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Sam was about 9 when he became interested in pigeons. "There was this fella who had 'em up on the roof," he recalls. "We lived up on the top floor and, naturally, as a kid, you keep wantin' to go upstairs to see what's on the roof. And I did, and there were these pigeons. I got chased the first coupla times, and then he saw that I was interested, and I just started bein' with the birds all the time. When I was 16, I started racin' birds, and when I was 19 I started trainin' them for other people."
After Sam finished the eighth grade at P.S. 19, he went to work as a bricklayer for a couple of uncles who were in the contracting business. In his teens Sam made $77 a week, and every week he brought home his pay to his parents, who gave him 50� allowance and filled the tank of his car with gas so he could drive birds over to Jersey for training flights. "But when I got married," Sam says, "my parents furnished everything." Sam married Mildred Bisulca, of Italian and Greek extraction. "We lived in the same neighborhood," he says. "She liked the birds. You know what she always says, that every person has to have a hobby, otherwise they might go astray. A lotta people come here to see the birds, and sometimes the wife will say to Mil, 'Oh, I wish my husband would get rid of the birds.' And Mil says, 'I don't mean to go pokin' into your business, but when you look out the window where do you see your husband? With the birds, right? Better that than not see him and wonder if he's gettin' into some mischief.' "
During the mid-and late 1930s, Sam did very well racing in the Bronx, Mount Vernon, Corona and Maspeth clubs. "It was like I had a gift," he says. He was written up in a pigeon magazine "on how," he says, "I come to the top so fast and beat some of the oldtimers. I trained for Pete Helfrich, Red McWilliams and Sam Bergman. Oh, I could name names. Sam Bergman was a very famous flier. He had a restaurant down on the lower West Side. T remember one race he said to me, 'I won't ship any birds for this race. Your birds are in perfect condition, and they'll win one, two, three.' Sam Bergman really knew birds. But I told him to ship his birds, that I would stay out. So then I meet a trainer for a big millionaire. I won't mention names, but he started needlin' me that I was afraid of certain birds in this race. Things get hotter, so finally I called Jimmy Laino, who was then my partner, and I said ship the birds. I forgot all about what I told Sam Bergman. Well, on the day of the race, I was up in the Bronx with Greenbaum, a personal friend of Sam Bergman's—I've always been with the best fliers—and Greenbaum gets a call from Sam Bergman. Sam Bergman says, 'Tell that little guinea so-and-so his birds are first, second and third.' I had forgotten that I had told him that I would stay out of the race. Sam Bergman's birds were fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. Oh, Sam Bergman really knew birds. I haven't come across anyone yet who knew birds like Sam Bergman."
While driving birds over to Jersey for training flights, Sam became interested in chicken farms he saw en route. Before long he was talking to chicken farmers and subscribing to various poultry journals. "The breedin' of birds fascinates me," Sam says. His mother was horrified that she had raised a farmer, but in 1941 Sam and Mil moved to Wappingers Falls and a chicken farm. He paid J. A. Hansen of Corvallis, Ore. $150 for a white leghorn rooster and as much as $50 each for hens—"I believe in start-in' at the top," Sam says—and went into the egg business. He gave his racing pigeons to friends, but he kept his hand in the bird-sporting line by training gamecocks for a millionaire in Poughkeepsie. At the peak, Sam and Mil had 7,000 leghorns. He shipped hatching eggs, which are used to improve chicken breeding, to such far points as Sweden and New Zealand and was paid as much as $1 per egg. But the chickens took a lot of work, and finally Sam gave them up. Even before he did, Mil insisted that he get back in pigeons. That was in 1953, and Sam has stayed with pigeons ever since.
On occasion, Sam has imported pigeons from Europe. Just now, he is looking over a 12-bird shipment received from Pierre Dordin, a famous French breeder. Sam will not say what he paid for the birds, but Mil expresses mock horror at the $146.54 bill for the 21 days the birds were kept in quarantine at Kennedy airport. The birds from Dordin are kept as "prisoners" in the brood loft by Sam. They have to be kept as lifetime prisoners, because if they were allowed to fly, their homing instinct would prompt them to try to make the trip back to Dordin's loft in France. A racing pigeon develops the instinct for its home loft by the time it is about 28 days old. Exactly how a homing pigeon is able to find his home is still one of the mysteries of animal behavior. It is now believed, however, that vision plays an important part. In one experiment, racing pigeons raised in a loft constructed deep in an excavation could not find their way back when released. The assumption is that they had no visual landmarks to serve as signposts. Whenever Sam is going to give a youngster to another flier, he makes certain that the bird never gets a good look at the surroundings outside the loft.
Sam is very selective in his use of brood stock. Mil says, "I remember once he imported a dozen pigeons from England. He had pneumonia, and to make him feel good I went and put the crate at the foot of his bed. He looks at 'em, and he says, 'Kill that one, that one, that one and that one.' I said, 'Sam, four out of a dozen birds! Kill 'em for what you paid?' He says, 'Kill 'em!' " Mil killed them. Sam now says, "Two birds outta that dozen were worth the price of the rest. One of them there birds, crossed with one of mine, brought Pop." Pop, an 8-year-old Sion, is Sam's best resident stud. He raced until he was 3, earning 10 first diplomas in 18 races. Pop is a medium-sized, well-balanced bird with a flat keel or breastbone. He has the kind of body that Sam likes in a bird. So far, Pop has sired six other birds (all hens, oddly enough) that have done very well in racing.
Sam starts breeding his pigeons in the middle of February. It takes a hen a week to 10 days to lay the first egg, and it takes 18 days for the egg to hatch. When a youngster is about 10 days old and its feet have grown sufficiently large, an aluminum band is slipped over a foot and onto the leg. The bird will then grow so that the leg fits the band. Each bird has an individual number on its band, plus initial letters standing for the breeder or his club. The International Federation or the American Racing Pigeon Union, Inc., the two groups that govern the sport, supply the bands, and by consulting master lists it is possible to trace any bird that happens to become lost or disabled to its original loft. The band stays on the bird for life; a racing pigeon that loses its band is all but worthless, since a bird cannot be rebanded. Teen-age vandals once broke into the loft of Ace Lent, a friend of Sam's, and for some perverse reason snipped the bands off all his birds. Lent was so upset he gave the birds away to a pet-shop dealer in New York, 40 miles south of their home loft in Verplanck, N.Y. Lent warned the dealer against letting the birds loose, but the dealer wanted to see them fly, and the birds all flew back to Verplanck. Lent trucked them back to the city, but he gave up after this happened two more times. Now and then Lent sees one of his old birds fluttering around behind the house where the loft used to be.
Young racing pigeons can start flying at 10 weeks of age. Sam puts them through a rigorous program. "Sam is very hard on the birds," says Mil, who drives the birds off every morning for training flights. On the birds' first training flight, Mil drives them 15 miles away. The next time it is 30 miles. Then it's 100 miles, when the birds are liberated in New Jersey. The De Lucias have a new station wagon, and in the first month the car traveled 4,500 miles, mostly on training flights. Several weeks ago Mil took a mixed batch of birds 30 miles south to Croton-on-Hudson where she released them by age group from a big sandpit next to the New York Central diesel shops. The experienced birds at once lit out up the river straight for Wappingers Falls. The last group to be liberated, about 50 young birds, circled overhead and then headed south to New York City, the exact opposite wrong direction. Mil looked up at them in disgust and shouted, "You bums!" The young birds eventually changed direction, but they were half an hour behind the others.
According to Sam, "Many fellas leave birds home that would be winners because they don't know the condition of the bird. There are certain things to look for. I look for a nice, clean, silky body. The feathers have to slide through your hands, like. And the flesh on the keel has to be a nice pinkish blue without any scales. And the keel bone should be so nice, bright and white. Also, there's a little red bubble that shows as though it's on the keel bone. But it's on the flesh, and you can actually see it going up and down. The eyes are very bright. The birds are on the alert."
Clubs in Sam's area fly pigeons over two courses, the southwest and the west. The length of the races runs from 150 to 650 miles. Every member of every club in the United States has the exact longitude and latitude of his loft plotted by an aerial survey company, and the distances from the loft to the various starting points of a race course are measured to the nearest hundredth of a mile. The bird that wins the race is the bird that averages the most yards per minute.