(Miss Jacqueline, the bay on the outside, pops out of the starting gate and sets sail for her work / Photo by Gene McLean)
I can still remember going to stay at my grandparents house in Woodlake, KY. You know it’s country when you are in a suburb of Midway, which had a population of less than 1,000 peeps at the time.
There was a fireplace in the living room, usually run by a chunk of coal. On a cold winter’s night, you had to stand by that pot belly and get your PJs as warm as you could stand it, and then take off running as fast as you could for the feather bed. You melted into an iceberg, warm and toasty. But you dared not move a single inch. A blizzard of cold awaited for any movement whatsoever.
There was a well in the back yard, where you drew water. And, the bathroom facilities were a walk down the drive, past the barn, and up the hill to the back of the cut grass. You took a magazine with you in the summers. My PawPaw had a 1956 printed copy of the “Baseball Digest.” I read it cover to cover. Many times. It served several purposes, mind you. Especially when the dastardly cousin left you with no Charmin. In the winters, you didn’t take much time. At all. For obvious reasons.
My PawPaw arose every morning at 4:30 a.m. It didn’t matter whether he had anywhere to go or not. He was up. Moving around. I could always tell by the aroma of the coffee brewing in the kitchen. And, the static of that transistor radio humming in the background.
I wasn’t used to getting up that early. It was the middle of the night for me. But when you are in PawPaw’s house, you do as PawPaw does. I, too, tried to motivate both my feet and my spirit. I pulled on the cleanest dirty pair of jeans I had within arm’s reach, and headed to see a man that was, in so many ways, my hero.
I always found him sitting in the same chair. Gazing out the window of life. Looking at nothing in particular. Staring at everything in sight.
The coffee smelled so good that I would ask him for a taste. It didn’t take me long to figure out, though, that it sizzled my tongue more bitter than the cold winter’s wind. Never took another drink of that stuff again. PawPaw just giggled.
PawPaw asked me how I slept. I grunted and groaned an answer. Excuses were never tolerated much. And, then he slipped out of the chair and got me a cold, hard biscuit that MaMa had made from scratch the previous day. He would smear a dab of home-made grape jelly on the top of it and place on a saucer. He would slide it over to me. “Better eat up. We have a strong morning ahead of us.”
A strong morning. Funny words.
But that meant that at 5 a.m. sharp, PawPaw and me would be headed to the farm just down the road. His job was to turn out the yearlings every morning. My job was to try to keep up.
PawPaw was just about 5-foot-2, if you gave him an inch or two. He weighed 90 pounds in the summer, and a 100 in the winter — if you gave him a pound or two. He didn’t take long strides. But he didn’t waste any time taking them, either. I was about 5 or 6 years old. And, as Randy Travis would sing about later, I thought that man walked on water. But, to find any, we would have to stop and draw it out of the well. And, well, we didn’t have time for that.
The old truck cranked. And, belched a time or two. But it finally started. PawPaw uttered a few words under his breath, that you could see cut through the cold. I didn’t make out the words, but I am sure now that they were about as salty as the country ham he would cure. And, we would head off down the gravel path. Kicking up dust. Making memories that would last a lifetime.
When we got to the barn, PawPaw would grab the shank and open the stall doors. A fresh horse was ready to go outside. A fresh stack of manure was ready for us to clean. I tried to maneuver that pitch fork just the same as I saw my PawPaw do time after time. But he could clean a stall and stack a new stand of straw in half the time it took me to figure out that I had just stepped in something that I shouldn’t have.
PawPaw would give me a pointer or two. But he left me to deliberate on. Work at my own speed. I knew he would come back to clean up the mess that I had made, too.
One by one, we turned those young horses out into a field of study. Each time, both PawPaw and I would stand and watch them go. Kicking. Bucking. Squealing. Playing.
My PawPaw didn’t say much. Never did. But when he did, you listened.
“They are not the brightest things at this age,” he would say, turning back toward the barn and his attention back to the job.
“But they are long of hustle,” he would say.
“Just like little boys.”
He would laugh. And, I didn’t have a clue what he meant. But I would laugh, too.
On Thursday, I called my son, Brad, who was in Lexington to go to the races with a group of his friends. I asked if he and his two sons, Ford and Jack, wanted to come out to the Training Center on Paris Pike to see my promising 2YO filly, Miss Jacqueline, work. She was going to pop out of the gate and get her second 5 furlong work and her weekly schooling.
I know now that nearly 60 years ago, I probably sounded a lot like Brad did on this chilly morn. There was a little dust on the voice. But he said that if the boys woke up in time, that we head out to the track.
You should have seen my face when I pulled into the entrance of the training facility. When I rolled into the track’s entrance, Brad and the boys were sitting in the car waiting on me.
It was like hitting the late Pick 5. With a carry-over.
As soon as we rolled up to the barn, the boys were ready to jump out of their car seats as much as I was about ready to jump out of my skin. They love going to the barns. They love seeing the horses, whom they still refer to as “nay nays.” They just love it.
And, I love it they that love it.
(Miss Jacqueline’s groom tapes the back bandages on her legs / Photo by Gene McLean)
We watched the groom clean up Miss Jacqueline and wipe the sleep from her eyes. Ford and Jack stooped low to see him put the wraps on her back legs.
“What are they doing, Pops?” Ford asked.
I said: “They are putting bandages on their legs, kind of like the shin guards you wear in soccer.”
“Oh. I get it. They don’t want to get kicked,” Ford said.
I said: “You are so smart.”
(Ford watches intently as Miss Jacqueline gets ready for her work / Photo by Gene McLean)
They watched as “Mr. Stephen” — who is trainer Stephen Lyster and like an uncle to the boys — put on the saddle cloth and tighten the girth around Miss Jacqueline’s belly.
“What are they doing, Pops?” Ford asked. “They putting the saddle on her?”
I just smiled and looked at both Ford and the filly at the same time. “You got it. She’s getting ready to go to the track.”
“She going to run fast?” Ford asked.
“I sure hope so,” I said.
Soon, Miss Jacqueline exited her stall, after after a few rounds around the shed row, a rider got a leg up and snuggled up on her withers. Me, Brad and the two boys headed to the track to watch her go.
(Ford wanted to flex his muscles like “Superman” in our shadows / Photo by Gene McLean)
The air was crisp. The sun made shadows of both Ford and I on the ground. We had to stop a time or two to make silly designs. But we walked quickly to get to the starting gate to watch Miss Jacqueline get her education, and get a chance to stretch her legs.
(Jack was watching closely / Photo by Gene McLean)
(Dad Brad had his hands full on the rail / Photo by Gene McLean)
Both Ford and Jack crawled up on the fence, with a little help from their dad. They hooked themselves over the top rail, and peered intently at the filly and the starting gate. They didn’t make a sound. They didn’t move a muscle. They just watched.
It wasn’t long before Miss Jacqueline came bouncing out of the gate, and headed on her way down the track. Didn’t take her long, either, to put away her workmate and company. She breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01 and change.
Mr. Stephen was happy.
I was happy.
The boys cheered.
And, somewhere along the path and walk back to the barn, I realized that a big smile was still hanging on my face. Just like those boys on that fence just a minute ago.
I realized that my PawPaw had to be smiling, too. Just had to be.
After all, it was a strong morning.
A very strong morning.
Not unlike the ones that we used to share.
Hopefully, like the ones that Brad and his boys will get to share someday, too.
(My boys — Brad, Ford and Jack — came out to watch my “gal” Miss Jacqueline / Photos by Gene McLean)
(Our very own Miss Jacqueline heads to the gate for her morning breeze / Photos by Gene McLean