Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Florida Memories -- Part III (Where we Stayed)

Over the last few weeks, I've written a few stories that my parents had told me about their time in Florida and discussed traveling to and from Florida. This concluding article discussed where we've stayed over the years.

Where we stayed

The Venetian Causeway, Miami, FLorida

My Dad's parents rented a house on the San Marco Island on the Venetian Causeway (just a few islands west of where my Mom lived when she was in high school.) We often stayed there. It was on Biscayne Bay, had multiple bedrooms, and a great Florida room. I'd often sit in the Florida room reading comic books purchased at Alfies on Alton Road, one of my favorite places to visit.

My sister, Kay, with some of the fish my Dad caught
One year my Dad set up a "automagic" fishing contraption attached to a bell and managed to catch a pretty large lady fish in the middle of the night. During the time we stayed at that house the Goodyear people offered rides on the Goodyear blimp which was based on an island off the MacArthur Causeway. To this day I regret turning down the opportunity to do so when it was offered to me.

The King Cole pool area
In early visits we'd head over to the King Cole (where Kay and I learned to swim) and the Roney Plaza...both long gone. But by the late 1950s my grandparents had rented a cabana at the new (1954) Fontainebleau Hotel. Their cabana was number 315...which was just a few down from the cabana used by James Bond when he played his famous game of gin with Auric Goldfinger. At the Fontainebleau we learned to scuba dive and starred in a movie.

Goldfinger at the Cabanas

One day about 1957, Kay and I were playing with some other kids at the kiddy pool (shaped like a pussy cat) when some adults asked all of us if we wanted to be in a movie. This was in the 1950s so this was still pretty innocuous. Of course we all said yes (no parental releases required apparently--did I mention that this was in the 1950s), and before long we were seated in temporary bleachers set up along one side of the main pool. The director told us to laugh and clap when he said action. We did, and that was it. I need to stress here that we were looking at absolutely nothing but size 16 (or larger) Jewish ladies in size 8 (or smaller) bathing suits -- which come to think of it was worthy of a laugh but perhaps not the clapping. Fast forward many months and the phone at home rang. It was my classmate Bill Mahru saying "hey, we were at the Glencoe Theater and saw you and Kay in a movie!" It turned out that we had been filmed for a short subject that was showing along with, I believe, the Glen Ford movie, "Don't Go Near the Water." Of course we had to go to the theater the next evening to see ourselves on the big screen. When we got there Dad found out that they were not showing that particular short that evening, but he talked the manager into changing the lineup for us. To this day I have no idea how Bill noticed us. We had about a millisecond of screen time as we were shown applauding a championship diving competition that had taken place at some other time and that we had never actually seen.
The Americana Hotel, Bal Harbour

For several years we stayed at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour on Collins near 97th Street...a pretty long way from my grandparents. We stayed in the same two rooms multiple times (I'm thinking 1065 and 1066 but who knows?) and were there with my parents' good friends the Hirshmans (Jerry, Doris, and kids Rick, Louis and Susan). We kids would be pretty much left alone except at dinner time where we'd go out to one of the restaurants we liked (see below) or ate at the hotel. One memorable dinner was at the hotel's fancy restaurant, The Gaucho Room, where we were happily eating our salads and all of a sudden Kay shrieked "There's a spider in my salad!" The waiter quickly took the salad away and shortly the Maitre'D came back holding something in his hand. He showed it to Kay and said "don't worry little girl, it was only a feather." My folks were about to chime in "see it wasn't a spider" when they realized that a feather was only marginally better.

In spite of dining well, most every night at the Americana would find us (the kids, not the adults) in the coffee shop for a late evening snack. They had a dynamite orange freeze and a great chopped chicken liver sandwich. Often, Louis would be magnanimous and pick up the check (meaning that he'd sign it to his parents' room instead of ours.)
The Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau

Eventually my grandparents moved into a rented apartment in the Executive Apartments (now Condominiums) a half a mile north of the Fontainebleau. We would walk between the two stopping at the Eden Roc (where one evening I stood in the back of the showroom and saw Johnny Mathis perform) and (later) the Doral multiple times a day. My grandfather would spend most mornings and afternoons at the Fontainebleau playing cards with his friends. He'd have the same thing for lunch every day of the week except Sunday, at a table served by his favorite waitress in the Fontainebleau coffee shop: a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of cottage cheese, and a bowl of sour cream.

My grandfather kept that apartment for years after my grandmother passed away in 1963 (a week before the JFK assassination). We'd stay there often. In the years before he moved to a retirement community in the mid-1970s (Leisureville!) in Boyton Beach, I'd occasionally walk out of the apartment at the same time as the kindly old man in the apartment next door would be take his dog on a walk. We had a nodding acquaintance on the elevator and I am sure I petted his dog, but it was sometime later that I found out that the man's name was Meyer Lansky (yes, that Meyer Lansky.)


Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in South Beach
This section will be necessarily short as there are only a handful of specific restaurants I remember eating at during our Miami Beach visits. The king of these was Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant in the South Beach. Once each trip we'd go with my grandfather and order plates of stone crabs, a steak, hash browns, sliced tomatoes, coleslaw, salad with real Roquefort dressing, and their wonderful key lime pie served family-style. It was a feast that I remembered so well that when, in 2004, I missed a connection in Miami and had eight hours to kill, I rented a car and went to Joe's for a lunch of stone crabs, salad and pie. (I also used the car to explore old haunts in Miami Beach before turning it in.) I wrote about that visit in more detail here.

Gatti's restaurant
Other restaurants that we were particularly fond of include the marvelous Gatti Restaurant near the south beach, and the Forge on Arthur Godfrey Blvd. There were many other regular restaurants, but I am drawing a blank on names.

Speaking of The Forge, one year while I was still a graduate student, my Dad's cousin Phyllis fixed me up with a gorgeous woman who worked as a salesperson at Saks Fifth Ave on Lincoln Road (before it became an open-aired mall.) I took her to the Forge and we seemed to hit it off well. When I came down again sometime later we went to a party hosted by one of her friends and she proceeded to ignore me all evening.

One treat for many years was Sunday dinner at cousin Phyllis's club, Westview Country Club. On Sunday nights after dinner they'd play a game called MUSIC (because BINGO was illegal) and we always had a good time. On one occasion the TV in the bar was showing people escaping from Cuba just as the Cuban revolution ended. I was old enough to understand what was going on, so this dates this particular visit to be in January 1959. (Postscript: in September 1974, Phyllis was found murdered by her housekeeper's son in her Miami Beach home.)

Getting my SCUBA diving certification

In 1971 I decided to get serious about SCUBA diving and took a series of lessons at the local YMCA. I did well and had purchased all the necessary equipment except a tank. The certification required two check-out dives. In the Pittsburgh area both dives would be in a quarry, but I decided to take one of them in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off of Key Largo, not too far south of Miami.

The day I did the dive, my Grandfather's housekeeper packed me a lunch that included a couple of brisket sandwiches, and I drove down early in the morning. The ocean was glass smooth. I went out on the boat and did the dive with no problem at all and received the check-out credit. But while I was waiting to get back into the boat, the view of the boat bouncing up and down in the very calm ocean gave me severe motion sickness. I was miserable for the rest of the time on the boat. But strangely enough I was just fine as soon as I got off. I took my second check-out dive in a quarry in 40 degree water being able to see maybe six inches ahead of my face. I had no problem because I could see nothing. I received my card, but almost immediately sold the brand new equipment because I could not imagine being able to use it in an environment that I wanted to actually dive in.

When the Transderm patch was developed, I tried diving again off the shore of Maui. As soon as I saw reeds, etc. swaying in the surf I got ill. I know it is probably psychological....but I just can't do it. Too bad, because I really loved it.

Disney World

I've been to Disney World three times. The first time was when I was still a graduate student and my Dad asked me to help him and Mom drive a car down the Florida. They were spending the winter in an apartment in West Palm Beach. I agreed on two conditions (of course if there had been any resistance to the two conditions I would have done it anyway.) The first was that we spend a night at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in Chattanooga. The second was that we visit Disney World.

This was in 1973 and the national speed limit had been lowered to 55mph. No problem, my Dad bought a CB radio and really got into the "breaker 1-9" culture. In any event, thanks to the Interstate Highway System we were able to make it from Chicago's North Shore to Chattanooga the first day out. The hotel had special rooms in railroad cars...each room took up half a railroad car and was much like a regular hotel room (albeit decorated in a over-the-top Victorian style) with a full bath. The only difference between in and a regular hotel room is that we could hear the rain beating against the metal roof all night.

The second day on the road was somewhat shorter and we made it to the Disney World area by late afternoon. My Mom hadn't been feeling very well, but after a nap and something to eat she was ready to go. It happened to be New Years Eve. We got to the park after dinner and were having a good time. Around 11pm, my Dad started to wear out and said that he was going back to the car and that we should be back by midnight (or he would presumably leave without us.) Mom and I went through the World of Tomorrow (GE) exhibit and as we came out we realized that it was almost midnight. I can still picture Mom and I running through the crowds along Main Street as the clock counted down to midnight and Mom turning to me and saying "I feel just like Cinderella". We made it to the car (that was still there) about 12:30am. (And made it to West Palm Beach my early afternoon on January 1.)

I made the second trip with my now-wife Barbara in 1990. I've already written about it here.

The third trip was in March of 2002 when we took Barb's son and his family to Disney World followed by a Disney Cruise. We visited EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom By this point I'd seen enough of Disney to last me a life-time so while the others spent time in line to go on the various rides, I went ahead to other rides to obtain the available line-skipping passes. As I recall we again pooped out by 3pm and returned to our hotel.

The family at the Magic Kingdom
After a few days at Disney World we were bused to Port Everglades where caught the Disney Magic for the cruise to the Bahamas. Upon return Barb's son and his family went to Orlando to fly home and Barb, Lizzy, and I drove a rental car down to the Palm Beach area to visit Mom and Dad for a few days before flying home from there.

Later visits to Florida

Most of the above covers visits from my childhood or young adulthood (the exception being the visit to my Mom's childhood home in 2011.) Of course I continued to visit Florida regularly in my adult years.

In February 1993, Mom and Dad were spending a couple of weeks at the Breakers in Palm Beach. Unbeknownst to him (but known to Mom) Barb and I flew down to celebrate his 75th birthday. We got to the hotel around lunch time and walked into the coffee shop and totally surprised him. But the thing I remember most about that lunch was his friend, Stan Katz, saying "David, I hope you live to be as old as you look!" To be fair, Dad was not looking well around then, but he went on to live more than 17 years and played golf until he was 90.

This concludes my series on family Florida memories. I hope you've enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Florida Memories - Part II (How we got there)

Last week I wrote a few stories that my parents had told me about their time in Florida prior to me appearing on the scene. The story picks up here with traveling to and from Florida. Part 3 will deal with where we stayed.


Traveling to Florida by Plane or Train

Apparently my Dad had an awful flight back to the US mainland from the Aleutians because for years after he would not get on an airplane. This meant that when he and Mom went to Europe (for instance) it was via a transatlantic ship such as the Queen Mary. It also meant that when the family went to Florida, if we wanted to travel together, we would drive or take the train. Mostly Mom, Kay, and I would fly down, and he arrive later by train. On a typical trip (before the jet age) the three of us would fly out of Chicago's Midway airport on a Delta DC-6 or DC-7. I hated those flights. I almost invariably got air sick.

A Delta DC-6
There were a few times when we'd break that pattern. On the last day of January in 1958 I was nearly 10 years old and in my bed when Mom and Dad came home from Friday night dinner at my Grandmother's. They woke me up and asked if I'd like to go with them on the train to Florida the next morning. I jumped up and down on my bed yelling "yes"! Early the next morning we were driven to Central Station in Chicago in time for the 8:40am departure of the City of Miami. I can be certain of the date because of the headlines of the paper that morning...the US had successfully launched its first satellite, Explorer I, the day before.
The City of Miami from years before I rode it
The City of Miami had both first class and coach accommodations. My parents had reserved a "compartment" (a private room with an upper and lower berth and with more room than a "bedroom"). When the conductor came by to collect our tickets we were moved to a "bedroom suite" (two adjoining bedrooms with a folding door between them and two upper and two lower berths.) This was my longest train ride to date and I had the run of the train. Somewhere before Carbondale, one of the two diners on the train had a "hotbox" (axle seized up) and had to be set out. The next morning I woke up to see trees full of Spanish Moss for the first time and to stretch my legs at Jacksonville Union Terminal during a crew change.

A City of Miami closer to what I actually rode
By the way, the reason for the trip to Miami was that my Dad's mother was in the hospital with a heart problem. She would ultimately succumb to it almost six years later.

The South Wind (also from years before I rode it)
We took the train to Miami one more time a few years later. My Mom, Kay, and I boarded the South Wind on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Chicago Union Station. This time we had a bedroom suite reserved. Dad wasn't with us because he was on a business trip. He joined us that night at Birmingham. The ride, as we left Birmingham was quite rough. Watching my Dad trying to get into his upper berth with the train bouncing around was quite a sight!

Traveling to Florida by Automobile

We also drove to Florida twice. Or rather Dad and Kay drove twice. Mom and I only drove one and a half times due to my school schedule. Both times were before the Interstate highway system existed. For the first trip, in 1958, we left our house north of Chicago on a very cold and snowy day. We made terrible time but still managed to make it to Terre Haute Indiana via US 41 by around 3pm while enduring countless playings of the Little Drummer Boy. (Google maps says that the same trip would take less than 5 hours today.) Because it was so early Dad decided to push on to Evansville, Indiana which was about 2 hours away...except that we encountered very icy roads and it probably took more like 4 hours.

Similar to what I probably saw in Evansville
The next morning when we gassed up in Evansville I encountered my first "White Only" and "Coloreds Only" water fountains. We had hoped to make good time as we got further south, but the snow on the roads was somewhat worse and we got stuck for over an hour behind big rigs having trouble getting up a hill just outside of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. (Hopkinsville is memorialized in The Hopkinsville and Southern because of this day.) We eventually made it through Hopkinsville and into less snow covered regions. We passed through some smallish towns where the traffic lights were upside down (red on the bottom) which gave my color blind Dad problems and where they had speed limits like 27mph. I wonder what the main source of income for such towns was? The further we went the more signs for Stuckeys, Mail Pouch, and Burma Shave we saw. We stopped at a Big Boy along the road in Huntsville, Alabama for some pie, and then traveled on to a motel in Sylacauga, Alabama for the night.

Harder Hall, a golf resort in Sebring, Florida
Our destination this trip was a golf resort called Harder Hall in Sebring, Florida. I think we did Sylacauga to Sebring in one day, but it's a long trip and we may have stopped overnight. On the return to Chicago we stopped at Silver Springs, Florida. We took a boat tour through the springs and saw signs next to downed trees saying "Donna did it!" (Donna was a huge hurricane that came through in 1960.) We stayed at the Albert Pick Motel in Terre Haute the last night out before we arrived home.

The Albert Pick Motel in Terre Haute, Indiana
The second trip to Miami by car was to the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour (Miami Beach.) Kay and Dad drove and Mom and I caught a Delta DC-8 out of O'Hare. The flight was memorable because as we were taxing to our runway the plane came to a very sudden stop and I saw another plane land across our path. The day before our trip home I managed to come down with a flu. We must have left very early in the morning because we had lunch at a restaurant in Perry, FL where I had an "accident" and Dad had to get a change of clothes for me out of the luggage. That night we stayed at the Hotel Reich in Gadsden, AL. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant served by uniformed black waiters (another sign of the old south.)

The Hotel Reich in Gasden, Alabama
By the way, I mention both Harder Hall and the Reich. As a child I hated the idea of staying in old hotels. As an adult I relish the opportunity ... if they are well maintained.

During my college years I would sometimes meet the family in Florida. Usually I took a United Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Miami (an old Capital Airlines route) but one year my girl friend Jeanne needed to get home to Boston for some emergency and was distraught. I had a youth fare (standby) ticket to Florida and she had one to Boston. Both flights were delayed so we spent sometime in the movie theater inside the old Pittsburgh airport while we waited. Eventually her flight was canceled due to fog in Boston. It looked like it would be difficult for her to get out the next morning. I did not want to leave her alone and so we both flew to La Guardia and ended up spending the night sleeping at one of the gates. The next morning I saw her off on the first flight to Boston and then I worked on getting myself to Miami a day late. There were lots of flights on multiple airlines at that time (National and Eastern at the very least) but all of them were leaving La Guardia full. An Eastern agent suggested I go to JFK as there were seats on an afternoon flight. I did that and managed to snag a first class seat. First class passengers were offered a choice of steak or lobster for lunch/dinner.  After enjoying (probably the lobster) the stewardess (not flight attendant in those days) asked me "would you like another steak or lobster, sir?"

In 1968, Mom, Kay, and I were in Florida at Christmas time, staying in my Grandfather's apartment and waiting for my Dad to arrive. By 1968 passenger rail in the US had really started to deteriorate. Dad boarded the train feeling a bit under the weather and holed up in his bedroom out of Chicago. By the time the train got to Chattanooga it was running so late that he got off the train and rented a car to drive the rest of the way. As he was passing the Atlanta airport and facing a really long drive he, on the spur of the moment, turned the car in and bought a ticket on the first flight to Miami. It turned out that the fight he had booked made a stop in Jacksonville, but he eventually got to Miami intact and only flew after that.

In 1978 I went to work for SRI International in Menlo Park, California. I'd occasionally make trips to the east coast for a project I was working on and would take advantage of a $10 add-on fare that allowed a stopover in Florida. Those visits to my grandfather were my last. He passed away in January 1982 just days after I had moved back to Pittsburgh to start a new job.

I'll conclude this series on Florida memories with a discussion of the various places we stayed over the years including an encounter with the mafia!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Florida Memories -- Part I (Early Days)

I'm a Chicagoan by birth as are both of my parents. Chicago has harsh winters so both sides of the family spent a good deal of time in Florida for part of the year. As a result, throughout my life, at least until both of my parents passed away, I have been a frequent visitor to Florida.

I thought that I'd write a series of vignettes of family memories of Florida. Things will not be presented in chronological order. Because of the shear volume of memories, this will be separated into three separate posts. This one consists of a few short memories that my Mom and Dad told me regarding their time in Florida before I was born. The second one will deal with traveling to Florida over the years. The third one will cover were we stayed and other memories.


Mom's childhood home in Miami Beach

My Mom's family had a house on the Venetian Causeway on Rivo Alto Island in Miami Beach. My Grandfather bought it sometime in the 1920s because one of my Uncles had health issues that made winter in Chicago problematical. In high school (and probably earlier) my Mom would start the school year in Chicago (at Lakeview High), transition to Miami Beach around November (at Miami Beach Senior High), and then back to Chicago around April for the end of the school year. There was one exception to this. For her senior year she and my other Uncle stayed in Florida and both graduated from Miami Beach Senior High. I believe the house was sold right after World War II.

The Rivo Alto House
In March of 2011 during Lizzy's spring break, Barb, Lizzy,  my sister Kay, and I spent some time together in Florida for the last time with my Mom. We stayed in the Boca Raton Beach Club. My Mom said that she'd like for us to drive down to Miami Beach to see her old house one more time and have lunch at Joe's (more on Joe's in another part of this story). I did some research and found out that the house was now owned by the Chairman of Elizabeth Arden, a high-end skin care company. I sent their PR office a message and asked it it would be possible to visit. I do not recall if they replied, but we did make the trip and when we arrived at the house we found it under massive renovation. After a chat with the construction foreman we were invited to walk the planks across the mud to see the inside of the house. The foreman took us on a guided tour and along the way my Mom would point out where things (such as the vault from when the house had been a casino before my Grandfather bought it0 had been in the house. It was fascinating for all of us and we had a lot to talk about over lunch at Joe's. Subsequent to the visit my Mom wrote to the Elizabeth Arden Chairman to tell him about the visit, to thank him and give him some of the history of the house. He wrote a nice personal letter back and about a week or two later sent a big box full of products from Elizabeth Arden's premium skin care line.


Where's the bookie?

During World War II, my Dad was sent from basic training to the east coast of Florida for training in radar (he would eventually serve in the Aleutian Islands). He started training near Jupiter Florida, and he and my Mom got married in Palm Beach. They honeymooned (such as it was) in Miami Beach and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Palm Beach. Sometime after they were married my Dad's Mom, Goldie, came for a visit, dropped her bags in the apartment and asked my Dad "where's the nearest bookie?" and ran out the door to place a bet or two.


Cherry pie

Before his deployment to the Aleutians they went for additional training in the Clearwater, Florida area. One day while my Dad was on base, my Mom went out and managed to put together the ingredients to bake a homemade cherry pie, complete with a lattice crust. That evening, after they finished the main course, my Mom proudly showed Dad the pie and he said "I'm sorry dear, I don't like cherry pie." She never baked him any sort of pie again. For the few years that Mom outlived Dad we'd share a piece of cherry pie on or near his birthday when we'd come for a visit.

I hope you've enjoyed this brief memoir. In part two of this series I'll remember traveling to Florida over the years.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

(Mostly) Vegas Memories

Random reminiscences about my early visits to Las Vegas (mostly).

In December 1977 I married my now ex-wife Nikki. We returned from our honeymoon in the Virgin Islands before the New Year and on January 2 set out for Menlo Park, California from Chicago in our 1968 Pontiac GTO. I was about to start a new job at SRI International. By the third night of the drive we were in Flagstaff, Arizona. Since we weren't in any particular hurry, on the spur of the moment, we decide to stop in Las Vegas for a night. Luckily we missed the Consumer Electronics Show -- we were able to get a room at the Holiday Inn - Center Strip (now Harrah's) pretty easily. We spent the evening playing nickle slots (Quarters? You have to be kidding!) and going to the Shecky Greene dinner show at the MGM Grand (now Bally's).

The Bay Area Years

While living in the Bay Area I had several chances to visit Reno and Las Vegas. I had learned a bit about blackjack and wanted to try my hand at it. At the time casinos in Reno/Tahoe would issue coupons that could be used for a free 50 cents, $1 or $2 in slot or table game play, or a match play. Armed with a fistful of these, we made a few trips like this and I made a little money each time (big surprise.)

One year SRI sent me to a computer conference being held at the Frontier (now nothing) in Las Vegas. Being a big fan of Nathan Detroit and Big Julie, I decided that I wanted to learn to shoot craps--especially with Big Julie's dice. I bought a copy of the book "The Basics of Craps" and went to Nob Hill (now Casino Royale) because they advertised 10 cents craps. I figured I could not get burned too badly. The book recommended playing the pass line and two come bets with full or double odds, which is what I did. I bought in for $8 worth of dimes and cashed out for around $20.

In 1979, Amtrak began train service from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City through Las Vegas and my wife and I were invited to ride the inaugural train which, unlike the scheduled train, stopped for the night in Las Vegas. (The purpose of an inaugural train is to show off the train to the community it passes through, the press, and travel agents. It is also an opportunity for local politicians to take some credit.)

The Mint with the Union Plaza in the background
The Amtrak station was the old Union Pacific station located in the Union Plaza hotel (now the Plaza) a four star hotel owned by the railroad. Amtrak put us up at the Holiday Inn - Downtown (now Main Street Station), and the Chamber of Commerce held a party with a seafood buffet at the top of the Mint (now Binion's Steakhouse). We played a little slots and blackjack at the Las Vegas Club (now a hole in the ground) while walking between the Mint and our hotel.

Leaving the Bay Area

In December 1981, I moved back to Pittsburgh and joined Tartan Laboratories. They sent me and two others (including our VP of marketing) to Comdex probably in 1983. It was a last minute decision and there were no rooms "available". Several of my Dad's friends were "high rollers" and one of them was able to get me two rooms at the MGM Grand (now Bally's) -- one single (which I took) and one double (which the other two shared). The gambling I remember during this trip was at the Las Vegas Club (now a hole in the ground) prior to catching the train back to Pittsburgh via Chicago.

Subsequently I attended a DECUS meeting (The Digital Equipment Computer Users' Society) held at the MGM Grand (still now Bally's) and stayed across the street at the Dunes (now the Bellagio). I have no specific memories of gambling during this trip, though I am sure I did.


rec.gambling and ConJelCo and the Home Poker Game and the WSOP

In July 1989 when I made a trip to Atlantic City on Amtrak after riding another inaugural train. I had hours to kill before my fight from Atlantic City airport back to Pittsburgh and went to (I think) the Tropicana and played blackjack and craps, winning around $100 at each. I used basic strategy as I remembered it and had a ball. I decided I wanted to learn proper blackjack play and perhaps card counting, but I did not want to pay dues at the casino. I had been thinking about learning to program on the Macintosh. All of this led to the development of software to help to learn blackjack. When it was done I thought I had a marketable product and sent it off to Arnold Snyder, publisher of Blackjack Forum. He liked what he saw, and had me show it also to Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor for additional suggestions. The result was Blackjack Trainer -- the first product of what would become ConJelCo. At about this time I also discovered alt.gambling/rec.gambling and started participating in the discussions.

For a number of years around this time my home poker group would make a trip to Las Vegas in January and I made several solo trips at other times as well. I know the poker group stayed in the Frontier (now nothing) at least once and I stayed on my own at the Flamingo Hilton (now the Flamingo) two or three times. One reason for the solo trips was to try to get Blackjack Trainer sold in casino gift shops and other outlets.

On the first such trip I visited Gambler's Book Club then near Charleston and Maryland. I had not rented a car so I decided to take a bus to Charleston and Las Vegas Blvd and walk the few blocks to the store. The first bus came by and was full so I walked next door to O'Sheas (now the Linq) and visited for a while. The next bus came by and was full so I walked down to the Imperial Palace (now the Linq) and visited for a while. Rinse and repeat as I walked into the Holiday Inn (now Harrah's) and the Sands (now the Venetian), and eventually the Riviera (now a part of the convention center) and the Sahara (now the SLS)...each time coming out to find a full bus. I eventually ended up walking all of the way to the Gambler's Book Club. Luckily it was October. The walk was fun, but more importantly, GBC agreed to sell my software. Oh, and I took a taxi back to the Flamingo Hilton.

On another trip I arranged to meet Frank Irwin (from rec.gambling) for the first time. He had a comped room at the Stardust (now nothing)...in their new tower. I met him at the airport and went with him while he checked in. He got up to his room and lo-and-behold it was a suite...with a jacuzzi in the room off the bedroom. The next morning he told me that he had taken a nice long jacuzzi and gone to bed. He heard someone trying to get into the adjoining room, followed by a phone call from the front desk. It soon developed that he had not been comped a suite and that the door between the rooms had been left open by mistake.

In 1991 I married the love of my life, Barbara. We honeymooned in San Francisco and at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe. One evening we went to dinner at La Strada in the El Dorado in Reno--one of the best Italian Restaurants I've ever eaten at. Afterwards I wanted to play a little blackjack at the Flamingo Reno. That was short-lived as Barb fell asleep on a chair in the casino and security rousted her (and me!).

In 1992 we made a trip to Las Vegas and stayed at the Flamingo Hilton (now the Flamingo). My parents decided to join us and they stayed in a suite at the Desert Inn (now the Wynn). After a few nights we moved there as well. Frank Sinatra was the headliner and my Mom wanted to see him, but the rest of us talked her out of it on the grounds that she would be better off remembering him as he was. Instead we went to see Jubilee at Bally's (a big downgrade but I still think it was the right decision not to see Frank.) My main memory of that night is me knocking over a full glass of something like a frozen daiquiri onto my Mom's leather skirt. Barb remembers her simply saying "oh my" and using napkins to clean it off. The other thing I remember about the trip is going with my Dad over to Silver City (now part of the convention center) to play craps together for the first and only time (very meaningful to me.)

Getting things a bit out of order, in 1994 Barb and I attended the Ninth International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking at the MGM Grand (still the MGM Grand!) where we spent time with Mason Malmuth and Arnold Snyder. Arnold and his wife joined us seeing Mystere at the Mirage (still the Mirage) and on another night had a great dinner at Hugo's at the Four Queens (still the Four Queens, and Hugo's is still great.)

Possibly on this trip, but perhaps during another one, I made a trip downtown to Binion's Horseshoe (now just Binion's) to talk with poker room manager Jim Albrecht about letting me provide Internet coverage of the World Series of Poker. This coverage began with the 1995 WSOP and ended after the 2000 WSOP (when the poker boom took off.)



In 1991 some members of the rec.gambling crowd met at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Las Vegas in early August. They had a great time meeting each other and wrote wonderful trip reports on rec.gambling. They repeated in 1992 and at that point I was determined to join them in 1993. BARGE, as it came to be called, in 1993 was at the Rio (still the Rio). I, and probably others, suggested that we hold the poker tournament in a casino poker room as the group was getting too large to be held around a bed in a hotel room. The Rio agreed and we had a two table tournament on Saturday morning. I remember, prior to the tournament, playing craps with Jonathan Rosenberg (from my home poker game) and him throwing out a chip and yelling "hard five". After the tournament there was a blackjack tournament held in Abdul's RFB comped suite at the Frontier (still nothing).

The next year BARGE was at the Luxor (still the Luxor). In my earlier meeting with Jim Albrecht I mentioned BARGE to him and he thought he might be interested in hosting us in Binion's poker room the following year. So Mike Zimmers and I went downtown to work out the details and BARGE 1995 and most subsequent ones through BARGE 2018 were held there. But that's a tale for another essay.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Great Airline Give Away

On May 25, 1979 American Airlines flight 191, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 took off from O'Hare airport in Chicago. Moments later its left engine separated from the wing and the plane went down killing all aboard. The cause was eventually determined to be faulty installation of the engine after maintenance (using a forklift) resulting in its mounting pylon breaking free from the wing. This led to questions regarding the aircraft design and on June 6 the FAA grounded all DC-10s. They removed the restriction on July 13.

Surprisingly, given cameras weren't a pocket accessory, lots of photos were captured of the crash of flight 191
Just prior to the crash, United Airlines, another major flier of DC-10s returned to operation following a devastating nearly two month strike by the machinists union. They had planes to fill and no passengers with reservations to fill them. Up until shortly before this strike, airlines relied on a mutual aid pact to weather such strikes. An airline under strike was given a high percentage of the windfall profits that the other airlines earned due to the strike. With airline deregulation, this was one of the first things to go. United was desperate.

In an effort to lure back passengers (with unfortunate timing), the very same day as the crash of AA 191 United started running ads (featuring a DC-10) offering "half-fare" coupons to all passengers who flew on any of their flights beginning on May 28. (American soon followed.) Coupons were handed out on each segment of a multi-segment flight, and in any class of service, through June 17. The coupons were good for half off the regular coach or first-class fares for domestic travel between July 1 and December 15. To put this deal in context, in those days there were generally two fares available -- full fare, or something called Super Saver fares which were significantly less than full fare but which required round trip travel, 30 day advanced purchase, a Saturday night stay, your first-born, and probably other restrictions that I've forgotten. The coupons were good on one-way, round-trip, open-jaw, and circle trips...so they were an amazing give away.
One of the full page ads running in most major cities. Note the plane illustrated.
Here's an example: in July 1979 TWA offered round-trips from San Francisco to New York for $490 in coach (there was also a night fare for somewhat less.) Super Saver (in coach) was $294 off-peak and $343 peak but with the aforementioned restrictions. So the half fare coupon gave you the same trip for $245 with no restrictions.

To no one's surprise there was quite a rush to obtain these coupons. You could find them for sale in classified ads. But, of course, the easy way to get them was to actually take a flight--any flight, if you were flying, just as the airlines intended. You could not, for example, make a reservation, show up at the airport, get a coupon and not actually take the flight. You had to fly!

I quickly pulled out the Official Airline Guide to see what might be the easiest and cheapest way to obtain one or more coupons. At the time I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, a United hub, and flights were plentiful. I quickly determined that there was a United flight that went from San Francisco to Fresno and back with a stop in Stockton in one direction. Since they gave one coupon per flight segment that meant three coupons for a quick round trip. And the round trip full fare was only $28. One problem...the flights were sold out. So back to the drawing board.

Further scrutiny of the OAG showed that United had several one stop flights from San Francisco to Chicago and the stop was in Oakland, just across the San Francisco Bay. Checking with the airline I found that they would indeed sell tickets for the short segment across the bay and that they were only $14. Unfortunately the flight that made sense (UA 125 leaving SFO at 11:40am and arriving OAK at 12:02pm, the guide shows it was served by a 727 though I remember it as a DC-8) was also sold out. But a friend and I picked a date and asked to be put on the wait list (they had wait lists in those days.)

On the morning in question we drove to SFO and stood around the gate to see if we cleared the list. We both did and soon boarded. The plane was full and had a party atmosphere as essentially everyone was on a "coupon run". I recall that the stewardesses (as they were called in those days) handed out champagne prior to take off and, of course, the coupons. My friend remembers that when the stewardess went to take her jump seat there was a passenger sitting in it. The plane had to go back to the gate and discharge the extra passenger before continuing to Oakland -- he was the one exception to the "you actually had to take the flight to get a coupon" rule.

The pilot got on the PA and announced that he would receive landing clearance at OAK before he received take off clearance at SFO. Wheels up to wheels down was probably 10 minutes to cover the 11.3 miles, and before we knew it we were in Oakland.*  We were then had to get back to SFO and our car. A shuttle to the nearby BART station and a ride on BART to the nearest station at the time (Daly City I believe) and another shuttle to the airport took several more hours. The entire endeavor took the better part of a day, but we had our coupons!

I recall buying at least one other coupon from a colleague who had no need for it for, maybe $25, probably ultimately a better deal, but not nearly as fun (and no story to tell.)

My friend tells me that he later made a round trip to Sacramento to get two coupons. He flew out in the morning and back in the late afternoon. Since most of the passengers were there for the coupon (it was easier to drive to Sacramento than fly for normal passengers), people were in a friendly mood. Though not usually that outgoing he struck up conversations with a number of people, including one very attractive woman, with whom he spent the day in Sacramento. They dated for a few months before she introduced him to the woman who would become his future ex-wife.

In those days my employer had a policy that a traveler was entitled to a full fare coach ticket to where ever they were going on business and that if they flew for less they could, for instance, use the savings to help take their spouse along on the trip. I took advantage of this several times while working for that company. But the half fare coupon opened up a whole new set of possibilities. Here's the one case that I remember. I had to make a trip to Huntsville, AL to accept a piece of computer hardware. In those days United had a flight from SFO that flew one stop to HSV (via LAX). The company travel office bought me the ticket and I quickly used the half fare coupon to turn it into a first class open-jaw trip: San Francisco to Huntsville, Chicago to San Francisco (in a DC-10!.) Since that didn't eat up the full SFO-HSV-SFO coach fare, I also received a MCO (miscellaneous charge order) for the difference. I paid cash for a ticket from HSV to ORD (on Southern Airlines) so that I could visit my parents after my business in Huntsville was concluded. I basically got a free upgrade plus a very low cost visit to Chicago (plus funds to use on another trip) for my coupon. I subsequently used the MCO to pay for another flight (in coach this time) from SFO to LAX to catch a rail excursion. And the whole thing was completely within the corporate rules! (Of course the rules are a lot different these days -- I'm sure even at that same company.)

Over the years, I've had my share of free flights due to volunteering, etc., but to me, that doesn't compare to the benefit from the 1979 Half Fare coupon.

*This is (but not by far) my shortest flight on a commercial airline. Second place goes to a United flight from PHF (Newport News) to ORF (Norfolk) a year or so later at 23 miles...the flight was also going on to ORD which was my actual destination this time.