Tall tales ring true
Ric Berger is a gambling man who prefers to make his own good luck whenever possible. Throughout his adult life, he has relied on instinct and intuition to govern decisions that took him down fascinating paths.
He has worked as a jazz saxophonist in Chicago, a blackjack dealer in Lake Tahoe, a sailor in France, a tugboat owner in Ireland, a retail merchant in Canada, a farmer in South Africa, a dive shop operator in Tonga, a casino owner in California and a corporate manager for Royal Typewriter, overseeing national accounts for 96 branches around the country.
Even as a child, he led an unsettled life. Born in Indiana, he moved with his mother and stepfather to Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio by turns.
“Kentucky kids didn’t much like a stranger in their midst,” he said. “That was not a good time growing up. But it got a lot better when I was sent to live with my grandmother in Ohio.”
As it turned out, grandma was into music. She played piano in a dance band during World War II, and bought her grandson a saxophone for his 14th birthday.
“That was the beginning of my jazz career,” Berger said. “I just took naturally to music.”
He said, “In 1946, I enlisted in the Navy with the promise of attending the U.S. Navy Conservatory of Music.” However, he contracted viral pneumonia, while standing double watches as discipline, and was honorably discharged following his 16-month recovery.
With its flourishing jazz scene, Chicago beckoned. From 1950 to 1959, he played sax in many of the Windy City’s hippest nightclubs
During that time, he met many of America’s jazz greats, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
Finding it necessary to supplement his income, Berger got help from a buddy landing a sales job with Royal Typewriter.
His boss loved jazz and came to like Berger so much he put him on full time. Thus began a period where music took a back seat to a steady salary.
He was transferred to Dayton in 1960, and to Royal’s corporate headquarters in White Plains, New York, the following year. He was ultimately tapped to oversee national accounts across the country. He said becoming a Rotarian helped him wherever he went throughout his career.
His final assignment with the company came in 1964 as branch manager in Oakland, Calif. “I was 35 years old, lived in a nice house on Alameda Island, had a condo in South Lake Tahoe and thought I was on top of the world,” he said.
Then a conflict with a boss saw his job go south just as his marriage began to fall apart.
He retreated to the Lake Tahoe condo to lick his wounds and regroup. Casino dealer being a readily available job, he soon found himself behind a blackjack table at Harrah’s.
“My time in Tahoe made me a good card dealer and taught me a valuable lesson,” he said. “The house always wins.”
He secured sales work in the San Francisco Bay Area and began saving his money. In 1972, he took the earnings he had stashed and bought a card club in San Bruno.
Its first three years, Ric’s Card Room operated out of a 1,000-square-foot space featuring five tables. Then a funeral parlor once owned by Lady Bird Johnson came up for sale across the street.
Berger was able to install 18 tables in his stately new quarters and take maximum advantage of its off-street parking. Ric’s Casino Royale was born.
His stories about broke gamblers leaving merchandise to cover debts could fill a book.
Suffice it to say that what the house wins might be a car or a nice piece of jewelry. It might also buy lobster, which Berger introduced as a weekly special.
“One day, this Tongan guy comes through the door and says he can sell me better lobster from Tonga for less than I can get from Maine,” he said.
“I had to give this a try, so I ordered a sample shipment and it turned out to be terrific. I got to know the Tongan pretty well and he talked me into visiting his country.”
Berger arrived in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, in 1977. He came bearing an invitation to the upcoming wedding of the king’s eldest daughter, a Polynesian beauty weighing around 400 pounds.
He liked Tonga so much, he had a former manager from a competing club in San Bruno take over at the casino and stayed on for several months.
He developed a dive shop catering to tourists and commuted back and forth between his U.S. and Tonga ventures for four years. The Tongan Rotary welcomed him as a member.
He sold his card club in 1985 and moved to Cap d’Agde, on France’s Mediterranean Coast. Having gotten into sailing in Tonga, he bought a 57-foot ketch and turned it into a floating residence.
During a sailing trip to the Seychelles in 1989, he met a lovely English woman named Ida, and that was that. Before you knew it, they had married and moved to Ireland.
“Living in Galway was interesting,” he said. “But you’re always an outsider.”
Seeking things to do, he went to an auction one day, and on a whim, he submitted what turned out to be the winning bid on a 140-foot tugboat badly in need of some TLC. He immediately set about getting it shipshape again, then sold it at a handsome profit.
He and Ida set off on a vacation trip to South Africa and ended up buying a farm there. But the continuing disruption of apartheid was making South African life downright dangerous, so they sold out and headed to Canada.
“Ida wanted to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side,” he said. “We saw it, got soaked and were suitably impressed.”
That whetted her appetite, so they headed to Vancouver Island, at the other end of the country. There, they ended up buying a historic building between Nanaimo and Butchart Gardens, and began running a pie shop, pizza parlor and grocery store out of it.
From 1997 to 2004, the Maple Bay Trading Post never failed to turn a profit. But it proved a very demanding enterprise.
Working seven days a week got to them, so they decided to take an extended vacation.
Down in the states, they fell in love with Orange Beach, Alabama, and bought a place there. Just outside Kingman, Ariz., lots in the desert were going cheap, so they bought first one, then two, then three, and built a winter home.
On their way back to Canada, they took the coast highway and northwestern Oregon captured their attention.
Turning inland at Lincoln City, they only got as far as Otis before finding a place they liked. They put their Vancouver Island trading post up for sale and sank stakes in Otis.
One day, as they were driving to Salem on Highway 22, Ida spotted a for sale sign on a local property.
“It was 79 acres with a lovely house, a second house and a fabulous view,” Berger said. “We moved there in September 2006, and it is home now.
“This is it. No more moves.”
Of course, they still have the house they built themselves in Kingman, and sneak off there in the winter months. But that’s it. Really!
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT. Truth be told, reality is a lot more fun than fiction, at least for a few fearless and footloose folks.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.