A few years ago, I was working a full-time job, carrying a full academic load and moonlighting at a part-time job on the side. And my angry, vociferous creditors would come on the horn almost every day to tell me that I wasn't working hard enough. Back then, there was an Edge whose name was Despair, and every time I felt it coming close, I would drive out to the race track in Charles Town, W.Va. -- not so much for the betting but to get away.
It was a beautiful drive up Routes 7 and 9, the race track beer was cold and delicious, the horses and the fresh dirt looked and smelled wonderful, and the people up there were likeable in that they too had gotten away and were more absorbed in whether the favorite in the third race had blinkers on than they were with whatever was going on back here. And although this was 1971, the prevailing attitude at that mountain track seemed to be that whatever was wrong, President Roosevelt would handle it, and that in the meantime the most important thing was to study the Racing Form, which was something you could depend on.
Of course, it sometimes happened that those of us who lived frantically and on the Edge had not found time to pore over that noble publication -- an activity that, if done properly, took all day. And in that case we would buy a tip sheet at the door from the hawkers clamoring there -- J. J.'s, Clockers', Trackman or the Fox. This was done shamefacedly, since it was thought ignoble not to be able to make up your own mind in serious matters. But it was wonderful going to Charles Town, and when I got back, the Edge, which was not physical fatigue but some deep futile sense that the deck was stacked, would have receded and I could resume the usual routine of hard work and profuse apologies.
Then something happened, small and ominous as a roach scuttling through Eden, but of enormous spiritual significance: West Virginia passed laws legalizing the use of Bute and Lasix -- drugs that acted as tranquilizers and painkillers. And immediately, the owners and trainers of Charles Town began pumping the beautiful thoroughbreds full of those, so they could run them more frequently -- in fact, so that they could run them to death. After all, from an investor's point of view -- the point of view that prevailed -- they were cheap horses. So those owners ran them, and drugged them, and ran them -- until typically a horse broke its leg in the middle of a race and had to be destroyed.
This was profitable to the owners, but a death of the soul to those of us who loved the splendid animals. And I began to see that track not as any escape from Washington anymore, but as Washington itself, magnified -- tense, drugged racers, ever close to the Edge, being driven to serve the murderous ambition of men it was not possible to respect.
Then Jenny Lynn Hykes, the bravest and most gifted jockey I knew, and the most likable, was seriously injured in a spill involving those frantic, legally doped horses and her career was over at 19. After that, I did not go back to Charles Town anymore -- and ever since, I've been haunted by a vision of our town as the night track -- resembling that mountain-surrounded, light-bejeweled oval in too many ways: in dangerous beauty; in the noble, doomed hope that the brave and gifted will prevail; and in the stubborn notion that someone has enough of an inside line to be able to tell you truly what is going to happen.
Of course, it isn't healthy to dwell on metaphors like that. And in a town full of psychiatrists with thick prescription pads, one wishes to be as healthy as possible. So most of the time I manage to think about other things, although today, which brought one newspaper story of the Preakness scandal and another on the executive burn-out, was not one of those days. The horse race resuscitated that nightmare, and one was reminded that flagrant public offenses often do pay off -- as the filly that ought to have won was fouled repeatedly and whipped in the face before 40 million viewers, an offense promptly ignored by the Pimlico stewards. While in the other daily Washington race, good men and women were finding themselves stricken by the question, "What am I doing?" And going off burned out into welfare, flower gardening or madness, in this beautiful city were the Edge is everywhere zig-zagging among us like crevasses in an earthquake, and where more responsibilities and more Valium are always to be had. But I wonder -- isn't "What am I doing?" a better question than "What is the inside dope?" And isn't "burned-out" sometimes a synonym for "sane"?