Following several weeks of inclusion in my columns of some bygone swimming holes in Reno, the time is upon us to speak of some events which brought short-lived fame to a couple of Reno youths, at one of the local plunges that we studied, the one at Lawton’s Resort west of Reno.
Our source for this narrative is unimpeachable, and he will be identified at the conclusion of this tale. The story he told follows now, and we here turn back the calendar to 1931. In that year, two years following the Great Depression, my father, Karl the Elder, was graduated from Reno High School. He then, and together with his close friend of equal age who grew up in Tonopah and whose name was Jack Douglass, sought employment here in Reno. They were successful in securing positions as busboys at the popular Lawton’s, who served high-end dinners around poolside during summer evenings.
Jack and Karl worked diligently during those warm summer nights attending to the tables and the swells who patronized Lawton’s restaurant. And, my source reports, that as youthful busboys will do on warm summer nights with soft live music in the background and being called upon to bus cocktail glasses as well as dinner plates and silver, drained the last sip out of the glasses until as the evening hours grew later, they remained albeit quite functional at their task yet were, in a word, pleasantly toasted.
All the while they were working, on Friday and Saturday evenings from early June on, they looked over their shoulders at the magnificent diving tower adjacent to the poolside deck where the dinner tables were placed. A beautiful edifice it was, Mission Revival style, with diving platforms set one meter, three meters, and ten meters – almost 40 feet, above the still water in the pool. Karl – Dad – was a recreational diver of some note, known to be quite adept off the boards of Reno and the rocks surrounding nearby Lake Tahoe. They worked, bussed, sipped, and looked at that tower. All during June and July of 1931.
Early in August, according to my source, they showed up to work in their crisp white shirts and duck trousers, but with a bag containing something in hand. They bussed and sipped and their courage grew with each departing party of diners who hadn’t quite finished their cocktails. During a lull in their duties, they adjudged the time to be perspicacious. They scrambled to the top of the stairs, to the vaunted 10-meter tower. Karl – Dad – whipped off his shirt, shoes and white ducks, down to a bathing suit that he was already wearing. Jack pulled from the brown paper bag a glass bottle of – white gas. A product that we’d call kerosene today. A gallon of white gas. My God, what were they doing?
Jack raised the bottle and as if it had been rehearsed, he dumped a gallon of white gas on Karl, from the shoulders down. And as the last drop of the liquid emptied from the bottle, he took a wooden match and struck it to several places on his friend, who immediately caught fire and emitting an unearthly jungle scream, dove from the platform in what the source described as a perfect swan dive, to the pool below garnering the surprise and admiration of the many diners poolside, who scarcely believed what they had witnessed.
Jack was already back at his labor before his absence had been noticed, and in the confusion and adulation, Karl, who had employed the confusion to leave the pool and return to his clothing, which Jack had scurried down 10 meters of stairs to place by the tower’s access door.
And the buzz started around Reno – did you see the flaming swan dive last night at Lawton’s?, the fine folks all bandied around the town.
That was on a Friday night, early in August as my source told me. Saturday night would be no different. All at dinner, the diners, the wait staff (who had only guessed what might have happened, it all took place so fast then returned to normal so quickly), the others around the pool, were all atwitter about the flaming swan dive.
And just when all poolside least expected it, for no one foresaw it happening again, the night sky was rent by a Tarzan-like howl and all looked to the sky to see a human form falling in a perfect layout swan dive, arms outstretched, legs ending in pointed arches, the shape of all of it masked in a blueish-orange flame that disappeared smoothly into the still body of water.
Yikes! It happened again, and as it was the night before, no one saw Jack exit the tower’s access door, nor Karl rise to the water’s surface, climb out, duck into the tower and return in his crisp white uniform.
Now the town was really buzzing. Two nights in a row. Would it happen again next week? “Let’s go out and have dinner, and see,” quite a few said.
And it did happen again, according to my source, who looking back I’m not sure that he wasn’t party to this hijinks.
The following Friday, which might have been the second weekend in August, and then Saturday, the flaming specter would come flying out of the high platform in mid-evening. And, speculated the source, witnesses were one-by-one starting to catch on – two busboys would disappear, one would beat the other one back to their duties a half-minute ahead of the other, one looked like his hair was still damp – little signals that this was unraveling.
Speculation was also rife that the Laughton family who owned the resort (and finally grew tired of correcting all who spelled it Lawton’s and acceded to the popular spelling) were on the horns of a dilemma. The flaming mystery death-diver, the justification of death unclear, as no one had died, was good for business and making Laughton’s, or Lawton’s, a household word in the valley and causing diners to flock the two miles out the Lincoln Highway to see it happen. However the down-side remained among the grownups that if these shenanigans continued unabated, with the assumption that they were being conducted by youthful busboys (who of course denied any involvement), that a diner was going to get conked on the head by a falling busboy or that a busboy was going to wind up alive and medium-well.
As all good things must, the Famous Flying Flaming Death-Dive came to its end, on what most remember as the third weekend of its world premiere, most say a Saturday (I cited one source to be named soon, but as I was still a bit incredulous about it I spoke to others of his vintage and they substantially confirmed that it was mostly true, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so to speak.) The consensus was, or is, that the management of Lawton’s raised hell with all possible divers on a Friday night but not quite enough, and the Flaming Swan Dive again occurred to the great applause of the diners. Alas on Saturday, good sense overtook the raising hell and threatening, and someone simply locked the door to the tower, effectively bringing down the curtain on this chapter of early entertainment in Reno, improving the quality of table-bussing at Lawton’s, and preserving the local supply of white gas. And I would presume that Karl the Elder and Jack covertly raised a toast to each other with a couple of leftover cocktails.
My source for this information I’ll now reveal, was a classmate of my dad’s, who most of us knew and thought the world of, Ralph Menante, yes, the Goodyear tire guy. My dad, Karl the Elder, died in 1971, curiously in a swimming pool, not of self-immolation but rather by high-voltage. Ralph lived on for many years, and recalled this tale to me in the years to follow. I followed up with others who knew him, and yup, it’s (mostly) true. Dad and Jack Douglass (and my uncle John) shipped out a couple years later as oilers on an American President Lines steamer and from accounts of that trip one wonders how we still have an embassy in their ports of call, China, the Phillipines, Guam and the Hawai’ian Islands. Jack would later be regarded as one of the more popular and successful men in the gaming community, with ownership interests in the Comstock and Cal-Neva. He mentions my dad liberally in his book Tap Dancing on Ice, published in 1997 by the University of Nevada Oral History Program.
And that’s the way it was, two miles west of Reno, in 1931.
© Karl Breckenridge 2015