A Yank's Christmas Miracle

Scenes of London Fifty Years Ago

by Brumby McGehee

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Eight months in London (preceded by three months' skiing the Alps), culminating in a minor Christmas miracle, made 1966 my favorite year ever.

Swinging London was a hedonistic carnival of aesthetic and sensual delights, an ongoing festival celebrating the '60s best sights and sounds, arts and artists and a major sports triumph. After enduring the privations of war and years of post-war austerity, the English were experiencing a robust recovery, savoring ordinary pleasures and gorging on some of life's excesses. The Beatles and The Stones were the crest of the tsunami of British sounds that dominated popular music. Pinewood and other London studios were producing a lion's share of the world's best movies. After cultural clashes with the rockers escalated to street riots, the mods had flourished, miniskirts abounded and Carnaby Street was the pulsing heart of serendipitous pop fashion. Saville Row's tailors served the powerful and the peerage of the English-speaking world as they had since the reign of Queen Victoria. Western culture's most famous movie stars were routinely seen around West 8, in Hyde Park and, on sunny weekends, browsing the shops along Portobello Road. On July 30th, at Wembley Stadium, the English won their only World Cup in the world's most popular team sport.

Among these many changes was the expansion of gambling in the UK from card games in a few small, private clubs to an abundance of casinos, with craps among the table games now allowed. I had been a pit boss in one of Las Vegas' premier casinos and was thus assured of a job in London. So it was that on May Day morning, 28 years before the Chunnel, I boarded the boat train in Paris for the four-hour trip to Dunkirk. Another four hours was spent loading the train on the huge barge/boat. We enjoyed a calm crossing and I was absolutely thrilled by my first view of the white cliffs of Dover and the British Isles, alleged archipelago home of most of my ancestors. After unloading at Dover on that sunny Sunday afternoon in 1966, there was only the two-hour train ride to Waterloo Station.

There were several dozen American dealers and bosses working in London casinos teaching the English to deal and manage craps games. Carmine Cellini, my boss and casino manager at Charlie Chester's, was one of the Chicago Cellinis. Knowing people I had worked for in Vegas, he hired me my first week in town to be the swing shift pit boss/boxman[1] of a one-game pit.

People have gambled on randomly tossed objects since before Roman soldiers threw dice for Christ's garments, but casino craps with a multitude of betting options originated as an American street game. Dealing craps requires a bit of manual dexterity, training, practice and the ability to quickly calculate simple math while doing several different things in exactly the right order. Unfortunately, Parliament had expanded casino gaming with inadequate preparation and little regulation. Ordinary citizens, known villains, and aliens (including Americans) were routinely issued licenses for a plethora of neighborhood casinos in an eclectic variety of former restaurants, storefronts and little nightclubs.

In England, Bobbies carried only truncheons and whistles, and anyone caught with a gun went straight to jail. The small casinos all had one or more security people who worked for the gang that was selling them protection. They were called minders and relied on skills not covered by the Marquis of Queensberry rules. In America they would be called bouncers or bodyguards but by any name they were fearsome.

Charlie Chester's minders, Conner and Kevin, were strapping Irish lads, over 6 feet and 200 pounds. I was intent on showing respect and establishing a good working relationship when I met them, so at the start of my first shift I proffered my hand and gave a friendly greeting. This elicited only a contemptuous glance before they pointedly turned their backs to further emphasize their disdain. They knew I was an American boss in charge of the craps game. I hadn't the foggiest what caused them to dislike American bosses, but since part of their job was protecting me, I didn't worry about it.

Charlie Chester's had been a comedy club and was an easy conversion to a small casino. A narrow vestibule and coat check room occupied the width of the building's Archer street front. Upon entering the vestibule, one saw, on the right, a couple of chairs, a small table, a standing ashtray and floor lamp. To the left, most of the vestibule's end wall was a half-door coat check counter with narrow floor-to-ceiling mirrors on either side. The coat check room was deeper than the vestibule was wide, with enough hangers on each side to accommodate more people than I ever saw in Chester's at one time. The door to the area containing the gaming tables was directly across from the entrance in the ersatz oak panels that separated the vestibule from the casino proper.

The first Saturday in November brought the first truly memorable episode. Raised voices in the vestibule erupted into a tumultuous brawl. After one particularly loud crash, the flimsy wall shuddered and bulged toward where I was standing behind the craps table. Brian, the shift boss, had players on the blackjack games and two-wheels[2] that formed an island pit in the middle of the room. The only other swing shift boss was on break, so Brian couldn't leave the pit. A fortuitous seven killed the craps game, and Brian motioned me to go see what was happening out front. The melee lasted less than a minute and was over before I got there. This is what I beheld: Every freestanding piece of furniture in the room was broken or bent and blood was spattered among the cigarette butts and ashes scattered about the carpet. Kevin had one foot on top of a pile of padded kindling that had been an attractive upholstered chair when the shift started. As he bent over wiping his shoe clean the white towel he was using blushed pink, before morphing to dark red like a fuzzy chameleon with extraordinary talent. Connor was grinning broadly, checking the wall mirrors to see if his tie was straight and his hair combed. Our unscathed minders were jubilant, like a couple of schoolboys who had just been victorious in a good scrum.

The coat check girl told me that a group of five young drunks celebrating Guy Fawkes Day had objected to being barred from entering the casino. It was hard for me to imagine anyone being barred from Chester's since any wino could borrow a loaner coat to meet the entrance requirements. However, there weren't enough loaner coats to fit all five of these chaps and they started using threatening language interspersed with expletives. Mr. Cellini couldn't allow this in the entrance to his casino, so Conner and Kevin had to sort it out. At last, their raison d'être!

The raucous celebrants never stood a chance, and two of them were still lying on the sidewalk when I stepped outside. My feet shot out from under me and I landed on my butt in the slippery gore covering a couple of feet of sidewalk. One of the battered belligerents was sitting in the blood with his back to the casino wall emitting barely audible moans while another lay motionless nearby. As I was getting to my feet a Bobby arrived, but there was no law left to enforce. The Bobby squatted to keep from kneeling in the quickly coagulating goo while he examined the unconscious combatant to determine if he was alive. I could see three ambulatory survivors staggering up the block, past the Windmill casino. The one in the middle had his arms over his mate's shoulders as, half dragging him, they staggered and stumbled toward Piccadilly Circus.

The brief but bloody Guy Fawkes Day brawl confirmed my estimate of our minder's capabilities. The only thing they enjoyed more than practicing their pugilistic prowess was getting paid for it. They might not like me but it was reassuring to have such capable lads minding the door.

Christmas morning was completely unlike here in the States. When I awoke, an ominous still seemed to have enveloped the city. Emerging from my Hillgate Street apartment, the only sign of life I could detect was the traffic light at Notting Hill Gate, changing every minute with robotic regularity, indifferent to the absence of traffic on eerily empty streets. Not a horn or siren broke the city's silence and only the contrail of an airliner assured me I wasn't the sole survivor of a cataclysmic extinction. None of the neighborhood shops were open and I had to drink my tea without a scone or morning paper. I soon realized that other than hospitals, hotels and Charlie Chester's casino, little was open Christmas day.

The casino was always slow the first couple of hours after the count. When I arrived at 5:50 Christmas evening, there were no players in Charlie Chester's. Thinking the spirit of the season might elicit a friendly response, I greeted Conner and Kevin with a cheerful and friendly Merry Christmas and was, as usual, rudely ignored.

My first duty was to count the game with the dayshift craps boss, drop the count slip in the dayshift box and watch the game until I knew my four man crew was present and coherent. In England, casino bosses were allowed to take a drink on their breaks. If there were no players on the craps game after the count, and with only the casino's service bar open before 7:00, I would walk up Archer Street to the Carpenters Arms for a drink. On nights when the craps game had much action later in the shift, I often had to work four or five hours without a break.

George, the Carpenters Arms bartender, had my Glenfiddich and soda at my usual stool on a corner of the horseshoe shaped bar. The only customers on my side of the bar were two tuxedo-clad Americans from the dayshift craps crew seated two stools to my left. All Chester's dealers wore cheap tuxedos, like those worn by waiters but with a significant difference: the pockets were sewed closed to make it harder for them to "nick the guv'na." Charlie Chester's had added the craps game at the same time the Americans had been mustered out of the Air Force in England. They claimed they had worked in American casinos and they could deal craps. I think they had worked some summer jobs in a Nevada casino, but they were nowhere near being craps dealers. Every day, I watched the dayshift crew for a few minutes before the 6 o'clock shift change. When there were three or more players on both ends of the table, the ex-airmen's desultory attempts to deal the game irritated and embarrassed me. They realized their American dayshift boss and I knew they weren't craps dealers and, in their insecurity, became groveling sycophants; their disingenuous flattery became an annoyance. One of the Americans was huge, well over 6 feet, and from the way his buttons tugged at the fabric of his jacket, I figured he was passing portly on his way to obese. He was always jolly and, with a beard and a red suit, would have made a great Santa. However, his apologetic smile when he made mistakes didn't lessen my angst any; I still had to stay on guard. The smaller American appeared deeply puzzled by simple bets. When he misplaced a bet or knocked over a stack of chips he always seemed surprised, as if he wondered “how that happened”. They managed to get by on day shift with their American boss protecting and helping them, but they couldn't have faked it on swing where we often got ferocious games going late in the shift.

Five days a week I had been teaching craps at an afternoon dealer's school. Dealers from other casinos, some of whom had been my students, would come in after their own games closed. The craps game had a two shilling minimum which was only 28 US cents. For a few shillings, they could use their recently acquired knowledge to test my swing shift crew‘s ability to handle a wide variety of bets.

Back to the bar: I was halfway through my Glenfiddich when four young cockneys, in their cups after a day celebrating Christmas, came stumbling through the door near where I was sitting. These youths were fired up before they came in, a fight looking for a place to happen. Agitated voices, a barstool falling over and some kind of scuffle ended my enjoyment of Tom Jones crooning "down the lane I look and there runs Mary, hair of gold and lips like cherry".

I turned to my left to see three of the cockneys shoulder to shoulder, swinging with both fists at the big American. I had my back to them so I don't know how they got involved with the tuxedo-clad ex-airmen. A stool was lying on the floor and the hulking American, in a manner often seen in classic comic routines, was standing with his still buttoned tuxedo coat halfway off his shoulders pinning his arms at his sides. His glasses were hanging from one ear and multiple red welts were beginning to swell across his bloodied face. The other pseudo-craps dealer had slipped furtively to the back of our side of the pub. I was amused by the whole scene, wondering what would happen when the Michelin man got his coat off.

With no room on the front row, the fourth cockney was jumping up to get in an overhand whack. In his repeated attempts to take part in the assault, he jostled and bumped me more than once. While still seated, I tapped him on the shoulder saying, "Don't you think three of you can handle him?" He turned and, omitting consonants in classic cockney, slurred, “Watch it, Yank, or you'll get sum u' wha' ee's gettin'". I chose to appear intimidated, turned submissively back toward the bar and downed the last of my drink. Then, sliding off the stool, I planted my left foot and rotated as I would have hitting a top-spin forehand crosscourt. The cockney was defenseless when my roundhouse hook caught him square in the mouth. Sucker punched, he went over backwards, his head cracking the shiny waxed floor, and he slid to a stop against a table leg. The other three cockneys ceased their assault on the ex-airman and turned to see what had happened behind them. Feeling an unaccustomed rush of bravado, I said, "You want some of what he just got?" The corpulent American had by this time gotten his coat off and any movie producer would have signed him, on the spot, to be the enraged and vengeful beast in a horror film. Had I not known he was woefully bereft of physical coordination, the big guy would have frightened me! His timid mate emerged from where he had been cowering under a table to stand boldly with his compatriots. The three conscious cockneys assessed the new situation and fled in such a panic they only managed to grab their unconscious mate by the ankles as they drug him out the same door they had come in. I winced in involuntarily empathy as his head banged hard on both of the brick steps down to the sidewalk.

I ended the ex-airmen's fawning adulation with a dismissive gesture and disapproving look, admonishing them to pick up the stool and ask George for a towel to clean the blood off the floor. George was appalled, having witnessed the cockneys' disorderly entrance and unprovoked attack on his formally attired patrons. The rowdy hooligans had disrupted the peaceful ambiance of his immaculate pub. A wink and nod of approval showed his appreciation as he poured me a complementary drink. I sipped it slowly, allowing my pulse to return to normal, before walking back to Chester's.

Well, the story had somehow made it down the block before me, and Kevin and Connor, previously so taciturn and scornful of me, were dancing around the sidewalk shadowboxing with big grins on their faces. Kevin, while throwing jabs and uppercuts, called out, "Got in a little punch-up, did ya?" Connor chimed in, “Took him out with one, eh, Yank?”

Thus did my Christmas night turn out to be a miracle. My atypical violent act established a commonality, earning our minders' respect and membership in their brotherhood.

Every night after Christmas, Kevin and Connor called me Yank and greeted me warmly with jokes or humorous anecdotes. I despaired of telling them that I was from the South and my ancestors suffered material loss and physical harm fighting the Yankees so, I just relaxed and enjoyed being their “Yank” brother. When there were no players on the craps table, I regaled them with exaggerated accounts of ribald life in Vegas, Tahoe and other resorts, while they told me tales of Ireland that I doubt many Americans have ever heard. The nights passed more quickly and by the time I quit in the middle of January, we had developed a mutual bond of deep friendship.

I have other wonderful memories of London, but none more treasured than the Christmas miracle at the end of my favorite year.

[1] Supervisors standing in casino pits are floor persons; only one is the pit boss. In big casinos, a pit may have more than a dozen games and several bosses. The person seated behind a craps game's chips and the cashbox under the table and is called a boxman or boxwoman.

[2] Roulette wheel