Eulogy for a Friend of a Lifetime

Eulogy for Tom Voss, September 19, 1950 – January 21, 2014, given January 27, 2014, at St. James Academy, Monkton, Maryland, by Patrick Smithwick

 

Tom

Excerpts from a letter to Tom, the morning he left Atlanta Hall:

 

January 22 2014,

            Dear Partner, Brother, Cousin, Friend since birth, Godfather to my son Paddy, Father of my godson Sam, Fellow godson of our fathers’ best friend – Gary Winants,

 

            You are here with me.  You will always be here with me.  Not a day has gone by in my life when I have not thought: ha – wouldn’t Tom get a kick out of this!  I could be teaching a class or feeding the horses and I think of you.  Now, I still think of you – here, now, your presence.

 

            I’m so glad I gave you the big kiss on your whiskery cheek and said “I love you” that last moment of our time together.  I am thankful for that.  I’ll always remember that moment. You accepted it.  Seated at the counter in the kitchen, you just kept staring straight ahead – with that gleam in your eye, Mimi across from you.

 

            You know, a dream of mine was to stand up and give a certain talk in five or six years with you seated, slightly embarrassed and audibly sighing, beside me.  I wanted to give a rousing, rafter-rattling celebratory speech about your devotion to horses – the championships, the Eclipse Awards, your painstakingly hard work – when you were inducted into the racing Hall of Fame!  And then walk out of the Fasig Tipton pavilion, over to Saratoga Racecourse, watch your horse win the A. P. Smithwick, stand in the winner’s circle together, as we did with Cookie, with Mickey, with Brigade of Guards, with Anofferyoucan’t Refuse, and celebrate on into the night.

 

            In many ways, we know each other quietly – even telepathically.  For years you smoked Pop’s cigarette – Pall Malls, and every morning, you and I crumple up a red or blue bandana and stick it in our in our right back pocket.  I saw the simple things: the way only you drive into our entrance, swing right close to the corn crib, spin the wheel left, and turn the car perfectly, fluidly, 360 degrees, bringing it to a stop.  Where?  You know I know:  you execute the turn as Pop used to do, and you park in the exact spot where Pop always parked his car.  Ready to go.

 

 

            I can feel your spirit, strongly.  You are strong.  You command the attention of the room, and then walk through without saying a word.  You and I both had our ambitions stoked, forged, in the stable of my father where we received the same training, and lived by emulating the same principles.  I went off to write; you stayed and polished and perfected your knowledge of the Thoroughbred horse, and met with plenty of defeats and deaths and losses, and you kept going.  You understood and supported my ambition.

 

            Who showed up decades ago at an awards ceremony on a dreary Sunday afternoon when I was given a check for $300 and a certificate for a story I’d written.  You had a horse in at Laurel that day – ran the horse, jumped in the car, sped old-time racetrack style to the library, and when who I rose to receive the certificate, I looked into the audience of one dozen, and there you were, with Mimi.

 

            Years later, it was April, your busiest time of year, and I was in the running for a book award.  I was one of three finalists – the winner of the purse, much improved since that last one, to be announced in Kentucky in just a few days.  We were at your house after the Elkridge Harford races – at your party which you failed to attend.  As we were preparing to leave, I walked into the kitchen and there you were, just back from the barn, dirty and scruffy, having finally concluded a long day of overseeing the entire point to point, starting each race, and winning half the races with your own horses.  I hadn’t had a real conversation with you for a couple of weeks.

 

            “Hey, when’re you going down?” you asked, eyeballing me.

            “Our flight’s Tuesday night…” 

            “Mine’s early Wednesday morning,” you said, looking away, your voice trailing into a whisper.

 

            That’s what I love about you.

 

            It feels as if a physical, palpable chunk of me is gone. Part of me, those early wild years, the riding years, sharing my father, sharing the striving, the sacrifices we made for our passions.  The skiing, the galloping head and head on our ponies, on Pop’s horses, the reducing in hot cars, the canoeing.  Your saving me when I was getting crushed by the canoe in the rapids. 

 

            You liked that story.  Canoeing down Deer Creek in a hurricane – we capsized.  I was drowning.  You saved me. 

 

            The jumping.  You were born jumping.  When we skiied, you jumped every mogul.  When we rode Pepper and Queenie together, you sought out every chicken coop we could handle.  When we skated, you had to put lines of buckets on the ice to jump.  And when we started driving: oh boy – those drives to and from the Merrymans and the Fenwicks, where all the pretty girls were, we were racing and we were jumping my Corvair, getting a foot of air over the bump on Cold Bottom Road. 

 

            Coming home with Tiger driving one night, Bobby Burke’s big- engined car stood off too far at a bridge.  We went through a tree and landed in a stream.  It looked like our time was up, but this time I saved you.

 

            You might have been a little too brave, too tough, too stoic – that injury this fall.  You told me about the light-headedness, the falling down, the not telling anyone, the putting off going to the doctor. And then, on your last day with us when you felt sick and weak, you had to go out and work, plowing the entrance in the artic chill.  That was your way. 

 

            Those last days, you seemed so relaxed and pleasant and at peace.  Happy with your family all around you.  Even in death – I know that body on the bed this morning was not you. 

 

            This is you, this spirit I feel in the air. The power, force shimmering here, now, this love of animals and family and the out of doors, of steeplechasing and schooling young horses and giving them a pat on the neck after they’ve gone well, this going to the races, going there on a mission, willing the horse to win – like you did that afternoon after taking the gamble of a lifetime – you and Douglas putting up a quarter of a million to run John’s Call, soon to be a ten year old, on Breeder’s Cup Day against the fastest turf horses on the globe.  John blazed down the backside at Churchill Downs with the leaders, and you and I were on the rail, by the wire, watching.  I was standing behind you and John was flying – my body felt on fire, John, old John, how could he hold this speed, how could he keep it going?  Around the last turn, he was pinned in along the hedge.  Then we were both jumping up and down as Jean Luc pulled him out wide at the head of the stretch and he was head and head with the other two.  You were calling out “Come on John!  Come on John!” and then Irish superstar Johnny Murtaugh on Kalanisi flew up on the outside.  The four of them came battling down the stretch, Kalanisi winning, John third, beaten a neck for $2 million, having lost his shoe! 

 

            Those feet of his!  You had to deal with those platter plates.  If John hadn’t blown that shoe off at the quarter pole - he would have won by a neck.  He had the same guts and heart and drive as you.

 

            What a laughably terrible dinner we had that night, but it was fun with your mother, wife and children all there.

 

            Food and drink always tasted better with you: how about the kidney pies after hunting.  Well, first the port in the tack room – then the kidney pies.  We’d be in our boots, laughing, warming up, the sweat and dirt still on our faces, your face with a bad scratch or two, Mimi on the other side of the kitchen counter, serving up the port and pie and laughing with us.

 

            I’m glad we got in the hunting together on Welterweight and Florida Law.  Ha – how I loved rolling along, letting’em tippy toe, and jumping that big coup on the racecourse head and head with you.  How I enjoyed going to the meet, the hunt itself, and then, best of all, when you and I drove home together, sitting up in the cab, just the two of us…

 

            It was harder to accomplish that as we got older – the just-the-two-of-us.  First of all, you became more and more enamored with Mimi!   Secondly, the kids came around, and then when you became a grandfather – well, it was impossible to extract you from Atlanta Hall!  I’d have to stop by and talk to you between visits from a caravan of relatives and friends and workers – not to mention your constantly ringing cellphone – calls from grooms, jockeys, agents, owners.  And the sycophants!  How you savored that word for years. “Sycophants!” you’d say, after that one night 25 years ago we had it out with one another.  No blows exchanged.  But that night I remembered the force of your body punches as a teenager.

                                                *         *         *

            I feel better now. 

            The writing helps.

            I just stepped outside, wrote my initials in the snow, as we used to do as boys.

            A.P.S.  and  T.H.V. 

            You know Tom, they’re still carved in our dining room window. 

            The sun is setting over the Griswold’s hill where I saw you hunting a few weeks ago.

 

            “I’ve been hunting three times a week,” you proclaimed the other night, and scowled at me.  I’d been missing from the field and I caught your message.  Then you admitted, “The last time my foot hurt so bad, I had to get off the horse in the middle of the hunt, call Gary and ask him to come pick me up.”

                                                *         *           *

            The papers, the press, your thousands of followers – Tom, you are having quite the write-ups. 

 

            Still, so many people misunderstand you, but you don’t care.  You don’t like small talk, and you tend to put your head down, light a cigarette and walk the other way at the sign of a phoney approaching – Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye being a favorite of yours.  At work, you work.  “It’s in the details,” you’ve told me. “Pay attention,” you say to your riders and grooms. You push all else aside and focus on each individual horse. No gladhanding, no chitchatting, no distractions.

            Yet, you do enjoy striking up conversations with those who have no idea who you are.  You like being incognito.

 

            Two nights before John runs in the Breeder’s Cup, we’re in Louisville, driving back from the barn, stop at a rough looking tavern.  We are staying at the legendary Seelbach Hotel, along with the stars of international racing. I’d thought we might hobnob with a few of them on this night.

 

            “I don’t know Tom…?” I say, as we park behind a row of mud-splattered pick-ups.

            “Ah, come on.” 

            We sit at the bar. One rough-looking place.  You light up a cigarette, start a conversation with the bartender.  Four big construction workers are shooting pool.  We’ve both stopped drinking as usual but on this occasion we have a beer which doesn’t count.  One more.  The pool game ends.  One of the players approaches the bar to order a round and you start chuckling.

            You nod to him.  “How you doing?”

            He says, “Good, hey – what’s so funny, pal?”

             “I was just thinking, that game of pool could be put in the Guiness Book of World Records.”

            “Yeah, how’s that?”         

            “For being the longest game in history….”

            “Oh yeah,” the guy says, laying one thick arm on the bar, and with the other waving the three at the pool table to come over.

            An elbow pokes into your rib cage.  My elbow.  “Time to go Tom, let’s go.”  I know you never back down.

 

            In Orlando the night of my rehearsal dinner – you were the best man in my wedding the next day.  We – you and my ushers – had been thrown out of a nightclub across the street from the police station.  I was being held by two bouncers, worked over by another.  Then this huge undercover cop was strangling me; I broke free and he was coming for me.  Suddenly, there you were. 

            “Listen you big …, you touch my friend again and I’ll kill you.”   That night, and any other night, or morning, or moment, I always knew, no matter what the odds, what the circumstance, you’d be there.

 

            You’re not afraid of anything: except snakes, sharks, heights, Mrs. Bedford, and Mimi when angry.  And yet you relish experiencing fear and tension, vicariously.  I got your text the other frigid, snowy day when school was closed: “Vertigo on at 2:00. ”  I remember that late night as kids we watched it in Ned’s room .

 

            You have a sensitive side – a love of children, of sculpture and painting, of well-written novels, of books on American history, of classic movies – especially Hitchcock.  In life, you did have to toughen up.  First, your father Edie’s death that morning we were having breakfast in your house, then your brother Ned’s, my father’s, your brother Jack’s, our godfather Gary’s, my mother’s, Uncle Mikey’s.  Jonathon Kiser – most nervy and athletically gifted rider you’ve ever had, dies of a freak head injury.  Bob Witham – dies from a fall from a horse, not unlike ones we’ve all had.  We got through them together.  Suspendido – you retire him from racing.  He’s living the life of a stallion – hit by lightening.  Florida Law – retires, hit by lightening.      

 

            Remember when we were ten, before any of this happened, and we were shooting sparrows with our bee bee guns?  You hit one.  You picked it up, cupped it in your hands, and I saw a tear.  We buried the sparrow, right there, outside our back porch. 

            You are a tender man.  I see you holding Genevieve, walking through the creek in “The Meadow,” teaching her, talking to her.  I hear your voice, going lower and lower into a whisper when you are discussing something that touches you.

 

                                                *         *         *

           

            This letter is winding down.

            It’s time to feed and hay –

            the horses are striding through the snow,

            crossing the stream where we used to build dams

 

            heading for the shed. 

            Do you think they need blankets tonight?   

 

                                                *         *         *

 

            A quote comes to mind: “Man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

 

            In your case, Tom, we can top that.  Our last night together, Jimmy and I brought up the time a horse kicked you in the jaw eight years ago.  You attempted to carry on, directing your astonished riders to jog down to the “finish line fence,” walk along the fence, turn, and school head-and-head over the first two hurdles, and then, “Each man for himself!”

 

            Telling it to us, you laughed, “I didn’t know it was so bad until Armando walked out, looked at me, and almost fainted.  That’s when they made me go to the hospital.”

 

            You thought about it, lying on the sofa in your living room, your foot raised as the doctors told you to do. You grinned and swung your feet to the floor.  You stood up.  “But I didn’t go down,” you said, and laughed, “I didn’t go down.”

 

            Tom, you will never go down in my book.  You can be kicked in the head, spurting blood, spitting teeth, but you will never go down.  You will always be here for me, and for Sam, Elizabeth, Genevieve, Thomas and Jen, for this countryside you and Jack worked to preserve, for the Hunt and the keeping of its traditions, for steeplechasing and the racing you loved, and most of all for Mimi who will always have that passionate, youthful love you had for her, and gave her, until your last moment.

 

                                    Love,

                                                Your friend

 

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