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Las Vegas

Touring the jungles of Las Vegas on a holiday weekend, I began wondering where that city's monuments can be found. I never saw any, outside a cemetery.

Monuments are defined uniquely in Vegas. One I liked a lot was a backstreet junkyard for neon signs abandoned by casino hotels. One sign was nearly fifty years old, the neon that led gamblers to the haven of Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn.

In those na?ve days, Vegas was barely a rumor. In San Diego, on E Street, Wilbur Clark's brother Harold ran the Knickerbocker Hotel, a rooming house with occasional girls. It was a safe haven for street bookmakers who covered their own daily losses by taking racetrack bets from other losers. They kept their records and their bottles in an upstairs room on lower Fourth where they had battered old desks like any other executives. Everybody got together at noon for pastrami sandwiches at Lew Lipton's E Street Grill.

Elmer Jansen, the police chief, held that it was better to allow a few bookies to work the streets than for them all to be on welfare. Harold Clark was a member of Rotary and wore his lapel pin proudly.

Gambling was against the law this side of Caliente racetrack. But, five hours up Highway 15, Las Vegas was newborn. Harold's brother Wilbur went to Vegas to open a motel. The San Diego newspaper ran proud stories about how he was making his mark in the world. Wilbur's Desert Inn got its picture in Life Magazine with a little story about a new desert town that was trying to become a gambling capital.

At the opening, Wilbur Clark's name was out front in four-foot high neon letters. He was full of new knowledge. In his casino, he put his arm around me like his dearest brother and took me aside to warn me of the hazards of his new plaything.

"If you ever feel you want to lay down a bet," he said, "the craps table is the best bet and the slots the worst."

He introduced me to some other features of the amazing new Las Vegas, such as showgirls. If I ever wanted to invest in one of those, he said, "come and talk to me personally."

As a preacher's kid, I left Vegas that Sunday night convinced that Wilbur and his evil new friends had found a way to offer up all of men's vices in one tidy package. But the Vegas city fathers were already putting down that rumor. As chorus girls began boldly stripping below the waist, the new convention bureau triumphantly contracted for the annual meeting of the National Council of Catholic Women, four thousand strong.

And ever since, Vegas has been king of resorts.