When I left his office I left that city. I went directly to the Federal Building in downtown Cincinnati to have my draft status changed. In those days every male who was a U.S. citizen had a draft card. A draft card showed a person was classified for military service. My draft card indicated I was classified as a student, and therefore exempt from military service. Since I was no longer a student I thought I would speed things up that were going to happen anyway. In those days anyone who could be drafted was drafted.
When I got to the Federal Building I had to keep asking where to go. I went from desk to desk looking for the right person. It seemed everyone had a specific job.
The first floor of the Federal Building was a U.S. Post Office. They said I should go to another floor. Every draft card had a signature on the bottom and draft cards from that building had the same signature. Toward the end of my journey in that place it became apparent that I was going to see the person whose name was on my draft card. Her signature was like the signature printed on all the paper money. I expected her to be a dusty lady with a cane and horn-rimmed glasses.
She was in a room with rows of florescent lights and rows of steel gray filing cabinets. She had a small wooden desk near the door and on it was a brown gooseneck lamp.
When I got there I stood waiting. I could hear her in the back of the large room opening and closing file drawers. As she walked around the corner of the row and came closer with a file in her hand I could see she was not the person I had expected. She was a very well put together woman. She seemed preoccupied and bothered by my presence. By the setup of that room she was probably not in the habit of seeing people. Her hair was tied up. She had shoes with raised heels, and she wore a skirt and top that went together. It wasn’t tight but it wasn’t loose either. She told me to sit down in a metal chair that was at one end of her desk. She also sat down in her desk chair, crossed her legs, and asked me what I wanted. She had brown eyes. I said I was no longer a student and didn’t have that exemption any longer. I said my draft card said I was a student, which was no longer the case, and I wanted to get on with it rather than wait for the inevitable.
She explained in a very business like way that there were several ways I could go. She said I could volunteer for a branch of the military in which case I would get my choice of schooling.
She said that was a three-year commitment. But, I learned from her, just because I requested a certain school there was no guarantee that I would use that in the job I do for the rest of the three years. She said I could wait until I was drafted, a two-year commitment, or, I could volunteer for the draft. If I volunteered for the draft my name would get put at the top of the daft list, but I would not get my choice of schooling. All draftees went into the Army. I was told the Army uses its resources to its best advantage. That includes human resources, and she said I would probably be assigned schooling I was best able to do.
Volunteering for the draft sounded like the way to go although she didn’t say anything about evading the draft altogether and going to Canada with someone warm like her. She was a Federal employee, but it crossed my mind. I would have probably signed up for twenty years in the armed forces if that had been her recommendation. She was so honest and helpful and many other things. She had a wonderful way. I ended up volunteering for the draft and thinking it was my idea. My name and number would be put at the top of the list. She said for me to keep my draft board informed as to my whereabouts.
I stayed in State parks every night and almost always I was invited to the campsite next to mine to have something to eat. I didn’t plan on that happening. I had my box of groceries, but being invited to sit and eat with other people became so predictable that I would buy my canned food and other groceries accordingly. Those evenings were the only time I had any human association. It went that way for about two or three weeks until I ran out of money and had to get a job. Campers I met were older people on vacation without their children. Some of them were retired people going from place to place just like I was. Almost always it seemed campers next to one another got to know each other the way they did me. Some campers would stay in the same spot all summer. To comply with the rules they had to register their campsite in another person’s name, and they had to move their camp vehicle or tent a few feet one way or the other every so often. I was all around different. Maybe that is why I got invited over to their camp so many times. They wanted to find out who was camping next to them.
One place was a large park with a lake and a beach. I could tell the sand was trucked to that place from somewhere else. I got there in the late morning. I stayed the rest of the day. I went to a restaurant on the park grounds. Potato chips, soft drinks, hamburgers, and hot dogs were the main things for sale. It had a screen door like on old farmhouses with a long extension spring to pull it shut. It slammed twice every time one of the children ran in or out. There were eight picnic tables inside, and I sat at one of them. The only other table where anybody was had a group of children standing around an older girl who was sitting down. She was showing them over and over again how flies could be drowned in water and brought back to life. When they appeared dead she would put them in salt and soon they would fly away. On the way out I stopped to watch. One of the children would catch a housefly. Then she would put it in a container of water and stir the water vigorously. The fly would get caught in the vortex and go under. After a long while she would take the seemingly dead fly out of the water and put it in the salt. Then it would start to move and soon it would fly away. She said she was bring the fly back to life. I asked her if the dead fly had any vital signs. They all pretty much ignored me and I left.
It was a hot sunny day with no wind. I went to the lake. There were many people sitting on the hot sandy beach. I learned to swim so I could survive in the water, but at that moment I wanted to cool off. I was wearing shorts and my pockets had things in them.
There was a girl by herself on the sand a short distance from me. She was sitting up looking at the water or something in that direction. She had a very straight back. I took my shirt off, and walked over to where she was sitting. I asked her if she would watch my things while I went in the water. I had a wristwatch, some money, a pocketknife, and a few marbles or something. She looked up at me with disbelief. I didn’t wait for too much of a reply. I just put those things down on her towel and headed for the water. I was wading around in deeper and deeper water. Once I looked back. She was still sitting up and it seemed she was looking at me. I must have looked silly wading around in circles, but that is all I did. I wouldn’t have defied death on a high diving board even if there was one. One time I squatted down in the water and got my upper body wet. When I came up out of the water I was soaking wet and I walked over to get my things. I thanked her. She did not say anything or even look up at me. As I walked away I thought that would be some fine human association, and also I thought about a poem that says, “I have miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
When I left the next day I was going down the road and my car stopped. It was dead in the water so to speak and to make matters more difficult I was in a prison zone. Signs up and down the road said do not pick up hitchhikers. After a long time of trying different things with the engine, I figured out that the camshaft was not turning. A fiber timing gear had worn out. between a metal gear on the end of the crankshaft and a metal gear on the end of the camshaft. I wondered why the scientists or whoever they were at the factory ever put that fiber gear in there instead of a metal one. I had my tools with me and I proceeded to remove all the necessary stuff to get the timing cover off. The sun was setting when I finally saw the timing gear. All the teeth were worn off as I expected. Parts were all over the side of the road. I went to sleep in my car. That night, each time a truck went past the rush of air made the car move from side to side.
In the morning it was a beautiful day. I opened a can of peaches. I had two quarts of water in a canteen. The canteen was an American Boy Scout canteen. I never was a Boy Scout, but they made a good canteen. Where I grew up, one weekend every year hundreds of boy Scouts from Cincinnati would go to one of the fields and camp. They called it “Peterloon Day.” I rode my pony bare back and looked at their camp. I was amazed how organized it was. All the tents were in rows and everyone, even the adults, had the same clothes. They didn’t want to talk to me. It was as if I was not there. I suppose an American Indian must have felt like that when he saw the settlers moving west. It is a wonder I didn’t get shot.
I was standing by my car eating peaches from the can when someone pulled over and came to a stop behind me. She asked me if I needed help. I explained my situation. I said I needed to get to the next town so I could look up the nearest dealer for my car. She said the next town was Terra Haute and that she would drive me there. Going down the road in her car she said she had been going the other way and turned around to see if she could help. I don’t think she cared if I was an escaped convict. She was helping me whoever I was.
I was amazed that there was a car dealer for my car in Terre Haute. I had the worn out gear with me. The parts man asked me the year, make, and model of the car. He looked up something in a book and went in the back. After a short while he came out with a new timing gear.
When I went back outside she was waiting in her car. I told her how terrific it was that he had the part on the shelf, and didn’t have to order it from some big city. She drove me back out to my car, let me out on the other side of the road, and kept going away from Terra Haute. I was sorry I never thought to offer her any money for gas. I ate a can of beans for lunch, put my car back together, and was on my way.
I drove all day. I got to a park where I could spend the night. It was in Collinsville, Illinois across the river from St. Louis. My money was almost gone so I got a newspaper and looked at the job listings. I found one in a retirement building that seemed like a job I could do. It was late Thursday. Friday morning I planned to see about the job.
Thursday afternoon I took my wristwatch off to wash my hands. I put it on a shelf above a white sink in a row of white sinks. I forgot to put it back on, and when I went back to get it five minutes later it was gone. That park was in an urban area and it was different from the others. People there weren’t so friendly.
Friday morning I got up and went across the river to talk to someone about the job. I talked with a Catholic nun who was dressed in the clothes nuns wear. She asked me many questions. I told her I was going into the Army in a month or two. She asked me if I could clean up rooms and people. She said many of the people there couldn’t clean themselves. I don’t think she thought I knew what she was talking about and I didn’t. I spent the rest of the day looking at other jobs in St. Louis. When I went back to the park I noticed once again a horse track. I thought I would look for a job all the next day, and on Sunday, when everything was closed I would go to the track to make some quick money.
Saturday in downtown St. Louis I came across a gun store. I walked in to look at the guns. A salesman was showing a handgun to someone in a suit and tie (something he needed at the office). When I looked at guns in a glass case he loudly said for me to leave. St. Louis was not going to be my favorite town.
When Sunday morning came I went to the racetrack. Me and one other person waited at the gate to the barn area. The guard announced through a microphone that there were two “hot walkers.” After a short while someone in an old car came out and got both of us. The car had no reverse. The driver said he had to go in a circle to turn around. He was the only stable boy (groom) for about six horses trained by one person.
After a horse is exercised it comes back to the barn sweaty. The jockey or exercise boy jumps off and a hot walker walks the horse around the “shed row” until it cools down. A shed row is an area under roof like a house porch. But, the shed row floor is the earth, and it goes around the entire barn. This racetrack was typical. In each barn there were two rows of stalls back to back, about thirty stalls in all, and there were about forty barns.
I was familiar with horses because I had been around them much of my life. I knew how to bandage their legs, clean stalls, tack them up, brush them, and just about anything else. I could even ride a horse, but I never rode a horse on the track.
After an hour or two the other hot walkers was paid in cash and he left. I was leading a horse around the shed row when the person with no reverse in his car asked me if I would work there. He said they were going to get more horses, and they needed more help. I started to work there that day.
I slept in the tack room. I had a cot on one side of the room and the other groom had his cot on the other side. On the wall above my cot the bridles and saddles hung. The wall was concrete block, and the floor was concrete. Every barn had a tack room and feed room located at each end. They were the same size, about 10-feet by 12-feet. Grooms who took care of the horses on the other side of the shed row had the tack room and feed room next to ours. All the stalls down the middle of the barn were made of wood and they had a dirt floor. We had a portable electric heater for cold nights. All my clothes were in a canvas bag. My other things were locked in my car inside the barn area. During the day the cots were folded and the tack room didn’t look as if anyone slept there.
In the early morning when it was still dark the trainer would arrive. Quite a few times when he stuck his head inside the door to wake us up he would say, “It’s time to get up girls.” We would quickly transform the room from our living quarters into a tack room. We would feed the horses and when that was done all three of us would go to the track kitchen. It would still be dark outside when we got there.
The other groom told me the trainer had a temper and he was insanely jealous about his wife. He said I should not even look at his wife’s face. She was in the barn area only once while I was there and I didn’t look at her.
Several weeks later the track season closed and we went to another track in Chester, West Virginia. The trainer and his wife were living nearby in a trailer and never once did she come to the barn area in all the time I was there. The groom told me he thought she sleeps and watches television most of the day. He said her husband doesn’t want her to go out because he is so jealous. Her father owned several of the horses, and he was very involved with their lives. Maybe she thought he would not be pleased if she wasn’t married to that man.
The groom told me that several months before I got there in St. Louis her husband, the trainer, went to catch her little dog that got loose. He said the trainer came back with the dog holding it off the ground by its collar. When he got to the barn where she was he threw it at her feet. It was almost strangled to death. It wasn’t dead, but he said it just lay on the ground like it was dead.
The track kitchen was a warm place in the cold morning. It was in a restricted area. The people who went there were trainers or grooms who got up early in the morning. Most of them knew the cooks. There were three of us when we sat down, and always there was one empty chair. Often a proper and dapper looking older man would sit with us. He and his wife lived on a farm somewhere in Texas. They had no children. I imagined his farmhouse was white with a white picket fence, and an apple pie in the oven. He always got up and left first. One time when he just left, the trainer said he wished he had his money. The trainer then said to us the reason he kept sitting down at our table was that he wants you to go with him to Texas, and he was looking at me. I could see myself living securely in Texas the rest of my life hoeing potatoes. The idea sounded appealing, but not seriously appealing.
The races were in the evening. In the late morning when the stalls were cleaned, legs were bandaged, and other things done, there was little to do but wait for a horse to come back from being exercised. When I was waiting I would sit on a trunk full of hoof picks, brushes, and rub rags. It was against the outside of a stall beside a stall door. In the night both the upper and lower half of the stall door was closed, but in the day only the lower part was closed so a horse could have its whole head and neck in the shed row. The horse in the stall next to the trunk would rest all the weight of its head on my shoulder. I would kiss it and it would nip at me. It started winning many races. The trainer was thrilled the horse was winning so often. Soon the horse was bought in a claiming race and it was gone. Other horses came but there was none like that one. It never won another race on that track.
There were three women the other groom was seeing and since I didn’t have much to do in the afternoon he took me with him to see them. They were older. One of them had a little boy who walked around sipping a huge size bottle of cola. He couldn’t talk although he was old enough to talk. One time he walked over to me holding that big bottle. He smiled. I couldn’t relate to him. His smile dissolved and I never saw him smile again. His clothes smelled of dried urine. Two of the women said they used that child to collect ADC (Aid to Dependent Children). The third woman seemed the most sensitive of the three. She said she had a gun and would shoot a certain man if she saw him.
There was a bedroom next to the living room. We were talking. My friend, the groom, and the woman who said she had a gun went in the bedroom. They did it as casually as if they were going to the kitchen to get an eggplant. They shut the door. After a while they came out and sat back down in the living room. Some time passed. One of the women collecting ADC said to the other that they should undress me and do it right there on the living room floor. They were mad because I wasn’t going to go nonchalantly into the bedroom with one or both of them.
I had never met anyone like them. They said I was a snob. I didn’t go back. The next morning in the track kitchen my friend told the trainer what happened. The trainer said he didn’t blame me considering the women the groom saw. My friend didn’t say any more. He finished his breakfast.
There were many “honky-tonk joints” around there. A honky-tonk joint was a bar that had a jute box always playing. It had pinball machines and trashy people all over the place. I played a lot of pinball and got sloppy. I didn’t meet anyone I remember, but the pinball machines paid off. It wasn’t legal, but nobody seemed to care.
During the day they called my name over the loud speakers, and told me to go to the track office. I was asked a bunch of questions. In an indirect way the questions were about if I was one of those draft dodgers, or if the police wanted me. The man didn’t ask me if I was a pinko Communist faggot, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did. Some other people took a photograph for an identification card, which I was told to carry at all times. The main person said the Illinois State Racing Commission held their license, and might take it away if they didn’t check me out.
The track provided legalized gambling for people. People went to the races in large numbers and gambled that the horse they chose would win. If it did, they won money. If it didn’t, they lost money. The person in the office said they had to get my fingerprints. He said for all anyone knew the police might want me. He looked worried when I agreed no one knew if I was, or was not wanted like maybe some Illinois gangsters had sent me to choke him to death.
When the meet at that track was over we moved to track in Chester, West Virginia. I followed the horse van in my car. The father of the trainer’s wife drove the van. He was a tall man who did things exactly the way he wanted. When the horses arrived at the other track I would be there to take care of them. The other groom and the trainer would show up later.
On my way there I got separated from the van. Then in Steubenville, Ohio I was coming over the top of a hill when another driver going the opposite direction pulled in front of me, and we collided. She was a busy housewife eyeing a parking place, and she didn’t see me. It was her fault as far as the police were concerned. A State Highway Patrol post was across the street. A policeman, the lady, and myself sat in a room while the policeman filled out the necessary forms. Soon the woman’s husband arrived.
The right front fender of my car hit the passenger side rear wheel of her car. Her car had a bent rim and slight fender damage. On my car all the lights on one side were smashed. The steering mechanism on that side was bent. The car didn’t track very well. Nobody was hurt, but when the two cars hit my right knee was cut open by a two- speed toggle switch located on the bottom edge of the dashboard. The woman seemed genuinely concerned about that, and her husband was worried about lawsuits. He wanted everything in writing when I said I was okay. The State Policeman informed me that even though the accident was not my fault I would get a ticket because my driver’s license was expired.
When there was silence the woman’s husband couldn’t take it any more. He said in a loud and angry tone of voice that many of the people there said I was going fast. I pointed to the policeman and said, “That is his job so why don’t you let him do it.” The man gasped and sputtered, “What?” I repeated, “That is his job so why don’t you let him do it.” I looked over at the policeman who didn’t look up from busily writing. When I said it the second time his eyes looked over to the side like he was listening. I was glad he was there because the woman’s husband was losing control. Policeman carry guns because people are so out of control.
Since I was from another place I had to post a bond for my expired driver’s license, or I would have to sit in a local jail until my case was heard by the judge. I had just enough money when I added the change in my pockets to post bond. The State Policeman drove me to the municipal courthouse, and then he drove me back to my car. He looked the other way as I left. I was not a valid driver.
Steubenville was not far from where I was going in West Virginia. I returned to Steubenville on my court day. The policeman correctly listed my occupation as “groom”. The judge asked me in an irritated way what a “groom” was since the only groom he ever heard of was a person in a wedding. The woman and her husband were in court too. When it was their turn he pointed in my direction and said I had an expired driver’s license. I was sitting in a mass of people. I slumped down, but it didn’t matter. The judge didn’t even look in my direction. When it was my turn I was fined and had to pay court cost.
I was delayed by the traffic accident. When I finally arrived at the racetrack the trainer’s wife’s father was worried that I was not going to show up, that maybe I went to Alabama where it was warmer. When I saw him I explained what happened and that I didn’t have any money left. He gave me a small amount of money. We put the horses in their stalls and he left. I thought he had given me the money, but on the next payday the trainer knew exactly how much it was and he deducted that amount from my pay.
The racetrack in Chester, West Virginia was next to the Ohio River. A nice place to walk in the afternoon was through the woods along an abandon railroad that went between the racetrack and the river. A well-worn mud path led there. It went down a hill from the barns. In more than one place there were some bobbers and tangled fishing lines in low branches over the water. People fished there. Those are the ones who must have made the path. It was September and October. I did not see anyone else when I was there. Sometimes I walked balanced on a rail. Trees came together over the tracks with leaves that were bright shades of yellow and brown. The river was wide in that place.
Across the highway in front of the track there was a bar where everything looked cold. The light in that place was called black light. A gin and tonic looked ice blue. On the wall over the bar was a clock. Every so often the big hand on the clock would whiz around and depending on where it stopped a person sitting at the bar who was playing that game either won or lost money. I was with the other groom and he told me to be careful where I put money on the bar. Apparently he had been there before that night. According to the State of West Virginia I was not old enough to be served alcohol, but as far as the bartender was concerned I was old enough.
The other groom and I walked into a large room with normal light. It had a sliding wall for a door. The room was filled with many people laying their money down. It had the pretence of being a clandestine operation, but a couple of tourists with tropical shirts, and cameras around their neck would not be fooled. We were to believe we were getting away with something.
The nights were cold. At that track I had to keep my car outside the barn area gate. It didn’t have a heater that worked, and the tire on the side that impacted in the wreck was wearing out fast. The extreme toe-in alignment of that wheel could not be corrected without some major work.
My friend the groom didn’t have a car so we used mine. One time we went to another bar that was nearby where they had a band with electric amplifiers. There was another person who met us there who my friend knew. He lived at the other end of our barn in one of the concrete block tack rooms. He was a trainer and a groom all in one. I don’t know how many horses he had but it couldn’t have been very many because no one helped him. He was an older, big man. At the bar my friend left to go to the men’s room and the big man said right out loud to me that he was a homosexual and that he wanted to perform a certain sex act that involved me. He said he had never told any one before that night that he was a homosexual. I told him I didn’t believe in the tooth fairy either. I didn’t confirm or deny I was or was not predisposed to homosexual sex acts. I simply said I wouldn’t be able to get an erection. That took all the wind out of his sails. The other groom came back and then the big man went to the men’s room. I told my friend what that man had said. I expected he would be surprised, but he wasn’t.
A person could be served beer at a lower age in the neighboring State of Pennsylvania. My friend the other groom knew of a place just across the Pennsylvania border that was a bowling alley with a bar and a live band. The way he described the place it sounded like a good bar with a bowling alley attached. I went there many times and always the same band was there. They played well together. They didn’t have fancy clothes or other fanfare. There were no bright lights. It seemed like the music was theirs. They weren’t trying to make it sound like one type or another. All the times I went there, the place was packed.
I met a girl there who was very sweet indeed. I went there often to spend time with her. She lived forty minutes away in Coraopolis near Pittsburgh. She lived with her mother and younger sister. She worked for a gravel company.
All racetracks were the same, like men’s room, and one morning in the track kitchen I told my employer, the trainer, about her. The next time I went to the bar in Pennsylvania both he and the other groom went too. The trainer wore a light gray suit the color of a shark’s skin. He wanted me to introduce him to the girl I always saw there so I introduced them. She and him were facing each other and I was standing with him on my left and her on my right. I said this is the person I work for and she said how do you do to him very politely. The music was playing so it was difficult to be heard.
He asked me to ask her if she had any girl friends that were there. I leaned over to her ear and said he wants to know if you have any girl friends here. She said, “what?” like she wasn’t sure she heard correctly. Then like a translator I said to him that she said, “what?” He said the same thing again except this time he was looking at her with a glint in his eye and a look on his face that didn’t need words. Again I passed the same words to her. She didn’t say anything. She moved over to where I was standing, looked down, and hid her face behind me. He left, and I never saw him back there.
I saw her almost every night after work. Sometimes I would drive to her house forty minutes beyond the bowling alley. There was a main room centrally located with a couch across from a television.
My car tire was wearing thin and the heater didn’t work. It was cold at night. I took a large size can and filled it with cotton. Then I poured rubbing alcohol into the can. I lit it and that was my heater. At traffic lights it must have seemed strange to people in the other car to see light from the dancing flame.
Her little sister was full of mischief. Her mother was on guard. When I was there we all sat in the center room. I didn’t ask about her father. She never mentioned him. He was not there.
Before I left to go into the Army we were driving away from her house and she said to me, “Let’s stay together all night.” Some nights when I got back to the barn area it was four in the morning and the chickens were about to wake up so being up all night was nothing new. I didn’t understand what she was saying. We went somewhere that night and I dropped her off at her house so I could get back to work at five in the morning.
I slept that afternoon. Then I thought about, and understood what she said. To her I think it meant closeness, but I was not ready for that closeness. One time before that when we were at the bar the band was taking a break and records were playing. She knew the words to the song. In the end female voices sing. When the record got to that part she leaned over and sang very softly in my ear the same as the record, “So tell me how much you love me. Come near to me and say you need me now.” I liked her a whole lot. But I never told her I loved her, or that I needed her now.
She wore a coat with a bright green lining. I thought her blond hair looked so beautiful against the green. One afternoon I drove across a bridge into East Liverpool. I found a sweater the same green. I bought it, and gave it to her.
She wrote poems. Soon I got my notice that I was to be inducted into the United States Army. When I was in the army I got many poems from her, and some of them were sad. When I was home on leave from army basic training I was going to drive from Cincinnati to see her. I couldn’t get a car and I called her to say I was not coming. After that I got the saddest poem of all. I never saw her again or heard from her. Ten or fifteen years later when I was going to Maine I went by Pittsburgh on the turnpike. I stopped to telephone her to hear what she was doing or how many babies she had. The person on the phone was amused. I think it was her little sister who would have been grown up by then. Whoever they were they wouldn’t tell me who they were, or what anyone was doing, or if I had the right number. I said good-bye, and that was the end of that.