Monday, April 9, 2012

"I Love To Drink and Gamble"

The first time I ever laid eyes on Butte, Montana... I fell in love. It was the summer of '68. I was nearly 8 years old.

Butte is the coolest, most historic mining town in the western United States. It's like a giant museum. The architecture is fantastic, the brick walls of uptown Butte still have 120 year old ads painted on them.

Moving to Butte as a child was like going to the big city. I was simply in awe. There were these strange "head frames" everywhere. Giant black and iron megaliths dotting the hillside. There were at least 50 of them. Head frames that lifted men, cages, and ore out of subterranean tunnels more than a mile deep. I think of them as "iron angels." They kind of haunt me still.

The city streets were absolutely packed with cars and pedestrians, businesses flourished. Bars were filled shoulder to shoulder and seemingly around the clock. There were miners everywhere. Butte was the epitome of a mining camp in every way, shape, and form. Butte had hundreds of bars, watering holes like the Acoma, the M and M, the Helsinki Club. People gambled in every tavern but the standout was always the M and M. Punch boards, pinball, slot machines, poker. Whore houses nearby on Mercury St. All of that was supposed to be illegal in Montana- and as I look back on that formative part of my life- maybe I dreamt it. I wonder now if I can tell the true from the false.

I had my first drink at 11. That was perfectly normal and acceptable in Butte. I learned to play poker that year. I also learned to play golf and shoot pool. By the age of 12, I was chewing tobacco, swearing regularly, and gambling. That's just how it was back then. We hustled everyone we could. Evel Kneivel was a big deal. His son Robbie and I were friends. About the time Evel Kneivel reached his zenith- copper prices plunged. The Butte economy plunged as well. My family was forced to leave Butte. I have missed it my entire life. I often wonder how differently things might have been had I stayed.

So out of that nebulous cloud that was Butte, came a young man that loved to drink and gamble. I chewed mostly and cursed a lot too. And for a brief time in my life, a little over a year in 1988, I met Bill Smith and played cards with him often- in Las Vegas.

Most folks, even a few professional poker players, don't know who Bill Smith is. Bill was a gentleman and although he had won the World Series of Poker- he played in a cheap 4-8 game at the Gold Coast Casino. I played with him many, many times. After a few beers, Bill was a force to be reckoned with. In fact, Bill was often unbeatable. And since I knew him well, I cannot argue at all with this wikipedia entry about Bill Smith.

Bill Smith

Hometown: Los Angeles
Country of Origin: United States UNITED STATES
Bill Smith

Bill would drink beer and smoke cigarettes for hours. He frequently had a gal with him but I don't think they were married. I never saw him get angry. Somebody once asked Bill Smith what he liked to do best. He replied unashamedly, "I love to drink and gamble." The problem with all that drinking, gambling, smoking, sitting, and late hours is that it kills you. Bill Smith, one of my heroes, died at the ripe old age of 62. That was a shame. 

I still love to drink and gamble. I just don't do it anymore. It's a zero sum game and in the end- those bad habits come and reel you in. Maybe that's the lesson guys like Bill teach us.

I take all those lessons and all that history with me now.

Later on this month, I am hoping to return to Butte. I love to wander amidst the ruin and decay that spawned the misadventures of my youth. I see the ghosts in places like Hennessey's Department Store- and the old YMCA. I have a writing project to start and finish. I can't think of any better, more inspiring place than Butte. It always feels like home.

More photos. The last whorehouse. The Dumas Brothel. Shuttered in 1983.

Butte - The Dumas Brothel 

The scene of the greatest mining disaster, 1917. The Granite Mine. One hundred sixty eight miners died. They removed the head frame for scrap. That was a shame.

Granite Mountain Headframe Between Berkeley Pit and Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond

The Carriage Works

Butte - Butte Carriage Works

Uptown. My favoritist Hotel.

Uptown of Butte, Montana

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