Thursday, December 15, 2011

Breezin': An Homage to my Grandfather, Cas Szymanski, a passionate horseplayer

Minding my own business in the solitude of my bus commute home from New York City, George Benson’s standard “Breezin’” popped up on my iPod (right after Tool’s The Grudge – alright, my tastes are widespread), sending me back to a place in time that is somehow perfect as I mourn the passing yesterday of Casimir Szymanski, my beloved grandfather, just days shy of his 88th birthday.

Kaitlyn and her proud Great-Grandpa, a
wonderful man and horseplayer
Simply “Grandpa” to me, but “Cas” to family, friends and others, “Mr. Simmons” to area pizza shops (because Suh-man-ski was, apparently, too difficult for the average person to grasp), a thorn in the side to restaurant workers far and wide (I would estimate that, in my presence as a kid, he returned at least half of all meals as either too cold or “not cooked right” back to the kitchen…and jokingly we suspect ingested a lot of sneezed-upon, albeit hot, food.)  

However classified, Grandpa was the consummate chalk player – a strictly no-nonsense guy, both in my observations of his horse handicapping, but mostly in life.  To be sure, in his final months, when I’d call to check in on the exceedingly-vigorous-for-an-octogenarian, he’d say “not too good, Billy, but what the hell d’ya expect. I’m 87 years old.”  He called it like he saw it – Joe Namath was no good, (Daryl) Strawberry stinks, Frank Sinatra’s a bum.  Heck, he even put black electrical tape over the photo of the disgraced Richard Nixon on a montage of U.S. presidents hanging near his basement bar.  (I guess that’s where I get my strong sense of opinion.)

Grandpa passed silently just two years after my Grandmother, Fran – the polar opposite in terms of patience but equally old-school blunt at times (i.e. “it looks like you gained some weight, Bill”) – mind you, these were children of the Depression, born to Polish immigrants  – but not without leaving lasting impressions upon me as to how I should conduct myself as an everyday person, and also as a handicapping enthusiast.

See, back in the late 70s-early 80s I recall on my frequent visits to their modest but extremely well-kept cape cod on a quiet cul-de-sac in Rahway, NJ (their first and lifelong home, circa 1950s, and my home the first 2+ years of my life) parking myself on their plastic-covered floral print couch (still there, by the way, and the most uncomfortable piece of furniture on a hot summer day in a non-air conditioned house) to watch sports with Grandpa (we all watched what Grandpa wanted, no matter the locale), entrenched on his reclining chair – mostly baseball, but also an intriguing 30-minute program called Racing from Aqueduct

If memory serves, this program (I’m too young to remember exact details for sure, though I do recall the smooth southern tone of Charlsie Cantey’s voice quite vividly) sometime in the 6 p.m. time frame aired on Channel 9 (WOR; yes, in the day of three major networks, plus some low-budget local and UHF channels) replays of that afternoon’s feature races.  Grandma would settle in too, for she also was an occasional horseplayer, but more based on numbers, colors and names of horses if I recall.  I would play also…and to this day still like free handicapping contests. 

Where does George Benson fit in?  Well, and again unless I’m wrong, Breezin’ was Racing from Aqueduct’s theme song.  Forever engrained in the recesses of my mind, much like the occasional Saturday excursions to Monmouth Park during the summer with my grandparents, who would sit in the grandstand and bankroll an occasional wager for me and, in Grandpa’s penchant for being in a rush to get nowhere fast, split after about 3-4 races.  (To this day, I never like to leave a sporting event before its finish, since my first pro "real" event was Giants-Buccaneers, sometime in the early 80s, on a beautiful mid-September afternoon where Grandpa took me but, crushingly, said “let’s go” after halftime…to hightail it home to beat the traffic (?) and get back for dinner. We did get back to Rahway in 15 minutes…and caught the last quarter and a half from the “parlor,” rather than the 40 yard line at the Meadowlands).

In the ensuing years, other pursuits in life drew my interest, though I always stayed extremely close to my grandparents and was still exposed to horse racing, more or less vicariously through Grandpa and my father discussing recent wagers, but also the occasional excursion to the track with friends just for kicks. 

Entering fatherhood, and settling in only minutes from resplendent Monmouth Park, I found myself drawn back into the thoroughbred scene, focusing primarily on the Triple Crown races and Breeders Cup, but also the handicapping contest niche, and taking my kids along from time to time.  And weeks after Grandma passed, still raw over her loss, I spent an afternoon right after Christmas with Grandpa – nattily dressed for the occasion – at McLoone’s in Woodbridge, enjoying a nice lunch and playing the ponies at PARX (nee Philadelphia Park), where Grandpa reminisced about sneaking (hurriedly, I’m sure) on occasion to catch a few races.  Our afternoon was the perfect remedy for a very difficult Christmas without the love of Grandpa’s life for 60-plus years and my earthly guardian angel for 40 years.

Weeks later we made another lunch date, this time with my father in tow, expanding our little circle as Grandpa really had a great, and amazingly relaxing time, diligently studying the past performances – the guy was sharp as a tack mentally until his final day – and enjoying a moment for three enthusiasts of a sport far removed from its halcyon days, but remains exquisite and stands the test of time. 

Grandpa’s legacy and my memories of “Cas,” too will stand the test of time. 

I am forever indebted for his eternal love, the knowledge he shared, his theories on work ethic (“you’ll be pumping gas for a living,” after I got a rare “C” in grade school…in penmanship!) and unabashed opinions on sports, politics and religion, seeing me play in Little League, the countless times even in his abnormally spry 50s when we’d play catch with the baseball, the rounds of golf we played together until arthritic knees became a nuisance well into his 70s (Grandpa proclaimed to be about an 8-10 handicap, if you ignored the half-dozen Mulligans), still driving in his early 80s over for dinner with Grandma to my house and to enjoy his great grandchildren…asking me “you OK with (work, money, etc.?…pick your topic).”

As I mourn the loss of my Grandfather yet celebrate his life, all I can envision is Grandpa Breezin’ past any signs to Purgatory and through the Pearly Gates, reunited with his loving wife Fran and the others who went before him.

Simply Breezin’…


  1. Very heartfelt are lucky to have so many great memories of your grandpa!

  2. Great post. Music is so powerful, it's like a time-machine...always bringing back vivid memories, as if you were reliving the moment.

    Happy Holidays!