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A Career in Blackjack?  Don't Bet on It

I've been working at PB-Farradyne in Seattle now for a little over a year, doing lots of transportation planning and computer mapping things, and during that time Iíve been able to take a few trips around the country that I'll describe in this update.  Although working is nice, traveling while working is, I think, much better. 

 

   
 

Here's Elvis Presley singing his classic, Viva Las Vegas.

   

Last spring I flew down to Las Vegas for a couple of days on business with David, a co-worker.  Iíve never liked Lost Wages because itís everything Iím not -- including being loaded with money.  I actually lived in Las Vegas for a few months back in 1999 and discovered how sleazy it really is (and it's really sleazy).  But I have to admit, it is an interesting place to visit and gawk. 

 

The highlight of my trip last spring was getting a free upgrade at the Treasure Island hotel, from the basic room I had booked at $75 a night all the way up to a $400-a-night luxury suite.  Why did they upgrade me?  I'd like to say something like, "Membership has its privileges," but I'm not a member of anything except AAA so who knows?  To be honest, I'm just as comfortable staying at a Motel 6 -- or a decent campground, for that matter -- as in a luxurious high-rise hotel.  High maintenance I'm not.

 

After I checked in and had dinner, I thought about playing some blackjack that evening.  In the winter of 1988, in between my summer jobs as a ranger in Colorado, I became interested in blackjack and learned that by keeping track of the dealt cards, also known as "card counting," (something casino Pit Bosses frown on, to put it mildly) a player can gain a slight advantage over the casino.  I don't really like to gamble, which to me is synonymous with losing money, but I figured that if I could earn money while playing a game, why not?

 

Above:  Leaving Las Vegas, just like Sheryl Crow.

I spent the entire winter of 1988, therefore, doing nothing but learning how to win at blackjack ("Let's see, four decks and a +7 count with six aces dealt, dealer shows five and I've got 14:  Hit me.").  Then I headed down to Reno to try it out.  I was doing pretty well during the first week, but then I played at Harold's Club where two shady dealers -- and I still remember their names:  Sam and T.J. -- scammed me and I lost most of my winnings.  I'd heard about such things and didn't believe it but now I do, so that was the end of my blackjack career. 

 

By the way, a few months later the Nevada Gaming Commission shut down the Harold's Club for blackjack "improprieties" and it never reopened, so I feel a little better.  The lesson I learned?  Playing blackjack is a really hard way to make a living and I don't recommend it.  It's much easier to be a consultant for an engineering firm.  Although I've forgotten my card counting strategies, I still play blackjack once in a while for fun.  It takes a person just 10 minutes to learn the basic strategy so they can play statistically even with the casino (and get free drinks while they're at it).  Most people who play blackjack don't bother, though, because they "just want to have fun," which utterly amazes me.  I mean, how fun is it to lose money?

 

I didn't feel like playing blackjack that evening, however, since I donít like to mix business with pleasure -- or get kicked out of casinos for counting cards -- so I just wandered around the Strip for a few hours and snickered at all the tacky gaudiness.  Las Vegas is a kick but it's still a slimy place and I was glad to get back to my hotel room and take a shower.  What happens here stays here, and that's fine with me.

 

   

Above left:  Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (or in my case, the Poor and Insignificant).  This is the free upgrade I got at the Treasure Island.  At $400 a night, it's just a tad better than the Motel 6's I'm used to.

Above right:  Outside the Treasure Island waiting for the nightly Pirates show.  The show was called off due to high winds, though.  Pretty wimpy pirates, if you ask me.

Looking Cool in Steamy Florida

I had a much more interesting trip a few months later, when I flew to Florida to do some work while spending a few vacation days there, too.  Before leaving Seattle, Iíd reserved a sporty car from the Thrifty rent-a-car in Miami with visions of me dashing around Florida during spring break with a beautiful woman while looking really cool.  But when I got to Miami, all Thrifty had left were huge Chrysler behemoths, so thatís what I got.  As I proved during the next week, itís hard to look cool while zipping around Florida in a Chrysler. 

 

This is Jimmy Buffett with Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.

 
   

One of my main destinations during the trip was Fort Pierce, a funky old town about three hours north of Miami.  During World War II, and long before I was born, my parents lived in Fort Pierce where my dad trained for the "Scouts & Raiders," the Special Operations branch of the U.S. Navy now called the SEALs. 

 

I had never seen Fort Pierce before, but being a family history buff, I drove up and spent a day retracing my parent's steps.  While there, I stopped by the Navy SEAL museum for a few hours and enjoyed talking to some old World War II veterans and hearing their interesting stories about the war. 

 

Above:  My parents and grandmother in Fort Pierce in 1945 while my dad was training here with the Navy.

By the way, if you ever saw the first "Survivor" television series on CBS back in 2001, which was won by the fat naked guy, you might remember the crusty old ex-Navy SEAL named Rudy Boesch.  As I learned recently, Rudy and my dad had been in the same Scouts & Raiders unit in Fort Pierce in 1945 right before my dad shipped out to China to serve in World War II.  I thought that was funny because, while watching the first season of  "Survivor," my dad said to me, "Heck, if that old SEAL can do it, so can I."  Little did he realize (or remember) that the "old SEAL" had been his former colleague during the war.

 

After camping in the pleasant-but-mosquito-filled Dickinson State Park that night, I headed to the west coast of Florida where I spent a few days in Bradenton (pop. 50,000), south of Tampa.  I had lived in Bradenton for several months back in 1987 while working for the Bradenton Herald newspaper.  I moved from Oregon to Bradenton back then because Iíd always wanted to live in Florida and, after spending a week driving around the state looking for a place to live, I thought Bradenton was the nicest city in the entire state. 

 

In fact, I still do and it was great to be back.  The Herald is still there as are the long sandy beaches, where I spent hours lolling each morning before going to work every afternoon at the Herald.  My job didnít pay much but it covered the rent and it was fun, which was all I cared about back then. 

 

Simple man, simple dreams.

 

       

Above left:  My parents wedding portrait in Fort Pierce, Florida during World War II.  My dad, an Ensign and later a Lt. Commander, trained here for the U.S. Navy "Scouts & Raiders," now called SEALs, before being sent to China. 

Above center:  The house in Fort Pierce where my parents had lived in 1945.  I learned the address by reading their wartime letters:  1230 Easter Avenue.

Above right:  I drove around Fort Pierce for a while and found it.  Here's the same house 60 years later in 2005.

 

       

Above left:  The Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce recounts the history of the Scouts & Raiders, UDT (Underwater Demolition Teams), Frogmen, and as they're known today, the SEALs.

Above center:  A display in the museum showing some of the weapons that my dad was trained in.

Above right:  Downtown Fort Pierce today looks much like it did during World War II.  It's a great town.

 

       

Above left:  Camping at the pleasant Dickinson State Park south of Fort Pierce.  Is it just me or do Chryslers look out of place in campgrounds?

Above center:  Fueling up.  Cool car, huh?

Above right:  Hunkering down in Lakeland for a few days while working on a presentation.

 

       

Above left:  The Bradenton Herald newspaper, where I had worked in 1987.  The Herald is a great paper and I really enjoyed working there.

Above center:  And my old apartment (top floor) in Bradenton.  Only $365 a month back then.

Above right:  This is Cortez Beach south of town, where I worked on my tan each morning before working on the paper each evening.

The (Florida) Keys to My Heart

After spending a few sunny days in Bradenton, I drove down to the Florida Keys, a 100-mile-long string of small tropical islands that jut out into the Gulf of Mexico.  The Florida Keys are unlike any other place in the country and have always been special to me.  When I was a kid growing up in Michigan during the 1960s, my entire family -- that's two parents, one girl and four boisterous boys -- drove down to the keys in a packed Dodge station wagon, twice in fact:  when I was four years old and again when I was seven, and I remember each trip well.  The most vivid event occurred during my first trip to Florida when I stepped on a Portuguese Man of War jellyfish at the beach and screamed for an hour.  Fortunately, my other memories of Florida are a bit more favorable, and much less painful.

 

 

Here's Bob Marley with a classic Caribbean tune, Three Little Birds.

   

My fondest memory of the keys back then was camping at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo during both trips.  This unique park, which opened in 1963, is the oldest state park in the Florida Keys and includes a campground, marina, visitor center, and the only coral reef in the continental U.S., which is a few miles offshore.  I pulled the Chrysler into a campsite and camped here one night, and as I walked around the park, pleasant memories of those family trips from the 1960s wafted through my mind.  The park hasn't changed too much over the past 40 years (except for the campground, which has filled in with vegetation) and it's still a great place.  I've posted a few photos of the park below.  To see more photos of my family's visits during the 1960s, visit my page on John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

 

The best part of my recent trip to the Florida Keys, however, was discovering Bahia Honda State Park, which is located, appropriately enough, on Bahia Honda Key, which is about two-thirds of the way down the keys.  Iíve been to the keys several times but had never stopped at this park before, which is a shame because, as I learned, itís a terrific place.  For one thing, itís one of the few places in the limestone-and-mangrove covered keys that has a long and sandy beach. 

 

Above:  Near my campsite at Bahia Honda State Park.  It was wonderful to walk on the tropical beach here.  I can't wait to go back.

I arrived at Bahia Honda State Park around 3 p.m. on a warm and sunny afternoon and set up my tent, then I  drove over to the park's little store to buy a bag of ice.  Thatís where I spotted an attractive 20ish woman who looked exactly like my niece, Sarah, who lives in Philadelphia.  This was the first time, in all my travels, that I had seen anyone who looked even remotely like Sarah, so I thought it might actually be her.  I kept glancing at her, hoping sheíd recognize me and say, ďHi, Uncle Del!Ē  But, alas, it wasnít her Ė and I think I freaked the poor girl out in the process.  Oops, sorry!  I can imagine her telling her friends:  ďThis old geezer in the store kept staring at me Ė and he was driving a Chrysler!"

 

After creeping out the Sarah-lookalike, I went down to the beach where I walked for a couple of hours and enjoyed splashing my feet in the warm 80-degree Gulf of Mexico while the the palm trees swayed in the balmy breeze.  Then around sunset I headed back to my campsite to make dinner. 

 

Iíve camped at hundreds of places in the U.S., but this campsite was one of the prettiest Iíve ever seen:  it was well-protected with lots of privacy but was just a few yards from the beach and had a beautiful view of the ocean.  A tropical storm rolled in that night with lots of thunder and lightning and dumped about four inches of rain on my tent, but I stayed dry and cozy and it was all clear the next morning.

 

Bahia Honda is a terrific state park and is an absolute ďmust seeĒ in the Florida Keys.  But if you go into the store there, don't stare at the young women.  Especially if you drive a Chrysler.

 

       

Above left:  This is the smallest post office in the U.S., located in Ochopee, Florida.  But where's the restroom?

Above center:  "Bobby, get closer to the alligator so daddy can take a picture of you."  A good example of natural selection in action.

Above right:  This is the mosquito-filled Palmetto campground at the southern tip of Everglades National Park, where I spent the two most miserable nights of my life -- in 1987 and 1995.   No, I didn't camp here on this trip. 

 

       

Above left:  The swimming beach at Pennekamp State Park hasn't changed much over the last 40 years.

Above center:  Here's my family camping next to the pond in Pennekamp State Park in the 1960s.  I taught myself how to swim here when I was four years old.  My brother Dave is playing the guitar (a very 1960s thing to do) while my mom is lighting a cigarette (another very 1960s thing to do).

Above right:  Another shot from that 1964 trip:  this is in Key West.  With my arms crossed, I was getting tired of my dad taking pictures and wanted to get on the Conch Train so I could apply my transportation planning skills.

 

   

Above left:  Back to 2005 now.  This is the original "African Queen" boat in Key Largo, made famous by the movie of the same name that starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.  "Key Largo" was itself a movie -- though not an especially good one -- that also starred Humphrey Bogart.

Above right:  Camping at the wonderful Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.  This is one of the nicest campsites I've ever stayed at.  Later that evening, a tropical storm dumped four inches of rain but I stayed dry in my tent.

 


 

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