May I share with you a reader letter? An extraordinary one? It comes in response to an item I have in my column today. I reminisce about an amazing stretch from mid-April to early May, 1986. It is sharply etched on my memory. Jack Nicklaus does the impossible: wins the Masters, at age 46. Vladimir Horowitz, age 82, returns to Russia, for the first time in over 60 years. Plays a successful concert. And Bill Shoemaker becomes the winning jockey at the Kentucky Derby: age 54.
Okay, that letter:
A little vignette about Jack Nicklaus and Willie Shoemaker. I grew up in southern Indiana, not far from Louisville and Churchill Downs. Back in ’86 my dad was traveling back home from a business trip. It was at a point after the Masters but before the Derby. (In that part of the country, you don’t have to say “Kentucky.”) A diminutive, past-middle-aged man, much like my dad, sat down next to him on the plane.
My dad and the man started conversing and it turned out that he was the great jockey Willie Shoemaker. It further turned out that Willie and my dad were close to the same age. As I remember the story, Willie said that he had been called to run in the Derby at the last minute. He was nervous and worried that he was too old to be competitive. My dad brought up the Masters and the recent win by Jack Nicklaus and pointed out that if Jack Nicklaus can win, so can Willie Shoemaker.
Mr. Shoemaker thanked my dad for the comments and said he hadn’t thought of that. They continued their conversation and went their separate ways at the end of the flight.
Of course, we know that Willie Shoemaker did win the Derby at age 54. My dad, who had attended the previous 20 or so Derbies, couldn’t make that one, so he had to watch on TV. Later, when the Derby was over, he was watching a press conference. Mr. Shoemaker was asked a question related to whether he had been worried he couldn’t win, given his age. He stated that he had thought, “If Jack Nicklaus can win the Masters, Willie Shoemaker can win the Derby.” My dad grinned from ear to ear.
I was just thinking of this story this morning, before I read Impromptus. My dad was admitted to the hospital yesterday. At first we thought it was a stroke, but fortunately it turned out to be extremely low blood sugar and, God willing, he will be back to his old self soon. Old age catches up to us all eventually, but it is nice to remember there are times when we can pass old age by, at least for a moment.
Cripe, thank you.