Looking back on it, the narrator, Joe thinks that his father should have been a fat man. But, instead, he exercised a great deal. He and his son would jog. Then, he would stop and jump rope for a long time. He would become discouraged when he saw other jockeys who could keep their weight down much more easily. At San Siro, his father had a run in with a man named Regoli, right as they weighed in. Joe thinks life might have been easier in Italy if they had stayed in Milan to ride on the easy course there and in Torino. San Siro was more difficult. Joe also loved horses. Joe's father told him, though, that the Italian horses aren't any good. He says, "They'd kill that bunch of skates for their hides and hoofs up at Paris." Soon after that, they left Italy. Joe's father had a fight with Holbrook and an Italian. Three days later, they went to Paris, after selling most of their belongings. Paris, Joe thought, was too confusing and complex to figure out. It has the best race courses in the world, though. Joe and his father went to live in Maisons-Lafitte, in a boarding house. There, Joe spent time with other boys in the lake and forest in the town. Joe learned French quickly.
Joe's father had to wait to ride until his license arrived from Milan. Until then, he hung around the Cafe de Paris, drinking and shooting pool. He started riding, but he could not get a steady job. Once, Joe and his father went out to St. Cloud to watch races. Although the favorite horse was Kzar, George Gardner, Kzar's jockey, told Joe's father that Kircubbin would win. Joe's father bet on Kircubbin. When the horses came out, Kzar looked very impressive, and Kircubbin looked fine. The race started and Kircubbin led the whole time. Kzar started to catch up at the end, but Kircubbin won. Joe forgot that his father had bet on Kircubbin and started to root for Kzar, because he was such a beautiful horse. Joe said to his father that it was a great race. His father looked strange and then said that it took a great jockey to stop Kzar from winning. After that race, Joe's father had more money and wanted to go into Paris more often. They would sit at the Café de la Paix. People came by selling things. Joe's father drank a lot of whiskey and put on weight. He was getting no jobs.
Joe and his father talked a lot, about Joe or about riding all over Europe and in Egypt. They talked about the old man's youth in Kentucky and about sending Joe back to the States for school. One day at the races, Joe's father bought a horse, Gilford. They set up a stable for it and Joe's father began exercising again. Joe thought it was a good horse. On his first race with Joe's father, they came in third. In the second race, the horses were all close together. In a big jump, some of the horses crashed together. Joe's father fell off of Gilford, who ran off on three legs. Joe's father had blood all over one side of his face. Joe's father was dead by the time they got him in from the course. As his father was lying there, Joe heard a shot. They killed Gilford because his leg or hoof was broken. Joe thought that because his father was dead they might not have had to kill Gilford, too. George came to find Joe and brought him outside to wait for the ambulance. There, a couple of men came up and started talking about Joe's father, calling him a crook and saying that he got what was coming to him. George told him not to listen. Joe thought, "When they get started, they don't leave a guy nothing."
One of the major themes of In Our Time, as well as in other works by Hemingway, is how people can and must deal with the modern world. Life after World War I, as many authors—such as Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and our own Ernest Hemingway—indicate, was a much more confusing and overwhelming time than life before World War I. The war opened up the eyes of the world to mass destruction, powerful nationalism, and heavy machinery. One of the results of this awakening was that many people felt completely unable to approach the new world. Much of the literature of the modern period attempts to deal with these problems. "My Old Man" also approaches the problem of the confusion of ordinary men in such overwhelming times. Hemingway addresses this issue indirectly, by writing a story entirely from the perspective of a young boy. He has many things to keep track of: races, horses, his father, dishonesty, and money. He is blind to many of his father's actions but is aware of many of his problems. And, from a partly-shielded perspective, he attempts to tell his father's story.
Joe's confusion mimics that of young men and women entering a new time in history. They too, Hemingway implies, feel like children trying to live in and explain an adult world. Joe feels overwhelmed by the amount of information that he has about his father, but he also feels that he does not know enough to explain what happened. People coming out of the war and entering life encounter similarly frustrating experiences. Krebs for example, had to read a book about World War I because even though he had been through a great deal of the war, he did not know enough to piece it all together. In addition, from an autobiographical standpoint, Hemingway himself is in a similar situation. He also came out of World War I and is trying to explain its impact upon himself and others. He does it like Joe, through many anecdotes and little commentary. After all, it is both too much and too little information to process himself.