Souvenirs Tell Stories: Part 7 — The Rocking Chair

Photo by Jim LaBate

As the Saratoga Race Course opens again today in upstate New York, I recall a souvenir that came indirectly into our home from that racetrack. On the surface, this rocking chair looks much like many other rocking chairs that sit in living rooms or bedrooms all across America. However, this particular rocker holds an especially memorable place in our family lore because of the unlikely event that led to its purchase.

During the summer of 1985, my wife, Barbara, and I were celebrating our first anniversary and also expecting our first child. I was employed full-time as an English teacher at a small, Catholic high school, I was also studying part-time for my master’s degree at a local college, and Barbara was selling encyclopedias on a commission basis. As we prepared for our baby’s birth, Barbara happened to mention her desire to have a rocking chair, so she could feed the baby there and later rock him or her to sleep.

“I’m not sure we can afford that right now,” I said honestly, “but I will look into it.” And I did. I discovered that a nice, sturdy rocker, one that was not too fancy, would cost about $100, a bit of a stretch for our budget. I didn’t admit that truth to Barbara right away, though, because I am an optimist at heart, and I was hopeful that God might somehow provide the money.

And speaking of money, I was actually handling thousands of dollars every day while performing my summer job. I was working as a mutual clerk for six weeks at the previously mentioned racetrack. Was I tempted to “misplace” a little of that money every day to buy the rocker? No, honestly, I was not. We worked in a highly monitored and controlled environment, and if my cash drawer were short at the end of the day, that missing money came out of my paycheck. In fact, due to carelessness, I was seven dollars short during my very first day on the job, so I was determined not to lose money again.

Was I tempted to place a bet to win that one hundred dollars for the rocker? Yes and no. Every day, I played one two-dollar daily double and hoped that I might win a substantial amount. I wasn’t willing to bet any more than that, though, because I had learned my gambling lesson years earlier when I was a college student.

During the fall of my junior year, I went with some friends to the Saratoga Harness Track one night with part of my textbook money. Unfortunately, I lost that money, so instead of buying new textbooks as I normally did, I had to buy used textbooks that semester. No, serious gambling was not for me. Fortunately, on a busy Saturday near the end of the six-week session, another gambler inadvertently helped me out.

This particular bettor came to my window just before the third race. The weather was perfect that day, so the place was packed, and the betting lines were long when he arrived. He had a huge glass of beer in one hand and a hot dog and a program in the other, and he placed them all down on the counter in front of him as he reached for his wallet. The beer was apparently not his first that day because he loudly and enthusiastically said, “Twenty big ones to win today on pony number seven” as he firmly slapped his money down in front of me.

Immediately, I took his cash, punched the key details into my terminal, grabbed his ticket when it appeared from the machine, and placed it in front of him. He was distracted, however, talking to someone else and also trying to gather up his beer and his food, so I looked out beyond him at the crowd as I waited for him to leave.

“Hey, where’s my ticket?” He then said even more loudly than before.

Stunned, I refocused on him and automatically replied, “I put it right here on the counter.”

“Well, it’s not here now. What’d you do with it?”

The minutes were ticking down to the start of the race, and I think he was overly nervous that he wouldn’t have his ticket in time. I was getting nervous too. A small part of me thought he was trying to rip me off to get an extra ticket, but an even bigger part of me was worried that he would create a big scene and that my supervisor would have to get involved in the conflict. I hate big scenes, and I hate conflict, so I decided quickly to just fix the problem by myself. I actually gave him another twenty-dollar ticket, knowing fully well that the twenty dollars would come out of my paycheck.

After he left, I methodically sold three or four more tickets to other bettors before the race began. While the horses were running, I cursed myself for losing money, and I tried to determine what had gone wrong. What had happened to that first ticket? I looked on the floor behind me. I looked out near where the bettor had stood. I found nothing. I guess he did rip me off, I concluded. I can’t let that happen again. I have to be more careful.

Then, the miracle occurred. After the race finished and after the results had been declared official, amazingly, that bettor returned to my window. “We won,” he said, this time without his beer or his hot dog. “Over a hundred bucks too.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe he had returned to my window; maybe he hadn’t cheated me after all. And he only cashed one ticket. Apparently, he didn’t have the extra one. “Where could it be?” I asked myself again. He must have read my mind at that moment because before he left, he said, “I hope you find it, Pal. If you do, it’s worth almost a hundred and twenty bucks.”

Then, I was really stunned. Up to that point, I was simply wishing I could replay my error and avoid losing twenty dollars. The possibility that I might actually win money had not even crossed my mind. Naturally, I was even more determined to find that ticket. And soon, I did so.

As the next race was running, I searched my work area again, more thoroughly this time, and I noticed a small space between the bettor’s counter and my machine, a space I had never noticed before. And sure enough, a small, white, rectangular ticket peeked up at me.

“That’s gotta be it,” I exulted. “That’s gotta be my ticket.”

Since all the machines were locked in place and since I couldn’t squeeze my fingers down there to grasp the ticket, I had to explain what had happened to a security guy, so he could move the machine, and I could retrieve my winner. He performed his task quickly and efficiently, without any questions, and I could then afford the rocker Barbara desired.

Photo provided by Jim LaBate

Before I drove home that day, I bought the rocker and surprised Barbara with it when I arrived at our apartment. She was thrilled and amazed and thanked God for His generosity and provision when I told her the whole story. About six months later, our little Maria arrived, and Barbara and I often rocked her to sleep in that special souvenir. Two and half years later, Katrina arrived, and she enjoyed it as well. Today, almost 35 years have passed, and when I see the rocking chair sitting silently and alone in our guest bedroom, I recall fondly the many evenings I sat in that chair with our little girls, and I smile when I think about the story behind it and its placement in our home.

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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