American Timbuktu by Richard LeBlond

American Timbuktu (or how not to lose very much money playing blackjack)

When Dad died in 1979, I inherited a family tradition. For the next two decades, I headed to Nevada once a year to play blackjack. Gambling had become an important element of our family life, especially in the relationship between Dad and Mom, and after he died, between Mom and me. Curiously, it was not an addiction, at least not one resulting in great losses of money, time, and self-respect. That moderating quality came with the inheritance.

Dad was only eight when his mother died, and 17 when his father died in 1935. Dad had planned to attend a technical school and become an electronics wizard. He loved radios and built them from scratch using recipes in Popular Mechanics. But his father’s death put technical school out of reach economically, so one of his uncles got him a job in the parts department of a Chevrolet dealership in our hometown, Portland, Oregon.

Ambitious, Dad soon became a Chevrolet salesman. It was stressful, but he was good at it and won several monthly and annual sales awards. He was sales manager for a while, but a perforated ulcer sent him back to the lesser stress of selling cars.

Once a year Dad piled us into the latest Chevy and we drove off into the summer vacation. These began in 1946, when I was five. That year was the first full summer after the war. The vacations continued into the late 1950s. We headed to great western sceneries, never straying farther east than Utah and Arizona. At some point during the trip we always went to California, where we had relatives, and to Nevada, where we didn’t.

The lure of Nevada was gambling. Looking back, it seems a great contradiction in Dad’s character, as he was both pound- and penny-wise. But he had a strike-it-rich streak in him, which probably came from growing up in hard times. Panning for gold in Oregon and California creeks and rivers was another expression of it. This he also did in moderation, more of a hobby than an obsession.

It wasn’t until he died that we discovered he had been investing his sales commissions in the stock market. Money had been so tight in our household that for a long time it felt like we were only one missed paycheck away from the soup kitchen. During my first dozen years, we didn’t seem to be keeping up with the Joneses so much as trying to stay ahead of the African-American families who lived a few blocks away in public housing built during the war. We were almost the last ones on the block to get a television. It was easy to tell, because in those days everyone with a TV had an antenna on the roof. Like the car in the driveway, it was a measure of perceived wealth, an enormous status symbol, the aluminum totem.

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Back in the era before cars had air-conditioning (or before our car had air-conditioning) Nevada’s parched landscape made oases of even the dingiest desert towns. Eventually, we visited nearly every one of those American Timbuktus with their legendary hotel-casinos: the Stockmen’s in Elko, the Nevada in Ely, the Mizpah in Tonopah. For some reason, Las Vegas was never on the itinerary. Maybe it was geographically inconvenient. Maybe we were afraid of Bugsy Siegel.

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But it was Reno we would return to and stay for more than a night each visit. Our Mecca was  the now-deceased Harold’s Club, the largest casino in Nevada in the 1940s. The amount of “Old West” memorabilia made it like a museum, at least to a boy enthralled by Western legend. It was also family-friendly, with a small theater that continuously showed comedies, cartoons, and Westerns. The free movies functioned as daycare for parents who came to gamble. All of us could hardly wait to get there.

The only time children were allowed in the casino proper was when they were being escorted by parents to some non-gambling area like a restaurant. It was thrilling to walk among what was forbidden anywhere else in the country: the noisy slot machines and rows of blackjack tables; the sunken hieroglyphic surfaces and gangster allure of the crap tables; the risk-it-all seduction of the roulette wheel. Everyone was smoking and drinking. It may have been the loosest town in America. Nevada had resurrected the Old West’s aura of lawlessness, and bits of the Old West still got drunk there, and wasted a month of wages there.

Growing up in Portland was not to grow up in the West, but in a western enclave of the East. For a city boy like me, the real West (whatever that is or was) had been incoherently merged with movie mythology and my Red Ryder comic books. Our summer vacations provided the only glimpses I got of the real West. It was like visiting an anthropological zoo spread out over a sizeable portion of the planet, carpeted with sagebrush, partitioned by barbwire. In the more desolate areas, the uninhabited land between ranches was as big as East Coast counties, every man an Adam, every woman an Eve.

Now and then we saw cowboys on their horses tending cows, just like in the movies. We visited open-pit copper mines and ghost towns. We saw Indians selling blankets and jewelry. These sightings were all the proof a young boy needed that the Old West (rather, the Old White West) was still alive, and the legends true.

When Dad retired, he and Mom went to Reno for a few days of gambling almost every month. He played blackjack at the $1 minimum-bet tables, and she played the nickel and penny slot machines. This continued until he died.

After Dad’s funeral, Mom and I headed south to visit family in California. But our first stop was Reno, and the birth of the family memorial blackjack tournament.

A year before he died, Dad had given me a little card for my wallet, and I kept it there for decades. On it he had written the rules for how not to lose very much money playing blackjack. The rules were intended to minimize the blackjack dealer’s enormous advantage: the player has to draw first. If the player exceeds 21, the player loses, no matter what the dealer draws. Dad’s rules, which came from an early version of a self-help book, were not the system known as counting. That system, although profitable, is hard work and sucks all the fun out of blackjack. Besides, casinos have developed several measures to thwart counting, including shuffling together as many as six decks at a time. Try counting those.

I was scared to death the first time I sat at the table. Decisions had to be made in front of other players and the dealer. Everyone could see my cards, as they are dealt face up. Under that pressure, it was difficult remembering the rules for not losing much money.

I played until I lost $20. Then I would go play poker slots until I worked up the courage to play another round of blackjack. Eventually, Dad’s rules gave me the strength to put up with gamblers who yelled at me because I had asked for an unseen card that caused us to lose. In essence, they were accusing me of being clairvoyant and not using my powers. Gambling is mathematical; gamblers are not.

I moved to the East Coast in the 1960s, and Christmas was the only time I visited the family in Portland. From 1980 to 2001, the year before Mom died, she and I flew to Reno the day after Christmas for two or three days of gambling at the casinos where she and Dad had played.

Rather than marking the passage of time, as annual events want to do, the Reno interludes seemed more like the resumption of something that was always the same, a reassuring constant. It was the one time of year mom and I had to ourselves, and the only time we had to deepen our relationship as adults. And it was salve for the guilt I felt for moving so far away from home.

When Mom died, so did Reno. It had always been a family thing. I gave the rules to a niece.

 

BIO: Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Redux, Compose, New Theory, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best of the Net.”


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