Sara on her honeymoon at Yellowstone.
My mother never called my father by his first name.  He was always “Sharnik." I used to call him "Big Irving of the California Club," (the joke being he was little, and a lowly cashier) but never to his face. I never saw my parents touch, but I knew from the way he looked at her, and laughed at her jokes that he was crazy about her. She merely tolerated him. When Mother served dinner, she always served me first. Big Irving’s meat would still be in the toaster oven. Burning.  He'd complain that she never burned my food, as usual referring to me as "the kid." She’d tell him to make his own damn dinner. When we all went out to eat, he'd park and take off without us. By the time we joined him he'd be deep into his menu. He'd refer to the waitress as “toots!” If the lights were low for romantic effect, he’d yell, “Turn on the goddam lights!” After dining, he would floss his false teeth with a matchbook cover while perusing the check. I used to pray I was adopted!

When I was a little kid, my mother and I would walk all the way from North Ninth Street to the pawn shop on Third St. to scour the window for my father's sapphire pinky ring. If we spotted it, she'd give him hell when he got home. He often spent the night on the couch with the plastic cover. There came a time when the ring was neither in the window or on his finger, and Mother had to go to through his night table and his pants for markers—aka IOUs. When I turned thirteen, we sold the house on North Ninth for less than we'd paid to cover his gambling debts and keep the mob at bay.      

Irving had a penchant for making bad investments. From the time we moved in, the house on North Ninth Street  steadily decreased in value. Location, location, location. To make matters worse, the painters Irving hired disappeared with our deposit before they even started the job. Then there was the time Irving cashed in Mother's General Motors stock, a gift from her brother Harry, and invested in Edsel, which went bust. Irving spent many nights on the couch for that one. Mother didn’t have a head for business, either. Irving wanted to buy land on the Strip when it was selling for twenty-five bucks an acre. Mother nixed it—said it would never amount to anything. She called him nuts for saving silver dollars. They doubled in value. Twice as much money to blow on the crap tables! When Dean Martin sang "Money, burns a hole in my pocket," he was singing it for my parents.

When I was fourteen, Mother moved out of their bedroom into mine after Irving disappeared on a gambling binge. “I’ve had it with that S.O.B." We became roommates. Irving became “the boarder.” At first I enjoyed her company. For a prude, she had a raunchy sense of humor. But she lost it after I started dating. I hated coming home to cold cream, curlers and cross-examinations. And I didn't like hearing her go on about my dad. I was definitely on her side, but I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. She treated him like dirt. He put up with it because he loved her. 

In my early twenties, I decided it was Mother's fault that Big Irving and I weren't close. She'd raised me as if she were a single parent—in fact, I began to suspect she had chosen him in order to have me all to herself. When she went to Cincinnati for two weeks to have her gallbladder out, I invited Irving to a dinner show at the Flamingo. His face lit up. He seemed genuinely touched. In the meantime, he asked me to drop him off on Fremont Street near the California Club, promising to be home on time for dinner. He didn't show his face again until Mother came home, two weeks later.  For the first time, I understood what it must be like to be married to a gambler. 

"Nevada's First Atomic Bomb" float. Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Las Vegas wasn't a great place for kids when I was growing up.  Outside of the city limits there was Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon and winter sports at Mount Charleston, but in Las Vegas proper, most activities revolved around adults. Specifically, adults who gambled. Kids were a pain in the neck. Case in point: I was six years old when my parents made me wait outside the Golden Nugget while they gambled. Every so often my mom would wave to me through the glass. It didn't help. I felt like an orphan. A few  years later, at the Last Frontier, I saw a sign by the slot machines: NO MINORS ALLOWED. I was outraged. Why couldn't those poor men who slaved in the mines play the slot machines? I expressed my concerns to my mother who explained that MIN-ORS referred to children. Like me! I felt the awful sting of discrimination, and wished we'd never left California.

But for three days each May, Las Vegas pulled out all stops for a splendid celebration of the old west, not only for tourists but for the whole family.  Helldorado started out as a tourist attraction in the l930's, right after Boulder (Hoover) Dam was built, and was such a hit it kept on going. In l946 here was even a Roy Rogers/Dale Evans movie named 'Heldorado," filmed on location. (The producers left out the extra "L" because they didn't want HELL to appear on marquees!)

During the festivities, Vegans were encouraged to dress up in western clothes, and most went all out. My parents chose not to, of course, but  I had a red cowboy hat and a fringed vest, and a holster with cap pistols that I proudly wore to the parades. In addition to three days of parades (kids, old timers, and beauty) there was a rodeo, and a variety of contests such as "best whiskers," "best float," and Helldorado queen; a Kangaroo Court; and a full-scale carnival at Cashman Field. My parents didn't care about the kids' parade, but they dragged folding chairs three blocks to Fremont Street to watch the beauty parade, which was my favorite, as well.  Luxury hotels, like the Sahara, the Desert Inn, and the Sands would spend a fortune to win "best float." The crowd cheered and whistled as the floats passed by, one more extravagant than the next, adorned with smiling bathing beauties in skimpy bathing suits and high heels. 


In fourth grade, Miss Olive taught us to square dance so we could dress up like pioneers and dance at all the intersections for the kid's parade. I hated my bonnet, which made my head sweat, and my long, cotton skirt that got tangled up in my legs, and I detested the corny, twangy western music.  Not only was I forced to make a fool of myself in front of the whole town, but I couldn't even watch the parade.  Royce Feour, a(n) friend from Fifth St. Grammar and Vegas High, remembers dressing up like a pioneer at age eight and pulling his big sister, also in costume,  in their red wagon, which their talented dad had turned into a miniature covered wagon.  All that effort, and they still didn't win anything. Neither did Miss Olive's square dancers, which was fine with me. 

There were marching bands from all over Nevada, and rows of majorettes flipping batons and catching them with one hand. There were fat dudes in fancy cowboy suits and ten gallon hats, on saddles festooned with silver, waving to the crowd like politicians, making their poor horses prance and bow, and leaving piles of horse shit all over the street.

I was always curious about the Kangaroo Court. I was told, it was an evening activity for grownups that took place in the streets of Glitter Gulch. People would volunteer to be tried for bogus infractions, and be sentenced to stand in a cage to be subjected to ridicule. Nobody minded. It was all in good fun, and most of the participants were too drunk to take offense.

I never convinced anybody to take me to the rodeo, but I did get to the carnival, which I loved. But most of all, I loved the parades. It wasn't just the spectacle, it was standing in a crowd made up of people from our neighborhood—people I saw every day, but barely knew, and all of a sudden we were laughing, and cheering together. It was a feeling of truly belonging in a town where kids were constantly being told to get lost.