The rockets red glare, bombs bursting in mid-air, showers of sparks falling from heaven through the thick sulphurous smoke – below it was carnage. The fallen lay strewn in every direction as far as the eye could see. As the smoke cleared, a single figure becomes visible downfield. She’s clothed in red, a rifle in her hand, and she’s running for the end zone for all she’s worth. Behind her a large bearded man yells, “Die already!”
My Pop never did anything half way – he was all-in or he was out. When we started going to black powder gun shoots at the local range, it wasn’t long before he was getting Mom to make him some “leathers” so that he could play the part of a real mountain man. Almost immediately we were neck-deep in a local club called the Nevada Frontloaders – I know, it sounds like a group of bulldozer enthusiasts, but in reality it was a group who loved shooting muzzle-loading weapons – we were called “frontloaders” because the guns we fired were reloaded from the front of the barrel – the muzzle.
The Frontloaders put on a rendezvous several times a year – basically a rendezvous is a weekend shoot at a remote location with primitive camping. Initially we all loaded into the GMC camper for these weekends, but after an enlightening trip to a huge rendezvous in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, he moved us out of the camper and into a lodge – a large canvas teepee. Now camping in a teepee is not for the faint of heart – you have to carry log poles with you – very long lodgepole pine poles, I think it took about 30 of them to set up a lodge. It took the whole family and Pop’s pal Tiny to set the lodge up.
An aside about Tiny – Tiny’s given name is something like Donald and I have no idea what his last name is. I’ve known him for 40 years and he is married to my mom’s cousin. The subject of his actual name just never came up. He is a very large man – I think he’s something like 6 foot 8, and he always told me that he weighed more than they could read on the scale in his doctor’s office. He used to tell us he was 5 foot 20 or 4 foot 32. He is a mountain of a man. My pop met him at a shoot and immediately started calling him Tiny. To this day he drives a car with a vanity plate with that moniker. He was the guy Pop would call if he ever needed anything. Tiny was there to help fix a car or the AC, he was there to participate in Pop’s crazy projects, he was there when my mom passed. Until the last few years he would always pick me up off the ground in a bear hug when he greeted me, and I can assure you that that’s no simple feat. He has shown up on my doorstep in the woods in a 30 foot RV with no warning and he would be welcome to do so at any time – he is a prince of a man.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the Pre-Bicentennial – anyway…
Once we got involved, Pops drug us to almost any kind of event where he could put on his leathers and pretend that it wasn’t the 1970s in Las Vegas. We went to a historical reenactment at the Old Mormon Fort – the first settlement in what is now Las Vegas. Pops had set up a blacksmith forge in our back yard (No store-bought knives or tomahawks for us!), so he was giving a blacksmith demo at the fort. He caught the eye of a reporter for the Sunday magazine in one of the local papers, and he became the go-to guy whenever they wanted stories about a family pretending they were pioneers. Over the years Pops was in articles about primitive fire starting, blacksmithing, shooting, gun building, and even a feature that talked about the practice of trading with the natives. For this article, my mom – who was always a good sport – agreed to be photographed in a scene where my Pop was trading a local Indian two horses for her. Most of the time he just made up “facts” for the reporters and they ate it up. He was in the Sunday magazines a couple of times a year and was the resident “expert” on all things “frontier” in Las Vegas.
By 1975, things were in full swing leading up to the Bicentennial, and the annual 4th of July celebration would kick off a year of events recounting our nation’s glorious struggle for independence. This was about the time when the idea of historical re-enactors first become popular. People were wanting to see history replayed in a public way. Naturally, since Pop was the go-to guy concerning all things historically inaccurate in Las Vegas, he was approached to put on a reenactment at the Pre-Bicentennial fireworks display at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl. When asked, “Can you pull off a reenactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord on the Football field?” Pops answered and emphatic “Yes!”
This was his plan – all the men and boys in the Nevada Frontloaders would dress in their “leathers”. They could pass themselves off as “colonials” or “patriots” with the simple addition of brown tri-corner felt hats to their ensembles. Now “leathers” were not tied to a specific historical style – the idea was that you hand sewed some skins together to make shirts, loin cloths, leggings, or pants. You made something that someone with no sewing machine could have made out on the frontier, never mind that Lexington had been settled for over 120 years by the time of the American Revolution, Concord had been around even longer – they were no more the frontier than Las Vegas was 200 years later. Now of course these “patriots” needed someone to fight – Pops had a solution for that too. My mom was a seamstress and pattern cutter so all she had to do was make British red-coat costumes for all the women and girls in the Frontloaders. After all, there were no squaws at the battle of Lexington and Concord.
As a 13-year-old girl, I can’t say that this idea excited me. I was given a pair of white men’s trousers that had been cut off at mid calf, an old pair of tall black equestrian boots, a tri-corner hat, and an exquisitely tailored red-coat – that and my 1841 reproduction Mississippi Rifle competed my costume. Me, my mom, and about 8 other women-folk from the Frontloaders made up the terrifying British forces. One girl was actually someone’s cousin, visiting for the summer who had been convinced to come along and relive history with us at the Silver Bowl.
Now July in Vegas is hot – that’s pretty common knowledge. What you may not know is that July and August are the “monsoon” season in the Nevada desert. The name has always cracked me up – locals say it with such sincerity. Most of the local annual rainfall of four inches falls during the 27 days of the “monsoon”. Living in a place where the annual rainfall is measured in feet has probably added to my less than earnest thoughts about the “monsoon” – even so, rain in the desert, any rain is a big deal. The rains start in the mountains west of town and by the time it hits the valley floor the water is already rushing down from the mountains. The ground doesn’t absorb it and it races across the valley and it can be deadly. People who don’t see rain regularly often don’t take moving water seriously.
July of 1975 was a very bad monsoon. The 3rd and the 4th of July saw three inches of rain race across the valley. This happened at a time when the valley infrastructure had no means in place to direct water. It sounds crazy today, but they would build an underpass below grade and just close it if the rains came. City planners thought nothing of leveling big tracts of city owned desert for development without giving a thought to drainage – after all it doesn’t rain very often. On the afternoon of the third, wall of water raced across the strip – it relocated over 300 cars from the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace to multiple locations east of the strip. It all happened really fast – and by late afternoon all the water was gone – that’s why they call it a “flash flood”.
As I stood in my bedroom watching the water race across our neighbor’s lawns across the street on the “low side” one thought cheered me – perhaps the fake revolution would have to be cancelled. No such luck – Pops got off work at around 4 and we headed out to the Silver Bowl for a rehearsal. Pops laid out the plan to the thirty or so male colonials and the ten girlie red-coats. The red-coats would set up in a classic kneeling and standing formation on the western 20 yard line. The patriots would rush towards us as we took aim and fired one volley. Now we were not shooting actual bullets – we had loaded our muskets with about 10-15 grains of black powder and packed it down with a wad of toilet paper. When you fired, the thought was that the toilet paper would be vaporized before it exited the barrel – but I can attest to the fact that it can survive the inferno. After our volley the whole end of the stadium filled with white smoke from the gunpowder making it impossible for anyone to see the brave patriots charging our meager ranks. As the smoke cleared we regrouped as tiny tp snowflakes fell from the sky. The British were penalized 15 yards for excessive smokiness and we started play again from the 35 yard line.
In our street clothes we worked out the spacing for the show the next day. The Astroturf was wet and it was almost walking on top of a blister. After a quick walk through we met on the sidelines where Pop told us the plan. The British would take that first volley and then make a hasty retreat as the patriots charged forward. Our job was to fire, retreat, and fall down dead on the Astroturf as toilet paper shots rang out behind us. It was going to be a rout – there would be no survivors.
As Pops went over the details I looked down at the plastic turf at my feet – I was standing right near the edge of the fake grass behind the visitors bench. As I pressed my feet into the turf I saw water spill out at the edge – the Silver Bowl is built in the flood plain known as the Vegas Wash and all that water had passed around and under the stadium. As I looked closer, I saw something move, and then I saw more somethings move. I locked onto the movements and saw dozens of smallish light-colored baby tarantulas squirming in the wet Astroturf! Apparently they lived under the plastic fake grass and all that water had forced them above ground. Needless to say, I freaked out and tried to stomp on them before they could crawl on me. I pushed the toe of my shoe into the turf over one and I watched in amazement as it just crawled right out from under my shoe – the rigidity of the astro turf seemed to give it enough wiggle room to get free. This was my worst nightmare – the place was crawling with them. As we drove home that evening all I could think about was the next evening when we would march out on that field – I was going to have to play dead on plastic grass with creepy fuzzy alien-looking spiders everywhere! My skin crawled every time I thought about it.
The next evening we would reenact that famous heroic battle there under the lights of the Silver Bowl. As we got dressed in the locker rooms I mused that we British had about as much chance tonight as the UNLV Rebels football team would have in that very stadium playing just about any opponent that fall. Yes, it would be a rout, but would I have the courage to be a brave little soldier and drop dead in that spider infested turf to celebrate my nation’s birthday?
The British lined up on the Patriots 35 yard line. They fired their volley and the Patriots charged from the end zone. My mother played the part of the general – let’s just say for complete historical inaccuracy that she was General Cornwallis, anyway, she was the head red-coat in charge. I watched her as we turned to run up field towards the 50 yard line. The patriots fired, but instead of dropping dead my mother reloaded – right there at midfield. She raised her rifle and fired. Boom! Immediately 4 patriots dropped dead! My father growled, this wasn’t in his very carefully crafted fake history plan – but once you’re dead, you’re dead. You can’t get up – you have to stay dead.
This break from the plan gave me hope so I reloaded and fired into the crowd of Patriots – but alas, no one fell. Shots rang out from about the 45 yard line and I saw my mother fall. Rifle at the ready, I scanned the field and saw that I was the last red-coat standing. More shots rang out and I just couldn’t make myself fall. (Everyone knows that muskets in that time were notoriously inaccurate.) The fear of spiders proved to be more potent than the fear of my Pops. I turned down field, rifle in hand, and made a run for it. As I crossed into the end zone and ran under the uprights the fireworks show started overhead. As all eyes in the stadium left me and looked skyward, I could still hear my father yelling in the distance, “Die already!” I chose not to die that day and didn’t stop running until I hit the locker room.
We had done the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord proud and tarantulas still give me the creeps, even today.
Belated Happy Birthday America!