These were hard times, so there’s no way I could have known that the favorite summer of my childhood was galloping straight at me.
It was April, 1970. My mother was broke and we were facing almost certain eviction by a landlord hell-bent on dumping us out on the street. He’d given us three days’ notice to get out, even though 30 was the law. On one occasion he pulled up into our driveway, jumped out of his car shouting all kinds of mean things, such as “Get out!” and entered our house to try to physically remove us.
He was a big Samoan man. Oceanside, California was home to a lot of Samoans back then, and probably still is. He was daunting but I stood up to him, with my scrawny 11-year-old body that weighed 80 lbs soaking wet. When he’d lug one of our possessions out of our house and set it down on the porch, I’d pick it up and lug it right back in.
You learn to be scrappy when you’re poor. Or maybe I just felt outraged that this guy was invading our house. Which was actually his house.
Nonetheless, the handwriting was on the wall. We’d have to get the hell out soon and be homeless unless something changed quickly. And then one early-spring day, when the morning sun had burned through the gray marine layer, and my skin warmed, and birds filled my ears with cheery tunes, something did change. My mother brought a man home.
His name was Britt Layton. Britt was a short guy who had once made a living as a jockey. He’d enjoyed a fair amount of success in the world of thoroughbred racing, back in the 1940s, ’50s and 60’s. He even played an uncredited bit part as a jockey in the 1950 movie, Riding High, starring Bing Crosby, Coleen Gray, and Charles Bickford.
But by the time I met him, he was 51 years old and washed up. Or you might say, washed down. Down a gutter flowing with alcohol.
Some years earlier, according to Britt, he was in a race in Canada. He was riding high on the back of a galloping thoroughbred when suddenly a horse at the front of the pack collapsed into the dirt. Horseflesh and humanity collided in a chain-reaction, and jockeys flew through the air like pinballs.
In the ruck of thoroughbreds that went down, Britt’s was one of the casualties. And Britt was messed up, also. He was lucky to survive this accident, but how lucky, really? He’d been mangled badly, and would never completely recover. This would be Britt’s last race. He was finished, his career as a jockey kaput.
It was a career he loved, and giving it up wouldn’t be easy.
Britt had always been a hard drinker, but after the accident he was hardly ever not drinking. This ex-jockey only rode bottles now, and just like a clumsy thoroughbred, they left him crumpled in the dirt. He transmogrified into a falling down, sleep-in-the-gutter stewbum.
His drink of choice was vodka. Straight-out-of-the-bottle vodka. He plunged into it and floated along powerful rivers of the crystal liquid. And in this maelstrom of firewater, he swirled downward, downward, downward, until he was finally swallowed up by a rehab facility.
That’s where my mother met him. She worked as a nurse at that facility, and assisted at resuscitating him from his near-drowning. And by the time she brought him home to meet her kids, he was as sober as a cup of coffee, and as dry as an empty liquor bottle.
At least he came off dry, at first. He tried to be stern with me. But even at 11 years old, I could see through all that. I concluded that overall, Britt was a nice guy with a good heart. He was nothing like my previous stepfather, Clancy, whom my mother had divorced about a year before.
That guy possessed the heart of a jackal, a Pecksniffian instinct for nitpicking, and a talent for terrorizing his stepchildren. Also, the perverted bastard had molested my three sisters. But the Clancy nightmare was over, and Britt was opening up a brand new world of possibilities to a kid foreign to humane treatment.