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Stuck in a Las Vegas state of mind
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LAS VEGAS - Every once in a while events tumble together and things get so dim that I wonder if I'll ever see the light at the end of the tunnel. Can you relate?

John Lennon once said that life is what happens while we're making plans. Whenever I contemplate the pine trees in my front yard, which seem to be leaning more and more toward my house, I get the message. I'm planning on removing the trees, but the next really good windstorm may make that decision for me regardless of whatever plans have been laid.

Last weekend had been a quite emotional one for my wife and me, as it marked the culmination of a few months of preparation for our middle child's departure for a two-year stint with the Peace Corps. Christie recently received a masters degree in infectious disease from the University of Georgia's school of veterinary medicine. She wants to save the world, which is commendable, and the Peace Corps will help her get started as she implements HIV/AIDS awareness education throughout Ethiopia. If all goes well, she'll complete her tasks and we'll have her home for Christmas... 2009.

A lot of water will certainly go under the bridge between now and then.

So we helped our daughter embark on her grand adventure, then got ourselves away to Las Vegas to just relax and reflect.

But you know what? We've run into more folks from our neck of the woods all the way out in Las Vegas over the last few years than you'd think, or believe, perhaps. The hotels and casinos out there offer free rooms and discount promotional packages, and whereas 50 years ago a trip to Las Vegas would have been amazing to contemplate, nowadays regular folks just jump on a plane and show up there like it was going to a Braves or a Falcons game. We've learned not to be surprised if we hear someone calling our names as we visit the fountains of Bellagio, or just walk Las Vegas Boulevard.

Now, for the uninitiated, the trick to enjoying Las Vegas is not to get infatuated by the glitz and glamour, nor be fooled into thinking you'll be that one lucky person to put a quarter in a machine and walk out a millionaire. If you do fall into that trap, breaking free from gambling's grip - as with any addiction - is not easily done, nor pretty to contemplate.

Come to think of it, P. T. Barnum would have loved Las Vegas. He's the guy who said there's a sucker born every minute. I wonder if he ever owned a casino?

Now, for folks who don't gamble, don't drink, and don't want to spend big bucks on tickets to see big-name entertainers and million-dollar musical productions, Las Vegas might not sound like a great destination.

But for me, as an old social studies teacher, nothing could be farther from the truth. Las Vegas provides a fascinating study in more things than I can enumerate: from the moral issues of gambling to the multi-cultural mix of patrons swarming the casinos to multi-national investments in casinos and hotels to the historical ties with organized crime, Las Vegas is a real life social studies laboratory.

So when I visit Las Vegas to forget about my life for a while, I like to watch the people I run into there. I try to strike up conversations with all the regular folks I see, especially the cab drivers and casino workers doing the routine tasks. I ask them how long they've been there, what brought them there, what keeps them there, and what their lives are like.

It's all about social studies, you see. A male Pakistani cab driver who has been there 14 years moved from Los Angeles because LA was "too tough on foreigners." A female taxi driver married a guy who was born and raised in Vegas and would never leave, so she's found a way to make her life bearable by driving folks around and being one of the few Las Vegas taxi drivers for whom English is the primary language. A janitor cleaning a casino restroom was startled when I thanked him for keeping the place so neat. Folks don't ordinarily speak to janitors, he told me, unless there's a problem.

People traversing Vegas hotel lobbies are interesting studies, too. New arrivals nearly float through the front door, wide-eyed from the lights and sounds of the casino. Folks heading for home too often have dull stares, either from hangovers or from having lost a lot of money.

Seeing them, I wonder how many are in that state Walt Whitman described when he said "most men lead lives of quiet desperation." How many of those folks, I wonder, just lost the same amount of money on their Vegas visit that I need to remove those pine trees from my front yard?

But on this particular trip I didn't plan to think deeply on much of anything. I just wanted to get away from it all, to relax a little before more of life happens.

So my wife and I ventured away from "the strip" with which every television viewer is familiar and visited downtown Las Vegas, where it all got started. The Golden Nugget casino has been beautifully reworked, and a four-block stretch of Fremont Street has been converted into a totally pedestrian mall, free from vehicular traffic. Overhead, the street is covered with an arched see-through slotted roof, which provides shade from the brutal desert sun by day. At night, a spectacular series of video presentations with state-of-the-art sound is shown hourly on the overhead roof. It's called "The Fremont Experience" and it's amazing, indeed. The whole street just comes to a halt, with tens of thousands of folks looking up and enjoying the show.

I found the atmosphere of downtown Las Vegas to be quite refreshing. It's more user-friendly to the handicapped and elderly, and the pedestrian mall has everything Vegas visitors expect, but at an easier pace. Food is cheaper, the casinos advertise better payoffs than their more famous gaming house cousins on "the strip," and the architecture from the old days is comforting to the senses and worth a trip just to experience.

On the way home, scalding along in that big jet, I found myself thinking again about my pine trees, and reflecting on the fact that if I had not visited the slot machines so frequently that I'd have more money to put toward their removal.

And I also contemplated what would happen if a regular, everyday guy told his wife that he planned to build a little fire in his backyard and then camp out beside it for four days, drinking beer and throwing money into the fire whenever it started to die.

Most likely, the regular everyday guy would be committed to an institution somewhere, and his wife would then take the money he'd planned to burn and remove the pine trees from the front yard before the next big wind storm occurred.

At any rate, as I made my way back home, I realized for sure that there are no pine trees in Ethiopia. I hope my daughter, Christie, meets with success in her work with the Peace Corps there. And I hope she really does help save the world.

But most of all, though a bit selfishly, I hope that we all get to see each other and celebrate Christmas in 2009.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.