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‘Bums’ from New Jersey turn back clock in Vegas

Back in the 1930s, a writer named James Thurber created a man named Walter Mitty.

Mitty, a fictional character in a short story, and later a movie with Danny Kaye, and soon to be another movie with Ben Stiller, lived in the very real Perth Amboy, N.J., a small beach town across the bay from Staten Island.

He was a dreamer, Walter was. He frequently escaped his mundane life by creating exciting, dangerous new ones inside his head. The adventures made him not exactly a better man than the one he really was, but at least a more interesting one.

Creating stories about how interesting life is was what a group of self-described crotchety old guys from Perth Amboy, N.J., were doing at the Bellagio last week. They were reliving the exciting and dangerous times they all shared.

The only difference is that these guys, unlike Walter Mitty, actually did all this stuff.

“It gives you an opportunity to go back in time and be who you were,” said Lewis Korb, a 78-year-old chiropractor who still goes to work every day.

Except when he’s in Vegas.

He and his childhood buddies have come to Vegas every year since the late 1970s. They think their first trip was in 1977, but no one seems entirely sure.

The idea came at a high school reunion. Lots of the guys, who all grew up together, had moved away. Some were scattered in the Northeast, while others were out West.

Someone said how nice it was to see all the boys again. We should do this more often, someone else said. What about Vegas?

They gave themselves a name, the “Bums,” and they made a couple of rules: No wives or girlfriends, and the first one to complain has to organize next year’s trip.

Vegas is the perfect place for reliving the past. It’s easy to get here, there are plenty of places to stay, and you can forget everything that’s going on in the real world and put your mind back in the Perth Amboy that existed 60 or 70 years ago.

This was a place and a time where you could take the car over to Staten Island as a teenager because the drinking age was younger than it was in New Jersey and your mom said nothing but, “Be careful.”

It was a place and a time where you could take a bus trip to Florida with your buddy and be shocked, absolutely shocked, that when the bus crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the black passengers had to go to the back of the bus.

It was a place and a time where a group of kids could skip school and go to a Yankees game, only to find out that the home run ball that was hit right to them was such a big deal that their picture ended up on the front page of the New York Times the next day.

Warren Deutsch, 77, told that story.

He’s a retired attorney, practiced family law in Los Angeles most of his life. He was one of 11 guys who came this year. It’s usually about that many. Once, they had 18 guys, but a couple have died, one is in bad health, and a couple have drifted away.

Another one of them is Mike Shevell, 78. He still lives in New Jersey. He’s the CEO of a huge trucking company empire. He’s made a lot of money since joining the family business as a teenager.

But type his name into Google, and mostly what you get are tabloid stories out of Great Britain.

His daughter, Nancy, just happened to marry Paul McCartney a couple of years ago.

Yeah, he says. They were walking on the beach. They ran into each other. They clicked. They got married. So what?

He just got off the phone with Donald Trump, he said. So what?

He’d rather talk about his buddies, about those times they had back before grown-up life got so complicated.

“We’ve been close since we were little kids,” he said. “There aren’t too many people like that in the world.”

You see, these guys say, there’s something about your childhood friends that’s different from the people you meet when you’re grown up.

These guys know the real you. The one who jumped from garage rooftop to garage rooftop to get to a buddy’s house. The one who dated your ex-girlfriend, and then dated his other buddy’s ex-girlfriend, and then dated a girl from the next town over, thereby expanding the whole group’s range of girls who could legitimately be dated.

“It’s been a great run,” said Shevell, the trucking mogul. “I hope we all got another 50 years.”

“I wouldn’t lay odds on it,” said Deutsch, the retired attorney. “Even in Vegas.”

So this is what they do. They come to Vegas and they remember the guys they used to be while they can still live out the fantasy that used to be real.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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