Like most of you reading this today, I live in a neighborhood full of people who came here from someplace else.
And because there’s no place like home, and because my neighbors realize I’ve been here almost forever, they tend to make unfavorable comparisons between their former place of residence and Las Vegas — and unload their complaints on me.
I hear about the irritating road construction delays, the number of pedestrians killed crossing the street, the scalding heat in summer and the occasional ring of smudge that settles over the valley until the wind shoos it all away.
I listen patiently and nod in agreement as though I were partly at fault for anything my neighbors dislike about our city.
Invariably, however, when I hear such grousing, I’m drawn back to a time some 40 years ago and a lesson that has ever since helped me deal with the daily irritations of life.
I had a buddy in college who played a mean trumpet. Living as we did in a fraternity house with 60 other guys, some of whom were napping or studying at any given hour, my friend was forced to find a more remote spot to practice his horn. He chose a graveyard.
It was located only a block behind the frat house, squarely in the middle of the University of Oregon campus, and the eerie plot of land he chose for his rehearsals bore all the dread and mystery of the cemetery where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn witnessed Injun Joe kill Doc Robinson.
From my third-story bedroom window, I’d watch my friend walk out the back door of the house, across the cracked asphalt of the basketball court, down the graveled alley past the Episcopal church, and into the army of headstones. There he would unsnap the latches of his trumpet case, remove the horn and run an oily cloth over it once for shine. Then he’d blow through the mouthpiece to clear it, straddle his long legs over a tombstone, and issue his mournful melodies up to the clouds, where they’d float away on the wind. On a day of southerly breezes, the notes would carry back to my room.
I tagged along with him a couple of times, but not because he invited me. I think he preferred to be alone out there, as alone as it was possible to be amongst a throng of assembled spirits from decades past. I went simply because I was curious. That old graveyard just seemed such a strange place to go to make music — a strange place to do anything other than rest in peace.
One oddly beautiful moment comes to mind. It was a cold, quintessentially Oregon day where the sun had forsaken the sky, leaving behind only gray and brown splotches and a promise of rain. It was the kind of day that reflective people celebrate, one that could make lonely souls contemplate suicide.
My friend, wearing a pea coat and stocking cap and looking like a man about to embark on a chase after a white whale, aimed his trumpet to the heavens and began to play “Taps.” He played so dolefully, and with such a mournful expression on his face, that I had to look away when he had finished. I half expected some specters to rise above the gravestones and bow in appreciation.
On the way back to the house, I asked him about the cemetery and why he chose to perform his solitary recitals there.
Without a trace of irony in his voice, he said, “It’s not where you are that matters; it’s what you’re doin.’ ”
And that’s all he had to say about it.
A few days later he admitted that he’d played “Taps” that afternoon in memory of his older brother, who’d been killed in Vietnam exactly one year to the day before.
My musician friend went to Canada after graduation, on the appointed day the Selective Service came to assign him to a foxhole in Southeast Asia. He stayed up north for two years, then moved to Texas, where he took a job as an ambulance attendant.
Not long after that, he was killed on the streets of Houston. He found himself in a war zone that had nothing to do with the spread of a foreign doctrine, or the subjugation of one race to another, as was occurring in Vietnam. My friend was the victim of a gunshot blast from a drug dealer who didn’t want his wounded cohort to be taken to the hospital.
By staying away from one war, my buddy had landed squarely in the middle of another.
They played “Taps” at his funeral, even though he was a draft resister. His friends insisted on it.
I think of my friend whenever I hear comments like, “What am I doing in Las Vegas?” or “This is a cold-hearted city.”
Las Vegas has changed enormously in the nearly four decades I’ve lived here, and too many people take for granted the advances we’ve made. There’s the nearly uninterrupted economic growth we experienced (at least until the recent downturn), the cultural awareness and the terrific facilities that now exist to embrace it, the improvement of our university and the diversification of industry (although not nearly as rapidly as we’d hoped).
It’s common for people to blame their personal inadequacies on the place they choose to live. I did that at times myself, when I came here long ago from a rural newspaper job in hopes of conquering the world. The root of my dissatisfaction then, as I suspect is the case with others disgruntled by the locale they choose to malign, was a basic irritation not with the place, but with myself.
Cities, like cemeteries, are after all indifferent to the activities of the living souls who pass through them.
The next time you overhear a caustic remark about Las Vegas from someone who lives here, just probe a little deeper. You’ll discover, I would wager, that the frustration comes from within. Maybe then you can help the malcontent realize that by striving to improve his own situation, he’ll make this city a better place to live.
You’ll help him understand what my friend taught me years ago, with his trumpet in a graveyard.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (702) 277-0660.