August 4, 2018


Horseman, Pass By: Glory, grief, and the race for the Triple Crown (John Jeremiah Sullivan, October 2002, Harper's)

My only real awareness of the Kentucky Derby, growing up across the river from Louisville, lay in noticing the new commemorative glass that appeared in the cupboard each May, to be dropped and broken, as often as not by me, before the next one arrived. Although my father attended the race every year for more than a decade, occasionally taking my older brother along, he never said anything to me about it apart from to ask, when I got old enough, which horse I would like him to bet on with my allotted two dollars. His position, in general, was that to talk about work was the same as being at work, and there was already plenty of that.

A sportswriter gets used to people coming up to him in restaurants or at PTA meetings and taking issue with something he said in a column or on some call-in show. And my father was sensitive to the slightest criticism --really the slightest mention--of his writing, almost to the point of wincing, which may have stemmed from his having come to the job somewhat backward. As opposed to the typical sportswriter, who has a passion for the subject and can put together a sentence, my father's ambition had been to Write (poetry, no less), and sports were what he knew, so he sort of stumbled onto making his living that way. When the alternative weekly paper in Columbus, Ohio--where we moved when I was twelve so he could take a job writing for the Columbus Dispatch--started running a regular column entitled "The Sully," in which they would select and expand upon what they felt to be my father's most bizarre sentence from the previous week (e.g., "'Second base is still an undefined area that we haven't wrapped our arms around,' Tribe general manager John Hart said, sounding very much like a man about to have his face savagely bitten"), we were amazed by his pained reaction. The compliment behind the teasing would have been plain to anyone else, but he would not have the thing in the house.

Two years ago, in May, I sat with him in his hospital room at Riverside Methodist, in Columbus. He was in recovery from what was supposed to have been a quintuple bypass operation but became, on the surgeon's actually seeing the heart, a sextuple bypass. There had, in the preceding year, already been the aneurysm surgery, then the surgery (unsuccessful) to repair the hernia caused by the aneurysm surgery. "My succession of infirmities," as he put it to me in a letter, "has tended finally to confront me with blunt intimations of mortality." Otherwise it was not a morbid scene. The last operation had gone well, and he seemed to be feeling better than he had any right to. The waning sedative and, I suppose, twenty-four hours without cigarettes had left him edgy, but he was happy to talk, which we did in whispers, because the old man with whom he was sharing a room that night had already gone to sleep.

I asked him to tell me what he remembered from all those years of writing about sports, for he had seen some things in his time: Michael Jordan at North Carolina, a teenage John McEnroe, Bear Bryant, the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. This is what he told me:

I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73, the year before you were born-l don't guess you were even conceived yet. That was...just beauty, you know? He started in last place, which he tended to do. I was covering the second-place horse, which wound up being Sham. It looked like Sham's race going into the last turn, I think. The thing you have to understand is that Sham was fast, a beautiful horse. He would have had the Triple Crown in another year. And it just didn't seem like there could be anything faster than that. Everybody was watching him. It was over, more or less. And all of a sudden there was, just a disruption in the comer of your eye, in your peripheral vision. And then before you could make out what it was, here Secretariat came. And then Secretariat had passed him. No one had ever seen anything run like that--a lot of the old guys said the same thing. It was like he was some other animal out there...

I wrote that down when I got back to my father's apartment, where my younger sister and I were staying the night. He lived two more months, but that was the last time I saw him alive. [...]

My trip to the September yearling sale was only the second time I had been back to Lexington since we had buried my father there a year before. On the evening of the twelfth, after the last hip number had been called and most of the buyers had been driven to the airport, I pulled away from Keeneland under an almost radioactive violet sky that had the first tinge of fall in it, passing a skinny, bald-headed man who was walking shirtless along the side of the road, listlessly waving an American flag. The car was pointed toward my grandmother's house, where I was staying, but I veered at the last minute toward the cemetery.

His grave is at Calvary, a Catholic cemetery that lies directly across the road from Lexington Cemetery, site, as it happens, of the first racetrack in town and the place where all of my Episcopalian family on my mother's side are buried. The two graveyards, starkly separated from each other by the road and the traffic and the fences, seemed at the time to sum up rather neatly how opposite my parents were in almost every way: he Catholic, she Protestant; she Old Lexington, he a grandson of Irish immigrants, brought up in White Plains, New York, who moved to Lexington only as a teenager when his father, a construction supervisor, got a job overseeing the building of an IBM plant outside of town; she a former boarding-school cheerleader, he a former Memphis hippie (the freakiest of the hippies, as any survivor can tell you); and the list is long. It is a riddle how they stayed together for twenty years

The headstone was not on the grave yet, the grass had not come in. No one else was around. I had no flowers or anything else to leave and felt slightly awkward, as if I were trespassing.

One of the most difficult things in dealing with my father's death--for many of the people he left behind, I think--is how totally inappropriate grief and mourning seem beside any memory of the man himself. He was a deeply funny person, a collector and disseminator of bawdy jokes and carefully clipped page 10 stories about insane trailer park crimes. He had inherited some variant of that dark and antic strain of Irish humor that runs through Synge and Flann O'Brien, by which the worst imaginable scenarios, the worst outbursts of temper, would flower in a joke that made everything bearable. It was a quality not without its regrettable side, for he used it to keep our concern over his health at bay. I have a letter from him, written less than a month before he died, in response to my having asked him about an exercise regimen that his doctor had him on. In typically epithetic style (it was his weakness), he wrote, "Three days ago didst I most stylishly drive these plucky limbs once around the 1.2-mile girth of Antrim Lake--and wasn't it a lark watching the repellently 'buff' exercise cultists scatter and cower in fear as I gunned the Toyota around the tight turns!"

For all the joking, his disappointments and sadnesses never quit him. His own father had died when he was only nineteen, dropping dead in harness, as it were, on the job at a construction site. "Four men came up to my mother at the funeral," my father told me once, "and claimed to be the one who caught him, which is how she knew that no one did." He was devastated; he had worshiped the man. He dropped out of college, utterly lost for a while. I see now that he was always, in some sense, a son. In one of his journals are plans for a book that would tell his father's story, the story of "a great and unknown man." But he never wrote it. His temperament was not suited for the long commitment, for the artist's obliviousness to competing responsibilities, which necessitates a certain cruelty, let us admit. So he accepted his defeat, with dignity, and with a total lack of self-pity. He wrote his newspaper stories, and wrote them well, downstairs at his vast green-leather-topped desk, on his creaking chair, in a haze of smoke. The desk was accidentally lost during the settlement of his estate. It is in a Salvation Army somewhere in Louisville, or at the dump.

The night he died I went back to his bachelor apartment in the dismal complex and sat down at the old desk, among his few things. In the drawers were his "quitting journals," as he called them, special notebooks, set apart from the others, filled with his rapid, loopy script. He would start a clean one with each new attempt to kick cigarettes. I had glanced at them once or twice, without permission, when he was alive. Now they belonged to me, along with all of his "creative work," under the terms of the will. They were largely self-excoriations, full of dark thoughts, efforts to locate and take hold of his own willpower. How badly he wanted co change. Worse than any of us could want that for him. I remember a notecard on the table by the bed, written during a brief period when he was attending a support group: "Reasons to quit: I} It worries my children."

Posted by at August 4, 2018 11:45 AM