It all started at the rugby club, the Leeds Rugby League club where our Uncle Ralph was the catering manager. He and our dad would run the players and directors bar after each game and would end up staying there for most of the night through into the early hours of the morning as the directors treated the place as their own private club and would often be huddled in a corner for hours at a time while our dad and Ralph would have their own drinking club going behind the bar.
Leeds RL was and still is a big club in rugby circles, and the reputation among opposition clubs was that it was a “Jewish” club, that is its board of directors was mainly derived from the large Jewish community in Leeds, and that it was a closed shop, if you weren’t Jewish you wouldn’t ever be a director.
I don’t know the truth of the story and I have no knowledge of the religious habits of any of the directors at that time, Leeds did and does have a large Jewish community and the trade that Leeds was reknown for (sadly not anymore) was tailoring, many of who’s businesses were under Jewish ownership, so its possible that the story is true, I’ll say no more.
What I do know is that the board of directors of the club were very definitely a closed shop, it was a private sporting club and they treated it as their own private sporting club, and why shouldn’t they as it was their own money that had supported the place for years ?
What we witnessed in the spring and summer of 1974 was an attempt by a very wealthy Leeds businessman to infiltrate this closed shop and become a director of the club he loved, he’d better remain nameless in this story, as will the other combatants. This particular wealthy businessman already had access to the inner sanctum, that is he was always a guest in the players bar after the game and Ralph believed that he had already loaned a significant amount of money to the club without any guarantees as to its return or a say in how it was used, hence the reason why he wished to join the board, in Ralph’s words at the time “they strung him along for years”.
And still he spent his money like water in the players bar, was always good for a round and his rounds always included bottles of champagne (Moet), I should know, as glass collector I was always being sent up to Ralph’s office where the Moet and expensive spirits were kept under lock and key, it was always a bottle of Moet for the directors wives and whatever the directors were having, and whenever he was paying their drinks always switched to the expensive cognac or malt whiskies, cigars were bought and twenty or so pints of beer bought for the players who were in the bar – he was suckered for whatever they could suck out of him, and still there was no invitation to join the board.
He lived in Huby, a village ‘twixt Leeds and Harrogate where your bank balance is scrutinised very carefully before the residents vote to let you live there with them, he was clearly a millionaire and in 1974 the UK didn’t have too many of those. In the summer of the previous year he had thrown a party at his house, a large bungalow with a huge outdoor terrace area, and of course everyone at the rugby club who was of any importance was invited, my dad and Ralph wangled an invite to serve at his terrace bar and they took a couple of waitresses from Headingley. I helped them set the bar up during the afternoon of the party and spent most of the time open mouthed in amazement at the opulence of the place – the party was very clearly done to show that money was no object to him and it certainly worked for me, I’d have had him as a director there and then, but it was nothing to do with me of course.
He had a daughter who had trained to be a classical dancer and in the tradition of all dancers who start off with ambitions to be a ballet prima donna, she’d ended up as a chorus girl on the London stages, until one day she took off to America and got a job dancing at one of the casinos in Las Vegas, her parents had been to see her in Vegas, and the seed of a new business idea was sown.
What this wealthy businessman had proposed was startling in its audacity, in 1974 the UK was just about getting used to the idea that you could take your summer holiday somewhere other than Scarborough or if you were really daring, Cornwall. During the previous year our dad had driven us in his huge Morris Oxford to the Burgundy area of France with Ralph following closely in his Austin Mini, the other kids at school simply didn’t believe us when we told them we’d been to France, it was a ridiculous idea that you should take a holiday outside of the UK even though a few fledgling holiday operators were starting to offer exotic destinations such as Torremolinas and Lloret de Mar in their thin package tour brochures, Spain was opening up for the very brave and flying was still for the likes of the RAF and not for ordinary people.
What this wealthy businessman proposed was that he should charter his own Boeing 707 and fly those daring enough across the Atlantic to Las Vegas in a complete package that he would supervise and conduct himself, he was convinced that he could find 150 brave souls to make the trips which would be spaced once a month or so and provide him with an excuse to visit Vegas on a regular basis and maybe make some money at the same time.
His initial trip was a tester, he had to bring on board other businesses who would help him in the venture and so travel agents were his first target, various managers and directors of all the major travel agents were invited on his first ten day trip, completely free of charge in the hope that they would sell the subsequent packages. A major bookmakers who were venturing into casino operations at the time were also interested and were invited, in 1974 the gambling industry was extremely tightly controlled in the UK and the opportunity to fly their major customers out to Las Vegas on a package deal was tempting, as was the opportunity of a free ten day trip out there.
News of his venture quickly spread in the Headingley players bar, mainly because he used it as another chance to spread the word of his wealth and entrepreneurship, and it wasn’t long before the directors of the club and their families were invited too, the playing staff unfortunately, or fortunately for Vegas, couldn’t go as February was mid-season, but there would be no-one else left at home during that ten days.
And still the 707 was not full, he had booked enough rooms at The Flamingo hotel and its annex The Flamingo Capri (which was actually nothing more than a motel) to cater for all 150 seats on the aircraft and he intended to fill the flight, and so on one drunken night in the players bar, Ralph received an invite.
“Bloody hell kid, what do you think I should do ?” Ralph asked our dad
“Is it free ?” our dad had his priorities in the right order, as always
“Aye, he says it won’t cost me and Joyce a penny”
“Bloody go kid, bloody go”
“I don’t know…”
“Don’t be bloody daft, where were you going on holiday this year then ?”
“So you’d rather go to Filey instead of Las Vegas ?”
“Aye, I see what you mean”
And so Ralph and Joyce arranged for their two daughters to be cared for by family members and started to look forward to ten days in Vegas, and it was only a matter of waiting for the next home game at Headingley before our dad had wangled himself and our mum a free trip to Vegas as well, me and Ned were going to be shipped out to our posh Auntie Doris, or at our own choice to her sister, our barking mad Auntie Phyllis, we didn’t think that was very funny, especially as I was 16 at the time and Ned was 14, we eventually persuaded our Mum that we wouldn’t spend the whole ten days fighting each other (we would have) and that we’d compromise by having posh Auntie Doris check on us once a day.
And then with just a few days to go before our parents departure to the gambling capital of the world and with our dad out of the house at his beloved Meanwood Conservative Club there was a knock at the door and in came our uncle Ralph with the news that there were still some spare places on the 707 and that their two daughters had been invited on the trip and did me and Ned want to go ?
Our mum was never a one for making important decisions, that was our dads territory, but he was playing in a snooker tournament and it was an away game, no-one knew where he was and Ralph needed to know tonight, he’d driven at 70mph all the way from Headingley where the wealthy businessman was waiting for our mums answer, were we to go or not ?
It would cost each person just £7 to cover the airport taxes so the four of us would be £28, not a considerable amount of money even in 1973, not for ten days in Las Vegas anyway, and still our mum dithered because she didn’t know what our dad would say, we all knew what he was like when it came to spending money.
In the end she told Ralph to take the message back to Headingley, we would all go and me and Ned started looking forward to ten days off school, it didn’t matter where we were going.
Our dad went crackers, we don’t know whether or not he didn’t want us to go or whether he didn’t have any money for us to go, or whether he was just annoyed that our mum had made a decision for once in her life, but he was not a happy bunny, but it was too late, we were going.
We had just enough time to apply for and receive a passport each, and then just enough time to have a US visa stamped in it, today it would take forever to get that process completed but in 1974 no-one ever went abroad and the passport office more or less returned your applications on the day they were received.
We travelled over to Manchester the night before our departure, the M62 was still incomplete then the stretch across the highest part of the Pennines was missing and exactly a week before the IRA had exploded a bomb in an army coach in the new service area on the M62 closing this stretch too, so our journey took us on the old roads over the hills through Bradford and Huddersfield and then into and across Manchester until we reached a pub/hotel close to the airport where we’d booked for the night, it was the first of the firsts during that trip, our first time on an aircraft but on that first night our first time in a hotel, 16 years old and I’d never seen inside a hotel up until that night.
The next morning we were up very early, too early for breakfast and that got our dad and Ralph in a bad moment because the robbing bugger of a landlord had charged them for bed and breakfast and wouldn’t knock anything of the price for us missing breakfast, yes it was petty, but these things are important to a Yorkshireman.
The 707, which had been chartered from TWA, was eventually filled with a rag-tag bunch of bookies, bookies clerks, holiday reps, a newspaper reporter who was really the newspapers racing tipster, and friends of friends of the wealthy man, and with a mighty roar (jet engines were so noisy in those days and the 707 had four of them) we left a murky Manchester February morning behind us to the piped-music sounds of Barry Whites Love Unlimited Orchestra and “The Love Unlimited Theme”, funny how evocative music can be isn’t it ?
I had a lot of time to listen to the in-flight music that day, the headsets that were handed out were plastic tubes that plugged into a hole in the armrest and Paul Gambicini’s album chart channel was listened to over and over again as he was featuring the latest Elton John album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, as soon as I returned home I bought the album .
I can’t recall any TV screens on board, I don’t think they did that in those days, so it was the piped music with four or five channels to choose from and a good book for the seven hour flight to New York’s Kennedy Airport (not called JFK at that time). My book of choice was Spike Milligans “Puckoon” and I read it from cover to cover pretty quickly and so had to read it all over again, its still one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
We landed at Kennedy Airport just as the sky was growing ominously dark, not that it was supposed to as it was only lunchtime, there was a snow storm on the way. Having passed through immigration we were shepherded to a lounge upstairs where we could watch our TWA jetliner being refuelled and just as they had completed that task the sky got very dark and a deluge of snow fell so that we couldn’t see the aircraft any more, we weren’t going anywhere for a while, a long while.
A couple of hours later the sky was getting a little lighter and the snow was falling a little lighter and our luxury TWA jetliner had reappeared from the blizzard, covered in snow several inches deep, but still there. A few minutes later lots of trucks appeared with cherry pickers and spray guns to spray the aircraft with a yellow liquid that was apparently a de-icer as the snow started to disappear from the wings and fuselage, a quarter of an hour later we were climbing the steps again for the second leg of our journey, the six hour flight to Vegas.
As the aircraft gathered speed down the runway and the last remnants of snow and ice fell off the wings I couldn’t help but remember how the Manchester Utd team of 1958 had been all but wiped out in the Munich air crash due to a similar build up of snow and ice, fortunately the 707 was built of sterner stuff and we were soon above the clouds and heading north before turning left over Chicago (pointed out to us through perfectly clear skies by the pilot) and heading south-westwards towards the Nevada desert.
It was another long flight, the audio entertainment was exactly the same and Puckoon was still quite funny on its third reading, but then came an announcement from the cockpit, the pilot had requested permission to do a bit of showboating and take us all on a sightseeing tour of the Grand Canyon, presumably they can do this on charter flights, after all, if you are a millionaire and are paying the pilots wages for the day who is he to refuse your every wish.
The aircraft descended from 35000 feet to 12000 feet which seemed awfully low even though it wasn’t and then, in the second largest passenger aircraft in the sky at that time, we did the whole tourist thing and flew one way, then turned around and flew the other way up and down the deepest and widest part of the canyon.
Even from 12000 feet the Grand Canyon is awesome, multicoloured and vast in width, our driver for the day kept tilting the aircraft from side to side so that everyone could get a good view, he must have been a crop sprayer in his spare time, or maybe he was secretly being employed by Boeing to see just how much throwing about their aircraft could take, or maybe again he was a shareholder in the Grand Canyon itself, either way it was a pretty spectacular way to view a very spectacular feature.
Our mum couldn’t get enough of the view, she was backwards and forwards across the aisle with her Instamatic camera, snapping and flashing at every turn and counter turn and oooh-ing and aaah-ing at each new and spectacular sight, but there was a problem.
Our dad was missing the show, he’d gone to the toilet just before the pilot had started his descent and had not returned and our mum was getting more and more annoyed at him in his absence for missing this free show outside the windows. He finally did return when the crop spraying was over and we had ascended back up to 35000 feet, to get a right bollacking from our mum and receive a classic line that we all repeated over and over again to her for the rest of her life,
“Where’ve you been ?”
“What ? The toilet, why ?”
“You missed it all, you’ve missed it”
“Missed what ?”
“The grand canyon, you’ve missed I, we went right down inside it”
“I know, I saw it”
“No you didn’t you weren’t here”
“Of course I was bloody here, the stewardess made me sit at the back when I came out of the toilet, I’ve been sat in one of the stewardesses seats at the back”
“Ooh you won’t have seen what we’ve seen, we went right into the canyon, right into it”
“I know, I was sat at the back, I saw it all back there”
“Oh no you didn’t, we went right into the canyon and turned this way …” (demonstrates with turning hand), “…and then that way…” (demonstrates again with turning hand), “…and then he stopped right over the canyon for us to get some lovely pictures…”
“He did what ?”
“He stopped, on its side it was, right on its side the plane was, our Gary got a lovely view out of his window didn’t you”
I couldn’t speak, I was trying not to crack a rib from laughing as were all the other passengers around us who were eavesdropping at this bloke who’d missed the grand canyon cropspraying tour because he was sat on the toilet and was now getting a bollacking from his wife.
“He stopped the plane ?”
“Yes, it was on its side and it stopped so we could get photos”
There was no answer to that one, she honestly believed that the 707 had stopped in mid-air for photos and nothing we could tell her for the next 30 years would convince her otherwise, even though we tried nearly every week.