There was no reason to believe that any of it would last, this sudden surge of euphoria that swept across the country last weekend. The undercurrents of unrest were less audible for a moment, true, but they were still there; Indochina and student uprisings had not gone away. The stock market had made a dramatic turnaround, but nobody was prepared to bet his bottom dollar—it had almost come to that—that it would not reverse again. Any politician worth his wing collar would insist that the nation was on the brink of one moral disaster or another. And yet, in a sector where one might look for signs of recession and reticence, there it was: sporting America, at least, had a plain, old-fashioned, upbeat, crowded good time.
There were good reasons. One must remember that most places in the northern hemisphere of this particular planet consider the summer solstice to occur on June 22—the day the sun stands still just before it slips off into the zodiac region of Cancer on its way toward Capricorn and winter. But in the United States summer starts on Memorial Day. And almost nothing stands still.
Not the yachtsmen or the horseshoe pitchers or the coon-dog handlers or the Indy 500 drivers or the crazy skiing-sailors who turn out for their own favorite brand of competitions. Not the flag-draped volunteer firemen or the freckled cub scouts or the braless Women's Lib majorettes or the Little League shortstops or the beery Legionnaires who somehow all end up in the same unlikely line to march in God only knows how many thousands of meandering Main Street parades. And certainly not the horse bettors or the major league baseball fans.
The national atmosphere leading to Memorial Day 1970 could scarcely be called entirely festive or totally carefree. There was ample scope for dissent and anxiety, and perhaps at least some of the country's movement on Memorial Day could be defined as a symptom of massive psychic restlessness generated simply to escape the hard issues of the day—as well as to avoid the essence of the holiday itself, which was, of course, conceived as a poignant way of remembering all the people who have died because of war. Nevertheless, the movement was there on this Memorial Day.
June 7, 1970
Perhaps it was the hope generated by the new luck of the Wall Street draw, or maybe there were things afoot of more cosmic impact—but investors of all callings apparently had decided that the stars were right for this holiday. It was the best in years for the nation's horse tracks.
It all adds up: at Finger Lakes in Canandaigua, N.Y. the day's betting handle from a crowd of 10,480 was $547,524. At Ruidoso Downs outside Roswell, N. Mex. the take was $230,130 from 4,500 customers. At Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha they gathered in $1,379,339 for the day, with 24,086 in happy attendance. At luscious Seminole Downs in Casselberry, Fla. a group of 2,808 folks came in and bet a grand total of $101,868. And Hollywood Park near Los Angeles rang up a $5,052,868 handle—third highest since the track was built in 1938. The crowd was counted at 54,050. All in all, well over half a million people spent their holiday within investing distance of pari-mutuel windows.
The betting handle for the day in both flat racing and trotting was nearly $39 million. In New York, Belmont Park rang up more than any other U.S. flat-racing track, totaling $5,378,452, while Roosevelt was No. 1 nationally for trotters with $2,630,094.
That was how it was to be No. 1 for horse-racing money on Memorial Day. For No. 1 in downright horse-race hoo-ha, one should have been at the Garden State Park in New Jersey. It was Jersey Derby Day, and Lynn Simross noted that more than 40,000 people turned up, looked at pickles in a wooden barrel, bought genuine rock candy in bags for 20¢, then listened to barbershop quartets and a zingy group in red and white striped blazers called the Quaker City String Band. They watched Joe McNaboe, a Cherry Hill, N.J. blacksmith, put on a horseshoe-making demonstration, and generally tried to pretend that it was 100 years ago or so. Of course, it was not, since the winner of the $128,400 Derby was none other than the 1970 Preakness champion, Personality (page 63).
Naturally, the variety of events for the Memorial Day weekend was as varied as the people who attended. Yet one could count on the usual, the traditional, to come through. Indy drew its usual quarter-of-a-million-plus fans for what turned out to be a rather routine race (page 30). The flannel land of baseball, declared ailing and dormant by many, was well populated, if not exactly overcrowded, in these days of chaos and uncertainty. This is an era when a player is apt to wear three different uniforms in a single week: his home whites on Sunday, his road outfit for midweek games and his khakis on weekends. Last week some two dozen major-leaguers spent time with their Reserve or National Guard groups.
On Memorial Day, the major leagues drew 264,455. Not bad—it may mean brighter days are ahead. For the season thus far, American League crowds are off almost 250,000 from last year, while the National League (thanks largely to a Met attendance rise of 200,000) was about 300,000 over 1969.
Biggest crowd of them all on the holiday was—where else?—at the Mets' Shea Stadium. The world champions played the Houston Astros and packed in 54,424 customers (cunningly, they held Helmet Day in conjunction with Memorial Day). Second largest crowd for the holiday also occurred in the National League. At Chicago, the Cubs split a doubleheader with San Diego before 37,943 spectators.
And along the line of traditional ceremonies going on in traditional fashion, June Week 1970 at the military academies proved to be surprisingly similar to June Week 1960—or even 1940. Peter Carry visited West Point on Memorial Day and found the campus nicely crowded but entirely quiet under spectacular blue skies. One noteworthy difference from a decade or more ago was the yellow, green and red-striped campaign ribbons which appeared on the chests of many officer-alumni at The Point. They signified service in Vietnam. Beyond that, the day passed in normal military pomp and circumstance. And if war was to be the game of these young men one day in the future, this Memorial Day was not a day when their destiny was on display.
There were more immediate problems, for one thing. Army, which had been a preseason favorite for the national lacrosse championship, was now reduced to playing for a one-third share of that honor, and Navy's crew was known to be tough. And for a time, oh, say, at the half, when Army led 5-2, and into the third period, 6-2, the situation seemed to be under control. But then Navy broke away on a scoring burst and won the game 8-7. The victory gave Navy a 12-5-1 athletic record over Army for the season, best ever for the Middies, and then, to make their weekend complete, they won everything else involved in their annual holiday games, baseball, golf and tennis. After the jousts, Carry noted, "There were some longhairs on the playing field. But it wasn't a demonstration; far from it. They were out there to congratulate—or console—the players."
But each section, each city, each neighborhood of the U.S. would be tuned into its own special Memorial Day thing, too, would it not? For example, in Tennessee, the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic golf tournament drew 22,500 friendly people to the Colonial Country Club, which led tournament treasurer Hugh Huffman to say, expansively, "Recession? We never did know of such a thing out here." Off Orchard Beach in the Bronx, the New York Rowing Association held a race attended by almost everybody who likes to watch people row boats. And in Owensville, Ohio (pop. 609), something like 3,000 people and 350 coon dogs turned out for the World Championship Coon Dog Water Racing meet, and thrilled together as wonderful events unfolded before them. "It's one of the biggest turnouts ever," said Russell Andrews, vice-president of the Southern Ohio Coon Hunters' Association. "And the mood seems better than last year, which surprises me, considering everything that's been goin' on." In a championship coon-dog water race, about six dogs are released together with a splash into a lake from a single cage. Ahead of them in the water is a raccoon inside a cage that is pulled by a cable across the lake and eventually up a tree on the other side. First dog to enter a circle under the tree and bark at the raccoon wins a prize. This year's Grand Final winner at Owensville was a dog named Daddy's Baby.
Then there was San Francisco and the Bay Area, which staged an enviable assortment of Memorial Day affairs. About 1,500 people turned up for the Kennedy Memorial Games at the University of California's Edwards Stadium in Berkeley—including a group of New Zealanders who came to see their hero, one Dick Quax, a sub-four-minute miler newly arrived on American shores. Dick Quax led for two laps, then faded to finish fourth. But there was more, much more, to see in San Francisco than Dick Quax. For instance, the Northern California Regional Horseshoe Pitching Championship, which was held before a crowd of dozens in Golden Gate Park beneath a stand of eucalyptus trees and the 12-foot carving of a horse. The chairman of the affair, Jack Seymour of San Francisco, mused, "We're very proud. Any time a horseshoe event draws more than 100 people, it's a national holiday. Say—it is a national holiday, isn't it?" One portly pitcher, Les Anderson, who had the look and sound of a Minnesota Fats of the horseshoe world, said, "I'll bet anyone that I'll pitch a ringer—blindfolded—if he'll put his chin on the stake." When there was a natural hesitation among bystanders, Anderson shouted, "Hell, I've never killed a man yet." When it was all over, John Pratt of Sacramento was the winner, 7-0, having hit ringers at a 69% rate.
San Francisco's Memorial Day was bright under light breezes, but yachtsmen returning from the annual Buckner Race, a 109-mile run from the St. Francis Yacht Club to the San Francisco Lightship and back, said they had fought a wild night, where the wind gusted so strongly that the water spray felt like sand. Peter Bottle, a crewman on Chrysopyle, said, "I've never been in worse winds. The moon seemed to have a golden boundary around it, like two halos. Then it calmed. It was a truly eerie race."
Perhaps the wildest Memorial Day event of them all—certainly the one least easy to assimilate for those of routine and pedestrian mien—occurred at Dillon, Colo., in Summit County, just west of the Continental Divide in the high Rockies. This was the annual North American Ski-Yachting Championships, now in their sixth stupendous season. Anita Verschoth was at the event, which she described as "the only competition in the world where both sailing and skiing races take place almost at the same time." To allow for a lack of skiing talent, contestants were permitted to run the giant slalom course "either with both skis in hand or skis attached to the feet"; rank novices were allowed to use ski-bobs. Even more tricky and more risky than running the slopes was sailing the freakish surface of Lake Dillon. It was frequently hit by capricious assaults of tornadolike winds that came raging out of the mountains. The water temperature was about 35° at that altitude—and a man without a wetsuit could survive being dunked for no more than 15 minutes.
Naturally, there are large areas of misunderstanding and noncommunication between experts in the two sports. This year, Larry Jump, the president of the Arapahoe Basin ski area, entered a Santana boat and included Willy Schaeffler, the newly appointed U.S. ski team coach, as a member of his crew. When Jump told Schaeffler that he would be expected to hoist the spinnaker, Willy replied immediately, "The spinnaker? What is the spinnaker?"
On Memorial Day, as the boats gathered for the sailing segment of the races, the sun was warm and inviting, and a gentle breeze sent soft ripples across the lake. Then, barely a quarter hour after it all began, black clouds rushed over the mountain peaks and a sudden hailstorm smashed through Summit County. More than 100 sailors on Lake Dillon went into desperate emergency sail-hauling drills. Many boats went over, and the Coast Guard (which is always on hand for the event) went into hurried action and pulled the contestants, dripping and shuddering, to safety. A great deal of hot buttered rum was consumed in the aftermath.
So Memorial Day did pass—in a grand variety of ways. And if, here and there, it seemed too frivolous for these times and too full of abandoned enjoyment for the very events it was supposed to memorialize, one could perhaps forgive everyone their high spirits. Because now it was summer at last. And, as always, the winter had seemed too long.