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Memorial Day 2020

In my youth, Memorial Day was a village-wide event.

The parade was big. It seemed every organization from the Brownies to the Knights of Columbus had an entry, plus the crowds lined the sidewalks, three-deep, from start to finish.

Once the parade ended at the town hall, everyone went to Riverside Park for the ceremony. There were the inevitable (and to my young self, interminable) speeches, a 21-gun salute by the National Guard and Taps played by two buglers one in the park, the other on the opposite riverbank.

The most memorable and solemn moment was a Gold Star Mother, sometimes two, laying a wreath at the foot of the monument. Even in single digits, I felt the enormity of that act, even though I couldn’t really understand it.

By the mid-1970s, the Memorial Day celebration was a shadow of its former self. The country changed the town changed, and Memorial Day changed as well. The nationwide post-WWII groundswell of “Our Boys, God Love ‘Em!” no longer cut it in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that ended with a whimper, not a bang.

This year, due to the pandemic, the parade and speeches were canceled. Still, I’m proud to say My Home Town came through as best it could — The American Legion held a small ceremony of their own at the monument. And they even had two buglers playing Taps.

These days I observe Memorial Day by visiting one of our local cemeteries.

I know Memorial Day honors our war dead, but on my cemetery trips I think of others who died as well. It’s hard not to, since at this point in my life it seems I know more people in the cemeteries than in the town.

This year I went to St. Bernard’s cemetery, on Ampersand Avenue. I walked in there as I always do — with no plan. Instead, I wandered here and there, checking out this and that, till I found myself in Rascals Row.

Odd fellows at the Elks

Rascals Row isn’t an official designation; it’s my own. As you drive in the cemetery, it’s on your left, almost directly across from the garage. And why Rascals Row? Well, in a very small area in that section lie in repose a bunch of the better-known gamblers of my Gilded Youth.

My attitude toward gambling reflects the town of my childhood’s attitude. Back then, gambling was regarded like a lot of other sins: If it took place on someone else’s time and property, then it was none of your business.

Besides, gambling wasn’t something peeps tried to hide — not that they could have anyway. We all knew who gambled, who made book, and who did both (which was a lot of the gamblers and ALL the bookies).

I don’t know the town gambling situation today, but I do know when I was a kid there was a lot of it. They gambled on the ponies, on cards, on sports, on dice, and they did it often and with stakes that’d make a sane man shudder. Keep in mind, this was long before the NYS lottery and OTB, before the state realized there was money to be had (and skimmed) if THEY became the bookie.

As for bookies? Let me put it this way: Back then, if you stood in Berkeley Square and threw half a brick in any direction, you’d have scored a direct hit on a gambler. And when the brick bounced off him, it’d hit a bookie. Of course being a bookie was illegal, but folks regarded it in an understanding light. It was like being a cop or a DPW worker: It wasn’t a job we wanted, but someone had to do it.

A note of interest about the Rascals: They all belonged to the Elks Club. Is that because they were devoted to the Great Code of Fraternal Antlerhood? Hell no. It’s because the Elks Club was THE gambling hot spot. And it wasn’t penny ante, either. I know in the spring of 1967 a man lost $2,500 in one hand of gin rummy (just for reference, a brand new ’67 VW Beetle cost about $1,800).

Cast of characters

The first stone I see is Dew Drop Morgan’s. Dew’s restaurant, the Dew Drop Inn, made the best pizza I ever had, anywhere. The rest of the food was equally delicious, and the wait staff were all first rate. Dew tended bar, which was always full of men sharing their expert opinions on everything to everyone within earshot — which given their decibels, was at least a four mile radius. Dew was an inveterate gambler and people said he gambled on everything. But I know that’s not true, and I know it for a fact, because he told me he didn’t play craps. So I can safely say Dew gambled on everything EXCEPT craps.

Also in the Morgan plot is Daniel Sullivan, who for all practical purposes a member of their family. While Daniel was his given name, he was known only as Sully, and he was in Dew Drop’s about as much as Dew. He was a sweet guy who had not an enemy to his name. He was both a gambler and a bookie, and was equally unsuccessful as both.

There’s another Daniel Sullivan in St. Bernard’s, and he was always known as Danny, even as an old man. He’s not in Rascal’s Row, nor should he be, since he was neither gambler nor bookie. But if he doesn’t belong in this section of the cemetery, he certainly belongs in this account of it. He was a bartender in the Elks Club for decades — until it closed, in fact.

He was quiet and unassuming, and was liked by all the Elks. Even more importantly, he was trusted by them. Or as my friend Bruce McNamara put it one day, when Danny was across the street, getting into his car.

“See him?” said Bruce, pointing at Danny.

“Sure,” I said, “Mr. Sullivan. What about him?”

“That man,” Bruce said, “knows more secrets than anyone else in Saranac Lake.”

That’s all he said … but it meant a lot more.

Show of force, show of farce

And speaking of Danny Sullivan, the Elks Club and gambling …

I said the Elks Club was a gambling den, and it was — big stakes card games were played all the time. But a couple times a year they held a real shindig — called Las Vegas night, I think. Keep in mind, the Elks had a huge membership back then, and the building (on the site of what’s now Walgreen’s) was a big, two-story affair. On Las Vegas night it was packed to the rafters, with all sorts of games of chance going on – poker, blackjack, roulette, craps and more … all of it deliciously illegal.

Of course, having a display of lawlessness like Las Vegas night was an insult to our upstanding citizens and local constabulary — an insult that could not go unaddressed. So from time to time the cops would raid a Las Vegas night and shut down all the gambling. And then, since he was putatively in charge, they’d haul Danny Sullivan off to the hoosegow. Close on their heels was an Elk bigwig who went to the station and paid Danny’s fine (and probably gave him a nice bonus for being the point man).

But the cops’ raid had its own special flair: Before they began it, they called the Elks to tell them they were on their way. This allowed all the cops, politicians, and other big shots there to don their coats and hats and haul the hell out before their stellar reputations were shot. If that’s not the finest example of To Protect and Serve, I don’t know what is.

Damon Runyon, a once-famous but now mostly-forgotten writer, had a lifetime career writing about the rascals of New York City. Had he lived here, I’ve no doubt he could’ve had an equally-long career writing about ours.

His writing is considered humor, but like all humorists, Runyon could write seriously as well, and there’s a quote from the serious Runyon I’ve always loved, which I think is a perfect ending here: It is: “You can keep things of bronze and stone and give me one man to remember me just once a year.”

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