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In those days, a restroom was known as a water closet. It derived its name from a wooden tank of water attached to the wall with a chain dangling from it. When one pulled the chain, the tank would empty with a roar of water that flushed the toilet.
My first memory is of being perched on my mother's knee when we were hiding in a water closet.
My mother was saying her rosary and admonishing my three brothers and two sisters and me not to shuffle our feet or talk above a whisper because the prohis were about. It was Prohibition time, and there was a quart of whiskey concealed in the water closet. We could hear the prohis walking in impolite steps on the wooden floor of the long dining room. The memory frightens me in my dreams to this day.
Nothing came of the incident that I can recall. The prohis, or prohibition agents, left, and in a little while, my mother went back to her kitchen and we children went out in the backyard to play.
I suppose this made us bootleggers, but hardly in the league of Al Capone and Joe Kennedy, who operated in grand style with fleets of trucks loaded with Scotch whiskey instead of poor man's bourbon.
They had hundreds of cases of whiskey. We had one case of twelve bottles at a time for the boarders in our little four-bedroom hotel and the customers who came for dinner.
Being bootleggers put us in a lower social standing, though I never could make the distinction between our serving whiskey and those who bought it—including the occupants of the Governor's Mansion and the opulent homes of supreme court justices.
We paid the penalty for it when our schoolmates called us bootleggers in accusatory tones that were a mark of shame. These were the children of men who had drunk away their money in the saloon. Whenever this happened, I would blanch as the color left my face, and I bowed my head like a criminal. I was spared insult, though, by the son of the minister, who simply looked at me querulously, as if to say, "How could you sell whiskey?" I don't know which penalty was worse. Though I had to be loyal to my parents, I never could understand in the early days how they could inflict such shame upon me.
The answer came clear later on, when I learned that my father was forced into bootlegging by the livestock depression that preceded the big one. My father had been rich in sheep and cattle and ranches when the crash came. Like most of the farmers and ranchers in the United States, he lost nearly everything. Even then, he could have survived the crash were it not for a winter of paralyzing cold that froze more that two thousand ewes and lambs to death in the northern deserts. All that he had left from the rich days was a big car.
Jobs being hard to come by in the Depression, he wandered from ranch to ranch in Nevada and northern California taking what work there was. We were living in a brown board shack with a dirt floor in the ghost town of Bodie near the California state line when my mother decided that she had had enough of hard times. She had saved one hundred dollars from cooking on ranches during my father's wandering days from ranch to ranch. She heard through the Basque grapevine that a little boardinghouse hotel of four bedrooms, a dining room, and a saloon was for sale in Carson City, Nevada, and promptly put her one hundred dollars down on it. Thus our move from a ramshackle ghost town to the state capital in Carson City.
Things looked promising for a while by reason of her cooking. She had actually studied at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. People came to sample her cooking, but it was not enough. Unless one served whiskey and wine with dinner, people went elsewhere.
I remember one night when my father accosted the sheriff on the street and asked him why he was sending visitors to Carson City to another little hotel like ours for dinner. The sheriff said that the visitors wanted a drink before dinner and wine with dinner, so he had no choice but to send them to the other hotel.
That was the night when my father decided to go into bootlegging. Contacting suppliers among the immigrant Italians and the Basques was no problem. They had stills for making whiskey and vats to make wine.
Deliveries were made at night. I went with my father one night to an arranged location on the highway between Carson City and Reno, thirty miles away. It was a black, black night, and the only lights were at faraway ranches in Washoe Valley. A man named Nikolas hoisted a couple of cases of whiskey and some kegs of wine from his truck to my father's spacious Nash. My father paid him in cash, and we went back to Carson City.
It's said that children's characters are shaped in part by the company their parents keep. If that is so, our personalities had a treasure trove to draw from. Customers at the hotel were living lessons for us. There was Old Vic, a prospector who lived in a shack between Carson and the Sierra, where his mine was located. Old Vic was always on the verge of finding a fortune, but it eluded him. Nevertheless, he never gave up hope. He managed to glean enough dust and tiny nuggets to keep himself alive. The big lode was always just around the corner. He was never defeated. As long as he found enough gold to keep himself in food and booze, he was happy. He taught me that a man doesn't need riches to be content with life.
Mizoo was a tall, rawboned cowboy who broke and sold mustangs that he caught in the hills. He was a master at telling tall tales about his exploits, and at charging his drinks. My mother wanted to cut off his credit, but Mizoo's stories at the long dinner table managed to entertain customers. We learned that the gift of gab can make up for hard cash in this world.
Then there were the politicians who came in after work for a shot or two of whiskey. For the most part, they paid for their booze, but even if they didn't, my mother calculated that their political influence in Prohibition times was worth the price. They were name-droppers all, of governors and senators and congressmen, and we learned that it was not what you knew that counted, but whom you knew. It was a lasting lesson.
The repeal of Prohibition ended the bootlegging era of our lives. My mother bought a home in the best part of Carson City, and my father bought a band of sheep and a truck and went back to his true calling.
When he did this, he thrust upon us as children the appellation of sheepherder, which also was not very high on the social scale. Again, I paid for it with the names and jokes inflicted upon me by my schoolmates. Though the sheep business went a long way in feeding and housing our family, I was again not grateful. It seemed to me that my parents were dead bent on humiliating me in this life. Nevertheless, I had to live with it. This was the beginning of our family's sheepherding days.
Excerpted from Travels with My Royal by Robert Laxalt. Copyright © 2001 by Robert Laxalt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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