A friend asked me about my old friends, the band of brothers who went to work when others went to party every weekend. The jocks’ room. I arrived in 1988, as the Hendriks/Teter/Lawrence era was closing and stayed 12 years, creating our own era. It was the last gasp of American-born jump jockeys, the one before the Bentley/Massey era that changed the game. We had fun, we were young and free, riding at long-forgotten places like St. James, Marengo and Brookhill, balancing euphoria and disaster, risk and reward, trying desperately to get on the likes of Victorian Hill, Rowdy Irishman, Flat Top, Saluter or any horse who would change your life.
I thought about my old comrades, the ones who I loved, the ones who I hated, the strange cauldron of fear, stress, respect and camaraderie. As I drifted into old memories, I was asked again, “What happened to all those guys?” I said it simply, “The band broke up.”
Most dispersed, Thornton back to New Zealand or Australia, somewhere, I didn’t care. Arch to Camden, he stayed in the game. Blythe got married and had two babies. Peter Walsh kept riding, hunting with the same ferocity he had for racing. Chip and Matt, drifted somewhere. Andy Wilson went home. Charlotte Brooks got hurt, but recovered. And others left us. Jonathan Kiser went first, none of us were ever the same. Then Cort Marzullo, tortured, too smart for all of this. And now Brooks Durkee is gone, his funeral starts in four hours as I type this and wait for my son to wake up and go to school.
I won’t put on my dark suit today, I won’t walk into St. James Church high on the hill in Monkton, the place where we said goodbye to Kiser, Voss and so many other brothers and sisters, fathers and sons. Weeks ago, I had signed up as a chaperone with Miles’ kindergarten class for the dinosaur museum, at least that’s what Miles calls it. A mountain to climb before it, and after, as I balance life at 45, but it’s four hours of quality time with my son (and a gaggle of other wild children). Sometimes I feel old, other times I feel lucky. Then Brooks died, I stopped and thought about our traveling circus of the late 90s, the day he snuck up my inside at Oxmoor, the day he saved my life when I tried to sneak up his at Laurel. I thought about all his rides, his comebacks, his disappearances, his natural leg on a horse, the annual sojourns down the Gunpowder on the 4th of July. I thought about his friends, his family and then I thought about 11 o’clock Wednesday.
I emailed Brooks’ parents, Frank and Kathy, Tuesday morning after I decided to stick with my commitment with Miles and his friends.
Kathy and Frank,
I have made a hard choice, but I think the right choice, for tomorrow. I had signed up to go to the dinosaur museum with Miles’ kindergarten class. My head will be with Miles, my heart with you and all of Brooks’ friends and family.
Frank called me. Brave and strong, he told me I was making the right decision, “Spend time with your boy. As much time as you can.” He began to cry. And then I did too.
Rest in peace, Brooks. You never found peace here, maybe you’ve found it there.