Mom couldn't believe it. Stashed behind a drawer in the big bureau in her bedroom was about $900 cash, enough to pay for Dad's funeral. (It was 1971; money went a lot further then.)
She had a fairly good idea where it had come from: either work he did on the side as an electrician, or the track. Dad liked going to the races, and he usually did very well. Chances are he hit the double and stashed the cash.
The guys at Campbell Soup in Camden, N.J., where Dad was a shop steward, liked a little action themselves. It wasn't unusual for one of them to cut out early each day to run bets for the gang a few miles away at Garden State Park. Someone always covered for the runner.
Mom used to go to the track with Dad, usually the Garden, sometimes Atlantic City or Delaware Park. Come to think of it, the few adults in the rather large family who didn't go to the races from time to time at least knew someone who did. It was simply the thing to do.
At the grandparents' house, 4:45 meant dinner -- and Jack Lamar's call of the feature race from Garden State on the radio. If it wasn't the Garden, it was Liberty Bell, and later Keystone. And it didn't even matter if anyone had live tickets.
While Dad could read the Form, Aunt Mary for the most part played names, numbers, and jockeys. And she had her favorites: Culmone, Edwards, Lukas, Solomone, Thornburg. She'd send bets with Uncle Tom, and listen to the results on KYW Newsradio.
I never had the pleasure of going to Garden State with Dad, but in 1976, I made my first trip there with Uncle Tom. I remember the large crowds, the cigar smoke, the little program with the funny names, the unmistakable voice of the late Bob Weems. I was hooked at the age of 12, the year I learned how to read the Form.
The real Garden State Park went up in flames the following year. Little did we know, it was the beginning of the end of a racing tradition in the Delaware Valley.
Garden State Park, looking more like a casino than a place where legends raced, reopened eight years later. The new Garden probably occupied too much of my time, mainly because I had a driver's license and a part-time job. Thank heavens I majored in English in college and could b.s. my way through essay tests. (I liked Faulkner and O'Connor, but preferred reading the dope on night turf races at Garden State and Atlantic City.)
Who could forget Memorial Day 1985? Spend a Buck was life and death to win the Jersey Derby and a $2.6 million paycheck that shook the powers that be in the industry, forever changing the Triple Crown. Yes, New Jersey was good for something.
I'd meet the cousins -- Mocky, Joey, and Anthony -- on the second floor of the Garden during the fall harness meets. In between the handicapping and inevitable upset over "bad drives," there were fascinating conversations that taught me about my family history. I even picked up a few Italian curse words.
Oh, and there was a redhead named Karen, whom I met at Rutgers University in Camden. She used to hunt me down at the track. Her parents thought I was a degenerate, but she married me anyway.
Last December, some of us met on the Garden's second floor on closing night of the harness meet. We didn't know it at the time, but it turned out to be the last harness program ever run there. Maybe 800 people showed up. Doesn't anyone need Christmas money anymore?
On May 3, it finally came to an end, two days before the Kentucky Derby. Only about four thousand locals were on hand to pay their respects. The press releases that counted down the final days were laughable given the fact the track hardly generated any publicity the last couple of years.
On May 7, Mom called to tell me Uncle Tom, the guy who used to tell me those great stories about four-hour train excursions to old Shenandoah Downs in the dead of winter, had passed away that morning at his home not far from the track. In his late 80s and failing health, he didn't get the chance to say goodbye to his old friend.
By next year, the Garden will be new and improved: offices, condos, houses, and boutiques.
So what if a third Delaware Valley racetrack is bulldozed. It's just a piece of real estate, right?