By Billy Smith
By the time I’d ciphered the time difference, my iPhone was already on its third ring and I figured the damage was already done when the hardtack voice on the other end answered: “What the hell do you want at 3 a.m.?”
It’s pretty much the normal way my octogenarian uncle answers the phone, so I wasn’t startled. He’s polite like that. To the point. He never suffers fools and can talk horses until the proverbial cows come home.
“You’re going to have a hard time with my French, but I’m at the Prix de Chantilly Thoroughbred race. It’s a big, international race. I know it’s 3 a.m, but I figured you’d wanna know anytime I was at a horse race,” I said with as much wry vibrato as I could muster.
“That ain’t French. I can show you some French if you want.”
“That’s alright. I was talking about the language.”
“Oh, OK. I wasn’t.”
He likes wry vibrato and dishes it out as much as he’s willing to take it.
“Now you’re talking, boy. I guess I can wake up to hear about a race. It’s about the time I wake up anyway. I’m sure you don’t usually get up till close to noon,” he retorted, doubling down on my own sarcasm.
As Khalid Abdullah’s Daring Miss claimed the 4-year-old and older race, I talked my uncle through it and bemoaned the fact that I was wearing the most expensive set of clothing I owned and yet was notably under dressed.
“There’s only so much beautifying you can do with a sow’s ear,” he chuckled through an early morning cough. He’s accomplished at catching me off guard.
As a child, Uncle Bill was my John Wayne. His oversized head even favored the Duke. His features are serious, but he could crack into an unexpected toothy grin about the time I was convinced he was going to come unhinged. I think he likes surprises and adventure about as much as he likes horses.
I have three horsey uncles, all of whom get to claim a piece of my raising. One’s a recently retired trainer who made, for decades, the Sunland Park, Ruidoso, New Mexico circuit that later added Hobbs to make a triad. Another operates a ranch near Abilene, Texas. The other is the one for whom I’m named: Uncle Bill, who continued my grandfather’s oilfield construction business as a means of financing his horse racing operation—or at least that’s the way I saw it. He’s a Korean War-era vet who spent the campaign in the frozen expanses of Alaska when we were afraid the Russians might catch us staring out toward Asia while they slipped in the icy back door.
“Just like the Air Force to stick a West Texas boy in Alaska,” he quipped.
And so began a spate of phone calls over a couple of decades, whenever I wander into an equine event I think is particularly interesting and where I am certain to call Uncle Bill at some exotic hour. He complains as if I have stolen some sacred ambrosia wrapped in sleep and then sucks the marrow out of every horse event about which I prattle on. It’s how he rolls.
Sometimes he calls me, and sometimes I let the voicemail answer just so I can capture a copy of his priceless voicemail monologues. Some folks can swear, and it’s just downright offensive. Others can make swearing into a fine art form. Uncle Bill is the latter; his mastery of the compound modifier is enough to make the most hardened, bun-wearing schoolmarm a little lightheaded.
It’s like the time I left him a message recounting a bucket-list dove hunting trip to Argentina where I killed some unimaginable number of white wings:
“Boy you’re just like your cousin Jay (Bill’s son, a retired Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security operative). You couldn’t tell the truth if you had to—2,500 (compound expletive) dove?!?! You can (singular expletive) your daddy but you can’t your Uncle Bill,” he rumbled through my iPhone. I have that one saved, and I play it from time to time when I want to laugh. “Your arm would be wore out. Besides, I’ve hunted with you before. Takes you a box of shells to kill one dove.”
Uncle Bill’s insults are a curative elixir of stinging humor—the first swallow jolts a bit, but it goes down easy during subsequent helpings. In the end, he’s a kind man who tests your mettle with every exchange.
These are conversations of merriment and richness for which laughter is a principal byproduct. Content is secondary, but we almost always make a pass through the telling of that one great horse whose accomplishments were shortchanged by a sesamoid injury. Over the years, we’ve unwrapped every family member, cousin, scoundrel and a potpourri of Smith-Campbell family gothic. He comforted me when my own son went to battle the baddest of the bad in the Middle East.
“You know, you come from a family of warriors,” he counseled. “We can’t help ourselves.”
Our family was indeed a mashup of such folks: war heroes, scoundrels, drunks, geniuses, the daring, a few crybabies and Uncle Bill, whose college buddy was Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame. Both attended Sul Ross University in the far reaches of West Texas until a short-lived roping career interrupted classroom endeavors.
“We might have drank a little beer, too. I don’t really remember,” he muses.
I’m hoping these calls never end, but I know they will with his passing or my own—I’m not convinced Uncle Bill is mortal so I reckon my goodbye will be the last. But the next time I’m in a far-flung part of the world, I won’t bother factoring in the time difference.