Category: Family

Scratched

This race has just started, on the turf infield, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, California.

This race has just started, on the turf infield, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, California.

Britt Layton was a rising star in the world of horse racing back in the 1940s. He even dabbled in show business. He played an uncredited bit part in the 1950 movie “Riding High”, which starred Bing Crosby, Colleen Gray, and Charles Bickford. But enough with the name-dropping. This is about a different story. A story I call Beauty and the Beast.

The beauty is the spectacle of horse racing. The beast is its dark underbelly. But I love horse racing. No sport has more beauty than these muscular equines barreling down the racetrack at breakneck gallop. My adrenaline runs wild. My heart soars. I love seeing the wildness and freedom of tons of horseflesh vying and stretching for the finish line. It’s absolutely beautiful.

But with any beauty comes a beast.

Britt met the jaws of the beast on a racetrack called Hollywood Park. He caused a multi-horse pileup, probably because he’d been drinking too much. After this he had a hard time finding anyone who’d let him race their horse. It would have helped if he had quit drinking, but instead his drinking just got worse. His career went downhill, and by 1953 he’d ridden his last race.

A turf finish. Turf races are often reserved for older horses, and horses with soreness from racing too frequently. The grass is easier on their hooves and legs.

A turf finish. Turf races are often reserved for older horses, and horses with soreness from racing too frequently. The grass is easier on their hooves and legs.

My mother met him in an alcohol rehabilitation center, where she worked. They fell in love in a whirlwind romance, and married two months later. I was eleven years old, and excited about this new stepfather. He was fun. And unlike my previous stepfather, he was not abusive.

He operated a riding stable, and introduced us to the world of equestrian life. And he stayed sober.

For about three months or so.

One day he took us to the Del Mar racetrack, in Del Mar, California. That’s the place in the Bing Crosby song, where The Turf Meets the Surf. You could get in free in those days, and that’s all we could afford. We were railbirds (couldn’t afford seats). But the rails is where you get the best glimpse of the beauties, anyway, as they sail past.

Britt was animated as he taught us all about the thoroughbreds and the behind-the-scenes aspects of racing. That’s when I learned that horses were often doped.

“It’s illegal,” he said, “but they do it anyway.” And then he added with a heavy, sad voice, “You’d be shocked with what they get away with here.” Of course I was eager to know all the details, but he shut up after that. A little while later I smelled vodka on his breath. The beast had him again.

A scattered field is finishing this race. The guy on the tower at the right is finishing line judge.

A scattered field is finishing this race. The guy on the tower at the right is the finishing line judge.

About three months or so after the wedding, Britt returned to his former habits of a stumbling-down, sleep-in-the-gutter drunk. He was eventually fired from the riding stable. We had to move into an old house way out on a dirt road. He and my mother fought. It was pathetic to see this erstwhile successful, fun man reduced to such a helpless slave of the bottle. My mother annulled the marriage before their first anniversary. She scratched him out of her life. About eight years later he was scratched again, when he died a broken, drunken man, at age 60.

Finishes can be pretty exciting. Especially when the horse you bet on wins.

Finishes can be pretty exciting. Especially when the horse you bet on wins.

But he inspired a love for horses in my older sister. She could see the beauty, and she held onto it. In fact she made a career of working in the equine industry. Today she owns a large ranch, and specializes in training gaited trail horses. This is such a highly specialized niche that she has practically cornered the market on it in Southern California, and has become well-known and highly reputed in the local horse world.

She has a few friends in the horse racing business, who follow the racing circuit. This time of year you’ll find some of them working behind the scenes at Del Mar. In fact, last year around this time, one of them gave my sister a “backstage” tour, and she actually got to meet American Pharoah, the Triple Crown Winner. My sister says it was one of the most exciting days in her life.

I think this was a photo finish. I hope the horses remembered to smile.

I think this was a photo finish. I hope the horses remembered to smile.

A few days ago I treated her to a day at the races. We met at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. We watched the thoroughbred beauties roar past us like hurricanes, sometimes observing from the rail, and sometimes watching from the seats. And we recounted that palmy day when Britt took us to this very track when we were kids.

Then she got on her cell phone to call one of her racing friends. We were hoping for another backstage tour.

“He’s too busy,” she announced with sadness in her voice, as she set down the phone. “He says there have been two euthanizations, and he has to assist with the necropsies.”

“Wow! Two?” what’s going on, I asked incredulously.

“He said two is about what they average per day,” my sister glumly answered. “He said they often die of overdoses. Illegal drugs.”

The beast.

I mentioned that some people say that horse racing is cruelty to animals. My sister agreed with that. And it certainly seemed so to me.

But then a pack of thoroughbreds rounded the far turn and flew down the stretch. Everyone stood and shouted and urged the horses on. Including me. I felt that same old, familiar thrill. An electric frisson raced up and down my spine. I tell you, there’s nothing more beautiful and awe-inspiring than these magnificent horses at a full-tilt run.

I have to believe the horses also feel a thrill. How great it must be for them to be out of their paddocks and free to stretch their legs as fast as they can, with a herd of their own kind. Is it really cruelty to animals? Aren’t they doing what comes naturally to them, and with a release of pent-up wild gusto?

The close races are the most exciting.

The close races are the most exciting.

I studied my racing program, to make my picks for horses in upcoming races. I noticed that a few had been scratched. I wondered, were some of these the ones who were devoured by the beast today?

A name caught my eye. Sid the Squid. What a name! I have a highly sophisticated betting scheme. I bet on the name that best strikes my fancy. And Sid the Squid was ready to race. He had not been scratched.

Yet.

I headed down to the wicket, with two bucks in hand.

“Two dollars on Sid the Squid.”

“To Win, Place, or Show?” the man behind the counter growled.

“No, just to not be scratched.”

“We don’t take bets on that.”

“Well, I just want him to show up.”

“All right, to Show then,” and he took my money.

He ran seventh in a field of eight. And lived. That was showing enough for me. It was a good race.

Because in the case of Sid the Squid, beauty was not scratched by the beast.

Sid the Squid.

Sid the Squid.

Lunatic Families

The Scream - Vincent van Gogh

The Scream

A few days ago I was discussing lunatic families with a blogging buddy of mine named Gibber Jab. Actually, she’s only a comment buddy of mine. Hey, when are you going to get a blog, GJ?

But it got me to wondering just how many people have crazy families? I’m not talking about Addams Family crazy. No, let’s go out further. Let’s go way out there to Manson Family nuts. Got anyone in your family like that?

I do. In fact, there are several branches on my family tree that are full of squirrel food.

I’d like to impress you with the nuttiest branch I can find, then see if you can top me. So I’m going to tell you the story of my sister-in-law, “Reba”, and her children. (All the names have been changed, by the way, so don’t go trying to google their police records.)

Two of Reba’s kids are in prison. That would be my nephews, Lenny and Jay. Lenny’s locked up for molesting children and for selling child porn on the internet. He’s done ten years so far, and we expect he won’t see the light of day for at least another ten.

Jay has also done ten years. But he recently won parole, and will likely be released before the end of the year. He’s doing life for trying to stab a man to death, whom he randomly chose to kill. When Jay gets out, he plans to stay away from his crazy family, and settle in San Francisco. Wise decision, Jay. Glad to know you’re the sanest one of the bunch.

Then there’s my niece, Zena. She’s an intelligent young woman, but a very quiet wallflower. She keeps secrets. We suspect she was molested by Lenny while growing up, but I doubt you could ever drag that secret out of Zena. Her mother, Reba, taught her to be clandestine, and to never discuss family matters, even with family.

She graduated from high school with a full scholarship to a Catholic university. But she only finished one semester. Reba is a practicing Wiccan, and is rabidly anti-Christian, and hates Catholics. She convinced her daughter Zena to drop out and hook up with her high school boyfriend, who was a drug addict at the time.

Soon after getting married, she had a baby and went on welfare. But a few years later she divorced her drug-addict husband. Then she met a man in a bar and had sex with him in the parking lot. Nine months later she had another baby.

The father of her second child is an alcoholic. In fact he’s done several stints in prison from drunk driving convictions. He barely scratches out a livelihood, living in a ramshackle hut with no running water, out in the middle of the desert. He can’t pay child support, but still has joint custody. Zena won’t fight him on the child support or joint custody, because he knows a secret about her. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Zena recently had a boyfriend, but they broke up a few months ago. Zena is very heavy, but we doubt that’s the reason for the breakup. In a careless moment, she dared to allow her boyfriend inside her house. That’s when he called it quits on her. The inside of her house is her secret that the father of her second child holds over her.

Zena has lived with her mother, Reba, for the past eight years, where she’s raised her children, who are now 10 and 7. And Reba is a hoarder. Her house is filled from floor to ceiling with boxes of junk. And her car is so full of junk, she can’t drive it. And she rents four storage units, all piled full with junk. Reba is very sick in the head.

The house is a hazard to live in. It’s a mold hazard, fire hazard, and avalanche hazard, because of all the hoarded junk. If Child Protective Services discovered that Zena’s two children lived in these conditions, they would probably charge both her and her mother with child endangerment, and take her kids away from her. Their dysfunctional fathers would win full custody.

Shortly after Zena broke up with her last boyfriend, she discovered she was pregnant. Now she’s plotting child support revenge on him. But as my wife and I watch this drama unfold, we suspect Zena has met her Waterloo. The boyfriend knows about the packrat conditions she’s raising her children in. And unlike her previous paramours, he’s a decent man, with a decent income.

We doubt he’ll allow his child to be raised in a deathtrap house. One call to CPS, and Zena will lose all of her kids. He’ll gain custody of the one currently in her belly, and she’ll be the one footing the child support bill. And not just for one child, but for three.

It’s all coming to a head.

Meanwhile Zena, in her quiet, wallflowery way, has been hinting about committing suicide.

That’s my lunatic family story. Can you top it?

Parole

"Prisoners Exercising" by Vincent Van Gogh

“Prisoners Exercising” – Vincent Van Gogh

My wife and I would like to live a few more decades before the natural ebbing of life takes us to another world. We want to avoid being stabbed to death.

“He got parole!” Jay’s mother gleefully announced.

Jay was a dangerous man. He’s also our nephew. How could the state of California do that?! What the hell are those guys thinking, on the parole board?

“Help me, help me, please!” Jay moaned, lying in the front yard of a complete stranger. A woman peeked at him through a window and summoned her husband from another room. Jay was a teenager barely two months into adulthood. Beneath his veneer of desperation lay a darker desperation. Jay was in a blind, drunken rage. He had decided to kill the first person he saw, and he hoped to draw someone from the house.

Why the rage? Was it because he imagined he was jilted, by a girl he had a secret crush on in high school? No, according to the transcript it went much deeper than that. This was merely the trigger.

Was it because he’d been raised by a mother who had abdicated ordinary parental supervision, losing herself in a fantasy world of Wicca and hoarding? Perhaps, but his rage also plumbed deeper than that.

Was it due to living in a house with boxes piled to the ceiling, blocked off rooms, and narrow aisleways between the junk, crowded in with his mother and brother? Claustrophobic conditions can be stressful, but there were even deeper depths to Jay’s rage.

Was it because his brother, who was six years older than him, still lived at home? This same brother who had molested him at a young age, and who bullied him throughout his life? Certainly this could produce rage, but there was still more.

There was also a father who’d been tragically killed in a car accident when he was only two years old. A good father, who would have protected him from his crazy mother and deviant brother.

So Jay had sipped vodka from his hidden flask, while at high school, then walked home feeling angrier and angrier with each step. Normally alcohol calmed his rage, but this time it was like throwing gasoline upon a fire. At home he drank more, until his vodka-fueled rage propelled him from his house like an unguided missile, and with murder on his mind. He vowed to kill the first person he saw.

Her husband left the safety of their front door to assist this prostrate stranger in his front yard. She watched him lift Jay off the ground, then saw the young man draw a knife from his waistband. A bloody struggle ensued, as Jay plunged the knife repeatedly into her husband’s body, and slashed at his defensive arms and hands.

Had Jay been sober, her husband would not have stood a chance. But he drunkenly lost his balance, and in that split-second her husband grabbed a large rock and clobbered Jay over the head. Dazed, he broke off the attack and staggered away.

Within minutes an EMT team staunched her husband’s bleeding and saved his life. Over the next few months and years, surgeons repaired much of the damage to his arms and hands. But he will never be completely whole again, either physically or emotionally.

Deputies tracked Jay’s muddy footprints to his house and arrested him the next day. Initially he plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But later he changed his plea to guilty and received seven years to life. The DA promised he’d never be released.

But now, after just ten years behind bars, he’s being released.

Our fear was that he was crazy enough to hurt someone again. Perhaps us. We’d never harmed him, but neither had the stranger he stabbed, who was simply trying to help him. Suppose one day he showed up at our front door, asking for help? Would we dare let him in? Would we dare to even open the door?

How could the parole board possibly release someone as crazy as Jay? Especially when it was his first try for parole? It’s rare to release anyone with a life sentence on their first time up for parole. What the hell were they thinking? I contacted the parole board for an answer. They sent me a transcript of the parole hearing. I read every page.

Jay has spent the last ten years doing everything possible to reform himself. He’s kept out of trouble, for the most part. He’s stopped drinking, and attended substance abuse and self-help classes in prison. He’s reflected deeply on his crime and his childhood. He’s developed an impressive philosophy about life. He seems truly contrite and empathetic with his victim and victim’s family. He has a detailed plan for earning a living outside prison. And he plans to stay away from his mother and brother after being released.

Here is a man who has not lived in denial. He’s confronted his crime and his childhood with candor, and with determination to change his life.

He made an unusual impression upon the parole board, which they admitted.

The parole hearing occurred several months ago. If Jay stays out of trouble, he will be released before the end of this year. He will settle in a city far away from his victim, and far from where my wife and I live.

After reading the parole transcript we feel less worried about Jay’s upcoming release. But still, who knows?

Only time can prove the wisdom of the parole board’s judgment.

"Depths of Poison" Book 2

Scroll down to read the sequel.

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