Posts Tagged parents
I remember the day my father asked me to become a partner in the stable. He was sitting behind his desk in the temporary office space we rented then, dressed in a camel colored sport coat and checkered cotton sport shirt. He looked straight at me with his bright, keen eyes and proceeded to make an offer that took me back to my secret weekend excursions in high school with my best friend, Danny. We were seventeen, a year too young to pass through the gates of any gambling establishment. That didn’t stop us. Danny and I were tall enough to look the part. On Saturdays, we drove to the “flats” at Monmouth Park on the Jersey shore and the “trotters” at Roosevelt Field in Long Island at night. We would bet two dollars a race and have the time of our lives.
My father, B. Morton Gittlin, was an unpredictable genius. At sixty-one, after selling a wallpaper manufacturing and distribution business he had built from a small company into a national market leader, he began purchasing thoroughbred horses. Completely in character, he shocked me with his offer to become a partner in a racing partnership he intended to name “Three G Stable,” assuming I agreed to become the third “G.”
I never suspected my father had an interest in thoroughbred racing. We used to play a lot of golf together on the weekends when I was growing up. I cannot fathom how or when he found the time to sneak away to the track with my mother. He certainly would never have gone to the racetrack during the week. He was too disciplined and focused on building businesses into powerhouse companies to fritter away time during working hours. I imagine he didn’t share his secret passion for the horses with me when I was a minor because it involved gambling.
My own secret interest in the horses took a long break after high school. Danny, my dear friend and co-conspirator, attended a different college than I and we grew apart. I was eager to move on with my life and put childish interests behind me. Thirty years flew by filled with adult activities—marriage, a family, and a career in marketing next to my father in the family business.
I accepted Morton’s offer to join Three G Stable as a full partner. It was an entity created out of my father’s love for us as well as his love for the sport of kings. The stable gave us something to keep us together and have fun with after we sold the wallpaper business.
There is nothing more exciting than seeing a horse you own pounding down the stretch in the lead. My parents and I were fortunate to experience the exhilarating feeling of victory often in the twenty years the Three G Stable was in operation. We owned and enjoyed a number of remarkable, stakes-winning horses. One of them reminded me of my father. His name was “Storm Predictions.”
We acquired Storm Predictions by claiming him out of a race as a two-year old. Many of the more experienced owners and trainers at Calder Race Course laughed behind my father’s back for claiming Storm Predictions. Although the young horse was winning races, it was common knowledge he had some problems. The breeder couldn’t sell “Stormy” at the two-year-old-in training auctions because he had what the veterinarians called “sawdust,” or bone particles in one knee. This is an ominous condition for most horses, indicating a tendency towards bone and joint injuries. My father didn’t care. He saw in Storm Predictions the rare courage and talent of a potential champion. The other owners and trainers saw a horse with a limited future.
As a three-year old, Storm Predictions won the Palm Beach Stakes on the grass at Gulfstream Park competing against the best horses on the East Coast. Then, our gutsy gelding won the Inaugural Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby, a race for three-year olds on the Kentucky Derby trail. Ridden by an unheralded journeyman jockey, Storm Predictions won with a flourish of speed at the top of the stretch, upsetting the heavy favorite in the race.
As a four-year old, “Stormy” won the Americana Handicap on the turf at Calder, as well as a number of “overnight” stakes and allowance races. The gelding banked close to $400,000 in purse money during his racing career. The horse cracked bones in his shins and suffered from joint aches and muscle pains of all sorts. Nothing stopped him. We just gave him long rests when necessary. Storm Predictions always came back running hard and winning. We gave Storm Predictions away to a caring farm owner when his racing days were over. The gelding lived a long and useful life after his years at the track as a pleasure riding horse.
My father, like Storm Predictions, was no stranger to adversity. After clearing the inevitable hurdles of a successful business career, he endured many physical setbacks in retirement, including a hip replacement, throat cancer, and emphysema. Nothing stopped him. He just kept enthusiastically pursuing his interests and enjoying life to the fullest, until the effects of exposure to asbestos as a boy caught up with him at age eighty-three. Even then, he didn’t want to give up. On the last day of his life, lying in a hospital bed, his body whittled down to skin and bone by Mesothelioma, my father threw off his covers and announced he intended to walk to the bathroom unattended. We practically had to hold Morton down to spare him further pain and embarrassment.
I still dream of my father and the horses. We call him “Morton” now, instead of Dad, or Pop, or my husband, or my father-in-law. We call him by name because he was such a unique individual. Anyone who knew my father well knows what I’m talking about. Morton has been gone five years now, and I miss him terribly. We sold all of our horses and disbanded the stable shortly before my father’s death. The world of thoroughbred racing, like my father, has moved on. Hialeah Park, once a haven for fabulous Flamingos and the finest thoroughbred racing in the East during the winter, is now a relic that hosts a brief quarter horse meeting. Gulfstream Park, another south Florida track, was razed and rebuilt into an enormous shopping center and gambling parlor. Gone are the fan friendly grounds where patrons spent the day with family members in a country fair atmosphere.
I remember taking my five-year old daughter to the petting zoo and putting her on the backs of Shetland ponies for rides at the old park. The spacious, open-air grandstands and box seats where fans used to bet, eat, drink, and watch the races all day long, are now an unfriendly complex of cramped, concrete buildings.
Thankfully, I still have my memories. I remember Morton and the horses. I remember the chain of love known as Three G Stable that linked me together with my parents, wife, and young daughter, in those glorious, fun-filled days gone by.
I heard his footsteps enter the kitchen. I sat at the breakfast table, afraid to glimpse the advancing Bengal tiger, my father.
I didn’t have the stomach to gaze into his piercing green eyes. My mind saw those eyes jumping from the bushy, long hair straggling down the back of my neck, to the rumpled, black T-shirt I had pulled on shortly after stumbling out of bed. Those X-Ray lamps of his would finally come to rest on the doodles and paint droppings on the blue jeans I had worn for most of the past year in art school.
The footsteps halted. I imagined the Bengal tiger crouching on all fours, sizing up its prey. Minutes passed. The silence became unbearable. There was nowhere to run. The tiger had me cornered. I turned in my seat, almost like a revolving door. I held my breath as well as the awkward position.
My father leaned on the kitchen counter dressed in a navy, pinstripe suit accented by a red silk tie and powder blue business shirt. His eyes focused not on me, but on his perfectly manicured nails, like a high-priced trial attorney adopting a nonchalant pose before tearing into a hostile witness. He looked up at me suddenly.
His eyes always darted back and forth when he was angry. My father’s gaze was rock steady on this day. I did not perceive him to be calm, however. His slack posture spoke to me of something else, something entirely new, and horribly unexpected. My legs grew numb, perhaps from the ridiculous position I sat frozen in.
“Please say something,” I managed to blurt out.
His face held no expression now, as if a gremlin somewhere inside his body had flipped off an electrical switch.
“When you finish art school,” he said, “my responsibility for you will be finished. You’ll be on your own. If you end up nowheresville, it will be your unhappiness, not mine.”
My father continued to regard me with that terrible, neutral expression. His keen eyes bore into mine. I was certain he could hear my heart beating double-time inside my chest.
“I have to go to work now,” he said, and marched with a purposeful stride out of the room.
I turned and stared vacantly out the kitchen window into the back yard. I saw myself as a teenager, smashing golf wiffle-balls across the lawn for hours with the rusty seven-iron my father had given me from an old set. I blinked. The memory vanished.
It took a full five minutes to convince my legs to lift me up from the table.
In the next few days, I realized my father had done me a favor by bluntly pointing out what the consequences of my actions were apt to be, at least as far as my relationship with him was concerned.
His words shed a cold, clear light on my attempted escape from the pain of growing from a boy into a man. This recollection may have made my father seem cruel, but he was never an unkind man. Perhaps he could have “gilded the lily” more in his advice to me while growing up, but not on this occasion. He did not speak to me with malice or hurtful intent. He spoke honestly and with deep concern, and his words altered my future indelibly for the better.