The Influence of My Father on My Son

Horse racing brings out a father's folly

We took hands again; we bear-killers, we liars, we slunk out of the house and sat down on the front steps, he at one side, I at the other, and we were silent a long time. I was wondering what was going on in the boy’s head. At last he spoke.

‘Daddy.’

‘Yes, Pete.’

‘Daddy, Pete and Papa are not wonderful.’

‘No?’

‘No. Mama is wonderful. Pete and Papa are absurd.’

Well, I took that. We got up, hand in hand; we walked about a bit in the garden till we were called to luncheon. Seated at table, I wanted to break the strain, so I said: ‘Come on, Pete, let’s say it,’ and, with his grandfather’s twinkle of the eye, he joined me in saying: ‘Pete and Papa are wonderful,’ and so forth.

He knew. You don’t have to be careful with children, unless you have taken a pose and have to remember to keep it up; and even then

My father made with me one serious mistake which I see parents about me making. He got himself somehow into the awkward position of an authority; I thought he knew and was right on everything - for a while. He did not pretend to righteousness or omniscience. He seemed to me as a boy to be fair, and he seems to me now, as a man, to have been either very modest or well aware of the danger there is of exposure for a father who has been idealized. Just the same, he was idealized. I suppose that he did what I see these other parents do; he probably answered impatiently and, therefore, thoughtlessly and positively the prattling questions of my early childhood, of that impressionable period of the first seven years. Anyway, when I became conscious and my father took me and my problems seriously, he was already my household god. And then—and then—

Among the many places out in the world to, which I rode off alone on the pony he had given me was the State Fair grounds. Happening. to turn in there of a spring morning, I saw some jockeys exercising a string of race horses. I joined them; they objected at first to the kid, but one of them - a colored boy named Smoke -said I could stay, and by and by I was accepted. The trainers found a use for me: to ride bareback their trotting horses. I decided to become a jockey. My mother discovered the secret first. I did not eat - not regularly. I would fast for a day or two, then break down and gobble. She complained, scolded, questioned. Mothers are awful. My father saved me. He bade her leave me alone and he observed me for a day or two, then he took me aside and asked me quietly, ‘What is all this fasting for?’ He was so ‘nice and easy’ about it that I told him all about me and the jockeys and the trainers; and how they said that ‘if I kept my weight down I might be a winner.’

My father sat reflecting a long time, his way, before he answered, and his speech showed that he accepted my career on the turf absolutely. He began by advising me about fasting. I was n’t to do it as I had been doing it: going without food, then eating too much. A better way was to eat moderately, choosing foods that I did not like and usually avoided, like vegetables, for instance, and holding to what he called my ‘diet.’ He talked about horses and horse racing, which he named the king of sports and the sport of kings. What struck me was that he knew all about the turf, as he knew all about everything. Also he spoke to my mother, so that she entered into the game - not enthusiastically; she made faces and tended to utter protests, but my daddy ‘minded’ them. He stopped her with that immortal wave of the hand which I see his grandson wave.

So I went on as a jockey apprentice to learn all about horses, racing, and riding, till the spring meets. We knew the horses entered for those races, which were good, which were best, and we had our favorites. Smoke had one in his stable that could beat anything in sight. Smoke loved, we all respected, I adored that horse, and when he ran, sure to win, he lost. Smoke ‘pulled’ him. I saw it from my perch under the wire. I saw the horse fight for the bit with Smoke, who fought back. I saw it all, and I learned that horse racing wasn’t on the level, that some races were ‘fixed’ to catch the ‘suckers’ and give the racing men and jockeys a chance to make some money. Smoke blamed the suckers-‘they spoil everything.’ I blamed and I hated the suckers who spoiled everything.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In