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Mobster, Masons and Terrorism

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People ask, “What is the meaning of life?”  I think that may be the wrong question.  It’s so all encompassing it may take an entire lifetime to puzzle out.  A lesser included question that seems manageable is “What meaning am I going to build in my life?”  Still tough, but maybe doable.  I work through this meaning question in three ways:  What of my yesterdays is valuable?  What do I want my tomorrows to look like?  What small things can I do today to make my imagined tomorrows attainable? 

            An additional layer over building my tomorrows is connections: family, social and work.  This trip was about connections.  Reinforcing connections to people and places that are a part of my personal history.  I was going to visit family; And, visit places memorialized in family lore.   I was going to walk where my father and grandfather had walked.  Did something like the things they did.  I also intended to visit Masonic Lodges and a Rotary Club that I had not previously visited.  The Lodge and Club visits were to find new connections to people who shared similar values.  I didn’t think that along with family, Masons and Rotarians I would get a healthy does of organized crime and terrorism.

My three-day adventure began Monday, mid-morning.  I didn’t need the onboard navigation to find my way to Las Vegas, but the KIA K5 onboard system monitors traffic and alerts the driver to upcoming problems and potential alternate route.  Of course, going up the 15 to Vegas doesn’t have a lot of alternatives.  By 10AM, I’m all packed, up onto the 210 Freeway and set the car to drive itself at 79MPH. 

Once I am in the fast lane, the K5’s “Driver Assist” mode keeps the car in the lane, the preset distance from the car ahead of me and at a constant speed.   I begin listening a six-hour podcast “Meaning, Awe and the Conceptualization of God.”  If you want  a link to it, email me.

Once I make the transition to the northbound 15 Freeway, all I have to do is watch for the outlet off ramp near Barstow. I make that off ramp, get a cup of coffee at the Starbucks and have quick smoke.  The high desert around Barstow is cold and clear with stiff breeze that bites through your clothing.  Slightly chilled, I resume the trek north.  Roughly three and half hours after I first started, I am in downtown Las Vegas.

My three nights were at the El Cortez Hotel and Casino.  The hotel is alternately billed as “Historic,” “Vintage” and “Remodeled.”    Historic:  First, it has a historic connection to me in that both of my grandfathers and my father favored the hotel.  My aunt told me that my father had a favorite slot machine that he always played.  Of course, ancestors stayed in the Cortez in its heyday. 

Built in 1941, it was the first major downtown Las Vegas resort.  It had 59 rooms.  In 1945, it was purchased by a company called the Midwest Group.  A group of investors that included Gus Greenbaum, Moe Sedway, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky; All gangsters.  If you are even a casual viewer of the History Channel, you know that Seigel (and the rest of the Cortez investors) would go on to build the Flamingo.  What you may not know is that they bought the Cortez for the purpose of expanding it.  The Cortez could have been the luxury Flamingo.  However, when Las Vegas City officials got in the way of the expansion plans for the Cortez because they didn’t like the idea of East Coast criminals running the Cortez, Siegel convinced his mob pals to build the Flamingo outside Las Vegas City limits.  

The Flamingo doesn’t work out for Siegel, who gets himself gunned down in his own livingroom in in 1947, in Beverly Hills; probably for the hotel cost overruns and “wetting his beak” a little too much.  But, it does work out for the City of Las Vegas who annexes the “strip” including the Flamingo property in 1950.  Mobsters might be bad, but tax base is always good. 

For many years, Las Vegas tried to downplay the Mob connections with the building and operating of hotels and casinos.  I wouldn’t say they always fought against the mobsters, but they did try to control the image.  So, thumbs up on the hotel being historic. 

I am sort of neutral on the hotel being called vintage.  Certainly, the corner exterior on Ogden and Sixth is vintage. It has changed much in 80 or so years.  Through the rest of original hotel and casino it is difficult to spot vestiges of the original architecture.  So, if vintage is something that is a representation of the best of an original.  It old, its historic, but its kinda tired in places too. 

As for remodeled.  My room was on the 15th floor of the remodeled tower rooms.  It was clean, it looked like it was done in a combination of 1940s desert style.  My room was on the north and afforded a fabulous view across North Las Vegas and into the desert.  You could see the low peaks of the Mount Gass range very clearly.  For a base of operations, a good room.  The only problem was that the really hot water doesn’t quite make it up the 15th Floor.  The water just peaks warm and tickles hot.  It never quite makes it to my definition of hot.

As I look over the Vegas landscape, I am reminded that while my father and his father favorited this hotel, my mother’s father didn’t like downtown Las Vegas.   He was a Sahara guy.  Or, at least he was connected to the Sahara.  While he wasn’t exactly a gangster he was a gambler, a number’s runner and bagman for the mob. 

I didn’t have time that first afternoon to explore the casino because I had an appointment.  I was going to attend Oasis Masonic Lodge No. 41 in Las Vegas.  More importantly, I was going to pick my cousin up so that we could attend the Masonic dinner and Stated Meeting together.  We were both made Masons in Mariposa Lodge No. 24 in California. My cousin, Dean, had moved the Las Vegas some six years ago and hadn’t attend Lodge since moving.  Neither of us knew anyone at that Lodge so were just going to show up. 

When Nevada was still a territory, the Masonic Lodges in the territory came under the Masonic Jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of California.  On January 17, 1865, five of those Lodges met and established the Grand Lodge of Nevada.  The Lodge we were going to attend, Oasis No. 41 was chartered in 1950. 

My cousin’s house was about 10 miles northwest of downtown. I got there pretty early so my aunt and both of my cousins and I sat around the kitchen table and caught up.  Dean and I excused ourselves and went over the Masonic Modes of Recognition – our secret passwords and handshakes, then off to Lodge.

We arrived at Oasis No. 41 early, also.  We sat in the dinning room as Brothers arrived.  We were warmly welcome and properly examined.  After a dinner of some cut of chicken with a red sauce, we were admitted into Lodge.  Nevada Masonic Ritual is significantly different than California Ritual.

As my Lodge’s Officers Coach, it is my job to follow along with the ritual very closely and give a word or a prompt if an officer get lost in the ritual. In Oasis, I knew what was going on, but not exactly what was going to happen next.  It reminded me of being a brand new Mason and sitting in Lodge for the first time.  About 9, dropped my cousin at his house, we agreed to meet tomorrow to attend another Lodge and I drove back to the Cortez.

I took a nearly hot shower, put on an audio book and laid down.  One paragraph into Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols and I was asleep.  I know it ran all night because I woke up periodically to hear the reader’s voice. 

At 5AM I was up and in search of a cup of coffee.  There was no coffee machine in the room so it was down 15 floors to the casino.  I found the servers station with the great urns of coffee.  Picked out an end slot machine right next to the urns, put in a $20 bill and pressed max bet.  A few spins and I had a cup of coffee.  I sipped the coffee, smoke a cigarette and watch the wheels spin.  After a second cup I was awake and hungry.

The Cortez is trying to capitalize on its gangster heritage through the remodel.  Now, you can have breakfast in Siegel’s Café.  You can even have the Lansky – A hamburger named after the famous gangster.  Strangely enough, children are not allowed in the café after 8PM.  I don’t know why. 

I order chicken fried steak and eggs.  I was very surprised on the quality of the food and service.  The eggs were cooked perfectly and the chicken friend steak could hold its own.  The coffee came promptly and everything was hot and fresh.  I languished over the breakfast while I read a book.

I wandered the casino floor for a few hours.  Played a few machines, a little 3 card poker and watched the people come and go.  About 11AM, I started to walk across downtown.  My destination was the Downtown Las Vegas Rotary Club meeting.  The meeting is held in the Four Queens Hotel and Casino.  Its about three or four blocks from the Cortez.  As I walked toward the Queens I could see just to the north of me a large five story government looking building that had a sign that said “Mob Museum.”  That caught my attention.  I continued to walk through the  chilly Vegas winter morning, passed the original “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and entered into the Freemont Street experience. 

It was bright, yet chilly but you could still see the large overhead projection of the sky and various geometric shapes.  I have only been on the Street at night in the summer when it was loud and crowded.  Now, it was much more subdued.  A small smattering of street performers and little clumps of tourists, no one with those giant glasses filled with margaritas. 

The Four Queens casino is pretty much like all downtown casinos.  You could be in the Fremont, the Nugget, the Downtown Grand or the Four Queens and not really tell the difference.  The actual meeting is held in “Hugo’s Cellar.” I walked down a flight of stairs into a dimly lit, brick lined restaurant.  As the light dims, so fades the sounds of dozens of slot machines on the casino floor.  Hugo’s really welcomes the Downtown Las Vegas Rotary Club.  As you descend the stairway and navigate toward the rear dining area, the path is lined with large freestanding displays of flags from hundreds of Rotary Clubs.  It is a tradition that when visiting a Rotary Club that the visiting Rotarian is often presented with a small banner or flag designed especially for the Club being visited.  The visiting Rotarian takes the banner or flag back to his or her Club and it is displayed at meetings.  Clearly, Downtown Las Vegas Rotarians are well travelled.

At the entrance to the rear dining area I found the Club Secretary marking Rotarians present and taking money for lunch.  I introduced myself and was warmly greeted.  I paid my $25 for the lunch, poured an ice tea from the nearby service and walked into the dining.  There was a large screen at the far end, obviously set up for the day’s speaker.

Rotary Clubs around the world (and there are more than 32,000 of them) have a pretty standard format.  I have visited Rotary Clubs in four countries and several States, and can attest to this format.  It begins with an invocation followed by a Flag salute, the singing of a song, introductions, a meal, a speaker, Club news and then dismissal.  I sat at a table that was near the front and in the center of the room.  Before I could get comfortable, the Club Secretary came  up to me and returned by $25, informing that the Club President had paid for my meal.  This, also, is fairly typically.  Graciousness and the attentiveness to guests is something shared in common by Masons and Rotarians.  I think a large part of this is the recognition of shared values.

Masons are bound together by their principle tenants: Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.  Rotarians by their principle tenant: Service Above Self.  A visitor is welcomed by both as a traveler who shares these values. 

The Club President, Eric Threeton, brought the day’s speaker to my table and then sat down with us.  The speaker was a medium height and slim, yet well built young man with a board face and collar length, somewhat unruly dark blonde hair.  His classic Roman nose had a very slight hawkish end and was accentuated by his ever present and genuine smile. 

After the speaker has said but a few words, our fourth table mate, a woman said something like, “You’re not from here.”  The speaker had a clear accent and invited the woman to guess where he was from.  She guessed Ireland and then Scotland. He confirmed my suspicious that we was Dutch.   As lunch was served, he declined to eat, preferring to speak on an empty stomach.  I silently agreed with him; if your going to make a presentation you want a little something in your stomach, but not a full meal.

As we began to eat, the speaker was introduced by the President.  Ferry Zandvliet was a speaker and writer from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.  Later he would explain that he gives these presentations in English and Dutch; and to a wide variety of audiences: from school children to police officers.  As he began to speak it was clear that he not only had a command of the English Language, but also of American Idioms.  Before he got into his subject matter his style, voice and positive confidence had my attention.  Once I understood the subject matter I stopped eating to listen.

Ferry is a fan of Rock and Roll.  In November of 2015, he and his three closest friends drove from the Netherlands to Paris to hear a rock concert at the Bataclan theater.  The Bataclan was “designed in 1864 by the architect Charles Duval, its name refers to Ba-ta-clan, an operetta by Jacques Offenbach. Since the early 1970s, it has been a venue for rock music.”  What Ferry and his friends didn’t know was that his life was going to change forever.  

At  9:15 that evening, as the rock concert began, “three ISIS suicide bombers struck outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, during an international football match, after failing to gain entry to the stadium. Another group of attackers then fired on crowded cafés and restaurants in Paris, with one of them also blowing himself up. A third group carried out another mass shooting and took hostages at a rock concert attended by 1,500 people in the Bataclan theatre.”  Ferry was one of those under fire.  As people standing next to him were butchered, Ferry crouched to the floor and began to crawl over the dead, dying and wounded (ultimately some 90 human beings were murdered) in a frantic effort to escape the carnage. 

Covered in innocent blood, Ferry made his way through the streets of Paris and did the absolute right thing – he ran as fast as could.  He ultimately sought refuge in a private home and was taken in by a French family.  Much later, the next morning, he would be united with his three friends, all of whom survived.

But that is only the beginning of Ferry’s story.  His journey living with survivor’s guilt and PTSD drove him through anger to a quest to make sense of what happened.  Not only did he form a relationship with the French family that rescued him, but he sought out and befriended one of the families of the men who murdered all those people.  His mission had become, “Turning the tragedy of surviving a terrorist attack into happiness by befriending the family of one of the shooters.....and more.”

He explored how someone becomes so radicalized that they see murder of innocents as a rational response to social and political problems.  Ferry turned the tragedy back onto the perpetrators by becoming speaker and writer on “resilience, personal leadership, media, health and police related topics.”   Ferry and I are now exchanging emails and I have booked him to speak at the Rotary Club of San Dimas in July.  I encourage you to learn more about him here: https://www.ferryzandvliet.nl

After Ferry’s presentation the Club went on to talk about their current project and I returned to eating lunch.  The food and service at Hugo’s Cellar was very good.  The lunch was an avocado burger with an ice cream apple crisp combination for desert.  Hot coffee was served without asking.  The presentation and service of the meal was excellent.  If your’re downtown, Hugo’s Cellar is worth a stop for dinner.

It turns out that the Downtown Las Vegas Rotary Club had a somewhat indirect connection to the topic.  One of the purposes of Rotary is to promote peace through cultural exchange and international service projects.  The Downtown Las Vegas Rotary Club is very involved in the Las Vegas Mayor's Cup.  Their club members “host teams, provide transportation, housing and meals to our sponsored teams.  This is the largest International Soccer Tournament in the US with over 15,000 players participating and bringing in over $20,000,000 to the Las Vegas community.”  The Downtown Las Vegas Rotary Club sponsors teams from France, some of who were impacted by the event described by Ferry.

I walked back over to the Cortez and played the slots for an hour or so.  Took a shower, dressed and headed over to my cousin’s house.  This evening we were going to visit Nellis Masonic Lodge No. 46.  My other cousin, Chris, also a Master Mason from Mariposa, was going to go with us this evening.

Nellis Lodge “started at Nellis Air Force Base as the Square and Compass Club in April 1954. Brother General James E. Roberts, then Commander at the Base, was able to make a building available for the meetings. The purpose of the club was to provide a Masonic meeting space for the military personnel to use while away from their respective lodges. For the next few years it was talked about forming a Lodge but since most of the members were only temporarily stationed there it never held ground. In 1962 however it was decided to create a chartered Lodge and also keep the Square and Compass club. Our current member Brother Al Schouten was the Worshipful Master that presided over the first stated meeting on December 13th, 1962.”  Some years later, Nellis Masonic Lodge would move off base to the MMT. he Masonic Memorial Temple (MMT), houses four Lodges (including Oasis and Nellis) and the Las Vegas Valley Scottish Rite. 

Again, we were warmly received at dinner.  Our examination was a little more thorough (an examination is the process whereby a Mason proves his status as a Mason when visiting a Lodge for the first time).  In addition to attending their Stated Meeting we were fortunate enough to observe them conduct a Master Mason proficiency.  The proficiency is a long and complex oral examination of man’s understanding of the Master Mason Degree.  It is a huge milestone in a man’s Masonic journey.

I dropped my cousins off just after 9PM.  As I drove back to the Cortez, my K5 dashboard alerted me that there may be ice present.  I didn’t know the K5 did this.  The outside temperature was 37 degrees, so I suppose the car has some program that activates the ice indicator when the temperature drops to the point wherein ice is a possibility.  Despite the alarm, the drive back to the Cortez was uneventful.  

The next morning I woke up just after 5AM and repeated the slot machine/coffee ritual.  After an hour or so, back to the Siegel Grill.  Again, a great dining experience.  I then headed over to the Mob Museum.    The Mob Museum isn’t the full title of the location.  It is actually called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.  A few block from the Cortez, “This building at 300 Stewart Avenue in downtown Las Vegas opened in 1933 as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse.”  Indeed, the courthouse was the setting for the Kefauver Committee Hearings on organized crime, in 1950.

Probably because it was early on a Wednesday morning the museum was pretty empty.  I went to buy a entry ticket and the young woman behind the glass partition asked me, “Are you a Veteran, current or former law enforcement; or over 50?”

“All three.” I replied.

“Which discount would you prefer?” She asked.

“All of them.” I replied.

She thought for a moment and then told me that I could not have all three.  I could only have one and I must pick.  I asked, “Which one gives a greater discount?”  She hesitated for a moment and then said, “They’re the same.”

“You pick.”  I told her. 

She did.  I got the official wrist band and went up to the fifth floor to start the tour.   Opening in February of 2012, it is five floors of exhibits.  The most interesting thing is the short movie on the Kefauver hearings which is presented in the room where the hearings were actually held.  You sit as if you are in an observer in the courtroom watching the actual hearings.  It was informative and kinda cool. 

The museum is like walking through an episode on organized crime you might watch on the history channel.  Exhibits include homemade prison weapons, Sheriff Ralph Lamb’s rifles, and artifacts relative to Howard Hughes.  The direct relationship between Las Vegas and the Mob seems minimized in favor of a national and international look at organized crime.  Indeed, lower floor exhibits focus on modern day narco traffickers.  There is also a use of force simulator for public use as well as mock up of a crime lab. 

If you are downtown, save that last $20 you were going to put into a slot and walk over the Mob Museum.  I walked back over to the Cortez and tried lunch in the Siegel Grill.  Lunch was good, also.   The grill has a very good price to food quality ratio. 

I was booked for one more night and intended to take my aunt and cousins to dinner.  The prior evening my aunt told me she preferred to eat around 4PM. I decided that if I went over to my aunt’s a little early, had a leisurely dinner at 4PM I could be on the road at 6PM and home well before 10.  A really hot shower and a familiar bed sounded good.  Also, if you have read these travelogues before, you know when I am done with a trip, I am done.

Ultimately, we had dinner at the Bagel Café in north Las Vegas.  Sometimes, places that provide large portions lack quality.  This isn’t the Bagel Café.  I had liver and onions.  Very well prepared and a lot of it. 

Walking where my ancestor had walked and spending time with family had given me a lot to contemplate about the value of the past.  Through my cousins trips to the Lodge I met new Brothers Masonry.  At Rotary I had discovered a gem of man with a powerful message.  The drive home was uneventful. 

About the Author:

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA is the author of 11 books including Police Technology (Prentice Hall, 2004) and Leadership: Texas Hold 'em Style.  More information can be found about Raymond at Police Consultant.

Israeli expert on security, protection, operations and prevention of criminal and terror acts; and, Dr. Reuven Paz, Ph.D., an Israeli expert on militant and radical Islam and Islamist movements.


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