Armen Bacon

Las Vegas, a place where childhood memories met horrific reality a year ago

A body is covered with a sheet after a mass shooting in which dozens were killed at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.
A body is covered with a sheet after a mass shooting in which dozens were killed at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Las Vegas Sun

Whether you’re a gambler, hooker, people watcher or poker player, the real action in Las Vegas rarely happens before nightfall – peaking between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. I learned this fact decades ago from my father.

It’s a little after 10 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2017. Here in Las Vegas for a long weekend. Sipping Chardonnay and playing blackjack with a dealer who keeps turning over queens and kings to my sixes and sevens, I decide to sit out a few hands, people watch, the normal high-octane buzz of Saturday night dialed way down. After all, it’s a Sunday night.

Relaxing, eyes gazing at posh furnishings, glittering light fixtures, the newest bank of high-tech penny slots, I spot a pair of pit bosses huddled alongside security guards, their faces wearing the kind of intensity not unusual when watching a high stakes card counter or scam artist. Leaning in, eavesdropping, my ears take in what sounds like “active shooter” – words about to cue an army of hotel personnel to appear – entering through unsuspecting orifices, fanning out in all directions. An immediate frenzy unfolds as doors lock, trapping in gamblers, diners, players and patrons.

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Armen Bacon

An abrupt, intrusive voice over the intercom announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the hotel is on lockdown. If you are a guest in the hotel, please proceed immediately to your room.”

Swarms of armed guards emerge from every crevice and corner, underscoring the sense of urgency, reiterating lockdown instructions, imploring us to follow orders. Some kind of danger is eminent, but no one in authority readily offers details.

I flash my room key to the elevator guard now signaling me to proceed past his security post. Pressing floor 42, a palpable, fear-laced hush shows on the faces of everyone standing inside. At first, no one says a word.

“Probably a damned terrorist,” spews a middle-aged man whose belly protrudes over his waistband. His words magnify my claustrophobia. The air smells thin. When the door opens, we scatter like ants, fumble through hallways. I maneuver the door open and lock myself inside.

Turning on the television, little do I realize this will be my lifeline to the outside world for the next 48 hours. It’s then I notice the series of missed phone calls, texts from friends and family, all inquiring about my safety and whereabouts. Even Facebook requests confirmation of my safety.

Safety from what?

And then, a breaking news bulletin scrolls its headline: “Mass Shooting in Las Vegas.”

…The evening had begun in celebration. Thousands gathered for another night of song at the long anticipated country music festival…more than 22,000 attending the Route 91 country music festival Sunday night in Las Vegas, where a gunman opened fire from a Mandalay hotel room and unleashed hell…

…The attack is one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history…

…Victims span the United States from coast to coast and into Canada…

…Teachers, cops, grandmothers and college students among those killed…

By midnight, varying reports from weary-eyed reporters confirm that mass shooter, Stephen Paddock, sprayed the sky with bullets, opening fire on an outdoor music concert, killing 58 and injuring 851. Rumors still flying rampant suggest the possibility of more shooters, even terrorists on a spree. Hotel telephone operators insist we stay put, doors locked, while outside my window I watch ambulances, police cars, fire trucks racing up and down Las Vegas Boulevard – the soundtrack of sirens nearly shattering my eardrums.

This is not my father’s Las Vegas, I think to myself.

• • • 

It never failed: summer vacations in our family’s household began with elaborate plans for Disneyland, but always landed us in Las Vegas, Dad at the steering wheel driving the yellow Ford station wagon – engine simmering hot just as we turned off in Barstow. Insisting we shut off the air to prevent the radiator from overheating, he and mom bickered nonstop while my sisters and I marked our territory in the back seat, most of the time fighting over who sat in the middle while mimicking our parents’ rants. Long before hitting the Mojave Desert, one of us was usually nauseous and carsick – the other crying, the youngest of our trio eventually puking up early-morning cereal and milk.

My father loved Vegas – I swear he grew three inches taller the instant we crossed the state line. Checking us into the nearby Travel Lodge, fancied with both an elevator and swimming pool, he armed us with a fresh loaf of bread, packaged cold cuts, potato chips and sodas, then locked us in before swaggering off into the sunset – Mom following three steps behind en route to his favorite casino.

Wearing dark glasses, white pants and maroon polyester sports jacket, his wavy slicked-back hair gave him the appearance of a movie star, a look vastly different than the Dad I knew at home wearing starched steel-gray Pep Boys shirts with a Manny, Moe and Jack logo embroidered across his chest. On one of our trips, mom told us someone on the Strip mistook dad for Rock Hudson. From that day forward, she called him her “Rock.”

For much of my youth I thought of Vegas as merely a rest stop before Disneyland. But somewhere in my teens I realized it was a final destination highlighted in yellow on the Triple AAA map carefully stashed and hiding inside the glove compartment.

I’ll never know if he was happy being married to my mother and the father of three girls, or instead dreamt of a different life in a different world – one filled with neon lights, jacks, queens and kings, money and fame.

Closing my eyes, I can still hear the ancient, remnant sounds of Dad playing blackjack in our tiny, modest track home on East Alta Avenue – shuffling decks of cards leaping across the Formica kitchen table, pen and paper in hand, calculating mathematical odds of breaking the house, winning big, silver dollars stacked so tall they eventually tipped over – us kids begging him to share the wealth or at least hand over a couple of silver dollars. Shooing us away, his answer was always the same, “Go watch television.”

• • • 

Glued to the television, I spent hours trapped in a hotel room that Oct. 1, 2017 morning while policemen, first responders, and journalists tried reporting and unraveling the terror and mayhem, many holding back their own tears, something quite uncommon in television journalism. Staring out my hotel window, a now silenced Las Vegas Boulevard stared back at me.

Not a single car. No pedestrians. Only bright yellow crime scene tape.

The elaborate dancing fountains normally playing Sinatra’s signature hit, “High Hopes,” all now awkwardly muted. Powered off.

Going to bed that night my thoughts drifted to my father, the one who first brought us to this Mecca in the desert. Las Vegas was his Disneyland. I can’t remember sleeping or turning off the television set. What I do recall is the flood of memories arriving without invitation, catapulting me back to a time when life – the world, were different colors. More vibrant and jewel-toned. Fewer grays. Less darkness.

Off in the distance I see my dad strutting down Las Vegas Boulevard, silver dollars weighting his pockets, a Rat Pack grin across his face. And me, his little girl, locked inside the Travel Lodge Motel. Holding a bag of potato chips and a can of soda. A bologna sandwich balanced across my lap. Not a worry in the world.

Safe from the wolves.

Oblivious to danger.

Feet dangling off the bed.

Eyes glued to an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Armen D. Bacon is a Fresno author. Write to her at armenbacon@gmail.com, @ArmenBacon.

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