I wanted to share with all of you a section of my new book, The Good Fight which comes out Thursday. You can purchase The Good Fight by clicking here.
I come from a mining town.
But by the time I came along - December 2, 1939 - the leading industry in my hometown of Searchlight, Nevada, was no longer mining, it was prostitution. I don't exaggerate. There was a local law that said you could not have a house of prostitution or a place that served alcohol within so many feet of a school. Once, when it was determined that one of the clubs was in violation of this law, they moved the school.
As a boy, I learned to swim at a whorehouse. Nobody in town had ever seen such a fancy inground tiled pool in their lives as the pool at the El Rey. Or any pool at all, for that matter. At least nobody that we knew. The El Ray was the main bordello when I was growing up in Searchlight. Every Thursday afternoon, the whoremonger in town, a kindly bear of a man by the name of Willie Martello, would ask the girls who worked the El Rey to clear out, and he'd invite the children in town, usually no more than a dozen of so at a time, to swim in his pool. And we would live the life of Riley for a couple of hours, splashing in the azure blue of that whorehouse pool. This was a rare luxury in a hard town. When I was coming up, there were several other brothels in Searchlight - the Crystal Club, Searchlight Casino, Sandy's - thirteen in all, and no churches to be found.
In my home, we had no religion. None, zero. And when I say none, I don't mean 10 percent religious, I mean none. It wasn't that my parent were atheists or something, it was that religion just wasn't part of our lives. But Franklin Roosevelt was. In our little home, my mother had a navy-blue embroidered pillowcase with a little fringe on it, and she put it up on the wall. On it, in bright yellow stitching it read, "We can. We will. We must. - Franklin Delano Roosevelt." And that was my religion.
Otherwise, my fathers concerns were much more terrestrial, and he spent his time not gazing heavenward but downward, under the ground, looking for gold. Initially, that was the only reason anybody came to Searchlight.
Since the beginning, man has scratched the earth with simple tools to get at the richness that lies beneath. Four thousand years before Christ, the Neanderthals mined flint to make weapons and ever since then, when something of value has been found in the ground, men have come running.
The strike that created my hometown happened in 1897, when a man named George Frederick Colton found gold at what would become the Duplex Mine in the middle of town. By the turn of the century Searchlight was booming. But reversals come quick. Within a decade, the town was in a serious decline. In all, more than 250,000 ounces of gold have been pulled from the ground at Searchlight, half of that before 1909. Thirty years later, with the boom a distant memory, I was born in my grandmother's house, a two-room shack, delivered by a doctor by the name of Fenlon who would himself soon leave town for someplace more prosperous.
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. All manner of treasure was to be found down those holes, if not actually much gold. Over time the gold in the ore became harder and harder to find and more expensive to produce. Some of the mining outfits would dig a hole, find nothing there, and immediately dig another hole. And so there are hundreds of holes in the ground in Searchlight. Hundreds. Anyplace you look there are holes. When I was coming up, people always said, "Better be careful of the holes--better fence some of the." And my did would say," Anybody's dumb enough to fall down a hole, they should fall down a hole."
During the boom, if a modern convenience existed, it could be found in Searchlight - telephone, telegraph, a doctor, a dentist, a railroad, and electricity, which is astounding considering that much of rural America wouldn't be electrified for decades. Back then, Searchlight was bigger than Las Vegas. When I was a boy, it was barely hanging on. And we knew none of the luxuries that those who came before us had enjoyed on the same spot. Searchlight never became a ghost town, but it sure tried.
By the 1940s, the town's regression was almost complete. There wasn't a single telephone in the town. No television set, no telegraph. Nothing other than the mail to communicate with the outside world. Unreliable electricity. No doctor, no dentist. You didn't go to the doctor unless you were on your deathbed. And even then, who's going to print the money for you to pay the bill?
The isolation and the dwindling prospects could put a dent in your pioneer spirit and take a toll on your family. Put the lens a little closer, on the Reid house. At the time I thought our house was really nice, but as I look back I guess it wasn't.
First, it is made of railroad ties. And railroad ties are soaked in creosote - oil - to keep the termites out. So this house of ours is as flammable as a house can be. My dad put chicken wire up and added a coat of plaster to make a rough stucco exterior. We had a little tree in our yard for a while. It died. The yard is just rocks - things don't grow.
My brother and I always go in the back door. There is a kitchen, and the kitchen has a woodstove when you come in, right next to the sink. And an electric stove, not a fancy one, but a stove, and a refrigerator. And then there is a little room with no door on it. It's where a bathroom should be, but it isn't a bathroom. We use an outhouse instead. But my mother stores stuff in this little room. She takes in laundry from the card dealers at the casinos and from the brothels, and this is where she keeps her clothes wringer and her wash soap. Continue the tour into what is called the front room. It's the biggest room in the house, and it's where the radio is, but otherwise we barely use it because it gets so cold there. The floors are linoleum. But don't leave the room until you look up and see the star on the ceiling, made of rough-cut pieces of wood arranged around the light fixture. It's the handiwork of a guy named Pop Payne, and it's real nice to look at. It really makes the house special. And then come back around to the two tiny bedrooms, and that's it.
Now, the back bedroom of our palace, measuring out at eight feet by eleven feet, in the room I share with my little brother Larry, who came along a couple of years after me. Larry lives like a king, because as the youngest he gets the five-gallon bucket. Me, I have to go to the outhouse, which at night in the wintertime seems like it's a mile away. The linoleum floor is like ice.
Look closer and you'll see my parents, Harry and Inez Reid. My father is a powerful man, a very good miner, and is very quiet. Brooding. He doesn't much like to be around people. Larry and I are quiet like him. Larry is especially quiet, and my father has a special feeling for him.
Pop always works, but because of unreliable and unscrupulous bosses, he often doesn't get paid. The checks bounce all the time, but that doesn't seem to bother him too much. I can see him always reading a book, some technical manual or, more likely, some dime novel. Never books written by women, that's his prejudice. Only books by men. I wake up in the morning and walk into the kitchen and Pop's sitting at the table, drinking strong coffee and escaping into some book, which some people might not expect, since he didn't even finish eighth grade.
But don't let his lack of education fool you, he can do anything. He just prefers to work alone, that's all. He's a carpenter, he can do finishing work, he is a blacksmith, he can sharpen steel and picks and saws, he can overhaul the engine of a car, he's a welder. He can walk around a pile or rocks or dirt, observe its height and slope, and calculate its volume in his head. This drives the engineers crazy, because they can't figure out how somebody like him can do something like that. He can do anything. But mostly, he's a miner. And he can go down in a mine, take a compass, and do underground mapping. That's something the college boys can't figure out either. And Pop just smiles.
Like I said, he keeps to himself. We live up on a hill, and if Pop sees somebody coming, he tells us to stay quiet. At nighttime, people come by and call out, "Harry, Harry!" but my dad won't let us answer the door. Part of it is that all his friends like to drink, and a lot of times he doesn't have any money, and they're already way ahead of him anyway, already loaded. My brother Don is the same way. His friends come by and he says, "Tell 'em I'm not here." I ask him why he does that, and he says because they're just going down for the girls. "I have nothing for the whores. What is there down there for me?" he says.
If quiet is a heritable trait, and we got quiet from my father, then we got confidence from my mother. Mom, now, she's not quiet. She loves being around people, and is more social and optimistic than my dad. She always just knows that things are going to work out. Love going to all my ball games. Sometimes she embarrasses me with her yelling, but I'm glad she's there. She's a reader too, when she has the time. Zane Grey is her absolute favorite. She has her eccentricities, too. She has a rule for me and my brothers: Don't you eat at anybody's house, don't you accept anything from them. I guess she doesn't want anybody coming to our place, because she doesn't have anything to give them. But Mother breaks her back to make sure that with our limited money we always have everything we need. And we do. She makes sure we have clothes that are as good as the other kids clothes. And they are.
They both drink too much. My father'll drink until he runs out of money. Sometimes they get loaded and whoop it up. Once or twice, Pop has run afoul of the law. One night after his shift, my dad and his brother Rob get in a fight down in the bars and when they come out the cops are waiting for them. They beat Pop on the head with a sap, a hard leather pouch filled with BBs, and then haul him to jail in Las Vegas. My dad has a nice new scar on his head to show for his night out.
Every now and then, he'll be too drunk to go to work. And sometimes Mom and Pop fight with each other, physically, in front of us children. My father can be mean to my mother. After Don and Dale are off at high school, Larry and I sit, wide-eyed, listening to what goes on on the other side of the closed door.
I am not confessional by nature, so some of these things are surpassing hard for me to say. I loved my parents very much. They gave life everything they had. But no child should be raised the way I was raised.
The foundation of our house is still there. It would eventually burn down.
And that's life in a boomtown gone bust.
Purchase The Good Fight here.
Reprinted from The Good Fight by Senator Harry Reid by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2008 by Harry Reid.