Not Quite Toe Up: Six Degrees

Until today I was never any good at Science. But, like a songwriter awakens with a song playing in his head, the entire clarity of how each of us are tethered came to me last night with crystal clarity. Sort of like the Six Degrees of Separation.

The lead character in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation pontificates that any two individuals are connected by only a handful of others while rambling, “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names . . . “

If we aren’t connected by blood, then it stands to reason we are attached by circumstance – tied together by series of incidences often so small that even we may never realize the credence at the time. But through the magic of history – my story – one can easily see how I have positively proved my hypothesis.  Sort of.  So heed it and bare it all with me. I promise not to waste more than four minutes of your time unless you’re still a remedial reader.

This vignette is about my father, a man who lived and died with a seemingly unusual name. Some called him “Nort,” others, who wanted something tangible called him “Norty.”  For the record, his given name was Norton.  According to thinkbabynames.com*, “Norton is not a popular first name for males but a very popular surname or last name for all people (#466 out of 88799) (2000 U.S. Census).”

During a brief period from 1890 through 1930, Norton was in the top 1,000 names. It is listed as having Old English or Old German origins which makes sense as my father was born in 1920. In retrospective analysis as my paternal grandmother, Frances was born in 1886 and did hail from a large German family. So in some unnatural way he came by the name naturally. Of course, the name celebrated its cultural fifteen minutes during the run of Jackie Gleason’s smash hit TV show, The Honeymooners.

See? So, at one point during my adolescent years, I resided at W.C. Fields’ house at 508 N. Canon, in Beverly Hills. About three blocks east, in the 500 block of either Rexford or Alpine – I forget now – lived the greatest Thoroughbred jockey in history, Bill Shoemaker*. He was an affable guy. Fact is, the few times I ran into him when we weren’t at either Hollywood Park or Santa Anita, he’d give me some tips on a hot horse to play or some generic rules about handicapping. Fifteen years later – Aha!  Fifteen years and fifteen minutes! –  I got a few published interviews with him including 1986, the year he gave me Ferdinand* as a “can’t-lose cinch,” that paid $37.40 after I tossed to it to my readers like the Queen tosses free hand waves.

Now don’t lose track of things. (Track? More connections!)  Anyway, that brings us to Norton Shoemaker. A non-descript harness driver at Pocono Downs, a non-descript bullring thankfully nestled just outside of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He had a year or two in the standings but about as much glory as a stable pony has to a champion racehorse. Norton Shoemaker and “The Shoe” had in common to one another, but plenty in common to me.  .

My father died suddenly in 1981. In pursuit of some relief I headed down to Ft. Lauderdale for a few days. One cloudy non-beach day when Dania Jai Alai was closed, I was fumbling around my hotel after brunch.  As I passed the promotional display case in the lobby, I stopped to go flipping through the fliers: Disneyworld . . .  Key West . . . There it was: Hollywood Greyhound Track*.

I got in the rental and headed over to the hounds. Once inside I bought a program and began doing my best at deciphering greyhound hieroglyphics aka past performances. There it was: Norton.

I shit you not. In the Third Race on that February 1981 matinee card was a dog named Norton. I recall running down to the rail, lining myself up with where his number would be when the handlers brought them out to display them prior to the race. Moments later he came parading out and stopped right in front of me. I looked up into his deep brown eyes  . . . (c’mon clichés, help me) . . . and, to my shear amazement his eyes were trained on me like a heat-seeking missile.

That would have been enough. But the unthinkable happened. He began nodding his head up and down.

I looked up at the board as the dogs were led away toward the starting gate. He was 16-1.  Sixteen. Sweet 16. OMG, he was 16 to 1. (16-1 the same as Ferdinand would be five years later in 1986!)  And a sixth: 16.

In the blink of an eye, Norton, gallantly spun around that oval, landing in front by the slimmest of heads. I hit nearly every gimmick, and a piece of win pool, for a tidy profit of about $3,000 as I recount today – never to see that dog or my father again. Come to think about it, I miss them both . . . my dad a bit more.

Hollywood Greyhound Track in Hollywood, Florida.

What? My father went to Hollywood High School in Los Angeles. How many more degrees do I need?

I got Norton Nathan, Bill Shoemaker, Norton Shoemaker, Norton the Greyhound, Hollywood Florida and Hollywood California. Bingo! That’s six!

I even scare me sometimes.
*Read more at http://www.thinkbabynames.com/meaning/1/Norton#FbUFBrM7dIFYriKs.99

*http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Willie_Shoemaker.aspx

*http://www.kentuckyderby.com/history/year/1986

*http://www.dog-track.com/hollywood-greyhound-park.html

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