Everyone has been there - The first Journey
|The Misconceptions of Trains
Chapter 1: The Decision
Most stories I write are fictional or imagined, but this one really happened and I thought it had a need to be told...
I had just turned fourteen and life was not good at home. Growing up in the late 60’s to early 70’s near downtown Detroit with a blue-collar family was anything but fun. A redneck alcoholic father, a despondent mother and with siblings just trying to hold on to sanity. To make matters worse, I was the eldest and caught most of the heat for anything and everything. My mom at this time had a sister (Aunt Bea to us) who was up and coming in the sulky horse racing business (you know, those little carts they ride on behind the horses). Mom thought it was a good idea to ship my sister and I off to her for the summer, help with the horses and get us out of the city altogether. We had been on the farm working the horses for about a week, when my Aunt Bea suddenly decided we were going to race the Canadian circuit instead of any U.S. tracks. She had heard they were paying bigger purses and also wanted to make a name for herself in Canada as well.
A lot of discussions went on (me not included, of course) about the where’s, when’s and how to do it. The thousand little details involved...How many horses? How to get them there cheaply, what race tracks to stop at, timetables, etc. It was decided to rent five train mail cars, build stalls in them and haul 25 horses. Of course the horses would need plenty of air, so they thought to tie the doors on both sides of the cars open for the horses to have enough air to breathe. The problem with railroad cars was the doors. They slid back ok and had a locking mechanism to keep them open but they were straight across from each other so you could see straight through the car. Horses really don’t care to view the scenery unless they are the ones doing the moving. Worse yet, if they were spooked or got antsy, there was nothing to prevent them from busting through the stall and falling out of the rail car.
After a few days of building the stalls inside five railroad cars and loading them with hay and water, it was time to load the horses. Now mind you, these weren’t your county fair horses or pets, these were race horses bred and trained to be high spirited and ready to run types. So trying to get them up a steep ramp into a caged stall was no easy feat.
We finally had the horses loaded, hay and water on board and we’re packing up the last harness when I looked around and said” where do I ride?” I fully expected to ride in a regular train car and I would go back to feed/water whenever the train stopped. Instead, my aunt hands me a 50-dollar bill and says; “you stay with the horses and when the train stops, run into town and grab something to eat” I stood there in shock and disbelief for a few seconds and then whined; “yea, but where do I sleep?” She looked around and from somewhere found an old single sized, roll away bed, threw it up into the mail car and told me there were the sleeping arraignments. Trying to argue the point, the train starts moving and I’m rushed onto it and told not to do anything stupid. I thought to myself “too late, I’ve already done that by getting on this train.” As the train pulled out I saw my sister and aunt get into a motor home and drive off. It was then I realized not only did they not tell me I was taking care of the horses in mail cars, but also I was doing it alone! I cursed and threw the finger at them as they drove off. Sitting on a bale of hay I wondered “what the hell am I gonna do now?” Not only was I alone with a bunch of horses, I wasn’t even sure where we were going in Canada and how far it was. After a couple of hours fuming and wondering, I decided to take care of business.
The problem of where I was the doors on both sides was tied opened. Since the doors were directly across form each other and with just the platform to ride on, not only was it rough, there was nothing to keep you from falling out. It was like riding the back of a flatbed trailer doing 60 MPH and trying to stay upright. The first curve we hit the roll–around cot decided to make a beeline for the open doors. I just managed to grab it and hang on to it before it made its escape from the train. Fortunately for me, one thing I had learned on the farm was how to braid twine into rope and tie some pretty decent knots. Quickly pulling some bales apart and braiding twine into rope, I fastened the end of the cot to one stall, then the other end to the opposite stall as well.
The train drove on and on, and on some more. It was early evening when we had left Windsor and dawn was now breaking. Hunger was hitting pretty good by now since it was lunch the day before when I had eaten. I did have however, big drums of drinking water and horse feed to eat. Now, most would say this is wrong, but this was no ordinary feed. It had oats, wheat, wheat germ, strap molasses and a few other things (found out later it also had horse vitamins as well). Anyway, when you’re hungry you’ll eat just about anything and this was not half bad. I would pack it together and eat it like a cookie. Later on in life I realized I held a million dollar idea in my hands because it was just like the granola bar of nowadays. Too bad I did not have the foresight or ability to see this, but it was an idea before it’s time.
Chapter 2: The Hobo
Despite the horse feed, I was hungry. Jumping from car to car, hauling feed and hay across the backs of horses, not knowing exactly where we were going, all of that took its toll. We would stop from time to time, but it was in the middle of nowhere and getting to a store and back was, well, impossible. The train would only stop for say, fifteen minutes and that was not enough time to find out where I was, much less get food. It was also here I would run to a bush or train depot for the bathroom if I had the time to make it back before the train would pull out again. On several stops I would be pulling up my pants or shaking things off when I would see the train pulling away, and run like hell to hop on. Only once during this whole trip did anybody “official” stop by and even ask what I was doing on the train.
As the dawn was breaking, I finally had someone jump up on the train where I was staying. A tall man, slim in build and dressed as a worker with heavy jeans and a thick wool shirt. Despite his appearance he was clean-shaven and the clothes in good repair. His complexion was not rough as I would’ve thought for someone hitch’in a ride, working for a low wage job or obviously could not afford a ticket. So this was the impression I had at the time while he pulled himself up into the bay where I stood.
“What ya doing here, eh?” he asked. “I was going to say the same thing” was my response. “I’m taking care of these horses, you stealing a ride?” He looked a little puzzled, then kind of grinned and said, “You’ve never seen a hobo before, have ya, eh?” Nope, I said. What kind of “Hobo” are ya? He laughed, held out his hand for a shake and said his name was Paul and he was just going up the tracks for a ways, then getting off. He finally asked if I thought it was ok for him to ride with me or if someone was going to hassle him or me because he was there. This time it was my turn to laugh and told him he was the first face I’d seen in almost a day. From here we both relaxed and started talking about who and where we were from and just how the hell a kid like me wound up taking care of horses on a train in the middle of a foreign country.
He thought my story was interesting, then told me about his adventures, how he had a good job and all, but the open road kept calling him and one day just decided to be a “hobo”. I asked him his definition of a hobo and he said it wasn’t what I thought, he wasn’t a bum, worked when he needed money on the road, had a good sum of money in the bank if he hit hard spots along the way. He told me about places he had been, the jobs he had worked, people he met along the way or as he said “everyone from garbage men to kings”. We talked as the day wore on, taking a break now and then to water and feed horses. Around late afternoon though hunger set in again and Paul could see it in my face. It was then he asked if I had anything to eat. “Just this horse feed” I said and offered some, but he curled his nose up and told me there were better things to eat and better ways to get food. I said that would be great, but every time we stopped no one offered food or even help to get any. That’s when Paul said “not a problem, I’ll show you how it’s done”.
As the train was rolling to a stop Paul yelled at me “I know this place where to get food, you want to do this with or without money?” I told him I had bucks to buy the stuff and it wasn’t necessary to steal it. He just grinned and said “hold on and just follow my lead”. We hit the ground running as the train got slower and ran fast. I didn’t know where we were going as all I could see were trees and a dirt road from the train station. A few twists and turns, around a corner and bam! There was the town. A look up and down Main Street we spied a convenience store half a block away and ran towards it. We burst thru the door and Paul yells, “Stay right behind me!” He’s running in the isles, flinging boxes and cans at me as we go by. People are staring at us as we dodge in and out along the isles flinging and grabbing as we went along. ”Cans and cartons!” Paul says when we get to the checkout. “Nothing that needs weighing or price checks, we’re in a hurry!” The gal is ringing up the groceries as fast as she can, Paul muttering all the time “We gotta hurry!” I pay for the stuff, the gal jams the change in my hands and Paul grabs me by the shirt and says “RUN!” Good thing the paper bags back then were made of sterner stuff otherwise none of it would made it back to the train. Around the corner and jigs in the road we see the train station. We also see that half of the train had already traveled past it and the end of it was coming up fast. An extra burst of speed got us on the platform just in time for the horses to appear as we leapt into the bay, making the train before it left the platform entirely. After catching our breath, we laughed hard and long about the whole ordeal and I thanked him for getting the food and how upset they would’ve been if the horses showed up and I wasn’t with them.
We then settled down to some of the best “hobo stew” I’ve ever eaten or maybe it was just because I was hungry. Doesn’t matter because it was one meal I’ll always remember.
After a few more helpings and some sodas, and of course the “call of nature” came upon us. I started to unzip and hang out the edge for a pee when Paul pulls me back and says, “What are you doing, eh?” “Taking a leak, what else?” I said. “Naw, not like that!” was all he could say. “Watch and learn”. First, he looked up where the train was going, then he tested the wind outside the door with some straw and dust. Then Paul turned to me and said “You want to make sure you’re not pulling into a place or if people are standing on a platform as you go by. They get real mad and throw you off the train if you pee on them.” Good advice, I thought. Then, you want to make sure the wind’s blowing right, away from the door or you may wind up peeing on yourself or worse getting it in your own face” Then Paul advised, “you want to make sure you grab that bar above the door. One bump or we go around a curve and you’ll be doing more that taking a pee”. I thought “Geez, all I wanted to do was take a wiz, didn’t think I had to engineer the process” (At this point dear reader, give me a break; I’m fourteen, don’t know where I’m going or where I’m at, so the last thing I’m thinking about is how to take a wiz off a moving train). But Paul was right, and the thought of pee in my face was enough to convince me he knew what he was talking about. He also made me realize that I could easily roll off the cot and out the door if I was sleeping on it, without some restraint as the train went around a curve. So making another rope I was able to strap myself to the bed as well. How weird it must’ve looked as we passed by cars waiting for the train to catch a glimpse of someone sleeping, tied to a roll around cot with a bunch of horses staring at him!
With some more talk and some snacks, the train finally slowed for another stop. We were low on food and decided to make one more run for it. Really wasn’t hard though as we had pulled right into the middle of town. It was of fair size from what I could tell with lots of people and buildings. We walked into the nearest “pub” or restaurant and ordered some stuff to go. Looking around it seemed like a well decorated place with older style seating and wood carvings that had nothing polished or put together in a machine precision fashion. It was strange however as this was a weekend night and we were the only men (well, one of us was) standing there. As we left the building I saw the sign…Welcome to Winnipeg – Home of the most Women to Men in the World, 27 to 1! That can really mess with your psyche, especially at my age! We caught the train now and rolled on talking about things in life, while caring for the horses (and what you would do with 27 women at once). Along the night we stopped in many small towns most of which were isolated and only had the train service in and out of them. German town, French town, Italian town, Polish town. All seemed to have a particular ethnicity associated with them along with trappings and mementos in the places we decided to dive into for food and refreshment. The dawn of another day was approaching as we made yet another stop in some small town (which you could see from end to end) “Well kid, this is where I get off” Paul said. I thanked him for all he had done for me and especially for the company. With that he disappeared into the town never to be seen again.
Chapter 3: Civilization
I traveled on now for some time, not stopping at towns, which seemed to shrink in size as we went further down to track. By midday the towns had quit altogether and only woods were on one side of the train, then rising into mountains on the other. By that afternoon we finally slowed and stopped. Nothing here except trees far as I could see! I looked up and down the length of the train, not seeing any town, station or any reasonable explanation for the stop. What seemed a great mystery or magic act to me now was people, mostly Indians started to appear out of the woods like apparitions or shadows. Silent, purposeful and with no distractions of small talk or even mulling around the train they came, boarding and un-boarding. Those who got off the train slipped into the woods with the same stealth and purpose as those who got on. As we pulled out I strained to see what village or town was there, but none could be seen in the distance. Only the woods were there, and even then the people were long gone as the train passed by where they had stood. It was as close to a ghostly experience as I had ever come to…
More travel now down the tracks, stopping at a small town here or there during the night. I tried to sleep, but to no avail as bums would hop in and out of the cars. Sometimes mine, at other times different horse cars. I’d chase them out or offer candy bars to get them out. A look into their eyes was all I needed to tell me if there was any intelligence offered, or just breathing and existing was all they could manage. Didn’t expect or find any Rhodes Scholars in this bunch! All night long, up and down worrying about this or that, adding to this now the air was getting colder. I knew we were going north and climbing in altitude, and I wasn’t sure how high up we were going to get. With just a T shirt and jeans on I knew I was going to be in trouble soon. Fortunately the dawn was rising and the middle of summer in Canada was as warm as it was at home. By mid morning the temp was in the mid 70’s and I was quite comfortable.
Finally the train started passing large groups of homes and roads. Civilization at last! As we pulled in I was amazed that the train had arrived directly at the race track and there stood Aunt, Uncle and sister staring at me while the train ground to a halt. I hopped down from the rail car, and immediately they started putting ramps onto the cars to get the horses from them. Brushing me aside the aunt and uncle made busy with the horses until I finally shouted “Well Hellooo!” The aunt turned and said to me “Glad to see ya, we were taking bets whether you would make it or not” and then turned back to the task at hand. From here as my Aunt and Uncle pulled the horses off the train, my sister and I walked them to their stalls, then unloaded all the hay and feed. It didn’t take long and the train pulled away right at the second we were done. I assume they just parked the cars that hauled the horses until we left again. Looking around to find out where we were, I finally spied a sign that said “Welcome to Calgary, home of the Calgary Stampede”.
Walking around, checking on things, I finally had time to ask that delicate question again of my Aunt. “Where do we eat and sleep around here?” Pointing to the very end of the barn, she said “there’s the groom rooms are, you stay there”. I asked my sister which room she was going to grab and she just laughed and said they were staying in the motor home and I was on my own (can you just feel the love?).
Chapter 4: Living in Style
We managed to find one of the rooms unlocked and threw what little luggage I had (which had arrived in the motor home) onto the bed. One word was all we needed. “Disgusting” we said in unison as we looked about the room. A 6ft by 12 ft room with a military style bed of bare metal frame and 2 inch thick mattress on top of the metal webbing that held it. Stains of all colors and sizes could be seen decorating the mattress as there were no sheets or bedding of any sort to hide anything. In the corner by the door was a 2 burner stove (which surprised me that they would allow one) and a small metal chair in the opposite corner and that was it. There was no luxury here! My sister did manage to round up a pillow and some horse blankets for me to sleep on and we swept out the room of dust and spider webs so “nothing crawling” would disturb me. We opened the little window that was installed 6 ft off the ground so we could get some airflow in the room and glad we did! For no sooner had we finished a tall burley guy with an obviously large beer gut slammed the door opened and yelled at us, “What the hell are you kids doing in here?!”
I told him we were the grooms taking care of the horses and that this was my room to stay in. Before I could say anything else, he herded us out of the room and locked the door, then told us he didn’t want to catch us in there again. It was then I spied the gold plated tin badge on his belt saying he was security. We followed him out of the building, protesting all the way that we belonged there but he wouldn’t listen to any of us. “Now what?” I asked my sister. “Now I don’t even have a place to sleep and my clothes are locked in the room”. She shrugged and said it was my tough luck and to wait for Aunt Bea to get back to do something about it. I knew how much water that was going to carry, so I started prying on the door to see if I could “jimmy” it open. After several minutes (unsuccessfully) at the door, it finally dawned on us we had left the window open! With my sister lifting me up to the window I managed to pry the screen loose and climb thru the narrow window (I was skinny then) and opened the door. A while later the “security” came around again but just glowered at me as he must’ve got the word I belonged there. In spite of the room, a night’s sleep on a bed that didn’t roll and with a closed door was what the doctor ordered. It was a good thing because the next day the trials began.
It was 6 AM and the sun was just coming up when they started banging on the door. “Get up! Get up! Time for breakfast!” was all I heard. A scramble to get clothes on and I flung the door open to find my sister standing there. “Hurry up if you want to eat in the motor home!” and off she went. It was the first time I was allowed in the motor home. It was nice, not lavish but definitely better than where I was staying. We all sat down and for the first time we had some breakfast. It was a flurry of activity, making toast and putting peanut butter and jam onto it. All I heard the entire time was “Hurry up, the toast is getting cold!” Or “You’re not done with the peanut butter YET?” it was worse than a boot camp for the military. You never did anything fast enough or good enough, at least that’s the way I was treated. I noticed very quickly that the sister was well treated and I was a bug and treated with the same respect. Breakfast done (and the only breakfast I had in the motor home) we were rushed out so we could begin work with the horses.
Everyone started handling the harnesses and gear alike (I should mention these were standard bred horses that were used in sulky racing, the little carts they put the jockeys on behind the horse). I started laying out harness as I had when we were on the farm back home when Aunt Bea comes up and says “What are you doing?” I told her I was doing what we did back on the farm and she looks at me funny then says “Oh no, you’re here to muck the stalls” Back at the farm I did a little of everything, but I didn’t expect just to muck stalls. “How am I going to muck stalls here? We don’t have the setup like the farm” The Aunt stared at me. “See that roll around bin there at the end of the barn? You grab that and haul it to each stall and toss the stuff in there, then come back and put straw, hay, feed and water in each of them” . I looked up and down the rows of horses, then at the bin which looked like a regular garbage bin with two lids. The wheels were slightly larger to roll on the dirt floor but otherwise a regular green garbage bin with 2 plastic lids that swung backwards to dump trash into. I couldn’t help myself and blurted “You really think I can drag that thing around to all the stalls?” “Of course you can” said Aunt Bea. “Ya got all day to do it, what’s the problem?” Looking dishearten, I knew by the time I got to the last stall the thing would weigh a ton or more. The first day took me just that, a day to finish the stalls. Day by day went by though and as the laws of nature demand, by the end of two weeks I was hauling the bin around in less than two hours. Of course my Aunt saw this and said since I was so quick now, there were other things to do (it figures). We worked like hell during the mornings, but by the afternoon all we could do was wait until the evening when the races started, so we got to rest before the rush of madness and activities started again.
Chapter 5: Caveat Emptor
By this time they were starting to let me paddock some of the horses. I wasn’t allowed to harness the horses but I could lead them from the stalls and wait/guard them in the paddocks for the race. I could see by the end of the first week, why some people liked horse racing so much; conversations about the horse and the jockey, conditions of the track, how well they ran in mud or dry dirt, etc. All things were considered and debated with the proof of the pick being how much money was in your pocket when you left. I noted true enthusiasts never really counted the money, just if they picked the right horse or not. Later on I learned that most races were fixed anyway, in one way or another. All it took was one or two jockeys to block a favorite horse or let a long shot through at the right moment. Then there was my Aunt, who always wanted to win, no matter what and that sure rubbed some of the “good ole boys” the wrong way. Frequently there were threats made or something being done to the horses (or tried to). Often I would be leading a horse to the paddock amid cursing and threats, or I would catch people trying to sneak into the stalls to try and slip something to the horses.
A few nights I was awakened by “Caveat Emptor”, our one and only jet black stud horse, who also took on the job as watchdog. This helped since he happened to be the closest stall to my room. He would raise quite a fit if someone was there he did not know. It was surprising we had him on the race circuit anyway as stud horses usually did not make good race horses. They were distracted easily by the mares and usually could not run fast (hey, could you run fast if you had a set of balls THAT big swinging between your knees?). But Caveat was a good runner and set his mind to the task when running races. It was after the race he usually took to “flirting” with the mares and was a handful trying to get him back to the stall. Caveat though, was an unbelievable stud as he would let you rub him down or go for a ride (something studs normally would not let you do). He was even so good natured I would take him for walks in the afternoon like a dog. It’s the funniest sight to see someone walking down the sidewalk with a horse!
Caveat Emptor was a strange horse. As I mentioned he was gentle and focused when he raced (you can tell when a horse doesn’t have it together). You could lead him around all day long, until we managed to swing around to the mares. I had to hang on for dear life when he was around fillies, because he was going to visit whether you liked it or not! Several times when sleeping, I would wake up to whinnies and a ruckus going on, dash out the door, only to see Caveat had somehow “released” himself and all the mares and there would be horses all over the place! After several “midnight escapades” we decided to stay up and watch. When he thought the coast was clear Caveat had actually learned how to “Lip” the latch on the gate to open it, then do the same to the mare stalls. After thinking about it we decided to put two latches on his gate, one on top and one on the bottom. “That should hold him” I said and settled down for the night. The next night again I woke to hear horses running about and there was Caveat chasing them around! A mad dash got him back in his stall, then every horse loose in the barn usually took about an hour. After that I examined the stall door, and could see that he had lipped the top latch and kicked the bottom latch until it came loose. What a character he was! This admittedly was a smart horse, no doubt. A quick repair of the bottom latch and securing the top latch with some twine, we could at least get some sleep for the night. But that did not hold either. A few nights went by and again we were out chasing him around. This time he had escaped during the afternoon and managed to get out of the barn with the mares. We were going crazy chasing horses because we were right next to the railroad tracks and knew trains came by where we were at, and did not slow as they passed. We had an old scooter; you know the kind that was 50cc and looked like a toilet bowel mounted to a bicycle frame (happened to be white also). I hopped on it, fired it up and took out at full speed chasing horses off the tracks and back to the barn.
As all things demand, the train was coming at the worst possible time and we had a horse stuck on the track (thought it only happens in the movies, did ya?) I parked the scooter next to the tracks and proceeded to pry the rope lead that had gotten stuck. After a few seconds of being unsuccessful with that, we unhooked his lead and pulled him from the track seconds before the train was at that spot. The horse was safe now but we turned just in time to see the scooter get hit by the train steps projecting from the train car. The scooter launched into the air doing several flips and came down only to be caught by another step and again somersaulted in the air. It finally landed, busted in many pieces and I looked at my aunt in disbelief at what just happened. All she could do was turn and walk away, cursing as she walked off, and of course somehow it was my fault. When all had settled down chains and padlocks were called for and ended the forays of Caveat Emptor. As a note, later on in life I heard that Caveat died from being hit by lightning while hiding under a tree during a storm. Somehow, I thought that this was appropriate for him as he was a high spirited horse and did not deserve the dishonor to die feebly from old age.
Chapter 6: Don
Hunger was always there. I could ignore it for awhile or even forget it for a couple of hours but eventually it would hit like a punch in the stomach. I was growing and I knew that, the labor of drawing a bin around that literally weighed a ton, was getting to me as I slimmed down ever further than the size 30 waist pants I wore. They hung loosely on my frame now and I kept notching my belt to hold them up. I don’t know if it was cruelty, ignorance or forgetfulness that my Aunt would not feed me, but the hunger was real and ever present. As I’ve said, I would eat the horse feed and that slated my hunger for a time, but what I needed was real food with calories for the labor I performed. With this in mind, what I would do is sneak into the grandstands (grooms weren’t allowed there, we were usually dirty and smelled of “you know what”). But sneak I would and find half eaten hot dogs or half full sodas. While everyone watched the race I’d sneak them out and eat them before anyone knew. The same security guard that threw us out of the room earlier, would see me and snarl but then later on must’ve understood my situation because he would “turn the other way” if I approached. I had spent the remnants of the $50 I had the first week I was there for food and we had already spent the better part of a month in Calgary. It was about this time I met up with Don….
Don was a true blue cowboy. In his mid 20’s, he had the hat, the pointy boots (so they could slide thru horsesh*t easier as I was informed), the worn blue jeans and was as tall, lanky and bowlegged as any cowboy story I’ve heard. He was a leftover from the Calgary Stampede and finally landed a job as a groom for the horses next to us. He came over and introduced himself, so we chatted for awhile and he found out we were from Detroit and that he was a native from “somewhere around Calgary”. Said he traveled to and from shows and race tracks, didn’t really have a place he would call “home”. But anywhere there were a horse, that’s where he wanted to be. That night we paddocked together and talked some more. I only had 2 horses in the first couple of races I had to attend, so after I was “relieved of duty” I started to take off to the grandstands for my daily forage. Don looks up from checking the harness on his horse and asked “Where ya going, eh?” I told him straight up I was looking for food or anything I could find in the garbage, and he laughed, then said “don’t do that, wait around, I have a better way”. I reluctantly waited, for it had been since morning that I had eaten and it was now the 10 PM hour. But sure enough, as the races ended, Don and I stood behind the vendor shacks and volunteered to take the garbage out for them. Most understood why we were doing it. Some were nice and would just give us the extra food they had, others would just give us the garbage and made us dig the stuff out ourselves. But a feast we had! Hot dogs with all the trimmings, pretzels still warm and soft, nachos with cheese and not half eaten. Hell, we even had napkins that weren’t soiled. To us, this was exquisite dining! We didn’t score every night, but 2 or 3 times that week made us happy. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Security tightened up on us while we were begging for food. “Didn’t look good for the track” we were told.
Don did not last either. He had worked there for a week and must’ve been paid on Saturday, for he invited me to go drinking with him, which basically involved getting a fifth of something dark brown and some sodas for which he paid for. We grabbed one of the empty stalls that had hay bales in it and started drinking after the races. For this track, Sunday was a non race day and the track was closed, so everyone slept in or took off for the weekend. It didn’t take long for us to get loaded, and we started talking loud about the tragedies of life or the good times we had with women (well, one of us at least). I guess it was about 4 AM when they came around. Indians, I’m talking about. Hey, if they’re Native Americans in the USA, are they Native Canadians in Canada, eh? Had to ask. A couple of them had sat down with us, others headed towards the ends of the barn staggering as they went. We shared our sodas and booze with them and talked of things happening and where they were from. I guess there was a reservation nearby and they liked to hang around the horses, but mostly to “sleep it off”.
The days in Canada were in the 80’s, but the nights were cool or sometimes downright cold, dropping into the 40’s or lower. While talking with them I noticed one had scars on his face. Don later told me that they slept leaning on the manure bins because they would keep them warm. Some of the bins reacted with the hay and urine so much they would actually start to peel paint because of the heat. The Indians would drink until they passed out on them, and would sustain 2nd or 3rd degree burns on their face. Not my idea of a good time. Later on if I ran across one, I would pull him off the bin just to make sure he didn’t get burned. Anyway, stories of rodeos, tribal meetings and spiritual experiences in Hogan’s (sweat lodges) abounded. I found out later that a little peyote also didn’t hurt to bring on the visions. Another story was brought up of a white man who wronged them and they had caught him on the reservation, so they tied him to a tree and castrated him with a cut-up tin can. Don’t know how true these stories were, didn’t care – we were pretty drunk by that time. Dawn was now appearing and everyone passed out on a bale of hay and that’s where we stayed until the yelling started.
It appears Don was supposed to be somewhere that morning with one of the horses and the owner had to come to find him and the horse. Of course, we had slept late and Don was still pretty drunk at this time. So, a few harsh words from the owner and in true cowboy fashion, Don told the owner to perform some type of sexual act on himself and the horse while he was at it. Then the fateful words came out. “You’re FIRED and can get off the property NOW! The owner and Don then walked away yelling, and that was the last I saw of Don.
I have to stop here for a moment and make one comment: In this story I do not like my Aunt as she was as mean, callous and tough as any I’ve run across, caring little for people or their circumstances. But, she became a multi millionaire in life by fighting hard for every penny, nickel and dollar she ever earned. Horse racing was tough enough as is, and women jockeys in the 60’s and 70’s were not well thought of. She was given a hard road to go through and for that she has earned my respect and admiration.
Chapter 7: The RCA Man
The thing about race tracks are that horses and the people who owned them would come and go. A couple of days, maybe a week and they were gone. Dave, a groom landed one night next to our stalls and of course we started talking. Dave was a gentleman in his late 30’s (or so he said), had nice clothes and was obliviously not undernourished. A few race nights together and I finally had to ask, “What the hell are you doing here in this pit?” He informed me that all his life he just wanted to be around horses, and that he finally just quit his high level job at RCA (said he made over $60,000 his last year there, which was a fortune back then) to be a groom and work his way into the business. This floored me. Here, stood a man who had the ideal job in electronics and made boocoo bucks while doing it! It was my dream to be in his position and he throws it away to shovel horsesh*t! All I could do was shake my head at what a dumb thing it was to do… I told him what I thought and Dave looked at me and said “That’s what you want, I want this”. It still didn’t sink in and I couldn’t understand because electronics was all I could think about in my life. “What about money? Don’t you miss the money?” I asked incredulously. Dave laughed loudly and asked me “is that what you think it’s all about? Meet me in the stands when the races start”. That night I was free of any duties so I met Dave for the first race. “Watch as I turn my pockets inside out, see any money?” After I acknowledged that he had nothing on him, he gave me his wallet to hang onto, which he extracted a five pound note. “Watch and learn” was all he said. He took less than 5 minutes to mark up the race schedule, and then we set to the task at hand. He won the first race, and then the second, lost the third, but won the fourth, fifth and sixth races. It was then I learned about Trifectas and how it tripled and quadrupled your monies. We walked out that night with 1500 bucks in our pockets. Dave gave me a $20 and said “Do you see how it’s done?” I was speechless. After gaining some composure I finally said “Wow! You could be a millionaire at this rate!” It was then Dave slaps me up side the head and said “You dummy! Do you really think it was my “reasoning” that got us this money?” Still nursing the slap, I told him it looked good to me what he had done. “Naw, it’s not what I knew but who I knew that got us this money” Dave went on to tell me that he knew who was going to throw which race, when and more importantly how the Trifecta was going to go. He then went on to say he also got the official nod from the “powers that be” at the race track to do it. Dave only betted when he needed some money, and didn’t go for big amounts, just what he needed to live on. I knew something was always going on, but this was the first time I had ever seen it in action. His reputation was well known and he was well connected with the “boys” who ran the track. I didn’t ask any further and trying to talk to Dave some more about the subject only brought hard stares that said “shut up!” Dave disappeared shortly after that night. Thus ending for me another era of learning what this world was like.
Chapter 8: The Incident
The days stretched on, weeks felt like months as the routine never deviated. Up early in the morning, muck the stalls and feed the horses, get things ready for the race. Aunt Bea and Uncle Chuck would take the horses out for exercise, unharness them and ready everything for that night’s race. 2 horses weren’t bad, 3 or more a night was sheer terror at trying to ready them for the next race, then run the spent horses back to the barns. If they were in the last race of the night that meant we weren’t through until 1 AM or better. About this time, Aunt Bea had another groom come on as we were running 3 to 4 horse races a night. It became obvious it was too much for our little group to get everything done in time.
He was a local guy, mid to late 20’s, I think his name was George or something like it. Didn’t get much time with him, as he was gone shortly after the “incident” happened. I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned him except for what happened after the “incident”. Part of the job involved exercising the horses by either racing them around the track or just by walking them for a couple of hours to build up their stamina for the race. Most of the time though, the track had a walker, which was nothing more than a large merry go round with tethers for the horses.
We would tie them to it and away they would go walking for hours at a time. The problem with this one, was someone had built a 4 foot high fence surrounding the walker. (Which is dumb, because some horses would try to hop it, so we had to watch them all the time). A wide gate had been installed with 6 ft tall posts on each side. It was a typical chain link fence so I couldn’t understand why they put in poles so high just to hold the gate. Once before, I had mentioned that these were horses bred for racing and “high strung”. Anyway, “George” was taking one of the horses back to the barns from the walker, leading it through the gate, when the horse was “spooked” by something. Maybe by the poles on each side of him or maybe by something moving past him. It didn’t matter, for the horse reared up and blam! down on pole he went. The horse shook visibly all over for a minute, then it died. The horse somehow had managed to impale itself on the gate post and all we could do was stare for the next few minutes at the atrocity that just happened. Then it hit home. George went running for Aunt Bea and I stood there looking at the horse thinking, “Crap! That was a $20,000 horse that just died!” Aunt Bea finally showed, got a weird look on her face, and then just turned, shrugging her shoulders as she went. As she was leaving, she said “Oh well, we better get him off of there” and that was it. A tow truck with a boom hoist came later that day, cut the post and hoisted the horse on a trailer and hauled it off. I didn’t think anything else about it until two days later we were invited into the motor home for a steak dinner and you guessed it, it was the horse she was feeding us. It was the best thing I’ve had since I had been there, so I didn’t care. I ate my share and then some….
Chapter 9: A True Canadian
It was nearing the first of August now – the days were hot. By noon the temps reached into the 90’s, and mucking stalls was harder than before. The races generally were over by midnight, but most of the time we were up again at 6 AM to do it all over again. I found out who to talk to about getting food, but still the best way was to hit the garbage cans after the races. Mr. Security was giving me a hard time now and then, but I had his routine down now and pretty much avoided him anyway. Despite the extra food I scrounged, the heat and hard labor was taking its toll and I was losing weight rapidly. I knew the time was coming soon that I would need to do something about it. Around this time another kid came into barns doing the same thing I was, mucking stalls and feeding horses. A couple of days went by when Ron and I hit it off, hanging around and talking of things in our life. Ron was born and raised there in Calgary and had not traveled much, which I could believe since he was a couple of years younger than me. A few nights went by and we had late races. He turned to me one night and asked if I had seen any of the City. I said “no, haven’t really set foot off this track” Ron then say’s “Lets go!” and off we went.
Calgary looked neat and clean (damn Canadians are neat freaks) and it was the first time I had seen the space needle they had erected in downtown. “Wow, that is something” was all I could say. Ron told me it was their pride and joy and there was an exclusive restaurant at the top. He had never been there to eat but went many times to the observation deck just to look around the City. We roamed around a little while longer, when we started hearing music. I asked Ron, “what the heck?” and if he knew where it was coming from. He thought for a little while, then said “Hey! I heard there was a concert going on tonite at the stadium, wanna go?” I said “Hell yea!” and off we ran. We just got there when they announced they were playing their last song for the night and we cursed our luck for not being there earlier. They played a few more songs as the crowd shouted for more and we got to rock out with them anyway. A few years later I was listening to the radio and recognized the music, then realized that it was my first introduction to a group called Canned Heat. What a great band and I didn’t even know it at the time!
A Sunday rolled around and Ron came to the stables. I still had to muck the stalls, but the craziness of trying to get the horses ready to race was not there that day. So it was a pleasant day and afterwards I could relax. The heat of August was really on now, and even though the stalls were done early, it was already hitting the 90’s. Ron asked “Can you swim?” I told him I grew up around lakes and water and considered myself pretty good at it. “Great! Let’s go!” and off we went. Along the way he told me it wasn’t a regular pool, but a swimming hole he always swam in. I said as long as it was cooler than the heat, I was for it. Ron just smiled and said I wouldn’t be disappointed. We got there and Ron dove in as we walked up to it. I was still stripping down to my shorts as Ron swam around in the water. “Aren’t you coming in?” he taunted. I said “move over!” and I dove in head first. It took maybe 2 seconds for my body to realize that the water was just above freezing. I convulsed into a fetal position for another five seconds, then came up out of the water screaming my head off! I managed to pull myself out and then looked back to see Ron, laughing hard at my look of surprise and shock. I was looking at the water when I noticed the chunks of ice floating around in it. Ron then told me the river flowed directly from the mountain snow banks, and wasn’t it “refreshing” on a day like this? I called him everything but a child of God and said I would get back at him for the trick he played on me. He was right about one thing – it was hot and the water felt good after awhile. It took a little coaxing to get me back in the water and I eventually acclimated and we swam for quite some time. (He’s still an a**hole for it, though).
Chapter 10: The Restaurant
Though the work was hard and words used even harsher when working, there were still a few glimpses of good times now and then. Sometimes the Sunday afternoons were entertaining with card playing or just talk of how thing went with the horses (of course EVERYTHING was about horses). We had a rough week at one point with most of the races either place or show (2nd is place, 3rd is show), so money wasn’t exactly flowing in. This made things very unpleasant around our little group, and you could tell tensions were rising. Obviously since I was at the “bottom” of the list, I caught grief for any or everything that went wrong. But miracles do happen and on a Friday night we had 4 horses in and all of them won! Better yet, the last race was for 50,000 bucks! You could just hear the sigh of relief, and then the realization hit that Aunt Bea had pulled in over 100,000 bucks in just one night. Finally! Something big had gone our way and this called for a celebration. Talk abounded about doing this or that, when Bea said “We only have one place to go at 1 AM that’s open and that’s the space needle restaurant”. Taken aback, we all stood there thinking she had lost her mind, because we all knew how expensive it was and we weren’t the “best dressed” people in the world. This didn’t stop her though and off we went to the most expensive and luxurious restaurant in town.
We stood there, at the entrance of the restaurant, all five of us in ragged and torn clothing smelling mightily of sweat, hay and horse manure. The Mat’re De flew over the tables to greet us at the door. “I’m sorry, but the observation tower is closed and we don’t allow sightseeing here”. He sneered at us with arms flung open as if we were going to make a run for it. Aunt Bea gave him the best “dirty look” I had seen to date and informed him we were there to dine. “I do not think we can accommodate you” he tossed back with his best “dirty look” he could muster. Not to be daunted, Bea just pressed a couple of 100 dollar bills into his hand and said “I think we have a reservation” With a look of disbelief, he shrugged and said “this way, if you would” (I wonder what he would’ve said, or how much it would’ve cost if we had shown up during the dinner hour!). The evening went smoothly from there, almost everyone ordered steak and lobster and we dined until the crack of dawn was hitting the tower. The city was spectacular from the view and we enjoyed every minute that we stayed there. Finally, as dawn approached it had come time to pay the bill. The Mat’re De presented it to my Aunt, and I saw her bring out a large wad of bills. She started peeling off the 100’s and placing them on the table and what a stack it was! By my estimate the bill was in the 1000 dollar range, maybe even more and I just stared at the pile, for up to that point in my life it was more money in one place than I had ever seen before. Later on we went back to the barns, slept the whole day and basked in the glow of winning for the next couple of days. But the feeling faded quickly and life went back to the same routine.
Chapter 11: Finally Home
Ron moved on like everyone else and now late August was coming on. I finally had to approach my aunt and tell her like it was. My clothes now hung on my frame like a flag draped over it and in fact would flap in the breeze. She wasn’t happy with my little speech, but I told her I didn’t care for horses and I had lost too much weight doing this kind of work. She wanted me to ride the train back in a couple of weeks with the horses and I simply put it to her I could not. I also knew if I didn’t get back soon I was going to miss the start of school, which for me was my enjoyment in life. I had friends back home and electronics I could work with in class. That was my goal, not shoveling manure. I told my aunt that if she wouldn’t send me back, to just give me my pay for the summer and I would find my own way back. Surprisingly, she then said it wasn’t a problem and she’d get me a plane ticket back. I think she finally recognized I too had limits and was dead serious about finding my way back home. Two days later I was on a plane and made my way home, my mom picking me up at the airport and transporting me back to the world I knew. My journey was finally over and I was glad of it.
Even though the journey had been arduous, I realized the misconceptions I had about trains. I thought they only went one way on a straight and narrow track, never deviating from their course. How boring! I thought. Their future was already planned, and as far as I was concerned nothing could change that. How little did I know then, and now realize that the destination did not matter, just the journey and how you handled it along the way.
The end of an era happened in my life. I had transitioned from boy to young man. I gained the understanding that I would never again look at the world with an innocent eye. There would be many more changes in my life, but this had been the most memorable to me, having met it with fear, anger, wonderment, and finally reverence for what I had gone through. It had been a curse and a blessing at the same time.
May your life be filled with trains as mine has been...