Authors Note: An Eidetic Memory is the ability to remember the intricate details of sights, sounds, and conversations during the adolescent’s years with no relationship to the child’s intelligence or learning skills. It is estimated that between two to ten percent of children are born with this aptitude. In the medical profession this memory phenomena is diagnosed as HSAM or Highly Superior Autobiographic Memory that some health professionals dispute.
As a follow-up to the high school student interview in Part 2, the one sided dialogue in Part #3 is with the same individual who discussed the events surrounding the implementation of the Vermont Sales Tax in 1971. When asked one question about the Hinsdale Raceway, the twenty-six hundred word response revealed an incredible detailed description of what transpired during a three hour timeframe fifty-four years ago. This is a very personal and poignant remembrance about growing up in Brattleboro.
[Interviewer RLElkins] Did you ever attend the harness races at the Hinsdale Raceway?
[Interviewee] Yes, after the school year ended on a Saturday night in June of 1960. Aside from a homemade cake, my parents asked what I would appreciate for my upcoming birthday. They had previously been invited by friends to the Hinsdale Raceway when the track first opened in 1958 and talked about how much fun it was - so this became my opportunity to go. I think they were delighted to take me because it wouldn’t cost them anything. There are no admission fees. There is one rule I had to agree to. We have an early dinner at home because the food concessions in the Raceway Clubhouse are unaffordable.
What I did not expect, nor appreciate, is dressing in my best clothes. During those years the Hinsdale harness races were a huge social event that many important people from Brattleboro attended which is why my Dad wore a business suit and my Mom had on a fancy dress, high heels, a hat, white gloves, and an overdose of Chanel #5.
When we arrived at the racetrack the outside of the enormous white stadium is all lite up with flood lights. The parking lot is filled to capacity with hundreds of cars. After we find a space to park we walked what seemed like forever to the main entrance. Before we enter the front doors I observe cars pulling up, passengers emerging including the driver, and a man wearing black pants and a white shirt jumps in the car and drives off. When I ask my Dad what I’m seeing he explains to me the concept of valet parking. [Laughing] Valet parking in Hinsdale?
Entering through the main double doors the place is a mob scene. There are adults everywhere with no kids my age. It’s standing room only. Everyone is dressed up like my parents. To the right of the entrance is a bar serving alcohol and something really bad smelling called hors d’oeuvres that I nicknamed horse deserves no kid in his right mind would willingly eat. To the left of the entrance is a row of six betting windows with lines of people waiting to place their bets. Straight ahead is the glassed-in grandstand that overlooks the track where you can sit at ground level or walk up the concrete steps to see an overview of the entire race track. Everything in the building is painted stark white. The ceilings, the walls, the support posts, and all the furnishing are white. I vividly remember the facility being immaculately clean and not smelling like horses.
It’s a beautiful summer night so we immediately go outside. It’s a sight to behold. The racetrack is a huge oval appearing to go on forever. The rail fences around the half mile track are white. The entire infield is manicured lawn with flower plantings. There is something called a tote board located in the middle of the infield that lights up. There are floodlights mounted on huge poles around the entire track making it so bright you can easily read a racing program that are piled up on tables for the taking. I grab one as a souvenir.
My parents instruct me to stand by the chain link fence just in front of the finish line – and not to move or wander off for they are going to socialize with some friends they met up with. I have no idea what to expect. An announcement comes over the loud speaker system that the first race is about to begin and a cheer goes up from the crowd. I look up on the roof of the stadium and see four men standing there with binoculars - and wonder why. A trumpeter walks onto the track, faces the crowd, and plays the start of the race – ta-ta-ta-ta-tatata-taaaa. A beautiful woman with her blond hair in a ponytail tied in a pink ribbon appears to my left. She is wearing a white cowboy outfit and is riding a Palomino horse that is adorned in silver tack. Behind her are the harness horses and their drivers seated in their respective sulky with their legs in a horizontal position on the sulky.
As each horse enters the track the public address system announces the name of the horse and the driver to the applause of the crowd. The sulky drivers are wearing different shiny color uniforms that reflect in the light. Far down to my right at the first turn of the track a gate opens and in drives a large white station wagon with no roof. I have never seen a convertible station wagon before. Attached on each side of the station wagon are steel wings. The station wagon drives onto the track. Its two wings magically unfold behind the car and across the track revealing the numbers one through eight. Unlike a regular horse race I’ve seen on news reels at the Paramount in Brattleboro, this vehicle is the rolling starting gate.
As each horse and driver is introduced they jog their horses up to the gates on the back of the vehicle that is driving around the track ever so very slowly. The horse and rider introduced as number one lines up behind the number one gate number. Each of the sulkies takes their position behind their respective number. Although there are only eight numbers on the starting gates I remember the ninth and ten harness horses line up directly behind the first and second horse. When all the horses are in position the vehicle continues to drive very slowly around the far side of the track. You can feel the excitement building. When the car approaches the home stretch toward the starting line the vehicle accelerates and the horses accelerate behind it. Just as the roofless white station wagon crosses the starting line everyone is cheering and shouting. The winged vehicle speeds up very quickly pulling way ahead of the horses and folds its wings forward onto both sides of the car. At the outside of the first turn the rail opens, the car exits, and the rail closes before the horses round their first corner. I’m in disbelief.
The harness horses race around the half mile track twice and that’s when I learned that harness racing is different from horse racing. The men with binoculars standing on the roof are judges watching the harness horses to make certain they do not break their gate into a flat out gallop that results in a disqualification.
Along the backfield stretch is a tall white solid fence that is also lit up so the spectators can see what is happening at the opposite side of the track. The crowd behind me is going nuts. Everyone is yelling, cheering, and screaming. A man standing next to me is so into the race he is banging the top of the steel fence with his race program tattering it to shreds. When the winner crosses the finish line flash bulbs go off everywhere to verify the top three finishers – win, place, show. I wonder to myself how the photographs of each race are printed so quickly and conclude they must be using those new Polaroid Land Cameras made in Waltham, Massachusetts in that gigantic factory along Route 128 on the way to my grandparent’s house.
After ten or fifteen minutes the tote board lights up listing the results. A set of numbers appears. This race scenario is repeated eight times with different horses but many of the same sulky drivers. One other thing before I forget. The woman in the white cowboy outfit on her Palomino who leads the sulkies onto the track is a well-known individual still alive today and still residing in Brattleboro.
After each race concludes a farm tractor pulling a rake drives around the oval track smoothing the surface for the next race. I thumb through my race program. What catches my attention is a horse, Miss Watson, who has the same last name of my grade school teacher in Brattleboro. My favorite teacher is Mrs. Thayer. My second favorite teacher is Mrs. Watson. I reach into my pocket. I have exactly two dollars in coins from my piggy bank on the chance that I wanted to buy a souvenir or something of interest at the racetrack.
Against my parent’s instructions, I take off and run to a betting window. I am going to wager on Miss Watson for a second place finish because she has the last name as my second best teacher. I’m quietly standing in line when a uniformed police office comes up behind me, grabs me by the neck of my shirt, and pulls me out of the line. He scolds me that it’s against the law for kids to place bets. Undeterred, I wait until he leaves, approach a stranger waiting to place bets, and ask him to place my wager. I hand him my loose change and wait off to the side with no fear that this unknown individual will steal my two weeks of allowance money. After placing his bets he hands me my ticket for Miss Watson to finish second in the fifth race. I run back to my position by the finish line with my parents oblivious as to what I had been up too.
After what seemed to be an interminable wait, the fifth race finally begins. I’m cheering on my horse. And son-of-a-gun Miss Watson crosses the finish line in second place and I have the winning ticket. I wait. The tote board lights up and displays a bunch of numbers I do not understand. I can’t cash the ticket in because I’m underage. No way am I going to chance trusting another stranger for my winnings especially when I do not know how much money I’ve won. It’s time to fess up.
I find my Dad and ask him to explain what the numbers mean on the tote board for the horse that just finished in second place. He tells me that for every one dollar bet you win six dollars. I hand my Dad my winning ticket. He asks me how I bought the ticket. I tell him I’ll explain it later. What is important is that he goes to the betting window immediately to pick up my winnings before they run out of money. He laughs. He cashes in the ticket and hands me twelve one dollar bills. I bet two weeks allowance and made ten weeks of profit. I’m one happy kid.
When all of the harness races are completed we head back home. The parking lot becomes one big traffic jam. I explain to my parents about how I picked my winning horse and bought my ticket that they find hysterically funny. The traffic backup at the Hinsdale Bridge is horrendous. There is a Brattleboro police officer with a whistle directing traffic at the intersection of Main, Canal, and Route 142. A lot of the southbound traffic is snarled going up Canal Street. There is a new bar that recently opened called the Sportsmen’s Lounge specifically named for those patrons leaving the raceway and heading south to Massachusetts who need one, two, or three more for the road. My Dad explains to me the Brattleboro Police quietly wait along the side streets of this new bar. When the patrons stumble out intoxicated and startup their vehicles they are arrested for drunk driving. It’s an easy source of income for the town because back then those arrested who plead guilty paid not only a fine but also court costs.
It takes forever to get home. My clothes smell of second hand racetrack cigarette smoke. I don’t care. I had a blast and couldn’t wait to tell my friends.
Question: What did you do with your winnings?
Answer: I went by myself to the Brattleboro Savings & Loan that was located on Elliot Street near the corner of Main in the space which is now a hair salon. There were two people in the bank. William Shumway, the president of the bank who previously was the Brattleboro Town Manager, and one teller. You did not need a social security number to open a savings account back then because the government did not tax your savings. I do not remember the teller’s last name. Her first name was Marion. She creates a new passbook for me with my name and address written in script using a quill type pen she dipped in ink. Her cursive writing resembles art work. She would use a semi-round ink blotter to soak up the excess ink so it would not smudge. She did all the math calculations of interest and balance totals in her head. I really enjoyed using this bank. I loved watching her carefully hand scribe the transactions into my passbook that I was very proud of.
Question: Do you still have that bank account?
No. [Laughing] I became such an ardent saver I purchased my first home in Brattleboro in 1972 for cash. The new loan officer at the bank was angry at me for not taking out a mortgage. He called me un-American. I changed banks.
Question: Did you ever return to the Hinsdale Raceway to see more harness races?
No, well, that’s not quite true. I’ll get to that in a minute. During the late 1960’s my parents informed me they were no longer going to the harness track because of some very undesirable characters attending the races. There was also an incident of ptomaine food poisoning in the unaffordable clubhouse restaurant that sent a lot of patrons to the hospital in Brattleboro resulting in the restaurant being shut down. The rumors of the Hinsdale race scandal that had been going on since 1966, which also involved bribed race officials, became public knowledge in the Brattleboro Reformer in 1968. Sulky drivers were in-cahoots by intentionally holding back their horses to play the odds. From the stories I heard the race fixing became so painfully obvious that the track fans would loudly boo when the sulky drivers approaching the finish line would pull back on their reins to finish in their preplanned order. That scandal resulted in a huge black eye for harness racing throughout New Hampshire that took many years to recover from. And, that was the end of the Hinsdale Raceway for my parents, all of their friends, and me.
Did I ever return to the Hinsdale Raceway? Yes, but not to see harness races. Two years ago my wife and I were back in the area and she wanted to make a quick stop at the Walmart in Hinsdale. I chose not go inside because Wal-Mart’s give me the creeps– at my age they smell like a hospital to me - maybe because all of the Wal-Mart employees appear to be in a coma on life support. [Laughter] So I walk to the end of the Walmart parking lot that faces the north side of the former Raceway renamed the Hinsdale Greyhound Park. The entire property is overgrown with weeds and piles of debris are discarded everywhere. The doors are falling off their hinges. The huge satellites on the roof where the judges once stood are sinking into the building. The stadium windows facing the barely discernable dog track are broken from rock throwing vandals. The entire structure appears to be leaning to one side on the verge of collapse from rat infestation. It’s an imminent deadly fire disaster waiting to happen.
At that moment it really hits me of just how quickly the fifty plus years have flown by. Staring at the dilapidated remains brings back a flood of my cherished memories about one beautiful June summer night in 1960 and the sheer elegance of the Hinsdale Raceway. I was privy to something very special. Standing there also reminded me of my happy childhood and just how much I loved my parents who I dearly miss. I cried.
Part 4 in this ongoing interview will unearth some fascinating specifics about Brattleboro when I-91 was under construction during the late 1950’s and the resulting upheaval the new interstate had on local neighborhoods and its traumatic impact on the social fabric that once held the town together.