With Dad at Del Mar

From my earliest days I can remember family trips to Hollywood Park, Caliente Park (somewhere in Mexico), Santa Anita and Del Mar to play the horses. Along with Hawaiian décor, this was Dad's main passion in life. When I turned about ten we stopped going to other tracks and played Del Mar pretty much exclusively. We liked the surf and turf feel of the park, and the classy, festive Old California town of Del Mar.

In my head I can still hear that fond old Bing Crosby swing recording, played at post time:

Where the turf meets the surf,
Down at old Del Mar,
Take a plane, take a train, take a car.
Where there's a winner in every race,
And a smile on every face,
Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar.
(Jazzed up post time trumpet call.)

Dad usually made a reservation at a local hotel for sometime around his birthday (August 22nd). We'd then drive down and stay for about three days. It was a great end-of-summer trip, and then Labor Day, following not long thereafter, was always good for having somebody over to the pool.

Preparation for Del Mar involved bringing Dad's Japanese binoculars, and we aren't talking about mere opera glasses. These were a two-fisted, rather expensive item. I still have the last pair Dad bought from an Army surplus store on Sunset Boulevard. The drive from Burbank to Del Mar took about two hours. After 1972 we made a practice of stopping at a waffle place in one of the beach towns not far from Del Mar. It was run by a surly German who called himself "Henry, the Chef of the Forest" (I suppose he was "Heinrich" in the old tongue.) We put up with him for the sake of his delicious Belgian waffles covered with strawberries. Later, after Heinrich closed up shop a popular coffee house called "Marg's" (I always pronounced it with a hard "g") became our first stop.

Most of my time was spent at the ocean or in the town of Del Mar; I had no interest in spending three full days at the track the way Dad did. I would always spend one full day there with him, however. When I was a child I enjoyed dodging in and behind a huge old shrub and collecting discarded tickets. I just knew that one of these was tossed on the ground by mistake, and was worth hundreds of dollars in winnings. Later, being a confirmed bookworm I would bring something to read during the long spells between races. While I occasionally betted conservatively, playing a favorite horse for show (so I got money if he placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd), I never cared for gambling. I looked forward to these father-and-son trips, however. It was nice to get away from the house - and Mom - and I developed my love for the ocean at Del Mar.

The following is a gussied-up and completed version of a chronological list I compiled on an inside cover of a calculus book during a particularly boring college math class.

Del Mar Vacations

1967 - Our first family trip to Del Mar; this followed a trip to Las Vegas. I made it apparent to Mom and Dad that there wasn't much for me to do in Vegas. (It didn't have the family attractions then that it does now.) They reasoned that I would find Del Mar more interesting. Yeah, right - a race track. Eleven year olds love those. Our first night there was at a place in Carlsbad, the sensibly-named "Carlsbad Motel." The surprise to us was that the motel was situated next to a railroad track, and every few hours a train would roar by, blasting its horn and making the room vibrate. This scared the hell out of Mom. The first time the Express came by she was asleep in bed. When the room started vibrating she jumped out of bed yelling, "What's that? What's that?" Dad and I became concerned for her safety, so we put pillows on the floor next to the bed, in case she should roll off. The next morning Mom yelled at the proprietor for not warning us about the train ("What if I had a heart attack?" she asked, nearly giving herself one) and we left. We moved into the "Wolverine Motel" in Cardiff-By-The-Sea, a beach town not far from the track. While the Wolverine provided some nighttime quiet and solved a problem of a rather long hike from Carlsbad to Del Mar, it was a seedy place and smelled bad.

Mom and I spent a long day at the beach during this trip; I played in the ocean and got very sunburned and very exhausted. Towards the end of the day one especially big wave dragged me helplessly some distance away from the beach, and I realized how puny and weak I was compared to the might of Poseidon. When I swam back I suggested that we get something to eat and go back to the hotel, which we did.

Driving from Carlsbad to Del Mar and back again every day, I was introduced to Reddi Kilowatt, who was drafted into service supporting the mailbox at the front entrance of the nuclear power plant in San Onofre. I liked his lightning bolt body and smiling cartoony face, which concealed the fact that he was not just a bringer of electrical home conveniences, but could also be an instrument of blackened, sparking death. (As a child I was not intimidated by radiation, but was painfully aware of what happened when one stuck metal objects into electrical outlets.)

1968 - We didn't go to Del Mar this year because Mom and I took a vacation to Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. instead. Dad refused to go, citing a dislike of air travel - and a general disinterest in meeting Mom's Massachusetts relatives, whom he jeeringly called "cod-throttlers." Once, going through some old photos in a suitcase of Mom's we came across one of a relative holding a fish with both hands near its head. "A-ha!," said Dad, triumphantly, "See? I told you! Cod-throttlers!"

1969 - We stayed at a once-fashionable-but-by-then-dilapidated hotel called the "Royal Palms." Like the Wolverine, it also smelled and was generally unkempt. We called the place "Musty Manor," and made up a song about staying there (sung to the tune of "Tiny Bubbles," a favorite of Mom's):

Musty Manor,
Mildew Motel.
Makes you feel rotten,
Makes you feel like hell.

I recall watching a lot of television there. The L.A. horror show hostess Moona Lisa showed a film that amazed me: "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," from 1962. It featured a woman's head being kept alive, sitting in a pan in a lab. Every now and then she would make insulting remarks at passers-by. (I was too young to realize that she couldn't have done this without lungs.) Other than her lack of manners, what really traumatized me was a scene of a monster ripping a man's arm off; as he stumbled along a wall he left a bloody smear. Earlier or later - I forget which - he bit into a fellow's shoulder and spat out flesh and blood onto the floor. I was astonished at seeing such things on television.

1970 - We stayed at the "Village Inn"; it was a bougainvillea-covered place that served donuts in the morning. Embarrassed about shaving, I took with me my razor and shaving cream in a little locked wooden box I made in shop class. The box was supposed to be big and long enough to hold tools, but as I kept making mistakes I kept having to remove wood. I finally wound up with a narrow, tall box that was useless for tools but just the thing for concealing shaving cream and a razor. Why was I embarrassed about having to shave? I don't recall, exactly. It was one of my many school-age paranoias. (Seventh and eighth grade were about as tough for me as fifth and sixth grades.) One interesting feature of the Village Inn was the proprietor, an older, elegant-looking woman with an intriguing accent. A conversation with her - Dad chatted with everyone - revealed that she was a White Russian, whose parents had fled from the Russian Revolution with her when she was a little girl. I could have listened to her tell stories all day, but we had donuts to eat.

1971 - We did a one-day jaunt down to Del Mar with Mary and Angela DeTolla. We took their car, a crummy old Rambler. The only thing I can remember about this trip was hearing an arrangement of "The Theme from Ryan's Daughter" by Mantovani playing in my head ceaselessly.

1972 - This year Dad and I made the trip in our brand new 1972 Ford LTD, which we had purchased the month before. We spent about an hour looking for it in the huge racetrack parking lot late one day - a very tiresome experience. I had my learner's permit and was learning how to drive at the time, and found my evening jaunts to the 7-11 and cruising around up in the Del Mar hills to be a real adventure for a 16 year-old. One night I attempted a three-point turn on an especially narrow residential street, and found myself in something of a panic. If I moved forward I would hit a mailbox - or so it appeared. If I moved backwards I would hit a parked car - or so it appeared. I took a deep breath and persevered, however, and finally got free. It was with a real sense of relief that I made my way into the hotel parking lot. Dad let me drive home to Burbank, which was rather risky, as I didn't yet have my license. We both feared encounters with the police, and the trip felt like an extended father-son escape from a bank robbery. We stayed at a hotel called the "Lemon Tree," since demolished.

It was in this year that I first discovered my Del Mar "place" - a spot on the Del Mar Heights high above the beach with a splendid westward view of the Pacific Ocean. One of the people who owns a home near this spot thoughtfully provided a stone bench - it's gone now - upon which I used to sit, looking out over the ocean and considering what the future had in store for me. I have returned a number of times since 1972, and considered high school, learning how to drive, an upcoming enlistment in the Marines, love, college, marriage and fatherhood, Civil War reenacting, college graduation, rugby and whatever else I was involved with at the time. The spot is at the end of 4th Street, two blocks past where the Del Mar Heights Drive intersects Camino Del Mar. You have to climb over a steel vehicle barrier, then walk left onto the slender dirt pathway. The house I covet above all others is at that corner.

1973 - This was our first year at the "Ocean Inn," the motel we would use for all our subsequent trips. I was deeply into classical music at the time and shopped for LP's in town during the day and built a plastic model of Napoleon for Angela at night. (Napoleon was her current infatuation; the previous ones were with Alexander Hamilton and Cardinal Richelieu. As teenage girls went, she was pretty intellectual and eccentric.) In this year I liberated a 12" speaker from the room intercom. Late one night on this trip Dad and I were privy to a prolonged outside spat between a drunken jockey (he was a diminutive fellow) and his tall, blonde girlfriend.

While at Del Mar we liked to drive up to Carlsbad to eat at a stately Victorian house converted into a chicken restaurant, called the "Twin Inns." (It was more or less across the street from Musty Manors.) It had big chickens in the front of the building. During one visit I felt sorry for a lone pianist situated in the middle of a noisy, crowded former dance floor. The acoustics were awful, and I felt that the poor piano player, ignored by diners, was needlessly suffering for his art.

1974 - This annual trip Dad and I made to Del Mar for his birthday was, to me, the most meaningful of them all. With my enlistment coming up I realized it represented a sort of farewell to my childhood. Believing that to be forewarned is to be forearmed, I drove out to San Diego from Del Mar to visit the Marine Recruit Depot while Dad was at the track, but couldn't find it. This was probably a good thing since I might have had second thoughts had I seen it, and by then it was too late to back out! One day when I was roaming the beach a Marine amphibious vehicle pulled up and the guys aboard attempted to fraternize with the bikini-clad babes on shore. I looked on as envious, confused and emotionally perplexed as only an eighteen-year-old could be. Would I be doing that? During this trip I took my small stereo with me and listened to Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the hotel room. Dad and I drove to La Jolla, where he bought me an LP of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," which I only got around to listening to in 1982. (In 1974 I had dropped classical music for rock in an effort to fit in at school.) The Romeo and Juliet suite is a favorite piece of mine to this day, mainly due to wistful memories associated with this particular trip to Del Mar.

1975 - In the Marines at the time, I was stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, so I couldn't go. I don't recall if Dad went to Del Mar alone. The emotionally complex Harry Chapin song "Cat's in the Cradle," about father-son abandonment, became a hit earlier this year. For a while it caused me considerable guilt in that my being in the Marines felt like I was abandoning Dad. But when I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, a two-hour drive from Burbank, we still took our traditional Sunday drives - except I did the driving.

1976 - At the time I was greatly interested in photography and took my 35mm SLR camera - a Petri FT EE which I had bought from a fellow Marine. But what mainly made this trip memorable was that during it I became completely and sleeplessly infatuated with a girl I knew in Burbank. It had never happened before or since. As my hormones have long since settled to a steady state I can suppose it will never happen again. Things weren't helped by a new restaurant being built at the Ocean Inn: the décor included a bronze plaque of a naked woman emerging from an ocean wave. This was mounted over the bar. I recall staring at it helplessly, feeling that it was deeply meaningful to me for some reason I couldn't articulate.

I think it was at this visit that Dad introduced me to his track friend, a hip black guy who worked for the park as a sort of usher, making sure that unauthorized persons weren't allowed into the unattended box seats. Dad would slip him some money, and he'd slip Dad into an unused box seat. This fellow called Dad "Old Green Eyes," since Dad wore green contact lens. There were always mobsters present at the track; Dad sometimes pointed them out to me. They wore garish clothes and were surrounded by lackeys and women. The usher would find seats more or less owned by them that they weren't using that day. This made me apprehensive, as I imagined that some day a mobster would show up at his seat, see Dad contentedly sitting there looking at the tote board through his binoculars, and have him erased.

1977 - Dad and I drove our newly purchased "pre-owned" 1975 Cadillac Eldorado. One night during this trip Dad and I decided to have dinner at a rather expensive Del Mar restaurant called "The Albatross." As we walked in, a fellow sitting at a table with some women greeted my father expansively. They then had a conversation that suggested they were longtime friends. Seated at our own table I asked, "Who was that?" Dad responded, "Hell if I know." After the dinner we determined that the reason for the expensive menu was not the quality of the food, but was rather due to the fancy under-lit tables. This was one of the oddest things I have ever seen at a restaurant. Lighting somebody's face from below and casting odd, unexpected shadows is an old Hollywood trick used in horror films. It reminds me of a Jack Nicholson bar scene in the Overlook Hotel featured in the Stephen King film "The Shining." I can't believe any female would desire such lighting during a meal.

1978 - My last year in the Marine Corps. I was an experienced sergeant, a far cry from the anxious eighteen-year-old I was in 1974. This time we took Dad's 1968 Porsche 912. As we arrived for lunch at the Ocean Inn's trendy little restaurant - the place with the naked woman plaque that so fixated me in 1976 - some businessmen were gathered, having a somewhat loud and animated conversation about business strategies and opportunities. It was the kind of geeky, jargon-laden talk I hear in business meetings all the time these days, usually thoroughly peppered with the word "strategic." In a remark to me, Dad gave himself away as being either irrevocably blue collar or sensible, and said, "Great. We get to listen to this bullshit!"

On this trip we paid a social visit to my Camp Pendleton co-worker and friend Erv Dence. At the time he was living in a trailer near Del Mar with his wife, and it was an odd visit, having my real father and a father figure discussing me with one another. They got along well, both being from New York (Dad, Brooklyn; Erv, upstate) and both being World War II veterans (Dad, European theater; Erv, Pacific theater). What I mainly took from this conversation, however, was that both were proud of me, and I felt a sort of warm glow.

1979 - I was working at Lockheed at the time and I couldn't get the time off.

1980 - In August of this year Dad was in the hospital - I forget why - and couldn't go. At the time I was in college in Utah.

1981 - I was a college sophomore in electrical engineering in this year, and took some time off to make a visit back to Burbank - and thence to Del Mar with Dad. One day, while Dad was at the track, I visited Camp Pendleton and saw a friend and former roommate, who had reenlisted. We tried to impress each other with our technical knowledge - which was pretty scant.

1982 - Although I didn't know it at the time, this was to be my last trip to Del Mar with Dad. He died in the next year, just before his birthday and as we were making plans for the 1983 trip. I felt cheated, not only by the loss of my father, but at the loss of a last Del Mar trip with him.

For this trip we took Dad's signal yellow 1975 Porsche 914. It was a replacement for his 912, which had been stolen around Christmas time. I once again visited my Camp Pendleton friend. He was married at the time, and longingly looked down into the interior of the two-seater Porsche and said, "Woman magnet. Wouldn't I have loved to have had one of these when I was single..."

On this trip I had absolutely phenomenal luck at picking winning horses for Dad. Although I didn't play them myself, I think I picked the winners in nine out of the ten races. When he started listening to me he started to make a lot of money. In fact, I think he did better during this trip than any other, which was a nice sort of farewell to the old man and Del Mar.

The drive home was interesting in that, for the first time ever, Dad talked at length and in detail about his childhood, young adulthood and, in general, his life and loves. He told me things I never heard before. Sadly, I have forgotten almost everything he said, and now regret not placing a tape recorder in front of him to repeat what he said when we got home.

I have returned to Del Mar a number of times since that last trip with Dad, and when I visit I make a point of seeing the old haunts and thinking about my life at that ocean view spot. On a recent visit, I made an appointment with my high school chum Mike McDaniel to drive up from Burbank to meet me there. It was pleasant; two middle-aged friends sitting in the shade of a large bush, discussing current times and times gone by. Out of curiosity I inquired of the locals how much Del Mar real estate was going for, and was told that you couldn't even get into a old, small, unimproved home for less than a million dollars. I can only imagine what the large home near my spot is worth; as the old real estate saying goes, what really matters is location, location, location. And I'm sure that the home, and perhaps also my spot, is owned by somebody who has legal title to it. But in my mind that place, and my memories of Del Mar with Dad, belong to me exclusively - but I'm sharing them with you.

Dad at the Ocean Inn at Del Mar, August 1978

Click here to look at the official Del Mar Thoroughbred Club page.
Click here for the official City of Del Mar, California web site.

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