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Desert Companion

The King is Dead: A Personal History of Las Vegas

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The King is Dead
Illustration by Brent Holmes

[NOTE] In February, this magazine published an article entitled “Is the Army at it Again?” which reported an explosion on January 8 at Frenchman Flat, northwest of Las Vegas. Included were interviews with anonymous conspiracy theorists who speculated that the explosion was nuclear in nature and was somehow linked to a certain Las Vegas celebrity on whose birthday the explosion occurred.

A month after we ran the piece, we received an envelope containing two cassette tapes from a man who claimed to be an orderly at a hospice in North Las Vegas. According to the orderly, the tapes contained the last words of a dying man who had been a patient there.

We have listened to these tapes and transcribed certain portions. In places where historical accuracy could be verified, our fact-checkers have found no outright errors. In places where the accuracy may come into question or clarification seemed needed, our editors have included footnotes. The statements concerning matters of national security cannot be confirmed nor denied, nor is the publication of the following in any way meant to be an indictment of the U.S. Army’s record-keeping practices during the period discussed.

We leave it to you, the reader, to believe or disbelieve any and all parts of this story.

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(Ellipses represent omitted sections of audio)

 

Handwritten on TAPE #1:

 

“The king is dead. Long live the king.”

—a bunch of Europeans

 

BEGIN TAPE:

A man is coming to kill me, so I’ll make this brief. Even if this man weren’t right now speeding his way across the city in a black Mercedes, the fact remains that time isn’t known for being a luxury here.

Here is Desert Springs Hospice, an establishment for old pensioners like me who receive enough to die indoors but not with much dignity. The hospice sits between a heavily fortified pawnshop and a check-cashing establishment. Outside my window I can see a patch of unused city block, which grows nothing but stiff sprouts of brown desert grass. A scrawl of graffiti on the abandoned motel across the street tells me, Now is a time to kill and a time to heal.

I agree, though I wish I knew what the author meant by quoting Ecclesiastes. It’s always been a problematic book for me. Full of contradictions.

. . .

I apologize for not getting to the point. I’m not particularly good with stories because, from the time I was a child, I was taught the value of silence.

. . .

My father came to Nevada in 1932, the same year I was born, to help pour concrete for the dam being built out at Black Canyon. The dam became that monstrosity and tourist trap named after Herbert Hoover, whom my father always called the “captain of the Titanic” for leading our country into the financial ruin that forced my father to move to the desert to begin with.

During the workweek my father stayed out at Ragtown, the city of tents near the dam. But he made a point of owning a house in Las Vegas. He said it showed we were “established folks,” reputable and therefore employable. The real reason was that it put us close to the Boulder Club where my father spent his free evenings indulging in table games. On the nights he came home, my wailing didn’t appeal to him. My father came home tired when he came home at all, and he beat me regular for making any sort of noise that kept him awake. Even as a baby I suffered my share of broken bones. It’s a wonder I lived. My mother defended me, but my father gave her the same treatment. When I was five, she walked into the desert and never came back. It was like she’d walked into the sun.

When the public works jobs dried up, my father dedicated all his time to the Boulder Club, which now boasted a neon sign depicting the dam. My father said the sign made him feel like he was still going to work, and in a way he was. He began to make just enough on poker to keep us afloat. We lived “baize-to-mouth,” as he often said.

During that period, I developed an expressionless stare meant to duck his wrath, which could be triggered by the slightest hiccup or smile. I erased all emotion from my countenance in hopes that, when he arrived home from a beating at the tables, he wouldn’t transfer that beating to me.

. . .

When I was sixteen, my father disappeared into the desert behind my mother. He was driven there against his will by men who would have preferred he be more punctual about his debts. I was free of a tyrant.

. . .

For five years I was on my own.

. . .

I enlisted in the army in 1954 to get away. And though I slogged through basic training at Fort A.P. Hill (A.P. Hell, we called it) in Virginia, I was posted with my battalion at the Nevada Test Site not far from where I’d grown up.

Though I was little more than a glorified grunt on guard duty, I became popular with the other men because I had a working knowledge of Las Vegas. On leave, I became a kind of ringleader and tour guide.

It was the Cold War and the age of atomic experiments. We soldiers watched as mushroom clouds blossomed in the desert. During those years, despite my hatred for my father, I felt the call of the casinos and found that I too had a knack for poker. I’d inherited his talent for the odds, his understanding of the expected value and the long game. But he had bestowed on me something far more valuable. In learning as a boy to mask my emotions to avoid his tirades, I’d cultivated the perfect poker face.

Any time I could get away from base, I played. I did well for a time. One night I even faced off with the legendary Johnny Moss.[1] He was only in his forties then, but he already seemed ancient and intimidating. He reminded me of my father in the way he sat passively behind his cards, his eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance. Moss took me for five thousand dollars that night, the entirety of three months’ earnings playing tourists. But he left me with the words that served me well in years to come: “Kid,” he said as I stood up from the table, my blood boiling, “don’t betray your emotions, even after the cards are collected.”

That’s the one lesson I’ve remembered to this day.

. . .

By 1961 it appeared I was more like my father than I’d hoped. I found myself in debt for forty-seven thousand dollars.

. . .

I maintain that I am a patriot, no matter what anyone says.

. . .

That same year, I was assigned to the firing team responsible for testing the M-28 recoilless rifle. The gun was similar to what people today call a bazooka.

It was different from a bazooka though because it fired a nuclear warhead with a 10-kiloton payload. It was the bazooka to end all bazookas. The rocket was designed to be used by ground troops to defend the European border in case of a Russian invasion. The brass had dubbed this weapon system the “Davy Crockett,” king of the wild frontier.

. . .

Testing of the weapon at Yucca Flat was set for July, still six months away, when at the beginning of 1962 I received an invitation from Milton Prell, owner of the Sahara Casino[2], to attend Elvis Presley’s 27th birthday party.

This was as shocking to me as if the Pope had requested my presence for a heart-to-heart in Rome. Elvis Presley was the most famous man in the world, and I’d never been invited to anything fancier than a fish fry. I had met Milton Prell. He used to walk the floors and chat with high-stakes regulars “slumming it” with us servicemen at the lower tables. But I didn’t know that Prell knew me. I was to call his office at my convenience.

Mr. Prell’s secretary patched me through, and Prell got on the line.

“You’ll come to the party then?” he said. “Bring a few fellas. A dozen. You choose.”

“Mr. Prell,” I said. “I don’t understand.”

“I bought your marker, Mr. Radnik. You owe me money now, a lot of it, which means you’re my employee.” I felt as if a fairytale giant had placed his massive thumb on my head and was threatening to squash me flat.

He went on. “Mr. Presley was in the Army himself and has a soft spot for grunts, ‘regular guys’ like yourself. He wants some of you there.”

“Mr. Prell, you didn’t have to buy up my marker just to make me to go to Elvis’ birthday party. I’d have carved out the time.”

He laughed — a little cruelly. “I’ve heard you’re a good poker player, Mr. Radnik. To me that’s as good as being smart. We’re trying to convince Mr. Presley to do an extended gig in Las Vegas. There’s a big movie in the works, and a corresponding album. The album and the movie will forever associate Elvis with this city, so there’s a lot of money to be made.”

Prell told me Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, couldn’t be persuaded that giving Elvis an extended run in Las Vegas was a good idea, but if Elvis came to the decision on his own, Parker would fall into line.

“What Elvis needs,” Prell said, “is a little nudging from an ‘unbiased’ source, someone he’s inclined to trust, like a fellow soldier.”

“You want me to convince Elvis to sing in Las Vegas?”

“He had a bad experience here years ago. We want him to know this time it’ll be different. And, Mr. Radnik, not just to sing in Las Vegas — to sing in my clubs. Exclusively.”

“That’s worth $47,000?”

“Let’s round it up to 50,” he said, “and no, it’s not. There’s something Elvis wants. Something only you can help him get.”

I wanted to say no. There were too many factors I couldn’t see. But then I thought of my father sitting between two men in the backseat of a car as it headed out to some dusty, lifeless horizon.

I agreed.

. . .

The man who is coming to kill me did me the courtesy of calling an hour ago. He was checking to see if I was in my room, to make sure it was really me. That’s when I knew he’d found me after all these years. That’s the reason I decided to record this personal history, so that if anything happens people will know the truth.

The man coming to kill me is obsessed with the item I have in the footlocker at the bottom of my closet. Over the years he’s become crazy for it. He’s convinced I no longer have the strength to defend it.

. . .

Elvis’ birthday party was a grand affair held at the Sahara hotel. It hadn’t been difficult to gain leave or to find 12 men who wanted to attend.

Late into the night we drank. The guys were starstruck and kept ogling the women. Elvis sang a few songs and hobnobbed with Prell’s people, who were all in formal wear and twice our age. Then Elvis found his way over to our table and palled around with us. He was warm and genuine, interested in what we had to say — what we could say of it. But knowing what Prell wanted me to do, I was sweating bullets.

Elvis leaned in. “What’s that test site like, anyway?”

“The site?”

“Yeah, that base, man. That’s wild. What’s it like watching them bombs go off? That’s some crazy stuff, man.” He was close. His dark hair and blue eyes. Something hypnotic about him, like he was trying to put me into a trance.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Boredom. We hunker down in ditches until the thing goes off.” I couldn’t help thinking of the signs posted around the base. They were spelled out in deceptively cheery red-white-and-blue letters:

“Talk Means Trouble. Don’t Talk!”

“If You Get Your Information Here, LEAVE it HERE!”

I’d always thought maybe this was the true origin of the now ubiquitous “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas." Had the city just adopted the policies of the most notorious secret-keepers, our government? My training and my nature was to give up nothing. Blood from a turnip, like they say. But what do you do when Elvis asks you for state secrets?

“Come on, man,” Elvis prodded. He laid his hand on my shoulder like we were pals. I had him where Prell wanted him, but it meant giving up a secret of my own.

“It’s like seeing God,” I muttered. I hadn’t told anyone. It had felt sacred, this feeling that in the midst of the detonation there was something beyond the science.

“God? Really?”

“The first time I watched one of the blasts we were hunkered down behind some sandbags. A plane dropped the bomb. We heard it and we stood up, but we were too quick. The shockwave slapped us in the face. It was physical. Then came the tower. It’s not really a mushroom cloud. It’s a pillar. You know? All the way up to heaven. All I could think about was that story where God leads the Israelites out of Egypt with a big column of smoke and fire.”

“Heaven fire, man,” Elvis said.

I agreed. “Heaven fire.”

I tried changing the subject, but I could see how this was going to play out, same as some nights sitting with a hand at the table knowing I’d be the one raking chips at the end.

“You should sing here,” I told Elvis. “Like on a regular basis. Entertain us troops. If we’re listening to you, maybe we won’t be so busy gambling our money away.”

Elvis laughed in a distant way. “Maybe,” he said. He lowered his voice. “You know what I’d really like?”

“What?”

“To see that test site, man.”

There it was: what I had to offer. Elvis wanted to see the test site ‘off the books,’ unencumbered by fanfare. Forty-seven thousand dollars was a cheap ticket for Prell to woo his entertainer.

But that wasn’t all. I thought of my father again. Prell winked at me from a corner of the room. He held up a glass of champagne.

. . .

Because I was part of the firing team of the M-28, I had certain privileges to move over the range. Most of the MPs and other grunts owed me money or favors, which I exploited. People like to pretend the Nevada test site was a high-security facility, but it always surprised me how easy it was to move about in zones where we weren’t strictly permitted. Maybe the Army figured anybody with gumption enough to trespass where we were setting off bombs and testing the radioactive fallout deserved whatever he got.

One of the other men in the M-28 firing team, whose name I won’t mention, had passed out in our hotel room at the Sahara. We rolled him for his fatigues, and Elvis disguised himself. I drove Elvis out in a MUTT quarter-ton and showed him the structures and tanks whose sole purpose was to be obliterated by our atomic weapons. He and I stood under the starlit sky.

I waited for what was to come next. Prell had told me what Elvis really wanted.

“This ain’t why I’m here, man,” Elvis said.

“I know,” I said. “Just tell me why. I need to know or I don’t think I can do it.”

He leaned against a Russian tank with its treads missing. From his back pocket he produced a rolled-up magazine. As he unfurled it I saw in the moonlight that it was an old Saturday Evening Post. Elvis flipped to a story titled “The Brighton Monster.”[3]

“This here,” he said, “is about a guy who gets caught in an atomic blast and travels through time. I read it when I was a teenager. I can’t help think about it more and more. You figure that can happen? Get blasted to another place and time?”

“I’ve seen some strange things go on out here,” I said weakly.

“Know what I’m saying?” Elvis said. “Like, if a guy could get his hands on a bomb, could he test it? Not a guy who means anybody any harm. Just a guy who’s tired of being famous.”

“You’re joking,” I said, though I could see he wasn’t.

. . .

There were times years later I’d see Elvis on television. I’d see the look of desperation in his eyes, hear the pleading in his voice as he sang. I’ve read that there’s a psychological phenomenon that occurs with truly powerful people. They come to believe in their own greatness, in the fact that they must be destined for something beyond death. Maybe Elvis thought he could skirt whatever awaited him by blasting his atoms to a new place and time.

I felt for him, I did. I had a similar idea about the desert, the place that had taken my mother and father. Maybe by blasting it with the weapons of our new age, I might destroy that god of heat and sand and thereby conquer death. Maybe that’s why I volunteered for the M-28 firing team, three men charged with firing a nuclear explosive that would land only a thousand yards away. Had I mentioned I volunteered? Maybe I wanted to prove I was bigger than my destiny, bigger than this town.

Maybe that’s why I agreed to help.

. . .

It took me three weeks to plan, but it was surprisingly easy to steal a W-54 nuclear warhead. As I said, security at the Nevada test site was not what it is today, not even what most people thought it was then. The security was mostly people, human beings with clipboards and personal judgment. And I had the run of the place, the trust of my comrades, which pains me to some to degree to have broken, though they never knew it. Inventories were subject to the mark of a pencil or pen. Munitions were misplaced with regularity, and that included those of the nuclear variety.

I involved no one other than a few guards, but I’ve since checked, and they’ve all passed on. They are unimpeachable now.

. . .

It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but ultimately I couldn’t trust Elvis Presley with an atomic warhead. Maybe it was what I’d told him about God. Something in me changed once I had it in my possession. It was one thing to watch the army conjure a deity out of the ether. It was another to hand over that sacred source of heaven fire to a man who had no right to it. And the longer I held onto it, the more I felt like the keeper of a holy relic. It was a burden. I couldn’t bestow something as divine as nuclear fission on a person who might not understand that.

I saw him a week after I’d stolen it. He’d been in California and returned to discuss a deal with casino owners about the movie and the song that would, as Prell put it, “forever associate” him with Las Vegas[4].

Elvis and I met outside the city on a deserted road at dusk where the desert sprawled away into mountains. He came alone.

Even then, I could see he was looking for a way to beat this city and all it represented. He wanted to be bigger. To escape. Like me.

“I couldn’t get it,” I said.

“You’re blowing this deal, man. Milt said —”

“Tell Milton Prell whatever you want. I can’t get it. If you want my blood on your hands, that’s fine.”

I thought of my father and thanked him silently for my expressionless face.

Elvis chuckled good-naturedly, but I could see he was ruined. Even then.

He went away. I’d won.

He must have told Prell that I’d obtained the item. My marker was erased. Then life went on.

That’s maybe the most bizarre part of my story. That things went back to normal, that no one ever asked about it, that no one ever came for it, that in my closet to this day is a nuclear warhead.

I think about this sometimes, about my father hitting me, and life still going on. Like there’s not all that explosive energy pent up and waiting and sometimes exploding. Like a bomb. We just pretend it isn’t there.

. . .

Now is a time to kill and a time to heal. I wonder which one will come first.
. . .

The warhead is about the size of a watermelon. It sits now in my footlocker in the bottom of my closet. I hope, in the event that I’m not able to defend it, this account shall help those whose job it is to safeguard the nation. I hope it helps them to find the man who right now is parking along the street behind the Desert Springs Hospice. I do not know how he found me, but I have my guesses.

Staying in this town, being here in this hospice for too long, has made me a sitting target. And this man is determined. He has haunted me a long while, since 1977 to be exact, after he faked his own death and committed all his time to the search (though that is another story entirely and concerns the Plowshares project)[5]. I could never stray too far from this town.

I’ve done my best to provide you with details that validate the truthfulness of these events. The one thing I’ve avoided — the way in which I’ve been somewhat coy — is in my refusal to identify the man who right now is traversing the sidewalk along the back lot. I have not identified him for fear you would disregard what I have to say. I feared you’d rack up my narrative to the rantings of an old man. But now I am at an end, I have nothing left to hide. I’ll show my cards, though I betray no emotion. I see the man from my window. He’s about my age. A year and a half younger, to be exact. He’s grown thin and bowed, as have I, though he’s never succumbed to baldness. He always had a great head of hair. As I watch him now, he still has a swagger. He still swings his arms with a careless ease.

Most of all, though, I can now make out his smile, which is ever so crooked, the upper lip rising as if snagged by an invisible fishing line. And those sunglasses. He always did like those big, dark sunglasses, which hide his eyes as he turns and looks my way.[6]  

 

[1] While Johnny Moss would have been roughly the age stated, there is no record of this game, nor any mention of a game resembling it in any of Moss’s biographical accounts.

 

[2] Milton Prell, a friend of Elvis’ lawyer, Colonel Tom Parker, sold the Sahara to real estate developer Del Webb in 1961, but did celebrate with Elvis at the Sahara that January. Presley was married at Prell’s Aladdin Hotel (now Planet Hollywood) in 1967. The M-28 tripod-mounted recoilless rifle was scheduled to test fire the M-388 projectile with nuclear warhead; tests were carried out in July of 1962.

 

[3] Gerald Kersh, “The Brighton Monster” (collected in 1953, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 21, 1948)

 

[4] Screenwriter Sally Benson did not begin writing Viva Las Vegas until early in 1963. That production was not announced by director George Sidney until the beginning of that year. There is also no known evidence that Elvis met with casino owners to discuss the film, especially over a year before its production phase.

 

[5] Operation Plowshare involved government testing of nuclear explosions for purposes other than warfare. This testing was scrapped in 1977.

 

[6] Elvis Presley’s death in 2015 by atomic explosion can neither be confirmed nor denied. Repeated calls to authorities at Frenchman Flat have gone unanswered.

 

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