32: The Jackpot

32: The Jackpot

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

The Jackpot

Most grandmas have a touch of the scallywag.

~Helen Thomson

In the summer of 1973, my new husband offered to help a co-worker by driving her ’69 Lincoln from Los Angeles to its new owner in Las Vegas, in exchange for expenses. As we were newlyweds on the verge of broke, a free trip to Sin City sounded wonderful.

Grammy Lil lit up when she heard the plans. “A free ride to Las Vegas? Your Grandpa JoJo and I will come along.”

But a family road trip wasn’t what my husband and I had in mind. “Maybe not this time,” I said.

She didn’t hear me. “There’s a little casino on the Strip with penny slots. Lots of jackpots. I can play all day for three dollars.”

One more try. “It’s going to be awfully hot in the desert, and I know how much you hate the heat.” Grammy walked around with a damp washcloth behind her neck all summer because my grandfather refused to run the evaporative cooler in their tiny, post-war bungalow.

“Your big car won’t have air conditioning?”

“Yes, I’m sure it’ll have air conditioning, but . . .”

“If I can survive the summers in the Valley with your cheap grandfather, I can go on a little ride to Las Vegas in the fancy-schmancy car with the nice, modern air conditioning.”

It was clear that my seventy-five-year-old grandmother, who had witnessed her family’s execution by the Bolsheviks in the streets of Kiev, would not be denied her beloved penny slots by a little desert sunshine.

The trip began on a mid-August morning when my husband rolled up in the shiny black Lincoln to our rundown apartment building. The imposing vehicle looked more like the car of a local drug lord than that of an elementary school teacher.

As Grammy Lil and JoJo settled into the comfy back seat, I noticed wide compression bandages wrapped around Grammy’s legs under her cotton, floral house dress.

She must have noticed my concern. “They’re for the circulation. Not to worry,” she said.

We stowed Grammy’s aluminum walker in the spacious trunk and hit the road. The Lincoln was a sweet ride, with thick leather seats and an impressive stereo—the lap of luxury compared to the 1960 Impala handed down from my mother that I had been driving since high school. We rolled along in air-conditioned bliss, navigating the congested freeways of Los Angeles County, until we broke out of the traffic and onto the open highway heading into the desert.

After a couple hours of celebrating our good luck, we crapped out.

The hiss started low and slow, like a teakettle at the beginning of its boil, and I knew we were in trouble. As we climbed the grade outside Victorville, the nasty hiss became a loud whistle.

“Turn off the radio! Turn off the air!” JoJo ordered from the back seat.

Our driver complied, but the overheated engine complained even louder, sending up plumes of steam from under the handsome hood.

“I thought you said the car was in excellent condition,” I yelled.

“That’s what she told me,” my husband yelled back. “But it’s hot as hell out there. Maybe it can’t take the climb with the air on.”

“It’s a Lincoln Continental, for God’s sake. It’s the size of a yacht. What do you mean ‘maybe it can’t take the climb’?”

Grammy intervened. “Yelling won’t do any good. Let’s pull over.” Luckily, I had packed a chest of ice, a Thermos of water, and a couple of washcloths. I wrapped some ice in a damp cloth and passed it over the seat for Grammy to put on the back of her neck.

The men opened the hood and watched the dragon spew its contents. “We’ll have to hitchhike into Victorville and get some help,” JoJo said. After a short wait, a good Samaritan stopped to drive my husband and grandfather into town to call for roadside assistance.

Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more concerned about Grammy Lil. Even with open doors and windows, the black car already felt like an oven. To make matters worse, she wouldn’t drink anything, insisting that the wet cloths would keep her cool like they did in her house.

“How about taking off the bandages,” I said.

“No.” The woman was stubborn, and there was no arguing. But fifteen minutes later, I began to feel panicky.

“Let’s hitchhike,” Grammy said.

“You’re not serious.”

“Get my walker,” Grammy Lil commanded.

So, on a scorching afternoon, Grammy Lil, with bandaged legs, maneuvered her walker along a dusty shoulder of the desert highway and, without hesitation, stuck a thumb in the air. “Is this how you do it?”

We must have appeared an odd mirage to travelers speeding by—an old woman with a walker and her younger companion thumbing for a ride. Thankfully, an elderly gentleman picked us up after a few minutes. He had a shock of white hair and a George Hamilton tan.

Our handsome driver crammed Grammy’s walker into the trunk of his compact car and gently helped her into the passenger’s seat, while I stuffed myself into the back, sitting sideways in the minuscule compartment. The hot wind from the open windows burned my face while Grammy and our driver chatted and laughed up front.

After dropping us off at a Victorville diner, he said that he would get back on the highway and wait for the men by our disabled car to let them know where they could find us. I thanked him over and over for his kindness.

As Grammy Lil and I waited and sipped cold drinks, I leaned across the table and whispered, “Was that man trying to make time with you?”

“Maybe,” Grammy grinned.

After spending the night in a cheap motel in Victorville, my grandparents called my aunt in Vegas for a pickup, while I called my parents in L.A. for a lift back to the city.

And every summer until she died, Grammy Lil loved to retell the adventure of hitchhiking through the desert with her granddaughter and making time with a handsome stranger—a jackpot more wonderful than three-of-a-kind on the penny slots in a little casino on the Strip in Las Vegas.

~Karen Gorback

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