A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh just a sigh, but a slap from 80-year-old R.D. Matthews at Piero's made Bob Stupak so nervous he had no comment.
That's an amazing feat given Stupak's endless courting of the media. Surely some locals will gladly buy Matthews a drink for accomplishing something they've only dreamed of: silencing the Polish maverick.
But it was a different sort of nervousness that swept over Stupak on Aug. 25. He wasn't just jittery, he was scared. So much so he gave statements to police and hired a bodyguard despite suffering negligible injuries.
Turns out his fear might be justified.
Talk about an active senior lifestyle. With his eye patch, John Wayne amble, status as a Marine war hero, and reputation for getting things done on the street, Russell Douglas Matthews has lived a life straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel. He is known as one tough piece of rope.
Organized crime and gambling sources just whistle and whisper about Matthews, a 60-year friend of Benny Binion and operator of downtown's old Paddock race book. They think the world of the guy, but they'd never want to cross him.
The man's reputation stretches from Texas, where in the 1940s he ran with the Hollis de Lois Green gang, worked in the gambling rackets with Binion and was arrested 59 times but served only a single prison stint; to Havana, where he helped operate casinos linked to Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante; back to Dallas and the heart of the Kennedy assassination, where his proximity to Jack Ruby and other key players raised the suspicions of the 1964 Warren Commission and the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations; out to Las Vegas, where he found refuge and a job at the Horseshoe with his dear friend Binion.
The Warren Commission report called Matthews a "passing acquaintance" of Ruby and Lewis McWillie, another Dallas gambler and friend of Binion. McWillie later relocated to Las Vegas and worked at the Horseshoe Club.
The House Select Committee probed more deeply Matthews' background and associations at a time evidence was being presented that the mob may have conspired to kill the president. Matthews' links to several inside players has, no doubt, added color to his reputation.
According to "Contract on America," a book based largely on the findings of the House Select Committee, Matthews was described in an FBI report as a "burglar, armed robber, narcotics pusher, and murderer."
Another published source calls Matthews a father figure to killer Charlie Harrelson, who was convicted of assassinating federal Judge "Maximum John" Wood and today is better known as the father of actor Woody Harrelson.
Horseshoe owner Becky Binion Behnen says she knows Matthews as a good citizen and close family friend.
"He was at the hospital when I was born and was at the hospital when my children were born," Behnen says. "He's a war hero who served in World War II."
And several undeclared wars as well.
I wouldn't begin to think what the Gaming Control Board might do with the knowledge Matthews is on such friendly terms with a privileged licensee. Frankly, the history of gaming enforcement in Nevada is so inconsistent that it's impossible to predict whether the Control Board will scold Behnen for her embrace of an old wiseguy or laud her for befriending the elderly.
Most of Matthews' legal complications occurred a long time ago, back when Las Vegas was considered mob-controlled. Remember, he was a trusted casino employee long after his days on the streets of Dallas.
What might be hard for newcomers to Nevada to understand is that none of the glitches in Matthews' portfolio would have alienated him from his pal, Benny Binion, who was no stranger to violence and once was quoted as saying he could "still do my own killin'." In the Las Vegas of a generation ago, such statements from the Horseshoe patriarch were considered quaint and quotable.
R.D. Matthews belongs to that generation, but as the Piero's incident proves - and shaky Bob Stupak appears to appreciate - some tough guys don't mellow as time goes by.
John L. Smith's column appears Wednesdays. Reach him at Smith@lvrj.com or (702) 383-0295.