Late one night in 1971 or maybe ‘72, my Uncle Ray and I rolled into Vegas on our way to my uncle’s dairy farm in Northern Minnesota from the seaside community of Corona del Mar in Orange County where my mother and her new husband had recently moved. Pulling into the Frontier Hotel and Casino on the Strip, we parked in a dark corner at the edge of the outdoor parking lot. Nowadays, of course, if we'd wanted to gamble, we could have simply used our Ladrokes Mobile App for Android and used our cellphones to make money.
The big orange and white Dodge camper van my stepfather had loaned us for the trip had one large bed up top and two couches that converted into narrower beds below. We’d gotten a late start out of Southern California after the going-away party my Mom had thrown for her oldest brother, so we originally thought we’d sleep a few hours. Then refreshed, we’d have breakfast at dawn in the hotel or in a restaurant nearby, before heading up through Utah and Colorado.
But neither of us had ever visited Vegas and the lights of the low-slung casino and its flashing sign were calling to us. We’d both tanked up on coffee on the long drive through the Mojave Desert and neither of us felt much like sleeping. So we decided the least we could do is go inside, use the men’s room and just see what there was to see.
We’d picked the Frontier for its Western flair. Uncle Ray had been a lifelong farmer, taking over the family farm from his dad, like me also named Raymond, and raising a small herd of beef cattle to supplement what he scraped out from milking his 30 Holstein dairy cows. He hadn’t kept horses on the farm since he was a young man—long before I was even born—and even though he wore work boots and a train engineer’s blue and white striped cap rather than a Stetson and cowboy boots, he was plenty close enough to being a cowboy. Plus, we had cousins and uncles and other close relatives who actually were or had been cowboys in the Dakotas.
By then, the Frontier had gone through several name changes and a handful of owners since it was built in 1942—the second casino on the Strip—and reputedly was secretly owned by Detroit mobsters. It had hosted Elvis Presley’s first Vegas appearance in 1956 and Diana Ross’s final performance as a Supreme in 1970, a year or two before we stopped through.
But at maybe 3 a.m. on a Monday or Tuesday midsummer night, the casino was a sleepy affair—nothing like the grand multistory marble and glass meccas that would replace it in time. Coming through the automatic doors, gusts of stale cigarette smoke made our eyes water. Only a handful of what looked to be retired folks were playing the slots, the tinkling and whirring of the machines a novelty to us then.
Ray would play endless hours of cards with whatever guests or family or helpers might be visiting. Bridge, buck euchre, spades, hearts, and Yahtzee were big favorites, but blackjack was the one we all looked forward to.
We made our way quickly through the rows of slot machines to the gaming floor. Neither of us knew much about roulette or craps, so we found ourselves soon enough at the single $2 blackjack table that was lit and ready for use.
Now, blackjack we knew. During the long Minnesota winters, between treks down to the barn to milk his cows and muck out the stalls, Ray would play endless hours of cards with whatever guests or family or helpers might be visiting. Bridge, buck euchre, spades, hearts, and Yahtzee were big favorites, but blackjack was the one we all looked forward to.
Uncle Ray kept a big Mason jar full of coins we would divide up to gamble. Even though the night’s big winner might win only two dollars in coins, we all learned to play along and pretend the pennies we were betting each hand actually meant something.
Our first dealer that night was a young man, probably only a few years older than me—I was just 22 or 23 then, fresh out of the army, recently back from my stint in Vietnam. He had a sunken chest but the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. He greeted us warmly enough, but you could tell he wasn’t looking forward to taking money from a big-knuckled farmer and a wild-eyed kid.
We put out our first two dollar minimum bets. Ray drew a pair of eights, which he knew he should promptly split, drawing a ten and a king. I drew an ace and a jack—blackjack! The dealer busted at fifteen and we were on our way.
Someone had given Ray a little blackjack guide that we had both studied, so we both had the basic strategy for when to split pairs and when to double down. The first dealer seemed to enjoy our first victories and informed play.
A few hands later, I doubled down a couple times in a row, both times having eight count, both times with the dealer showing a six. The first time I drew a face card and the second time a three—but the dealer busted both times. And the night went that way, almost as though the casino was planting the seed in us to bring us back to the table.
We played until dawn, maybe three hours, and each of us were up $40, sticking resolutely to our minimum $2 bets. Our third and last dealer was a lovely Eurasian woman—Han Chinese from the Cholon District in Saigon, she told us. I would have kept playing just to watch her deal and try to flirt, but my uncle was hungry and her shift was over.
After tipping Lily—that was her name—$5 each and having a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, several cups of coffee, and, oh what the heck, a piece of apple pie ala mode, we were still $30 ahead each—big money to low rollers like us. So, as Uncle Ray and I got back on the road, we congratulated ourselves for being big winners our first time in Vegas—and the last time either of us would visit again for a quarter century.