk when all you do is talk to that person and they talk a lot.
“My mom’s pretty good too and I got a girl I like a lot but I’m not to sure if she likes me the same,” I added to the simple conversation.
“Why don ju know?”
“Know what?” I asked.
“Why don ju know why elle don’t like ju?” he asked slowly as he stumbled through the mixed dialog.
“I just don’t know. I only met her last school year and I’m not sure because we’re only good friends. I would like to be her boyfriend bigtime.”
“Yeah, , like a lot”
“Ju like bigtime a lot?”
“Forget it. I like her, she don’t like me the same.”
“Forget her big time,” he quipped as he rolled another bandage.
I stood up from the stool with an armful of rolled bandages and motioned for him to hand me his and I would pack them away in the shed’s cabinet. As I came out empty handed Mudbug mumbled, “Lui écrire une lettre.”
Mudbug looked up, he motioned with his hand, “Write bigtime letter to her. Your elle.”
I pursed my lips as I thought about what he had just said. “You might be right. I just might write her a letter,” I answered as I sat down. The rest of the day was filled with the usual work. Hot horses coming in from the track to take care of and cleaning stalls. You’d be amazed how much a stable of horses can produce in a day. Huge mounds of dirty straw littered the alleyway at the end of each barn to be picked up by a truck later around noon.
Every barn had at least two bicycles, a truck or two and a bunch of ponies to get around the expanse of Arlington race track facilities. We had in addition to all of that, a cream-colored volkswagen bug which always had the keys in the ignition.
Every couple of days Carl would let me drive the small noisy car across the huge parking area to the other side of the grounds to where the post office was to see if anything had come into for the Van Berg farm. Carl never drove it because he couldn’t fit and on the days of laziness, which was most, he would yell down to Mudbug a totally incompressible sentence.
“Obtenir le courrier,” his ugly mouth would expel as he looked at me.
“Okay.” ‘Get the mail’, was one sentence I totally understood after the first two days of employment. Off I’d go driving slow down the muddy alleyway splashing through every puddle I could to the railing surrounding the barns, then across the dirt walkway where we’d walk horses to the main track to run on race days and onto the pavement of the gargantuan parking lot.
As soon as the way was clear I’d mash the clutch in with my foot and get it into second gear then follow it up with another mashing of the other foot and the small engine would roar reaching speeds of over thirty miles an hour. Leaning forward behind the steering wheel I would scream across the lot and come up to the back of the track office, slamming on the brakes hoping to get a little slide out the tires.
“Mail for Van Berg?” I’d ask as soon as I came through the doorway into the office.
“Right here Billy,” the lady whose name I can’t remember for the life of me, would answer back as she handed several stamped envelopes over the short counter.
“Thanks,” I’d jog down the wooden ramp letters in hand and jump back into the barn Beetle for the race back to the barn.
Days had passed and I just had washed Nakanoyo Miss after workout and handed her to a hot walker when Carl shouted his demand to Mudbug. “I know, I know,” I said to Mudbug. “I’ll get the mail.” Mudbug smiled as he knew I was starting to get a hold on their impossible language.
I had just pulled up when Mudbug came out to me on the side of the barn. “Billy, le cheval a des coliques. Le cheval a des coliques!”
“What?” I shouted back shaking my head to let him know I could’t understand him. His French became so intense when he was upset and if he didn’t add a little English I would become totally lost in the translation.
“Nakanoya. Billy, Nakanoya des coliques.”
“What’s wrong with Nakanoya?”
“Coliques,” Mudbug paused searching for the word. “Colic,” he said the one word no one in the barn ever wanted to hear about their horse. We raced around the breezeway and came up to her stall. She was standing stiff legged as Carl and Mr. Van Berg stood near her. A flood of sweat was pouring from her coat and she was drooling in pain. She pawed and turned her neck to bite at her flank.
“You gotta walk her Billy until she turns. She twisted an intestine. The Vet is on his way,” the trainer said with his hand on her nose. With that, Nakanoya dropped to her knees and made a terrible moan. “Get her up!” Jack demanded. “Get her up. If she rolls she’s dead.”
Mudbug, Jack, myself and fat Carl pulled with everything we had until she stood. I grabbed the lead and slowly walked out onto the shed row with my sick horse in hand. I turned to look back as I rounded the first corner and the three men were just staring at us from behind. I made more rounds of the shed row that day than ever and she had begun to show signs of betterment. The sweating had stopped.
The Vet led me into her stall and I handed over the lead to Jack. With one last moan Nakanoyo dropped in her stall and laid to her side, too proud to lay in the dirt. Her breathing quickened before she began to die.
I stood silent in shock, not crying for my loss but for Nakanoya the Sweetheart and Jack who had tears running down both cheeks as he knelt next to her saying something under his breath to comfort her as she death rattled from the mucous building in her throat. So sad to see such a beautiful horse pass. Nakanoya Miss, the greatest mare I had ever known died in the afternoon on a sunny day filled with the smells of oats and hay with many by her side and with those who loved her.
I looked at Mudbug standing in the doorway. The Vet stepped sideways out through the doorway avoiding bumping him. Nakanoya’s chains hanging on the doorjamb rattled. Mudbug was crying as he gasped for every breath and then sighed and gasped again. Jack leaned forward and placed his head on her neck and cried. I couldn’t stop swallowing from the sadness and trying as hard as I could not to bawl seeing how this great man felt for his horse.
I knew then how important these horses are to those who own, train, tend and ride them. I went back to my cot for the rest of the afternoon until feed. Spider, her goat laid beside her making a subtle murmuring noise until the van came and picked up her body. She too had lost a dear friend. The next day, Jack gave me the lead she had on when I walked her. Just looking at in my hand without her on the end of it would start me crying again.
Days went by before the talk of losing Nakanoya subsided. The cinnamon rolls and coffee had started to taste good again. I began to hear again the yells of horsemen screaming ‘loose horse’ and the occasional inflammatory swearing. Mudbug and I were getting back to normal. The Miss’ stall remained empty.
A couple of Friday nights later and after losing most of my weekly paycheck, I had slipped into our quarters to sit down and write a letter to the girl back home. I had pestered her during the school year and through casual conversation, I determined the street she lived on and close to what the exact address should be.
My actions today would be considered stalking as I drove every night down to where I thought she lived and patrolled the streets in my Dad’s latest purchase. The red tarnished ’59 Rambler Super American was a present from him to me and I was told if I could fix it I could drive it. My brother-in-law John wasted about two hours of one day putting in the twenty dollar transmission and off I was driving around the neighborhood.
There was something special about the car. The classic was equipped with a permanent ‘necking knob’ mounted on the steering wheel and make-out seats in the front, those are the kind that lay down flat to the rear so those who could would do just that, make-out, made this a car James Dean would be proud to drive. The potential of making-out kept me polishing off the oxidation of the red paint for hours on end. She was one of a kind and if I kept cleaning the two-inch spark plug extension I could keep oil in her for over two weeks.
Finally on one night of stalking, I spotted her talking on a Princess phone through a screen door on the last street before Central Avenue south of McDowell. My heart pounded with the sight of her and I fell viciously acceptable to my emotions of the moment. I circled the street and pulled up to 69 W. Lynwood slowly. Oiled smoke belched from its exhaust. I gripped the knob tightly in one hand and looked at the most beautiful girl in the world as she chatted on the phone. She held the floor length spiraled cord in the other hand.
I honked and with that pulled the steering column mounted shifter into first and roared away from the curb. I circled again but paused to make sure she had time to go back to the phone. How exciting when I went by again and could see her standing by the wall separating her kitchen to the living room. Success. I had finally met her outside of school. Weeks later she asked me in a non-caring way, “Was that you outside my house honking your horn?”
I nodded foolishly and she called me something related to ‘Dork’ or ‘Nerd’ but I can’t remember what kids like me were called in those days. Penny loafer maybe? I’m just not sure now.
. . .
Jack’s assistant trainer came up to me after The Redeemer’s workout one morning and introduced a girl named Tony to us and said she was the new hot walker. He wanted her to walk him and cool him down. The Redeemer was not the horse to learn to hot walk with. Doing that would be like learning to milk a cow starting with trying to ride a rodeo bull. Nothing good was going to come of this, hell even I hated walking him.
“Give him his head if he stands up,” he instructed her.
She had no idea what that even meant and doing as I was told by the trainer, I handed her the lead. “Walk that way, you know, that way,” I said as I pointed around the corner of the breezeway. She looked confused. “Counter clockwise around the shed row, you know the way they run on the track.”
Fifteen minutes into the walk the sounds of excitement came from the other side. Mudbug sprung up with me following. I expected a loose horse coming down the walk way but when I rounded the second corner I see Tony laying on her back not moving and The Redeemer is no where in sight. Jack and his assistant had already made it to the prone hired hand .
The assistant knelt next to her and grabbed her shirt and peeled the buttons off with one thrust. This was my first real look at boobs other than the Belinda night in the treehouse in Nebraska and if it wasn’t for George I might still be boobless visually to that day. Beneath her cowboy-cut shirt was two swollen purple teenager-sized boobs. The hoof of The Redeemer had found its target and a perfect blackened horseshoe impression painted the center of her chest.
She took in a deep breath as she came to. Mudbug and I stepped back with her awareness. “Are you okay Sweetie?” he asked. She took in another breath clearing her stunned mind.
“What?” she screamed looking down at her shirt undone. She had hit her head so hard on the dirt floor that the dirt melded with her hair and formed a one sided mohawk of dirty blonde. She sat up and buttoned her blouse. “Why is my shirt undone?” she asked then turned her eyes to us standing at the assistant’s shoulder.
“You need to have the Vet look at that.”
Tony pulled her shirt out and gazed down into the red and blue abyss. Instantly she began screaming and crying at the same time. No one knew what to do I probably wondered if I needed a closer look at the injury. I wished I was a Vet.
We never saw Tony again and another barn caught The Redeemer unscathed from his hour long freedom. The groom at the other stable told us how a piece of paper or a leaf had blown in from the right side of him and fluttered by just within his eyesight. He stood up in fear and doing the opposite of what the trainer told her, she pulled down on the lead. He then did what all horses would do if someone is yanking on your halter and you’re trying to get away. He pawed her right in the middle of those wonderful yet purple breasts.
Mudbug and I finished our work and went to the kitchen for supper. That night the letter was finished to perfection and delivered to the post office across the track in record speed the next day. I must have been doing over forty when I hit the brakes and ran up the ramp to drop the envelope in the box. “Nothing for you, Billy.” I turned empty handed and returned to the barns.
I knew something special was about to happen somehow. The girl I adored filled my thoughts for almost every minute while I worked. Days passed and the meet was closing and I decided to make one last drive to the post office. “Anything for me today?”
“Nope Billy and the Mailman just left”
As I opened the door to leave, the lady behind the counter stopped me. “Billy, there is something here.”
“What is it?
I shuffled back to the counter, “It’s Jack’s winner circle picture.” I took the clear envelope and walked disheartened back to the Volkswagen. Days later we shipped to Rockingham and Mudbug left for Bossier City, Louisiana. It would be another year if I was ever to see my friend again. I never did. We’d return to the house on the lake and I would have to move on. Mudbug stashed his riding gloves in the Chrysler’s glove box for me to have as a present from him. He must have known I’d stay behind for my, ‘elle’, as he would say.
Summer is almost over and I’ve heard nothing from Phoenix. I’m really not sure of who I worked for in Massachusetts but I remember the day and where I was when the next significant event in my life occurred. Standing on top of the hay truck throwing bales off to another groom my Dad pulled up in the all white Newport and barked out of the electric window.
“Billy, Arlington sent this letter to you. They thought it was me but I really think its for you.”
I figured the obvious and clambered down from the tall truck of straw. “What is it?” I asked thinking it was my groom license or something similar to that knowing Arlington would never send me anything but work related stuff. Dad handed me the wrinkled envelope. On it was a name, my name and a return address of Lynwood. Like before, my heart raced and I jumped up higher than I normally could. I received an answer to the letter I wrote to the girl in Phoenix.
“Cómo está usted? Alicia, the barn custodian asked me as I rounded the breezeway reading the letter for the third time.
“Alicia, I’m doing just fine now. Just fine.” I didn’t even ask her how she was and that question and the greeting wave with a couple of fingers were the code of the track. Dad had drilled that into my little pea brain since I was five. I just forgot, I was too excited. For the next three weeks all I could think of was a song on the radio and how it fit me so well.
‘The Letter’ is a song written by Wayne Carson Thompson and made famous by The Box Tops and their singer, Alex Chilton, released in 1967 on the album of the same name. It reached number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and number five on the UK singles chart. The song was popular during the Vietnam War and was also included in the computer game Battlefield Vietnam. Rolling Stone ranked it #363 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Some remember and believe Jefferson Airplane started the classic. For me, it was a jingle to remind me of where I wanted to be.
Start tapping your toe, drum the music with your finger on the desk because here it goes. . .
Gimmie a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain’t got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I’m a goin’ home
My baby has just wrote me a letter
I don’t get care how much money I gotta spend
Got to get back to my baby again
Lonely days are gone, I’m a goin’ home
My baby has just wrote me a letter
Well, she wrote me a letter said she couldn’t live without me no mo’
Listen Mister, can’t you see I got to get back to my baby once mo’
Give me a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain’t got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I’m a goin’ home
My baby has just wrote me a letter
– Time Travel Time –
Let’s all flash forward over forty years on a hot summer night in Phoenix with friends over at the house for a barbecue. The beer was icy cold and the monsoon had left leaving the air comfortably damp. Since the sun doesn’t go down until late in the day we had plenty of time to put a few away.
“So here I was,” I usually started out a story like that after four beers. “So here I was stuck in Arlington and she,” I pointed at my more than beautiful wife of 40 years, ” says she never knew how I was sweating in a lousy groom’s quarters, working my ass off every day and I took the time, now hear me out, I TOOK THE TIME to sit down and write a love letter with Mudbug because I missed her so bad.” I continued on embellishing the story and adding everything but a super hero to the mix. I didn’t notice her get up and even if I had I would have I would have thought it was for another beer for me or a guest’s cocktail. I was right in the middle of motioning as if I was steering the tan Beetle feverishly across the parking lot when she walked up to where I was seated by the fire pit and stood in front of me. I slammed on the brakes into a skid. I could see the ‘I got ya’ sneer coming at me in a full frontal attack. I stopped my bedecked story in preparation of the onslaught.
“Here, I TOOK THE TIME TOO to keep this,” she said as she handed me a treasure I never knew I had.
A forty-year old letter from a boy to a girl who he new was special. A forty-year old handwritten message of forever lasting love.
What’s a guy to do for such a great wife, woman and especially a best friend like her?
A cinnamon roll would be good or maybe I should write her a ‘aimer la lettre’, a love letter, to my elle, just like my old and dear friend Mudbug told me to do so long ago. You know,
I think I just might do that.
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.”
Did you read the reference to the great Nakanoya Miss, who in my own handwriting, ‘got tied up and died’? How descriptive I was in those days. Her return letter’s envelope my Dad handed to me is below with General Ike for only 8 cents. She kept that too.
Notice they even reminded her to use a Zip Code but she still didn’t. She just never listens.