Horse Sense

I’ve never been much of a singer, but as a kid I loved to sing children’s songs to anybody who would listen. Think off-key, dramatic, and really, really LOUD. Be it “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” I warbled them all until my sister announced that she wanted to be adopted just to get away from me. I sang “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” so many times that my Uncle Leon suggested that I change my initials from EE to EIEIO. 

By age six, I had a repertoire of way too many lyrics that I knew by heart. I invited my older cousin to play a game I invented where one of us called out only three obscure words from any kid’s song, and the other person had to complete the line and name the tune. This game lasted approximately three minutes, just long enough for me to win my first round and for my cousin to lose his. A word to the wise: don’t yell out “LOSER!” to a cousin who is two years older and weighs twelve pounds more than you do. 

When I became old enough to compete for real prizes on a local radio station’s call-in quiz show, was I ever ready. It was called “Won To Ten” because the answer to the quiz question was always a number between one and ten. It came on at noon on station WXLW, and you had to be either caller one or caller ten (they alternated) to get a chance to play. They wanted adults only, but by age thirteen I thought my voice was just deep enough to fool the radio DJ.

It took forever until I figured out how to be the correct number caller when they gave the signal that “the lines are now open.” But finally on May first I did it — yes, I still remember the exact date, these sixty-two years later. I was quite proud of the low adult voice I summoned for the occasion when the station manager informed me that I’d be playing in sixty seconds. Well I was proud until he added, “Stand by, ma’m.” Sigh. 

I was awfully tense waiting for the DJ to put me on the air live. To show you how naive I was, even though the question could come from absolutely any field of knowledge, I had convinced myself the field would be “Children’s Songs,” and I would triumphantly win the top prize by knowing the answer to whatever possible question might be in that category.

Imagine my chagrin when the DJ announced: “Today’s category is…Horse Racing!” Horse Racing? This was Indianapolis I lived in. Indy 500 Racing, which I adored, I also knew quite a bit about; my knowledge of horse racing could fit easily inside the sugar cube they gave to horses. He then read the question: “The steeplechase is horse racing’s longest track. From one to ten, what is the average length in miles of the steeplechase horse race track? You have thirty seconds to give your answer.”

So much for my triumph. The only clue I had, of course, was that the answer had to be between one and ten miles. “Ten miles for a horse track? That’s way too long,” I speedily thought. One mile even sounded long to me, so I was about to answer “one” when suddenly the strangest thing happened in my memory. I heard a familiar children’s lyric flood my mind:

“Camptown ladies sing this song, doo-dah, doo-dah / Camptown racetrack five miles long…”

“The answer is FIVE!” I screamed with glee and great authority into my telephone receiver. I’m now thinking any listeners that day made a beeline to their radio to turn the volume down or off. “That’s RIGHT!” the DJ screamed back. “Congratulations, Elinor Engel!”

To find out what my prize was, I had to pick a numbered envelope from one to ten, and then the DJ opened it, complete with the tearing-open sound effect on the radio. I chose number five in honor of my correct answer. “Oh, Elinor,” he enthused. “You’re gonna love this! The ladies’ prize is a twelve-month gift certificate to Madame Madeline’s Beauty Parlor, Indy’s finest! For you men out there, the man’s prize would have been two tickets to next month’s Indy 500!” 

Oy, vey. The agonizing thing was that my kiddie-song-hating teenage sister now got to use my prize. And, even worse, my school chums started calling me “Elinor.” 

Now you can understand why I still remember so much about this fiasco. I even remember the exact day. It was, of course,

Oh-Doodah Day.


Elliot writes: Now that it’s been almost five months since LeRoy’s death, I can’t adequately express to you what joy it brought me to be able to compose this particular essay that brought me such pleasure as I was writing it. You probably do not need this escape into laughter as much as I do at the moment, but I hope my little essay made you smile a lot as you were reading it.

Email Elliot at or click here.

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