The Way We Were

Michael Austin

 

A few years agoand I hate to admit thismy high school buddies and I flew to Las Vegas to watch the opening games of the NCAA basketball tournament.

I hadn't followed college basketball in years, and the cliche of a bunch of guys partying in Vegas was almost too much for me to handle. But I couldn't remember the last time I didn't have a good time with this crew.

When a few of them confessed they weren't current on college hoops either, I agreed to go. We could play blackjack and craps, they said, and down a bunch of beers. Come on, loosen up, old man.

I was relieved to know I wouldn't be the only one not wanting to sit around and watch TV for three days. As it happened, no one did that. Some of the die-hard guys got up early the first morning to claim prime TV viewing seats in a huge banquet room with a big screen. I raised my eyebrows when I finally located them; it was before noon on a morning following a 5 a.m. turn-in, and already they were smoking cigars and swigging down beer in plastic cups. We're not messing around here, I thought.

The excessive consumption continued, maybe even escalated, over the next few days, but the sports-betting and score-checking took a back seat to a sort of unfocused downward spiral of nothing-in-particular and whatever-presented-itself-in-front-of-us, a specialty of many guys, particularly my friends.

Nothing wrong with that. The point of the trip was simply to get together with the fellas, to get away not only physically but also in every other way possible, because guys thrive on adventure and fantasy, the suspension of disbelief, and escape. The trip would give us an opportunity to revert to our former clueless selves from high school and entertain one another. Who needs basketball when I can hear for the 200th time the story about how during junior year Mac painted his car with a roller and a can of latex house paint?

The older we get, the less frequent and more significant these get-togethers become, allowing us to turn off our work-phone voices and slouch a little. They give us another chance to live up to the reputations we built as teenagers, to go backward for once in a great while because what every man wants in some way, large or small, is to feel once again what it was like to be a boy.

You see it when an 80-year-old man stops another, whispers in his ear and quietly giggles. You see it in the fiery eyes of a 50-year-old man who comes up with an idea he wants to tell the world about. Draw a line backward and it leads to kindergarten in both cases, the same boys' hearts in new men's bodies.

We love to surprise each other, to prove that we are still vital, that we haven't lost a step. Most of all we expect each other to never stop being some semblance of the person we were yesterday, however long ago that was.

As time ticked on in Vegas we broke off into factions, bouncing between groups of friends and checking out different casinos. Mostly we rehashed old stories and sometimes acted them out like neighborhood kids putting on a basement play for an audience of three.

At one casino, a few of us actually talked about riding the indoor roller coaster (grown men pushing 40, many with wives and children at home), backing out only after realizing that the snaking line would have us waiting for more than an hour. Some husbands and many fathers are patient, but no guy on a trip with his buddies is.

In a bizarre coincidence, we found out that another high school friend of ours was in Vegas at the same time. He was with friends from Nashville, where he went to college.

He was staying at the MGM Grand, with its spectacular pool, and we reasoned, as old friends do, that what's his is ours and decided to pay him a visit.

The security staff at the MGM Grand did not subscribe to our philosophy, adhering instead to the time-honored "no room key, no swim" policy. We had our buddy paged (no response) and then tried to figure out ways around the security checkpoint. Finally we walked away laughing, grown men trying to sneak into a swimming pool. Grown men with a pool of their own down the street at their hotel.

On the walk back from the MGM, we happened upon a performance artist who was painted silver, standing still as a statue. It reminded me of what we were searching for on that trip, what guys are always searching for when they get together: to go back to that perfect time in their lives and freeze it.

I thought about how the guys on this trip-no matter what kind of success they have in their careers or how beautifully they raise their families, will always in some way be the guys I knew back in high school when we were stealing each other's food at lunch. Come to think of it, that happened in Vegas, when one friend decided he didn't want to expend the energy required to walk back to the buffet for another piece of bread, so he lifted some from another plate. Quick hands win out every time.

I was getting slain at the gaming tables, watching piles of chips disappear not only at our home base, the Flamingo, but also at the Venetian, Paris, Riviera and Stratospherebasically all across Western Europe and into outer space.

On the last night I was burned out from everything-laughing, lying (men prefer to hear stories that are grossly exaggerated) and, especially, losing.

When one of our group, Glenn, asked where I might be gaming that evening I told him it didn't matter, that every place looked the same to me. He said he knew the feeling, but that his luck had changed the night before at a little place up the strip, away from the fancy new joints, called Slots-A-Fun.

He assured me he wasn't making up the name, and even though I didn't believe him, I followed him anyway, recruiting our buddy Slatts along the way. Three guys are always better than two (cuts down the intimacy), and four is even better.

Slots-A-Fun (Glenn hadn't lied) was the rinky-dinkest casino I had ever seen outside of a Las Vegas Night fundraiser in a grade-school gym. Facing the sidewalk, it had garage doors that rolled up to let gamblers in, and inside it had a Subway sandwich counter in plain view. Nothing says "high roller" more than a 6-inch ham and cheese with all the fixings.

The smell of baking bread was almost overwhelming, but $3 bets were allowed at the blackjack tables, something we hadn't seen anywhere else on the strip. We decided we could get comfortable there, because losing only $3 a hand would allow us to slowly drain our last couple hundred dollars over the course of the night rather than over the course of an hour in a nicer place with higher minimums.

We settled in with low expectations and asked the nice lady if she would please deal us some good cards. I caught fire. At one point I had won something like 15 hands in a row. Naturally I started playing two hands at once (guys rarely have the foresight to leave well enough alone), and still I couldn't lose. Before I knew it, after a couple hours and several dealers had come and gone, I had won back everything I had lost in the prior two days, and was up $500. Slatts was up, too, easily a couple hundred.

When a new dealer took over and beat us a few hands in a row right off the bat, we decided it was time to call it quits. Glenn had been playing at another table, over by the serve-yourself soda fountain, and hadn't matched his luck from the night before. Sorry, I said, but at least it wouldn't matter for the rest of the night; I had everyone covered (among guys, when you win, you pay: unwritten rule).

We decided that now would be a good time to double back and look into an advertisement that had caught our eye on the way to Slots-A-Fun. It was at one of those classic hotelsThe Dunes? The Sands? The Frontier?with an old-school marquee that you could picture a tuxedoed Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin standing under. In letters that were easily 10 feet tall, the sign read: BIKINI BULL RIDING.

Much to our dismay, we had missed the show. But much to my delight, the mechanical bull was still in business, precipitating the following words, which I'll probably never have the chance to say again: "Bull rides on me."

Glenn passed on my offersomething about a bad back, I don't knowand ventured out into the casino to try to win back his losses, which, we later learned, he did. Meanwhile, Slatts and I sized up that bull. I went first, listening to the man-at-the-controls' macho story about being a former professional rider, the pictures of him in action hanging on the wall next to him (guys love to peacock but some are more subtle than others).

I listened intently and smiled nervously as he advised me on technique: where this hand goes, what that hand does, how I should come up to meet the back of the bull's head with my face when he rears, and stretch out tall when he dips his head. I practiced a few times and then gave the thumbs-up, slapping the mechanical beast on its side to show it who was boss.

The guy at the switch started me out slowly and gradually picked up speed, letting me hang on for a while and then in short order flinging me like a rag doll to the padded pit floor. I felt like I had held my own and stood up to scattered applause. Life was good.

Slatts, already into the instructional conversation with the operator, high-fived me when I passed by. He then gave the operator some instruction of his own.

"Take it easy on me, brother," Slatts said with typical wryness. "I'm from Chicago. We're used to slaughtering these things, not riding them."

Even the old rodeo veteran got a smile out of that one. No doubt he appreciated a good steak as much as the next guy.

I walked away and took a spot on the railing around the ring. Slatts stepped on the cushions and walked out to the bull, bouncing like a kid on the moonwalk ride at a carnival. In the saddle, he turned to the operator and gave him the thumbs-up.

Slowly the mechanical beast began to move up and down, then in a lazy spin. Soon it changed direction, gyrated up and down again, this time spinning faster.

Slatts was textbook. He had taken in everything the old pro had told him and he was putting it to work. The bull picked up speed, changing direction by the second, thrusting up and down, and beginning to look like an old-time movie that had been sped up.

Slatts was taming the bull! His arm was raised and bent at the elbow, his hand waving in circles. Fearlessly he was lowering his face to meet the back of the bull's head as it bucked beneath him.

As he arched his back and circled his open palm in the air for counter-balance, I realized with growing elation that Slatts still had it. The last thing you want to hear from a high school buddy is that you've lost it, that you're done. That your fire is gone, that you are no longer funny, that you are tired, and can't keep up. It's always said in jest, but it is never forgotten, because, tragically, we measure ourselves more against our former selves than we ever do against each other.

Slatts still had the power to cut loose, to be the kid I knew, to throw caution to the wind and run on pure emotion and uncertainty, just like we did when we were dreaming of becoming men. The next morning he would be on an airplane heading back to the wife and twins he adores, back to his future.

Even today, as my friends' careers take off and the memory of high school gets hazier every year, it is hard sometimes to tell where the boy that I knew ends and the man that the world knows begins. We are good, we men, at convincing you that we have grown up, even though we never do completely.

So there was Slatts, corporate attorney for a major multinational company (never in a million years would he have predicted that one), with a wife (OK, maybe), and twins (50/50), up on that wildly gyrating mechanical bull, taming it in the presence of bona fide Westerners in hats, all looking on in amazement and cheering him as if he were one of their own. He must have been up there 60 seconds, but to me it felt closer to an hour.

I laughed and cheered and raised my fist and took a snapshot in my mind, knowing that Slatts had done it again. He had taken me back to the days when anything was possible, the days we try to remember and somehow recapture every time we get together.

For a flash of an instant, in the waning hours before he had to return to his life as a man, my old buddy Slatts up there on that bull, for me—and for him, I promise you—was a cowboy.