A Day at the Track, From the Archives

D. E. Larsen

The late afternoon sky looked very threatening. The clouds were black and bellowing up to great heights. The Company G CQ was having difficulty getting the company to line up. Nobody was looking forward to marching to our night classes in the rain. Just about the time he was on his elevated stand and called the company to attention there was a large ‘Crack’ as a bolt of lightening struck a telephone pole in the middle of the company street. The corporal hollered “Dismissed” after half the company was back in the barracks. We would be a little late for class tonight. I had never seen lightning like this. Massachusetts was a strange land for a farm boy from Oregon. Maybe now, I could understand how Ben Franklin was interested in his electricity experiments. 

As the sky cleared our class started off on the mile long march to school. We were in class for the Army Security Agency at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Tonight was to be the end of the first section of the course of study. Tonight the class would divide, some going into tactical equipment and the rest of us into strategic equipment.  Next week we would move to the secure compound for the remainder of our training on classified equipment.

At the end of the evening the instructor came up to me and gave me a 3 day pass. I had earned this for finishing at the top of the class in the first section. This was the weekend before payday, I tried to get it changed to the following weekend when I would have more money in my pocket but no deal, this is how the program is set up.

So Friday morning I took my pass and walked to the bus depot in Ayer. It was nearly 3 miles but I was in great shape. My funds were very limited. I purchased a round trip bus ticket so I would at least be able to get home. The Friday morning bus was mostly empty, very different from the chaos of the Saturday morning bus rides. I sat in the back and stretched my legs out. I would have to walk again when I got to Boston. I planned to stay at the YMCA; you could get a room for $5.00.

The weather in Boston was great. Still enough of Spring remained that there were blossoms on many of the trees in the commons. The streets were not busy in the mid morning so my walk was an enjoyable one. My mood changed when I got to the YMCA. 

“There are no rooms available tonight. I can reserve you a room for tomorrow night but for tonight I can only offer you a cot on the gym floor. The cot comes with use of the gym shower. It will be a full gym tonight. We generally have a couple hundred sailors sleeping here on Friday night. The fee is $1.50 for the cot and $5.00 for the room,” the clerk said in a manner suggesting that he repeated the speech many times during the day.

I paid the $6.50 and looked at my wallet. It was a good thing that I had eaten a large breakfast at the mess hall this morning because I could skip lunch today. Dinner tonight and Saturday night, maybe a beer or two and a couple other meals, it was looking pretty thin. I would probably be riding the subway or spending time in the USO for the only entertainment I could afford.

My Friday was just about that, I purchased a handful of subway tokens and then walked as far as I could down the Commons. The USO was not far from the Commons. Friday noon and I was about the only one there. There were a few donuts and some crackers available. I ate a couple of donuts and filled a pocket with the crackers and headed for the elevated subway stop.

There were two sailors waiting for the subway. They were in the same boat I was in. Payday came the first of the month, and for an E-3 that meant $110.00. By the last weekend, there was generally not much available. We boarded the subway together. These guys were typical sailors, thinking they had the best deal the military had to offer.

“What do you guys do?” I asked, as the subway pulled out heading toward Harvard. 

“We are on our last liberty before going to the Bahamas for a shake down cruise. Once there, the Captain says we get liberty every night for two weeks,” the talkative one answered.

“Shake down cruise? That sounds like you are getting ready for a big trip or something,” I said.

“Yes, we are on an ice breaker. We are heading for the Arctic Ocean and will be there for 6 months,” the sailor stated.

“By the end of 6 months, 2 weeks of liberty will be a distant memory,” I said.

They were a little quiet after that and exited on the next stop. I rode the subway to the end of the line, got off and caught the first car heading back to Boston. I had a few dollars to spend on a hamburger and maybe a beer in the Combat Zone. Won’t be much of Friday night on my budget.

The Combat Zone seemed more hype than anything, just a bunch of drunken sailors getting ripped off. It didn’t occur to me that this was going to be the same bunch that I would be sharing the gym floor with in a couple of short hours. I entered a bar and stood up to the bar. The barmaid was prompt, checked my ID and wanted to know what I wanted.  

“How much for a beer?” I asked.

“You have to buy two,” she said. “Two beers cost $6.00.”

That was too rich for my wallet. I went across the street and had a cheap hamburger for dinner. From the restaurant window I could do a little people watching. Sort of felt sorry for the sailors.

I walked back to the YMCA. It was across the street from the Boston Gardens. I had not noticed that on my first trip there. I was not impressed, it did not look like it did in all the pictures. It was sort of dark and dingy. 

There were cots set up covering most of the gym floor. I picked up my blanket, pillow and sheets from the janitor manning the storeroom.

He was correct on every count. I picked a cot in the middle of the room and I could hear guys coming in all night long. The good thing was I was one of the first in the shower. I got my change of clothes from my bag and decided to leave the bag in the locker until I could get into my room. I made a short walk to a little restaurant I had noticed last night. It would cost a couple bucks more than the YMCA breakfast but I had just about had enough of the sailors.

My Saturday was not much different from Friday. I rode the subway, walked the Commons and dropped by the USO. The USO had some sandwiches on Saturday and it was packed with sailors. I headed back to the YMCA in the afternoon and checked into my room. Not much, but private and quiet. I took a little nap. I would have to find a place for dinner and beer when I woke up.

On Sunday morning I ate breakfast at the same little restaurant and bought a Sunday newspaper to read. Maybe I could figure out something to do. After breakfast I sat on a park bench with a bunch of old men.  One guy was watching me pretty close. As I read the paper an ad jumped out at me. Suffolk Downs was racing horses today. That was great, I thought, as I counted my assets.

I had my bus ticket home, two subway tokens and $2.50 cents. Not much to go to the races on, but that is what I am going to do. As I stood up, the old man raised a hand to me.

“If you are done with that paper, can I have it?’ he asked.

I tossed him the paper and headed for the subway. I knew nothing about horse racing but I knew animals and I would think I could pick a good horse once in a while.

The subway on the way to the track was packed. I stood the whole way. The subway car was filled a quite a group of characters, but at least, not a single sailor among them. When we came to the stop at the track the whole group poured out of the car like a small army with a mission. I followed the group to the gate. Admission was 50 cents, I had not figured that into my budget. Now I was down to  $2.00 in my pocket, one subway token and a bus ticket home.  This might be a short adventure.

I scoped everything out, they were just bringing the horses into the paddock for the first race. I went down and watched them close, picked my horse and headed to the $2.00 show window.  There was my last $2.00 gone. I went out and watched the race. My horse won. I went to the window and collected $5.40. That was easy, I thought.

The next 4 races were the same.  I watched the horses in the paddock, picked my horse and bet $2.00 for him to show. In each race my horse won. By now I was not rich but I had nearly $30.00 in my pocket. I went and bought a hot dog and a beer and headed over to the paddock for the 6th race. Confident now that I was a master at picking winning horses, it was time to change strategy a little. 

In the paddock was the best horse I had seen today.  A big black horse with long legs, he stood a good 2 hands above the other horses. Without any hesitation I went to the $10.00 window and bet him to win.  I was going be rich after this race.

This horse took off and my horse left the field in his dust. On the back stretch he was probably leading by 20 lengths. I was excited, counting my money now. He came around the last corner and his legs began to flail. He acted like he was having trouble staying on his feet. His lead evaporated as first one horse and then another passed him like he was standing still. Finally the race was over. He did get across the finish line, dead last, so much for my new strategy.

For the remaining 5 races that day, I returned to my $2.00 bet to show. Each of the next 5 horses I picked won. This day at the races, I picked 10 out of 11 winners. I left the track with $78.00, almost a small fortune for a GI in training. I was very content on the bus ride back to Ayer. It was dark when I arrived. Unlike Friday, there was a large group of guys getting off the bus and heading for the base. There was even a bus to waiting to take us to the base.

Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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