Sam's loft is located at latitude 41� 35 minutes 32.5 seconds north, and longitude 73� 53 minutes 47.4 seconds west. On the west course from the loft, the release point for a race from Shenandoah, Pa. is precisely 130.509 miles; Carlisle, Pa. is 196.091 miles; Fort Littleton, Pa., 237.946; Somerset, Pa., 292.183; Wilkinsburg, Pa., 321.921; Coshocton, Ohio, 426.673; Urbana, Ohio, 526.011; and Greenfield, Ind., 635.518. On the southwest course, Deepwater, N.J., the closest race point, is 155.070 miles away, and Spartanburg, S.C., the most distant point, is 631.731 miles.
Sam much prefers the west course, but most pigeon-fliers hate it. The west course is a far more rugged test than the southwest course, and training and conditioning really count. The birds have to fly across the Appalachians and the Cats-kills. They have to contend with varying winds, low-lying clouds, updrafts and perhaps thunderstorms. On a rough day it is not uncommon for a flier to lose every bird he has entered in a race. Sometimes a bird will straggle in two days later, or six months later or even a year later. Ordinarily the Mid Hudson Valley Club races the southwest course across relatively flat country. Birds flying this course will usually average higher speeds than they would on the west course. On a windy day birds racing the southwest course fly as low as five or 10 feet above ground, soaring slightly to clear buildings and bridges.
When birds are liberated from the specially constructed van that has trucked them to the starting point, they merge into a great flock as they start to beat their way homeward. If, by chance, some inexperienced birds from Wappingers Falls are flying with a greater cluster of birds bound for New York City, the upstate birds might be "dragged" off course toward New York for a time, since it is in the gregarious nature of pigeons to flock together.
Contrary to the popular impression, hawks are not much of a threat to racing birds. A well-conditioned pigeon can get away from a hawk quite easily. But high-tension wires take a toll, even on a clear day. "The birds in the front see the wires and avoid 'em," says Sam. "But the birds bunched up behind can fly right into 'em and get hurt. I've picked up many birds that have flown into high-tension wires."
This year the Mid Hudson Valley Club held its last race of the season early in October. The race was for young birds, pigeons hatched last spring, and the distance was 350 miles over the southwest course from Charlottesville, Va. On a Thursday afternoon at 5, Sam began getting ready by picking 32 birds from his loft. He was racing 18 of them in his own name and 14 for Phil, his son. (Phil has nothing to do with pigeons, but Sam uses his name in racing because he is then allowed to clock two birds at the finish, the best one of his own and the best one of Phil's.) Sam put the birds in carrying cases and drove them over to the barn that is the MHV clubhouse. He and Mil unstacked four long wicker baskets which the club would use to ship the birds to Charlottesville. Two of the shipping baskets were for hens, the other two for cocks. If the sexes are mixed, the birds will fight. Sam emptied handfuls of sugar cane into the shipping baskets to soak up the birds' droppings and keep the baskets dry. "These baskets were imported from Belgium," Sam said. "We oughta make 'em here and give work to people."
When he and Mil had finished preparing the baskets, Ralph Giammarino, a club member, arrived. He began to help Sam with the time clocks. Each member of the club has his own clock, one that can run as long as eight days. Sam, acting as the club's race secretary, had to set all of them so that they would start precisely at 7:30. He signed a paper tape, on which arrival times of birds are automatically recorded inside the clock, and Giammarino then sealed the clocks with a lead seal. On each seal he embossed the initials of the club.
Half a dozen other members of the club arrived with birds. Each flier took his birds over to a desk where Mil recorded their band numbers. She also noted the number on a special green rubber band that was put on each bird's leg for the race. This special band is a countermark. When a pigeon arrives in his loft at the end of a race, the flier must remove the countermark band as quickly as possible, insert it in a capsule and then drop the capsule in a slot in the sealed time clock. The time of arrival is then automatically noted. No clocks are opened until the race is over, when all fliers meet to break the seals and check times.
Henry Henschel kept track of the number of cocks and hens by chalking a piece of slate affixed to the side of each shipping basket. Each flier paid 40� to enter a bird in the race. Of $46.40 collected, $23.40 went into the club treasury, $3 went to Sam for gas for driving the birds to the van that would ship the birds, and $20 went to the van owner, Joe Parkway of the Bronx, who charges $5 a basket. Parkway's real name is Kowalchuk, but there are many fliers who know him only as Parkway. His wife is usually called Mrs. Parkway. A few knowing fliers think Parkway got his name because he is always on the road with his vans—he has four of them—but Parkway says he got the name from his old pigeon loft, the Parkway Loft. He took the name Parkway for his loft, he further explains, because he lived between two parks on Park Avenue in the Bronx.
A master electric clock on the wall of the club approached 7:25. "Everybody got a clock?" Sam asked aloud. The seven fliers present said they had. The fliers talked among themselves until Sam, his eyes on the master clock, shouted, "Got a minute to go!" The fliers stood by their clocks as Sam kept his right hand on the key of his own. "Thirty seconds to go!" he shouted. He began a countdown: "Ten!...Five! Four! T'ree! Two! One! Go!!!" Keys turned and hands slammed as the fliers "bumped the clocks" to start at 7:30. With a smile, Sam held his clock to his ear to listen to it tick.
Sam and Sol Arrao loaded the four shipping baskets into the back of a panel truck. Then, with Sam driving, they headed 25 miles south to meet one of Joe Parkway's "racing-pigeon Pullmans" in the parking lot of the By-pass Diner in Peekskill. They arrived at 8:15 and went into the diner for coffee while they waited for the van.