A little Laxalt history
1926, Mom, brother Bob (who had been born in the sheep camp days in Alturas, California) and I became full-fledged residents of Carson City, Nevada.
It was the smallest capital in the country, with a population of a little more than 1,000 people, almost all of whom were dependent on state government.
Pop, who never really enjoyed “living inside” – as he called town life – stayed in the hills herding sheep. Occasionally, he came to town, which, over the course of a few years, accounted for the Laxalt family increase from two to six kids.
Lest the reader think the “Hotel” was of Bellagio proportions, it wasn’t. It consisted of a two-floored wooden structure, a virtual firetrap, which had been built in the 1870s during the Comstock Lode gold and silver rush. It was, as I recall, about 40 feet wide and 100 feet long. The ground floor was divided in half lengthwise. On one side was the dining room and kitchen. On the other, the bar.
In the back were our living quarters, in an area no more than 30 by 40 feet. On the second floor were a half dozen small rooms, all served by one bathroom. Sheepherders, Virginia & Truckee Railroad employees and highway department workers were our main patrons.
Mom somehow managed to raise us, working 16 to 18 hours a day.
The “French Hotel” was an instant success. Mom was a fabulous cook, and word of her culinary skills spread rapidly through the area. It was truly a family enterprise. As soon as we kids were old enough, we worked in the kitchen, served in the dining room and bar and kept the upstairs in livable condition (although I don’t recall “turned down” beds to be part of the service).
Meals were served family style at long rectangular tables. There were no preferred places. As soon as the bell rang, the rush for seats began. Nor did it make any difference what position you might have in the community, the state or country – save for one, the Honorable Pat McCarran, Nevada’s senior United States Senator.
Senator McCarran was like a deity in our household. The fact that he was a man of international renown and highly controversial in some circles was of no moment when compared to his real achievement: He was the champion of young Basque sheepherders immigrating to the U.S. At a time when his powerful voice was closing the door to many newcomers, he kept the “Basque door” wide open.
This led later to an ironic political development for me. When I became interested in politics, I found that most every Basque in the West was a registered Democrat. Some cynics suggested that a McCarran condition for entry to the U.S. by a Basque was that he become a Democrat. So now what about Pop, a staunch Republican? He was “pre-McCarran.”
On those rare days when the Senator would grace our table, he would hold court while he spoke at length (helped a bit by our good bourbon) on subjects that hardly anyone in Carson City knew or cared about. Yet, he always sounded so good, and he was so well-informed that his audience listened raptly to everything he said.
We had other political figures in from time to time, and whenever “brandy time” came, the political discussions started.
Those occasions may have been the awakening of my political interest … sort of a process of “osmosis.”
Eventually, Pop decided to leave the range and move to Carson City.
What a tough decision that must have been for him! Most all his life, Pop had been an “outdoorsman” with no walls to confine him, no roof to hide the sky. He must have keenly felt that Mom was working too hard, and the time had come for him to give up his beloved sheep and help out.
People told me later that he fit in well – for awhile. He was very good with people. Everyone loved Dominique. And we kids loved having a full-time Pop.
But, as time passed, he felt increasingly trapped. Inside life simply wasn’t for him.
One day it all came to the surface in a violent way. And I was there to witness it all as a young boy.
Most every small town has its bully. At least it seemed so in those days. In Carson , the town bully was a big, strapping Irishman whom everyone tried to avoid, particularly when he was boozing.
One evening, unfortunately for him, he wandered into the French Hotel “three sheets to the wind.” That was his first mistake. Mom was tending bar that night with Pop playing cards at a nearby table with some of his Basque pals.
I don’t know what “Irish” said to Mom, but whatever it was, it was his next mistake. Pop overheard something that he thought was insulting and like a switch flipping on, he went into a white-hot rage.
I was next door cleaning up the dining room when all hell broke loose. I ran into the bar and saw Pop beating and kicking “Irish” unmercifully. Before he knew it, and probably to his complete relief, “Irish” found himself in the middle of Carson Street, his pride badly damaged, but at least he was alive. He never darkened the door of the French Hotel again.
The only other time I saw Pop lose his cool was a few years later when he and I were riding our sheep range together. Suddenly, we observed a huge band of sheep on our range that shouldn’t have been there. Herding them was a young man who had no idea what deep trouble he was in.
As soon as Pop spotted him, he spurred his horse into a gallop, with me trailing behind. Before I knew it, he was off his horse, his face and eyes blazing, with his trusty 30-30 rifle in hand heading straight for the young man. I almost passed away on the spot. So did the herder. In no uncertain terms, he was advised to “get the god damn hell off my range … now!” In record time, the young man was gone with his sheep, never to trespass Dominique’s range again.
Lest the reader gain the impression that Pop was some kind of brutish animal given to frequent temper tantrums, he was anything but that.
He was soft-spoken, gentle and loved people. Above all, he loved to talk to them – at length. Often I would accompany him to Reno and would wait seemingly forever for him to say goodbye to his friends. Reflecting on this, I think he was making up time for those lonely years when he had no one but his dog and donkey to talk to.
Despite the fact that he was away so often, he was a good father. I don’t recall him ever saying that he loved us. Had he done so, I am sure that we would have been embarrassed. He displayed his care for us in other ways. We always knew he was there. We also knew that we should never “sass” him. We wouldn’t dare think about showing disrespect to either of our parents. They didn’t demand respect; they commanded it by their innate dignity and example. Besides, “Irish’s” experience was always buried not to deeply in our consciousness.
Pop was one of the most curious people I’ve known. His appetite for knowledge was insatiable. Each time I took provisions to him at his sheep camp, his first question was how many newspapers and magazines had I brought with me. He had a fourth-grade education, yet spoke several languages and was fully conversant with public affairs. What a career he might have had if he had been exposed to a full education.
Despite his love of people, Pop hated social events if they were the least bit formal. He loved sitting in a Basque hotel, drinking wine and jawboning with his friends.
But birthdays, graduations, weddings, baptisms … forget it. When any such thing loomed on the calendar, he simply disappeared.
He even ducked my inauguration as Governor.
When I asked him to attend – not so much for me, but for the family and the people of the State – he simply and firmly said, “No.”
It was only after sensitive negotiations, headed by brother Robert, that he reluctantly agreed to a compromise. He would attend if it was “private.” So, we family members – with a few close friends, and nine other recently-elected state officials – ended up in the Supreme Court of Nevada with Chief Justice Gordon Thompson administering the oath and Dominique Laxalt as the principal witness.
Poor Pop! If he hated two groups in the world, they were lawyers and politicians. And here his eldest son had turned his back on the sheep business and became both a lawyer and a politician!
On the other hand, he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about my shepherding abilities. He often said later that he’d sent me to law school in self-defense; for each time I tended the flock alone, I’d lose at least a hundred sheep.
We grew up exposed to foreign languages. French, Basque, Italian and Spanish were used almost interchangeably with English. By the time I went to school, I was a linguist of sorts, but my knowledge of English left much to be desired. That led to my being teased by my “American” classmates, which in turn led to my addressing that problem head on with my fists. After a couple of victories – first-grade style – the criticism waned, then stopped.
I’ve watched with interest the efforts of certain minority groups to establish “bilingual rights” in America. They wouldn’t have had any support from Momma Laxalt. From the time we started school, we Laxalts spoke only English. She felt strongly that if her children were to live in America and enjoy its benefits, it was essential that we make an all-out effort to speak English.
Since that time, I have had occasion to wish we had kept up our other languages as well. Many times in Europe, particularly in France, the Basque Country, Spain and Italy, I’ve yearned to be able to speak the native language. To speak through another diminishes the quality and intensity of the conversation. Until I went to school, I had a conversational knowledge of each, but over the years, alas, I’ve lost it.
School in Carson City consisted of the usual 12 grades, but all 12 were housed in one building! It was just three blocks from home. When I see the difficulty these days that my grandchildren have in just getting to school, I hearken back to our “good old days” when school was three short blocks from home.
Our class, which averaged about 30 students, went to school in that same building for 11 years, all the way from the ground floor to the second floor as “mighty” juniors.
In 1937, the school board decided to open a new high school a couple of blocks up the street. I remember our first visit to our new school. For us athletes, the high point was a new gym that could seat as many as 500 people. No longer would we have to play in the old armory across town, which had long since outlived its usefulness.
If I were to describe my school in those days from my present perspective, I would use the words “stability and constancy.” The teachers often spent their entire careers teaching the same grade in the same school. They taught traditional subjects in the traditional style. Reading, writing and arithmetic and various thereof, were the order of the day.
Whatever those old-timers did served us well. In later years, at the university, in law school, and later in professional life, we Laxalts were always able to compete. Our early training in English under a young teacher named Grace Bordewich was invaluable. My brother Bob, the writer, would be the first to credit Grace for spawning his later career as an author.
In the 1930s, Carson City proclaimed itself “the smallest capital in the world.” And it was! In those days, its population was a little more than a thousand people.
Since it was the seat of government where the Capitol and various state buildings were located, most of the residents were directly or indirectly connected to the state government. A large percentage from Carson High took state jobs after they graduated. Most then served until they retired. Many never left the Carson City area.
Looking back, life was so simple in those days. Perhaps too simple. As in all small towns, the general lament among the young was, “I can hardly wait to get out of this one-horse town.”
Horizons were very limited. So was access to outside information. There was no television. I don’t recall any of the news magazines or any discussion about them. Certainly, no one had heard of The New York Times or The Washington Post.
If we wanted to find out what was going on in the outside world, information had to be gleaned from “Movietone News,” “Current Events,” at school or from our radios. In any case, living in an informational wasteland didn’t bother us any. We really didn’t give a damn what happened outside of Carson City. It was pretty much our whole world.
Even though it was the state capital, Carson City had few paved streets. Carson Street, the main drag, was paved and had diagonal parking. In the early days, we had bike races on Carson Street. Any motorist who interrupted them was greeted with contempt.
We had one movie house, The Carson Theater. Admission: 25 cents. It was there that I first succumbed to hero worship, consisting mainly of Western stars such as Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hopalong Casidy and Roy Rogers. I don’t remember any women making the list, mainly, I’m sure, because they seemed so remote and unattainable. What in the world would a kid from Carson City do with a fancily dressed, bejeweled beauty who wanted to dine at “21” in New York City?
When I was 15, I became a golf caddy at Glenbrook, Lake Tahoe, a bastion of “old wealth.” For me, it was a new world hearing wealthy golfers talk about strangers such as Hitler and Mussolini, and what a “son-of-a-bitch” President Roosevelt was.
It was also at Glenbrook that I had the great fortune of playing tennis with Helen Wills Moody, one of the greatest women tennis players of all time. During her illustrious career, she won 31 major titles, including eight Wimbledon and seven U.S. Open singles titles.
In 1937, Mrs. Moody had come to Glenbrook to establish residence for a Nevada divorce. She asked the locals for some names of people with whom she might practice. Since I had just won a junior tournament, I was recommended.
For several weeks, I had the privilege of playing almost daily with Mrs. Moody. As a result, she completely overhauled my tennis game, and I went on to play in high school and college – and still enjoy playing competitively to this day.
Life at Home
After a few years of living in the back of the hotel, Momma Laxalt decided to buy a house at 402 North Minnesota Street. As I remember, it cost about $3,000. It had some historical significance, which was lost on me as a child and remains so now.
Compared to our cramped quarters in the hotel, the house seemed immense. It had a huge living room adjoining an equally large dining room, which in later years proved to be the center for family get-togethers. We also “brought in” the 1962 Lieutenant Governor, 1964 Senate and 1966 Governor races in those rooms.
The house was short of bedrooms for our brood. Two bedrooms didn’t do it. Mom solved the problem by having a screen porch attached to the back of the house. This became a dorm of sorts for us four boys. Great in the summer, but a killer in the winter. Considering there were no windows, only screens, sleeping out there was quit a challenge – or so it seems in retrospect. Yet we youngsters didn’t think it was any big deal.
Our home was across the street from Judge Clark Guild’s stately house, replete with turrets. The neighborhood was in what is now the heart of the historical district with large frame houses with porches, most of which were built in the late 19th Century. The location couldn’t have been better: three blocks from school and church, four blocks from downtown, four blocks to an open pasture of ranches to the west of Carson where we could roam wild and free from the stress and tension of “city life.”
When I have told my children and later my grandchildren how we fared under Theresa “The Warden” Laxalt, I’ve had the impression they thought I was spinning tall tales.
She was the unquestioned “boss.” Pop was making his family contribution by herding sheep in some distant range. It was Mom’s responsibility to raise six kids.
And raise us she did … in “old country” fashion. There were no guests for dinner. Certainly no overnight guests. Come to think of it, I don’t recall in the years I was in school staying overnight at any house.
Mom subscribed to the early-to-bed early-to-rise school of thought. This was just as well, for there wasn’t much to do at night except listen to the radio (such shows as “The Shadow” and “Jack Armstrong,” which were over early in any case).
There were no disciplinary problems in our house, at least none that I recall. There were no problems because no one would dare challenge Mom. Her word was the absolute law. There certainly weren’t any “Come, let us reason together” sessions. She didn’t believe in democracy when it came to family matters.
Her administration was an iron-handed dictatorship with no semblance of “due process.” Authority was to be respected, never challenged, whether in school, in church or at home. I suppose that in these so-called enlightened days of parenting, her approach would be regarded as harsh and outdated. I won’t discuss that here, but I do know that Mom’s hard-line approach worked.
Mom was intensely religious. We lived only a short distance from St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, which was like a second home.
The church was presided over by Monsingor Henry J. Wientjes, a Dutch priest who served his parishioners in Carson City unselfishly for 24 years until his retirement in 1959.
He believed that parishioners should carry their share by contributing handsomely to his many collections. Realizing that some might need a little nudge once in a while, he would on certain occasions read the contributions from his pulpit. As kids, we were always proud to see Mom top the list with a contribution of $10.
As the eldest, I was quickly drafted by Monsingor and Mom to be an altar boy. In the winter, I also served the Lord as the “furnace man” by lighting the church furnace at three or four in the morning. That duty, as much as anything, tested my faith in the Roman Catholic Church.
I did my work so well that by the time I was about 14, Monsingor and Mom conspired that I should become a priest. They wanted to send me to seminary in California the next fall.
Now, I didn’t mind being an altar boy or even the “furnace man,” but becoming a priest was going too far, in my opinion.
A few days before my dreaded departure for the seminary, I really started to feel “the noose tightening.” Going to Mom and Monsingor would, I was sure, be a waste of time. They weren’t about to thwart “God’s will.” So, I went to Pop, who fortunately was home from the hills.
Never had I gone to him to “appeal” any decision of Mom’s. Because his work with the sheep kept him away from home so much, he simply didn’t intrude and backed Mom completely when it came to family decisions.
“Pop,” I said, “Mom and Monsingor want me to go to a school in California to become a priest. I know that it would be an honor for the family, but I don’t think I’m cut out to be a priest. Do I have to go?”
He said, “No, you don’t, Paul. It would be wrong for you, and the church, if you haven’t been called. Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to Momma.”
He did – and the idea never surfaced again.
Mom never held it against me, but Monsingor was different. He was decidedly cool toward me for awhile, but eventually he got over it. He probably figured that the church’s loss was his gain. After all, how would he find such a highly-qualified “furnace man?”
I didn’t know until much later that the recruiting of new priests had extended to Reno. There, Maurice Welsh agreed to go to the seminary and later became an excellent priest. He took great delight in telling people in later years: “And there I was at the train station waiting to go to the seminary in California with Paul Laxalt. But he never showed!”
I’ll never know what seminary life was like, but life at Carson High School couldn’t have been more enjoyable.
In 1937, our class was the first to go into the new high school. In addition to new classrooms, we had a brand new gym and a football field – with grass, no less.
From the time we were able to throw a ball, each of us Laxalt boys loved athletics. Name the sport, we tried it. We boxed, played basketball, football and even indulged in track. Later, we became golf and tennis addicts.
In the winter, when we were small, we often moved the furniture in the living room to the walls so we could play a game of indoor football. I’ve often thought how patient Mom was for allowing her living room to be turned into a gridiron. As a father, I doubt I would have!
Of all the sports, basketball was the most popular in Carson City. I’ve heard about Indiana high school basketball being a “religion,” but it couldn’t have been more important to a community than it was to Carson City.
We were blessed with a coach, George McElroy, who could motivate youngsters better than anyone else I’ve ever met. Quiet and soft-spoken, he nonetheless was a strict disciplinarian. In the 1930s, little Carson High School was the team to beat in all of Nevada. During one period, Coach McElroy led Carson to three straight state championships. I was honored to play on the 1938 championship team.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to be a part of many momentous and exciting events. But nothing will ever match the sheer joy and excitement of the evening we won it all. The fans, the cheerleaders, our teammates – all of us screamed our lungs out. Even Coach “Mac” managed a wan smile. And to top it all off, Momma Laxalt enjoyed every minute of it – and was she ever proud!
Graduating from high school and going to college was so much easier then than it is now. Although Santa Clara was a top school, all it took to get me in was a presentable transcript, a “sign off” by Monsingor Wientjes, plus a trip with Momma Laxalt to Union Federal Savings to float a loan of $500 for my first year’s expenses.
Now, after recently going through the experience with my grandson, Adam – entrance exams, interviews, endorsements by prominent alumni – I pined for those “good old days.”
We never thought about it much then, but the education we Laxalts received at Carson High must have been a very good one. Later, we went to prime colleges throughout the country. We all owe our teachers like Grace Bordewich and Coach McElroy a huge debt of gratitude.