Sam De Lucia creamed the guys in the Bronx. He blitzed Brooklyn and whipped Maspit, Long Guyland. He clobbered Peekskill and walloped New-burgh, and he did it all with his pigeons—racing pigeons. Sam De Lucia's birds were so good that he, in his own words, "was leavin' nuthin' for nobody," and so he got kicked out of the Peekskill Racing Pigeon Club, and then he got thrown out of Newburgh when the boys in the racing club there suddenly decided to redraw the membership boundary lines. "This constant winnin' they didn't like," says Sam. To which his wife. Mil, adds, "Once you start winnin' in pigeons, you're the most hated person in the world. Right away they think you're crooked. I never came across a buncha yella bellies like some of those pigeon-fliers! They stink! And I tell 'em."
Nowadays Sam races his birds out of the Mid Hudson Valley Club in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. His birds still win, but the clubhouse is in an old barn on his property. Sam and Mil live on 40 acres of chicken farm. For a dozen years Sam raised white leghorns. He is fascinated by the breeding of birds, be they chickens or pigeons, and for a three-year stretch he had the most 300-egg hens of any chicken farmer in the state. But by profession Sam, who is 55, is a bricklayer. Mil works as a "white angel," a receptionist, in a dormitory at Vassar in nearby Poughkeepsie. "Some angel!" exclaims Sam.
Because of the very nature of pigeon racing, what with the homing instinct of the bird for its individual loft and differences in terrain and wind conditions, the sport has no one man to proclaim as the best in the country. There is, in other words, no Babe Ruth in pigeon racing. Instead, there are any number of small giants scattered across the country, such as Joe Dutko of Trenton, N.J., Charles Heitzman of Jefferson-town, Ky., F. T. Schoefield of Morrisville, Pa., Roy Hatchard of St. Louis, Roland Eastwood of Miami, I. R. Mitchell of Dallas and Sam De Lucia of Wappingers Falls. Both in and out of New York City, Sam has had success year after year. There are some city fliers who disparage Sam—"Where's the competition flyin' against only eight or nine lofts in some peewee club upstate?" asks one Bronx critic scathingly—and there are those who think well of his efforts. "Sam is a wonderful pigeon man," says Ben Watson, president of the International Federation of Homing Pigeon Fanciers, Inc. "Sam De Lucia, well, he really knows when a pigeon is in condition. Now, I wouldn't know Sam De Lucia by sight if I tripped over him, but certain friends I have speak very well of him. He has a vast knowledge of pigeons that many fliers would like to have."
Sam is aware of the criticisms that have come his way; indeed, while attending various pigeon conventions he has often heard them voiced by fliers who wouldn't know him by sight if they tripped over him either. Whenever Sam De Lucia hears Sam De Lucia being criticized at such a gathering, he moves boldly into the conversation where, without introducing himself, he will point out that Sam De Lucia has never, not ever, lost a futurity race since 1934 and that Sam De Lucia has raised some marvelous birds which are in some of the best lofts in the country. Should the critics persist by knocking Sam De Lucia's lack of competition in some peewee club outside of New York City, Sam will point out that Sam De Lucia used to race in New York, and when he did he was leavin' nuthin' for nobody. Why. in 1936, for instance, Sam will point out, Sam De Lucia won the 150-mile and 300-mile united concourses competing against 8,000 birds in each race. Sam is prepared to cite more facts and figures, but at this point his critics usually ask how come he knows so much about Sam De Lucia. "'Cause I am Sam De Lucia!" Sam shouts. And Sam adds. "When I say this, they hang their heads like sheep or something and go away embarrassed. Not that I go around braggin' or anything, but I don't like to hear that I haven't been in competition!"
Sam has upward of 200 racing pigeons in three lofts on his farm, and the birds keep him busy all year round. The racing season for old birds runs from April through July, and the season for young birds lasts from August through October. Throughout the years Sam has stuck mainly with two varieties of pigeons, Sions and Stassarts. These are only two of almost 200 varieties of pigeons that have been developed for homing or fancy strains. Among other homers are Huyskens Van Riels, Bricoux, Pletiniks, Ameels, De Weerds, Bastins and Wegges, all of which were developed in Belgium, the leading pigeon-racing country in the world.
Breeds of fancy birds include satinettes, pouters, rollers, tumblers, tipplers, and kings. Kings are raised and killed at 28 days for squab, while satinettes and pouters are fancy show birds. Tipplers are bred to fly for endurance. Tippler fanciers vie with one another to see who can develop birds that can sustain flight the longest. The world record belongs to one Jack Cockayne of Sheffield, England, who flew three old birds 19 hours and 35 minutes. Tumblers literally tumble in flight, and in the U.S. fanciers have bred "parlor" tumblers that will do their stuff inside a room two feet off the floor. Rollers actually roll in flight. According to The Pigeon, the authoritative study by Wendell M. Levi, a South Carolina fancier, a good roller rolls in unbroken sequence while airborne. However, it is bad form for a roller to "twizzle" by trying to touch its tail feathers with its beak.
Part of a racing-pigeon flier's time is taken up in explaining that his birds, which are coddled and protected in lofts, are not responsible for ornithosis, a virus pneumonia sometimes found in park pigeons. Among fliers, the common park pigeons are often known as "commies," and editorials in the racing-pigeon press are sometimes given over to denouncing the commies that loiter on the ledges of public buildings. Sam De Lucia is second to none in his condemnation of park birds. "Those there common pigeons really do mess things up for other pigeons," he says. "Those common birds are livin' under conditions of starvation and filth, and it's no wonder they can get diseased."
Although carrier pigeons go back to antiquity—the Assyrians are said to have used them in war—the racing of pigeons is a modern development, starting in the early 19th century in Brussels and Antwerp, where stockbrokers sought to get faster news from the London and Paris exchanges. By 1850 pigeon racing was solidly established in Belgium, and Charles Dickens wrote, "The members of the Antwerp Pigeon Training Society were citizens of the middle class of Society, but in Belgium pigeon-training has its attractions even for persons of rank and wealth, many of whom are enthusiastic pigeon fanciers; indeed, pigeon flying is as fashionable an amusement in Belgium as horse-racing in England. Prizes consisting of sums of money as high as sixty thousand francs are frequently won in matches of pigeons, to say nothing of the betting to which those matches give occasion."
The siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, when pigeons were used to carry messages, gave further impetus to an interest in the birds, and racing spread to Britain and the U.S. In New York, the center of enthusiasm in this country, it also took hold as a sort of polo of the poor. New York City remains the hotbed of racing pigeons, but sociologists have never been able to explain why the sport was and is mainly the interest of working-class people, with a curious admixture of restaurant owners and doctors, almost always Irish, Italian or Jewish. In the city, men with names like Artie, Dinty, Tim, Sal and Sol have sat on rooftops, seemingly for generations, talking pigeons, and for year after year their ranks have been recruited from armies of small boys sneaking up for a look at the lofts.
Sam De Lucia comes from this rich racing-pigeon world. Born in Brooklyn, raised en the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was the first of five children. His father was a tailor. "My mother, she brought us up right," Sam says. "I'd kiss her feet any day. I never regret the lickin's she gave us. If I came home cry-in' from a fight in the street, my mother would just slap me and then ask questions. And if she thought I was wrong, she'd give me more. I wish there were more parents like her, to tell you the truth. I remember once my sister found a roll of bills in the street. She didn't dare bring it home. That's the sort of family we were. I'll go back to the old days any day. You didn't see kids smokin' reefers and stuff like that."
Sam was about 9 when he became interested in pigeons. "There was this fella who had 'em up on the roof," he recalls. "We lived up on the top floor and, naturally, as a kid, you keep wantin' to go upstairs to see what's on the roof. And I did, and there were these pigeons. I got chased the first coupla times, and then he saw that I was interested, and I just started bein' with the birds all the time. When I was 16, I started racin' birds, and when I was 19 I started trainin' them for other people."
After Sam finished the eighth grade at P.S. 19, he went to work as a bricklayer for a couple of uncles who were in the contracting business. In his teens Sam made $77 a week, and every week he brought home his pay to his parents, who gave him 50¢ allowance and filled the tank of his car with gas so he could drive birds over to Jersey for training flights. "But when I got married," Sam says, "my parents furnished everything." Sam married Mildred Bisulca, of Italian and Greek extraction. "We lived in the same neighborhood," he says. "She liked the birds. You know what she always says, that every person has to have a hobby, otherwise they might go astray. A lotta people come here to see the birds, and sometimes the wife will say to Mil, 'Oh, I wish my husband would get rid of the birds.' And Mil says, 'I don't mean to go pokin' into your business, but when you look out the window where do you see your husband? With the birds, right? Better that than not see him and wonder if he's gettin' into some mischief.' "
During the mid-and late 1930s, Sam did very well racing in the Bronx, Mount Vernon, Corona and Maspeth clubs. "It was like I had a gift," he says. He was written up in a pigeon magazine "on how," he says, "I come to the top so fast and beat some of the oldtimers. I trained for Pete Helfrich, Red McWilliams and Sam Bergman. Oh, I could name names. Sam Bergman was a very famous flier. He had a restaurant down on the lower West Side. T remember one race he said to me, 'I won't ship any birds for this race. Your birds are in perfect condition, and they'll win one, two, three.' Sam Bergman really knew birds. But I told him to ship his birds, that I would stay out. So then I meet a trainer for a big millionaire. I won't mention names, but he started needlin' me that I was afraid of certain birds in this race. Things get hotter, so finally I called Jimmy Laino, who was then my partner, and I said ship the birds. I forgot all about what I told Sam Bergman. Well, on the day of the race, I was up in the Bronx with Greenbaum, a personal friend of Sam Bergman's—I've always been with the best fliers—and Greenbaum gets a call from Sam Bergman. Sam Bergman says, 'Tell that little guinea so-and-so his birds are first, second and third.' I had forgotten that I had told him that I would stay out of the race. Sam Bergman's birds were fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. Oh, Sam Bergman really knew birds. I haven't come across anyone yet who knew birds like Sam Bergman."
While driving birds over to Jersey for training flights, Sam became interested in chicken farms he saw en route. Before long he was talking to chicken farmers and subscribing to various poultry journals. "The breedin' of birds fascinates me," Sam says. His mother was horrified that she had raised a farmer, but in 1941 Sam and Mil moved to Wappingers Falls and a chicken farm. He paid J. A. Hansen of Corvallis, Ore. $150 for a white leghorn rooster and as much as $50 each for hens—"I believe in start-in' at the top," Sam says—and went into the egg business. He gave his racing pigeons to friends, but he kept his hand in the bird-sporting line by training gamecocks for a millionaire in Poughkeepsie. At the peak, Sam and Mil had 7,000 leghorns. He shipped hatching eggs, which are used to improve chicken breeding, to such far points as Sweden and New Zealand and was paid as much as $1 per egg. But the chickens took a lot of work, and finally Sam gave them up. Even before he did, Mil insisted that he get back in pigeons. That was in 1953, and Sam has stayed with pigeons ever since.
On occasion, Sam has imported pigeons from Europe. Just now, he is looking over a 12-bird shipment received from Pierre Dordin, a famous French breeder. Sam will not say what he paid for the birds, but Mil expresses mock horror at the $146.54 bill for the 21 days the birds were kept in quarantine at Kennedy airport. The birds from Dordin are kept as "prisoners" in the brood loft by Sam. They have to be kept as lifetime prisoners, because if they were allowed to fly, their homing instinct would prompt them to try to make the trip back to Dordin's loft in France. A racing pigeon develops the instinct for its home loft by the time it is about 28 days old. Exactly how a homing pigeon is able to find his home is still one of the mysteries of animal behavior. It is now believed, however, that vision plays an important part. In one experiment, racing pigeons raised in a loft constructed deep in an excavation could not find their way back when released. The assumption is that they had no visual landmarks to serve as signposts. Whenever Sam is going to give a youngster to another flier, he makes certain that the bird never gets a good look at the surroundings outside the loft.
Sam is very selective in his use of brood stock. Mil says, "I remember once he imported a dozen pigeons from England. He had pneumonia, and to make him feel good I went and put the crate at the foot of his bed. He looks at 'em, and he says, 'Kill that one, that one, that one and that one.' I said, 'Sam, four out of a dozen birds! Kill 'em for what you paid?' He says, 'Kill 'em!' " Mil killed them. Sam now says, "Two birds outta that dozen were worth the price of the rest. One of them there birds, crossed with one of mine, brought Pop." Pop, an 8-year-old Sion, is Sam's best resident stud. He raced until he was 3, earning 10 first diplomas in 18 races. Pop is a medium-sized, well-balanced bird with a flat keel or breastbone. He has the kind of body that Sam likes in a bird. So far, Pop has sired six other birds (all hens, oddly enough) that have done very well in racing.
Sam starts breeding his pigeons in the middle of February. It takes a hen a week to 10 days to lay the first egg, and it takes 18 days for the egg to hatch. When a youngster is about 10 days old and its feet have grown sufficiently large, an aluminum band is slipped over a foot and onto the leg. The bird will then grow so that the leg fits the band. Each bird has an individual number on its band, plus initial letters standing for the breeder or his club. The International Federation or the American Racing Pigeon Union, Inc., the two groups that govern the sport, supply the bands, and by consulting master lists it is possible to trace any bird that happens to become lost or disabled to its original loft. The band stays on the bird for life; a racing pigeon that loses its band is all but worthless, since a bird cannot be rebanded. Teen-age vandals once broke into the loft of Ace Lent, a friend of Sam's, and for some perverse reason snipped the bands off all his birds. Lent was so upset he gave the birds away to a pet-shop dealer in New York, 40 miles south of their home loft in Verplanck, N.Y. Lent warned the dealer against letting the birds loose, but the dealer wanted to see them fly, and the birds all flew back to Verplanck. Lent trucked them back to the city, but he gave up after this happened two more times. Now and then Lent sees one of his old birds fluttering around behind the house where the loft used to be.
Young racing pigeons can start flying at 10 weeks of age. Sam puts them through a rigorous program. "Sam is very hard on the birds," says Mil, who drives the birds off every morning for training flights. On the birds' first training flight, Mil drives them 15 miles away. The next time it is 30 miles. Then it's 100 miles, when the birds are liberated in New Jersey. The De Lucias have a new station wagon, and in the first month the car traveled 4,500 miles, mostly on training flights. Several weeks ago Mil took a mixed batch of birds 30 miles south to Croton-on-Hudson where she released them by age group from a big sandpit next to the New York Central diesel shops. The experienced birds at once lit out up the river straight for Wappingers Falls. The last group to be liberated, about 50 young birds, circled overhead and then headed south to New York City, the exact opposite wrong direction. Mil looked up at them in disgust and shouted, "You bums!" The young birds eventually changed direction, but they were half an hour behind the others.
According to Sam, "Many fellas leave birds home that would be winners because they don't know the condition of the bird. There are certain things to look for. I look for a nice, clean, silky body. The feathers have to slide through your hands, like. And the flesh on the keel has to be a nice pinkish blue without any scales. And the keel bone should be so nice, bright and white. Also, there's a little red bubble that shows as though it's on the keel bone. But it's on the flesh, and you can actually see it going up and down. The eyes are very bright. The birds are on the alert."
Clubs in Sam's area fly pigeons over two courses, the southwest and the west. The length of the races runs from 150 to 650 miles. Every member of every club in the United States has the exact longitude and latitude of his loft plotted by an aerial survey company, and the distances from the loft to the various starting points of a race course are measured to the nearest hundredth of a mile. The bird that wins the race is the bird that averages the most yards per minute.
Sam's loft is located at latitude 41° 35 minutes 32.5 seconds north, and longitude 73° 53 minutes 47.4 seconds west. On the west course from the loft, the release point for a race from Shenandoah, Pa. is precisely 130.509 miles; Carlisle, Pa. is 196.091 miles; Fort Littleton, Pa., 237.946; Somerset, Pa., 292.183; Wilkinsburg, Pa., 321.921; Coshocton, Ohio, 426.673; Urbana, Ohio, 526.011; and Greenfield, Ind., 635.518. On the southwest course, Deepwater, N.J., the closest race point, is 155.070 miles away, and Spartanburg, S.C., the most distant point, is 631.731 miles.
Sam much prefers the west course, but most pigeon-fliers hate it. The west course is a far more rugged test than the southwest course, and training and conditioning really count. The birds have to fly across the Appalachians and the Cats-kills. They have to contend with varying winds, low-lying clouds, updrafts and perhaps thunderstorms. On a rough day it is not uncommon for a flier to lose every bird he has entered in a race. Sometimes a bird will straggle in two days later, or six months later or even a year later. Ordinarily the Mid Hudson Valley Club races the southwest course across relatively flat country. Birds flying this course will usually average higher speeds than they would on the west course. On a windy day birds racing the southwest course fly as low as five or 10 feet above ground, soaring slightly to clear buildings and bridges.
When birds are liberated from the specially constructed van that has trucked them to the starting point, they merge into a great flock as they start to beat their way homeward. If, by chance, some inexperienced birds from Wappingers Falls are flying with a greater cluster of birds bound for New York City, the upstate birds might be "dragged" off course toward New York for a time, since it is in the gregarious nature of pigeons to flock together.
Contrary to the popular impression, hawks are not much of a threat to racing birds. A well-conditioned pigeon can get away from a hawk quite easily. But high-tension wires take a toll, even on a clear day. "The birds in the front see the wires and avoid 'em," says Sam. "But the birds bunched up behind can fly right into 'em and get hurt. I've picked up many birds that have flown into high-tension wires."
This year the Mid Hudson Valley Club held its last race of the season early in October. The race was for young birds, pigeons hatched last spring, and the distance was 350 miles over the southwest course from Charlottesville, Va. On a Thursday afternoon at 5, Sam began getting ready by picking 32 birds from his loft. He was racing 18 of them in his own name and 14 for Phil, his son. (Phil has nothing to do with pigeons, but Sam uses his name in racing because he is then allowed to clock two birds at the finish, the best one of his own and the best one of Phil's.) Sam put the birds in carrying cases and drove them over to the barn that is the MHV clubhouse. He and Mil unstacked four long wicker baskets which the club would use to ship the birds to Charlottesville. Two of the shipping baskets were for hens, the other two for cocks. If the sexes are mixed, the birds will fight. Sam emptied handfuls of sugar cane into the shipping baskets to soak up the birds' droppings and keep the baskets dry. "These baskets were imported from Belgium," Sam said. "We oughta make 'em here and give work to people."
When he and Mil had finished preparing the baskets, Ralph Giammarino, a club member, arrived. He began to help Sam with the time clocks. Each member of the club has his own clock, one that can run as long as eight days. Sam, acting as the club's race secretary, had to set all of them so that they would start precisely at 7:30. He signed a paper tape, on which arrival times of birds are automatically recorded inside the clock, and Giammarino then sealed the clocks with a lead seal. On each seal he embossed the initials of the club.
Half a dozen other members of the club arrived with birds. Each flier took his birds over to a desk where Mil recorded their band numbers. She also noted the number on a special green rubber band that was put on each bird's leg for the race. This special band is a countermark. When a pigeon arrives in his loft at the end of a race, the flier must remove the countermark band as quickly as possible, insert it in a capsule and then drop the capsule in a slot in the sealed time clock. The time of arrival is then automatically noted. No clocks are opened until the race is over, when all fliers meet to break the seals and check times.
Henry Henschel kept track of the number of cocks and hens by chalking a piece of slate affixed to the side of each shipping basket. Each flier paid 40¢ to enter a bird in the race. Of $46.40 collected, $23.40 went into the club treasury, $3 went to Sam for gas for driving the birds to the van that would ship the birds, and $20 went to the van owner, Joe Parkway of the Bronx, who charges $5 a basket. Parkway's real name is Kowalchuk, but there are many fliers who know him only as Parkway. His wife is usually called Mrs. Parkway. A few knowing fliers think Parkway got his name because he is always on the road with his vans—he has four of them—but Parkway says he got the name from his old pigeon loft, the Parkway Loft. He took the name Parkway for his loft, he further explains, because he lived between two parks on Park Avenue in the Bronx.
A master electric clock on the wall of the club approached 7:25. "Everybody got a clock?" Sam asked aloud. The seven fliers present said they had. The fliers talked among themselves until Sam, his eyes on the master clock, shouted, "Got a minute to go!" The fliers stood by their clocks as Sam kept his right hand on the key of his own. "Thirty seconds to go!" he shouted. He began a countdown: "Ten!...Five! Four! T'ree! Two! One! Go!!!" Keys turned and hands slammed as the fliers "bumped the clocks" to start at 7:30. With a smile, Sam held his clock to his ear to listen to it tick.
Sam and Sol Arrao loaded the four shipping baskets into the back of a panel truck. Then, with Sam driving, they headed 25 miles south to meet one of Joe Parkway's "racing-pigeon Pullmans" in the parking lot of the By-pass Diner in Peekskill. They arrived at 8:15 and went into the diner for coffee while they waited for the van.
At 8:30 Bob Petersen, a driver for Joe Parkway, came into the diner. Sam and Sol went outside, where they picked up four baskets Parkway was returning from the previous week's race, and then they helped Petersen load the baskets with birds. Petersen arranged the baskets lengthwise on shelves in such a way that he would be able to liberate the birds by opening the louvered doors on each side of the van. When Petersen had finished, Sam asked him to phone collect Saturday morning after he had liberated the birds in Charlottesville. Petersen said he would. He had already picked up birds from the club in Carmel, N.Y., and now he was bound for the city to pick up more pigeons for Charlottesville. He was going to liberate all the birds, club by club, from the parking lot of the University of Virginia football stadium, provided the weather was clear. In addition to phoning Sam the time of liberation, Petersen would tell him weather conditions and wind direction. Sam and Sol shook hands with him, Petersen hopped into the cab of the van, and all drove off into the night.
On Saturday morning Sam received a collect call from Petersen in Charlottesville. The Mid Hudson Valley birds had been liberated at 6:55 a.m., the sky was clear and the wind from the northwest. Sam phoned the rest of the fliers so they could get ready. The consensus was that the birds would start arriving about 2 that afternoon, but Sam disagreed. They had a wind to buck, and he didn't figure on arrival until between 3 and 4. At about 3:15 Sam had an eerie feeling—"a feelin' I can't describe"—that the birds were about to come in. He went outside by the lofts and waited. He waited for 20 minutes, and then he saw them, a flock of a dozen or more flying over the trees that sloped down toward the Hudson. Sam waited, tense with excitement, for his birds to peel off from the flock and head for his loft. But the whole flock headed straight toward him, and then he realized that all the birds, every single one of them, were his. As the birds landed, Sam grabbed the first one, took off the countermark and dropped it in the clock He did this with a second bird that happened to be Phil's. Then he stopped.
That evening the rest of the fliers came back to the clubhouse on the farm with their clocks. They broke their seals, and right away Sam knew he had the winner. He had clocked the first bird at 3:41 p.m., Phil's at 3:42. Sam's winning bird had averaged 1,157 yards per minute, or 39 miles per hour, about average speed for a pigeon. If Sam had been allowed to clock all the birds that arrived in the first flock, he and Phil would have won the first 15 places. John Kleis was third with a bird that arrived half an hour later than Sam's. Kleis won $3 in prize money. Sam turned his winnings, $15, back into the club treasury. He has rarely taken prize money in recent years, and betting on the birds, a big thing in New York City where a man can win $6,000 on a race, is a practice he avoids.
Now Sam's birds are in their lofts. They won't race until next spring. Meanwhile, Sam can think about his birds all winter. He often thinks about them when he is out on the job laying brick. He likes to think about the way they come in on a loft, the way they suddenly come swoop-in' in over the treetops, the way they don't leave nuthin' for nobody.