by Trey Nosrac
If your great-grandfather did not dally in the tavern for one more pint, he would not have crossed paths with the freckled lass from the fish cannery who would become your great-grandmother. If the automobile skidded one foot to the right, the train to Sheboygan broke down, or the flood did not happen, everything would be different. Ripples from long ago alter our voyages through life.
How people grew to enjoy the relatively small but highly addictive world of trotters and pacers is interesting. The most common answers are that racing is a family tradition or someone they knew had a few horses. Another standard answer is, “I spent great nights at the track with my buddies and eventually bought a small share of a cheap claimer.”
Folks with unusual entries intrigue me because I am unsure how I stumbled into this sport. Perhaps the seed was planted when I was 9 or 10 years old. My parents did not have any interest in horse racing. They were city folks through and through. But my mother’s parents, who immigrated from England, enjoyed horse racing. For a few years, grandma and grandpa felt the local harness racetrack, Northfield Park, was a fine place for babysitting a pair of hyper young lads like my brother and me.
As kids, we did not understand or care about the races. We enjoyed the lively atmosphere, the open spaces, and pressing our noses against the chain link apron fence. The horses appeared massive and loud as they clopped past. Each time a horse happened to relieve itself in front of our wide eyes, we went into a frenzy and shook the fence like prisoners in a jailbreak.
I can still see my grandparents sitting in green chairs on the second deck of the grandstands. Pap, short for pappa, was a small, wiry chap with a tidy head of white hair, a short-sleeved shirt, and dark pants, always with his nose in the race program. My grandma was sitting next to him in her floral cotton dress, black leather purse on her lap with both hands folded over as if one of the men marching up the stairs to the betting windows might snatch it away.
My memories of my grandparents are fleeting. The smell of unfiltered Camel cigarettes and rosewater, visiting them in their impossibly small project home, Pap, sitting at the table and listening to a baseball game on the radio, Grandma’s dark times, when she mysteriously stayed in her tiny bedroom for weeks.
If we spoke of meaningful things, and I doubt it, I do not remember much besides, “A cuppa’ tea and a bit of toast, bloody this, bloody that, and that both Teddy Roosevelt and FDR were top drawers.”
After they passed, the memories grew faint.
A few years ago, the genealogy bug bit me. I began to research both sides of my family tree. The grandparents I am referring to produced eight children, a hardy lot, some living for nearly a century. Like many families, the stories are complex, sad, and shocking. Research never goes deep enough to answer why they made the decisions they did or what it would have been like to look over their shoulders or into their eyes.
One story in my research made me gasp.
My grandfather departed on the ocean liner Aquitania from Southampton, England, on September 13, 1919. The destination was Ellis Island, NY. According to the ship manifest, he was 34 years and three months old (born May 19, 1885), 5’ 3” tall, with grey hair and blue eyes, and was born at Ashton-on-Mersey. He paid for his passage and the passage of his extended family, who at this time consisted of a pregnant wife, four children, and a mother-in-law. He had $50.
My ancestors were working poor. In England, all seven family members of my grandparents’ family lived in a crowded row house at the close of The First World War. My grandfather listed his work on one census form as a “factory worker” and another as a “velvet checker.”
How they got to America, why they decided to immigrate, and where they found the money to pay the fare were mysteries I hoped to solve. I came close. As happens in genealogy, there were conflicting stories set down on paper from two great aunts on how the family found enough money to afford passage to America.
One account is that one daughter found a bag of money by a gas meter. Gas meters lit their houses. When the house lights began to dim, people would need to run outside to insert coins in a box to keep them going.
The other account insists that my grandfather, always an enthusiastic horse player, won a “big gob” of money one day at the horseraces.
I believe the latter, even going so far as to attempt to search for race results from England in the summer of 1919. Also, the coins in the meter collection bag would not seem sufficient to cover the cost of a slew of transatlantic tickets. But the people are gone, and the trail is faint.
Whichever story is true. The family unexpectedly found the money. One of the children, my eldest aunt, recalled the day they left home in Manchester over a century ago, “On one side of the canal was a factory and on the other side was a railroad. The people in the factory came out and lined the banks to wave goodbye. We were off to America.”
A simple twist of fate, likely the nose of a racing horse straining for the finish line over a century ago, made all the difference.