Tuesday, May 06, 2008

This used to be my playground.


The other night I was watching the Daily Show and had a childhood flashback brought on by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid was on the show to push his new memoir, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington (excerpt here). You see, I lived in the town of Searchlight, NV at age 5. It was my kindergarten year in the desert. And it seems like nothing more than a dream whenever I look back on it.

My mother and stepfather at the time were both in the gaming industry, and my step-grandad (an attorney from Napa) had property in Searchlight for some reason, so we lived in one of his homes for a while. It was one of perhaps six or seven houses among scatterings of trailer homes. The population at this time was around 200 people.

About one hour's drive east of Vegas and teetering on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Searchlight has always seemed like a fantasy world to me, where danger and excitement lurked around every corner. Basically, I was scared shitless on many an occasion. Looking back on it now though, I only see all of the fun things that us kids could explore.

Searchlight was named after a brand of matches. Gold was found there in 1897, and by 1940, a total of about $4.5 million in gold was found in the area. There was a point when Searchlight was larger than Las Vegas, and the coal industry was booming.

When I lived there, abandoned coal mines were our playgrounds, and water towers were always fun to climb. There was an old wooden shack across the street from our house that looked like it could have been a saloon from Wild West days. I would stare at it from my bedroom window in equal parts awe and terror, imagining all the ghosts pent up inside. Me and my stepbrother would rummage through it all the time and find green and gray glass bottles that must have dated back to around 1oo years.

I remember climbing through an old cement truck and almost getting stuck inside one day. This was probably one of my first moments of mortal dread. But there would be many others.

Another favorite pastime was chasing lizards. They came in all shapes and sizes, and I'll never forget following a big green one that was around four feet long through a trailer park one day, along with at least five other children.

The first time I saw owls was in Searchlight; I could hear them in the trees at night. The first day we moved into our new home, a florescent orange-striped snake slithered beneath our building, much to the alarm of our German Shepard. Oh, and then there were the tarantulas.

The tarantulas were probably three times the size of my tiny child hands, and I was more afraid of them than dying in a cement truck. My parents told me they hid in the dark and wouldn't come out when it was light out. I clung to this tidbit of information, refusing to turn off a very bright ceiling lamp in my room every single night before I went to bed.

My schoolhouse, serving K-12 with two teachers, had two rooms. I recall eating Hungry-Man meals on my desktop, skipping double dutch at break, and walking down a hill to our library housed in a small trailer. The convenience store served as our grocery store when mom was too busy to make the trek to Vegas. We ate a lot of ice cream, and used the empty cartons to capture tarantulas.

Now I'm left really wanting to read Reid's memoir. Here's an excerpt about Searchlight:

It's an interesting man who makes his way to the middle of nowhere seeking his life and fortune. That's what my grandfather, John Reid, did, when he was drawn to Searchlight from California just after the turn of the century. And that, of course, is also the story of our country--a certain vagabond spirit, in the best sense of that word. The middle of nowhere is a hard place to live. So many of our fathers were drunks, and some of our mothers as well.

When I was a kid I didn't realize Searchlight was the middle of nowhere. I figured everybody on earth lived like we did, and I thought my town was the center of the known universe. The landscape, scarred with hundreds of claims, some active, many abandoned, was so interesting to a boy looking for adventure.

Sometimes I feel like a cat with only a few more lives to go.

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