For some, Christmas is a time for soul searching, penance and sharing the human spirit. For others, it is a time for reflection and making important life-changing decisions that will forever affect the future status and structure of the family. Those decisions are given a toast on New Year’s Eve in the hope of having a better life. For me, one Christmas season was a time for life-changing decisions.
In 1958, I started following the thoroughbreds. I wagered on horses at main tracks such as Garden State in New Jersey, Tropical Park and Hialeah in Florida, Sportsman's Park in Chicago, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in Southern California.
It was a great life. I was at the track by 7:30 in the morning, had my coffee and pastry, watched the workouts and hobnobbed with the touts. I only placed $100 show bets on claiming races and never wagered on the big races that attracted public attention. Usually, I only made five or six wagers a week. Considering the minimum hourly wage in 1958 was $1, I was doing pretty good on my winning percentage.
I had a 1954 Pontiac, stayed in nice motels, knew all the good restaurants around, made enough money to stay in the game, met a great girl and had a very comfortable life. What more could a 22-year-old kid want? Then we moved to Las Vegas and it was time, not to gamble as you might think, but to settle down. I found a job with Milne Truck Lines in the office and stopped playing the horses.
Being fired from Milne for not converting to Mormonism came as a shock. Over the following weeks, times were getting tough. I couldn't find a job anywhere. I promised not to return to the lifestyle of professional gambling and decided to move to Los Angeles, where there was plenty of work at good wages. I had $100 to my name, paid some small bills, put gas in the car and a promise of a job, leaving me with a whole $36 in my pocket for my new start in life. We sure do crazy things as kids. We have no fear and are the eternal optimists.
I thought I would go to the Catholic church to see if I could get some temporary help from the faith of my father. In good times or bad, Dad always contributed to the St. Vincent’s de Paul collection plate to help the needy. I explained my circumstances to the priest and told him I would repay the church after I received my first paycheck in about two weeks. Another shock was on its way: The priest gave me a private sermon on the necessity to have the spirit of Christ in my heart and to accept my circumstances as a purge for previous transgressions in my young life. Then the priest from hell told me he wouldn't help me.
It was in the middle of December. The ordained minister of the holy Catholic Roman empire, attempting to gain moral control over my young life, mentioned he needed another singer in his Christmas choir and, if I joined the voices praising God, he might find a way to give me some assistance. I told him I could starve if I waited two weeks until Christmas for help and reminded him of my father’s many years of contribution to the church, to no avail.
The priest must have found some guilt. He reached into a little purse, handed me a silver dollar (legal tender of the day in Las Vegas) and, in hypocritical reverence, said “Peace be with you and have a merry Christmas.” In my best choir-like blasphemous tones, I told him where he could put the silver coin of betrayal and what I thought of him and his sanctimonious golden chalice.
I still had a skill left in my bag: I could count cards playing blackjack. You can’t consistently win at playing horses unless you’re constantly on the road. You have to be physically at the track, not a race book, watch the posting of the odds on the morning line and seeing what the insiders (trainers, owners and jockeys) are betting on for “feed money.” I had no choice; I had to gamble to get out of town.
Blackjack is the only table game at which you can consistently win. By knowing what cards are played, you know what cards remain in the deck and what percentage you have of winning or losing.
I started at the 50-cent table at the horseshoe, ended up at the $5 table and had a bankroll to start my new job in Los Angeles.
Over the years, I have worked for a living and occasionally, when I was a little short on cash, hit the blackjack tables wherever they allowed me to play.
On that New Year’s Eve in 1958, I escaped the catechism, hypocrisy, myths, dogma, ritual, prejudice and politics handed down from the Vatican. I exchanged the cloistered walls of superstitions, penance, guilt, sacrifice and idolatry of the ordained rocks of the church for the freedom to live by my own mystical principles of understanding, forgiveness, kindness, caring and respect for all living things, thanks to the devil’s disciple: the priest from hell.
Happy new year.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.