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Best of Barney Vinson

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A Death in the Family

3 June 2005

I was in Vegas. My dad was in Texas. I was dealing craps at the Mint. He was in the hospital in San Antonio. I'd written him a letter, and a week later he called me on the phone. He sounded like he always did, like he was as healthy as a horse. We talked for almost half an hour, and now I can't remember hardly any of it. All I know is that our conversation started when the phone rang, and it ended when we hung up. The rest of it was a fog. Kind of like if you met the president and you were in the Oval Office for half an hour, then someone asked you what he said to you. Could you remember? That's what that phone call with my dad was like, if I'm explaining it right.

The days whizzed by, then it got cooler. I actually had to buy myself a wool jacket. Then a new year started, more break-ins coming to work at the Mint, and now I was one of the old timers they watched with awe. That's when the phone rang again, and it was my uncle.

"You better get home," he said. "Your dad's in bad shape. He may not make it to the weekend."

I caught a red-eye from McCarran and landed in Dallas the next morning. After a two-hour layover, I boarded a propeller-driven puddlejumper that whined its way down to San Antonio, going so slow I could actually see clouds forming. Lunch was a blueberry muffin, a butter patty, and a pack of Winstons. This was back when smoking was allowed, almost encouraged, on airlines. You got off the plane and you smelled like a cigar butt.

It was dark by the time we landed. My uncle was waiting at the airport, and neither of us said a word as we drove to the veteran's hospital. Being a career man in the Marine Corps, my dad got first-class treatment, and it was free. That's about the only thing he got from the country he served for 25 years.

I guess that's why I'm always referring to war and combat when I talk to people. It was drummed into my head by my dad, who was so military-minded when he got out of the service that he couldn't get the knack of being a civilian again. My brother and I had to spit-shine our shoes and have our beds made just so every morning. He wanted those sheets so tight he could bounce a quarter off them, and he would have, too, if he'd had the money.

The problem was he couldn't get a damn job. The Marines taught you how to throw hand grenades and how to fire a Howitzer, but they didn't train you for a career once your military stint was over —- not unless you wanted to be a hitman for the Mafia. You got a few bucks every month like a pension, but not enough to live on, and certainly not enough to feed two hungry teenagers. Four, counting my two cousins.

So he started his new civilian life by driving a taxi cab, coming home in a rotten mood every night. About the only exciting thing that ever happened to him was picking up a fare who wanted to go to Corpus Christi. It was a 120-mile trip, one way, and my dad got a $50 tip. We all went out to supper that night, and I got to eat anything I wanted on the menu. That was a big treat for me, because he usually just ordered for everyone. "He'll have a hamburger and a glass of milk." This time I got to order. "I'll have a hamburger and a root beer float."

Then my dad decided to go to carpenter's school. I didn't even know there was such a thing. He learned to build cabinets, tie racks, coffee tables, anything you could make out of wood. He probably would've been good at it, too; he loved working with his hands. But then one day he got too close to the jigsaw and almost cut his finger off. That was the end of carpenter's school.

His next stop was bookkeeper school, learning all about ledgers and Accounts Receivable and tallying up figures on an adding machine. He got to where he could actually add those figures up without even looking down. It was pretty impressive, I'll say that. And damned if he didn't land on his feet, after all he'd been through. The richest man in town put him to work as his own private accountant, and just like that my dad was making $100 a week.

This put him in a much better frame of mind, and sometimes he'd actually talk to my brother and me at night instead of listening to the radio or playing dominoes with my aunt and uncle. In fact, one time he even got out some of his old war pictures and showed them to us, which for us was like going inside some dark forbidden place for the very first time.

I saw some photographs I'll never forget: Chinese communists awaiting execution, for one thing. My dad said that in China, people thought that when they died they came right back as someone better. So getting your head chopped off was no big deal. There these Chinese soldiers would be, kneeling on the ground, waiting their turn. Looking at the camera, and practically smiling. I shouldn't say this, but I kind of liked it. Seeing stuff like this was exciting. Besides, I was sharing it with my dad.

Now here I was at the veteran's hospital, walking inside with my uncle, going to see my dad for probably the last time. We went up the stairs and my uncle nodded at a closed door down at the end of the hall. He stepped back, fumbling for a Lucky Strike, which meant I was supposed to go in there by myself. I steeled my nerves and opened the door. The bed was empty.

"He's not in there," I whispered.

My uncle nodded, exhaling smoke out of both nostrils like a dragon. "He's probably already gone."

And he was. The doctor said he "expired" an hour ago, and if it hadn't been for that goddam layover in Dallas, I would've made it. But did I really want to? After all these years, I still don't know.

The funeral was held in a veteran's cemetery, and just about everyone was there: my aunt and uncle, my two cousins, my dad's sister and her new husband, my aunt's sister and her new husband. The only one missing was my brother, and we'd lost track of him a long time ago.

I stood there solemnly, not even listening to the words some rent-a-preacher was saying. Then I got choked up by all the pageantry. The Marines were lined up in their dress blues, firing their rifles in the air, a bugler was playing taps, and then one of the Marines folded the American flag into a little triangle and presented it to my aunt. She kept it inside a locked bureau drawer until the day she died, 26 years later.

That night I stayed at my aunt and uncle's house, feeling truly all alone for the first time in my life. I wasn't someone's little boy anymore. I was all grown up and all by myself. I began to cry, big crocodile tears for the first time since my bike got stolen in junior high, and I couldn't stop. I'm not sure whether I was crying for my dad or for me, but my aunt held her arms out and then everything was all right. For a few seconds, anyway.

Barney Vinson

Barney Vinson is one of the most popular and best-selling gaming authors of all time. He is the author of Ask Barney, Las Vegas: Behind the Tables, Casino Secrets, Las Vegas Behind the Tables Part II, and Chip-Wrecked in Las Vegas. His newest book, a novel, is The Vegas Kid.

Books by Barney Vinson:

> More Books By Barney Vinson

Barney Vinson
Barney Vinson is one of the most popular and best-selling gaming authors of all time. He is the author of Ask Barney, Las Vegas: Behind the Tables, Casino Secrets, Las Vegas Behind the Tables Part II, and Chip-Wrecked in Las Vegas. His newest book, a novel, is The Vegas Kid.

Books by Barney Vinson:

> More Books By Barney Vinson