“Run out to the office and get us two more Cokes from the machine,” said Les as he handed me two quarters and two nickels. “And get yourself some jellybeans with the nickels.”
It was Christmas Eve, 1970, and Les Wilson’s Esso Station and AMC dealership had just closed for the evening. My dad and I had stopped in to deliver a Christmas present when we found half a dozen local men sitting around the boiler room, Styrofoam coffee cups in hand.
Polly Minton, the local undertaker, piped up: “Hey, Gimme, when Bev Sue Ruth has a foal, you’ll have to call it Bloody Nose.” (“Gimme” was what some of the men called Les Wilson as he was always mooching pens and cigarettes.)
Les did not laugh at first. His son George slapped his knee and laughed loudly. Doc Smith laughed so hard that he spilled half his drink before setting it down on a case of air filters. Mr. Sutherland, my Public School principal had dropped in to pay his bill and he laughed too. That was the weird part because I had never seen ‘Sudsy’ laugh at anything. Ever.
I didn’t completely understand the story that Les had just told, or Polly Minton’s apparently hilarious punch line, but I figured that if my dad was laughing, then it was okay for me to laugh too. After a while even Les cracked a smile. “Wasn’t funny at the time,” he snorted.
“At the time” was one week earlier, on a Saturday afternoon. My mother had gone Christmas shopping in the city and for some reason I wasn’t allowed to go. My dad and I were “batching it” as he put it. But there was no need for local bachelors to cook dinner now that Hal’s Diner had a new Dining Room and extended hours. We were just heading out the door when the phone rang.
“Dad, it’s for you. It’s Les Wilson.”
My dad took the receiver and listened for a few seconds before he turned to me and asked, “Wanna go to the horse races tonight with Les?”
It’s not like he had to ask. I loved the races and I liked Les Wilson, so any combination of the two was okay by me.
Les had this trick where he’d pinch your nose and say, “Got it.” Then he’d turn his hand over to reveal the end of your nose lodged between his thick, meaty fingers – or at least the three fingers that he still had on his right hand. Word was that he lost his baby finger in the war but my dad said he chopped it off when he was jacking up a car for a lady on Lloyd Street. I didn’t really care which version of the story was true. He was nice to me and now he was apparently doing something very nice for my dad.
Les and Doc Smith had been partners on racehorses for years. Some of them were pretty good, too. Doc had just called Les to say that their best mare, Bev Sue Ruth, was supposed to win that night’s 10th race at Greenwood. It was the last race before the Christmas break and the pools would be huge. Doc told Les to get down to Greenwood with all the cash he could scrape up and to bring any friends who might like “free money” as well.
“Okay, we’ll be ready at 6:00,” my dad said as he hung up the phone.
Scraping up cash wasn’t an issue for Les Wilson. He was the sole owner of a busy service station, and in 1970 most people paid for fill-ups and oil changes and rad-flushes with cash. Les walked around with a wad of bills so thick that he had to wrap elastic bands around it. In fact, he had several wads of money tucked into several pockets “just in case one of the boys from the Lake ever tries to get cute.”
Within a minute the phone rang again. This time my dad listened for what seemed like ages before he got in a word.
“Okay, Hilda. I’ll make sure he does. The Commerce, right? Okay… Yes, yes, I’ll be sure… No, he won’t take it all… I know, it will be thousands… Yes, I’ll make sure. Okay… Yes… Yes… Okay, bye.”
Just then a lime green American Motors AMX pulled up in front of our house. Les drove a Jeep Comanche pickup around town but when he went to ‘The Trots’ he’d generally drive a new car off the lot. I was really excited to climb in the back seat of his sporty two-door since I owned one just like it. At least I had the ‘Hot Wheels’ version of the AMX. With the possible exception of Keith Betz’s metallic blue Camaro Z28, this was arguably the coolest car in town.
As we pulled away, Les said to my dad, “Look in the glove box there, Belf. Might be something Mike could use.”
My dad opened the glove box and found a paper bag that he passed back to me. I could feel two packages inside, each about the size of a pound of butter. Even though I had never seen them in this form, I knew what I had my hands on. Each package contained 100 unopened packets of Esso Power Players. Any boy who grew up in Canada in the 1970s will know all about Esso Power Players. For everyone else, well, it’s hard to explain the allure of paper stickers depicting every player in the NHL, but I think that it had something to do with the fact that you could collect the whole set. Unlike hockey cards that you kept in a shoe box, you pasted Esso Power Players into a special album and could easily see which stickers you were missing.
I could hardly believe it. “Are they all for me, Les?”
“Well, you’re only supposed to get three with a fill-up, but if you don’t tell anyone, I won’t. Okay, kid?
By the time we drove through Markham I had opened every packet. I tore through them so quickly that I accidentally damaged a Jonnny Bucyk. Not that it mattered; everybody had Johnny Bucyk. And Orland Kurtenbach. And Eric Nesterenko. You always got one of the ‘Three Stooges’ as my friends and I called them. Who wanted players from the California Golden Seals or the Minnesota North Stars anyway? Every kid at my school was fixated on collecting the complete roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The last pack I opened contained the card that everyone agreed was the most rare. Now that I had doubles of Jacques Plante, I could probably pull off any trade that I wanted. David Elson had already offered the sissy bar off Jason Parsons’ bike for my Jacques Plante. I don’t think Jason knew anything about this trade, and since David was a bit of a bully I made up a story about losing my Plante sticker. Besides, my friend Paul Brunke was much easier to deal with and he was offering a 5-for-1 “All Leafs” deal: Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Mike Pelyk, Paul Henderson and Rick Ley for Jacques Plante.
When we got to the track Les signed us in to the backstretch. We headed straight for Barn 5 where we found Les’ trainer, Bill Hicks, sitting on a tack trunk. He looked sad. When Les asked what was wrong, the trainer said that Bev Sue Ruth had warmed up poorly and that he no longer thought she could win.
“She can’t beat Dusty Roads unless she’s 100% and she’s not. She can probably get a cheque but I don’t think she can win. Stick around but don’t bet too much,” he cautioned.
Les and my dad were dejected. They didn’t say much as we walked over to the grandstand, their dreams of a big score practically dead. We found seats along the window in the Clubhouse. The men read their programs and placed small bets throughout the night while I did what all kids did at the racetrack in the 1970s – I collected discarded tote tickets. Back then the tickets had exotic looking codes and strange words printed on them, and best of all there was a different colour for each type of wager.
When the horses came onto the track for the last race we went down to the rail to watch and hopefully beat the crowd to the valet parking stand when the race was over.
“And theyyyyyyyy’re they go,” said the announcer. The race was on. Bev Sue Ruth started from the rail but she let five horses drop in front of her before the quarter pole. That didn’t seem very good to me and it only got worse on the last turn. She was far back in the field when the announcer boomed: “And down the stretch they come. “It’s Dusty Roads by a length, Culpepper County second, and a Photo Finish for Show. The mile, two-oh-five and four.”
The man who was standing beside us yelled out, “Hicks, you bum,” as he tossed a big stack of tickets in the air. The yellow, orange, and purple pieces of cardboard had barely hit the ground before I scooped them up. I knew the purple ones were from the $50 window and there were at least 20 of them. What a great addition to my collection, I thought.
The next thing I remember was my dad saying, “Mike, wake up. We’re home. Say goodnight to Les.”
I felt that I should thank Les for the Power Players so on the spur of the moment I said, “Here, Les, I want you to have these,” and I handed him my stack of losing tickets.
“Thanks, kid,” he said as he pulled an elastic from his pocket.
Les had recounted most of the story up to this point but it was his son George who took over while Les poured the men another round of Canadian Club and Coke.
As George told it, “It was one in the morning when dad got home so he gets into bed without waking mom. But she gets up in the middle of the night and sees this massive stack of tickets on the bedside table. Most of them are from the 10th race. She had listened to the results on CFRB before going to bed and she knew that Bev Sue Ruth did not finish in the top three in the 10th race.”
“So what did Hilda do?” asked Mr. Sutherland.
George continued, “Mom couldn’t decide who she was maddest at – dad for apparently blowing a week’s worth of income from the garage or Belf (my father) who promised her that he’d make sure the money went into the night deposit slot at the bank before they left town. And since only one of the two was sound asleep in front of her, it was dad (Les) who got the beating with a pillow.”
Les jumped in to finish the story. “She hit me so hard that I got a nosebleed. Bled all over the sheets and the bedspread and the carpet, too. It just wouldn’t stop. There was blood everywhere. Hilda had to go to Eaton’s on Monday to buy all new bedding. Yep, that was an expensive night, Belf.”