Sunday, July 20, 2008

Day two hundred ... The last big hope.

They just had to name him Langdon.

It's almost like a jinx, such a tall name.

Langdon McTierney.

And Langdon had a rough time of it because Langdon was afraid of horses.

Well, that and he grew to be five foot eight and three quarters, without shoes.

There was no way he'd be a jockey.

The family was crushed, because Langdon was the last big hope of the McTierney family.

But this disappointment wouldn't come for ten years at least--when, like a weed, Langdon grew and grew and grew until he was as tall as the top of the top hat his father wore every chance he got.

Gladys and Joseph McTierney were so proud to have a son, after the three girls--pearls that they were--who would never become jockeys. Not that they could, even if they wanted to. This was back before the maverick women jockeys like Diane Crump or Barbara Jo Rubin made the world take notice back in the late sixties. But regardless, the McTierney girls had other plans; plans which involved anything but horse manure, feed troughs, and riding crops. 

Joseph, on the other hand, had been a five time national champion. He was known around the world as 'Jumpin' Joe, from the unique style of riding he used in the last quarter lap, almost jumping off the horse a foot or higher and scaring the bejesus out of the horses in pursuit. That's precisely what ended his career at age thirty after a particularly zealous jump, later recalling how he felt it was taking a bit longer than usual for his behind to hit the saddle. Four broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and two fingers on his left hand amputated from being crushed by nineteen or so quartets of hooves, and Jumpin' Joe had run his last race. 

And then came Langdon.

Langdon McTierney was bred from birth to carry on the tradition of professional horse racing that the McTierney name was so closely associated with.

Wallpaper, pajamas, diapers, plates, cups, toys, books, you name it and if it was Langdon's, it had horses on it.

But Langdon didn't buy any of this stuff for himself--for of course he was just a tiny boy--but Gladys and Joe took every step possible to coax little 'Langy,' as he was affectionately known, to become familiarized and subsequently drawn towards the equestrian lifestyle.

But all it took was one pony ride and Langy was done with horses. 

It was at the Tri-County Fair where Jumpin' Joe brought his adorable, five-year-old little man. Joe had a lifetime V.I.P. pass for him and his family from the years and years of championships (and subsequent wealth), he had brought the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. This was back in the thirties when the fair was where you went to show off and be seen by everyone and anyone, from famous sopranos, to ex-presidents, to playwrights and inventors. 

The Fair was the destination for anyone who mattered ... and plenty who only thought they did.

But Joe McTierney still mattered. He was a legend. And everyone knew that his boy was being groomed to take over the family legacy. The girls--who were much older than little Langy--were all either away at finishing school (as were Loretta and Emma), or finished and married to one too many Yankee fans, as was the case of Ginny, much to the embarrassment and vocal displeasure of her father.

And so, Joe and Gladys and little Langdon McTierney arrived at the Tri-County Fairgrounds on a brisk, early-September day dressed in their finest linens and riding in their brand new, 1931 Brougham, specially modified for Joe's diminutive frame. Everyone stepped aside when they saw and heard the luxury car come barreling down the entranceway. Few during the depression flaunted their wealth quite like Jumpin' Joe. Then again, not everyone could be a championship horse racer. Those lucky enough to have a job worked at places like the Pro Brush factory, or as a hand on one of the myriad tobacco farms that blanketed the fertile countryside.

But Joe McTierney liked to flaunt his success. Maybe it was to make up for the twelve inches he didn't have on the average man. Or maybe it was to show that, despite his untimely cessation from horse racing, Jumpin' Joe still had money coming in, and money meant everything back in 1931.

Joe, rather than parking in the lot reserved for those lucky enough for cars, chose to drive right through the crowd, honking his horn and kicking up a storm of dust, startling men and women alike--men and women who were dressed to the nines, and none too pleased by the prospect of a powdery layer of fairground dust on their Sunday best.

But those who were perturbed at whoever had the gaul of driving right down the midway, changed their expressions from a grimace to a smirk to see all sixty inches of Jumpin' Joe McTierney step out of the Brougham and onto the ground below. He didn't even have to duck under with his top hat; for he was barely as tall as the roof of his ride.

Not surprisingly, the McTierney's had driven straight to the pony ride ring. Gladys, a few steps behind Joe at all times, was pulling Langy gently forward and away from the magnetic pull of the freak show tent.

"Good afternoon my good man," Joe said to the pony handler.

"Good afternoon Mr. McTierney. What can I do for ya'?"

"My boy here is going to ride a pony today, just like his pop used to. But, I dare say it need be a bit slower and a bit safer of a ride than was my preference."

"Absolutely, sir. Right this way. Pick any pony," the handler said. 

"How about that one? He looks gentle."

"Yes sir. That's Calvin," the handler said. "We named him in honor of President Coolidge."

"Well I'll be," said Jumpin' Joe. "I hope he's at least a little more lively than Silent Cal."

"Just a little," said the handler.

"Pappa, I don't want to ride the pony," came a voice from the boy who had just forcibly caught up with his dad.

"Rubbish. You're a McTierney. It's in your blood. Now get on that pony, m'boy, and just try to picture your poppa winning by so much he could see the behinds of the riders in last place."

"But I don't wanna!"


And the handler picked up five-year-old, little Langdon McTierney, and despite the shrieking, managed to get both of the boy's feet in the stirrups.

By this time, quite a crowd had gathered around the pony ride, much more than had been gathered for Granny's racing pigs, and that was always a fair favorite. But this crowd--this crowd's interest was placed solely upon the famous horse rider's son, who--as much of the town was now avidly buzzing about--had never ridden a horse before.

More intriguing than that ... he didn't want to.

"Poppa! Get me offa' here!," little Langy pleaded.

"Hush m'boy. And hold on tight. If you're going to be a championship racer like your pop, you're going to have to learn to stick with the program. Like it or not." 

"Poppaaaaaa!!!!," he cried.

And with that desperate plea for his father's mercy, Langdon began a most unfortunate adventure. 

Calvin, the pony, reared up on its hind legs and almost threw Langdon off into the corner of the ring. But, this, in retrospect, would have been a fine--albeit embarrassing--ending to Langdon's first ride.

Instead, little Langy did what his poppa had instructed: he held on to the reigns for dear life. 

He stuck with the program. Like it or not.

Mostly not.

Langdon McTierney held on as Calvin jumped the corral fence like a championship steed and headed towards the popcorn stand. He held on as Calving galloped swiftly past the freak show tent and right through the palm reading tent, narrowly avoiding trampling Palomar the famous Gypsy psychic. Langdon held on as Calvin gained speed and headed towards the Holyoke range in the distance, kicking up nearly as much dust as Jumpin' Joe had with his luxury ride only minutes before.

And in the distance, as if it were him he was watching, Joe McTierney gasped as his son held on and ducked down like he was racing The Preakness. He watched as his little boy suddenly, instinctually exhibited the same trademark jumping in the saddle that had won so many gold medals for him in his all-too-short career. 

Nearly as surprising as what was taking place a few hundred feet in front of him and counting, was the tear he felt well up and exit his right eyelid. This he quickly and awkwardly wiped away, feigning attending to a fly which may or may not have really been there.

Joe felt Gladys pulling on his linen sleeves, her box of popcorn losing multiple kernels upon each tug, and slowly the words she was screaming in his ear began to register meaning. He looked at the horse handler who was staring, mouth agape, watching Calvin, his most gentle pony, showing no signs of slowing up.

"Aren't you going to do something?" Joe said, the incredulity gaining momentum with each word.

"I ... I ... I suppose you could try to catch him," said the handler.

And the crowd, who had become a buzz moments ago, was struck silent as Jumpin' Joe McTierny leaped over the four-foot blonde plank corral fence and approached an otherwise uninterested pony wearing a red and green leather saddle, covered in rhinestones.

"I suppose I could," were the last words Joe said, before the pony (whose name was Paradise), was mounted by a five foot tall, eight fingered, five time former horse racing champion. And seeming as surprised as the crowd, who could have never bargained for this kind of excitement, Paradise shook its head and brayed. And with a mighty, "Heyaww!!," this magnificent pair cleared the four-foot, blonde plank corral fence, and seconds later both horse and rider were kicking up dust on their way towards the hills.

The horse handler bent down and picked up Jumpin' Joe's top hat and handed it to Gladys who was audibly crying into her popcorn.

"I've never seen anything like that before," said the handler. "I can't imagine what's gotten into Calvin."

And just then, Palomar the famous Gypsy psychic, utterly distraught by the state of his former tent, turned to the handler and said, "I have a very bad feeling about this."

Gladys turned and dumped what was left of her popcorn on his head.

It was the least she could do.

... to be continued.

Thanks for reading.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shoosh, it seems too accurate and detailed to be fiction, but too damn poetic to be true. Either way, bravo, young man! You got the hook in me.