My father was a working man. That’s how I remember him at least. He had a business he built from the ground up, called Alumacraft. They made aluminum windows in the era of the storm window. I remember the long hours he and my mom worked. I remember the little chips of aluminum that were everywhere, on his clothes, in his hair. I remember the wonderful chaos that defined the window shop.
As a boy I had no sense of how much my dad loved every minute of that business. It wasn’t until much later, when he was an old man and his mind was drifting about, that he kept going back to those days. It was a crazy, difficult business, marked by long hours and hard work, but it was his. He had an independent spirit and not having to ‘work for the man’ suited him just fine.
So who was this guy in the photo, with the little scarf and the Stetson? In another time, back before he met my mom, my father was quite the rounder. He knew all the angles. He would be at the racetrack at dawn to watch the workouts and talk to the trainers and the walkers and the touts. Later he’d tell me, “handicapping was hard work, but back then you could get an edge.” He would watch the mutuals and never bet until the last minute. “Sometimes the fix was in,” he’d say, “and you had to watch for the odds changing”.
He played sax and clarinet and sometimes drums in dance bands. Sometimes in the summers they would get gigs up in Muskoka at the big resorts, playing for dancers and during the days they would go out and fish for bass in the lake.
And between the ponies and playing music, there was poker. Even many years later he was a winning poker player. “Poker is no game of chance,” he’d tell me. Maybe that is true. He didn’t pass the gambling gene on to me. I’ve always loved to play games, and even today I play the game of Go on a regular basis, but I’ve never had much taste for gambling.
Somewhere along the line, my father traded gambling and music for a family life. These old photos have always seemed exotic to me, because I always saw him as a working man. Who was this stranger who hung out at the track, who knew all the old bookies? As a boy, I was fascinated that he had a certain wildness in his past, and I loved when he told me stories about those days.
Many years later, my sister and I took my dad to the Queen’s Plate. By that time he was having difficulty walking and his eyesight was poor. We read parts of the racing form to him and he had us make a bet. “They brought in an American jockey. They expect him to win.” Of course his horse came in. I think it was 4 to 1, and we collected enough money for a big dinner out that evening.
Writing this post reminded me of a performance I watched on YouTube of Thornton and Emily Spencer performing Rake and Ramblin’ Boy.