Craps For Christmas…A Tale of Emil

We all grow up hearing the family stories, and I am no exception. I am trying to make sure I share the important ones with my daughter. The Goldas did not have many happy ones. So it’s important to preserve the ones we had.

This one came before I was born.

Like an O. Henry story, it happened in Christmas Eve, in Jersey City. Loretta and Emil lived on Bramhall Ave, with one daughter and a pair of twin boys who were toddlers. He was working as a plumbers assistant to support the family, and while the money was ok, his boss could be erratic about WHEN he paid my dad.

That year, the boss was making merry early in the day, and never showed up with the promised pay. My dad was supposed to bring home the food from the Polish butcher…and presents besides for my brothers and my sister. I believe it was 1957. He has exactly a dollar to his name. That wasn’t going to buy much of a Christmas.

Dad wasn’t a drinker. But while serving in the Merchant Marine during WW2, he used to pass the time on the ship playing craps. He said he always sent half his pay home to his mother, and would take a small bit out for the games. The on board chaplain had ears like a bat, and could hear the muffled sound of the dice, even with several blankets padding the metal deck. He never turned them in for illegal gambling, but would open the hatch door with a broad smile, scoop up the wagers and gleefully thank the men for their “kind contributions to the Church.” They were always getting thank you notes from the padre’s diocese, so he probably did pass them on.

So Emil learned to play craps during the war…but was always careful to not waste good money on it later. He had a family to support!

He was walking around Journal Square, wondering what to say to Lo, when he passed an alley way, and heard the voices of men…and the unmistakable sound of dice rolling. One buck? Hell…what did he have to lose?

If you know statistics, you know the probability of winning even a single pass. When the dice came his way…well. Magic. He won ten straight passes. His single had turned into a STACK of money. And he was tempted to go one more…but he said something stopped him. All of a sudden the winning rush was gone…and he scooped up the winnings.

The man running the game stopped him.

“Not feeling lucky no more?”

My dad shrugged.

“More than enough already.” he said.

“Fair enough.” the man said. “But do me a favor. No bet…but do one last toss?”

“Why?” my dad asked.

“Because then you’ll walk away feeling like an asshole, if your luck held.”

My father stopped, picked up the dice and tossed them.

Snake eyes.

The man running the game roared.

“Not just a lucky son of a bitch…a SMART ONE! Merry Christmas to you and yours!”

So dad was a man on a mission. First to the Polish Butcher for ham, keilbasa, and babka with sweet butter. Then the little toy store. He found Madame Alexandra dolls for my sister, and a ride on train for the boys. Pretty sure he scored something for mom too, and then he spent the very last money he’s won on a cab ride home…loaded with gifts and parcels of food.

My sister and brothers were just old enough to remember it all. Even my mother, who rarely had a good word to speak of my father, used to recall the day, looking out the window as night fell, with fresh snow, and seeing the cab arrive.

I have no recollection of happy family Christmases. By the time I was born, the ice and war between Loretta and Emil had set. But it pleases me, that once upon a time, Christmas came for the Golda family, not courtesy of Santa, but for the biggest crap shoot in my father’s life. And him knowing when not to press his luck,

O Henry would have loved the tale.