24. Reno Salutes Hal and Midge

24. Reno Salutes Hal and Midge

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Reno Salutes Hal and Midge

A wedding anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance and tenacity. The order varies for any given year.

~Paul Sweeney

Where does the time go? One minute you’re a kid arguing with your brothers about how Mom’s jewelry box wound up lying broken on the floor, and the next minute you’re an adult arguing with your brothers about why a nice card and dinner at the Olive Garden may not be special enough to mark Mom and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Before you dismiss the Olive Garden idea as laughably insufficient, please note that my parents really enjoy eating there and usually have to pay their own way. So let’s not underestimate the “wow factor” of digging into a free plate of five-cheese ziti or ordering the carafe of peach sangria without gagging at the price. (Besides, there’s plenty of time for gagging after the sangria is consumed.)

My parents, Al and Marge (whose names I’ve changed to Hal and Midge to protect their privacy), got married in 1956. As was the custom at the time, they slipped away quietly to a justice of the peace, tied the knot, and then went about their lives as if nothing had happened. Because Midge was already two months pregnant, the secret marriage ploy soon served them well when curious family and friends inquired about her changing appearance.

“Yes, I am pregnant,” Midge would admit under questioning, “but I’m also married—didn’t I mention that?”

“When did this happen?”

“Remember that day I went to get new tires put on my car? Then.”

Given their shaky start, a 50th wedding anniversary was an occasion that called for an extraordinary celebration, something unforgettable, something that would stay etched in all of our minds for years to come. My brothers, Bob and Jim, and sisters-in-law, Jill and Sandy, began brainstorming with my wife and I to give Mom and Dad a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unfortunately, the Olive Garden idea was doomed from the get-go. As several more worldly members of the family pointed out during the planning phase, the restaurant didn’t have slot machines, which severely limited its appeal to a couple whose chief means of shared recreation was playing slot machines.

During a series of spirited family discussions in the year leading up to the big day, a number of options were considered and discarded. Among the losing concepts were a banquet hall bash (no slots), a cruise (lame slots), a rented house on Lake Tahoe (off-site slots) and a trip to Las Vegas (way too many slots). By process of elimination, we arrived at the only logical choice for a Hal & Midge 50th Anniversary Blowout: the Peppermill Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada.

Reno has quite a colorful résumé. Dubbed “The Biggest Little City in the World” because of its impressive balance between mishmash development and dirt, its gaming roots go back over 100 years to the days of miners, railroad men and cowboys. When prizefighting was outlawed in most states, Reno stepped up to welcome the 1910 heavyweight championship bout between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, once thought of as “The Fight of the Century.”

Around that same time, Reno became known as the “divorce capital of the world,” dissolving marriages for big-time celebrities such as Jack Dempsey, Mary Pickford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and later Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley. Hang on… my wife just informed me that Nic Cage and Lisa Marie were divorced in Los Angeles. She may know something, but my sources (primarily the National Enquirer) report that Cage and Presley were seen throwing their wedding rings in the Truckee River in downtown Reno after their three-month McMarriage went bust.

With the stigma of Reno’s divorce-happy past still lingering, the city was eager to pull out all the stops for the Hal & Midge 50th Anniversary Blowout. No sooner had we checked into the Peppermill, one of Reno’s top two hotel/casino resorts, then we were all handed an exclusive VIP coupon book full of Hal & Midge discounts and perks.

“2-for-1 Entrée at the Flamingo Food Court,” read one thrilling, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming offer. But there were more, much more:

“Up to $20 Off Island Buffet”

“Free Play on Mr. Money’s Challenge Spin”

“$5 or $10 Match on Any Even Money Table Wager”

“Free Side Order of Cole Slaw at the Casino Coffee Shop with the Purchase of Any Club Sandwich or Entrée-Size Salad”

I looked at my mom and saw her eyes glistening with tears.

“Pretty generous coupons,” I sputtered, choking back my own tears.

“I wouldn’t know,” she snapped back. “Your father’s cigar smoke is killing my eyes.”

Once out on the casino floor, the evidence of Reno’s pride in hosting the Hal & Midge celebration was everywhere. Neon lights and mirrored walls greeted us at every turn as a sprawling, carnival-like atmosphere swept us dizzily along in a circular, trance-like pattern. As if by magic, slot machines became available whenever we felt the calling, and we all took turns plundering our stored riches and lining our pockets with our ill-gotten wealth. Hang on again… my wife just pointed out that most of us lost money during the three days, and that even a highlight like my dad winning $137 on a penny machine was nullified by a steady series of losses before and after. All I know is, I won $85 on the last night there, and if there were losses leading up to that point, you know the old saying: “What happens in Reno, stays in Vegas.”

While some of us will always wonder how exhilarating an Olive Garden anniversary might have been, I’ll always cherish Reno’s salute to Hal & Midge. We had a blast day and night, interspersing our gambling exploits with a paddlewheel cruise of Lake Tahoe on the M.S. Dixie and a walking tour of cowboy-town-turned-tourist-tease Virginia City.

The trip’s gambling theme seemed to put my parents’ last fifty years in exactly the right context. After all, in the beginning, odds-makers gave the marriage five to seven years, which was an optimistic contrast to family member estimates of “till next summer” and “by midnight tonight.” But no one could imagine the stubborn resilience and plucky perseverance that would carry Hal and Midge through life’s turbulent times. They ricocheted through the decades raising three kids, surviving the storms and savoring the rewards of a fifty-year journey that few have the guts to tackle. As Hal & Midge, they became a brand name as familiar and cherished as Coca-Cola, Yukon Gold Condoms, Uncle Jake’s Jolly Good Aftershave, and Fancy Pants Fire Ant Spray Killer.

Love, health and happiness, Mom and Dad. You just might be the last couple standing in this rambling, gambling game of marriage. You know something? It’s just a hunch, but I think you crazy kids are going to make it after all.

~Alan Williamson

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