Herbert William Lamb, Jr. was a child of the depression. He was born in Detroit in 1930 and raised by his maiden aunts after his parent’s divorce in 1937. He went to Catholic school where the nun’s ruled with rage and fists – but were never able to beat the left-handedness out of him.
He joined the Army at 18, married my mother at 21, and was the father of 5 boys by the age of 30.
Herbert Lamb never used the suffix Junior, never passed his name along to his 5 sons and was estranged from his own father for more than 15 years.
He spent the last 30 years of his life sober, and died in 1990 at the age of 59 from emphysema, the result of a 4 pack-a-day smoking habit – Salem was his brand.
My dad was often an inscrutable man whose hard eyes missed nothing. He was given to sarcasm and black humor. He was a jazz snob and a smart dresser who would not be caught dead in public in a t-shirt.
My father was also a gambling addict. He favored cards, but would play the one armed bandits, too. Having a wife and 6 kids didn’t stop him from taking money meant for the family and frittering it away in a casino. As I gained success and eventually made a bigger paycheck than him, he spent that, too.
We lived in Los Angeles and since there were no casinos there he would pack us up and drive across the desert to Las Vegas to indulge in his addiction. I recall only one childhood vacation that didn’t involve a casino. All the others were either in Vegas or involved a side trip to Reno, Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, Hawthorne, Mesquite or Carson City.
The earliest trip I remember is the one we took in February of 1969. The eight of us packed into the rattling bucket of bolts that was our 1962 white Ford Fairlane Ranch Wagon (with the blue plastic seats), and headed across the barren landscape of the high desert. I sat in the front between my chain smoking parents, with 3 of my brothers in the back seat, and the other 2 in the rear-facing jump seat in the way back.
As the Fairlane struggled up Cajon Pass the engine burned oil and billowed white smoke, while the radiator threatened to boil over even though it wasn’t hot outside. The only radio signals in the high desert were country music and the occasional Norteña station bleeding up from Tijuana. The only thing my father hated more than Mexican Polkas was Country Western – so that meant no music to make the time go faster. It was just hours of desert, plastic seats and cigarette smoke.
Half way to Las Vegas we stopped in Barstow to buy gas, cool off the car and gird our loins for the next few hours’ drive across the desert.
Barstow was a mean little town in the middle of the Mojave Desert where Interstate 15 and 40 meet. It had been a transportation crossroads since the 1880s, when 20-Mule teams from Death Valley hauled borax to waiting trains. Trucks replaced the mules after the turn of the century, and in the late 1920s Route 66 and 91 paved over the dirt roads that went to Chicago and Canada. Finally, the Interstates made the highways and passenger trains obsolete. There was a moldering train station built in 1911 that saw few travelers. The Greyhound bus station was on the main drag, which had a tiny Sears, a bank, a pharmacy, and a few coffee shops and motels from a bygone era. Barstow was a poor and hard town, the buildings bleached beneath the relentless sun and weathered by the wind. Barstow wasn’t a destination, so much as it was a place you went to get to somewhere else.
There were pawn shops where you could sell your watch or other jewelry for a tank of gas to get back to Los Angeles. Some of them promised you could buy your things back. I saw these so often as a child that I grew up believing people routinely needed to sell valuables so they could buy a tank of gas to get home.
We pulled off of the interstate and into the Shell station, us kids spilling out of the car, going straight to the bathrooms and stretching our legs on the way. The women’s room was filthy in a way only gas stations can be – with the special added bonus of drifts of dead Mormon Crickets that swirled around the corners when the door opened. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. My brothers and I drank warm water from the fountain attached to the wall, rinsing the dust and cigarette smoke out of our mouths.
As I rounded the building I saw my father staring off in the distance while the car filled, one foot on the bumper of the wagon while he absentmindedly smoked and defied the whole damn station to blow up. Releasing a mushroom cloud of carcinogens, the old man flicked the butt off into the street, watching it smolder. When the tank was full Dad paid the owner, and got a steak knife with a white plastic handle as a loyalty premium for buying a tank of gas.
Dad barked ‘get in’, and we piled back into the car while he lit another cigarette. Off we went, back out on to the interstate and across the desert. We passed the exits for a ghost town called Calico, and for the mysteriously named Zzyzx. But there was nothing to see until you came to Baker, a speck of a rest stop off the interstate, still 100 miles from Las Vegas. It is also the southernmost tip of Death Valley, where inside the National Park they recorded highest ever temperature on Earth of 134 degrees. Five months a year Baker’s daytime temperatures never dip below 100 degrees, and the area is so rocky and inhospitable that NASA tested the Mars Curiosity Rover there.
We sailed right by the off-ramp to Baker, and a chance to stop at Bun Boy (Established 1926!), continuing to travel this godforsaken stretch of road without an ounce of water for 8 people, and only a bag of candy to hold us until dinner.
Let me repeat that: My father was driving his 6 young children and wife in a wheezing station wagon 200 miles across an area that simulates the conditions on Mars, with nothing more than penny candy and an extra pack of smokes in the glove box.
Dad was nothing, if not a gambler.
We began the long drive up Mountain Pass. There is an elevation rise of 4,000 feet between Baker and the top of the pass. It was a grueling grade for most cars back in the 60s, and off to the side of the road was the occasional abandoned car: Some heap that had broken down and was worth less than it would cost to tow it back to Barstow and get it repaired. The owner had hitched a ride, leaving it in the dirt and weeds past the shoulder. The air was too dry for it to rot or rust, and the hulks sat out in the desert like dinosaur bones.
We struggled up Mountain Pass at 25 miles an hour, my father cursing and smoking even more than the Fairlane. It was tense, and to my child’s sense of proportion the grade seemed endless. My father pointed out the mirage on the road that looked like water, always off in the distance in a place we couldn’t reach. We finally made it to the top, and were soon crossing the state line into Nevada. It was my first time out of California – and it seemed like a special occasion. I was quite excited.
There was a forlorn casino and gas station just inside Nevada called: ‘State Line Bar: Slots’. It was tiny and appeared to be made of wood, and looked so dirty and unsavory from the road that even though I needed to use the bathroom I didn’t ask to stop. There was a tow truck and one car parked out in front as we continued down the freeway, getting closer to our destination.
25 miles or so from town the billboards began: “See Lido de Paris at the Stardust!” said one, with half-naked women wearing elaborate headdresses with feathers and jewels. “Sammy at Caesars!” shouted another. “Liberace at the Riviera!!” promised a third. Then there was simply “August: Elvis Live at the International!!!” Everything had exclamation points, as if the entertainers weren’t draw enough.
There were also billboards advertising cheap rooms and even cheaper food. A $5 room was common for bottom tier motels. I remember a red billboard with black writing that mimicked a slot machine face advertising a $7 room at a brand new hotel – $7!! $7!! $7!! the billboard screamed, but time has erased which casino it was. (The Hilton?) There were ads for free hot dogs and beer, 50 cent shrimp cocktail and 99 cent buffets. Steak and eggs could be had for $1, and prime rib for $2. If you could get to Vegas it was dirt cheap to stay and eat – and free to drink. The casinos were willing to take a loss on those things, because if they could get you in the door you’d leave your money at their tables and in their machines.
The billboards continued along, a picket fence of advertisements. The newest and sparkliest were for the biggest casinos. There rest were timeworn signs with sandblasted paint promoting dying casinos downtown like the Golden Nugget, the Mint and the Pioneer Club with its Not-Creepy-At-All Clown. Each one brought us closer to our destination, and being set free from the purgatory of boredom and cigarette smoke.
After a long day in the car we saw Las Vegas on the horizon – a small town in a big desert. As we rolled toward Sin City my father told us that when The Mob caught petty thieves stealing from visitors they would take the unfortunate larcenous soul about a mile from town, kneecap them, and leave them in the desert. The thief was able to hobble back for help, but only after roasting for a day in the unforgiving sun, without water. It was a clear warning to anyone else who might think tourists were easy pickings. It was a sobering story for a 5 year-old: Something uttered half a century ago that sticks with me like a real-life ghost story.
We finally – FINALLY – arrived late in the afternoon, after a 7 hour drive. The ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign was a lone sentry in the median of the highway, surrounded by blowing sand and wide open nothingness. A half a mile later we came to the first casino: The Hacienda. The enormous neon sign had a vaquero on a rearing palomino, he had one hand on the reigns, and the other was waving to all the weary travelers just arriving in town. The casino sat back from the street, with an enormous parking lot, and nothing behind it.
At the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard the lots were dirt, devoid of structures. As we traveled further up the Strip the casinos began to appear more frequently. Sitting between my parents in the front seat I tried to take it all in. There were so many things to look at and so many signs to read.
We passed the Dunes with its minaret-shaped marquee. The Aladdin had a neon magic lamp, the Flamingo had pink neon birds, and the Stardust had a thousand neon stars next to Slots O Fun. The Sands’ round, stylized tower jutted up from the desert floor. I loved the giant, rotating woman’s high-heeled shoe in front of the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall, which was lit up with large white light bulbs, even during the day.
My parents were most impressed with Caesar’s Palace – a jewel situated far back from the road, an opulent hotel sitting on 34 acres. 18 fountains stretched from the street back to the Porte Cochere, lined with statuary and imported Italian cypress trees. My mother pointed out the Venus de Milo as we went by. I was puzzled why she was so impressed with a broken statue.
But, above them all was Circus Circus: An enormous pink-and-white striped circus tent with a carousel in front, and 5 fountains along the street. I had to see this inside of this wonderful place.
Suddenly, there was a problem. My mother couldn’t find the name and address of the motel where we would be staying, and where we would meet The Anderson’s, our family friends from the Catholic parish of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary – otherwise known as Holy Rollers. Mom had not put the envelope with the information written on the back inside her purse. My father began to cruise Las Vegas Boulevard looking for the Anderson’s car, but there were dozens and dozens of cheap motels in Vegas in those days in between the top of The Strip and Fremont Street downtown. It was the proverbial needle in a haystack.
An argument ensued between my parents, which was terrifically useful and terribly comfortable for those of us trapped and forced to listen. I remember being sick to death of riding in that station wagon – my head hurt, my legs were stiff and I was hungry because we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Mostly I just wanted to get away from the smoke and the arguing. I pointed to the bear in the nightshirt on the Travelodge sign, and asked if we could get a room there. That was absolutely out of the question, and we had to find the Anderson’s. It felt like we would never be out of that car.
In an act of desperation my mother made a long distance call to the Anderson’s home phone from the phone booth at the Union 76 station. She dialed the number from memory and waited for the operator to tell her how many quarters she would need to feed the machine. My mother pumped a few dollars in quarters into the slot, and as luck would have it their house sitter answered and told her where we would find them.
The Holiday Motel was on the far end of the strip, in a row of motor hotels built in the early 1950s. These motels served visitors uninterested in or unable to afford the hotels along the strip. The rooms were nowhere near as cheerful as the brightly colored signs would suggest, with worn furniture, stained sinks and rough sheets. But the price was right for a frugal traveler. And who cares about black and white TV?
Mr. and Mrs. Anderson waved us down as we pulled in the parking lot, and my father finally parked the car. Mom and the Anderson’s stood together and smoked – agreeing it was lucky we found them – while dad checked us in and we kids fidgeted, finally set free from the car.
The short wait while Dad registered us seemed interminable to tired children. Eventually the men unloaded the car, taking our bags and us to the 2 five-dollar a night rooms the 8 of us would be sharing for the weekend. We had arrived.
I wanted to go swimming right away, but was crushed when told it was too cold and that the pool was closed for the winter. It just wasn’t fair.
We went to the Anderson’s room, where their 3 children were glassy-eyed and watching TV. They didn’t look away from the screen when we greeted them, making no room on the bed for us to sit and watch with them.
Dad and Mr. Anderson decided to go scout the area to find a good place for us all to eat dinner on the cheap while the rest of us washed up. A half an hour went by, and then an hour with no sign of the men. Mom and Mrs. Anderson went from being worried to angry, and back to being worried again, as still their husbands didn’t show.
I remember standing out on the sidewalk in the dark next to my mother as she scouted up and down the street for any sign of the Fairlane. I was scared and trying to figure out what was happening. The wind was blowing like crazy, and I was cold. I could see the Thunderbird casino sign blinking in the distance as I shivered, the neon wings winking in the clear desert night.
It was hours before the men returned, contrite and full of explanations. The short version was that my father, who was driving, had stopped at a casino instead of looking for a restaurant. ‘A few quick hands’ turned into a few quick hours. I have no idea if Mr. Anderson was oblivious of his family, too. (They stopped socializing with us after that weekend) I only know that my father got to the table and lost track of time, never thinking once about his hungry family sitting in a motel room waiting for him. Or, if he did think of us he chose to stay and play cards instead of feed us.
Thus, I was introduced to Dad’s gambling habit, and Las Vegas.
Stay tuned for Viva Las Vegas – Part 2: In Which A 5 Year-Old Learns To Gamble During Breakfast