Of myths and men

Jack Douglass, one of the last old-time gambling pioneers in Reno—a contemporary of Bill Harrah and Charles Mapes—died on Jan. 16

Jack Douglass and the hawk that he rescued, Sally. Though often untethered after the healing of a broken wing, Sally didn’t leave Douglass’ back yard for the remainder of her life—15 years.

Jack Douglass and the hawk that he rescued, Sally. Though often untethered after the healing of a broken wing, Sally didn’t leave Douglass’ back yard for the remainder of her life—15 years.

A hundred years of solitude in the desert brings mountains of gold, not ice. Gold is more magical than ice, more elusive. It requires rivers of chemicals to wrap themselves around the flecks and nuggets, prying the gold loose from its family of surrounding minerals, breaking the bond that nature insisted made sense.

Like ice, gold has a miraculous quality. Gold holds the eye and the imagination. Gold is next to God. We wear it on our bodies in the same fashion that we claim to have God in our hearts. Ice never fared so well in our imaginations. It is the antithesis of gold, a sign that prosperity has died, that love has fallen on barren ground and inhospitable times. Ice is winter, death. We have learned to fear ice for its inevitability in our lives.

After weeks of unusually warm weather, winter finally arrived this morning. I awoke to ice on the windows and the news that my grandfather, Jack Douglass, had died at the age of 91. Jack was one of the last of the old casino men, an original owner of the Cal-Neva and Comstock in Reno and the Maxim Casino in Las Vegas. His life was a testimony to Nevada’s mania for gold. Like others of his tribe, he migrated to Reno from Tonopah in search of the opportunities an old mining town could no longer offer.

As all Nevadans know, a good myth trumps history as surely as a full house beats three of a kind. It is hard for me to discern between the actual events that made Jack who he was—father, successful but sometimes ruthless businessman, a devout if at times less than consistent Catholic—and the mythical events that made him seem bigger than life. Here was a man who knew Charles Mapes and Bill Harrah, who hired Liberace before the sequined outfits defined the musician, who bought out Sinatra when the singer lost his license for mob ties. Myth or history? The difference between the two is not so great in the making of an old-time Nevada man. Our lives are fueled by myths, of the good old days and of the next big rush in the hills, the boom and bust mentality that migrates casually around the state rejuvenating mining towns and old casinos.

Much to my parents’ dismay, Jack introduced me to gold at a young age. He taught me how to play craps when I was 6, which led to me bilking the neighborhood kids out of their spare change. My parents made me take the money back and apologize to their parents, but the lesson was learned. There was gold in those metaphorical hills, and the smart money was on the girl who struck out, made her mark.

I owe Jack for that, although I have never dared to throw dice again. Jack’s world made sense to me as a child because it was a world filled with games and sounds. His casinos were an adult Disneyland, and I got to be there. I would visit him as he walked the floor of the Cal-Neva and Comstock, his daily ritual of checking on his employees. I grew up listening to his stories, charming in the extreme, full of Irish humor, in concert with the background noise of coins falling into the trays of the lucky few.

But I knew that we were the lucky ones—my family, Jack’s clan. We were the ones mining that week’s gold from the machines. Even as a child I understood that the house inevitably won, at least until the gold ran out, until one hundred years came to an end, until the day when ice returned, magically and tragically, to announce the start of another one hundred years.

The Douglass family has always lived by chance. Jack’s father, Billy Douglass, was born in Virginia City soon after the Civil War. The story goes—myth making more sense in these matters than any historian’s evidence to the contrary—that Billy moved to Tonopah to mine gold. A hundred years later, I find myself at Paradise Peak, an abandoned gold mine, staring into the inevitable pit of Billy’s labor—a gaping hole in the earth, an environmental catastrophe. Billy probably never set foot in this part of Nevada. His claims to the world and wealth occurred farther south where he owned the Spider and Wasp Mine. But this abandoned pit is part of that mining legacy, even as it is my birthright and my heritage. Neither one of us can escape our complicity in its making, in its persistence.

My great-grandfather’s quest for gold established my family in this Nevada desert some hundred years ago. Jack’s foresight allowed us to shift from weighing ounces in the shrinking pink and orange light of a desert sunset to counting nickels and quarters as they fell into our open hands beneath the artificial lights of casino pits. From a gaping hole in the earth to the enclosed pit of the casino floor, prosperity connects me to the past and conscience ties me to the present.

What I know is that Paradise has a way of migrating in this state because money begets money, and opportunity, even for those who do not want to admit it, comes with the exploration of Paradise. And yet, as I look along the Truckee and consider the cluster of closed casinos along the riverbanks, dark and lifeless, it is hard to imagine when, or even if, Paradise will come again, hard not to see that another light has gone out on the strip with Jack’s death, another old-timer relegated to Nevada’s mythical past of family-run casinos.

One hundred years have passed, and my generation is left with memory and myth. I know that we need to rethink the value of gold and the necessity of ice because our grandparents and parents never did. Gold is harder to come by and myths harder to believe. Gold is no longer next to God in our pantheon of ideas. The rural counties have paid the terrible price for its extraction even as the dark lights of downtown Reno suggest the human cost of its pursuit. It is time to change our goals, rethink what myths will drive our collective lives for the next one hundred years. Ice is life, although poets have never understood it to be so. We should mine ice because its atomic bonds give way, with little assistance, to water, and water is the currency of our sustainable future. And we should remind our children that the water of the Truckee came from ice, even as it inevitably turns to ice, and from this cycle comes history.

And finally, we should remind our children that the smart money is on the boy or girl who strikes out and makes a claim to a special place in the world, and that gold need not define that place so much as the continuity of time and the mythical spirits of those who came before us.

This is an excerpt from a longer essay by Reno author Ana Douglass, an English professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. The life history of her grandfather, Jack Douglass, Tap Dancing on Ice, was recently published by the Nevada Oral History Project.