If I were to stop and ask anyone on the street who had no affiliation to horse racing at all, I would bet all the money in the world that they couldn’t answer this question. Who is Bob Yeager? Can you?
I met this man when I was around five, I remember that for a few reasons. Our family rented most everything we ever lived in when we stayed in Phoenix and now that I was about to be a first grader, Mom wanted to get close to a school.
Our first home, until Dad could find us a real place to live, was a trailer nestled behind the old Blakely gas station on Grand. Nothing exciting happened there other than spending the day in a trench fear I was about to be buried alive. I had ridden my tricycle into the hole by accident. Later in the month, Mom caught me and the young daughter of another tracker playing doctor in the outdoor toilet and shower facility. I’m really sure how long we stayed there.
Our second house, you guessed it, was a trailer, which was parked in a crowd of other trailers located near the southwest corner of Central and Indian School and just north of the newly-built Park Central shopping mall. Nothing much happened there other than freaking out on the scary Halloween costumes and crying the whole night while I grasped tightly to my bag of goodies Mom had filled.
One day I did spend a good part of a morning screaming in the laundry room of the park because for some reason I was curious of what would happen if I put my hand between the rollers of one of a running wringer-washer supplied for free to the tenants by the owners of the exclusive court. I learned quickly that up to my shoulder in a hung-up washer wasn’t my kind of fun.
When the Burbachers bought the Central Avenue Dairy Farm and turned it into the Park Central shopping mecca it isn’t today, they had buried thousand of milk bottles on the south side of our park. What little boy wouldn’t remember time spent doing one of his most favorite past times, throwing rocks. Well, when you are lucky enough to have thousands of perfect glass targets to line up on a dirt hill and break every day, it’s hard to forget. A couple of more months of target practice and I could have made the Olympic Rock Throwing team easily.
I was not in school so let me say it again, I was around four or five.
Another move in 1959 put us near the north edge of Phoenix in a small house on Highland and 21st Avenue, 2116 west Highland to be exact. The palace was a 400 square foot abode with a front and backyard and was located only steps from prestigious and public, Westwood Elementary. Mom must have been proud. It wasn’t long after we moved in when all the trackers my Dad worked with made the trip to our new house. You know to this day I can remember always having certain people at the house or our family being at theirs.
Bob and JoAnne Yeager were two of those people. Dad was Bob’s Jockey agent. I thought for the longest time her name of Jody and not JoAnne and even now wonder if I was just hearing Jody when all the time people were calling her Joanie. Bob was my clearest memory of the Yeagers even though I’m sure JoAnne paid more attention to me as a boy. Women in those days cuddled and pinched more often than the man of the family did. I’m sure I was boyishly annoyed.
Several days a week, Dad would let me go to the track with him. We’d sit at a chrome-legged table inside the track’s kitchen every morning. Dad would make rounds at the other tables and talk to trainers about getting a ride for one of his jockeys. Bob did workouts for trainers who had him as a rider during the races. Bob sat with us. Bob would sneak up behind my Dad and grab his arms at the elbows like a full nelson without the neck part and face him toward me. “Give him a good one, Little Shu,” he’d say, wanting me to punch Dad in the belly for fun.
Wham! I put everything I had into the swing and land one right above his patent leather belt’s buckle. Dad would double over, faking the pain and everyone in the kitchen would laugh. Bob would ask me to make a muscle afterward and I would proudly show off the bump of a bicep I had.
“Yep, that there Billy is one heck of a guided muscle if I ever saw one,” Bob would announce. See in those days of threats of war, guided missiles were something of a new force everyone feared and I had two of them even though they were really muscles. I thought it was funny every time Bob or Dad would say that.
So funny and corny I thought it was that I said it to my kids when they were younger but I put a spin on it. I would show them my bicep then tell them it was time for blast off. “Here comes the guided muscle,” I’d say and chase them around the room with my fist while making rocket engine noises. They thought it was funny too, least I think they did.
One day at the track kitchen Dad had gotten up from the table and went into the bathroom. Some of us might remember this as I do because my Mom would do this every time I had to go to the bathroom somewhere other than home. She would lay toilet paper down and line the toilet seat before I would sit down.
She must have feared the devastation that comes with the worst zoonotic disease man had ever faced. ‘Black Death’, bubonic plague brought upon by rodents and small mammals. She must have thought they too sat on toilet seats and once my skinny butt cheeks hit the black wooden commode, vicious amoebas filled with parasitic anomalies would attach themselves to my pink bottom like Louisana leeches. From there, I would spread the contagion like head lice in a comb factory throughout the entire household when all the time not realizing that the only malady you can get today from the toilet’s seat is the obnoxious and slovenly, yet all too common, Cooties.
What she didn’t know is I always had ‘CP’ written on my hand or a body part she couldn’t see just in case one of the kids in the neighborhood would come up to me and touch me to tell me I now had the Cooties. “Unh-uh,” I’d proclaim as I proudly show off what I had written and declare, “Cootie Protection!” I think I wrote it on my butt one time. Doing that was much better immunization than the world-renowned, ‘Cootie Shot’.
“Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you got the Cootie shot,” some dumb kid would announce as he poked you in the arm. To me the ritual was irritating to get it and to give it so I chose the lazy way out and just wrote, ‘CP’, in pen somewhere on my body.
Well apparently Dad didn’t want the fever and delirium either so he would gift wrap the seat carefully with the cheap single-ply and retire to finish off what the last cup of coffee started. Dad’s in there for a while, probably reading the Racing Form end to end. The swinging door opens and closes with a loose spring sound and Dad, who was always dressed in a neatly-pressed bleached white shirt, brown dress slacks and brown tie shoes, exits the room looking much more relaxed than he was when he went in.
You know? Come to think of it, I don’t remember not seeing him in brown slacks. We’d go fishing and he would wear brown slacks. He’d mow the grass, which really was bullhead sticker weeds, in brown slacks. He laid on the couch relaxing watching the black and white with a t-shirt and brown slacks on while holding a glass full of ice and vodka. Finally Dad walks up to our table where Bob, Willie and I were sitting and says hi to the man seated at the next table. That’s when I saw it. The long trailing sheet of toilet paper stuck in the back of his pants.
Bob grabbed my arm just as I was about to say something to Dad. Bob held his finger up to his pursed lips and shook his head slowly. Dad spent the entire morning wearing the toilet paper tail and it wasn’t until we left and was getting in the car when he noticed it. “How long has that been there?” he asked me as he held the strip of paper in his hand. I assumed then he thought I had stuck it in his pants. I rolled over like a potato bug and ratted Bob out without hesitation. Dad sneared at me as he started the Chrysler to head into the barns for work.
One morning after we left Turf, Dad stopped by Bob’s trailer at the park near Shaw Butte. While Dad and Bob talked about the horses he had booked for Bob to ride in the next weeks race cards, I sat down on the brown flower-patterned couch at the front of Bob’s trailer home. As I was sitting I started to check the couch for dimes and nickels in the creases under the cushions. My scrawny fingers coursed through the depths of the sofa like octopus tentacles searching the nooks and crannies of a coral reef for food.
The touch alarm went off and my reflexes took over as I strained to get hold of whatever it was that my finely-tuned suction cup receptors had found. I slowly pulled it out and to my wonderment, it was a small but dangerous, two-bladed folding pocket knife clad in what I was sure had to be exotic brown ivory from Madagascar. I looked up to see if Dad or Bob had noticed my find. They hadn’t given me any indication to the fact and I surely wasn’t about to be claim jumped. I cautiously pushed the knife into my front pocket of my jeans. I think I was whistling.
We left and went home. I anticipated Dad asking me for the prized knife hidden in my pocket so I faked sleep deprivation and rested my head on the window padding. We pulled into the dirt driveway and I jumped out and went in the front door and out the back door. That was about five steps, the house was that small. I ran into the backyard out to the easement and flopped down in the tall grass that grew in the irrigation ditch.
Like a Samurai with a new sword, I slashed the weeds and even stuck a few pomegranates before folding up my stolen treasure. I hid the knife in my underwear drawer thinking that was the safest place and no one, including Mom who does the wash, would ever think of looking in there. I know my sister never rumaged through my underwear. That was for sure.
A week or so goes by and I came in the house around ten in the morning. Dad was home from hustling book in the barns. He was seated at the kitchen table with Mom and as I walked up to them. To my surprise there in the middle of the table next to the ashtray filled with Pall Mall and Camel butts was the brown ivory, stainless steel, scientifically sharpened, pocket knife. Someone was in my underwear. The jig was up and my scoundrel tendencies were unknowingly uncovered.
“Where’d you get this?” he asked as he picked it up to show me what he meant.
The ‘Don’t ever lie to me’ rule Dad imposed on me at the age of 4 months was still intact due to fear. Do I break the rule now? flashed in my smallish brain. Yes! it’s the only way out and keep my saber. “I found it,” I blurted. I thought I sounded convincing. Dad on the other hand must not have.
“Okay, so now we know you found it. So tell me where you found it.” I paused, he paused. Mom blew a puff of smoke out here nose like a micro burst downwardt onto the kitchen table. The smoke flattened out and rose in front of my deceitful eyes. “Billy, you haven’t answered me yet. Again, where did you find this?” I’m sure I felt like Gary Gilmore when he was about to face his infamous firing squad of his own chosing in Utah and worse, Mom was going to be the only witness. “Billy, last time I ask.”
I crumpled faster than a bride’s wedding dress hitting the bedroom floor. “Bob’s couch!” I screamed. “I found it in Bob’s couch!” I placed my hands up in a defensive posture hoping to deflect the bullets that were about to shower my weak and helpless body. Maybe I should start crying now, I thought. No, fake stupidity. I knew that would be easier. “I didn’t know it was Bob’s. Why would he put it in the couch cushions anyway?”
“Get in the car,” he commanded. “Now.”
Mom crushed her half an inch smoldering butt in the tray and smirked in a gleeful dark-sided expression. She must have found my treasure and looked forward in exposing my cover. Dad drove me out to Bob’s trailer and told me to go ahead of him after Bob asked us in. “Billy, do you have something to tell Bob?” Dad prodded. The two men towered over me like Aztec priests anticipating a colorful yet heart-removing sacrifice. I nodded, just wanting the pain to be over. “Billy?”
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the knife. “I found this in your couch, Bob.” I thought it was. Dad stopped me in the middle of what was to be my lame excuse.
“You thought it was what, Billy?”
“I thought I would give it back. I’m really sorry Bob. Really, really sorry.”
I handed the folded prize to Bob and he looked at as he opened the blade. He said nothing as he turned and sat down on his couch. Dad sat on a wood chair next to the couch. Bob patted the couch cushion next to him and said, “Sit down, Billy.” I rounded my shoulders as much as I could and shuffled my feet all the way to the time-honored chesterfield.
Bob and Dad started immediately talking about the track. I remember Bob asking about a couple of horses he liked and wanted Dad to get him a ride on them. As Bob was talking, he was cleaning his fingernails with the long blade. He’d chew a corner off with his teeth and then take the blade to it to smooth it out. “This is a pretty sharp blade. Must be some special kind of metal.”
I knew it was, but I wasn’t going to tell them it was made of a rare exotic Damascus steel that was tempered for strength by the Atlas rocket booster that carried John Glenn into orbit. Bob continued cleaning his fingernails and I could see Dad watching me through his spy eye hidden on the side of his head under his hair. Bob chewed another piece off a nail and cut it clean with the blade. He folded it up with precision and said something to Dad as he handed the beauty back to me.
I didn’t move. Bob nudged the knife to me again. I looked up at the ceiling trying to dummy-up a fake out how I couldn’t see his hand. Dad breaks into the uncomfortable air. “Billy?”
I shake off the illusion and look at Dad. Bob pushes the knife to me again and said in a midwestern draw, “Billy, that is one heck of a nice knife you have there. Thanks for letting me use it.” He placed the brown jewel on my thigh and casually went back to talking to Dad. I could see Dad was doing everything he could not to expose the hidden smile tucked away on his face.
I stood up and tucked the gift back into my pocket, “Can I go outside, Dad?” I asked. He only nodded.
I slammed the trailer door in excitement and ran around to the backside of the trailer and pulled out the blade. Once hidden, I tortured the oleander flowers for the next few minutes until Dad yelled, “Let’s go, Billy.” The whole way back Dad and I couldn’t stop talking. He talked about another Jockey and a few trainers he liked. I talked about one of my best friends, Roger and how he had gotten a BB gun and that I wanted one too. Dad answered without hesitation, “No.”
The bump over the gutter to go into the driveway signaled we were home. Dad reached over to me and placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I stopped opening the door and turned my head to him. “I’m proud of you, Billy.”
“Thanks Dad. Love you.” I opened the door and jumped out. Running down the driveway into the backyard I felt the weight in my pocket. I could feel the impression the knife made through the Levi. I was proud also as Dad was of me just to know I owned the best pocket knife in the world.
Fifty-one years later I notice something in the Racing Form about Bob Yeager and how he still works the Jockey room at Turf Paradise as the Silk’s Room attendant. The next week I dressed up for the track and went downstairs in the hallway leading to the Jockey’s room and noticed an old man sitting at a desk surrounded by Owner’s colors. Jockey silks hung from every inch in the room. Caps colors were against the wall by the door.
“Are you Bob Yeager?” I asked.
“Yes Sir,” he answered.
“Well I’ll be.” Bob’s eyes immediately welled up with emotion. He walked slowly toward me and shook my hand. “You are all grown up, son.” Bob looked past my shoulder and into the hall. “Hon, look who’s here. It’s Billy.” Same thing happens again as JoAnne starts to cry.
We talked for only a few more minutes as Bob and her had to get ready for the next race. I told him how Dad had died back East.
As I backed out of the door, Bob asked. “Billy, you still got that really nice knife?”
I told him I did yet knowing a few years back I had misplaced it. We exchanged smiles and said to each other that we’d see each other later.
I knew the knife was with someone else and who didn’t understand the magnitude of its greatness. You see, a few years back it came up missing. I figured my son had snuck it into his pocket from my dresser one day because he thought whoever owned it didn’t want it anymore. Then within days he lost it as all young boys do. Most likely in somone else’s couch.
That’s okay, Bob would understand.
Footnote: 2012 was Bob’s last year working at Turf. A terrible car accident happened as Bob and JoAnne were leaving the same trailer park they’ve lived in since the 50’s. The horrific injuries both of them sustained made it impossible for either of the couple to return. My friends, the Yeagers, today are 87.
“The best part of life starts at the head of the stretch.”