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Life Begins at Seventy-Seven
At about seven o'clock, when the dusk had changed the color of the hills and lake to gray flannel, the mosquitoes at Fitzsimmonsville, New York, which is a summer colony outside of Saratoga Springs, began to come out and eat Irish for dinner. Somebody turned on an automatic spraying system which pumps an insecticide smoke out of pipes on each of the six houses. When it began, everybody started to tell the great-grandfather, Mr. James E. Fitzsimmons, age eighty-seven, that he'd better walk down the hill to the lake so that the fumes wouldn't get a chance to clog his windpipe, which even he concedes is just a little bit odd.
It was nothing more than an extra precaution. The smoke had no smell to it at all; two martinis on somebody's breath would have been far more powerful. But the old man still made his way down the hill, a handkerchief in his hand to cover the outside chance this smoke business one of the family's engineers had devised would start him coughing.
One of the children playing on the hill saw him walking away. She promptly put a hand over her mouth, made herself cough and then flew down the hill. The one playing with her did the same and so did the others and now the hill was a tangle of barefeet in T-shirts and all of them had a hand over the mouth and kept forcing coughs.
"They see me," the old man said, "and they all start coughing. They didn't even know the spray was on. They just like to do it because I do it."
There were probably twenty-five kids running from the smoke. It was impossible to get an actual count because they moved around so fast.
"Do you know them all by name?" the old man was asked.
"Oh, this isn't even all of them," he said. "There's more around someplace. I guess I could try to pick them out here for you, but I stopped doin' that a long time ago. I always get them mixed up and then the mothers start squawking because I don't know their children. So I just say hello and pat them on the head."
The old man got down to the edge of the lake and stood there as the children ran around him. A group of older ones came down and got into the two motorboats which were tied to the dock. Up in one of the houses on the hill, the teen-age girls were in the kitchen, running up a phone bill with long-distance calls to a disk jockey in Albany who announces your name when he plays a request. There were also something like twenty- two adults getting dressed for a formal dinner. And three or four others, including the old man, were going to stay behind and baby-sit.
Earlier in the day, most of them had gone to the railroad station to say hello to granddaughter Eadith, who is a Sister of St. Joseph and was passing through on the afternoon train to Plattsburgh.
So many of the family had clustered on the platform in front of the one car that the old New York Central conductor said to a trainman with him, "I guess it's some sort of a celebrity they're here for. I'll take a walk down and make sure everything's all right. Maybe we can give 'em an extra minute for autographs and make it up somewhere along the line."
"It's no celebrity," a fellow working at the station told him. "It's a nun. Her family came to see her."
The conductor walked down to the car and held the train until everybody had a chance to say goodbye to Sister Anella, as she now is called.
"That's some family you've got," he said to one of the girls on the platform.
"Oh, we have a lot more than this," she told him.
Which they certainly do. There are, simply, an awful lot of Fitzsimmonses. And next year, Irish Roman Catholic couples being as they are, there will be even more of them.
And now, the old man who started the whole thing off, was standing by the lake and talking about how he was going to baby-sit later on.
"I'm the back-up man," he said. "Something happens to Eddie up there, I take over. Oh, I'll know what to do. I remember there was a fella back in Brooklyn, Brennan his name was, he was a corker at it. He used to get the kids, he had six of 'em, and he'd sit them in a circle around a big potbellied stove in the living room. Then he'd open up a bottle of beer and pass it around to them. He'd come back a half hour later and all he'd have to do is reach down, pick them up and carry them in to bed. They'd all be out like lights on the floor."
He stood there and watched the water and talked about baby-sitting until the insect smoke was turned off and he could go back up to one of the houses and sit down.
This is as good a place as any to begin picking up the story of James E. Fitzsimmons. He is a trainer of race horses who is called Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the newspapers, but Mr. Fitz by those who know him, and he is one of the biggest successes the sports world has ever had. He has been in horse racing since he was eleven and he has been a part of some days in sports history that most people, even if they have never seen a horse race, know something about. But the story of Mr. Fitz really isn't about horse racing. If it were, we would get down to bedrock right about here and go into such matters as three-horse parlays and a bibliography of reasonable excuses for any milkman with a bill. The horse racing is just a backdrop here because this is about a unique human being who even now, at eighty-seven, is up at five in the morning, six days a week, to start another day in the game of life that he has beaten in a way that few ever have.
There are a lot of things about Mr. Fitz. He is old and bent over, but he is active and smart and talented and his thinking consists of today and tomorrow and next week and never yesterday. He is a great success at his business, but he is an even bigger winner as a human being, which is something you do not find often. Too many times, when you start telling about somebody who is revered and has made it big, his wife or his children come around and they tell you enough to make you drop the whole project.
Mr. Fitz has been around for a long time: Sheepshead Bay in the 1880s, Churchill Downs in the 1930s, or Belmont Park and Aqueduct in 1961. But if you were to stand at a bar and spend an afternoon talking to people about him, you would have to start by saying that for the Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons who is around today, a new life began at seventy-seven.
It started about 1946 when Mrs. James E. Fitzsimmons, sitting at home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, decided to get a little puckish about life. She made up her mind that she was old and she would like a little service. For sixty-one years of her married life she had done everything from selling the living-room furniture to having children practically unaided. Now that her husband had become a famous sports figure—or at least the newspapers said he was famous—and the children were married, she thought it was about time somebody made a fuss over her.
First there were the newspapers. Jennie Fitzsimmons had been a front-page to back-page reader of newspapers all her life, but now she would sit in the living room and hold the paper close to her face and then throw it down and tell everybody, I'm getting too old to read. I can't see the print any more. I'm just too old."
Then there was her Holy Communion on the first Friday of the month. Mrs. Fitzsimmons always went to Mass on these Fridays and received Communion, in addition to Sundays and Holy Days. During all her years in Sheepshead Bay, she would make it to St. Mark's, five blocks away, through any sort of weather. There were certain things in life you could count on and one of them was Mrs. Fitzsimmons making it to St. Mark's. But now it was different. She informed Father Edward Lahey that she was just too old and too tired to make it down to St. Mark's on first Fridays and would he please come to her house and give Communion, as parish priests do for all who are physically unable to come out. Of course, Father Lahey said he'd be around.
There were other things like this. And when they were put together they would have worried those around her, except for certain things that happened. One Friday, for example, her family noticed that Mrs. Fitz, who had been sitting in the living room downstairs, jumped up and ran to her bedroom as Father Lahey came up the front walk to give Communion to his shut-in. After this, the family clocked her in track record time for the distance on several of these sprints.
Grandson Jimmy also became a bit skeptical during on of his weekly drives with her. Every Thursday afternoon, from the time Jimmy was old enough to drive, he and his grandmother got in the car and went someplace—upstate New York, out on Long Island; anyplace they felt like. They'd eat dinner, then come home. On one of these drives, following a round of complaints about her eyes and general failing health, Mrs. Fitzsimmons was sitting next to Jimmy as they were driving through upstate on the way back to Brooklyn.
A good distance away, far enough to make an eye doctor squint, a stately house sat on the top of one of those rolling hills which edge out from either bank of the Hudson River.
"That's a pretty house," Jimmy said. "Must be a beautiful view from inside it."
"Oh yes, it is," his grandmother agreed. "And they have a lovely window arrangement. See it? Four right in a row across the top and then two together on each side of the door. They must have a lovely view from the living room and top bedroom."
Her grandson could not make out the windows if his life hinged on it. Neither could nine out of ten people. So her old age and infirmities turned into one of those little games people always like to play with one another and nobody had much to worry about.
By the spring of 1951, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was approaching his seventy-seventh birthday and people were calling him ancient. He had lived a full life, and now it was becoming serene. He was at the barn each morning with the hay and ammonia smell opening his eyes and flaring his nostrils as it always had, and then he would train his horses, have something to eat, take a nap and wake up for the afternoon's racing. There was almost no change. You could spend a day with him, then come back six months later and it still would be the same. He would be walking around the stable area, bent almost in half over an aluminum crutch under his right arm. Arthritis has his back bowed and hardened so that he looks like a man carrying a beer keg on his back. He would keep looking up to see ahead of him and he would snap orders to stablehands taking care of the 45 valuable thoroughbreds under his command. Then in the afternoon he would sit at his favorite spot along the rail and watch his horses run and win or lose he would not get excited. He was in the big money; as big as there is in sports. It was a life he had earned by spending years scratching for meal money.
It was a good life for Mr. Fitz. Every day of it. And on June 21, 1951, it all started to fall apart. The day didn't seem to be a bad one. It was a soft spring morning at Aqueduct, the horses were on the track and Mr. Fitz was along the rail watching them. The phone rang in the cottage and a boy yelled out that it was for Mr. Fitz. He walked to the cottage, grumbling about being bothered when he was in the middle of his work. He picked up the phone.
"Yes," he said.
A man's voice on the other end said he was a policeman and that he had just been called in because of a death in the house and he wasn't sure of who was who in the family but he did know that Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the horse trainer—well, his wife had just died and he had been told to call somebody at the stable here and tell them.
It was as simple as that. When Mr. Fitz got home there was a police car and an ambulance in front of the house and inside there was a doctor who was saying, in the gentle tones they always use at such times, that it had been very quick; a heart attack; no pain; just one of those things that happens very quickly ... at her age, you know. Jennie Fitzsimmons, Mr. Fitz's brick, was dead in her room upstairs. There was nothing to do but call the undertaker.
William Woodward, the New York banker whose horses Mr. Fitz had trained for over a quarter century, died during this period, too. Woodward had become a friend of Mr. Fitz's; the anything-goes kind of friend that you can only have after years of close association. Then George (Fish) Tappen, who had grown up with Mr. Fitz, died. Fish had been a part of Mr. Fitz's racing life for all but one or two years of his career. And the Bradys, who for twenty years kept house for Mr. Fitz, also died. Oh, maybe there was six months before Woodward went and another six months or so might have passed before Tappen and the Bradys went. But to Mr. Fitz it seemed like everything had turned into a dark blue suit and the smell of flowers they put around a casket, and the life he had worked for so hard was disappearing around him.
People who live to be very old always say it is the easiest thing in the world to let go when your friends are going. And once you let go and lose interest in what is going on, it doesn't take long for the end to come.
This seemed to some to be what was happening with Mr. Fitz. Or maybe they just thought it was happening because they were looking for it. Anyhow, he seemed to be thinking more about the past than the present or future, and this wasn't like his usual self.
Then some claimed it started to show in the horses. They pointed to the winnings being off. But who could be sure of the reason? There are an awful lot of ifs and buts and maybes in this game.
One thing you can say for sure. Circumstances had changed, too. When William Woodward, Sr., died in 1952 his son Bill took over the stable. Through most of his life, the young Woodward had been around the horses only sparingly. Now he became interested in them and after spending a few days at the stable, then watching horses run in races, he was getting the feeling a man always gets when he is around good horses. Mr. Fitz thought he was a fine boy. But Mr. Fitz was seventy-seven and he had had twenty-seven years of working with a man he had come to think of as a friend and now he had to start all over again with somebody else. It was not easy.
Then something really did happen, and it made all the difference. On his last trip to Belair Stud with Woodward, Sr., Mr. Fitz had looked over the crop of weanlings, leggy little things with almost no bodies to them at all, and Woodward pointed to one of them and said that if everything went well this was a horse he wanted to send to the races in England.
"He is by Nasrullah out of Segula," Woodward said. "I like the breeding."
"He looks fine," Mr. Fitz said.
The next year Woodward was dead, his son was in charge and all of the racing was to be in America. One bright afternoon in the early fall, the young Woodward and Mr. Fitz were in a car which turned into the gravel driveway, bordered by fieldstone fence, of Belair Stud Farm. They were going to look at the yearlings which were about to be broken for racing and the weanlings which still had a year to go before this could be done.
At one enclosure, Woodward and Mr. Fitz got out and walked to the fence rail to look at a group of horses—mares, each with a weanling. When you are at a horse farm and you stand at a rail like this, you rap on the wood to make a noise and then one by one the mares and their yearlings lope toward you. If the weanling gets too close to these strangers at the fence, the mare sticks her head between the weanling and the fence and pushes her offspring away from the strangers he is too small to deal with. Now and then one of the weanlings will dart away from a mare, move as fast as he can in one jumble of long legs, then stop, flick the hind legs up in a little kick, wheel again, get the jumble of legs going, then dart back and put his head under the mare's stomach for a coffee break. You can watch them running around like this for hours.
If Sunny Jim needed a lift at this time in his life, it might well come from these fenced-in fields of soft dirt and deep grass with young horses running in them. Through all of his years, he had taken care of horses, good ones and bad ones, sound ones and ones with injuries nobody else wanted to bother with, and they had shaped his life. Maybe what he needed now, without even knowing it, was to have a big one going for him. The kind of horse that can put that little extra bit of excitement inside you. What was needed, simply was a horse that could make it a fair test between Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and the calendar. The horse was in the next field.
Excerpted from Sunny Jim by Jimmy Breslin. Copyright © 1962 Jimmy Breslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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