LAS VEGAS – While a lot of people will talk about the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion as a great place to see old friends — and it is — but some of the magic is in making new ones.

On a personal level, I’ve been coming to these reunions in Las Vegas since 2001, and the Gold Coast Hotel & Casino is the third venue here in Sin City.

Each location, including the now-demolished Riviera and the Plaza down at the end of Fremont Street, had their pluses and minuses. You’d quickly learn where people liked to congregate during the unofficial hours, as in what part of the casino and which bar.

Buddy Lane and Ed Wiskoski share some laughs. Photo by Brad McFarlin

Sometimes that gathering place was determined by its central location and other times it can be by cheaper prices.

For the last number of years at the Gold Coast, there’s a Red Zone bar way at the back of the main casino floor that has become a second home, especially for a lot of Canadians who have to suffer through the less-than-ideal exchange rate on the currencies. (A definite boon for that bar for me and many others is that it is smoke-free.)

But on my way back there over the last number of years, there was a little figure hunched over at the electronic poker bar, playing in the same spot day after day, year after year.

That fellow is Art Williams, who is not a name many would know, but I’d gotten to know him through the years, probably introduced initially by “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer.

See, Art was a referee in Los Angeles, and then worked in the office there, roughly from 1965 to 1973, with a stint in the U.S. Army interrupting his service to wrestling.

I’d always stop to talk to Art, and a couple of times through the years, I interviewed him on the phone, but that is not the same as actually hanging out.

My roommate Kurt Nielsen and I were getting a little hungry so we went out to T.G.I. Fridays, and saw Art going in, slowly with his walker, to have dinner alone. That’s a pretty easy thing to remedy.

What followed was many stories over the next couple of hours, with people coming and going to say hi, including some loud, funny stories from Ed Wiskoski (Colonel DeBeers). Kurt, who never knew Art at all, came away beaming with a new friend. I got to know someone better.

Later that night, during my last round, I headed back to the Red Zone to see many friends, the crew from Iowa having invaded the territory claimed by Canada — fortunately Iowans are pretty swell people — and on the way back, there he was.

Art Williams, back at his poker machine in the same spot he is year after year. The appreciation the 72-year-old widower showed me for the simple gesture of breaking bread together and then sharing a few drinks was genuine, heartfelt, and one of the highlights of my trip.

So far.