No. 11: No Speed Limit, or The Ultimate Summer Job

It was difficult for Harold Rothman to make out the triangular sign by the side of Lakeshore Road, particularly at the subsonic speeds that Iron Cross, the B.C.-based “desert rock” band for which Harold played harp, liked to attain as they zoomed into Vegas for, say, Led Zeppelin at the Ice Palace, as they all did one hellacious August evening; or out of it, like the night Jimmy Brockett, the amiable car mechanic-cum-lead-guitarist who was Harold’s best friend in the band, picked him up at McCarran airport in his stripped down, turbo-charged Mustang convertible after one of Harold’s weekend sorties to the West Coast, flooring it all the way. But if you concentrated, you could just make it out:

DESERT
NO SPEED LIMIT

Or, just as easily, BLAST OFF. Sure enough, that’s exactly what some drivers did, said maniacs’ speeding vehicles literally leaving the road and going into short sub-orbits before gently returning to earth, crashing and disintegrating, in several especially impressive cases, as much as a quarter mile off Lake Mead Highway.

It was a big problem that summer, the flat-out wild summer of ’69, and yet, despite the mounting carnage, there was little or no public pressure to change the law. If drivers wanted to floor it, consequences be damned, well, then, the general feeling was that it was their prerogative.

After all, this was Nevada, boy — and you better pronounce it right!

Wow, Harold thought to himself one night in late July, as he and Jimmy went flying around the lake in the Mustang with no particular place to go — after all, there wasn’t much else to do on the nights when Iron Cross wasn’t playing — things sure had happened fast. Just two months prior, Plymouth’s spring term, or what little was left of it after the takeover of Florence Bent Hall and Plymouth’s subsequent nationally televised near-immolation, had been stumbling to its anti-climatic end, and he’d had decided that, after manning the barricades, it would just be too weird to spend yet another summer tying life-jackets on 6-year-olds as a boating and canoeing counselor at Treasure Island Day Camp. Instead, somewhat impulsively, Harold had sent away an application for a summer job with the Park Service to the Student Conservation Association, checking off the three parks and national recreation areas where he might be interested in working. Acadia National Park in Maine had been his first choice; Lake Mead, which had an interesting, if nebulous, position for a “photojournalist trainee,” had been his last.

Then, in late May, just as Harold and the 1,200 other weirded-out members of the class of 1972 were getting ready to depart the Hill, he’d gotten word: Lake Mead wanted him.

And so, a couple of weeks later, after traveling across the country via train (which, of course, had been a trip unto itself), Harold found himself on a bus headed out of Vegas for Boulder City, where Lake Mead NPS headquarters was located.

Boulder City…What kind of a place is that? Harold wondered, the realization finally hitting that he would be spending an entire summer — his first summer away from home, no less — in a speck of a place near the bottom of Nevada. It sure looked pretty wild from where he sat. “Population: 6,000,” the atlas had said. Hm. Small city, but what kind of small city? Harold mused as he stared out at the desolate Nevada landscape oozing by. Crumbing desert shantytown? A mini-Vegas? More crucially, would a student from a liberal Northeastern university, moreover one whose name had become synonymous with student unrest — surely people would have seen the Newsweek cover story with the now-infamous photo of black Plymouthians exiting the Bent, shotguns in hand — be welcome?

Harold also wondered exactly what he would be doing. The SCA had been vague about the position itself. Would he actually be shooting photographs, or just filing the negatives? For a moment, he had a vision of himself sweeping the floors of a deserted building with a slot machine in the lobby. Could definitely be a bummer. The barren desert vista did little to allay his nervousness. He’d expected some cacti, but all he could see were a lot of huge black, gray and orange rocks silhouetted against a scorching, pale blue sky.

Little did Harold think, as he sat there with his face disconsolately pressed against the Greyhound window, that he had just lucked into the ultimate summer just — and the most amazing summer of his life.

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