Held at Gunpoint: Training for Berkeley, and the Peace Corps… Part 1

In 1963, I landed a summer job driving a laundry truck between Placerville, California and South Lake Tahoe, a 60 mile drive. I’d pick up dry cleaning and motel linens in Placerville and make deliveries along the way. My day started at 1 p.m. and ended around 10 p.m. six days a week. This is a more recent photo of Placerville, but it doesn’t look all that different. The Bell Tower has been a symbol of the town seemingly forever. As has the hanging man…
Founded during the 1849 Gold Rush, Placerville was known as Hangtown for how it treated outlaws. It’s a heritage the town has strangely— but proudly— maintained ever since. This guy was hanging out on Main Street in the 50s and 60s when I lived three miles away and still hangs out there today. If Guinness had a record on the longest hanging man in the world, he would be it! He must have one heck of a strong neck.

The man leaned on the front of my 56 Chevy and rested his rifle on the hood. The message was clear. I wasn’t going anywhere.  Ten minutes earlier I had been happily sleeping in my trailer next to the Lake Tahoe laundry where I was working for the summer. I woke up and jumped out of bed at the sound of trucks warming up. Oversleeping was no excuse for being late. I looked accusingly at my alarm clock. It said 6 a.m., an hour before I was supposed to go to work. Glancing out the window, I spotted an armed man standing in front of my door. Several others were wandering around the property. The laundry truck drivers were people I didn’t recognize. Lacking a phone to call my boss, I decided it was time to vacate the premises…

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Sierra College I graduated from working on pear ranches to being a laundryman. Every afternoon at one o’clock I would zip over to Placerville, pick up clean laundry and dry cleaning and head over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to Lake Tahoe via Echo Summit on Highway 50. It was a great job for a college kid. I was provided with a new VW van and was totally on my own except for loading up in Placerville and making my stops on 50 and at the Lake. In between was a beautiful drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was even a touch of glamour to the work. 

Sugarloaf Mountain located next to Kyburz Resort on Highway 50 in El Dorado County, CA.
This wonderful chunk of granite is known as Sugarloaf and is a favorite view along Highway 50. It’s quite popular among rock climbers, which, like jumping off of high cliffs into water, is another sport I see no reason to pursue.

One of my regular stops at the Lake was Bill Harrah’s home. He was incredibly rich from his gambling empire, and his home seemed palatial to me. Never having mastered the servant concept, I always made my deliveries to the front door and was occasionally greeted by his headline performers who stayed there. This came to a screeching halt one day when a young Liza Minnelli opened the door in her baby doll pajamas. She didn’t seem to mind my admiration, but the major domo directed me to make all future deliveries to the service entry in the back. I had little appreciation for my new backdoor status.

Roger Douvres, my boss, had a contract to handle the dry cleaning for the stars that performed at Bill Harrah’s lakeside casino. They often stayed at his home, where I would make weekly deliveries. The picture windows provide a beautiful view of Lake Tahoe.

The best aspect of the laundry business was that the pay was four times what I had earned working in fruit orchards. Since I lived at home, I was able to stash most of my income away for college needs. Eventually, this would pay my expenses at Berkeley. Those were the enlightened years in California when tuition was free.

In the summer of 1963, Roger asked if I would move up to Lake Tahoe and work for his son-in-law, John Cefalu. John had taken over a laundry that Douvers had owned, sold, and then reclaimed because of back payments. There was an old trailer sitting next to the laundry ‘in need of a little work’ that I would be welcome to use. I jumped at the chance. What twenty-year-old male given a chance to work in one of the world’s top resort areas wouldn’t? The only disadvantage, from my perspective, was the distance from my girlfriend. At least, I consoled myself, there was a beach three blocks away that was normally filled with scantily clad young women. I’d get by.

Things, of course, are rarely as rosy as they seem. To start with, the trailer was a mess. It was probably twenty years old and, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been cleaned it in nineteen. My first weekend was devoted to twenty hours of scrubbing. There were no scantily clad women for Curt. Monday brought work, and it was work. I no longer had my leisurely trip back and forth across the mountains. It was stuff the truck with a mountain of clean linen, dash out to the motels and make deliveries, cram the truck up with dirty linen, and rush back to the laundry— over and over and over.

Fatigue, by the end of the day, usually meant I would crawl in bed and go to sleep. It was not the romantic lifestyle I had imagined. The second weekend, I did manage an obligatory trip to the beach for Female Body Appreciation 101.  But I had no desire for any other relationship and most of what my excursion did was to remind me of what I was missing. I did say mostly, didn’t I? The age of the ‘itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow polka dot bikini’ was dawning, and it was a sight to inspire bad poetry. Not even true love can totally deaden 20-year-old hormones.

My daily routine was about to end, however. I was soon to learn what it was like to be held by gunpoint. I’ll tell the story in my post next Wednesday from The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: I’m going to leave Oregon’s Harris State Beach for a week and jaunt 360 miles south to Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California to visit the Elephant Seals that hang out at Drake’s Beach.

Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : My love of the outdoors (plus a desire to escape from sharing a bedroom with Marshall) led me to move into my backyard the summer between second and third grade. It was perfect except for the tombstones…

30 thoughts on “Held at Gunpoint: Training for Berkeley, and the Peace Corps… Part 1

  1. It’s so odd. I’ve known for decades about Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, but for some reason it never occurred to me that there was a person named Harrah.

    One of the saddest things about this point is the ‘training for Berkeley’ reference. It’s strange how one of the most truly liberal places in America has transformed itself into one of the most illiberal.

  2. Great to be able to make a bit of money and save for a rainy day. As for picking up laundry. I remember well before the days of throw-away nappies, a service of fresh and clean cloth nappy deliveries. The dirty soiled ones would be picked up and exchanged for clean ones. Driving a truckload of soiled nappies would not be my favourite way to earn a crust.

  3. You’ve come a long way from a laundry pick-up guy. And I’m glad you didn’t end up on the hanging tree. It’s pretty impressive that you’ve seen Liza Minelli — the back door delivery must have been a bummer afterwards! You’ve led a storied life — and I’m glad you’re sharing it with us.

  4. Thanks for the memories! How recent is that shot of P’ville (as we used to call it)? I arrived about a decade after the start of your laundry delivery career! Fun times! I felt I had finally arrived at the wild west when heading out on the back roads of the El Dorado NF. So young and carefree… good times. Pity the negatives from those days didn’t hold up so well… just one favorite spot was the Mosquito Rd Bridge and so many more.

    • I think I took the Placerville picture about four years ago, Gunta when Peggy and I were driving my 10,000 mile bike route. I still have good friends in Placerville, however, and make it back to town once or twice a year.
      I’ve been over the mosquito bridge but I confess, I think it was only once. We drove up to Georgetown out of Placerville via Chilly Bar if I remember correctly.
      By 1971 I was living in Sacramento but still hunting and fishing in El Dorado National Forest. Not that I ever caught or shot much. Grin. They were my excuse for revisiting the foothills. Ah, young and carefree! While the former flowed under the bridge a long time ago, I still work at the latter. 🙂 –Curt

  5. Wow, Curt! That shot of Bill Harrah’s house is so cool! It’s about two miles down the road from me and has been on the market for $25 million for quite sometime. I was able to tour it about two years ago. A phenomenal place! But a bit out of place in the current neighborhood (higher priced than anything else, by a country mile). Love learning about your history here! Such a special place, then and now.

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