Friday, November 10, 2017

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Not too long ago, my sister, my nephew Bryan, and I went to Midland, Texas to clean out my brother’s house following his death from congestive heart failure. Rob didn’t have family other than his relatives Back East, so if the job were going to get done, we were the ones to do it.  My sister and her family had lived in Midland from 1980 to 1990, so she and Bryan knew the lay of the land. That made our time there much easier.

Midland, for those not in the know, is midway between Fort Worth and El Paso, which translates in English to the middle of nowhere. Vintage postcards said the place was "the land of the modern pioneer", which, I suppose is better than, "a place you don't want to live if you can help it". Midland sits atop a geologic formation known as the Permian Basin, which, fortunately for the town, is filled with oil. Population wise, Wiki says Midland is the 24th most populous city in Texas which puts it someplace between Mesquite (144,788) and Waco (132,356), two cities not on my bucket list.

Carolyn and I flew from Pennsylvania and rendezvoused with Bryan, who lives in North Carolina, at the DFW Airport, which has the largest Coke machines I've ever seen. The airport is so large that the tram from one terminal to another takes forever and a day to get you to your destination. 

My sister pointed out the Braniff International Chapel. I’m not sure if a chapel named after a dead airline is the most peaceful place in an airport, but it probably beats the reverie you’ll find in line at a tchotchke shop while waiting to buy a $47 neck pillow that is guaranteed to look stupid hanging from your backpack.

Once we landed in Midland we had plenty of time to hang out in the Midland International Air and Space Port (yes, that’s really its name) since we’d taken advantage of a free offer to check our bags. We had to wait at baggage claim while the airline found some undocumented laborers to carry them from the plane to the terminal. My sister had plenty of time to pick up our rental car.

According to Visit Midland, the Midland International Air and Space Port is a tourist attraction since it’s home to the Pliska Aeroplane, the first airplane in the state of Texas. It was built in Midland in 1911 as a knock off of a Wright Flyer by John V. Pliska, a blacksmith, and Gray Coggin, a chauffeur and auto mechanic. It didn't fly very far, but since Texas had an airplane before Oklahoma, there was general rejoicing.

I was surprised to see Jehovah’s Witnesses hanging out at the airport. Who hangs out at airports these days, even if you do have to meet a monthly quota of selling subscriptions to The Watchtower? Perhaps they sensed that I’d had my fill of religion-to-go in walking by the Braniff International Chapel, but I got out of the airport with my own Watchtower subscription.

Almost all of the advertisements in the airport were about the oil industry. Some of them made me scratch my head and say "Huh?".

We didn’t work on Saturday evening but watched Penn State spank Michigan on the TV in our hotel lobby bar. We consumed enough adult beverages to think taking a selfie was a good idea. It's sort of out of focus. I think there was part of a burrito stuck to my phone.

Bright and early on Sunday, after going through the takeout window at local favorite, JumBurrito,  we went over to my brother’s house to get to work. As soon as we pulled up to the place, two neighbors came over to tell us how much they liked Rob, how nice he was to their kids and so on. I was pleasantly surprised since he and I often had a difficult time getting along. Obviously, they saw a side of him that I didn’t.

Rob’s house was a disaster. I’m not going to go into a lot of details other than to say that his house was the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen, and since I have plenty of experience cleaning up student rentals, I have some bona fides in this department. We wore masks and gloves and at one point even Tyvek suits as we filled three 20-yard dumpsters with the leftovers of Rob’s life.

I’m glad his neighbors liked him, but why didn’t they tell someone that his house was unfit for human habitation?

When I cleaned out my mother’s house and my aunt’s house, there were occasional nostalgia-inducing moments where I would open a drawer and find an old birthday card, prom photo, or postcard of some motel in a town I’d never heard of. There was nothing like that at Rob’s house. Unfortunately, I never understood the gravity of his mental health issues and how they affected his ability to take care of himself.

Cleaning up the place meant garbage bags, duct tape, and so on, so we made a bunch of trips to Lowe's and the local hardware.

Lowe's in Texas is the same as it is everywhere else, except Texas was the only place where I’ve seen a guy wearing a #buildthewall tee shirt...
...and a woman in thigh high boots on the same day.

After a day of cleaning we went back to our hotel, showered, put our dirty clothes in the washer and headed out to dinner. We ate a place in downtown Midland called Wall Street Bar and Grille. It was a place my brother went to from time to time. For all his issues, he knew how to find a good meal. The restaurant was near the George H.W. and George W. Bush United States Court House.

Midland Menus describes the place as “Midland as Midland gets.”  I couldn’t tell you how long it had been there, but a long time. Even the menu was old fashioned: steak, chops. No artisanal, heritage, free-range, non-GMO tofu dusted with kale pollen in this place. The service and food were top notch. And the place still hands out matchbooks too.

Downtown Midland is pretty generic, like Oklahoma City, though I didn’t see an office tower named Corporate Tower as they have in Oklahoma. Some of the older places, like the Midland Tower and Midland Map Company had a bit of personality. One of the banks had, in addition to the traditional time and temperature, a digital reader board that also showed the price of oil and natural gas, and the active rig count in the U.S. Yeah, they don’t do that back east.

After dinner we drove by my nephew’s old high school. We found the names of some folks he knew on the wall of commemorative bricks outside the main entrance. There were a few cars in the parking lot.  Judging by the kinds of cars and how they were tricked out, Bryan concluded that the “kickers” or as we would say, rednecks, parked in the same section of the parking area that they did 30 years ago. Plus ça change, podner.

Another thing that hadn't changed was the architectural gem known as the Pepto-Bismol House. It made me think of my Aunt Doris. She was on a first name basis with "Pepto".

Day two we were back at it and my nephew found the find of the trip, a VHS copy of Knockers #29. I didn’t get my phone out to take a photo since I didn’t want to accidentally drop my phone into a garbage bag.

For lunch on Monday, we opted for a place that my sister and nephew enjoyed when they lived in Midland in the 1980s, Johnny’s Bar B-Q. Johnny’s is a local landmark and has been in town seemingly forever. BBQ in Texas is a very personal thing. As they say in gay bars, "One man’s meat is…..OK, well, I don’t need to go into that right here.

Even though the place is surrounded by office towers worthy of oil barons, Johnny's wasn’t particularly upscale. Frankly, it was great to be in a non-chain restaurant, which is so easy to default to after a morning of beavering away throwing crap into a dumpster.

The owner, Tami Gilleam, has to be the friendliest bbq lady in all of West Texas. When my sister told her that she’d moved away from Midland in 1990, they chatted away as if they were long lost high school chums. Tami couldn’t have been nicer. She was way too polite to mention that the three of us smelled like my brother’s house, which no one would mistake for the Chanel No. 5 factory.

The bbq I’m familiar with is pork, most frequently served as pulled pork, in a sauce that’s either tomato or vinegar based. North Carolina is famous for its pulled pork. My thoughts on pulled pork are the same as my father's on drinking: if God made anything better, he kept it to himself. 

In West Texas bbq, is typically beef brisket, though there are other options like turkey and so on, if you’re a weenie. And in Texas, lots of bbq is cooked over mesquite. North Carolina has lots of problems, but thankfully mesquite trees aren’t one of them.

I had some brisket and turkey (yes, I’m a weenie) with side dishes of southwest corn (think creamed corn and then some), cole slaw, and Texas toast. It was delicious. My sister and nephew stuck to the brisket and thought it was topnotch, too.

After lunch, Tami told me that she had a local artist paint the pig vignettes that decorate the walls of the restaurant in order to give the place an Austin-ish vibe. Each one represents a special Midland organization or business. I loved them, but creating an Austin-ish vibe is a challenge in a place where in the last election 78% of the votes went to the Republican presidential candidate, and there wasn’t even a Democratic candidate for the Congressional seat.

Tami also told me that Laura Bush’s father was a friend of the original Johnny. He and Johnny used to engage in tomfoolery involving drinking, gambling, and whatnot back in the day. I didn’t ask for a whole lot of details since Carolyn and Bryan were waiting to get back to the work site, so, when you go, be sure to ask Tami about it.

On day three of the clean-a-thon, Bryan flew back to North Carolina. But Carolyn and I were there for two more fun-filled days.

That afternoon we knocked off early, showered, and went to Midland’s premier touristy hot spot, 1412 West Ohio Avenue, otherwise known as The George W. Bush Childhood Home. It’s near downtown Midland, my nephew’s old school, and the Pepto-Bismol House. The site consists of the house and the visitors center that’s across the street.

We were the only visitors in the place.  Based on our experience, tourists needn’t worry about a timed ticket, or the shuttle bus from the satellite parking area, or getting ptomaine poisoning from something in the museum café. If you want an intimate experience, it’s the place to go.

The very nice director of the site greeted us and asked us what brought us there. My sister said “I’m a Republican!” which fortunately meant that we didn’t have to go into the “We’re in Midland to fill a dumpster with our brother’s crap” story right out of the starting gate.  The woman was the epitome of Texas friendly. My guess was that she’d have made everyone from Al Gore to Dick Cheney feel right at home.

We bought our tickets and she gave us the rundown on the site as we walked across the street to the house.  The place was built in 1939 by a woman named Mildred Etheridge, who lived there with her sister. The docent didn’t mention if Ms. Etheridge wore sensible shoes, but my mind went there since she was notably without a husband. Ms. Etheridge had an entrepreneurial bent and went on to build several other houses in the neighborhood. The Bushes bought the house in 1951.

The house isn’t very big—1,500 square feet, but it was home to George H.W., Barbara, W.  and his sister Robin, plus JEB, and Neal, who were born after Robin died of leukemia. Youngest son Marvin and daughter Dorothy were born after the family had moved out.

The house is more museum than house museum, that is to say, only the kitchen, W’s bedroom and a portion of the living room are interpreted as if it were during the years the Bush family lived in the house. The other rooms have very well done displays on the history of Midland and, interestingly enough, the place of baseball in the Bush family. Had this been a museum devoted to the Bryant family, that last room would have been about the place of the Whoopee Cushion in the Bryant experience. No one would ever mistake the Bryants for the Bushes.

I’ve only been to one other house museum of this vintage, so it’s a new experience to look at someone’s idea of a 1950s kitchen and think, “Oh, my grandparents had that exact roasting dish”. I don’t believe that any items actually belonged to the Bush family though the china matches a pattern the Bushes owned, and the refrigerator was formerly Laura Bush’s mother’s “extra” refrigerator. That is, what my family would call a beer refrigerator.

W’s room was probably neater than it was when he lived there, but, absent an unmade bed, some dirty clothes on the floor, and a Playboy magazine hidden between the mattress and box spring, it seemed like a reasonable approximation of what a boy’s room would have looked like circa 1955. Our guide told us that when Bush 43 visited the place, he lingered in his old room in a reverential moment, so the organizers must have done something right. Then again, he might have been waiting for the right moment to retrieve that old Playboy when no one was looking.

The place isn’t Mount Vernon or even the Herbert Hoover Birthplace in West Branch, Iowa but if you are taking a break from cleaning out your brother’s house, by all means go. The gift shop was nice too. George W. Bush isn’t to everyone’s liking but compared to certain presidents with orange hair and tiny hands, he’s speeding down the HOV lane toward being immortalized on Mt. Rushmore.

After our visit to the Bush home, we went to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. The museum is all about Midland’s A#1 industry.


...Black Gold...

...Texas Tea.

Admission was $12, which I thought was steep. We started out our visit with the orientation movie. Big mistake.

Without a doubt the Petroleum Museum had the worst movie I have ever seen in any museum. The film was called Mythcrackers which is a takeoff on Family Feud. The chipper host quizzed the contestants about fracking, oil reserves, and so on. Real edge of your seat type stuff. I couldn’t figure out if it were intended to entertain high school kids, but it didn’t entertain, educate, or even amuse us in a kitschy way. Frankly, it was a bit patronizing. We left early; it was that bad.

The rest of the museum is all over the place. There was a gallery on the role of oil in our lives. It was just OK.

There was gallery of mineral samples; I skipped that.

I lingered at the Petroleum Hall of Fame, though its digital interface didn’t work well.
And then I did a jiffy tour of the gallery of especially meh western art. And I'm speaking as someone who likes western-themed art.

The high-water mark of the museum was a gallery of vintage Chaparral racing cars built by Midland homie Jim Hall for the Can-Am series of races in the 1960s. They were really cool, but their connection to the oil business is tenuous. You could sit in a replica car as a photo op, but that experience wasn't designed with someone of my age and natural grace (or lack thereof) in mind.

If you go to the Petroleum Museum, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go right to the cars, call it a day, and leave.

After topping off our tanks at the Petroleum Museum, we headed down the road to Midland’s more blue collar neighbor, Odessa, immortalized in the Buzz Bissinger book, Friday Night Lights.  We weren’t on our way to a high school football game. We were going to see Odessa’s version of Stonehenge.

Yes, Stonehenge.

Erected in the great American tradition of building something crazy in hopes that it will be a tourist attraction, a group of Odessans thought that their own Stonehenge would lure visitors from nearby I-20. I don’t think that archaeologists, or whoever decides these things, can really say that the Druids who built Stonehenge, didn’t build it to stimulate their own tourist-based cultural sector.  This Stonehenge, on the campus of the University of Texas-Permian Basin, is a very un-Texan-like 14% shorter than the real deal. The stone was donated by TexaStone of Garden City and apparently the company said to the LDD (Latter Day Druids), this is what’s free, deal with it.

I went to the real Stonehenge in 1978 and was underwhelmed. (I know, I’m a Philistine!) The one in Odessa is at least 14% more underwhelming, even if, unlike the original Stonehenge, it is right across the street from Home Depot.

This is the first fake Stonehenge I’ve been to, but according to Wikipedia they’re practically a dime a dozen. Carhenge, built from old cars in Nebraska, still exists but Fridgehenge, Phonehenge, Tankhenge, and Twinkiehenge have come and gone.  Surely Moanhenge, made from discarded VHS porn tapes--Knockers #1 to #28, perhaps, is on the drawing board somewhere. If you build it, they will to speak.

If you're into Stonehenge replicas, you should check out Clonehenge, a blog about that very topic. Who knew?!?

What could possibly top a Texas Stonehenge? The Odessa Jackrabbit, that’s what.

The big bunny, quite possibly the world's largest jackrabbit, is named Jack Ben Rabbit, after John Ben Shepperd, the man who spearheaded its construction in 1962. Shepperd was a segregationist and anti-communist, but pro-rabbitist, who, for whatever reason, thought that Odessa would benefit from a giant fiberglass jackrabbit statue. No, I don’t know what he was smoking.

Jack Ben Rabbit, who was wearing a red ribbon in a promotion of the local school district, is flanked by two historical markers. One, put up by the state of Texas, dishes out the facts about jackrabbits—fast, big ears, prized for food by the plains Indians and white folks too. Standard stuff.

The other marker, erected by Odessa Heritage in 1990 is about The World’s First Jackrabbit Roping. It’s worth repeating in full, through the magic of cut and paste:

Contest began as a “hare-brained” publicity stunt during the 1932 annual Odessa Rodeo, held at 3rd and Grant Street Site despite objections from out-of-town do-gooders. Local sheriff opposed event, but Mayor and Judge ruled no violation of Texas law. Cowgirl Grace Hendricks roped rabbit from horseback in five seconds flat, winning over numerous male competitors. Notorious contest revived in 1977 causing coast-to-coast outcry. Midand animal lover delayed action by liberating captive jackrabbits. Event proceeded on schedule when former prisoners returned at feeding time. Seven ropers competed on foot. Jack Torian placed first with a six-second scamper. In 1978, Humane Society blocked all future ropings with a court order. 

Texans really know how to write a historical marker, don’t they?

Interestingly enough, Grace Hendricks, here seen on the right, went on to become the first female Justice of the Peace in Ector County, Texas. I hope she administered justice with the same elan with which she lassoed jackrabbits.

After another day of work at my brother’s, my sister and I threw away our work clothes and headed back to Pennsylvania. Rob’s earthly cremains, which one of his friends delivered to us at the start of our trip, went ahead of us in a Priority Mail Flat Rate Box that I accidentally mailed to the wrong address. Oops!

Rob wouldn’t have wanted to go with us anyway: he hated flying coach.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Touring Vegas Hot Spots

I went to Las Vegas last week for my friend Tracy’s birthday party. Yes, I was just there in August. However, this birthday party celebrated one of those milestone years, and you don’t miss those events if you can help it. My friends Bruce, Martha, and Rebecca have all known the birthday girl forever and signed on to go as well. R hadn’t been to Las Vegas in almost 30 years and M & B hadn’t been in a decade. Since I was the old Vegas hand, with an annual trip to Sin City under my belt, I was the unofficial tour guide.

We all met at the Philadelphia airport. Thanks to TSA Precheck we were through security faster than you can say “You have been randomly selected for a body cavity search”. That gave us time to enjoy a bite to eat before our flight and avoid the 3-day old Soylent Green that passes for airline food these days.

R said “What about this place?” as we came upon a food joint near our gate. It was called Local Tavern.  

According to its website,

A warm toned and natural design with plenty of wooden elements gives Local Tavern its distinguished look. Each cushioned stool is equipped with its own iPad where customers can charge up at any of the numerous outlets or USB interfaces.

I didn’t particularly notice the distinguished look, but it was hard to miss the iPad on a stick waiting to be interfaced with at each place at the counter. And just to get technical about it, it the counter was equipped with iPads, the stools were not. They were, however, equipped with bolts that attached them to the floor as in at pre-digital lunch counter.

Neither R nor I could figure out how to order breakfast on the iPad, so a waitress had to help us. This, as far as we were concerned, defeated the notion of ordering via an iPad. We had to take special care to sign out after we paid via iPad so that the next person who sat in on the bolted-to-the-floor stool wouldn’t charge their order to our credit cards.

A few taps and swipes later, I was the proud owner of a not particularly tasty breakfast sandwich and an equally dismal cup of coffee, all for the price of $17 and change.

As my father used to say, you don’t go on vacation to save money.

The flight from Philadelphia to Las Vegas was uneventful.  I remembered to wear my Old GeezerTM brand compression socks. I used to be concerned about picking up a social disease while on vacation. Now I’m concerned about deep vein thrombosis. Getting old is so much fun.

The first stop in Las Vegas was the living hell known as the Rental Car Center. Even though I had a reservation, I waited in line for thirty minutes to see an agent at Budget Rent-A-Car. I’m not good at waiting in line. Actually I’m really not good at waiting in line.

When we finally got to the counter, I learned that our rental agent had received her customer service training in the former Soviet Union. However, she dressed as a capitalist and had long sparkly fingernails and fall plopped on the back of her head. When is the last time you saw a Soviet functionary in long sparkly fingernails and a fall? When is the last time you saw anyone wearing a fall? Even people who are losing their hair due to chemotherapy skip wearing falls.

I’m sure Ms. Fall’s previous job was in Moscow selling Kirby Vacuum cleaners or quite possibly stabbing people with the Rosa Klebb Autograph Model Knife from Cutco Knives. Ms. Fall was not going to fork over the keys to my car until I bought some insurance coverage from her.

As someone who was an insurance agent AND who once wrecked a rental car, I would much rather spend $50 for the chance to say to the rental agency “Hey, it’s your problem” than spend the rest of my deep vein thrombosis free vacation talking to angry rental agency about the coverage that came with my First National Bank of East Jesus Master Card. I bought the insurance when I reserved the car. Therefore, I didn’t need to buy it again.

I explained that I’d chosen the collision damage waiver on Budget website and had paid for it there. She acted as if I’d said I learned to drive on Mars. Ms. Fall was not having any of that.

She wanted me to pull up the email on my phone to prove I’d purchased the Loss Damage Waiver and wanted a copy of my insurance card and this and that and the other thing. I wouldn’t have been shocked had she said that I had to undergo the required body cavity search. I dropped an F bomb at the counter. No, it didn’t make me feel better.

She finally produced more documents than appear at the average house closing and turned over the keys to a KIA Optima POS. I was as hot under the collar a Vegas sidewalk in August. You can mark my words, I’m never renting from Budget again.

It was too early in the day to check into our hotel, so we loaded up the car and headed to everyone’s first stop on a trip to Las Vegas: Hoover Dam.

After a tasty lunch in Boulder City, we continued on to the dam and bought tickets for the $30 version of the 3:30 pm tour. This gave us time to watch the orientation movie, which was very reminiscent of Industry on Parade, the short documentaries on manufacturing that I remember from my childhood. Fiscally prudent taxpayers will be glad to know that the nice folks at the Bureau of Land Management did not waste money on fancy gizmos like a projector that focused.

After the movie, we still had time to kill before our tour, so we moseyed through the exhibit hall.

The exhibits and text panels, which are getting on in years, cover the history and building of the dam, and some basics of electricity.

Given the Tom of Finland imagery in some of the exhibits, I got the impression that the exhibit designer was Friend of Dorothy.

Why have a hunky construction worker hide his light under a bushel basket, or his heaving pecs under a shirt?

We tried to take a selfie as we waited but we only managed to prove that we weren't millennials by taking a bad photo. 

Right on time we met our guides John and Eric. John was a large-ish guy with a booming voice and overly waxed eyebrows. Eric was slight of stature, seemed a little Asperger-y, and had a voice that was someplace between problematic diction and a speech impediment.

We took an elevator from the top of the dam down to the room that holds the generating turbines. John explained how they worked and also pointed out the artistic touches, such as the inlaid terrazzo floors. There are more decorative touches than you might imagine. Interestingly enough, the dam was built well before the era when the Feds were required to incorporate art into public buildings.

After John was finished in the turbine room, our groups split up and we $30 folks went down a hallway into the bowels of the dam. The hoi polloi on the lower priced tour went to the gift shop, I think.

Both John and Eric threw out lots of incomprehensible statistics such as “The dam contains enough concrete to construct three Guggenheim Museums in each of the states whose names end in a vowel.” Or, “The dam generates enough electricity to take care of the needs of the Amish community forever. And that’s a long time.” The wacky statistic-oids flowed out of them like Niagara. All the water in Lake Mead would cover the entire state of Pennsylvania to the depth of one foot. Or was it l the concrete in the dam would cover Connecticut to the depth of one foot? In either event it’s lots of water and lots of concrete and both Pennsylvania and Connecticut will be in a world of hurts.

Eric did point out that no one is entombed in the concrete of the dam as the result of a industrial accident. Plenty of people died helping to build the dam, but none of them were covered up by concrete. I’d heard that before, but it seemed to bear repeating.

Eric told lots of dam jokes too. As in, are there any more dam questions? You only had to hear that one to want to put a gun to your head.

While there wasn’t a dress code on the tour, I couldn’t help but notice the woman with the sparkly phone case, sparkly handled selfie stick, sparkly sandals, and giant sparkly wrist watch. My guess is that she drinks only sparkling water. She might have been vajazzled too. I wasn’t going to ask.

About 15 minutes after I started to get claustrophobic in the depths of the dam—too many dam people asked too many dam questions--the tour ended. We took the elevator up to the top of the dam where we could bask once more in the bright sunshine and 1000 degree heat.

The tour is cool and I highly recommend it even if you can’t visualize using all that concrete to cover the state of Connecticut.

When the tour was over, we drove back to Las Vegas and checked into the quite nice if not super fabulous Westin Hotel. It’s near The Strip but not on The Strip. In other words, it’s close enough that we always had a view of the inappropriately dressed folks who make Las Vegas such a fun place to visit.

Friday’s dinner was at Lindo Michoacan, LV’s best Mexican restaurant. Our Uber driver was kind of terrible. Actually, kind of a lot terrible. However, a ride with him beat driving the rental car after having a couple of beers with dinner, having an accident, and dealing with Budget Rent-A-Car again.

The next day we were up bright and early for breakfast in a hipster joint in downtown Vegas, MTO Cafe. I don’t know if the restaurant was inspired by Sheetzes (home of the MTO) or the owners just thought it was a clever name. The place was stylish—the rest rooms were labeled Eggs and Sausages and the food was great. Our waitress, Rachel, made us feel right at home. Her recommendation of the hot Granny Smith donuts was right on the money.

We lingered over breakfast and so were just a wee bit late for our first stop of the day, the 9:20 am tour of the Boneyard at The Neon Museum.

As The Neon Museum’s website explains,

Founded in 1996, The Neon Museum is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment. 

The Neon Museum preserved the lobby of the now demolished La Concha Motel (designed by Paul Williams) as its lobby, gift shop, and indoor exhibition space.

The lobby looks like a giant clamshell (concha is Spanish for “shell”) and is quite the bit of Googie architecture.

Most of the museum’s collection is displayed in the “Neon Boneyard”, an outdoor area behind the lobby. Lots and lots of old signs in various states of disrepair are arranged so that they create a path through the Boneyard. Some of the signs are for casinos, and hotels, but others are for stores and even a dry cleaner.

Our guide, Wyatt--five Yelp stars for knowledge, enthusiasm, elocution, and charm--did a bang-up job of telling the story of the signs and of Vegas itself.

There were some folks on our tour who did not listen to the Museum’s recommendation to wear closed toe shoes and museum appropriate attire. While we were not treated to an industrial accident, one young woman in sandals and a off white, semi-diaphanous romper seemed to be more interested in taking selfies with the collection than listening to anything Wyatt had to say. Where do you even buy a off white semi-diaphanous romper anyway?

The Neon Museum does have an additional space that’s available for weddings, special events, photo shoots and whatnot. So, if you want to have a bris in Las Vegas, call the museum and make a reservation today.

Like the Hoover Dam, the Neon Museum is rates a Run Don’t Walk To This Attraction when you are in Las Vegas.

After the Neon Museum, it was time to head to another Vegas Landmark, the National Atomic Testing Museum.

The National Atomic Testing Museum—which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution—tells the story of America’s nuclear weapons testing program at the Nevada Test Site.

The Nevada Test Site is about 65 miles from Las Vegas. It’s where the United States tested our nuclear weapons from the early 1950s through 2012. Though most tests were conducted underground, some were above ground. The mushroom clouds from those explosions were visible for miles around. These were treated as tourist attractions and Las Vegas hotels set up bleachers to that their guests could get a good look at the results of the weapons tests intended to keep the godless hordes from Mother Russia away from the craps tables and Vegas showgirls.

The museum has lots of interesting artifacts from models of bombs to the sheet music to the classic Tom Lehrer tune, The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be.

Mid the sagebrush and the cactus
I'll watch the fellows practice
Droppin' bombs through the clean desert breeze
I'll have on my sombrero
And of course I'll wear a pair o'
Levis over my lead B.V.D.'s

The Nevada Test Site was so important  to our Cold War defenses that it rated a visit from President Kennedy, presumably on his way to or from hanging out with his Rat Pack buddies (and Marilyn Monroe) in Vegas. 

Interestingly enough, while there was a docent, he did not tell us that if we’d dropped a 3-kiloton bomb on the Chips Ahoy factory that it would cover the entire state of Connecticut to the depth of one foot in radioactive crumbs as the Eric and Joe at Hoover Dam would have done. Instead, in the manner of Sargent Joe Friday, he just stuck to the facts. There were no selfie-taking visitors in a semi diaphanous rompers or Tom of Finland worthy mannequins toting big sacks of uranium. So, if those are what it takes to make your own personal Geiger Counter register on Fun, you should go elsewhere. 

If you are interested in visiting the actual Nevada test site, you’d better sign up now. Tours are already booked through July 2018. No sandals, shorts, cell phones, or semi-diaphanous rompers are permitted.

And how could we top a visit to the Atomic Testing Museum you might ask?  How else but with a trip to the Reef Dispensary!

Nevada legalized the recreational use of marijuana a short while ago. Just as the big billboards for Medical Marijuana (“Get Legal. Call 555-1212 Now” with a marijuana leaf standing in for the “O” in Now) are coming down, billboards for recreational pot “dispensaries” are popping up.

I wish that I could say that going to the Reef Dispensary were entirely my idea. But it wasn’t really. I was inspired by my hero, the sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay. He wrote in the Journal about stopping by some “product” before going to the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor fight in August. Thank you for the great idea, Jason!

We visited the Reef location on Western Avenue, practically in the shadow of the not-quite-on-the-strip Trump Hotel. Reef is in a large metal warehouse which just might be where they store the contents of the now defunct Liberace Museum. There’s a food truck parked near the door of the dispensary, in case shoppers get the munchies. I don’t think it’s Liberace’s food truck: it’s not covered in rhinestones.

According to its website, Reef makes it easier than ever to ‘enhance your Vegas experience” and notes that delivery is coming soon.

I’m of the age that thinks that legal-ish pot is crazy enough, but home delivery of legal-ish pot?  That’s really, really crazy.

We were met at the door by a guard who looked as if his diet contained nothing but lifting, tanning, and steroids. He had a white ‘stache and goatee that recalled the what-is-he thinking style of Hulk Hogan. He checked our IDs and let us into the lobby

The lobby was a small room, about 20 feet by 20 feet and filled with stanchions that guided the line as if we were at the post office or the bank. Directly ahead of us were two ticket windows where people bought medical marijuana. The folks ahead of us in line were unremarkable except for the crazy patron who was singing to no one in particular as if he were on something or being visited by the Holy Spirit. We waited in line briefly before showing our IDs again and being guided through a different door to the recreational department.

This room was also quite small. Perhaps the rest of building really is filled with Liberace’s costumes?!

We waited in a line of perhaps 10 people: with the exception of one guy, we were the oldest people there. An L-shaped counter ran along two sides of the room and a price list hung on the wall behind it. Seven clerks were behind the counter, stationed at iPads on a stick, the modern version of the cash register. Everyone was busy. Someone thought airbrushed paintings of busty comic book ish women smoking bongs counted as art. They would have been just the thing for the exterior of a van tricked out with a great stereo, shag carpeting, and beanbag chairs.

We weren’t in line long before it was our turn to talk to Briana, our personal Reef sales associate. She was an attractive 20-something African-American woman with a smile as big as the Stardust casino sign at the Neon Museum. She wore gold earrings that were larger than coasters. You could not miss those things! They were in a modified Greek key design; my guess is that a pot smoking architectural historian had given them to her.

Briana was a great ambassador for Reef, which grows and processes pot and also buys it from third parties. Briana told us that there were three basic types of pot available: flower, concentrates, and edibles; and lots of varieties of each type. She said she’d tried them all. On the counter in front her iPad there was a large array of clear jars with perforated lids so that we could sample the bouquet of any variety before buying it. The only variety name I remember was Elmer’s Glue. I didn’t think it smelled at all like Elmer’s Glue.

We asked a bunch of questions—M. is especially good at that, and Briana answered them all cheerfully. We were pleased to hear that she has lots of customers who are our age. I decided on some sour apple flavored gummy chewy things. I thought about a chocolate bar, but could see it melting all over our KIA Optima POS rental car. At no point did Briana describe any of the product as “really good shit”. Clearly Cheech and Chong do not do train the sales staff at Reef Dispensary.

I forked over the cash and Briana put my purchase in a heavy white plastic zippered envelope. She explained that Nevada law requires purchases to leave the store in opaque, smell proof bags.

This would make an excellent clutch, I said.

Briana chuckled.

As we left Reef dispensary I remarked on how pleasant the experience was there compared to Budget Rent-A-Car which is being operated by a partnership of The Spawn of Satan and Jared Kushner.

After a quick lunch at Sonic, we headed out to Red Rock Canyon, to enjoy some of the majesty of Mother Nature.

At Red Rock Canyon, which is perhaps 25 miles from Las Vegas, you can enjoy the scenic beauty from the car as you drive through the park. This is just the kind of scenic beauty I like during the time of day when a nap seems like a good idea. Red Rock Canyon would be a good place for a hike too, if the weather were OK, I’d brought the right shoes, and I actually liked hiking. It really is worth a visit. Just go to the Neon Museum first, OK?

After Red Rock Canyon we had time to freshen up before Uber-ing it over to Wynn Las Vegas for my friend Tracy’s birthday party, the reason that brought all of us to Vegas in the first place. It was a fab time. There were old friends to see and new ones to be made, a groaning board of tasty Italian food, and freely flowing red wine.
By the time the dessert tray came around I couldn’t have eaten one more bite had my life depended on it.

I took a break from the party to play a little video poker I managed to turn my $20 stake into $21 before hearing my father say, “Who do you think builds those casinos? Not the winners!” and then promptly cashing out.

There was plenty of time to enjoy—if that’s the right word—the fashion show that’s the Wynn’s casino. As there always are, there were lots of women who apparently don’t own mirrors. Too short, too tight, too breasty was the order of the evening. Some of those dresses weren’t fashion, they were feats of engineering worthy of Santiago Calatrava.

In the men’s department, it was the World Series of the that old game, “European or Gay?” I think European was ahead by a large margin, but you didn’t need to open Grindr on your phone to discern that some of the guys were gay. And of course, there’s the occasional two-fer, European AND gay as well. The place wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Brooks Brothers shoppers.

Our final day meant a visit to the iconic Las Vegas sign where we one again failed at the whole selfie business.

Afterward, we chowed down at a hipster breakfast joint followed by a walk through old Las Vegas and the Fremont Street Experience, the home of really bad street performers. If you are going to send your eight-year old kid out dressed up like Michael Jackson to work as a busker, you should at least make sure he can dance, right? I laughed at the panhandler whose cardboard sign said that he needed money for a penis enlargement operation. But no, I didn’t give him money.

We made a quick stop at the Carroll Shelby Museum to check out the cars before heading to Rick and Tracy’s for a pool party, and then back to the Wynn to see Le Reve, the big show there.

Le Reve (apparently French for The Dream) is about an attractive woman who has a conflict in her dream between love, played by a hot guy in a puffy shirt and black trousers, and a bad guy, played by a hot guy in red and black. It’s theatre in the round, and the stage is a pool, except one with platforms that come out of the water and then submerge, which is especially helpful when the divers take an 83’ plunge from the top of the rigging into the pool. It’s not just platforms that emerge and disappear, fountains and lights do so as well. There are 90 minutes of synchronized swimmers, divers, dancers, magicians, and aerialists, and perhaps most importantly, bulging muscles in wet spandex. There are giant fabric flowers, fog and rain, and, for good measure, the surface of the water catches fire.

Some of the male performers make underwear models look like the last person picked in gym class and the women are equally wow. The word breathtaking doesn’t begin to do it justice.  Even if I’d eaten all of the gummies at Briana’s work station and nibbled on pot-laced chocolate bar or two, my dreams would not have been this exciting.

But hey, that’s Vegas for you!