A Man You Never Knew

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Bruno Selmi, lining one up.  Photo by Liz Margerum.

Word has reached me, carried on the wind, that Bruno Selmi, legendary owner of Bruno’s Country Club, in Gerlach, Nevada, has passed on. I had known that Bruno wasn’t feeling well, after stopping in for a visit last year, but am forced to admit that I was nursing a strong, and stupid, hope that he might live on forever.

Some eras in our lives remain so formative, so rich with experience, that our subconscious keeps them in a special place, preserved in a kind of memorial amber. Bruno, and his watering hole, featured prominently in the personal amber rooms for many of us who once called the great Nevada Outback our home.

Bruno was an immigrant, arriving in Nevada in the 1950’s without much English. He bought the Country Club, in those days called the Longhorn Saloon, for a few thousand bucks. Ultimately, he would own most of Gerlach, build the only motel for a hundred miles in any direction, and become the de-facto mayor of a town that never had one. He was a kind of outback Al Swearengen, without the Shakespearean diatribes. Rather, he was acerbic, and possessed a razor wit, which he could, and would, occasionally unleash.

He was a man you could never really know.

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Bruno at 91, still working the bar…

The truth is, Bruno never said much at all. He either liked you or he didn’t, and if he didn’t he would tell you—and he meant it–to get out of his place and go across the street. Across the street there was nothing but empty desert.

If less is more, and it often is, Bruno’s quiet and laconic nature helped build him into the giant he was, and it may be the reason he was so universally respected, even by those who faced his ire. Because at the bottom of all that ire was a generous heart. He was the kind of guy who would advance a man’s paycheck from his own till.

When the first Burners started coming into Bruno’s–before Burning Man became the over-hyped and strangely corporatized art-funk techno blowout it is now–they were as nervous and shifty as any troop of dandies stranded at a frontier trading post.

Bruno didn’t like them, once warning a man wearing a skirt, and with a hockey puck stuck in his lower lip, that he should be careful walking around the desert because the bird he had wired to the top of his hat was a game species. I only know that is true because I was there when it happened, saw the fear in the poor man’s eyes, and heard the bar break up in laughter. But I also know that Bruno eventually came to like them—certainly he liked the money that came with them.

What made Bruno’s such a great place wasn’t just his stuffed raviolis on a cold day, or the generous drinks he poured. It was the abiding sense, compounded by all of that open desert, that we truly were on a lost frontier, and that just beyond the next jagged ridgeline the world held a promise of rugged exploration and wild discovery.

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The author, with California Cowboys Dan McGrew and “Uncle” Bill Wrankle, at the Country Club.

The cast of players who inhabited the Country Club on a Saturday night only reinforced the notion. Miners, cowboys, truckers, hunters, itinerant singers, Indians, Mexicans, whites and Basques, we were all drawn to Bruno’s in a kind of marvelous modern rendezvous.

It could, and sometimes did, get rowdy.

But the world is always shrinking, slouching toward a kind of sad and somnambulant uniformity, and I think that’s a large part of the reason I hold memories of the Country Club, and of Bruno—the master of ceremonies–so dear. His death is, in many ways I still don’t fully understand, the last door on the wild frontiers of my youth slamming shut.

I can foresee a day, maybe not long from now, when I will return to the Country Club, belly up to the bar, and order a drink from a sassy bartender with pink yo-yo’s stuck in his ears. He won’t care about anything I might have to say, any stories I might tell of the sunny slopes of yesteryear, because he was never there to see just how western the Country Club could get.  He will never have seen Bruno pull out his shotgun to restore order amongst the heathens.

And I can imagine my instinctive reaction to the new guy’s attitude–the strongest urge to give him an Augustus McRae style pistol-whipping.

But I probably won’t.

We’ve graduated from pistol-whipping surly bartenders, it seems. Instead, I’ll probably just shrug, stare at my own reflection in the mirror, and pull at a mournfully weak bourbon and seven. And at some point I’ll rally–I always do–and raise a quiet toast to Bruno Selmi, and all the beautiful ghosts of yet another lost frontier.

  1. RIP Bruno.

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  2. Beautiful, once again. I had similar feelings when we took the kids through Thousand Oaks last summer and took them to Akio’s. It had been sold but Akios name was on a locker in the back by the restrooms. No More Mr. Akio yelling at the register at the front door. I ate sushi for the first time with Rick at that place. So many memories. I wish I hadn’t taken the kids there. I wish I had left it alone.

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    1. Did Akio pass on? What sad news, too many fine memories in there. And the food was terrific.

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  3. Bruno is pleased and “the dome” is calm for now at least.

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    1. Ha! I had nearly forgotten about “the dome”! If the dome is calm, we are all better off, so this is good news. Thx, Steve.

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  4. Very well written,
    RIP Bruno

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  5. Someone once said, “The past if a foreign country…they do things different there.”
    Each of us have our amber rooms that the key of nostalgia unlocks for us at unexpected times. <

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    1. So true. The danger is trying to live in them. A battle ive fought from time to time.

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  6. Marlo Brotzman May 18, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    He was just the way you said, He help me, I rented a room form him and he did cash my paycheck, I worked at the Gold mine Hog Ranch, he was a very good man to me. may you have the rest you need now and it be in peace.

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    1. Thanks Marlo for writing in. He was indeed a good man. I rode for Soldier Meadows and he would always take care of us in a pinch. Be safe, my friend.

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  7. What a great man, he epitomizes the saying, “they don’t make em like they used to”. he joins a select band of brothers we all miss.

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  8. Craig

    Here is an obit, very much as interesting as your article about Bruno, which should have been his official obit. I used to collect obits about people like Bruno, whom most never heard of, but who left their mark and a big foot print. At first I wanted to someday put them together in a book, but realized the copyright issues would be too much.

    Having said that, I recently rec’d an obit from a guy I met at my favorite watering hole HH (Monday’s Oysters $1). I thought about adding it to my post re; Bruno, decided against cause, that was Bruno’s space. So here it is…a good one!

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2002/02/25/bunny-allen-95-dies/e315115e-d9d0-4f3b-904d-9ca161f8ebf7/?utm_term=.1080d6890f4f

    Take care

    Todd

    Todd Setzer

    Setzer & Associates

    Pureaire Technologies

    619.929.6455 T.

    855.842.3412 F.

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  9. […] • When you have a moment, head over to The Bunkhouse Chronicle and read Craig Rullman’s post on the passing of the Al Swearingen of Craig’s Nevada Outback haunts. […]

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