No. 12: Coming Into the Canyon

Fortunately, Harold Rothman’s apprehensions about both Boulder City and his job as an assistant naturalist at the vast Lake Mead National Recreation Area were soon put to rest.

“You’re from the East, aren’t you?” the waitress at the Highway Cafe asked in a preternaturally cheery voice — to Harold’s New York ears, anyway — showing him to a formica window seat before serving him a slab of apple pie and a splash of coffee, just like in a movie. (Ever the cineaste, Harold had already decided his epitaph would read: I HOPE MY LIFE ISN’T A BAD MOVIE.)

“Yes, why?” he replied. “Do I have an accent?”

“Nah, not really,” answered his super-friendly server. “It’s just the way you say ‘Nevada’. You say ‘Ne-vah-dah’. It’s ‘Ne-vaa-da.’ No ‘ah.’”

“Ne-vaa-da,” Harold repeated with the requisite drawn-out ‘a’. “Okay, I’ll practice up!”

Perhaps “Oasis of Southern Nevada,” as “clean, green Boulder City,” a government town built in the early ’30s to house the workers at nearby Hoover Dam, liked to call itself was a bit of an exaggeration, but Harold certainly did feel welcome, darn it, during his first days in B.C. Fortunately, he’d remembered to get a haircut before boarding the train; otherwise, his reception might well have been different in the distinctly conservative, Mormon-dominated desert burg. But if anyone was familiar with his alma mater’s radical reputation, they didn’t let on.

And as for the job, the Park Service wanted him to take pictures, all right — and plenty of ‘em. “Sharp, well-composed, aesthetically pleasing transparencies and prints,” as his orders read, were needed for maintenance and publicity purposes of the myriad “ranger, naturalist and visitor activities” that took place within the parameters of the vast, tri-state, four million-square-mile recreation area. Boat patrols, air patrols, mountain sheep tagging, fishing, water-skiing, high-density camping (whatever that was) — you name it, the United States National Park Service wanted photos of it. A camera freak ever since he had received his first camera, a spiffy Fujica 35-SE, at his bar mitzvah, Harold was only too happy to oblige.

To assist with his photographic reconnaissance-in-force, the Plymouth freshman had at his disposal, as he learned in a personal briefing by his incongruously paramilitary superior, chief naturalist Mc Boing, a sizable complement of high-quality cameras and lenses; a fully equipped professional darkroom at headquarters; unlimited film; and ground and air transportation, on demand, to any point in the park. A National Geographic reporter couldn’t have asked for more.

Clearly, Harold Rothman had lucked into the ultimate summer job, a feeling underlined when the spifflicated frosh went for his first flight with the official park pilot, a crusty ex-cropduster by the name of Herman “Hoogie” Hoogerworth. “When I’m up here,” Hoogie explained to the petrified 18-year-old as they approached the border between Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon, “I feel like I own the place.” And then there they were, over the yawning abyss itself. Hoogie, rattling off geographical pointers, went into a fighting Air Force dive.

Wow, thought the awestruck, albeit increasingly nauseous Harold while clutching his Sick-Sack. And I was worried about being bored.

However, as carefully as the Park Service had planned his work days, Harold was distressed to find that the U.S.N.P.R. had made no provision for any need for a life he might have outside the confines of the darkroom. Witness its decision to house him alone in a trailer in the remote Boulder Beach Park Service “reservation,” as its residential compound, six miles outside of town on the shore of Lake Mead, was called. A few dozen modest units bunched together, wagon circle-style, in the middle of the desert, Harold quickly found the reservation a desolate, depressing place.

On the other hand, it was kind of cool to have one’s own 40-foot trailer with a choice of three beds, especially after the prison-like confines of the University Halls.

And he enjoyed making friends with the desert night. He would stand outside his trailer, which gleamed in the moonlight, and gaze at the surreally clear, pollution-free, shooting star-strewn nocturnal vista; he would walk into the scrub brush and muse upon time and space and reality — and girls, of course. Especially his lost sweetheart, Marsha from Oceanside, whom he’d last seen in a drug-addled daze before setting off on his Western odyssey. Where was she now? he wondered. It was only a few weeks since he’d seen her last, but now, in the dazzling, cavernous desert, it seemed like years ago…

Sometimes, on nights like these, Harold cherished his aloneness, even reveled in it, like Hoogie did. But, too often to the deracinated longhair, it just felt like plain loneliness.

To be sure, Harold wasn’t completely ignored. Two weeks after his arrival, he was invited to a reservation barbecue. “Oh, so you want to make arty movies,” one of the ranger wives benignly teased the still technically unclassified Plymouthian upon learning of his interest in cinematography. And the black and white mutts belonging to the ranger who lived next door always had a tail-wagging hello for him when he came back from from a day’s shoot.

But that was about it. Rothman didn’t even know how to cook, as the techno-primitive collegian demonstrated one evening by waiting too long to light the pilot on the oven and, in a scene straight out of The Three Stooges, blowing himself across the room and out the door. He could almost hear the snakes laughing.

Occasionally, in search of safer forms of recreation (not to mention uncharred food), Harold would bicycle down to Boulder Beach and mingle with the motley bunch of cross-country campers, hitchhikers and other voyagers who regularly washed up there, including two cowboy hat-wearing freaks from Carnegie Tech — the first Easterners he’d met thus far — who were on their way to California. Harold let them crash at his trailer; in return for his hospitality, they laid a capsule of natural mescaline flakes on him (which he’d soon find appropriate use for on Moon Day).

Then, one night during the third week of July, just about the same time a half-million hippies and assorted music-lovers were gathering in a place called Woodstock, Harold wandered further and further afield, on a tip, up to the Boulder City Teen Club Dance. Situated behind a small, darkened storefront on the Nevada Haighway, the B.C. Teen Club was definitely the place to be that night. Blasting rock; blurred, entangled bodies; James Dean types in white t-shirts taking slow drags on Camels: Harold had found the scene in Boulder City. Luckily, he’d remembered to bring his harmonica along.

Band was cool, too. Iron Cross, they called themselves. During break, Harold went up to the lead guitarist, one Jimmy Brockett, and asked if the band would mind him jamming along. “No, man, not at all,” Brockett replied as they launched into “Graveyard Train,” a down-tempo Creedence number perfect for the harp.

And, as the old musicians’ saying goes, Harold did it to it. The summer was just beginning. Everything — Plymouth, his family, the future, the war — seemed a million miles away.

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