The Vietnam war was raging and I’d reluctantly joined the Air Force as an escape hatch from the draft lottery. I hadn’t had much success in balancing two jobs while navigating Boston College, so that was my fate. That fear was unfounded as it later turned out, my magic number pushing into the upper reaches each of the first two years. But back there in 1968, I had no way of knowing that so I thought I’d make my own choices before they were made for me
Now it was 1969. There was accumulated leave from my time in boot camp, disaster patrol – we’d put everything on hold and spent the first few months of our post-basic training military careers patrolling abandoned housing on and around Keesler Air Force Base in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Camille – and from a year of technical training school. So I decided to join my new friend Charlie in visiting his dad. He lived in a place called Henderson, Nevada, working as a high school teacher. With his well-tailored suits, his neatly-trimmed hair combed back in the style of Jack Parr (see Mad Men for a direct reference), and an unlit pipe wagging securely at the corner of his mouth he put out an aura of permanent but casual authority.
Henderson had developed during World War II around a munitions plant, and it still carried the mantle of working class alternative to the seedy image Las Vegas had been saddled with. Vegas had yet to metamorphose into the family-oriented butterfly of the late 1990s (though it has recently dressed down that image once again, like a gambler changing into a lucky suit midway through a long night).
We landed at McCarran airport just after sunset, a thin veneer of pink grading to lush purples across the western horizon, dramatically interrupted across its pastel length by the dark looming shadow of desert mountains stripped bare of any vegetation, very clean, with that day’s charge of heat still radiating from the landscape in shimmering waves. Welcome to the inter-mountain West.
A New Englander with strong roots in the north country, courtesy of my French-Canadian mother, I was stunned into permanent recollection. That sere, then alien place still inhabits my memory in colors drawn from a palette that was completely new to me at the time and that I have ever since reserved for the deserts and dry-lands of western North America.