The last flight of Galaxy 203 – Jan.21, 1985

Lockheed L188

 

‘Tis said that when an aviator simultaneously runs out of airspeed, altitude and bright ideas that something will go bump in the night, and that’s exactly what happened at four minutes past the hour of one o’clock on the Monday morning of January 21, 1985.

[NOTE: Take the following two paragraphs with a grain of salt, as the lone survivor of the crash, George Lamson Jr., remembers it differently from these accounts I developed 28 years ago from official records – which – in the confusion, could be aberrated. I’ll yield to George’s recollection, which follows in italics. Karl, Jan. 15, 2020]

Galaxy Airlines, a charter carrier, transported 71 souls – crew and passengers – from Minneapolis westward early on a Super Bowl weekend.  Some flew to San Francisco and then motored by bus to nearby Stanford, the site of the 1985 Super Bowl.  The remainder stayed aboard to Reno for bus travel to a casino in Stateline.  The airplane, a Lockheed Electra propjet, reportedly made several other flights during that weekend carrying passengers unrelated to the Minneapolis junket.

Following the game the Stanford contingent traveled by bus to Reno, and a number of them elected to stay at the Hilton, (then MGM) [now Grand Sierra Resort], for a time.  They were the lucky ones. The others rejoined the Stateline group at the airport for passage home.

[OK; that’s how the newspaper text compiled from eyewitness accounts and the after-action report read many years ago. George Lamson recalls that all flew together to SLT, and departed together from RNO, save for two who stayed on at Caesar’s at Stateline. We respect George’s recollection.]

There were 65 passengers and a crew of six aboard the Electra when it was cleared for southbound takeoff on runway one-six at 1:02 a.m.  It is known that at 1:03 the co-pilot reported a severe vibration in the aircraft to RNO tower, requesting expedited clearance to land with emergency equipment standing by.  Per the flight recorder on the plane he pulled power to reduce the vibration, causing the plane to stall below the airspeed needed to maintain control.  And it is speculative that he then looked for a “black hole” – an absence of ground lights – to aim the doomed aircraft toward for an “unplanned landing” – the FAA euphemism for a crash – without effecting danger to those on the ground.  That hole, if in fact he was in control, was in the area of Del Monte Shopping Center on South Virginia Street.

The plane, now heading west, initially hit the ground near the old V&T railroad right-of-way, then caromed into a ditch and broke in half, coming to rest in a motor home sales lot adjoining the then-Normark Furniture Store with some debris spilling across South Virginia.  The plane and seven motor homes became instantly involved in a conflagration fed by 12,000 pounds of fuel in the wings.

Sixteen fire engines – firemen, cops and robbers

The emergency response was immediate and massive; records show 16 units from the Airport Authority (who were alerted by the tower with the initial MayDay), Reno Fire Department, and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District arriving at the scene in short order.  Two sheriff’s deputies investigating a burglary at a store a long block from the crash were virtual eyewitnesses to it, and relayed that this was not a light-plane incident, as one radio transmission had indicated, but a large-scale disaster. They were soon joined by a hundred more deputies, Reno Police and highway patrol officers.  Crowd control became paramount.  South Virginia Street was closed and traffic rerouted to then-rural, two-lane Longley Lane, as it would be for another day to follow.

The three fire departments protected the furniture store, extinguished the aircraft fire and a number of spot fires in the fields surrounding the site.  Some Sparks Fire Department apparatus were relocated to Reno stations to back up the committed Reno engines; off-duty Reno firefighters manned older reserve equipment and Nevada Air National Guard units covered the Airport Authority’s duties at the airport.  Most the agencies were released by 4:28 a.m.  Truckee Meadows FPD (which would years later to merge with Reno Fire) would remain on the scene for days to follow and later took primary responsibility for the victim recovery. Trustees from the county jail were employed to place opaque masking along South Virginia Street to prevent the slow-down-and-gawk syndrome that impeded traffic when the street was reopened on Tuesday.

Three passengers initially survived the crash – one was transported by helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital, which had established the medical administrative command post.  Of those three only one, a then-17-year-old boy [George Lamson] with relatively minor lacerations, would survive.  The victims were removed to a temporary facility at the Washoe County Fairgrounds for identification by a team headed by an FBI unit assisted by local medical and dental professionals.  Washoe Med, St. Mary’s and numerous local social services performed family notifications and inventorying of the victims’ personal property in the days to come.

In all, 40 governmental agencies participated in the tragedy, some in the minutes, others in the weeks, following the crash.  A grim reminder remained for many years out on Highway 40 West just past the Mayberry intersection: a half-dozen carcasses of burned-out motor homes, relocated there from the site for salvage.   

And the vibration that started the whole sequence down this fatal path?  Speculative on all investigators’ parts, but generally attributed to the airstart-port door – where compressed air is forced into one of the four Allison turboprop engines to get it spinning to then pressurized to start the other – being left open prior to takeoff. I give attribution to archival Reno Fire Department and RGJ accounts, resources in the Nevada Historical Society and the excellent 46-page post-incident report signed off by Sheriff Vince Swinney, a copy of the NTSB report, Coroner Vern McCarty and Truckee Meadows FPD Chief Gene Leblanc, that night’s incident commander. 

And we’ll explore all this in greater detail in the next chapter. (Use the back-arrow on your browser to return to these links)

One family’s tribute to the passengers, and a photo of the plaque they placed,   here

• • •

The 1949 Haylift

C-119

The Herculean effort to save livestock pinned down by snowstorms in the Rockies this week refreshed a vivid memory held by many of my contemporaries, of the incredible snowstorms of 1948 that closed schools and businesses from the Sierra eastward to the Rockies and even dropped 6 inches of snow in Las Vegas.  The earliest bellwether of what lay ahead for ranchers might have been a blurb in the Jan.27, 1949 Reno Evening Gazette about two C-46s dispatched to Arizona from Luke Field in Riverside, Cal. to search for 50 ranch hands lost in the back country.  As kids we caught a lift to Reno’s Hubbard Field to watch some arriving 1942-vintage Air Force C-82 (later re-designated C-119) Flying Boxcars (pictured above), twin-engine planes with huge clamshell cargo bay doors that could be operated in flight. The planes were staging in Fallon from all over the nation, some from nearby McClellan Field in Sacramento and many more from the 316th Air Carrier Wing in South Carolina.  The initial plan was to airlift hay to Ely and Elko, from where Nevada and Utah National Guard trucks would deliver it to the isolated livestock. But eastern Nevada airports and roads were useless due to being snowed in, so the Air Force pilots suggested dropping the hay from the planes directly into the herds and bands of livestock.

            Hubbard Field saw incidental haylift activity for the next month, as the majority of the airlift centered at Minden’s and the Navy’s Fallon airstrips.  We recall our friends’ fathers, many relatively fresh out of WWII service, departing Reno for two or three weeks with the Nevada National Guard’s heavy trucks, and, if memory serves, a couple of Isbell Construction’s low-boys with drivers. Reno restaurants and food provisioners were pressed into service providing meals around the clock; and merchants kicked in to provide a few creature comforts to the legion of personnel amassing for the airlift.  By the first day of February it had become a major federal project directed by no less than Harry S Truman, with the Nevada effort repeating itself all over Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Montana.  The Feb. 4, 1948 Gazette relates that a pattern had become established, of five to six tons of hay being loaded into each C-119 for the 220-plus-mile one-way trip to the ravaged areas.  The hay arrived by commercial trucks from California’s Central Valley where it was handed off to 48 National Guard and army trucks shuttling between Reno, Minden and Fallon.  The Feb. 5 Gazette reported that the storm had increased, temperatures had dropped below zero and that the S.P.’s City of San Francisco passenger train had become marooned in Wells.

            Each plane carried an Air Force pilot and co-pilot, a flight engineer and a loadmaster, who were joined by two civilian volunteers.  Over the drop area the two civilians pushed four 75-pound hay bales aft toward the open clamshell doors where the FE and the loadmaster then kicked the bales out to the animals below (all four crewmen in the cargo bay were tethered to the plane.)   My youthful recollection was that volunteers lined up five-deep to get to be one of the two civilians aboard each sortie.  A contingent of ranchers and hands who knew their own topography rode along to assist the pilots in navigating to drop points where their own cattle and sheep were likely to be found.          

            One can only speculate of the thrill experienced by a Basque herder getting his very first airplane ride while the plane dove down a box canyon at 150 knots with a 30-knot wind bouncing it around and 15-below-zero air screaming through a hole as big as a garage door in the back of the plane.  Over the deafening roar one can almost hear him utter “Well, son-of-a-gun!” in Euskara Basque, Spanish and English.  Nevada writer Beltran Paris, a Basque sheepman who’s made this column before, wrote an excellent account of his terrifying ride over his own ranch.  A Nevada Guardsman who flew as a volunteer on two flights from Minden related to me that they often needed to make multiple passes over a herd or band, and after a first drop the pilot made a sharp turn down a walled canyon to start his second run. The remaining load of hay slid, pinning another Guardsman under a half a dozen bales and confronting the pilot with a ton of weight suddenly shifting his center-of-gravity while already holding a steep bank.

            These guys were good.

            On Feb. 27 the Journal carried a photo of a sort-of victory celebration with a bunch of guys at the Elko airport; visible are Elko rancher and hotelman Newt Crumley and local ad icon Gene Evans, then editor of the Elko Free-Press.  Why the celebration?  The 27 reciprocating-engine aircraft had logged 1,600 flight hours on 26 out of 28 days under Arctic conditions, with some 330 take-off-and-landing cycles in high winds on icy runways and dropped 1,800 tons of hay (they lost two days to weather or unavailability of hay.)  Save for one errant hay bale entering a rancher’s shed at a high rate of speed in Little Cherry Creek and demolishing his wife’s brand-new-fangled washing machine, nary a glitch was reported.  And the sun had come out…

            Eastern Nevada’s Operation Hay Lift was a success – when the snow melted off in the spring, the ranchers determined that 80 to 85 per cent of their livestock – cattle and sheep – had been saved, and this was typical throughout the western states where similar endeavors had been ongoing.

            Now anticipating a couple of e-mails: Yes – there was a second Operation Hay Lift, in March of 1952, and yes, the City of San  Francisco was marooned once again, that time on Donner Summit.  I thank James A. Young of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Nevada Historical Society and Phil Earl for their past research. 

The sequel: click here CLOSING THE BOOK – THE AFTERMATH OF THE EVENT

The stranding of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s City of San Francisco premier passenger train a few miles west of Norden on the Donner Summit on January 13, 1952 with 226 souls on board always generates a great deal of ink. And I’m as guilty as any writer in beating it to death; after all it put little Reno in the national spotlight for the five days it took to get them off the hill.

Many years ago, making contact with or visiting the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, SP Railroad’s headquarters at One Market Street in San Francisco and raiding the morgues at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, the Call-Bulletin, the Sacramento Bee and the Truckee Sierra Sun, I amassed a lot of stuff about the event. And I give attribution to John Kelly’s excellent book about it, Stranded Streamliner. (Upon the sale of the Mighty SP to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996, the SP’s archives were split among the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the Stanford University library, and the California State Railroad Museum.)

Long story short, it’s that time of year again, and this year rather than strugging to rewrite an old column, I’m dusting of a few pictures you may enjoy…

All images subject to copyrights as shown. All image captions and the website in its entirety are © Karl Breckenridge 2020

50016 sp_overhead

Here’s the train … this is looking west, the head end of the train is going away from the viewer. The smoke column at the rear of the train is from a steam cab-forward locomotive that attempted to pull the train towards Truckee but derailed. It did supply steam for heat to the passenger train all of the first night, but its boiler flamed out when a valve was left in the wrong position. Toward the left/east of the steam loco is the carcass of a steam snowplow that also died on the rails, obstructing rescue efforts. Above the plow the east portal of a tunnel, which appears in many photographs, is visible. This tunnel serves the westbound track, parallel to the track in view and covered by snow. The snowbound train, while westbound, is on the eastbound track because the City of San Francisco on the prior day was also stuck, but towed to Colfax by a steam locomotive, causing light damage to the tracks. Highway 40 is apparent in the lower right hand corner, where the passengers eventually walked out to the awaiting vehicles. This photo, taken early the first day the train was snowbound, was taken from a light plane rented by the San Francisco Chronicle, with attribution given to Ken Yeo, a Chron staff photographer

 

60012 chp car

Communication with the site proved a huge dilemma, abated by the California Department of Highways appropriating a California Highway Patrol Oldsmobile as the best walkie-talkie available in 1952, loading it on a flatcar and utilizing its two-way radio quite liberally. On a lighter note I’ve never used this shot in a Power Point presentation that some audience member didn’t  pick up on the hogleg revolver on the CHP trooper’s hip!

 

60025 weasels!

The California National Guard sent three flatcar loads of Weasels from Fort Mason, but like the Coast Guard helicopter, they had trouble with the terrain and the savage weather and accomplished very little

 

60050 sikorsky

The piston-engined chopper sent by the Coast Guard from Alameda proved to be of little benefit, due to high winds and poor visibility, deration of the lift of the rotor at this altitude, and an inability to land in the snow adjoining the snowbound train

 

 

60059 site

 

 

60032 grump

“I’m already late for my granddaughter’s recital, by legs have been wrapped in potato sacks for three days, this dingbat in the hoodie has been babbling about God-knows-what the whole time; I’m hungry, I’m cold and now this young man says I have to take my smoke out to the vestibule where it’s four-below-zero. Next trip I’m taking the BUS!”  © SP

 

60014 roehll

Dr. Walter Roehll of Chicago was accompanying his patient to San Francisco, and was the only doctor traveling on the train. There were a group, (4,6?) nurses aboard enroute to a convention in the Bay Area. The SP gave high praise to the significant number of soldiers, sailors and marines aboard, enroute to meet sea transportation to the Korean Conflict for their skills in medicine, survival and a general “can-do” nature. © SP

w

60013 kid

Jeffry Wise and his mother Orell — where are you now?

 

 

60080 depart

The skies cleared, the winds abated, and SP laborers had stomped out a trail in the snow from the snowbound train to a point on US-40. All but a few (4) passengers walked to the highway and waiting vehicles, assisted with their baggage by the SP. Four passengers were taken by stretcher to the highway. All of their baggage went home with them that afternoon!

 

60084 - cars

The only transportation available in the Norden area were those vehicles that were  already there when US-40 closed a week-and-a-half earlier. Their owners were located and – reports vary – about 18 cars and pickups were pressed into service to haul the 255-or-so people the four-mile distance on the one–lane road, making numerous trips, turning together in the turn areas plowed by the highway department, and taking another group. (As a matter of explanation, the 226-passenger count excluded 19 SP employees on board and a number of people involved in the rescue who got to the train but couldn’t get back to civilization and stayed aboard)

 

convoy

No words are necessary…

 

60091 rescuetrain

The “rescue train” (left) at Nyack Lodge – the SP, weary of having their rolling stock derailed by the snow, located 11 heavyweight Pullman cars which had been sidelined prior to WWII, and tied four large F-7 diesels at either end of this train. It was filled with food, spirits, clothes, blankets and medical supplies. SP plowed the track to Nyack Lodge, the California Department of Highways plowed US 40, which had been closed for 11 days, and the rescue train was spotted at Nyack. Passengers walked some 1,080 feet to the train from the lodge (traveling on I-80 today, their route remains evident where the freeway passes over the railroad tunnel). © SP

 

60095 train

Aboard the rescue train – the passengers, now showered, with a change of clothes, a cocktail and a steak dinner, kicked back on the ride from Nyack Lodge to Oakland. A very few disembarked in Sacramento, but rode all the way to the mole, where many were met by friends or relatives. SP made phone service available, but it was spotty

70000 oakland mole

The Oakland “mole” – the west terminus of SP trains, where the rescue train arrived at 3:40 a.m. on January 17, 1952. A UP ferry boat took the passengers across the Bay to the SP passenger station on Townsend Street on the Embarcadero (postcard)

 

sp townsend

The end of the line – the massive, classic Spanish Revival SP passenger terminal (now razed) near Oracle, formerly  AT&T, SF Giants ballpark © KB

 

gold

Jay Gold, 31, was an employee of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company working out of Drum, a few miles west of the site. Word of the train’s predicament reached Drum and Gold trailered a Sno-cat as close as possible to the site. He worked virtually non-stop for three days and nights, hauling stuff and people to and from the snowbound train between rounds of blizzards (he was joined by a second Sno-cat donated by Pacific Telephone a day later)> He passed away 31 days after the passengers were rescued. Unknown to but a very few, Jay had a preëxisting cardiac condition.  His family was generously compensated by both the SP Railroad and PG&E, but I have championed, to no avail, an effort to have a short stretch of I-80 below the snowbound train’s location designated in his honor, with appropriate signage for all to see while traversing Donner Summit. (courtesy Gold family)

Jan. 10, 1952 – Boy, it’s cold in Reno!

Slim

“Slim” Dickens, fourth and illegitimate cousin of Charles

School’s out this Saturday morning in Reno so I bundled up and rode my bike downtown to see what was going on in this cold winter – coldest I’ve seen since we moved back here in 1945; not  above 20º so far this year and that’s starting to take its toll. And it’s snowing a lot too and sticking!

Out by my buddies Gordy, Willy and David Chism’s house on West Second Street I saw people ice skating on the Truckee River and the Idlewild ponds. And a locosnowplow train went behind their house – a push-plow [below left somewhere] being pushed by a heavy “Mallet” steam engine [right] with the cab in the rear, that SP uses east of Sparks. Don’t see them much this side of Sparks.  The guys say the plow train has been running for three days, back-and-30072 snowplowforth from Reno to Truckee, trying to keep that section of track clear. And I saw the three steam rotary snowplows [left] that are usually in the Sparks yard being towed by a pair of diesel-electric locos toward Truckee.

30078 Norden snowshedAs it happens, the Dean of the University’s Electrical Engineering College is my neighbor, on University Terrace across from the tennis courts at Whitaker Park. His name is Dr. Palmer, but us kids are supposed to just call him Stanley. He has a big model railroad layout in the basement of his home, and took his grandson Jim Ceander, me and our friend Jimmy Doll up to Norden a few weeks ago where we got to see the SP’s turntable inside a snow shed and a bunch of trains go through. There’s a lot of stuff on that summit of the railroad’s, and PG&E power company, that you can’t see from Highway 40.

coal truckThere are quite a few buildings in Reno with no heat – and Southside Elementary School on Liberty Street east of Center Street is one of them. The kids who go there have been out of school since Wednesday. Colleen Morgan wrote in “Southside School wasn’t heated?!!! Our house on Humboldt Street had (and still has) an oil-fueled furnace. Our next-door neighbor’s house was a bit older and they were still burning coal. Every few weeks the coal truck would park out in the alley to deliver a load of coal to the bin in their dug-out basement. My brothers and I used to borrow pieces of coal to write on the sidewalk. Never got any in our Christmas stockings though… Thanks, Colleen!

There are a couple guys who are, well, homeless I guess is the word, who are sleeping in Reno High’s gym on West Street along with anyone else who needs a warm place to sleep because they are out of oil or coal. And Sierra Pacific Power is sending its grey trucks to customers whose water pipes are frozen hooking one end of a welding cable to the water bibb on the house and the other to the street valve, to warm up the water main enough to let water flow to the house. They’ve been doing that for days now. Mary S. Doten School’s janitor, Mr. Minetto, is leaving the boiler room in the school’s basement open so that we can put our gloves and galoshes in there to dry out.

rhdrThe main highway (US40) has been closed by snow for a week and the grocery stores are getting low on stuff. Reno and Sparks just got a gas plant out east of town on Alameda Street but with the road closed they can’t get the stuff in to make gas with so the houses north of the Truckee River with gas heat areprestolog becoming concerned. Mr. Madsen told Dad he has tons of coal at his plant, which is what heats most houses, so he’s not worried. Reader and lifelong buddy Mike Robinson wrote in Karl, Your column reminded me of one time when I delivered Presto-Logs from that yard on Ralston. They were six to a bundle bound by baling wire, and heavy. I went down steps to a lot of basements in the old Northwest. The fellow at the yard loaded up the pickup truck with Presto logs. I had a good pair of gloves and a list of addresses with numbers of bundles to be delivered. I went down into a lot of basements in old Northwest Reno and saw lots of coal chutes that I didn’t know existed. I was just filling in for someone who had this route and I never did it again. 

But Mr. Jacsick, who owns the Presto-Log factory on Ralston Street, is sweating it out as people are buying logs quicker than he can make them. (What I didn’t know, nor did anyone else, was that Reno’s Presto-Log factory on Ralston Street would burn a day later on January 11, 1952, in a blaze one could see from Elko. That fire put the already-cold town in a bind… Mr. Jacsick was able to restore his inventory from his Boise factory after a long week.)

sleigh2On my ride downtown I saw a number of sleighs – many of which I’d seen stored at Mr. Baker’s ranch. My Dad and Mr. Baker – Ted – were friends and a bunch of kids were always out at his livery stable south of Reno in the swimming pool during the summer, and the sleighs that belonged to his customers were stored in a barn by the pool. When there was enough snow in town, as there had been since Christmas, the sleighs and some pretty high-stepping ponies would hit the street. I heard that there had been a Nevada White Hat party at the Stirrup Cup out west of town on the Lincoln Highway last night and the sleighs were all there with their kerosene lamps burning. As I rode this morning a few were just parked by the Q-ne-Q and Hilp’s Drug Store, their bells still dinging as the horses jostled around.

early helicopterI thought of our Mary S. Doten School classmates, stranded atop Peavine Peak, their dad an engineer with the telephone company at the new relay station atop Peavine. We hadn’t seen them for a week. We sent them notes and stuff from school that was supposed to be dropped in to them by a helicopter from Reno Air Base, but we wondered if that if ever happened. (It did!)

30069 donnerBut the trains – they kept rolling. I feared that one would get marooned atop Donner Summit, but they kept rolling. After Christmas a few troop  trains went through town westward, carrying soldiers to San Francisco where they’d ship out to Korea, where an ugly war was being waged. The troop trains were distinctive – grey government Pullman cars being towed by SP diesel electric locomotives, with a steam-cab forward tied on in Truckee, as much for the additional steam to heat the cars as for its tractive effort. They would turn south at Oakland and circle San Francisco Bay, so that they could arrive in The City then traverse its Embarcadero non-stop to Fort Mason, where a troopship would await.

A passenger train stuck, in this cold weather, atop the summit would be50010 iconic Cityof SF loco unthinkable…

 

Yet – I worried, even as a little kid – someday a passenger train is going to become stuck atop Donner Summit.   (click here to read about it…)

And the cold and the falling snow continued. 

Snowbound locomotive photo at right © Ken McLaughlin San Francico Chronicle – used with permission

 

 

And here, a confession: I used the railroad term “Mallet” to designate a heavy locomotive. The Mallet valve process, developed by Swiss engineer Anatole Mallet for management of steam in large locomotives in the 1920s, proved cumbersome and was removed from most locomotives – SP  records indicate the last Mallet-type cab-forward locomotive rolled through Reno in 1929. But the designation stuck around and is still in use…

 

The legend of Smokey Joe  

cropped-FrankiesMusic2.jpgAs the story goes, Nicholas D. Jackson penned this verse on a cocktail napkin and passed it on to KOH radio’s “Cactus” Tom Cafferty, who read it on air each Christmas.  Were we all to tune the ol’ Philco tabletop radio to KOH AM-630 seventy years ago this Christmas morning, we’d probably hear the mellifluous voice of Cactus Tom, who ruled the early morning airwaves in early postwar Reno. Tom Cafferty worked as a Reno casino card dealer in the mid-1930s, but broke into broadcasting a few years later at WGN in Chicago. After World War II, he managed an advertising agency in Los Angeles and played bit parts in Western movies and worked as a disc jockey. He became the morning disc jockey at Reno’s KOH in the 1950s, and began appearing also on KOLO-TV in 1961.

cactus_tomCactus Tom (left), while at KOH in their magnificent old Queen Anne house-turned-studio on the past site of the Greyhound station by the Truckee, recited the following poem annually, thereby giving birth to a local Christmas tradition. To the best of my research, it’s not copyright-protected save for a couple of publications I placed in the RGJ over the years. But if we save it or pass it around to our friends let’s give a little attribution to Tom and to Nicholas D. Jackson, a popular, enduring and nocturnal habitué of Reno’s late-night downtown watering holes, where, legend has it, he wrote the verse on a cocktail napkin and offered it to Tom:

Twas the night before Christmas, an’ ol’ Smokey Joe lay a’shiverin’ deep in his sack.

While a coyote wailed, kinda mournful and low, an’ the wind drifted snow ‘round his shack,

An’ the moon played roulette with the cold starry sky; ‘til the clouds piled like chipsXmasBalls on the black.

And ’Ol’ Smokey Joe kept a wonderin’ why Fate had placed him alone in this shack.

Then Ol’ Smokey Joe, with a questioning look felt around for his boots on the floor,

And from one took a sock which he hung on a hook attached to the worn cabin door.

Then shiverin’ a bit he walked back to his bed, and he slipped to his knees for a prayer,

XmasWreathAn’ the kerosene lamp that hung o’erhead etched a silvery halo there.

Then Ol’ Smokey Joe reached up for the light that hung on a nail overhead,

An’ he glanced to see if this stocking hung right, and then nestled deep in his bed.

And just before he fell sound asleep, he heard the noise of hooves on the flat,

An’ he knew that the cattle would soon bed down in the sheltered lee of his shack.

The night wore on and a little gray mouse sneaked down from the eaves for a look,

A timid l’il soul without a home – ‘til he spotted the sock on the hook.

A tiny ol’ hole he chewed in the heel, a window where he could watch Joe

Then he spent the whole night a‘packin’ in straw, and at dawn fell asleep in the toe.XmasSanta

And a cow gave birth to a calf that night between the shack and a drift;

And it nuzzled the calf to the cabin door, Ol’ Smokey Joe’s Christmas gift.

Next mornin’ the sun came a’streamin’ through, lit the cabin’s every nook,

Smokey Joe waked up, kinda cautious-like, and gave that ol’ sock a look.

Then a smile lit up his worn, kind face, he gave out with a mirthful squeal, 

Threw a crust of bread to the little gray mouse, who peeked through the hole in the heel.

With the mouse tucked away in the crook of his arm, he opened the cabin door;

His heart started dancing and he felt a warmth like he’d never quite felt before.

FreedomFor there starin’ at him on his wobbly ol’ legs stood a calf, kinda shakey and worn;

Just waitin’ for Joe and a pail of hot milk, an’ a spot by the stove to keep warm.

And that night with the mouse sound asleep in the sock, and the calf cuddled up in the grate,

Ol’ Joe knew the answer of why he lived there, with the gray mouse, the calf, and Fate.

  • • •

Robert Service, in his epic Cremation of Sam McGee, couldn’t have written that Baffertyarn any better. Reno history is silent on the fate of poet and raconteur Nicholas D. Jackson; Tom Cafferty passed away on Dec. 11, 1993 in Reno. This will be our last chance to visit before the prancing and pawing of each little hoof on our rooftop – I wish you all my best, and send thanks for your wonderful letters and calls over the year – those cherished presents that arrive weekly and won’t fit under my tree.

And, we’ll amend our usual closing slightly and defer to Tiny Tim Cratchett, who said it best: “God bless us, everyone!”

Norman Rockwell painting “Four Freedoms – Freedom from Want” from the web, © (released) Life Magazine – other photos, who knows?

Dec 18 – The Six-year-old kid: “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus!”

SlimYes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus … by editor Francis P. Church, first published in The New York Sun in 1897.

 

Dear Editor—I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?  Virginia O’Hanlon

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except that that they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”

34thStreetOK, back to reality now, from 1897 to 1948 – I’m hangin’ out around town, with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, whatever a sugar plum is. We’re already planning Christmas dinner with the Salas from next door on Ralston Street, with that cute little red-headed daughter, her baby brother Mike and my sister Marilynn who’s now hell-on-wheels all over the house.

SleighRideDad got us a Christmas tree from the Lions Club downtown, brought it home on the roof of the Dodge and got pitch all over the car. We’re putting it up this afternoon later. He got six boxes of lights from Nevada Machinery & Electric downtown; he said that it’s taken a few Christmases after WWII to get any Christmas decorations and lights and stuff. We’re putting up a tree in our classroom at Mary S. Doten School – I hear tell that a day is coming when we can’t even say the word “Christmas” at school but this is 1948.

lightboxThere are only a few weeks left until Christmas; we get out of school for a couple of weeks before and after the day, through New Year’s Day. We’re all making Christmas cards for our classmates. I’m lucky because my neighbor Margaret Eddleman is a pretty cool artist and she’s helping me. A bunch of guys from a “fraternity” up the street got in trouble for putting a red nose they made out of a tennis ball on one of the buffalo out at Idlewild Park and took it downtown saying it was “Rudolph,” or some such name, and the thing got loose in a bar on Sierra Street and nobody could catch it! (Who was “Rudolph,” anyway…?)

We like to go to the downtown library in the State Building downtown, and next PeterWolfweekend some musicians are coming and a man named Darrell Cain is going to read a poem called “Peter and the Wolf” by some guy named Sirgay Prokophife or something like that he wrote before the war, and the musicians are going to play their weird horns – trumpets, piccolos, oboes, saxophones, bassoons and such – each instrument representing a character in the story. It’s supposed to be pretty cool. They did it last year also kind of a Christmas tradition that I hope hangs around. A friend of mine named Gene Aimone who lives around the corner from us on Nevada Street is reading the part of Peter. My friend named Lauren House gets to play his French horn, which I think is the duck in the story but I’m not sure. It’s a neat morning; no grownups allowed!

CookingI wrote a letter to Santa Claus, but I haven’t heard LionelTrainback yet. Mom said he isn’t very good at answering his mail. I asked him for an electric train but I’m still pretty little for that. The little red-haired Sala girl next door wants an oven and some cooking stuff so she can cook like her mother Chetty does. Girls – yeecch – I’ll never understand them….

Dad brought home a couple boxes of records from his friend Mr. Saviers’ store on Second Street. There are about eight records in each box; each one has one song on it. The neatest one is by a guy named Bing Crosby – that’s a funny name – how would you like to go BingChristmasthrough life with a name like “Bing”? But he’s a pretty good singer. Dad got a record player when we moved up to Reno. It’s pretty big and noisy but you can put about 12 records on it and it will play for two or three hours. He got one of some group from a “Tabernacle” that’s pretty heavy singing. The “Men of Renown” singing group goes downtown every night from now to Christmas and sings carols while people shop on Virginia Street and at Gray WhiteChristmasReid’s. Dad’s friend Mr. Battaglia organized that group. My friend Billy Crouch’s mother organized a group of four ladies who also sing around town. I heard that a famous group came to the New Gym at the KingstonTrioUniversity of Nevada, and a local drive-by newspaper columnist called them “Fred Waring and the Blenders” and not one soul, including the genius editor, knew that  their actual name was the “Pennsylvanians.” But that was 50 years after today so I can’t really write about it yet. But they were good singers.

The evening newspaper the “Reno Evening Gazette” is running a contest for outdoor decorating for Christmas, with categories (pretty big word for a six-year-old, huh!?) for businesses downtown, for private homes and one for kids-only decorating. Last year Reno people weren’t happy because a kid from Sparks named SantaFrostyBobby Warren won it for decorating his parents’ home on B Street at 4th Street. (I want to learn to write someday, but stuff like “4th Street” in Sparks, but “Fourth Street” in Reno is already making me crazy.) Nobody is using any light bulbs yet. The first outdoor lighting anybody in Reno remembers was done in the mid-1950s by the president of the power company, Mr. Fletcher, on a home on Skyline Drive just before the street ended at Moana Lane. It was just a simple five-pointed star. My playmates Linda and [the late] Jon Madsen lived there much later.

MormonChristmasI’ve got a lot more notes for stuff to write about – Santas at the 20th Century Club and the YMCA downtown and the Elks Club on Sierra, and a lot of other stuff, but this is getting pretty long so I’m going to “post” it, whatever that means. Come back here on Christmas Eve and we’ll re-do Cactus Tom’s perennial favorite “Smokey Joe” then the Ol’ Reno Guy is going for a long winter’s nap…. 

 

 

 

Dec. 13 – still hoppin’ down the Santa trail…

SlimIt’s cold on Ralston Street up by the park this morning, but no snow in sight (kind of like to see the street with enough snow to bring the town’s kids and sleds and toboggans, but not today…)

I need to make a confession to those watching me write this on binder paper with a Ticonderoga #2 pencil, that I possess an ability to look into the future, assemble tea leaves, and own a Ouija board and a crystal ball. If I didn’t have this secret power, I could never be just a six-year-old kid who just moved to town from Richmond after the war, and tear apart the veil that covers the future to see and view the supernal beauty that lies beyond. (I wish I’d have said that first; actually I stole it from a guy who wrote it a hundred years ago!*) But if I couldn’t see into the future for a few years, there wouldn’t be a Christmas story today.

I’ve a whole lot of notes still in my jeans. One’s about Rabbi Frankel of the Synagogue across West Street from old Reno High School. He was a pretty cool guy, and for FordPoliceCarmany years he would, on Christmas Day, show up at the new police station on Second Street and tell Reno’s police chief to go home and enjoy his family on Christmas Day. Then he’d wear a chief’s shirt and hat and badge and stuff around the police station and bring candy canes and doughnuts to the other cops who were working their holiday. And he’d get in one of Reno’s old Ford police cars and ride around with the cops, stopping every once in a while to cheer up a downtown guy. This was a tradition in Reno for many years, practiced by a number of rabbis and chiefs. One year a guy actually died of natural causes on Christmas day and the rabbi said, “Oy Vey, now what the hell do I do?” (I don’t know if he said ‘Oy Vey’ but my little friend David Ginsburg told me that.)

There was a guy named Red Nibert who was a sign painter, out at the end of Mill Street east of Kietzke Lane (Dad said they were going to pave Kietzke someday and make it four lane!). Red worked hard all year painting signs and trucks and stuff but one day he went to a new restaurant out by what was going to become “Plumb Lane” and cross South Virginia, and he painted a bright red and green sleigh and reindeer and a Santa on the restaurant’s window – I think the restaurant was the one at the end of Wells Avenue. The work caught on, and Red painted a couple more windows that year, I think also the big window on the Coca-cola bottling plant where Center Street came out onto South Virginia. Pretty soon they’d make Center one-way so people would quit killing each other at that intersection with Virginia, Mary and Center. Within a few years Red would paint Christmas scenes on over 40 local windows – he could do the whole restaurant in about 10 minutes and move on.

I should tell you about a new friend of mine named Luther, who came to town withLuther his family from Hawthorne when we were little kids. We worked together at the Reno High cafeteria, but he didn’t do too well there. I was supposed to make the cinnamon rolls with him, but all he ever wanted to make were “hamburgers,” he called them. I don’t know what ever became of him. “Ham”burger. Hell, there was no ham in them! (Mom will be made because I wrote “hell.” Sorry, readers…) A drive-by writer used a photo of him in a Santa hat 50 years later and scared the h…, er, the pants off every kid in Reno who saw the Gazoo that morning.

OrnamentA big deal in town came in 1964, which is really long after I started writing this. A big bank put up a building taller than the Mapes Hotel, and that Christmas to everyone’s surprise, a giant Christmas tree that you could see from all over town, was turned on. It was made with a bunch of lights and wires with light sockets by the bank’s maintenance guys, who put up the “tree” on their own. The flagpole, I read in a drive-by writer’s column a few years later, was 42 feet tall above the building, and placed onto the building with a helicopter. That’s a pretty good story, someday I tell it.

Not to be outdone, Harrah’s new hotel tower, which was taller than the bank building, one Christmas put up a “necklace” of golden lights around the top rail of their building, and a tree on their flagpole like the bank’s. So there were TWO Christmas trees downtown!

Downtown Reno was a pretty scene in the winters; the City put up holiday lights above the Truckee, and played Christmas music on the speakers on downtown telephone poles. The best scene in town was from the Holiday Hotel’s Shore Room when the hotel opened in 1957, looking west up the River with all the lights. The City’s Christmas tree was in Wingfield Park, and every year there would be a lighting celebration with over 2,000 people coming downtown to watch. “Tink” SantaFrostyTinkham, and later my classmate Glenn Little, conducted the local musicians and singers from the University, the high schools (Reno and Manogue!) and the casinos in Christmas carols. A guy named Rocco Youse gave the City his huge statues of Frosty and Santa that used to be in front of his house on Fireside Circle. He was moving to a gated community and wouldn’t need them anymore. My friend John Trent reminded me of that…

Store windows were fun to view, with the storekeepers putting their best into Christmas displays. I’ve written of this before, and always forget, and am then reminded that the little mechanical cobbler in the window of Spina’s shoe repair shop on Sierra Street, always got dressed in Christmas clothes and a Santa hat at Christmas time! (There. I wrote it.)

BudweiserI’m getting pretty tired and Dad says I have to do some work for him around our house. (Mom doesn’t know it, but he bought two tennis rackets from Sears Roebuck’s catalogue store and they’ll be here by Christmas, so we can go play tennis in the courts across the street in Whitaker Park.) So – I promised I’d write about some local Santas in the stores around the town, and I see some stores opening south of town we’d better write about. C’mon back one of these days!!!!

(* I stole the passage from editor Francis P. Church who wrote that in “Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus” in the Sept. 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun)

 

 

 

An old-time staff party


scrambleWhat ho — a new tradition once appeared on the Reno skyline: a Christmas tree standing two stories above the top of the brand-new Harrah’s Hotel, and ringing the hotel’s parapet was a new necklace of gold. The brightly-lit Frosty and Santa — donated to the city by Del Chemical’s wanne-be bad-boy kingpin, the late Rocco Youse — stood ten feet high on Belle Isle. The City of Reno, Sierra Pacific Power and Bell Tel crews were putting up candy canes on the streetlamp poles downtown and stringing colored lights across the Truckee. Alongside the candy canes: loudspeakers with songs of the season. (If this Sunday morning daydream were taking place in 1955, a flood two days before Christmas Day would take out those strings of lights and half of downtown with them.)

The genius behind this column and the wind beneath my wings — our researcherkarlatwhitaker CarmineGhiaCarmine Ghia   (left), with photographer Lo Phatt (left below), typist Ophelia Payne, our driver Ashton Martin, proofreader Text Writter and all the other staffers — are looking forward to our annual staff party, preferably in a candlelit room, embers glowing in a fireplace and a hot-buttered rum nearby. (That’s me on the right in a 1946 Bud Loomis photo in Whitaker Park with the Eichbush house in Lo Phatthe background.) In years past we’ve gone to Siri’s on East Fourth and the Christmas Tree up Mt. Rose highway, whose name 50 years later would be changed in order to remain politically correct. The Circle RB on West Fourth, named for singer Reno Browne and later to become the Chinese Pagoda and finally Micasa Too, has a great party room. Just west of that, we went once to the old Villa Roma. You can call it the Glory Hole or you can call it Washoe, now you can call it my buddy Curtis Worrall’s Whispering Vines Wine. But whatever, it was a great place for revelry. And even further west, one of the grandest party rooms ever was at Lawton’s Resort, rebuilt, but now just a huge pile of kindling. The El Cortez Hotel had the Squire Room and the Trocadero Lounge. One of the prettiest night views in Reno has perennially been the view westward up the Truckee from the Holiday Hotel’s Shore Room. (Still is, from the Siena, or whatever it’s called now.)

Some of my staffers suggested we hire a van to take us out to Hagel’s Villa in ElCortezWashoe City, or to the Lancer (or is it the Mesa?) across the Mt. Rose highway from the present Galena High School. We could go high-end to the Waldorf downtown, with (the now late) Jack Joseph at the piano. I digress for an anecdote: I once wrote of “ … Jack Joseph, tickling the ivories at the Waldorf … ” Jack called me the next week, said “Karl, I never played the piano!” I told him he’d been warming that piano bench for 25 years, and he responded, “Yeah, but I never played the thing. I never learned how … ” Who’da thunk it? Or we might book the private room off the Mapes Sky Room. Or trek down Truckee River Lane to the River Front to the west, oft-confused by holiday revelers with the Bundox within the River House to the east. Different places.

Still downtown, the venerable old State Building in Powning Park — too big for our little group, but pleasant. We’ve written about it here before. Vario’s has a private room, as does Eugene’s — the “Gypsy” room. But if we’re going that far south of town on South Virginia, all the long way out to the present Peppermill, we might as well go to the Supper Club or The Willows. In college we might have booked our party at Bish’s Game Farm away out of town by the swamp on the present Longley Lane, or maybe at Flindt’s barn, where one more or less bullet hole in the ceiling never really merited too much attention, but we’ve matured vastly beyond that behavior. Sort of. Always a favorite: the California Building in Idlewild Park. Lots of parties were held at the Darrel Dunkle American Legion Hall on Ralston Street or the little Masonic hall upstairs above Statewide Appliance on North Virginia just north of Fourth Street/Highway 40 (easy parking on Sewell’s parking lot). That new-fangled Silver Legacy would change all that in 1995.

OK, the Casa de Amor (bet you’ve all forgotten that name!) later renamed the Cove and finally just Miguel’s at the south end of town on South Virginia by Mt. Rose Street, if you can stomach a reindeer chimichanga. Even further out, we can try to book the Continental Lodge, either their Central Park Lounge or the private room in the south end of the restaurant. The Doll House out South Virginia has a good dance floor, but our staff can’t ever go back there because we booked Snoshu Thompson’s dance band a few years ago and our staff grammarian Persephone did the hootchie-kootchie on the bar with the guy I hired to play Santa Claus.

We could go east on East Fourth Street almost to the Sparks city line and try for the Gay-Nor Room in Ray’s Big Y or the private room in the back of the Chuck Wagon down the street. But every time we go to Sparks Joe Mayer, the Stockwell twins and Geno Martini crash our parties. We’ve tried for the Nugget’s once-convention center-later-Trader Dick’s on the north side of B Street in Sparks, but it’s always a pretty popular venue. Anyway, the Sunday Our Voices Column Christmas Party will be a doozy, if and wherever somebody will have us. And make it a good week; buy a kid a warm jacket for the Salvation Army’s barrel and God bless America.

photo El Cortez Hotel Hilary Swift RGJ – 1954 photo Mapes scramble system  uncredited

“Shepherd on the Rocks with a Twist” headlines the men of the Black Bear Diner’s epic Christmas extravaganza…!

six_singers
Once again, the men of the Black Bear Diner, in their ongoing effort to elevate the level of culture in the Truckee Meadows, are hosting a concert at the diner (their names are Carbon, Wassenberg, Kittell, diner owners O’Looney and Mavrides, the Reid/Reed boys Mike and Tom, Duhart, Felesina, Breckenstein, Cloud, Mastos, Lauren House with his incredible tenor voice and Hinxpeeps with his double-bell euphonium), and with any luck at all they may feel the electric thrill that Professor Harold Hill once enjoyed when Gilmour, Liberati, the Great Creatore, Pat Conway, W. C. Handy and John Phillip SOUSA all came to town on the same historic day, with Lida Rose Quackenbush, the only female bassoon player west of River City in tow.
The doors will open at 7 A.M. with the concert beginning an hour later. Parking is available west of the diner, admission is a dollar in advance, and free at the door.
The program shall be:
  • Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice,
          an opera in one unnatural act
  • Fanfare for the Common Cold in Ab Minor*
  • Birthday Ode to “Big Daddy” Bach
  • The Abduction of Figaro, a simply grand opera
  • 1712 Overture (often mistaken for a later work)
  • Toot Suite for calliope, five hands
  • Suite No. 2 for Cello, All by Its Lonesome
  • Perviertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons
  • Shepherd on the Rocks with a Twist
  • Oedipus Tex, and Other Choral Calamities
  • Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion

An element of the concert will be a brief discussion of two Lo Phatmusical events, VanVinikowmoderated by Reno’s own Van Vinikow, Supreme Being of the String Beings, [pictured left] whose string-based ensembles have been enjoyed by many local people for many years. Also on hand will be Wenxiu Wlodarzyk [at right], the director of music history at Manhattan’s prestigious Julliard School, discussing another element of contemporary music.

 Mr. Vinikow will speak of the creation of a musical key, cited above in the popular “Fanfare” and its origin in our own nearby Comstock Lode. The backstory is that Mssrs. SteinwayMackay, Fair, Flood and O’Brien were hosting a fête on the lower stopes of a mine in their lode for which they were lowering a Steinway concert grand piano, purchased only recently at Sherman Clay in San Francisco and brought up Geiger Grade by a team of Clydesdales, into the mine shaft. The cable supporting the piano broke and the piano landed on an unfortunate employee of the mine. Thus the key of Ab Minor came to be known, the key of A flat miner.

Mr. Wlodarzyk will reveal that a recent contest was adjudicated at Julliard, whose rules were that contestants, working in groups, were to write, record and publish the most annoying, repetitive song ever written; a tune which would make people wince in pain when its first few bars were heard, and moreover, a song that would emulate a song three- to five-hundred years old.

TwelveDaysThe names of the student contestants who triumphed were wisely withheld, but the winner, using the term loosely, was held out unanimously to be a groaner titled “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” about which one of its lyricists was heard to exclaim, “Let’s submit this bullshit and see if anyone will ever believe it!”

Regrettably, some took the song seriously and it has achieved a certain amount of notice.

This concert, of course, is also pure B.S. and should not be placed in your “things to do” folder…just funnin’ around

photo credit six singers Richard Termine for The New York Times. some text from The Music Man, other stuff from Peter Shickele