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A taxi ride from downtown Louisville to Churchill Downs on Derby Day would, it seems to me, make an excellent screening test for prospective frogmen, paratroopers and fighter pilots. Any man who can maintain dry palms, normal blood pressure and a steady heartbeat throughout the trip obviously has the kind of raw courage these hazardous services need.
In contrast, the average, nonheroic passenger cowers in his seat and reviews his past life with penitent misgivings. His cab is part of a great caravan which roars over one-way streets at headlong speed with only inches separating bumpers. As he nears the track, pedestrians seem to disappear beneath the wheels only to emerge miraculously unscathed but profanely abusive. At the end of the journey, his nerves are sufficiently taut to give sympathetic vibrations to the blast of a dog whistle.
There is, however, a therapeutic value in this mode of travel. It serves as a stimulant which sustains the physical and emotional tension necessary for those who are spending the weekend in Louisville.
For anyone with sufficient interest in horses to know the difference between a furlong and a fetlock, the Derby is always a tremendously exciting, but inordinately exhausting, affair. When the event is sandwiched between two feverishly festive, intensely alcoholic nights in Louisville, a man usually finds that, by Sunday morning, his bones have been reduced to foam rubber and his blood to chicken broth.
For a number of years, a friend and I had annually and wildly overestimated our stamina and gone to Louisville for the weekend. We had always returned looking like advanced cases of beriberi. Last year, however, at the suggestion of my wife, who avoids the Derby as she would a mass hanging but who does have a scholarly interest in the mortality rate of middle-aged sybarites, my friend and I saw the race but eliminated two-thirds of the drain on our dwindling vigor.
This saving was effected simply by going to and from Louisville on a steamboat, the slowest, most restful, most charming form of transportation man has yet devised.
When the Derby was over, we returned, not to the maelstrom of downtown Louisville but to the calm river front where the Delta Queen was moored. The effect of boarding this gleaming white, four-decked steamboat within a few minutes after leaving the frantic surroundings of the track was as startling as being whisked from Times Square on New Year's Eve and deposited in a peaceful New England village.
There was no breeze and the late afternoon sun turned the muddy Ohio River into a sheet of burnished copper. The boat was quiet and the passengers who had returned earlier were seated limply in deck chairs while stewards brought them drinks.
After a shower, I stretched out on my bunk and listened to the muted sound of distant towboat whistles and the soft slapping of waves, generated by passing cruisers, against the side of the Queen. After a few minutes my friend came in with bottled beer in a bucket filled with ice.
"Not much like other years, is it?" he said as he poured our drinks.