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Monday, November 24, 2008

Light to Light

Thanksgiving time, when the last of autumn’s radiant leaves cling stubbornly to the trees and the first snowflakes flutter in the mountains, brings out the nostalgia in us. It’s during November’s closing week, more than at any other time, that we travel great distances to, in the words of the hymn, gather together and ask the Lord’s blessing on loved ones and on those less fortunate than ourselves. We go and we bless even cranky Uncle Zach, the Olsen brats, sister Susan who won’t speak to Cousin Cal, and Nana Grace, who thinks your name is Phil when it’s Bill. Bonhomie prevails. The affection spills over to the season and its symbols: a perfectly roasted turkey about to be carved; pioneer Pilgrims breaking bread with local Indians; an endless day of football on TV, and visions of gauzy Currier and Ives lithographs, captured in words by Lydia Maria Child’s 1844 poem, later set to music:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandmother's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Hopelessly romantic, I’ve savored these moments, though I have been spared the snarky siblings. And my very favorite Thanksgiving image is an uncommon one.

Vermont Bridge
Looks like Thanksgiving’s not all that far away in this Vermont scene, although autumn colors come earlier in New England than in much of the country
This time of year, I think of covered bridges.

Idyllic Crossings

To me and many others, covered bridges represent unspoiled countryside, simpler small-town life, and the days when even bridges were built by hand from nearby materials. I’ve told you about my childhood trips from industrial Cleveland back to rural Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where I spent carefree days at my uncle’s cabin. I remember his Oldsmobile, clattering across one of Bedford County’s 14 surviving covered bridges.
Jackson Bridge
Bedford County’s Jackson’s Mill Bridge, erected in 1875 and rebuilt in 1889 after the original was washed away in a flood, stands just five kilometers from Breezewood, Pennsylvania, which is the direct opposite of this tranquil scene. At the juncture of two interstate highways, Breezewood is a sea of motels and neon signs

It was probably the plain-looking one near the hamlet of Ryot, where my ancestors meagerly farmed – so plain that I’ll show you a prettier Bedford County covered bridge [left] instead.

There isn’t room in its caption for this interesting tidbit, so I’ll mention it here: The hard-to-read writing above the entrance reads: “$5 Fine For Riding Or Driving Over this Bridge Faster Than a Walk.” Five dollars was a lot of money in 1875! Wonder who was lurking in the woods nearby, hoping to collect it?

Longest Bridge
This 143-meter bridge between Cornish, New Hampshire, and Windsor, Vermont, was built in 1866 for $9,000. It’s the nation’s longest wooden bridge at 143 meters, and it’s the longest covered bridge built in two spans in the world
For me, covered bridges are, well, bridges! to slower, cozier, times more in tune with nature. It’s a shame that the only oft-quoted literary reference to these sturdy, wooden, roofed structures was a dark one, by popular 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“The grave is but a covered bridge, leading from light to light, through a brief darkness.”

Things of Beauty and Romance

Many of the men who built these structures were artists as well as artisans and engineers. So many lovers spooned in them that we call them “kissing bridges.” From the moment everyday people began using cameras, we have photographed them as something worth treasuring and remembering. Towns hold bridge festivals and bluegrass concerts in and around them. In Indiana, where basketball is the king of sports, teams even practice inside them.

Winter bridge
The Durgin Bridge over New Hampshire’s Swift River completes an icescape worthy of the legendary nineteenth-century lithographers Currier and Ives – Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives to be complete about it
Almost all covered bridges are unlighted and thus spooky at night – so spooky that they’re said to be haunted come Halloween. There’s even an old wives’ tale that covered bridges were first erected so that horses could not see, and be frightened by, the height of the spans above the water below. Cattle herded across them were said to be calmed by their soundness.

(A lesser-told tale, probably passed along by old farmers rather than their wives, is that bridges were covered so that their overhangs would “level off” loads of hay or straw being hauled across them. Just why a farmer would go to the trouble of piling hay high on a wagon, then seek to lose some of it at the covered-bridge entrance, escapes me.)

Going Undercover

Covered bridge
This is an old (1936) but good view of a covered bridge in the context of its environment. It stood in Greenhills, Ohio
These bridges are covered, of course, to keep the rain and sun off their timbers. It’s a lot cheaper and quicker to replace roof shingles than massive rotted beams. The roof does little, however, to prevent gouging and splintering from heavily laden farm wagons and horses’ metal shoes. Still, while an open wooden bridge has a lifespan of ten years or so, many covered bridges – although requiring fix-ups from time to time – have stood since the American Civil War, more than 140 years ago.


Little Hope Bridge
This is one of the nation’s newest covered wooden bridges. The Little Hope Bridge, near Waupaca, Wisconsin, was created by Early American craftsman Kenneth Shroeder, who fashioned it after a 19th-century New Hampshire model
I’m certainly not a structural engineer. Far from it. But it stands to reason that in the world of wooden bridges, a covered one would be stronger than an open span across a stream or chasm. Beams called trusses, including loopy curved ones that look like the McDonald’s fast-food chain’s “golden arches,” provide bracing and dynamic tension. That helps keep a bridge rigid, reducing vibrations while evenly spreading the structure’s weight and that of the heavy vehicles and wagons that cross it. I’m told one of Newton’s three Laws of Motion – possibly the one about actions and opposite reactions – applies to all this somehow. But getting any more detailed about it leads me into scary formulas, well beyond my comprehension.

It should also be noted that extra-long covered bridges often receive added support from one or more concrete footings in midstream.


Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge is one of the most-photographed structures in Venice
As you might guess, Americans borrowed the idea and early technology for covered bridges. Many such structures in Europe date to the 14th century.

One of the most famous is the Rialto Bridge, made of stone, which surmounts Venice’s Grand Canal. Its floor does not stretch flat across the water but rises to a peak to allow tour boats and gondolas to glide beneath it. Asia, too, has hundreds of covered bridges.

Dong Bridge
The Dong-minority bridge is name for the Dong people, a Chinese ethnic minority
One, the Dong-minority Bridge in Hubei Province, China, features temple-like towers rising from the roof at points along the way. The effect resembles the pavilion of a grand world’s fair.

In a Rush . . . County

Carol and I spent a week photographing covered bridges in Rush County in flat, corn-and-hogs country southeast of Indianapolis, Indiana’s state capital. And we walked into quite a furor:

When the fuss started, back in 1986, the conservative county’s 19,000 or so people would have been alarmed to be told there were “activists” in their midst. But there were, and by the hundreds: indignant crusaders who sprang up like a summer thunderstorm in Rushville and Homer and other little towns. When they had finished, the object of their ire – Rush County’s three-member board of commissioners – wondered what had hit them. Two would lose their seats by two-to-one margins when their terms expired, and the other opted not even to run for re-election.

The unfortunate commissioners had approved the destruction of four of the county’s six historic covered bridges, preferring to erect concrete-and-steel spans, which are easier to maintain. One dark night, arsonists took care of the oldest and most dilapidated covered bridge while the preservationist forces were meeting. But that unkind fate only hardened the residents’ resolve. They soon voted in a new board that agreed not just to save all the surviving covered spans, but also to restore and upgrade them.

Form as Well as Function

Kennedy Bridge
Three generations of Kennedys built covered bridges throughout the country. This one stood in Indiana. The Kennedys often installed ventilators or windows to bring wisps of light into the bridges’ long, dark interiors
All five Rush County bridges were the work of the Kennedys, one of three great Indiana bridge-building families. Carpenter Archibald Kennedy, the family patriarch, was among the nation’s artist-as-bridgebuilder masters. Painted white and embellished with vinelike wooden tendrils and decorative carved brackets beneath the roof, eye-catching Kennedy bridges resemble country cottages.

Rush County’s bridge lovers scored one success after another. Pretty soon their festivals were drawing tourists from as far as Chicago, 300 kilometers away. Local teenagers, who had turned one of the bridges into a graffiti-scrawled eyesore, joined in a bridge-painting party at the invitation of two grandsons of 1940 U.S. presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. County workers replaced roofs and warped siding and poured many liters of epoxy into loosened joints and decayed timbers.

But in true bureaucratic tradition, they ignored most of Kennedy’s decorations. This didn’t sit right with Jim Irvine, a covered-bridge aficionado who had built several bridge models. He climbed a ladder at the Offutt’s Ford Bridge and painted the faded imprint of the Kennedy signature anew – as well as recarving and replacing Kennedy’s distinctive K pattern in the crown of each archway. Today, cars and trucks and tractors still rumble across the picturesque covered bridges of Rush County, demonstrating that historic structures can be a useful part of day-to-day life.

Famous Far and Wide

But if I referred to famous county bridges and left out the name of the county, Americans would readily fill it in with “Madison.” Surely I’d mean Madison County, Iowa’s, legendary bridges.

Roseman Bridge
This is one of the six surviving covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, which were a best-selling novel made world-famous. Of interest, four of the six feature flat rather than peaked roofs. They look like long, open sheds
In 1992, Robert James Waller published a novel, The Bridges of Madison County, about a romance between a photographer and a lonely Iowa woman. The book became the best-selling work of fiction in history – surpassing even Gone With the Wind. It and a subsequent movie, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep and taken from Waller’s story, brought worldwide attention to covered bridges, in particular the ones in Madison County. Unfortunately the Cedar Covered Bridge, where the lovers met in the story, and which was featured on the book’s cover, was also destroyed by one or more arsonists in 2002. A replica was quickly erected to replace it.

As the country, meaning not the nation but our woods and fields and babbling brooks, has suburbanized, many covered bridges have been replaced or retired from vehicle traffic and turned into pedestrian crossings. A few now carry fire detectors, though I have a hard time imagining how firefighters would get to them in time to save a blazing all-wood structure. Modern engineering technology, including the use of reinforcing steel rods and the epoxy fillers, has strengthened many covered bridges without spoiling their classic beauty.

Loys Bridge
Taller and thinner than most covered bridges, Loys Station Bridge in Maryland was uncovered when it was built in 1900. But builders soon realized how much a roof and side paneling protected the wooden bridge from the elements
It is that exquisite, nostalgic “look,” and their tug on our heartstrings, that attract “heritage travelers,” who cherish the chance, even for a moment, to shut out the chaotic 21st century and behold these icons of rural life.

Lydia Maria Child did not mention a covered bridge in Over the River and Through the Woods. A sleigh, yes. A barnyard gate. Grandmother’s cap, pudding, pumpkin pie. I like to think, though, that the family and their trusty “dapple gray” horse, trotting through the woods that day, crossed over that river – from light to light through a brief darkness – on a covered bridge.

I see a long one, painted red.

And at a pace faster than a walk.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Bonhomie. Friendliness, genial good cheer. It’s a quality that good-natured “hail fellows” (and gals) possess. The word, from the French, is pronounced “bohn-oh-MAY.”

Ire. This is a little word packed with meaning. It refers to intense anger, bordering on rage, openly displayed. There’s fire when one shows ire.

Old Wives’ Tales. Another term for folklore, superstition, handed down orally over many years. The term refers to women in general, not just to married ones. In old English, wif means “woman.” Over generations, older women were the keepers of wisdom about home remedies, proper behavior, and such. And perhaps, or perhaps not, about covered bridges!

Snarky. This is one of those new-age words you won’t find in most dictionaries, even though it derives from the century-old British word “snark,” meaning to nag or find fault with. A snarky remark is laced with snide disrespect. Now you’ll have to look up “snide”!

Spoon. As I’ve used it, this has nothing to do with an eating utensil, unless it’s affectionately caressing the cheek of a lover. Spooning is an old-fashioned word for amorous cuddling.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Lost Wages

The City of Las Vegas, individual casinos, and airlines that serve the city want your visit ­ and your money. Repeat visitors with lots of it get exceptional deals and VIP treatment
They say that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

True, true, true. Many’s the time I’ve left my money in Las Vegas.

Like Circe, the alluring witch of ancient mythology, the shimmering gambling palaces of Las Vegas can show you a good time and then turn you into a pig, or in this case, a pauper. You can see the city’s lights forty kilometers away, beckoning, in the arid Nevada desert. Indeed, you can see the lights of Las Vegas from space.

Even when it was little more than a truck stop and a cluster of boozy casinos with sawdust on the floor, people called it “Glitter Gulch.” Or in my case, “Lost Wages, Nevada.”

Humble Beginnings

Las Vegas is the American Dream run amok: capitalism on steroids, but it took a long time to get that way. In 1829, Spanish traders on the parched Mojave Desert trail from New Mexico to California had stumbled upon a patch of green in the desert, around a spring in Piute Indian territory. They called it Las Vegas: “the Meadows.” American explorer John C. Frémont, for whom Vegas’s main street would one day be named, passed by in 1844.

This was the look of early Las Vegas. Little stone cabins like this one were built along the two-lane highway to Los Angeles
But not a soul stayed put until eleven years later, when 30 Mormon missionaries built an adobe fort, planted fruit trees, and began scratching for lead in the surrounding mountains. Disheartened by incessant Indian raids, the Mormons departed in 1858, and nobody paid much attention to the isolated oasis until the railroad from Los Angeles reached the spot in 1904. Construction of Boulder Dam, one of the nation’s engineering marvels, to the south stirred up a ruckus in town in the 1930s, but Las Vegas remained little more than a gaudy diversion on the long haul between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Los Angeles. In 1940, eight thousand people and uncounted desert creatures endured life there under the baking summer sun.

Look Out: Here Comes Opulence

Las Vegas
Las Vegas glittered in a honky-tonk sort of way once gambling was legalized in Nevada. But it was by no means the magnet for the rich and famous that it is today
Like the Mirage Resort’s faux volcano today – and isn’t all of Las Vegas a mirage? – there were low rumblings that Las Vegas was about to explode with new development. But the nation was girding for war, and it certainly didn’t occur to anyone to set up a time-lapse camera on Fremont Street or on the two roads heading south out of town. One snaked down to Boulder Dam. The other, Route 91, known as the Los Angeles Highway, knifed into the inhospitable desert. Even its first five-kilometer stretch outside city limits – which would one day sprout into today’s jaw-dropping Las Vegas Strip of super-sized gambling resorts – was just a two-lane road, unlighted, unremarkable, lined with sagebrush, a few billboards, and a couple of gas stations.

All that glowed in the chocolate-brown hills between the two dusty highways were the lights of a grimy little government town alongside magnesium and titanium deposits that workers would soon turn into fighter jets.

Whose Deal?

Hoover Dam
The 60-story-high Hoover Dam, more massive than any Egyptian pyramid, tamed the raging Colorado River. It created Lake Mead, one of the area’s few outdoor recreation options
Nevada had legalized gambling in 1931, but the heart of the gaming industry was up north in Reno, at swanky clubs around Lake Tahoe.

Las Vegas would have been nothing but that tawdry truck stop had not Boulder Dam – later to be called Hoover Dam in honor of engineer-president Herbert Hoover who authorized it – brought water, and really, really cheap electricity to power gleaming casinos that would light up the desert.

Enter mob figure Bugsy Siegel, who bought some land and built the first one-stop casino, hotel, and high-class nightclub resort – the Flamingo – on that forlorn highway outside of town.

Camels to the Right of Me, Camels to the Left

Frontier Hotel
Elvis Presley first played Las Vegas at the Frontier Hotel (he bombed). This is actually the “New” Frontier, which was imploded last year. Imagine how the old one looked!
The eruption had begun. All kinds of other desert-themed resorts – the Sahara, the Dunes, the Sands, the Aladdin – soon followed. It was as if a make-believe Lawrence of Arabia had moved operations to the American Southwest.

Before long, Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, and other high-class casino haciendas enticed patrons not just with plush furnishings and a workforce dressed like Roman centurions, but also with headliner shows, championship boxing, and offbeat events.

It was in Vegas, for instance, that daredevil Evil Knievel nearly died on New Year’s Eve, 1967, when he crashed his motorcycle after soaring over Caesars’ fountain.

The Bellagio, with its eye-catching “dancing fountains” show out front along Las Vegas Boulevard, is one of Las Vegas’s self-contained resorts, with almost every imaginable amenity
We could have rolled that time-lapse film ahead to the early 1990s, when, to keep up with other burgeoning entertainment centers like Orlando, Florida, and gambling retreats abroad, Vegas began retooling with mind-boggling gusto and extravagance. Down went the Dunes Resort first, blown to smithereens by a demolition team. And up, over time, went the Bellagio, a virtual city unto itself with 3,933 rooms, multiple pools, botanical gardens, a shopping arcade fit for the Riviera, and dancing fountains whose water-and-light show stops tourists dead in their tracks. Quite a change, all in all, from the Dunes’s meager electronic lava eruption on its marquee.

From Oasis to Entertainment Capital

Spool ahead to the 1990s, by which time more than 1.5 million people lived in Las Vegas and the surrounding valley. The metropolitan area’s astonishing 83-percent growth rate that decade led the nation. Suburban Henderson grew so fast that people called it “Boomberg, U.S.A.” More than tripling in size to 205,000 in a decade, Henderson replaced Reno as Nevada’s second-largest city.

Fueling the explosion, in addition to the hypnotic appeal of all its ostentation, were the surfeit of high-paid jobs, the tsunami of disposable dollars dropped each year by 35 million visitors – 35,000,002 counting Carol and me – and the absence of a state income tax.

Hold that Card. Let Us Pray.

The easygoing atmosphere of old Las Vegas, shown here in 1940, gave way to the new packaging of Las Vegas as an opulent "entertainment capital"
And juxtaposed to this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah were more churches per capita than any other city in America. The locals would tell you that Las Vegas was a quiet, neighborly, churchgoing community, an all-American town if there ever was one. They’d tell you this while standing beneath cascading lights that read, “Topless Pizza Lunch.”

Pretty soon unincorporated Las Vegas, on the Strip, sucked up all the action, save for the beer-and-bluejeans crowd that to this day prefers to gamble in the more affordable places downtown. There, you still see some of the seedy motels that were once inelegant quarters for tourists heading to Hoover Dam. Many offer monthly rates for the down-and-out, or they’re boarded-up placeholders for the day when the big time comes to Old Town.

Faced with glitzy competition outside city limits on the Strip, city leaders bought architect Jon Jerde’s idea of turning five city blocks into a covered canopy offering a sound and light show
In 1996, Downtown Vegas did get a $1-billion facelift with the creation of a canopy of 12 million colored lights and 218 enormous speakers arrayed above four blocks of Fremont Street, which had been covered and enclosed. Twelve million lights? That’s the claim!

The “Fremont Street Experience” erupts in a Cecil B. De Mille-scale, computer-generated sound and light show that Vegas Vic, the rascally, winking neon legend looking on from the nearby Pioneer Club, must have a hard time comprehending.

Bring the Little Ones

At about this time, Vegas attempted an odd metamorphosis when it tried to pass itself off as a family destination. This was laughable, and it failed abjectly. There just wasn’t enough for the kiddies to do. Though they wouldn’t admit it, their parents far preferred to pull slot-machine handles, not take Junior on the Ferris Wheel.

Exit the family-friendly promotional campaign. Enter “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas,” with its vague, naughty overtones.

Circe was back.

New York New York
If you let your imagination loose, you can believe you’re in the real Big Apple at the New York New York Hotel and Casino, which opened where two tired motels and a gas station stood
Out, too, went most of the low-rent cactus and desert themes, as well as blocks of worn-out trailer parks and cinder-block apartment buildings, bulldozed to make room for more megalith escapist casinos. One, New York New York, was packaged as a scaled-down, but quite believable-looking, version of the Manhattan Skyline. Another, the Luxor, was assembled inside a giant pyramid. Others suggested Venice canals and Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

Las Vegas had unimaginably become more than a string of what Vegas regulars call “carpet joints.” It was, to use tourism parlance, the nation’s ultimate tourism “destination.” At the turn of the 21st Century, Las Vegas boasted all ten of the largest hotels in America, and 14 of the top 15. For the first time ever in Sin City, non-gaming activities brought in more revenue than gambling.

Blinded By the Light

Ballys opened in 1993 at a choice spot on the site of the MGM Grand, once the world’s largest hotel but better known for a catastrophic fire in 1980
Today, words can hardly describe the megawattage of the City of Lights – not to be confused with Paris, the City of Light. The local electric company once estimated that the juice needed to illuminate Vegas’s outdoor signs alone would electrify a city of 25,000. During the summer of 2001, when Los Angeles, across the desert far to the west, was battling brownouts, Las Vegas burghers scoffed at any notion of dimming its lights, even late at night, to help the power grid. Vegas without garish lights, they snorted, would be like Bali without the sea.

The cumulative effect of pulsating neon, frenetic billboards, the Luxor “pyramid’s” laser beam pointed heavenward, downtown Vegas’s indoor light show, and the racket from slot and video-poker machines – an estimated one per eight residents in the Valley – is an aura that some consider to be perpetual excitement.

Pulsating? Or Perturbing?

None of this roulette-table “action” for me, thank you. It’s too rich for my blood, quite literally
I call it jitteriness. Vegas unnerves me, makes me wary, rather than inducing me to gamble. But that’s me. Others, moths lured by the light, itch for the action. And of course, there’s a third group: sad alcoholics and disheveled, desperate gambling addicts downtown, not on the Strip, so much; they can’t afford to play blackjack at tables where the minimum bet is $10, or afford too much time on the slots at $1 a pull.

This is all a far cry from the days I remember, when you’d buy a bucket of quarters and pull that handle, watch the spinning cherries and lemons and circus clowns, and sip on the complimentary beer or watery bar-brand drinks until boredom sets in. If bloodshot eyes and a vacant stare and the nebulous hope of a jackpot qualified as fun, those were great good times.

Step Right Up, Ladies and Gentlemen

I well remember my first trip to Vegas, 40 years ago, in which my first wife, an impetuous Taurus, and I, a frugal Virgo, resolved and double-resolved that we would allot $500, and not a penny more, to lose at the tables and the slots. Losing was a foregone conclusion. We rationalized were paying for the entertainment of it all. When the $500 was gone, we would go window shopping, straggle back to the room and watch television, or do anything else we could think of that cost nothing.

Slot machines
I’ve never much enjoyed playing the slots or “one-arm bandits,” ­ also known as “permanent receptacles for your quarters.” But a pull on the old “cowboy” machine might have been fun
She at the slots, and I at the blackjack table, had a pretty good run. She “hit” enough few times to prompt a downpour of quarters from the machine. I kept my wits about me and tried to look steely-eyed at the dealers, each of whom had the personality of a corpse. I made enough sound decisions, holding on 17, taking a hit on 16 as someone had taught me, to stay at the tables for four hours or so. (Consult your “How to Play Blackjack” guide to learn what I’m talking about.)

But inexorably, $500 dwindled and disappeared, and true to our vow, we called it a night. It was about 2 a.m., not that you’d know, since it’s quite true that the only clocks you’ll find in Vegas are on the radios in your room. My wife went to sleep. I tossed. I turned. I fidgeted. And I popped out of bed and slunk back down the casino. There, I promptly drew another $500 using our credit card, and, among the handful of zombies playing at that hour, lost every bit of that, too.

My wife’s reaction? I believe I mentioned that she’s an ex!

(Wait a second, didn’t I also say that Vegas unnerves me, makes me wary about gambling? Yes, but not so much back then. Today, the cacophony comes at you from every angle, every minute of every day.)

Ghost Town at Glitter Gulch

My second-to-last visit, this time with Carol, “weirded me out.” It was late autumn, 2001, a couple of months after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City. Gamblers, especially the high rollers who think nothing of hopping into their private jets and flying to Vegas from Hong Kong or elsewhere for a weekend of shows and gaming, were nowhere to be found. Skittish at rumors that Las Vegas, the very symbol of capitalist excess, would be the next target of madmen, they were elsewhere, and so were thousands of ordinary tourists. We saw precious few tour buses. There were no lines at the buffet, and there wasn’t much clatter in the slots parlors.

I am not exaggerating to report that a couple of late evenings Carol and I walked down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the fancy resorts with only an occasional passing taxicab to dodge.

It was on that visit that we met and spent some enchanting time with three Las Vegas legends: superstar singer (and writer of 500 hit songs) Paul Anka, as well as Siegfried and Roy, the illusionist “masters of the impossible” who made tragic headlines two years later when Roy was attacked and nearly killed during their famed animal act by a tiger who was apparently spooked by a loud noise. Carol had stood alongside that tiger, and a dozen others, onstage with Siegfried and Roy for an unforgettable photo shoot.

Neon Boneyard
Those who love to close their eyes and imagine simpler times would love Las Vegas’s “Neon Boneyard,” where relics of the early casinos are gathered and, when possible, refurbished
And we have a few other indelible Vegas memories: We were buzzed back and forth in a helicopter so that Carol could photograph just a whisker above the blitz of lights on the Strip.

We poked through eclectic attractions like the Elvis-a-Rama Museum and the Neon Boneyard. In the latter, vintage neon and incandescent signs – such as the lightbulb-emblazoned marquee of Binion’s Horseshoe casino, or the silver slipper from the casino of the same name – languish until some of them are rehabilitated.

And we ventured into the Guardian Angel Roman Catholic cathedral, in which 75 percent of the Sunday worshippers
Stained glass
Check out the casinos and other decidedly secular images in this stained glass at the city’s most popular “tourist church"
are tourists. The building – a church, mind you – has a lovely stained-glass window that mixes holy themes with secular depictions, including images of Vegas’s casinos.

Casino images in a stained-glass church window! Only in Las Vegas!

Thanks for the Memories

We checked out the Casino Legends museum at the Tropicana Hotel, which displays 20,000 Vegas keepsakes, from marked cards and weighted dice to showgirl costumes and old-timey mechanical slot machines – emphasis on mechanical, from the days when complex gears and wheels, not electronic circuitry, gobbled up your quarters and Kennedy half-dollars and made the images whirl.

Those were the days when silken-voiced crooners Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and two other of their -drinking buddies, would cruise the clubs after Sinatra’s shows at the Sands; and the days when you could get a decent 99-cent, all-you-can-eat breakfast any time of the day or night. Many a hard-up alkie gambler lived on these spreads. These were the times, too, when Don Rickles, who would insult his dying mother for a laugh, was as risqué as a comic would get; and the showgirls, while voluptuous, were “showing” mostly sequins and shapely legs.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the glamorous settings you may have seen in an “Oceans Thirteen” or James Bond movie set in Las Vegas. That’s because if I said that Vegas unnerves me, it goes triple when it comes to games like craps, where you need a babe in ermine draped over one arm while you fling the dice with another; or baccarat, an exotic game off-limits to the rabble, which I couldn’t play even if I knew the rules because my tuxedo doesn’t fit any more.

Down on Its Luck

Las Vegas panorama
Las Vegas is a spectacle, all right. The cumulative effect, more than the ambiance of any one resort, gets the heart pumping
Glamour is still the “sell” at high-flying Las Vegas. But there’s trouble in Sin City, too, in the current economic calamity. In August, Boyd Gaming Corp. halted construction of its $4.75-billion, 5,000-room Echelon resort on the site of the old Stardust Hotel. Hotel occupancy is down all over town. So are gambling revenues. You hear about new layoffs and cutbacks in employee hours every day. The nation’s leading convention city has seen a steady drop in registrations, though few if any outright cancellations so far. "It's like going through the North Atlantic during iceberg season," Keith Schwer, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas economist, told Las Vegas In Business magazine. "We're just not seeing everything yet."

In October, Nevada – especially Las Vegas and Henderson – posted the nation’s highest home-foreclosure rate for the 22nd straight month. “At one development in Henderson, the model homes suddenly looked too luxurious for the post-crash economy,” The Washington Post quoted a Las Vegas real-estate executive. “So the builder obliterated them and put up more modest, cheaper model homes.”

Boomberg, U.S.A. is somewhere else right now.

Las Vegas chapel
Despite its reputation as the world’s wedding capital, Las Vegas ranks second with about 115,000 performed each year. Istanbul, Turkey, is first. Who would have known?
But I’m thinking you can still get the wedding where “Elvis” walks the bride down the aisle and sings for fifteen minutes over a karaoke track after the ceremony.

Walking among the artificial exuberance of these temples to profligacy, one has to wonder whether billionaire casino developer Steve Wynn was right when he said, “Las Vegas was sort of like how God would do it if he had money.”

Or did drugged-out “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson peg it better? “For a loser,” he once wrote, “Las Vegas is the meanest town on earth.”


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Cacophony. This means a harsh or discordant note or interruption. But more broadly it has also come to refer to a really loud and disruptive clatter, as when reporters shouting questions, all at once, at a defendant emerging from a trial.

Ruckus. A disturbance. We speak of “raising a ruckus,” meaning we’re going to raise our voices and make a great fuss until someone listens. This is also sometimes called “raising a stink.”

Smithereens. This is a fun word to say. But where exactly do you end up when you get blasted to smithereens? "Smidder" was an old Irish word for a bit or a fragment. Perhaps an Englishman named Smith dropped a glass goblet, and it smashed to smithereens.

Sodom and Gomorrah. These were cities on the Jordan River that, according to the book of Genesis in the Bible, were destroyed by God, who rained down fire and brimstone to punish their inhabitants for their sinful, lascivious ways. The two cities are often lumped into one place when speaking of a “Sin City” of today.

Xanadu. A place of unimaginable beauty, first imagined by the poet Samuel T. Coleridge in Kubla Khan. In the movie classic “Citizen Kane,” a wealthy newspaper publisher, modeled after William Randolph Hearst, calls his fabulous Florida Estate “Xanadu.”

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Mall of Americans

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to work in an ordinary office or veterinarian’s clinic or wine shop next door to some historic landmark, say the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

What would it be like to walk to work each day past the Taj Mahal, or live in a little cottage half a block from the Louvre? Would these iconic attractions quickly fade into the background and seem no more remarkable than a bus shelter or branch bank?

Surely not, you say. Scurrying along the Neva in St. Petersburg, day in and day out, one could never ignore the Winter Palace.

Well, don’t be so sure.

At the end of every day that I am at work in Washington, I pack up my books and papers and empty lunch container and walk out of VOA headquarters, heading north. I trudge – or stride jauntily if it has been a good day – straight ahead a kilometer or so to the Judiciary Square Metro subway station, where I can catch a Red Line train for the short hop to my hometown across the Maryland state line.

Break in the Monotony

National Mall
The National Mall extends from the U.S. Capitol past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. There are reflecting pools at each end
En route, I cross the wide expanse of the National Mall. Mall, as in public open space, not stores and escalators and crowded parking lots. Often there’s a soccer or kickball game in motion, or people throwing Frisbees to their dogs. Sometimes a big tent or two or 20 has appeared on the grass, signaling some sort of festival. Or roustabouts are assembling risers and a stage for a concert. Knots of tourists amble about, some turning their maps this way and that to get their bearings.

“Need directions?” I always ask, as if it weren’t obvious. Out of stubborn pride but with thanks, they often reply in the negative and go back to running their fingers along their maps.

March on Washington
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his memorable “I have a dream” speech on the Mall at the conclusion of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Quite often, large hunks of the Mall are roped off and inaccessible, either to give the trampled grass a fighting chance at regeneration or to get the grounds ready for a zillion-person march or a fireworks display or a presidential inauguration. Or just for a “movie under the stars” in the summertime.

In cranky, self-centered moments, I sometimes think they throw up rope lines or snow fences just to drive me into that deep puddle where the storm drain has backed up, or to spoil the view.

One, Two, Three . . . SMILE!

Ah, that view! Which people from Kansas and Korea and Kuala Lumpur alike spend good money, and lots of it, to come see. Our monuments don’t lean, thankfully, but visitors can’t help taking each other’s pictures in front of them.

Washington Monument
Construction of the Washington monument began in 1846 but halted in 1854 because of a lack of funds. The obelisk stood as a 46-meter-high stump for 25 years until work resumed
I get a special kick out those who fire off their flash attachments when they’re shooting the United States Capitol, half a kilometer away, on a cloudy day or in the dead of night, as if this puny candlepower would emblazon more than the parking meter directly in front of them. And it amuses me to watch a determined shutterbug trying to squeeze ten assorted friends and the impossibly tall (169-meter) Washington Monument obelisk, or “National Pencil,” as my kids preferred to call it, into the frame of a palm-sized disposable camera.

On each little sally to the Metro, I practically brush against the striking, curvilinear sandstone of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and I could reach out and touch the funky sculpture beside the modern-art wing of the National Gallery of Art, or take a healthy 3.2-kilometer detour to the far end of the Mall to contemplate the impressive Lincoln Memorial.

Tuned in but Dropped Out

Like the Parisian cottage owner near the Louvre, I suspect, I don’t pay much attention to these places any more. My thoughts drift elsewhere, my headset is tuned to news or sports, and my gaze is at the display of the number of seconds remaining on the street-crossing signs rather than familiar monuments and museums.

Korean War Veterans Memorial
Snow at the Korean War Veterans Memorial is especially dramatic because it harks back to the awful conditions faced by soldiers in the Korean conflict of the early 1950s
Not so, though, I must admit, at certain dusks when the sunset turns the Capitol Building a shimmering orangy-pink, or on rainy days when low-slung clouds kiss the Washington Monument, or snow piles high on the patrol of stainless-steel soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Then, it’s impossible to ignore the beauty and significance of the treasure that I like to call the Mall of Americans. Indeed, I’ve never been to another place where “going to the Mall” didn’t mean a trip to a shopping arcade.

The National Mall is a historic, evolving, and quite controversial piece of real estate. As the Examiner newspaper noted in 2006, “Washington has more than 400 municipal and national parks covering thousands of acres across all corners of the city. But for the estimated 26 million tourists who will converge on the District this summer, the National Mall is the only one most of them will ever see.”

C’est Magnifique

Pierre L'Enfant
Pierre L’Enfant was a talented but temperamental fellow. His layout of Washington was brilliant, but someone else had to finish the job after George Washington fired him
As plans for a new national capital took shape in the 1790s, President George Washington and his handpicked city planner, artist and engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant – who had served under a fellow Frenchman, Major General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette on the American side in the revolution against Britain – tramped the banks of the Potomac River together.

L’Enfant’s baroque Plan of the City in 1791 laid out a goosefoot arrangement of wide, Parisian-style radials outward from the “Congress House,” or U.S. Capitol. And on a line due west, he drew a “vast esplanade,” along which he envisioned embassies, grand homes, and, as he wrote Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, “all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.”

He called this expanse his “place of resort.” Not last resort, I hasten to point out, but resort, meaning a useful and enjoyable pleasure ground rather than just a panoply of embassies or cultural institutions.

L'Enfant's Plan
Click to enlarge this image of L’Enfant’s plan for Washington. The dark lines toward the center are canals, including an ill-fated one along the north edge of the National Mall
Running along the northern edge of the Mall, L’Enfant drew a canal extending from a Capitol Hill trickle called Tiber Creek. Future presidents would ride grand barges up this canal to their inaugurations, he felt certain. His patron, Washington, would get an equestrian statue. (Instead, Washington’s tribute would turn out to be that 169-meter-tall pencil.)

Not Paradise By a Long Shot

L’Enfant’s resort and ceremonial corridor would be a long time coming. Victorian landscapers filled the space with gardens and copses. Sheep and cows grazed behind the first Agriculture Department building, and the U.S. cavalry kept horses there as well.

Industrial neighborhoods that included residential shacks and stables, belching smokestacks and a huge gas-storage tank, the city’s most opulent brothel, and a muddy lane called "Louse Alley" – as in the bloodsucking insect – rose just across the Capitol’s reflecting pool. There was no need to rue the poor view of monuments, because there was none at all.

In 1873, Congress granted a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad a right-of-way across the Mall to its terminal on Pennsylvania Avenue. Soon the middle of the Mall was a dingy rat’s nest of brambles, coal piles, and railroad spurs. L’Enfant’s canal had deteriorated into a pestilent sewer. All that passed for pastoral was, as historian Jon A. Peterson describes it, “a chain of individual public parks, each associated with a different Victorian building, most of them built of red brick.” There was no government building or memorial or tourist attraction – just a fetid, oozing Potomac River tidal flat – beyond the Washington Monument obelisk.

Big-Time Beautification

In short, L’Enfant’s plan had been, to borrow a word from the report of a new set of planners at the turn of the 20th Century, “perverted” by greed and haphazard development.

Chicago World Expo
The gleaming white buildings at the 1893 Chicago world expo, which were almost all temporary, infatuated a nation full of drab and dingy industrial cities
Those same, dreamy planners had returned inspired from the “Great White City,” modeled after ancient Greece and Rome, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – so-called because it marked, a year late, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first journey to the New World. The success of this dazzling fair unleashed “City Beautiful” fervor to turn sooty old cities into classical showplaces. In Washington, its enthusiasts included New York Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; and Daniel Burnham, the dynamo who had orchestrated the Chicago expo. “Make no small plans,” Burnham believed, and he and the others set about to tidy up the tangled National Mall.

Away went the railroad tracks and slag piles, briar patches and gas-lit carriage paths. Out, too, went thousands of trees as the planners restored L’Enfant’s original breathing space and vistas. Engineers filled in the smelly canal and flats leading from the great obelisk to the Potomac River, where a Memorial Bridge would one day connect the new Lincoln Memorial with Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Terrific Treasure Troves

Castle Building
The first of many Smithsonian Institution museum buildings on or along the Mall was the “Castle,” which has served as both Smithsonian headquarters and exhibit space
The National Mall became open pleasure grounds at last, bounded, over time, by a parade of free Smithsonian Institution museums – Natural History, American History, African Art and more. They became powerful tourist magnets.

The Air and Space Museum, whose 23 galleries display U.S. spacecraft, the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer, and the plane in which Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh first traversed the Atlantic solo in 1927, is now, according to Smithsonian officials, the most-visited museum in the world.

The Lincoln Memorial, built on that landfill hard by the Potomac, was designed
Lincoln Memorial
The Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, is said to have been architect Henry Bacon’s inspiration for the Lincoln Memorial
by architect Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922. Daniel Chester French’s 6-meter-high statue of a seated Lincoln looking out over the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol Building, is made of 28 interlocking blocks of Georgia marble. The memorial’s 36 Doric columns represent the states of the union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. And above the building’s frieze are the chiseled names and entry dates of the 48 states in the Union when the memorial was completed. Late-coming Alaska and Hawaii get a mention in an inscription on the memorial’s terrace.

Everything was going smoothly, vista-wise, until two world wars came along, and the War Department, starved for space for a suddenly burgeoning cadre of clerks, erected row after row of temporary buildings, or “tempos,” in the handiest open space available. This was, of course, the National Mall. The Washington Post called tempos “examples of the barracks school of architecture.” Built to last 10 years at most, they proved surprisingly sturdy. Most were low, two-story, wooden, un-airconditioned creations that just about everybody considered an eyesore, a fire hazard, and sitting ducks if there were ever an air attack.

There weren’t just a few wartime “tempo” buildings cluttering the Mall. These lined the north side, just above the unfinished Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
None came, and tempos stuck around for many years beyond their projected shelf life. No sooner had the last vestige of slums been cleared from the east end of the Mall in the 1930s, for instance, than a complex called “Tempo R” popped up right across the street from what would one day be our VOA headquarters location. A 1967 plat map of Washington showed Tempo R big as life across from our building, more than two decades after World War II ended.

But tempo clutter could not deter tourists or the march of newer memorials – to Vietnam, World War II, Korean War veterans and others. The thinking went that heroes deserve their due in the greatest, albeit increasingly jammed, plaza in the capital.

Safer But Less Serene

Temporary security fencing, to be followed by slightly more attractive variations, put an end to the free and unfettered access to, and look of, the National Mall
In the security-wary aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America came bulldozers and security fences, bollards and stepped-up U.S. Park Police patrols on the National Mall. “One of the great public spaces of the world . . . is fast collapsing into a symbol of fear, restriction, and bureaucratic control,” Judy Scott Feldman, chairperson of a nonprofit citizens’ and research group called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, wrote in 2005.

That group keeps posing a pertinent question: Just who’s in charge of the National Mall? It took some persistent unraveling to determine that eight different congressional committees oversee at least six federal agencies that have pieces of the responsibility for the Mall. Congress, the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and a commission on American battle monuments elbow for authority and sometimes get in each other’s way. The District of Columbia government, the Department of Agriculture, a commission of fine arts, park police, and others also assert authority from time to time.

And there’s another source of confusion: What exactly defines the National Mall? Where does it begin and end, reach and not reach?

This is of little direct import to visitors or to residents like me who walk across the Mall, set up volleyball nets, or jog along its gravel paths. But it’s central to the Mall’s future and the degree to which new memorials or other developments are allowed into its space.

Where Are We, Exactly?

National Mall
What are the boundaries of the National Mall? Click this and pick! Various entities draw the lines differently
Because of those odiferous swamp flats, the National Mall originally stretched only from the Capitol to a hillock upon which the Washington Monument rose. The landfill completed the long rectangle from the Capitol westward to the river that most Americans associate with the Mall. But those City Beautiful planners in the early 20th Century considered the entire Capitol Grounds to be part of the National Mall as well; and they stretched the boundary southward across a tidal basin so that the memorial to President Jefferson could be included. The local government and National Park Service define the Mall in four different ways as well, marked in aqua, red, green, and pink in the accompanying illustration.

“Is it any wonder that Congress – and the agencies with management and review authority – seem confused?” asked the National Coalition to Save Our Mall just last month. “A Congressional Research Service report concluded in 2003 that there is ‘no statutory description or map of the Mall.’ It’s time for one.”

Almost six years later, no one can yet say precisely where National Mall does and does not extend. And this makes it hard to get straight answers when tougher questions get asked:

• Should huge, privately sponsored events such as concerts and kick-off rallies to mark the opening of the National Football League season be allowed to literally take over whole sections of the Mall, kicking out the soccer players and Frisbee throwers and strolling tourists?

The National Mall belongs to all Americans. But it’s not always pure public space. Private entities can rent parts of it, and advertising is not a stranger to its grounds
• To what degree should corporate sponsorship be allowed to advertise in a space that is, if not hallowed, at least revered?

• Who’s responsible for keeping the National Mall safe? Park Police have weightier priorities, including the direct security of a democracy’s grandest monuments, than trying to catch muggers. Yet local cops rarely make pinches in what is generally considered federal space.

• And when is enough enough when it comes to new edifices in what was meant to be an open park? In 2006, ground was broken on a new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin.

No Longer Our Little Secret

That year, the Dallas Morning News editorialized:

“The museums and memorials on the Mall in Washington are about to elbow out your everyday American family. The area is simply overcrowded and becoming more so each year.

“Sure, the stretch from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial remains an inspiring vista, but in its midst is such a clutter of other monuments, security barriers and commercial kiosks that you'd swear you were visiting an amusement park loaded up with Twist-a-Ramas and cotton candy stands.

“What happened to the stateliness? The place where visitors from Idaho and Germany alike stop, reflect and breathe in America?”

Jefferson Memorial
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, stands to the south of the traditional Mall, across a tidal basin. It is now included in many Mall maps
The National Mall, which is sometimes called the nation’s “front yard,” has become an expensive (yet also crowded) yard, stretching, by some reckonings, across golf courses, paddleboat basins, and security fences far beyond anything Pierre L’Enfant had in mind. Numerous visions of the Mall’s third century have been floated, down to and including construction of some sort of beach along the Potomac River.

What Would L’Enfant Say?

In 2005, the D.C. Preservation League, which the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson uncharitably called “a well-meaning group of aesthetes, hobbyists, architects, and civic-minded buttinskis,"[too wild a word even for Wild Words! – but it means meddlers who “butt in” where they don’t belong] placed the National Mall on its list of the region's most endangered places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation had already done the same.

“Preservationists have a weakness for extravagant overstatement,” Ferguson grumbled. “Yet even a non-preservationist would have to admit that the League is right to draw attention to policies that choke the Mall, threatening to change it irretrievably, and for the worse.”

Having written all this, I resolve to turn off my headsets more often and pay closer attention to all that surrounds me on the Mall of Americans.


My title is a bit of a play on words on the better-known Mall of America, which is plenty large itself. The retail and entertainment complex, in Bloomington, Minnesota, includes 500 specialty stores, 50 restaurants, seven nightclubs, and the largest indoor theme park in America.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Copse. This copse has nothing to do with robbers. It’s a shortened version of the word “coppice,” which is a grove or small thicket of trees.

Plat map. A plan or chart of a piece of land that depicts architectural features such as homes and stores and schools. These maps are often huge and bound in what look like giant scrapbooks. Invaluable historical documents, plat maps show the progression of development in a neighborhood over the years.

Sally. To rush forward, as in a military maneuver. We sometimes add a word and speak of “sallying forth.” In fact, Sally Forth was whimsically borrowed as the name of the main character in a popular newspaper comic strip that debuted in 1982.

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