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Oh, that was a fine summer, all right.
Like Pop says, farms are wholesome, and you just naturally couldn't find a wholesomer one than Uncle Sagamore's. There was a lake where you could catch real fish, and I had a dog, and there was all the rabbit hunters with tommy guns, and Miss Harrington. She was real nice, and she taught me how to swim.
Miss Harrington? Oh, she was the one with the vine there was such a hullaballoo about. You remember. It was in all the papers. It was a tattooed vine, with little blue leaves, winding around her off bosom like a path going up a hill, and it had a pink rose right in the centre. Pop raised hell with me because I didn't tell him about it sooner but, heck, how did I know everybody didn't have one? I just sort of took it for granted the Welfare ladies had vines on theirs too, but I never did ask one because when I was with them I hadn't seen Miss Harrington yet, or her vine.
But that's all getting ahead of the story. I better start at the beginning and tell you how we happened to go to Uncle Sagamore's in the first place. It was on account of Pop getting drafted so much.
I guess it was just a bad year for being drafted. The first time Pop got drafted was at Gulfstream Park, along in the winter, and then it was Pimlico, but Aqueduct was the worst of all. We'd hardly got a place to park the trailer and started printing when they drafted him again. And of course the Welfare ladies grabbed me, the way they always do.
Those Welfare ladies are funny. I don't know why, but no matter where they are they're always the same. They ask you the same old questions, and they usually have big bosoms, and when you try to explain how you sort of travel around to all the big cities like Hialeah and Belmont Park, and how Pop is a turf investment counsellor, and about him having so much trouble with the draft board, they look at each other and shake their heads and say, 'Oh, how terrible! And he's just a child.'
Well, these Welfare ladies at Aqueduct asked me where I go to school, why Mama went away and left Pop, and can I read and write, and so on. And when I told 'em, sure I could read fine, they brought in this book to try me out. And, say, that was really a swell book too, what I could dig out of it in the month I was with the Welfare. It was all about a kid named Jim Hawkins and a pirate with one leg named Long John Silver, and it was fun. I sure wish I could get hold of it again so I could find out how they ended up. Do you think there might be another copy of it around?
But to get back to the Welfare ladies, they just looked at each other when they saw how much trouble I was having with it, and said, 'Uh-huh, I thought so.'
And I was having trouble with it, sort of. It wasn't that there was any real tough words in it, but the man that put it together had a funny way of writing, spelling everything out the long way.
'Billy, you shouldn't have told us you can read,' the boss lady said. You can always tell which one is the boss, because it's odds-on she'll have a bigger bosom than the others. 'Didn't your father ever teach you that little boys should always tell the truth?'
'But, ma'am,' I says. 'I can read. It's just that this stuff is wrote so funny. There's too many letters in all the words.'
'That's ridiculous,' she says. 'How could there be too many letters in the words? Are you suggesting that Robert Louis Stevenson didn't know how to spell?'
'I don't know anything about this guy Stevenson,' I says, 'but I'm just trying to tell you this stuff is wrote funny and nobody could make it out. Look, I'll show you what I mean.'
I still had my baloney sandwich in my pocket because we'd just got to the track when the Pinkertons drafted Pop and I remembered it was wrapped in a sheet of yesterday's racing form. I hauled it out and took a bite of the baloney while I showed 'em,
'Now, here,' I says, pointing to it with my finger. 'Look at this. Barnyard Gate (M) 105* ch.g.3, by Barnaby—Gates Ajar, by Frangi-Pangi. Dec. 5, TrP, 6f, 1:13 sy, 17, 111* 11 15, 13, 89, Str'gf'l'wG AlwM, Wo'b'g'n 119, C'r'l'ss H's'y 112, Tr'c'le M'ff'n 114. You see? And now take a look at this workout. Fly 2 Aqu ½ ft: 48 3/5 bg. A morning-glory and a dog, and if you ever put ten cents on his nose even in a two thousand claimer you got rocks in your head. He's a front runner and a choker and even Arcaro couldn't rate him off the pace and he always dies at the eighth pole.'
They stopped me then, and there was hell to pay. They just wouldn't believe I was reading it. I told 'em it was all right there, as plain as the nose on their face, that Barnyard Gate was a three-year-old chestnut gelding and had never won a race, and that he was by Barnaby out of Gates Ajar, by Frangi-Pangi, and that the last time he'd run he'd gone off at about 17-to-1 in a six-furlong Maiden Allowance at Tropical Park on December 5th with George Stringfellow up and carrying 111 pounds with the apprentice allowance claimed. The track was sloppy and the winner's time was 1 minute and 13 seconds, and Barnyard Gate led at the start, at the half, and going into the stretch, and then had folded and come in eighth by nine lengths, and that the first three horses had been Woebegone, Careless Hussy, and Treacle Muffin. I told 'em they was the ones didn't know how to read, and they said, 'Well, I never!'
That did it. They said a boy that the only thing he could read was the racing form was a disgrace to the American way of life and they was going to court and have me taken away from Pop and put in a Home. I didn't like it, of course, but there wasn't anything I could do about it and I just had to wait for Pop to get out of the draft.
Well, they kept me at the Home for about a month, and they was real nice to me. They even let me have the Treasure Island book to read, and I got so worked up about it I couldn't lay it down. It was slow going at first, what with this guy's long-winded way of padding the words out, but after a while I worked out a kind of system that I'd squint my eyes and sort of weed out all the extra letters and I did a little better. I was half-way through it and getting more excited all the time when Pop come back from the draft. There was a sort of meeting, with some of the Welfare ladies and the superintendent of the Home and some strange men I didn't know, and they was all going at it hot and heavy, with Pop telling 'em how he was a turf investment counsellor by trade and there wasn't anything wrong with that, and who did they think they was, trying to take his boy away from him?
I was trying to sneak a few lines of the book, just in case they took it away from me, and I says to Pop, 'Do you know about this Long John Silver?'
'I never heard of him,' he says. 'Probably some dog running in claimers.'
Well, they jumped all over him then, and that's when he remembered about Uncle Sagamore's farm. We was going down there, he said; there wasn't nothing like wholesome farm life for a boy. And there's one thing about Pop, he's a talker. When he's selling the sheets he can talk the ear off a sucker. Clients, Pop calls 'em, I could see him beginning to get hold of this idea about Uncle Sagamore's farm, and he really started to warm up.
'Why,' he says, 'just think of all our great men that got their start on a farm, men like Lincoln and General Thomas E. Lee and Grover Whalen and William Wadsworth Hawthorne and Eddie Arcaro. Why, just think what it'll be like, with ducks to feed and eggs to gather, and watermelons, and cows to milk, and horses to ride—' Pop stopped there and kind of coughed a little and backed up.
'No. Come to think of it, there ain't a horse on the place. I remember now my brother Sagamore always said he wouldn't have one around if you give it to him. He's got mules galore, but no horses. He hates horses. Gentlemen, can you think of a more downright wholesome place for a growing boy than a farm like that?' Pop began to get tears in his eyes, just thinking how wholesome it was going to be.
Well, the way it turned out there was a lot more palaver but they finally agreed with Pop about the farm and said I could go. But they warned him if he ever got in any more trouble around New York they'd take me away for keeps. I thought this was kind of funny, because we'd never been in New York, but I didn't say anything.
We went back and got the car and trailer and started out, but we got mixed up in traffic and so turned around we didn't know where we was. Aqueduct is a lot bigger than Hialeah or Pimlico and it's got so many streets you could drive around in it until you starved to death and never find your way out. Pretty soon we was stalled in a traffic jam on a street that had a lot of big hotels with carpets and coloured canvas tents running out the front doors and across the sidewalk, and Pop yelled at a man standing under one of these tents. The man was dressed up in a fancy uniform with a lot of red and gold on it.
'What street is this?' Pop asks.
'Park Avenue,' the man says, kind of snooty.
'Well,' Pop asks him, 'how do you get over to Jersey?'
The man just stared at him and said, 'Who'd want to?' and then went on looking at his fingernails.
'That's the trouble with this goddam place,' Pop says to me. 'What do you want to go anywhere for? You're already here.'
Just then another man in a uniform with a monkey's hat on his head come out the door leading a dog on a leather strap. It was the longest dog I ever saw in my life, with real short legs, and his belly dragged when he come down the steps. The man with the red and gold uniform puffed up and got red in the face, but he took the leather strap anyway, and started down the street with the dog. But just then the dog give a big leap and jerked the strap out of his hand and ran out in the street in the middle of all the cars.
The uniform man followed him, squeezing his way through the cars and getting redder in the face all the time. 'Here, nice doggie,' he says. 'Here, Sig Freed. Nice Sig Freed. I'll kick your teeth in, you dumb sausage bastard.'
But Sig Freed turned and ran down the middle of the street towards us and the next thing I knew he was under our car. The traffic was beginning to move a little now and the people behind us was blowing their horns and calling Pop a knucklehead, and I was afraid Pop would start up with him under there, so I jumped out and crawled in after him. He grinned at me, and yawned, and licked me on the face. I gathered him up and got back in the car with him sitting on my lap, still laughing that cute dog laugh of his.
The uniform man come running up, dodging the cars, and his face was as red as his coat. 'Gimme that damn mutt,' he says, looking hard at Pop.
'Beat it, you poodle-dog walker,' Pop says, 'before I spit in your eye.'
'Give him here! I'll call a cop.'
The traffic was clear up ahead now. Pop held up a finger and says, 'That for you, Mac,' and we started off with a whoosh and just made the next traffic light before it turned red. We turned a corner pretty soon and the man never did catch up with us.
Sig Freed was tickled pink. He licked me on the ear and barked a couple of times, and then stuck his head out the window to grin at all the people along the sidewalk. 'Can I keep him, Pop?' I says. 'Can I?'
'How you going to feed him?' Pop says. 'A dog like that, from Park Avenue, he don't like nothing but mink and caviar.'
'I'll bet he'll eat regular bones, just like any dog.'
'I don't know,' Pop says, 'but how you going to keep him when we get to Hollywood Park?'
'Hollywood Park?' I says. 'Ain't we going to Uncle Sagamore's?'
He shook his head. 'Of course not. I just said that to them nosy old hens.'
That made me feel kind of sad, because I was all pepped up about living on the farm, but I didn't say anything. There ain't no use arguing with Pop. After a while we found a tunnel going under the river and when we come out Pop said we was in Jersey. I didn't say any more about Sig Freed, hoping he would forget he was there and not make me put him out, but every once in a while he would jump up and lick Pop on the face.
'Wet cuss, ain't he?' Pop says, just barely missing a big truck.
But he didn't say anything about making me put him out, and I could see he had something on his mind. He looked kind of worried, and he kept mumbling to hisself. After a while he pulled off the road and counted how much money we had.
'Is it very far from Aqueduct to Hollywood Park?' I asks him.
'It's quite a piece. Take us a week, anyway.'
That night we found a place to camp by a little creek and while he was frying the baloney I asks him, 'Pop, why can't we go to Uncle Sagamore's?'
'Well, for one thing, he may not be there. The last I heard he was about to be drafted.'
'Is he in the printing business too?'
'No,' Pop says. He opened a bottle of beer and sat down on a rock with his sandwich. 'You might say he's more in the manufacturing business.'
'Oh.' I give Sig Freed a piece of baloney. He flipped his head and throwed it, and then pounced on it like it was a mouse and gobbled it down.
'See, Pop,' I says, 'he eats baloney.'
'Well, that's nice of him,' Pop grunts. 'Democratic, ain't he?'
'Can we keep him, Pop?'
'We'll see,' he says. 'But don't bother me now. I got a problem.' He was looking worried again.
Sig Freed went over and started licking the frying pan. He liked the grease. It was dark now, and the fire was pretty under the trees. I got my blankets out of the trailer and unrolled 'em, and laid down with Sig Freed curled up beside me. I wanted to keep him awful bad. Pop opened another bottle of beer.
'Have we ever been to Hollywood Park?' I asks. We been to so many cities I kind of lose track sometimes.
Pop shook his head.
'Because you got to go across Texas to get there.'
'What's Texas, Pop?' I asks.
'What's Texas? Well, I'll tell you.' He lit a cigar and stretched his legs out. 'Texas is the biggest area without horse racing in the whole world, outside of the Pacific Ocean. I been wanting to go to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita for years, but I ain't never had enough money to get all the way across Texas at one jump, and that's the only way you can get across. One time, before you was born, I started out from Oaklawn Park. I got as far as Texarkana, and headed out into Texas real early in the morning before I could lose my nerve. But the more I thought about it the scareder I got, and in about fifty miles I got chicken and turned back. I ain't never tried it since.'
He looked at the fire and let out a long breath, kind of shaking his head. 'Maybe I'm getting a little old to try it now. A man's either got to be young and full of sass and vinegar and ready to tackle anything, or else he's got to have a lot of money. Texas ain't no place to fool around with. There ain't a race track in a thousand miles in any direction. A man was to run out of gas in the middle of it, he might have to go to work, or something like that. It just ain't safe.'
I could see it had him worried considerable. Every night when we'd camp he'd get out the road maps and measure off with little sticks and count the money we had left, and it always come out the same. We'd run out of gas at a place called Pyote, Texas, half-way between Fairgrounds and Hollywood Park.
'It ain't no use, dammit,' he says the last night. 'We just can't make her. We're going to wind up spank in the middle of Texas, sure as you're born. The only thing to do is hole up at Sagamore's till Fairgrounds opens next fall.'
I let out a yip and hugged Sig Freed and he give me his play growl and licked my ear. And that's how we come to go to Uncle Sagamore's.CHAPTER 2
It had been a long time since Pop had been to the farm, so after we turned off the paved road he had to stop and ask a man how to get there. There was a little house without any paint on it and a barn made out of logs on the other side of the road. The man was chasing a hog, and he stopped and took off his hat and mopped his face with a red handkerchief.
'Sagamore Noonan?' he says, looking at us kind of funny.
'Yeah,' Pop says.
'You mean you want to go to Sagamore Noonan's?' He couldn't seem to believe it.
'Is there anything wrong with that?' Pop asks, kind of mad. 'He's there, ain't he?'
'Why, I reckon so,' the man says. 'Leastwise, I ain't seen 'em bringing him out lately.'
'Well, how do we get there?'
'Well, you just sorta follow this road. The gravel kind of peters out after a while and it's mostly sand, but I reckon you can make her all right with that trailer. After you go over a long sandhill and start down in the bottom there's a pair of ruts leading off to the left through a war gate. From there it ain't over a quarter-mile, and you can smell it if'n the wind's right.' He mopped his face again. 'And if you meet any cars coming out, give 'em plenty of room because they'll likely be in a hurry.'
Excerpted from The Diamond Bikini by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1956 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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