Palomino by David McCabe
July 19, 1962
Minor league baseball in Waterloo, Iowa officially dates back to 1904. That’s when the Waterloo Microbes (quite the moniker, no?) joined the Iowa League of Professional Baseball Clubs. They suited up against the Boone Coal Miners, the Burlington River Rats, the Fort Dodge Gypsum Eaters (yum!), Keokuk Indians, Marshalltown Grays, Oskaloosa Quakers and the Ottumwa Standpatters. One can only imagine how road trips may have gotten themselves organized back then... I see long, winding wagon trains shuffling through chest-deep prairie grass in my little technicolored brain pan....
The Microbes progressed through various leagues and incarnations as the Waterloo Lulus, Boosters, Jays, Shamrocks and Lions before finally morphing into the Waterloo Hawks in 1922. They joined the Midwest League and the official ranks of A-level MLB farm teams in 1958. Affiliated with the Chicago White Sox, and to distinguish themselves from the local Black Hawks hockey team (Waterloo is the county seat of Black Hawk County), they’d been known as the White Hawks throughout the ’50s. I remember the name sticking well into the ’60s, even though the “White” was officially dropped when they took on their affiliation with the Boston Red Sox in ’58 and, strangely, never replaced it with “Red”. (I’d think the “Waterloo Red Hawks” would have been a pretty catchy name, if it had only been tried on for size at the time.)
The Hawks tended to dominate their A-level Midwest League brethren, which by then consisted of the Dubuque Packers, Quincy Jets, Keokuk Dodgers, Clinton C-Sox, Appleton Foxes, Cedar Rapids Braves, Burlington Bees, the Decatur Commodores and the always-tough Quad Cities Angels. That was certainly the case from those late ’50s right through the mid-60s. In 1959, they went 76–48; 1960, 81–43; 1961, 75–51; and in 1962, they’d finish 73–50. Crowd support was never a problem with that kind of success, and the old 5,000-seat Riverside Stadium was close to a sellout, more often than not, game after game, year after year.
But that didn’t stop the Hawks management, in conjunction with the many avid local merchants and the Waterloo Courier, from promoting the seamheads, by far the area’s biggest local attraction, and promoting with vigor.
May was Merchants Month, and August was Fan Appreciation Month. The local theaters handed out ticket packages hand over fist. Restaurants, photography shops, fishing and sporting-goods stores, radio stations, discount and department stores all got into the act, swelling the Waterloo Hawks game programs with their faithful advertising pages. Piggly Wiggly, National T, S&S Meats, Eagle’s, Del Farm, The Big T (the only grocery store I’ve ever known to feature a four-lane bowling alley in its basement!), Clute’s... the local grocers were especially keen to outdo each other at the ballpark: free snow cones, free hams, free watermelons, overstuffed coupon books, free strap-on-your-roller-skates-and-fill-up-your-grocery-cart-snatch-and-grab-style draws, a hundred pounds of hamburger here, a quarter side of beef there. Venerable old Rath Packing (whose militant, downright cocky union managed to politely run its parent company, and its own lunch ticket, right out of business by the mid-70s) would chip in with all manner of fresh meaty items, snappy paper hats, aprons, chef caps, gloves, free barbeques, you name it. (“We package everything but the squeal” was one of Rath’s notable, if rather offsetting, claims to fame.)
But June was Dairy Month, and absolutely nothing topped the over-the-top merchandizing and promos that went on at the old ballpark every June — every June game at Riverside Stadium was standing-room only.
Which is why, I’d guess, someone must have dropped a note in the suggestion box that maybe July could use a little equal-opportunity promo kick in the pants too, beyond your mandatory fireworks for a home game on the Fourth. And so, on that 4th of July 1962, the stadium PA guy announced that something BIG would be happening during the seventh-inning stretch for the upcoming July 19th home game. For the first time ever, there would be a draw for one lucky kid to win his or her very own… wait for it… golden palomino pony, complete with genu-wine all-leather riding saddle.
Well boy howdy, the old town was buzzing for two solid weeks. Now what would any able-bodied ten-year-old North American kid in 1962 have at the very top of his or her list of out-of-this-world-and-well-beyond-perfect things to wish for? Would the answer not have to be his or her very own horse, with genu-wine all-leather riding saddle? I mean, we’re talking peak Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Lone Ranger, Paladin, Zorro, Matt Dillon, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Davy Crockett, Spin & Marty days here, after all.
I knew I was going to win that horse. My mother knew I was going to win that horse. We didn’t discuss it, though I may recall one brief mention, gazing at the game tickets, sitting there, waiting expectantly, in the catch-all tray on top of the dining room bureau….
“I’m going to win that horse, Ma,” followed by her quick, quiet “I know,” sort of half choked off in mid-whisper from the kitchen. It also may be that the thousandth retelling of this whole story has made that little exchange a ‘phantom’ element of long-ago memory. But, whether either one of us made mention or not, we knew. We just knew. There was something downright electrical in the air. Ma would later remark on an atmosphere that I’d take liberty to describe as farcical anticipation topped with a generous dollop of dread. For myself, it was just a magical ‘something’ that was in the cards, a very, very odd sense of sublime inevitability.
I knew we’d be sitting about three-quarters along the first base line, halfway up the grandstand bleachers. I could see Dad to my left, brother Jim on my right, Ma and GrandMa at home, vacillating between farcical anticipation and dollops of dread. I could see the wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces of the fans who would be sitting in the stands around us. I could see the entire packed stadium rising to its feet, and that this movement would be far more about the anticipation of the moment than the fact we’d arrived at the seventh-inning stretch…
… yep, and there we were, one and all, just as I’d pictured us, with this frisky, magnificently groomed golden palomino being trotted out to the pitcher’s mound, whinnying and pawing to perfection, as if Hollywood trained and directed. I knew the PA guy would begin, “And the winner of this magnificent pony is…” and that he’d then take and hold a big breath, and that when he read aloud “Dave”, a huge collective groan would spill across the crowd and 99% of those seventh-inning stretchers would take their seats in a town-sized, unified huff of expelled air.
I knew he’d then stumble around with the last name, and that another few dozen deflated “Dave”s would now take their seats as he hesitated once again, just after the “Mc”… and I knew it would be impossible for me to stanch the ridiculously self-aggrandizing “That’s me!” that would force its inevitable, stupid way out of my dippy mouth when he’d finally managed to nail the “Cabe” part….
The next minute or two are (and were) kind of a blur. I remember Dad calling out, “He’s here, right here!” as I continued sitting there, soaking up the reality that I’d somehow seen all of this coming, but was now even more stunned than if it had simply transpired as a really great out-of-the-blue actual “surprise”. I recall Dad more or less dragging me by the left arm down to the box seats close to home base…
I snapped out of my fog right there, hopped the rail, ran straight to the mound, gave this fine-looking little palomino a big sweeping pat on the neck and behind the ear, and took the reins without needing to be asked. As I was slipping my left foot into the stirrup and mounting MY STEED, the dude on the mound stuck a mic in my face, wondering what I thought I might name my new pet here. “Lucky,” I blurted without a second’s hesitation... you see, I’d known that one was coming, too.
I suppose that’s when, amongst all the cheering and uproar, I first started hearing some boos… and man, were they building… and they continued to build as Mic Man and the pony’s handler commenced to trot our little huddle through a victory lap around the bases. (I would have MUCH preferred to spur old Lucky into a jaunty canter here under my own command, but “liability” being what it is, even in 1962…) The boos started really rocking the joint as we crossed home plate — my arms sky high, roller-coaster-style — and then headed back up toward the groundskeepers’ gate past first base, making the clubhouse turn to rendezvous with Dad and Jim again, back under the first-base grandstands.
Here’s the part I didn’t see coming in my paranormal reverie:
As Lucky and I were passing below, every kid in Waterloo was pressed against the grandstand rail above, screaming like banshees and mustering rapid-fire gobs of spit the likes of which have never been seen in the annals of spitdom….
Well, Dad tossed me a hankie, then fixed a lead to Lucky’s bridle, and we made our exit through the dusty parking lot. He maintained a careful, reassuring grip on that lead, out his driver’s side window, as Lucky and our ’56 Chevy Bel Air paraded gingerly side by each at an unreal, un-Chevy-like palamino pace along the darkest, quietest streets those thirteen blocks home from the stadium.
My sister Lynda and her fiancé popped right up off the front-porch swing, their hands shooting sky high, roller-coaster-style, when we pulled up. “Better go tell Ma to come out and see what we’ve brought home here…”, says Dad.
“Well, you’ve gone and done it, haven’t you?” I hear Ma saying, before she’s even out the door. “I knew it,” she’d add, again in that sort of choked-off whisper, Lynda and Pat still standing with their hands on their heads, GrandMa doubled over in laughter….
So the kid has a pony. Now what?
Some calls would be made in the morning; maybe we could find a stable; meanwhile, I filled a bucket of water for Lucky and tethered him to the clothesline pole out back. Good thing we had a fenced back yard….
It was just after 5 o’clock or so, still dark as pitch, when Dad pokes me awake. “He’s gone,” he says.
“What? Who?”, my sleep-addled reply.
“Your horse is gone,” he repeats. “Get dressed, we better go find him…”.
To this day, no idea — did someone turn Lucky loose? Did he manage to pull his tether free and then leap the fence, thoroughbred-style? No idea. Doesn’t matter. Both back yard gates were still closed, but the pony had bolted. We drove, cruising in the Bel Air at just a little brisker than palomino pace, down every street and alley, blocks and blocks. Then we circled back, and started over…. Almost sunrise; Dad needed to be getting to work. One last alley, over the creek, back behind Ricker Street, that’s all we’d have time for….
As the first rays of sunrise peeked through the trees, the dew now shimmering brilliantly on every blade and leaf on a perfect, bird-chirping, golden, crisp July dawn, a little kid, maybe four or five years old, woke up and looked out his bedroom window to see a miracle… a beautiful, finely proportioned golden palomino pony, grazing contentedly in his back yard! He’d just swung open his back-porch screen door, mouth wide open, eyes wider than wide, leaving a barefoot trail through the wet grass as he ambled toward his dream come true, still in his white night shirt, one arm extended.
That is one moment I will never forget. Here I was, living a dream — and not just this past day, my entire ten years, really — and as I was jumping out of the car, I knew full well I was also killing a dream, right here, on the spot… “Sorry, he’s mine,” I had to say, as quickly, gently and low key as I could possibly manage, smiling and slowing to a purposeful walk. “His name is Lucky… geez, he got away last night somehow,” I explained. “Go ahead, give him a pat… it’s okay, he’ll like that…”.
Dad slipped the lead back on, and this time I rode Lucky home, bareback, behind the old Bel Air. The kid didn’t move a muscle, or even blink, as I turned and waved over my shoulder. It killed me to see his arm was still extended.
Not long after breakfast, there had to be at least thirty kids lined up in the alley along our back fence. And how many of these clods were horking loogies at me last night, I wondered; all smiles this morning, eh… sure, and now every one of them wants a ride….
All right, rides it is. Nickel a head.
I deputized my buddies the Fink brothers, Joe and Davey (aka “Hoser” aka “Sandpaper Head” Fink, who, that next summer, would be the only one from our Cutler/Kern group to win a coveted spot as a Hawks batboy) to help maintain a little order and civility within the swelling throngs. Jim proceeded to set up a card table, while GrandMa whipped up a few pitchers of lemonade for him to shill (penny a glass), and then half a dozen batches of the world’s absolute finest chocolate-chip cookies (two cents each, three if you’re lippy)…
By noon, I’d slow-walked Lucky through about fourteen bucks’ worth of kid trips, up and back down a short stretch of alley. The pony and I were pooped, and getting ornery. Jim perched lively at his little table, meanwhile, a regular junior royal, barking short orders at Granny and raking in more loot than any six-year-old had ever seen on the East Side of Waterloo in a week, let alone one hot Friday morning. I had to twist his little Midas arm to part with a few nickels to help pay off the Fink boys for their yeomen duties. Kid made out like a bandit.
A hasty lunch, and the lineups continued. Any time Lucky and I dared get bold enough to take a break for a sip of water, a chaw of grass or a hint of R&R, the natives would get entirely restless and start flinging alley rocks. By 2 o’clock, I’d pretty much had it. By 3 o’clock, Lucky was taking nips out of anyone he could sink his teeth into (that being mostly me), and kicking pretty impressively for a stubby guy....
It took every Deputy Fink, Granny, Ma, a blanket to shield Lucky in a shady spot behind the old mock orange tree, and my best “All right, folks, that’s all for today, move it on out” tough guy imitation to disperse the roiling, rock-tossing rabble. Jim was certainly the only one disappointed to see that day draw to a close, but even a six-year-old readily understood that the back yard of 306 Cutler was no place to call home for a hoss. We all slept mighty well that night, including Lucky, who was apparently too tuckered for further fence-jumping exploits.
That circus scene repeated itself through the weekend, though thankfully with rapidly dwindling numbers of paying customers. The novelty was wearing off, and not a minute too soon. Master James likely regretted the faltering returns on his newfound bonanza, but I figured he was more than welcome to make some quick hay while that bright sun shined, because — you know what — a week, a month on, he might still be counting his windfall… but I’d still have my own dang pony! And now we were going to have some fun on our own, MY STEED and me.
Late September 1962
Dad had found a stable within a day or two, out past our school, at the end of Charles Street, maybe a long half-mile from home. Unbeknownst to me, my fellow St. Mary’s fourth-grader, Margaret “Mugsy” McGill, was also a fellow equestrian; she kept a spirited grey American Walking pony, Smoky, there, in a cozy stable, with a tidy little side corral — just big enough for a pair of ponies, who actually got along quite well after sizing each other up in a briefly combative test period. There was even a little pastureland available to stake them down on long leads for full, leisurely grazing days.
And so I settled into a nice twice-a-day routine, filling my pockets with sugar cubes and my Schwinn basket (yes, my geeky red-and-white Schwinn had a basket, and full dorky fenders, and a streamlined space-age-looking headlight, and an obnoxious electric buzzer rather than your standard bell, and whitewalls, and it even had red-and-white streamers dangling off the lily-white handlebar grips for about ten minutes, that being where I mustered up the audacity to draw the geek line, ripping them right out and tossing them before anyone had so much as a fat chance to mock them, and their owner…). Anyway, yes, I’d fill my Schwinn basket with carrots, an apple or two, leftover lettuce and any other table and garden items I thought I could cadge and that might pass for pony treats.
I suppose I was all of about three-and-a-half the day my cousin Susie plunked my butt down astride King, her black-and-white pinto paint. King, being at least as much mule as pinto, stood there, stock still, posing to himself, until Susie reached back and swatted him a sharp one on the rump. Well, King bolted like a cannon shot and I catapulted in a perfectly picturesque backward somersault off his generous backside to find myself splayed, thankfully face up, in the mucky corral goo, as he continued to shoot through a lightning-fast nifty little circuit of his pony pad, circling sharply and directly back my way, bearing down, hooves digging, mane, tail and mud absolutely flying…
… well, he planted each hoof a strategic inch or two on either side of my face — and then stopped on a dime, resuming his mule pose, stock still, his head tilted down toward me, cheeky devil — and being only three-and-a-half, I automatically understood that the big old oaf was saying, “C’mon, get up here, kid, let’s go for a ride.” I trace my high esteem for horses to that notable moment….
I’d eventually learned to saddle and curry ponies a bit from those many visits to the aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ farms up in Minnesota, and to check their hooves and shoes, and to climb back on after getting tossed or rubbed off against a fence post, and how to fit the bit, and how long to set the stirrups, and how to find the brakes, a couple fun forward gears and even the reverse gear — plus, I’d seen my share of celluloid cowboys in action! — so, I was feeling like a grizzled veteran of hossdom already after one weekend with Lucky, at the grand old age of ten.
I played T-Shirt League baseball two afternoons a week at Gates Park that summer, and was scuffling through my first grueling season on the Gates Park swim team as well, logging non-stop laps and sprints every Tuesday and Thursday morning (cue A Summer Place here, which will forever play in my head at any mention of swimming, that fine tune being a mainstay of the synchronized team, with their white caps and nose plugs, down there in the deep end).
I don’t suppose I need to go to any great lengths explaining how amazing — and surreal — it was, being able to saddle up MY STEED and mosey along the side streets and alleyways, then prod Lucky into a smart parade canter for full effect as we trotted into view of the Gates ball yard or up the long hill to the pool. I’d tether him to the playground equipment or, better yet, the backstop, to keep a close eye on things during games and practices. Much like that first weekend, all the raised eyebrows along my usual routes and scheduled events returned to normal after a few days. I was just another skinny kid with an oversized pet… but I will say my street cred rose to something well above average during those heady summer days of 1962.
The best days were the ones Lucky and I spent on our own. Starting from Charles Street, we’d meander alongside the railroad tracks over to the floodgates behind the Chamberlain munitions plant. From there, we’d follow Virden Creek — right through the heart of Gates Park Golf Course.
The golfers were never overly amused; they sure never lowered their eyebrows, or their voices. “Get the hell outta here, you crazy kid!” they’d yell.
“Hey Tex, you tryin’ to get yourself and Trigger there kilt?!”
They’d yell “Fore!” at the top of their lungs; I’d yell “Ten!” right back at them.
They’d place a friendly on who could take one of us out with a well-placed wood shot. I’d slow Lucky to a near standstill and stare holes towards the tee box. “Just passing through,” I’d wave, smiling, “just passing through.”
My attitude was unflinching, set in stone: You might think this is your golf course, but hey, it’s MY CRICK. “C’mon, Lucky, let’s head for the country…”.
We’d wander for miles, working our way north along, down, across and back up the meandering creek banks. Lucky had his pick of choice gourmet grazing spots — small patches here and there of virgin prairie, loaded with exotic pony fare. He took well to the steep slopes and the shallow crossings, and seemed to be particularly drawn to the taste of semi-cold, burbling Virden Creek water (it was probably all that fertilizer runoff we knew nothing about back then that was giving him a little something in the way of an extra ‘jolt’…). I’d pack a peanut butter sandwich and a canteen.
Now and then, I’d take my fishing pole along; when it came to fishing, I had the same attitude as Ma: the fact they weren’t biting was irrelevant (and if they had been, in Virden Creek, that would have been something of a news flash). Just being there is what it was all about. Lazing away in the summer sun. Prospecting the limestone ridges for fossils. Poking sticks at crawdads. Sniffing the breeze. Studying the clouds. Throwing a few rocks at the hornets’ nests. Having a bit of a snooze. Poking our way back home. Just me and MY STEED.
The school year started the end of August. Those morning bike rides to the end of Charles Street came really, really early; the rainy mornings were downright miserable. Sometimes I’d ask Dad for an even earlier ride out, on his way to work. Afternoon chores were a lot easier by comparison — one, because the stable was just a few short blocks down from school, and two, because I was awake.
But our riding time was next to nothing; it was tough to get Lucky the yard time he needed, let alone a decent run. By mid-September, even my eyebrows were lowering. The snow would be flying in a few weeks…. I took and held a big breath, and then I let it all out, very slowly.
I’d made the decision on my own, but probably no more than a day or two before the folks would have made it for me (or, more their style, planted a seed that would have been pointless to ignore; they were pretty smooth that way, those two).
Dad found an interested owner, way across town, a garden farmer out at the end of Hammond Avenue — the same guy he’d been calling every week or so to deliver another load of hay to Charles Street, as it turns out. The guy was all set up, already had several horses, seemed to know his stuff; he even offered to come fetch Lucky himself — no problem, he had a horse trailer.
The next weekend we drove over to inspect the palomino’s new digs. Things looked pretty shipshape; Lucky was cavorting in a beautiful, green, expansive fenced pasture with his new buddies — he acknowledged my call, but just barely. He’d be fine, I guess… but man…
“You better take care of my horse!” I was surprised to hear myself blurting as I wheeled away from the fence and headed for the Chevy.
“Y’alright?” Dad asked after a few minutes and a few miles.
“Yeah… Ah’m okay…” I managed, “… it was pretty good, wasn’t it?”
There weren’t many ten-year-olds who’d ever had a better summer than the one I’d just had, and I knew it. But that was the last I saw of MY STEED.
$125 for a pony, with genu-wine all-leather riding saddle — I put my $125 in the bank, along with my alley kid-ride money, along with some allowance, some caddying money (Porky’s Red Carpet Club, age thirteen and fourteen), 7-Up truck-loading and bottle-sorting money (age fifteen and sixteen), and Del Farm grocery-bagging earnings (age sixteen and seventeen)… and that summer of 1969, age seventeen, I bought my first car.
I had parlayed my ’62 golden palomino into a cherry red ’65 Mustang. Seemed fitting enough.