About 1,300 miles separate Hague, North Dakota, and Las Vegas. For Etta Baykara, it may as well have been the distance from Earth to Pluto.
Baykara grew up in the small farming community in southeastern North Dakota in a family of 13, living — she realizes now but didn’t then — a rough childhood filled with hard work, little money and simple pleasures. After graduating from high school, she moved away, embarking on a path that would take her to California and, ultimately, Las Vegas, a place she couldn’t even have imagined as a child.
Now, Baykara tells her story in a memoir, “No Bull” ($9.99, available through Amazon.com). Baykara says she wrote the book mostly to teach her children and grandchildren about their family history.
“When I told them that I was going to write the book, just like kids do, they (said), ‘Ehh,’ ” Baykara says, smiling. “But when they read it, my middle daughter was the first one, she called me and said, ‘Mom, I just read your book and it was really good.’ ”
Life on the farm
Baykara is a vivacious 91-year-old with a quick laugh, an occasionally bordering-on-earthy sense of humor and a sense of gratitude for all, good or bad, that has gotten her from there to here. Hers is no romanticized story about rural life. She writes candidly of her family’s poverty, the physical labor involved in daily survival and the severe discipline imposed by her parents.
Baykara’s children have heard some of the stories. Others she has kept to herself until now. For example, she says, “I still have nightmares about butchering. It never left me. I didn’t tell the kids about that.”
Baykara was born in 1928 and grew up knowing of not much more than the rural town that was her entire universe. It was only while writing the book, she says, that “I thought, ‘My gosh, we were really in the sticks.’ ”
The book’s title comes from Baykara’s encounter with a bull while walking to the one-room schoolhouse she and her siblings attended. Her childhood memories are of everyday occurrences and a routine of daily life, punctuated by such heady events as the town’s Fourth of July celebrations and her first ride in a Model-T.
“It was the first time in my life. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” Baykara says. “It just took us down the road and back, and I was just, ‘My gosh, where’s the horse?’ ”
“Oh, I never heard of a lot of things,” Baykara says. “I was naive. It was going to church and working in the field, and that was about it. And, basically, they never taught us anything except what the school taught us.”
But she doesn’t blame her parents for her restricted worldview. “My mother had 11 children two years apart. She was pregnant all the time and she had a hard life. She got very ill when she was very young. It was just too much hard work.”
Meanwhile, Baykara’s father mostly worked to provide for his family. She writes of a sudden Sunday storm with golf ball-sized hail that turned the family’s wheat field into “clumps of twisted stalks.
“What haunted me for many years after was seeing Dad, still wearing his suit, pull up a chair, sit down, pull out a snow white hankie from his suit pocket, put it to face and sob, uncontrollably, like I’d never seen anyone cry before or since.”
A new world
She’s not sure how, but her parents kept their family warm and fed. Baykara didn’t know what she was missing because she didn’t know there was anything to miss.
“I would describe my childhood as worry-free. I would describe it as very naive and knowing no better, and being happy,” she says. “I describe it as a very normal childhood. Writing the book, then I realized it wasn’t so normal. When I look back, I see a lot of things we never saw when it was happening.”
It was “almost survival,” she says, but “we never went hungry or cold. We were comfortable.”
When Baykara moved away after high school — by then the family had moved to Rupert, Idaho — she was amazed by a world she never knew.
“You cannot imagine. I mean, I didn’t know there was a world out there. All I knew was our little world. Even school geography, I almost didn’t pay attention to geography because it was too far away for me to comprehend other countries like that.”
Baykara eventually made it to California, where she became a real estate agent and ran a fabric store. In 1975, she began to visit Las Vegas with a friend and discovered that she loved everything about it. In 1979, she moved here and married her husband, Joe.
She has seen Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore perform live and remembers how, seeing her first dinner show here, “I thought I’d died and went to heaven.
“I was exposed to the most exciting things in the world here. There isn’t a new casino that opens that I don’t go to. I want to see everything that’s there,” she says. “I’ve watched every implosion with tears running down my eyes. It’s so sad, and I think it will never be the same…”
A good life
A local boy named Lawrence Welk, who grew up not far from Baykara’s hometown, made the accordion popular in her part of North Dakota, and Baykara has played it and the piano since she was a child.
For about five years, she and her husband performed at Las Vegas Valley nursing homes and retirement communities as The Polka Dots, with Etta on accordion and Joe dancing. Recently, she played with fellow accordionists during a monthly gathering at a local restaurant.
It was supposed to be her finale, because Baykara’s doctor has ordered her to give up the heavy instrument for the sake of her back. So was that really her last performance?
“Well, it’s supposed to be,” Baykara answers, smiling conspiratorially, “but I think I’m going to fudge.
“We have so much fun. It keeps you young.”