After 20+ years in the retail auto parts business, my dad, Belfry Hamilton, sold his business in the summer of 1968 and hatched a plan to slow down, spend some time at the cottage, travel, and generally take it easy. With two kids off to university, another set to enter college in the fall, and little Michael headed to Grade 2, it was time to enjoy what he had worked so hard to achieve in the post-war years.
The day before my sister was to be married in August 1968 my dad showed up at the rehearsal in a brand new Buick Electra 225 Custom Four-Door Hardtop in Maroon Metallic. I don’t recall what car we had before this but the ‘Deuce And A Quarter’ was definitely an upgrade. It was long, sleek, and purred like a contented lion. It was also my dad’s first car with ‘factory air’. Not that he used it much – he preferred to drive with his right hand on the wheel, window down and left arm in the sun.
A week after the wedding the Samsonite was stowed in the trunk, dad was behind the wheel, mom in the passenger seat and I was in the back seat with a Coleman cooler, Etch-A-Sketch, and a Crown Royal bag full of Lego. We were heading out on the first of many memorable road trips in ‘The Buick’.
Over the next four years we ‘motored’ to Florida, California, Arizona, Louisiana, Washington, British Columbia, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. We drove up and down rural roads in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, paid our respects at John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, and enjoyed the white sand beach at Panama City, Florida. And let me tell you, to a kid who preferred The Jetsons over The Flintstones, a visit to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center was pretty special.
California was a different story. My mom and I waited in the car for an hour or two while my dad caught a few races at Hollywood Park. Kids weren’t permitted inside the track in those days. On top of this ignominy, Disneyland was temporarily closed on the day we planned to visit so we headed to Knott’s Berry Farm instead. “It’s just the same,” promised my dad. He lied. Even six-year-olds can tell the difference between the Magic Kingdom and a stupid strawberry patch and a petting zoo with a mangy donkey and three goats.
There was a trip across the prairies and through the Rockies to Vancouver where we visited dad’s former employee Yogi McLennan. Yogi told tales of his own cross-Canada odyssey in a broken down VW bus. The adults laughed endlessly while I amused myself on the floor with my new Hot Wheels and “Buddy”, Yogi’s three-legged calico cat. On that same trip we visited my dad’s cousin, John Hamilton, and I was given a handful of quarters and sent to the basement where John had his very own Wurlitzer jukebox and Jolly Roger pinball game. I love pinball to this day.
Later on a trip to Canada’s east coast we poked through massive barns full of antiques in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, dipped our toes in the water at Peggy’s Cove, and visited my dad’s old army base at Debert, Nova Scotia. I got to climb on a Sherman tank. It does’t get much better for a seven-year-old.
On a trip to New Orleans we dined at T. Pittari’s on South Claiborne Avenue. My parents debated whether to spend the money on an exclusive restaurant or another night at the Holiday Inn. They opted for Lobster Thermidor and Lake Pontchartrain shrimp creole followed by Crepes Suzette. I still have the book of matches that the waiter gave me upon leaving. (Sadly, waiters stopped giving kids books of matches sometime in the overly protective 70s).
I vaguely remember my parents discussing the price of the meal (not cheap) but it’s what my dad said to my mom as we stepped onto the sidewalk after dinner that I remember as if it was yesterday. “Helen, let’s go. NOW!” It’s the only time I remember my dad shouting at my mom. A man standing in line at a theatre across the street had just been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. As you might expect, a cold-blooded murder left quite an impression on a kid who remembers trivial things like the first time he had French fries and the price of gasoline in 1972. ($0.39.9 a gallon at Les Wilson’s Esso in case you wondered.)
Gangland-style slayings aside, life was pretty sweet for a kid who was able to get out of school for a few weeks at a time on the promise of doing some token homework assignment on the backseat of a Buick. However, I suspect that by the spring of 1972 my dad was beginning to tire of this lifestyle. I don’t think he ever complained as nobody had forced him to take these trips, but there were signs that he was looking for something else in life.
I recall one time when a waitress at Ho-Jo’s set a plate of bacon and eggs in front of my dad with a cheery “And there you go.” He snapped. It was completely out of character. To my dad, “there you go” was something you said to a dog when setting down a bowl of Alpo. I think he’d had enough of waitresses and diners and simply wanted to make his own roast beef and hot mustard sandwich whenever he wanted. By this time we had eaten at our fair share of Stuckey’s truck stops, Howard Johnson’s Motor Inns, and mom-n-pop diners. At some point dad probably longed for his own bed rather than another night in a ‘Magic Fingers’ vibrating bed at a Best Western just off the Interstate.
So when we attended an auction at the Horse Palace on Toronto’s C.N.E. Grounds in the spring of ’72, dad was ready to fully immerse himself in his first and only hobby – a hobby that would keep him within a day’s drive of home for the next 25 years.
More than 200 horses had passed through the ring that day and my dad had yet to make a bid. Now, I can assure you they don’t save the very best equine specimens for the last two or three spots in the sale – when everyone is outside loading horses onto trucks or settling accounts in the office – so when you grab your dad’s sleeve and raise his arm in the air just as the auctioneer is saying, “Three-hundred fifty, going once, twice…”, and the bid spotter is standing directly in front of you, you are destined to own a horse, like it or not.
Her name was Willoway Wisp. She was anything but a ‘wisp’. She pinned her ears and planted her feet when we tried to load her onto the trailer. It took the better part of an hour and several bags of horse treats before three men could coax her aboard. Thankfully, her yearling daughter followed without coaxing. Oh, did I forget to mention this was a three-in-one deal? Willoway Wisp was sold with her unnamed weanling filly by Royal Rick and a free breeding to any stallion at Doc Egan’s Rob-Ron Acres. That venerable Whitby, Ontario farm produced several notable champions in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Willoway Wisp and her daughter were not champions. Not even close.
While the daughter – which dad named Royal Frances – lacked any semblance of natural athletic ability, she turned out to be a very good pupil for a rookie trainer. She didn’t move fast enough to hurt anyone even if you could get her head out of the feed bucket long enough to put a bridle on her.
But even the life of a penny-ante racehorse trainer had some stresful moments. Let’s just say that by naming his first-born horse after his mother-in-law, my dad created a bit of a situation with his own mother. He rectified this a year later when the ‘free breeding’ yielded Royal Maggie. Of course even that didn’t sit well with my grandmother Hamilton as she was a rather “proper” lady and much preferred Margaret or Merle to Maggie. “Maggie is something you call a milk wagon horse,” she once said. The woman had a point.
I hadn’t really thought of this until recently but since my dad was born in 1917 and sold the parts business in 1968, he would have been 51 when he made that dramatic change in his life. I certainly didn’t plan this, but since I was born on June 23, 1962, and will be employed in the racing industry until June 21, 2014, I too will still be 51 when I make my own life-changing move.
Unlike my dad, I have no plans to acquire a 2:14 pacer. A vintage Buick, maybe, but definitely no donkeys, mules or three-for-one, $350 racehorses for me.
DADDY HAD A BUICK by Robert Earl Keen
(Click below to play audio file)
RESOURCE LINKS: http://www.buicks.net/years/68.shtml[audio m4a= http://www.buicks.net/years/68/68paint.html http://hotwheels.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_1968_Hot_Wheels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_Wheels http://nomenu.com/?p=4987 http://www.louisianadigitallibrary.org/cdm/fullbrowser/collection/p15140coll58/id/4355/rv/singleitem