Anyway, the small mystery reminded me of how common the big movie premier type searchlights were when I was growing up in Los Angeles. There were several companies that rented them out for events of all kinds. The most common events were grand openings of stores. Sometimes, automobile dealers would rent them to publicize sales, or the introduction of the new models. I remember nights when I would look out over the valley from my back yard and see a dozen or more locations with long beams of light rising up from them, describing slow arcs across the sky. I always enjoyed watching them, even though the sight often made me sad; something exciting was happening out there, and I wasn't part of it.
The first time I remember seeing one of those searchlights up close was at the opening of a grocery store a few blocks from the house we lived in when I was four or five years old, before we moved into the hills. They had handed out tickets for a drawing to be held at the store, and the major prize was $25.00 worth of groceries. (Feh, you will say. What is $25.00 worth of groceries? A roast? A few bags of chips? But this was before inflation. In fact, the rent on the house we lived in was $22.50 a month. My father was making less than $30.00 a week at the time. A full-size Hershey bar was a nickle! $25.00 was 500 Hershey bars!) So, naturally, since the winner had to be present at the drawing, after dinner that night we piled into the Nash and went to the store.
The small parking lot was crammed, and cars were parked up and down the boulevard on both sides for more than a block each way. We parked on a side street, a few hundred feet from the boulevard. From the corner, I watched the big light in front of the store turning, its bright beam rising up into an indistinct glow hundreds of feet above. As we neared the store, I could hear the diesel engine that powered the light, Then, I could hear the fizz and crackle that arc lights make, and smell the ozone mingling with diesel exhaust. It was stunning and splendid and awful, with smoke rising into the huge beam, and the housing with its immense mirrors slowly turning back and forth like a cyclopean eye as big as a car.
I remember clinging very tightly to my mother's hand as we passed the sparking monster and entered the crowd gathered around a temporary stage which had been built out into the parking lane in front of the store. My parents decided not to go into the store itself, as it was jammed. Instead, my mother put her tickets for the drawing into a big drum at the edge of the stage, and we waited. Entertainment was provided, but I don't remember what it was. Most likely, it was one of the local country music groups which were popular in that neighborhood full of displaced Oklahomans and Kansans. These groups did covers of songs made famous by people like Spade Cooley, Tennessee Ernie Ford (who lived a couple of miles away) and The Sons of the Pioneers, all mostly forgotten today. Whatever the music was, it made no impression on me. I was too busy watching that light. I would lean back, and back, watching the sweeping beam vanish into the night sky, until I almost fell over. I was thoroughly awed.
At last, the owner of the store got up onto the stage and announced that the drawing was beginning. We were right in front, pressed by the crowd up against the crepe paper bunting which decorated the edge of the stage. Kids from the crowd would be lifted onto the stage, the big wire drum full of tickets would be turned, its door would be opened, and the kid, with eyes closed, would reach in and pull out the winning ticket. The winning number would be announced, someone in the crowd would call out that they had the winning number, and they would go collect a certificate good for five or ten dollars worth of groceries, while the crowd applauded. These events, quite beyond my experience, were sufficiently interesting to partially distract me from the wonder of the searchlight. When at last the lesser prizes had been distributed, and it was time to draw the ticket for the grand prize, a hush fell over the crowd.
In that relative quiet, the sound of the diesel engine and the crackle of the searchlight again drew my attention, so it was a surprise to me when my father suddenly picked me up and put me on the stage. The store owner was standing there looking at me, and pointing at the big drum with the tickets in it. "After it stops, close your eyes, reach in and pull out just one ticket, OK?" I was going to draw the winning ticket for the grand prize! I quite forgot the searchlight. I looked out over the crowd with a mingled sense of astonishment, fright, and exhilaration. I had never been the center of so much attention! A woman was turning the handle that spun the drum. She stopped, and the owner opened the door on the side and stood me on a small box in front of it. "Reach way down in and pull out one ticket, with your eyes closed," he repeated. I felt the mass of the tickets around my hand, and I could smell the cardboard on which they were printed. I was aware of the hush of the crowd, and held my breath until the one ticket was in my hand and out of the drum. I handed it to the owner, and he read off the number.
There was a murmur from the crowd as people checked their tickets, and then I heard a shout and a woman squealing. A young couple (though they looked old to me) near the stage was pressing forward. The man climbed up onto the stage, and the woman, holding a little girl a couple of years younger than me, stood at the edge, smiling happily. Suddenly, the man was kneeling down in front of me and hugging me, saying "Thank you, thank you!" I was quite taken aback by this sudden display of affection from a total stranger, even though I was aware that I had just done something to his benefit. I'm sure that I wasn't aware that this prize probably represented most of a month's worth of groceries for the small family of this adult who was, most likely, barely twenty years old and earning less than $25.00 a week. I was aware of the value of the small coins that bought such things as candy and movie tickets and small toys, but my mind had no grasp on larger sums. Thus his effusive gratitude, as much as I enjoyed it, seemed to me out of proportion to my deed. Thus, you can imagine my astonishment when, after he stood up, he told me to hold out my hands and, reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a mass of coins and dumped them into my hands. There were so many, I could barely hold on to them. All the while, the crowd was applauding, even as its edges began to melt away, back toward the cars that would carry them away into the vast night
My mother reminded me to thank the man for the money, which I had completely forgotten to do in my astonishment, and then told me to put the coins in my pocket, after she checked to make sure there were no holes in it. The man and his wife thanked my parents, too, and then we walked back to the car, past the big searchlight-- but I don't remember looking at it again.
At home, I took the money out and we counted it on the wooden dining table that sat at one end of the small living room. I no longer recall the exact amount, but people carried more change in those days, and there were still fifty-cent pieces in circulation, and I believe the total amount was close to three dollars. It was the largest amount of money I had ever held. I knew that, when my older brother and sister and I went to the Saturday matinees at our neighborhood movie theater, my mother would give my brother three dimes for the tickets, and, if she could spare it, something extra for snacks-- a dime for a box of popcorn we would share, or a nickle for a box of jujubes. Now, stacked in front of me on the thin, pale brown leaf of the table, was enough money for dozens of movies, or boxes of popcorn or candy. I was amazed at my good fortune. The odd thing is, I don't remember what I ever did with that money. I know I didn't have anything such as a piggy bank. Most likely, my mother kept it in her purse and dribbled it out to me over a period of time for the things I used to buy, such as penny candy and Big Five tablets and those little balsa wood airplanes I remember flying in the front yard. But whatever became of it, that night stands out in my memory as one of the high points of my childhood, when I saw the searchlight up close, and got rich.
More than a dozen years later, when I was a senior in high school, I was doing volunteer work for the local chamber of commerce (I know, weird, isn't it), which used to raise funds by holding a carnival every year. This particular year, the carnival was held in a large parking lot in my old neighborhood, across the boulevard and up the block from the movie theatre, by then converted into a charismatic church. During a break from working in the soft drink stand at the carnival, I walked up the street and looked at the old theatre. It was much weathered, and many of the neon lights on its marquee and towering sign were burned out. Inside, a handful of people, mostly middle-aged women wearing cotton print dresses, were moaning and wailing to the sermon of a chubby, balding preacher who stood in front of the threadbare curtain, punctuating his shouts of "praise Jesus" with the strings of nonsense syllables which charismatics call speaking in tongues. Recalling the pleasant times I had enjoyed in that theater, I found the sight depressing, and went back to the carnival, bright in the deepening dusk and punctuated with the beams of two searchlights sweeping the sky.
It was the last night of the carnival, and the King and Queen were being announced. They would be the ones who had raised the most money for the chamber by selling the greatest number of raffle tickets for twenty five cents each. Everybody knew who was going to win. It was a brother and sister whose grandmother, well-to-do by local standards, had already spent a small fortune buying tickets from them, and, once the semi-final tally had been made, would buy as many more as were needed to make sure her grandchildren would win. As one of the chamber's supporters, I had been selling tickets, too, but was careful not to sell enough to get into the group which would be among the finalists. I much preferred to be an observer. The odd thing was that the sister in the inevitable duo who would win had developed a bit of a crush on me, and was acting a bit resentful toward her brother, a clueless young hunk who wore his Junior Marine's uniform throughout the competition and clearly considered himself the best man in the game, and victory his inalienable right. The other guys in the competition couldn't stand him, but I, in spite of knowing him to be a complete ass, found him rather endearing and a bit sad. He had no idea what was in store for him in the real world. His sister, on the other hand, scared the hell out of me. If the truth were told, I think that she, made very much in the mold of her demanding, obsessive grandmother, would have made the better Marine.
All of the boys in the competition, including myself, much preferred another one of the girls. She was a quiet, sweet natured and dark haired beauty named Laura. She had done quite well in the sales of tickets, and everyone knew that, were the other girl's grandmother not standing in the wings with her checkbook, Laura would have won. Her father was there that night, and she introduced him to everyone. He was as sweet and good natured as she was, and obviously as pleased as he could be with his daughter. When the winners were announced, and introduced on the stage, nobody was surprised when Junior and his sister were pronounced King and Queen. But Laura, the female runner-up, got the biggest round of applause.
After that, they held the drawing for the winning tickets in the raffle. Again, to nobody's surprise, the Royal grandmother, having bought such a large percentage of the tickets, walked off with a large share of the prizes. But I had a nostalgic moment, standing there in the crowd, watching the children plucked from the audience reach into the big drum and pull out the winning tickets. When Junior's grandmother took the big prize, I watched to see if she gave anything to the little girl who drew the ticket. Not so much as a "thank you." I doubt if that child has any fond memories of that night.
That was the last year I volunteered for the Chamber of Commerce. This was not out of bitterness. In fact, I remember Louise, the president of the chamber, standing by the stage that night, shaking her head slowly as grandmother walked off with prize after prize. She must have had mixed feelings, since the money went to support the organization, but she was clearly not pleased with the way things worked out, and I certainly didn't blame her for the behavior of a woman with more pride than sense. It was merely that I moved on to other things. The old neighborhood meant less to me, and my interests moved elsewhere. It was only a couple of years later that the entire neighborhood was annexed by an adjacent city, and the chamber was closed, and the carnival passed into local history. I lost touch with the other people involved in the event. A couple of more years passed, and one day I was cleaning out some accumulated papers for recycling and I saw a local newspaper a few months old, folded so the back page was showing. The obituaries were on that page, and I recognized Laura's surname. Her father had died of a heart attack in his early forties. I looked for her name in the phone book, but it wasn't there. Over the next few weeks I asked local people who might have known her if they knew where she was. Nobody did. I remembered what a likeable person her father had been, and wondered why it was that sweet, good natured guys like him so often died young.
It was some time after that when a friend of mine was house sitting for some people who lived in the Hollywood hills, in a lavish place with views that stretched from downtown to the beach. She had a few of us visit one night, and as I sat by the pool watching the city lights, a searchlight suddenly came on somewhere in the vicinity of Sunset Boulevard. I watched it for a while and, as sometimes happens when one is daydreaming, a vision from the past popped into my mind. With remarkable clarity, I saw that night when I pulled the winning ticket from the drum. I saw the delighted young man drop down in front of me and reach out to hug me. In that moment, I was positive that the smiling face I saw was that of Laura's father. When I had met him the night of the carnival, I had sensed something familiar about him, but had not made the connection. For a moment, there on the hilltop above Hollywood, watching the searchlight arc, I was positive it was him. Then I doubted myself. Could it have been the same man? Could the small, dark haired girl in her mother's arms have been Laura? I have never since regained that perfect certainty that I held for that one moment, but when I remember that night in front of the market now, the man I see in my mind is always Laura's father. I doubt that I'll ever find out for sure, now, but I like to believe that it's true. I think that, the night of the carnival, had he won one of the prizes, he would have pulled the change from his pocket and given it to the child who drew the ticket. I think that's the kind of person he was.