Thank You, Dad, For Guiding My Way

This column is for me. Because of its length I don’t expect many to make it to the end, and I am fine with that. Some may find it self-absorbed, but not only is it a much-needed cathartic experience, it needs to be in print, whether anyone reads it or not. It is more about the writing of the column than the reading.

The thank you is for a man without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. He in his own way made it possible for me to enter the world of horse racing and become the writer I eventually aspired to be, meet and marry the most wonderful and beautiful woman, have the most wonderful and beautiful daughter, and complete the cycle by becoming a grandfather this past February. My regret is that my father did not live to see any of it, at least not in an earthly sense.

I have been convinced all these years that he somehow has been guiding me and steering me on the right path through the entire journey, and that the words that flow from my mind and heart come from him. I never have revealed anything about myself and my early life to anyone, but I am doing so now, as uncomfortable as it is, in order to pay tribute to a very special man.

Although my father was an engineer by trade, working for Detecto scales, he was one of the best and most creative writers I’ve known, as you will see later on. What you will read if you decide to continue on after what needs to be said is said is a gripping and colorful account of life on an LSM ship in the South Pacific during World War II and a first-hand, personal look at the massive Invasion of Luzon and Leyte Gulf, which I had reprinted five years ago, but needs to be published again with a stronger prelude. These words are the only physical items he left behind; the only evidence of who he was. So they must be preserved. This is my opportunity to do so, while thanking him and paying tribute to him. In order to do so, I must reveal parts of myself that were never meant to be revealed.

My father was a kind-hearted man who was plagued with the inability to say no to anyone asking for a favor. As a result, he was often taken advantage of, whether it was driving people to the airport, driving distant relatives from Georgia around Manhattan all day without even a thank you, or spending every Saturday morning for years taking my aunt to Rusk’s Institute in Manhattan to visit my uncle, who had suffered a stroke. Each time I would go with him to keep him company, giving up my punch ball, stick ball, or football games. He gave up much more.

We never owned a new car, never went on vacations, except for one year when we went to a resort in Mt. Freedom, New Jersey called Ackerman’s. My most special moments with my dad came at Ebbets Field to see our beloved Dodgers. Oh, those drives up Bedford Avenue and seeing the light towers off in the distance. That was a magical sight to a 9-year-old. As was seeing my dad catch a home run in the upper deck in centerfield hit by future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. It bounced off the railing and into his arms, with the bright red paint of the railing right there on the ball. So we not only took home a souvenir, we took home a part of Ebbets Field.

I was a terrible student all through high school and barely graduated, often cutting my first class and never participating, while hiding in the back of the room so the teacher wouldn’t see me. Adding to all this was my fear of taking tests, all of these foibles spurred on by a massive inferiority complex. I went out into the world knowing how to do absolutely nothing. My dad tried to build up my confidence, but to no avail.

After several years of menial and demeaning jobs, I got a job working on Wall Street, first as a page boy, then copy boy, then over-the-counter stock trader. But I soon had enough of this cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world and left, despite having no skills, no background in anything, and no college diploma. All I had was my recent discovery and unbridled passion for horse racing, which I stumbled upon going with two friends one Friday night to Roosevelt Raceway. So it was harness racing that exposed me to this new world.

It actually was my father’s gift of writing that had altered the course of my life. Like all those of my generation, I was called to the draft board in Lower Manhattan for my physical and testing during the Vietnam War, while working at the time in a printing factory. I told the officer there that I had asthma and he said bluntly, “Asthma is not deferrable.” So I came to terms with my fate and waited for the notice to come in the mail that I had been drafted. I’m sure I failed their written test and destined to four years as a grunt, if I survived boot camp.

My asthma as a child was pretty severe at times, and my father wrote a strong letter about how debilitating it was and how my service would have to be drastically limited. It was a powerful, articulate letter, as only he could write it, which he then had my longtime pediatrician sign, as well as our family doctor, who was widely recognized as head of Coney Island Hospital. He sent the letter to the draft board, and several weeks later I was informed that I had been classified as 4-F; physically unable to serve. It wouldn’t be the last time my father’s words changed my life.

So here I was several years later at Roosevelt Raceway and one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. I became fascinated and enthralled with the whole concept of racing and the beauty of the horses, and the intricacies of handicapping. Racing became all encompassing. My thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and I read every racing publication I could get my hands on, especially Turf and Sport Digest, which I would purchase by the dozens at a used magazine shop in Manhattan. It was during these days that I became enamored with Damascus, thanks to the person with whom I had gone to Roosevelt Raceway and who exposed me to flat racing. I had a new sports hero to replace the likes of Richie Allen, Jim Gentile, Sam Huff, Frank Mahovlich, Stan Mikita, and Gil Hodges.

By the winter of 1969, I was gone from Wall Street, leaving Pershing and Company, but with no ambitions or skills. I was out of work for nine months, taking the subway to Battery Park every day to feed the pigeons and read the Sam Toperoff book, “Crazy Over Horses” over and over. That became my bible. My life that winter and spring was all about Arts and Letters, Majestic Prince, Top Knight, and Dike. Racing was all encompassing, but I was on a path to nowhere. I was supposed to be looking for a job on Wall Street, several blocks from the park, but could not bring myself to return to that world.

Finally, after nine months and with nothing to offer anyone and heading for a life of more menial jobs, my father came into my room one night and asked me, “What do you want to do with your life? What are you passionate about?” I told him I had no idea what I wanted to do, and that my only passion was horse racing.

“Well, why don’t you try to get a job in horse racing,” he said. I had never even considered it. Having read the Morning Telegraph on the Subway every day, I grew to admire some of their writers, mostly Charles Hatton and Barney Nagler. But I wasn’t a writer, except for writing several personal poems. And who actually made their hobby their profession, especially a sport? My father never really liked his job, and that was I thought a job was; just a job – 9 to 5 drudgery. Not something you loved to do more than anything. But my dad always had confidence in me and wanted something better for me. He wanted my job and my passion to be one and the same. But what could I do in racing?

“You can start at the bottom and work your way up,” my dad said. “Just get your foot in the door. I have faith in you that you can make racing your profession and be a success at it.”

He had turned on the light and lifted me out of my funk. He had given me hope. I immediately mailed out letters to the Morning Telegraph, New York Racing Association, and The Jockey Club asking for a job, stating all I had to offer was my passion and the willingness to learn. I was expecting nothing.

I received two rejections, but one afternoon, the phone rang and it was Charlotte Berko, secretary to Saul Rosen, editor of the Morning Telegraph (the Eastern and main edition of the Daily Racing Form), saying Mr. Rosen would like me to come for an interview the next day.

I never saw my parents so excited. I had no idea what to expect, so all I could do was foolishly memorize the winners of every Kentucky Derby, as if that was going to help in any way.

When I arrived, everyone was watching the World Series between the Mets and the Orioles. I went in for the interview and the first question Saul Rosen asked me was if I knew how to type. When I told him I didn’t he said to come back after I learned. I was devastated. What was I going to tell my parents? This was the last ray of hope, not only for me but for them. I knew how disappointed my father would be when I came home without a job. 

While there, I asked Mr. Rosen, an iconic figure in the industry, if I could get the past performances of Graustark, who had retired in 1966 and who my friend Fred had turned me on to. He called in the librarian, Sol Seiden, and asked him to help me out. While Sol had someone Xeroxing Graustark’s PPs he told me he was going to need an assistant and suggested I start as a copy boy to get my foot in the door, and after I learned to type I could come in the library as his assistant.

The library? Horse books, horse photos, bound volumes of the Morning Telegraph going back 100 years? Talk about the proverbial kid in a candy store. Mr. Rosen said OK to the idea and I came home with a job, making far less than I was making on Wall Street. My dad was thrilled. I remember how proud he was of even the most trivial things. He would bring my rather pathetic photographs of horses to work with him and show them off as if they were works of art. He would come with me to the new Belmont Park, and also to the barn area to see horses like my latest favorite horse Arts and Letters. I remember going to Belmont with him in June of 1968 right after the track reopened after six years to see Dark Mirage win the Mother Goose and taking my first black and white photos. He had taken an interest in racing because of me. We watched the feature race from New York on TV every Saturday that I didn't go to the track..

Two years after I started working at the Morning Telegraph, my father passed away suddenly at the age of 56. Our family – me, my mother, and my brother – was never the same. 

To condense the rest of the story, I went from copy boy to the statistical department, then to the library (I never was able to learn to type, but faked it well). When the Telly closed in 1972, and they opened the new Daily Racing Form office in Hightstown, New Jersey, fortunately they took me along. Many lost their jobs. Had Sol Seiden not left the library to work in the advertising department and I had not been promoted to head librarian I would have been one of those let go, once again staring into the abyss, with no future. But again I was in the right place at the right time. I don’t believe it was a coincidence.

In the early ‘70s I wrote a letter to the Thoroughbred Record and was so excited when I saw my name in print. In the mid ‘70s I began freelance writing for the Sporting Chronicle, Stud and Stable magazine, and Pacemaker magazine in England, and the Thoroughbred Record, Louisiana Horse, and finally the newly formed Thoroughbred Times. I was so raw in the beginning and insecure that I wouldn’t send in a story until it was given the OK by DRF copy editor and writer George Bernet, who became my mentor and eventually the editor of the Form. Slowly I began building up confidence in my writing, trying unsuccessfully to emulate the great Bill Nack.

After 20 years in the library, first in New York and then in Hightstown,, I finally was taken out of the library to write full-time for the Racing Form to help combat the emergence of the Racing Times. I eventually took over Derby Doings from Joe Hirsch, at his request, wrote features and news stories, founded the feature Derby Watch, became national correspondent, providing lead coverage of all the big races, including the inaugural Dubai World Cup and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, then moved on to the Blood-Horse as senior correspondent in 1998 after the Form was sold, again covering all the big races and being invited to Ballydoyle and Coolmore in Ireland, the opening of Meydan in Dubai, and receiving red carpet treatment in Uruguay. What made it special was sharing it with my wife and daughter. I won numerous awards for writing (without ever submitting anything myself) and for lifetime achievement, culminating with election into the Hall of Fame, appropriately called the National Museum of Racing’s Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor, joining only 15 other writers – legends old and new, including my idols Charles Hatton and Bill Nack. And it was all because my dad suggested I get a job in racing, to follow my passion.

All I could think of as I accepted the award at the Museum and saw my name on the Roll of Honor, in the presence of my wife and daughter and the rest of my family, was how badly I wished my father could have seen this. How proud he would have been. How he would have fallen in love with Joan and how much he would have worshipped our daughter, Mandy, and maybe even his great-grandson. I can only believe that he somehow was watching this special moment unfold and that he knew he was the reason I was there accepting this ultimate honor. 

If you have made it this far and feel as if you have an idea who my father was and what a special man he was, you might want to stick around and read this remarkable letter. One of the reasons I know for sure what a profound impact my dad had on my life and how he has been guiding me in my writing career is the number of people who have read this letter and said they could have sworn it was written by me. I could receive no greater compliment. So I take you back to 1945 in the South Pacific and the most revealing look at my dad and the War in the Pacific through his eyes. These words are all I have of him other than memories.

Because of the length of this column, written to his boss, most of you will not continue on and that is understandable. But it is just reassuring to me to know it is out there in print, and not just a folded up letter on faded paper written in green ink lying in a dresser drawer.

January 21, 1945
Far East

The Navy may move slowly, but once they get started, things really begin to roll. We picked up our ship, which incidentally is an amphibious craft known as an L.S.M. (Landing Ship Medium (Tanks) at a Chicago shipyard. We remained there for a period of three weeks, outfitting the ship with supplies, equipment, etc. After the commissioning exercises, we started our journey, which was to take us through the States, the Panama Canal, through various South Pacific islands to our present operating base in New Guinea.

After leaving Panama, one could detect a wave of excitement rippling through the crew in anticipation of coming face to face with – not the enemy – but a real South Sea island Hula-Hula girl. But like other things that I had read and heard about these islands, I was doomed for a disappointment. Due to censorship, I cannot disclose the names of the islands we stopped at. But at these islands, of which there were many, we never did see anything that even resembled a Hula-Hula girl, let alone a sarong.

Where were all those Dorothy Lamours? The native women we did see were either too young or too old, too short or too long, too thin or too fat – but never in between. Somehow or another they seemed infatuated by brightly colored things. It was a very common sight to see these native women walking to church on Sunday wearing brightly colored dresses – latest American style creations of 1920 – and shoes (less stockings) the largest possible sizes manufactured, with such prominent colors as canary yellow, ruby red, a bright green or a dazzling orange. The large sizes were necessary due to their enormous feet. After church, we would burst with laughter to see how proudly they displayed their shoes – in their hands.

We kept hopping from island to island, doing various tasks assigned to us. Suddenly, a trip to one island brought us face to face with the grim realization that we were really part of this war, that our enemy was lurking nearby and we were helping to drive him out. We had undergone our first air-raid. For many months, even prior to my entrance into the service, I had given this very thing plenty of thought. What would my reactions be? Would I be afraid? Is it as devastating as I’ve heard it was? Now that it is over, I can truthfully say I was not afraid. Probably more angry than anything else. Angry at the fact that we – the L.S.M. 314 – could not do anything to bring the raiders down. The shore Anti-aircraft guns were keeping them high enough to prevent any serious damage.

After an hour or two of maneuvering, they dropped their bombs harmlessly in the ocean and several points on the island. Net result of the raid – several holes, with nothing hit but Mother Earth. Those raids were repeated every night of our stay there, and so regular in fact that we could almost set our watches by it. We finally moved out and pulled into a port in New Guinea.

Our next assignment came earlier than we expected. At last, the real thing had come along. We were going to participate in an invasion of a group of islands now being held by the Japs. The convoy assembled outside the harbor and prepared to get underway. It was a rather uneventful voyage – with nothing to be seen but a wide expanse of ocean. Four days later our objective was sighted. Timed to perfection, our convoy, supported by bombers and fighter escorts, arrived at the island precisely at H-Hour. The bombers made their run on the beach to wipe out any opposition. Meanwhile, all amphibious craft were standing by awaiting the signal to beach and unload their men and equipment. The beachings were made, opposition was very light, and the island was ours. Another step towards the final capitulation of Japan had been accomplished.

We returned to New Guinea and there awaited further instructions.. During all these months in the South and Southwest Pacific, I’ve had the opportunity to observe as well as to speak to the boys that have participated in such campaigns as Guadalcanal, Kwajelein, Saipan, New Guinea, and the first invasion of the Philippines. They’re a rough and tumble lot; boys that had once been farmhands, grocery clerks, salesmen, factory workers, and now transformed into the world’s greatest group of fighting men. But all this could not be made possible without the splendid co-operation of the home front.

The above mentioned operation we now know was in a way a preparation for a larger major operation. By the time you receive this letter, this operation will be old news. As a matter of fact, you probably know more of what happened than I do. However, I will attempt, to the best of my ability, to give you an eyewitness account of the Invasion of Luzon.

It all started back in one of the many harbors in New Guinea. Our task force was considered the largest ever to participate in an invasion. Our cargo consisted of Army personnel and vehicles. Unaware of what may lie ahead of us, we still left with the satisfaction of knowing, that back in our New Guinea harbor, we had left a Jap plane burning as a result of a morning raid. If that was a sign of what our Anti-aircraft fire was going to do, then the forthcoming campaign points to immense success.

The convoy proceeded rather smoothly. The evenings during our entire trip presented a full and beautiful moon as only the South Pacific can present. As beautiful as it was, it still had some bad aspects. Our convoy was lit up like a Christmas tree – making us an excellent target for enemy aircraft. This prompted us to call “General Quarters” at sunrise and sunset.

Early one morning, one of our escorting destroyers picked up enemy aircraft. The plane was visible by the entire convoy – circling us at will. It remained high enough to make us believe it was only a reconnaissance plane. If he spotted the convoy, which undoubtedly he did, then we can expect some uninvited callers before this trip is over. But we were prepared for all eventualities, and come what may, we’ll be ready.

We were rapidly approaching our objective, and how well we knew it. “General Quarters” became a daily as well as nightly routine. Enemy submarines one time and aircraft the next. All in all, sleep became something we faintly remembered from the past. I shan’t go into detail as to the various raids we experienced, but I can honestly say that a few more Japs had the distinguished honor of joining their honorable ancestors. We had the occasion to listen in on several of the “Radio Tokyo’s” news broadcasts. It provided us with many a hearty laugh. Our convoy was practically “wiped out” according to them. The operation was a huge failure. Of course, being part of the very convoy they mentioned made their reports sound silly. However, there are people back home that are gullible enough to believe all that rot. So think twice before believing their news reports. As a matter of fact, we didn’t lose a ship in the entire operation.

The New Year rolled in quietly and serenely. We had no time for any celebrations, and we continued to carry out our regular ship’s routine. However, it didn’t stop me of thinking of everybody back home. Although belated, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and successful New Year.

S-Day (equivalent to D-Day on the European front)

As dawn drew near, the island of Luzon began to take shape in the dawn’s light. We could see faint silhouettes marking our battleships, cruisers, destroyers, air-craft carriers, and hundreds of auxiliary ships, including landing craft. One hour before H-Hour our heavy ships continued their systematic bombardment of the beach. This has been going on for several days. Fire and smoke belched forth from these mighty guns. Flames and puffs of smoke marked the spots where these deadly missiles had landed. It’s hard to believe that anyone could survive this complete devastation.

Someone asked what time it was. Fifteen minutes to go. The first waves were preparing to hit the beach. Our time was rapidly approaching. We were going to be the first wave of the larger craft. Looking around at the Army boys and the crew showed us tense and earnest faces. Gone was all the hilarity that was so prevalent on the entire trip. They knew what was coming and what their task was. Last minute inspections of vehicles and sidearms were made. A high crescendo of blasts marked the final bombardment of the beach.

H-Hour had come. We kept maneuvering outside the harbor awaiting our signal to come in. The first waves had begun to land. Radio reports were coming in fast and furious. The first ten waves had landed successfully without any opposition. The Naval shelling had done its job well. Suddenly, our signal was given. We started to make our run on the beach. Many thoughts passed through my mind. Have the Japs been waiting for the larger craft? Would we meet the opposition that the previous waves had failed to meet? Would we reach far enough on to the beach to unload our cargo? We were now a thousand yards from the beach. Our bow doors opened like the jaws of some huge monster. The beach slowly loomed ahead – 500 yards….250 yards…100 yards – still no enemy fire. We felt the ship scraping bottom. Our momentum carried us forward. All engines had stopped. Slowly our bow ramp was lowered. The vehicles moved out, and everything went as planned.

From the extreme corner of the beachhead – as if arising out of thin air – we saw hundreds of Filipinos coming out to meet our landing parties. Those that were able, ran. The older ones, amongst whom were mothers carrying tiny infants, managed to walk at a rather lively gait. The scene that took place can hardly be described in this letter. They simply threw themselves at our boys, some shaking their hands, and the more brazen ones hugging and kissing them. Passing through the nearby town, in pursuit of the Japs, our boys were met by women coming out to meet them with wet towels – of all things to wash the grime and dust from their perspiring faces. Fresh eggs – indeed a rare treat out here – were freely given out. They wouldn’t think of having the boys do their own laundry. They protested any signs of refusal. But what can they do against a people so determined to do everything in their power to help us. The men worked endless hours unloading the ships. They were paid for it, but gladly would have done it for nothing.

These were the people we were freeing from Japanese enslavement. It made us thrill to the thought that once again they would be able to carry on a happy and normal life. They are not much different from us in their wants. These are not the barbaric natives we encountered in the wild jungles of New Guinea. Their civilization runs parallel to our own and we are all happy that whatever hardships we encountered thus far had not been in vain.

At the writing of this letter, we are anchored at some port, whose name cannot be disclosed. And so ended another milestone toward the ultimate defeat of Japan. I hope this letter has given you a complete picture of my activities the past several months.

I’ve got to run along now, so until you hear from me again – which will be soon – regards to all.

I remain,
Abe Haskin

(A postscript: The invasion of Luzon was one of the largest amphibious invasions in history. A total of 175,000 men went ashore along a 20-mile beachhead over a period of several days. On Jan. 9, 1945, 70,000 American troops landed on Luzon. One of those who walked ashore to greet the cheering Filipinos was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Although the opposition on shore was light, the battleship Mississippi and light cruiser Columbia were lost to kamikaze attacks. The largest American Battle Monument Commission Cemetery outside of Arlington, Virginia is on Luzon where over 17,000 Americans are buried)

Thanks, Dad. Every gift I have been granted in life I owe to you. Every path I’ve taken you’ve been there to guide me. Every word I’ve written has come from you. All I can do to thank you is to preserve your memory and your words in this column.

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