Friday, April 30, 2010

The first Saturday in May.

Well, here we are, the first Saturday in May without my Dad. He was a lifelong horse racing fan, and Derby Day was a favorite. His enthusiasm was contagious, and we always found ourselves interested in the race. A particularly happy memory is of the time my mom and dad and Ilsa and the three New Canaan Keller kids and I visited Mecca: the OTB in Brewster on the afternoon of the race. No one won a dime, but we couldn't have had a better time.

There are two very fine versions of a short story in my dad's collection about the track; my good friend Geoffrey Nielsen wants to name a hedge fund "Two Dollar Winner" in honor of one of them. My father could have lived several alternative lives, and life as a down-and-outer at the track was one of them, as was the life of a sportswriter covering the races. When I was very young, he turned me on to Stephen Crist, then the New York Times racing writer. He was without peer, and reading his blog ( today, I was shocked to find it has been 20 years since he left the Times. I remember clearly talking to my father about it at the time.

Here's a piece he penned after last year's spectacular race. It's my dad at his best: short, sweet, to the point--a glance back in time, a shrug. What's the journalist's term for the last line of an article? Whatever it may be, my dad was a master.

I've included an audio bit of my dad reading this piece sometime this past year. The initial quality is a bit rough, but it improves greatly. I think I will likely listen to it a thousand times. And tomorrow, for sure, I'm going to OTB.

The First Saturday in May, by Traug Keller

The first Saturday in May has always been a red letter day for me and I make sure I carve out a spot to watch the Kentucky Derby in peace. This year’s Derby was no exception and I was rewarded by a masterpiece of a race won by a long shot hardscrabble horse named Mine that Bird, ridden by a hardscrabble jockey from Arkansas named Calvin Borel.

As always, the race produced some excellent writing and this year it was Joe Drape of the NEW YORK TIMES. Writing the overnight story Drape wrote:

“Sometimes this game brings you to tears. Sometimes it feels right to be wrong. And always it is better than O.K. when a man in a black cowboy hat and an almost-handlebar mustache, a Cajun jockey with more horse sense than book sense, and a scrawny $9,500 gelding sends tears streaming down your face.”

That caught it just right for the sentimentalists among us. For me, the Derby has always been more than just a horse race. It’s a memory trip back to good times and long, passionate discussions about horses and good writing.

I got into the newspaper and sports writing business because a friend of mine named Bill Braucher was writing horses at a small newspaper outside Cleveland. He was a fine writer and never better than when he was writing about the racing scene. His stuff had come to the attention of no less an icon than Red Smith, the great TIMES sports columnist, who promised him the racing beat in New York when Joe Nichols passed on or retired.

Well, Joe Nichols hung on forever and finally Bill grew tired of waiting and was offered a job with the MIAMI HERALD covering the Hialeah and Gulfstream tracks, which he did for a number of years. Later he was tapped to cover the Miami Dolphins when Don Shula was named coach. Bill and Shula had been classmates at John Carroll University. When the Dolphins won the NFL championship, Bill wrote a book about it called PROMISES TO KEEP. It was a good read and was written in Bill’s fine narrative hand. He later wrote a book called NO CHEERING IN THE PRESS BOX, which made pretty clear the distinction between objective reporting and being a cheerleader for your hometown interests. That would be a worthwhile read for the television people these days.

Bill’s father had been a sportswriter who had some drinking problems, injured himself and couldn’t travel with the teams. He then wrote for the NEA producing the copy for the cartoon, OUR BOARDING HOUSE, for many years. Bill had his own share of drinking problems, as did most of us who spent too much time in saloons. I was never able to get the racing beat at the CLEVELAND PRESS where I worked as a sportswriter. That job was held by a dapper little guy named Isi Newborn who picked up a measure of national prominence by picking Dark Star over Native Dancer to win the 1953 Derby at huge odds.

Bill died of cancer a couple of years ago and Isi is long gone.

I think of them both at Derby time each year.

Update: Ilsa and I took Harlan and cousin Henry to OTB. We bet 5 horses to win...including the winner!!!!! Net profits: $35, immediately spent on dinner and ice cream. Thanks, Pops, for guiding our picks.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Great Trip

There's my dad, a freshman in college, just a couple of years older than his age in the story he recounts below. I heard this story many times, and I'm sure my brothers did, too. Each retelling would focus on whatever element he hoped would convey the import of the lesson he was trying to pass along. My father never offered unsolicited advice--he believed in the power of anecdotal evidence. He also believed that while he often knew what was best for us, we'd ultimately have to figure it out for ourselves...which we sometimes do.

A Great Trip, by Traug Keller

It wasn’t much, but it was the best I could do on short notice, I’d told my wife Terry later.

The six of them were sitting around the dinner table after one of Terry’s great meals –the Kennedys and the Johnsons, and they got to talking about great trips they’d taken. Each one was better than the one before it. The Kennedys talked about their long-ago honeymoon cruise to the Greek Islands, the Johnson’s had a great story to tell about their Alaska cruise and his wife topped them all with her account of a solo trip she’d made recently to some Eastern European countries. She’d gone by herself, because I wasn’t doing much traveling these days because of some health problems and she was born with the traveling bug. Not that it bothered me, I’ve done enough traveling and there wasn’t any way I could keep up with the rigorous pace Terry sets on these trips. So I begged off.

But Tom Kennedy kept poking away and stressing the fact that it didn’t have to be recent, just the best ever. So I started in and as I told my wife later, I just got carried away as one thing led to another.

“Long time ago and nothing like your trips,” I said, “but I certainly do remember it well.”

“It was back in the late Forties, maybe even 1950. It was the summer before my junior year in high school. Farley Gallagher and I were hanging around Rosine McLaughlin’s house one warm evening. We were sitting on the front porch, trying to win Rosine’s favor, both of us no doubt, while we groused about not being able to find a job for the summer. The economy had slowed just a touch that year after the breakneck pace of the years right after the war.

We were probably talking a little loudly, each of us trying to look like the sharper go-getter in Rosine’s eyes, I guess. Then this fellow from next door pops onto the porch and Rosine introduces him as Mr. Carlson who owned a paint factory on the east side of town. He said he’d heard us talking about having trouble finding a job and he’d come over to see if we might like to work for him that summer mixing paint.

“Well, we’ve never mixed paint before but we’re quick learners,” Farley told him and I jumped in to let him know that we were both taking the Classical Course at the Jesuit high school and, hey, if you can learn Greek, you can learn to mix paint. I guess we impressed him with our credentials and we agreed that $1.50 an hour would be fine and arranged to meet him at his plant on E.55th St. the next morning at 7:30 to start mixing paint.

Oh boy. Did we mix paint! The way it worked was you would sit on a 50 gallon can of paint and pull another 50 gallon can in front of you, uncap the can, plunge your mixer in and start turning, 100 turns of the paddle per can to make sure each was thoroughly mixed . When you were finished you cleaned your paddle and pulled over another 50 gallon can. The cans were on an assembly line that looked like it went out the door and all the way across Lake Erie. We shared mixing duties with two other fellows from 55th St., neither of whom were studying Greek.

Farley and I lasted to the middle of August. Sitting across from each other mixing paint we’d cooked up a plan to take a driving trip after we’d accumulated enough money. Farley said his dad, who was a big deal doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, had agreed to let Farley use his Buick for the trip. He had another car, Farley told me. He even gave us some travel material about Maine and one of the things we learned was that if you hiked to the top of Mt. Cadillac you could be the first in the entire country to see the sun rise. Wow. We decided to do that.

We got side tracked the first day out in New Hampshire when we saw a sign for a State Fair. At the Fair we saw a tent with a barker in front urging passers by to see “the lovely Bonnie Ray in all her glory.” Farley said that meant she was naked and we ought to go in. The barker wouldn’t let us in, claiming we were too young so we waited till he got involved with someone and we snuck past him. Sure enough, there was a naked girl doing a dance on the stage. It stopped both of us cold. She was this incredible alabaster statue come to life, just the slightest sheen of perspiration on her skin. Blond hair just right. Neither Farley nor I could take our eyes off her. She did this exotic dance—at least this product of an all male Jesuit education and prudish parents—thought it was exotic and I know Farley did too, but he wouldn’t admit it because after all he was a Senior and I was only a Junior.

She finished, we stumbled out, the barker screamed at us, we ran for the car. We tore out of there. We’d have to step on it if we were going make it up Mt. Cadillac that night. We made one stop. Farley got us a six pack of Bud. He said we’d have to sleep out on the mountain that night and we’d need something. He also bought a box of animal crackers.

We found a road that took us half way up the mountain, parked the car and hiked. We both were wearing loafers and I was getting a little nervous about just having a polo shirt on. It was getting chilly. It took us a couple of hours to make it up to a clearing where there was a sign that said “Sunrise Lookout.” There was nobody else there. It was as dark as anything I’d ever seen. The wind had picked up and was making a racket in the trees. It felt like it was getting colder by the minute.

We didn’t have a blanket, of course, so we devised a plan to sleep sitting up with our backs against each other facing in different directions. We drank the beer. It was the first time I’d ever drunk any beer outside my home and it tasted good. All night we heard animals scuffling around. Farley said it was squirrels; I wasn’t so sure, given his track record so far. We didn’t sleep much but morning finally came; clouds covered the sky, horizon to horizon. No sunrise that we could see. We hiked back down to the car.

Farley and I kept going following our original plan of going down along the coast and spending a couple of days at Old Orchard Beach. We saw a lot of girls there and we drank some more beer. Somehow, though, we’d lost our edge. I never figured out why—was it the sight of that alabaster vision or the climb up Mt. Cadillac? I never have figured it out.

Last week I had an e-mail from my sister Barbara in Cleveland telling me that Farley Gallagher’s obituary was in the paper that day. He’d suffered a massive heart attack according to his wife Rosine. Barbara wanted me to know because she thought I’d remember him.

Nobody said anything after I finished, and the evening just kind of wound down.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Morning Drill

In cleaning up the garden this glorious and bizarre spring, we've come across many a tooth marked ball, all belonging to beloved Emma, of course. These warm early mornings are when I used to get my first glimpse of both my dad and Emma each day. Sometimes my dad and I would chat, sometimes I'd throw a few balls myself, sometimes, when my dad looked pensive and Emma was resting at his feet, I'd leave them alone. Here were my dad's thoughts from one such morning:

He wondered at the great stamina of the dog, especially since she was packing an extra 10 pounds or so on a small frame. Mornings, he’d take her out for her exercise before her breakfast. He’d sit in a garden chair and toss tennis balls--50 times up and down the incline she’d go.

He’d know when she was beginning to feel the effort when along about the 35th toss she would start detouring to the fishpond on her way back. She’d dip the ball in the pond to clean it off, while she caught her breath and then would come back to him looking for more. At the 50th toss, though, she was done for the day. She’d hold the ball in her mouth and stretch out in front of his chair, and he’d pet her and tell her what a great dog she was and how well she had performed her primary duty of chasing the tennis ball. If only everyone did their job so well the world would be a great place, he often thought.

Quiet then, and invariably he would look out across the gardens and down to where the metasequoia stands. It is his favorite tree, shaped like a pyramid with needles that fall like leaves in the fall with a shimmering gold tint to them. In the short span of six or seven years it had grown to a height of 35 to 40 feet. Not huge yet, but it would get there, said Joe, his son who had planted it and who managed this place called the Garden of Ideas.

The tree was just one of the horticultural delights in the gardens, but it was the one most in his sights and the thing that triggered his morning speculations. Considering it on most mornings never failed to jump start his thinking about everything from the grandkids to the state of the country’s affairs, He worried a lot these days about the war in Iraq, about India’s and China’s growing powers, about the state of the environment and the president’s cavalier attitude toward greenhouse gases. He worried about Iran and our new policy of pre-emptive war. He worried about Africa and Aids and problems in Nigeria.

He nearly always worried about the country’s fiscal health. He could barely breathe when he thought about the calamitous path we were going down, piling on enormous debt in order to pay for a disastrous war while at the same time working to extend the tax cuts for the country’s richest citizens. He worried about the Democracy, which had suddenly grown fragile to him. He didn’t worry on his own account; the runway for him and his wife was short enough that the chickens wouldn’t land in his living room. But the grandkids, they’d be sleeping with those chickens. He’d bet on that. Still, his oldest grandson, at 15 a whiz on the internet game circuit, hadn’t appeared to be concerned during his last visit and had even told him that he worried too much.

The dog was growing impatient and began nipping at his shoes, prodding him to get upstairs and dish out the Purina. He picked up the ball and tossed it down the hill. She looked at him disdainfully and he was sure he heard her say, “I don’t do 51.”

Right, he thought, and went upstairs.