My wife and I recently took a business trip to the bustling metropolis of Des Moines. Well, not exactly Des Moines. My seminars took place in a casino/ hotel located at nearby Altoona, Iowa.
I love the name Altoona. It sounds as if it might be some sort of musical instrument: “I’m sorry, but little Georgie can’t come out and play. He’s practicing on his altoona.”
Altoona is about six hours from our house. We zip along on our modern superhighways at 70 MPH, complaining about traffic congestion and our indigestion from gas station coffee. Whenever we take such trips, I like to imagine what the voyage might have been like for those who lived a century ago.
Our six-hour jog would have been a month-long slog with horses and a wagon. Our complaints might have involved such things as wolf attacks and attacks of dysentery, although I bet the coffee would have still been lousy.
We met up and supped with some old friends at the Bass Pro Shop. I typed its name into my iPhone and Siri pronounced it as “base pro shop.” She must have thought that we were going to purchase a humungous fiddle or perhaps a bag where you’ll be safe after hitting a single.
The ceiling of the restaurant where we dined was festooned with numerous life-sized, life-like plastic fish. As I noshed my fish platter, I tried to avoid the icy glare of a tuna that hung nearby. He was wearing an expression that seemed to say, “You’re eating my brother Charlie!”
We yakked the night away with Paula and Jeff. Even though it was past our bedtime, we continued our conversation for several minutes in the chill parking lot. One thing that hasn’t changed over the centuries is that time flies when you’re having fun.
The casino/ hotel where we stayed is a sprawling complex that occupies about 80 acres. Next to the casino is a racetrack, so horses are still part of the equation, albeit in a modified role.
While I attended my meetings, my wife attended the casino. She has the uncanny ability to come out ahead most of the time, a talent that’s totally unfathomable to me. I chalk it up to another of the many feminine mysteries we males cannot comprehend. The only thing I know about it is that it doesn’t work when I’m with her. But I’m a lousy gambler, the sort of guy who will yell “Cash out!” as soon as my machine is up by a dime.
We dined at the casino’s buffet a couple of times. This was a mistake as it caused much discomfort due to chronic overstuffing. But what choice does a guy have when faced with all those goodies? I felt that it was my duty as an American to try one of everything.
The trouble is, there was a lot of everything. The buffet was a ten-acre feast that included everything from calamari to cucumbers, from baron of beef to bourbon chicken. The mere act of walking past the dessert bar caused me to gain five pounds.
On our final night in Altoona I accompanied my wife into the casino area. There were approximately 40 acres of gaudy lights and beeping machines. The joint was stuffed to the rafters with folks who appeared eager to bet that they could beat the casino.
I strolled around while my wife fed a slot machine. My meanderings took me past a slot machine that featured Britney Spears and another that flashed photos of the cast from The Big Bang Theory. I don’t know how such things work, but imagine that those celebrities receive a nickel every time a gambler pushes their machines’ buttons.
As I wandered the casino, a strange yet familiar fragrance stung my nose. Cigarette smoke! Indoors! I grew up amidst smokers and the aroma evoked ancient childhood memories of my parents having their morning coffee and cigarettes at the kitchen table before going out to milk the cows.
Indoor smoking has been banned for so long in so many places, it felt weird to walk amongst people who were openly toking. It was as if I were witnessing a mass act of civil disobedience.
When I’d had enough of the casino – I couldn’t roll with the high rollers and there weren’t any horse races to lose money on – I found my wife and said “Cash out!” Which she did, but not before pointing out that this was the only time she’d finished with a loss.
We pointed our car homeward, the horsepower under the hood sweeping us along at a bustling pace. And I had nothing to complain about, except the perhaps the coffee.
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