Getting off the school bus, I knew something was wrong. An EMT ambulance was parked at our front door. It’s lights were flashing.
Oh no, I thought. It’s Mom. Her time has come.
My Mom use to entertain herself and as always try to teach me my numbers. Add subtract, multiply, divide. She would tell me that math was my friend, if I just learn how to use it.
Washing dishes as punishment for my misdeeds, she would take the time to supervise and go over my homework, while I did the dishes. How much is 7 times 7? Or how many half’s does it take to make a whole. That kind of stuff.
Her favorite pastime, was picking the dogs. The greyhounds came to Jax in season. Either at Orange Park or at the track on McDuff. She had a system. She didn’t always bet or go to the track but using her system, we would make picks almost everyday.
I would ride my bike from Dunn Ave. to Soutel. Dean’s Open Air Market on Soutel and US 1, sold dog books. Mom would give me two dollars. I would buy her a dog book and spend the change on a strawberry Nehi or a couple of bananas, that were hanging on display.
When I got home with the dog book, she and I would get the sports page from the morning paper and the sport’s page from the Jacksonville Journal that came out about 3 o’clock.
Mom would tell me to write down notes as she graded the dogs. 1 through 8, each race. Ten races all told. First she would have me write down each dogs starting position, 1 through 8. Then she would call out to me the favorite picks from the paper. 1st, 2nd and 3rd.
I would give each pick a mark. The morning paper and the evening paper didn’t always match. Sometimes the favorite in the dog book didn’t match either. Then Mom would start reading the stats. She would say stuff like, “This dog is a breaker, every race he’s run in, he either broke out of the box first or second, and he’s on the inside, coming out of box number two. Give this dog a mark.”
Then she would look at their weight. If it was a heavy dog on the inside, it got a mark. The dogs with the fastest times in their previous races, also got a mark. She would measure their fastest times to the track record, anything close, got a mark.
Heritage meant something too. The dogs lineage would show up in the dog book. If it was any kin to Big Jim Fallon, it always got a mark. Big Jim held the track record at McDuff and Orange Park.
There were more ways to get a mark than I can remember but those are some of them. At the end of it all, we would add up the marks. The top three dogs with the highest marks were her picks. Mom would write the numbers on the chalkboard in the kitchen. 1, 3, 5 or 2, 6, 8. Not always but a lot of times, the sequence mattered to her. She would pick a 1-3-5 or 1-8 because those numbers came in a lot.
A two dollar quinela ticket didn’t have to be in order to win. That was a trifecta, they cost 3 dollars. If she was sure of a certain dog, she would place a bet on that dog with every other dog in the race, a “wheel,” 16 dollars.
Mom wasn’t shy once she made her picks. She only went to the track if she was positive she had a winner. If she had that “feeling,” she would place multiple bets on the same combo.
She always had to be there for the first race and place as many bets on that race as she had money to buy. If she came home early, it meant she guessed wrong. If she was right though, she would trade those tickets in on the Daily Double. You had to have winners in both races tn order to win but the payoff was huge. The same thing with the “Big Q.”
My Dad was stationed in Viet Nam. Mom, my brothers and I would run the trailer park, while he was gone. Mom would scrimp and save, forgo new dresses and pretty outfits so that she could accumulate enough money to go to the track. The trailer park was a little run down place that had room for expansion. It was my parents retirement dream.
One night Mom hit it big. Her system finally perfected, paid off. She had tickets on the Daily Double and the Big Q. Her brother, my Uncle Ray was with her. Mom said he never had money to play the dogs but liked the entertainment. He would tell me years later about the 1-3-5 photo finish, the excitement and anticipation because it looked like a 1-5-3 from start to finish but at the end, it turned out to be a 1-3-5. A big winner and Mom had several winning tickets. I don’t remember the exact amount she won, it was over twenty thousand dollars. I can just imagine the exhilaration she felt after cashing in those tickets.
After the race, Mom took Uncle Ray home first. On the way back to our house, she had a blowout, hit a culvert and flipped the car several times on Old Kings Road. She was hurt really bad. Broken ribs, broken ankle in three places, broken hip and knee. Then came the bad news.
The doctors discovered in surgery that Mom was in the beginning stages of bone cancer. In those days there wasn’t any real cure. She had it so bad that they had to amputate her good leg, the one she didn’t break. The shock and trauma to us was so great that my brothers and I didn’t find out that she won any money until she was ready to come home from the hospital a week later.
Mom didn’t let it break her spirit. She was able to get around in a wheel chair. She managed to get her hands on a small bullwhip, which she used to keep my brothers and I in line. She didn’t really use it that much. I can remember hearing her pop the whip and cackle like a hen that just laid an egg. Mom was something else.
She was in lots of pain, all the time. Mrs. Boston a lady that lived in the neighborhood, was a nurse.She would come by our house a couple times a week and administer Mom’s morphine shots. She would draw up extras and leave them in our fridge. My job was to give Mom a shot of pain meds in the morning before I caught the bus to school and again when I got home at 4 o’clock.
On this day, after seeing the EMT ambulance at our front door, I thought the worse was at hand, but I was wrong. My brothers and I had started sneaking some of Mom’s bourbon out from under the kitchen sink when we went camping. We would pour it in a “Listerene” bottle never thinking she would catch us.
We noticed that the Jim Beam bottle had crayon marks on the side of the bottle. Thinking we were outsmarting her, we would pour Coca Cola back into the whiskey bottle to fill it back to it’s normal level. No one ever told us that the Coke would go flat. She caught on. Still, she didn’t know for sure it was us. So she poured rat poison in the bottle.
Jimmy Sturgis was a tenant that worked for Perret’s Dairy. He lived in number 12 and sometimes did repairs for us. Earlier that morning, Mom had stopped the sink up with bread and asked Jimmy if he could fix it. Poor ole Jimmy. While he was under the sink, taking advantage of the situation, he took a couple of swallows out of that Jim Beam bottle. It didn’t take long before he went into convulsions.
What I saw when I approached our front door that day after getting off of the bus was the EMT’s rolling Jimmy out of the kitchen on a gurney. I thought it was Mom, but no, here she came up behind them. She was cackling and smiling, the bullwhip across her lap. She had caught her booze rat.
Jimmy recovered. Mom paid for his doctor bills thinking she had solved her mystery. After that, we just snuck Mom’s vodka and left the bourbon alone.
Mom wanted to surprise Dad. His deployment was going to be up pretty soon. She called Denson Electric. They put in 22 light poles with double electric boxes for 42 mobile homes. The original trailer park only had 8 spaces.
All of that’s in the past now. The dog tracks are closed nowadays. Math comes easy to me now. Mom made learning mathematical combinations fun. When I think of her, I like to imagine that she has two good legs in Heaven, sitting in the Clubhouse with a glass of Bourbon, waiting for Big Jim to jump first out of the box. If I listen closely, I can almost hear the commentator over the speaker, “And they’re off, there goes Rusty.”