Much attention is paid in public life to the importance of the collection of attributes that we call character. Somewhat less attention is devoted to consideration of where character is born. But I suppose you could say that Searchlight gives the lie to some of the prevailing theories. I am here as a witness to say that character, and values, come from places you wouldn't necessarily think to look. Because some of the men and women of greatest character that I will ever meet in my life came from this place of hard rocks and inhospitable soil.
Trace the footsteps back far enough in anyone's story and you'll find a pioneer. These are the pioneers in my story. Why they came here to Searchlight is rather easy to understand; why they stayed and persevered is maybe a little harder. Mining the earth is just about the hardest job under the sun, and when the returns begin to dwindle, the gold is less plentiful, the checks start to bounce—I guess it might seem to a hard-rock miner like my father that the earth itself is fighting back, exacting its revenge.
Like a lot of young people, I was, quite frankly, embarrassed about my home, my family, where I came from. And it wasn't until much later in my life that I came to the realization that who I was, who I am, is best understood by looking at the tiny high-desert town of Searchlight.
It took me years to come to this, because that part of my life I had always put away somewhere. I didn't want anyone to know that I came from that little place that only had one teacher and no indoor toilets. That wasn't something that I would ever talk about. But as time went on, I was drawn back to my hometown, and I started talking about it. This awareness, of course, is not unique. We all have our homecomings, and this was mine. I suppose when you leave a place, reject it, you begin to see it clearly, maybe for the first time. You begin to hear its voices, and maybe even appreciate what it was you were so determined to leave.
My temporary estrangement from my hometown when I was a younger man has its roots in many of the things that I now love most about Searchlight. In modern-day America, it was remote, very quiet, an outpost from the complicated world. Its physical desolation was, and is, stunningly beautiful. And the people there are special characters.
When I was a boy, we had a burly lawman in town, a deputy sheriff named John Silveria. He was known and feared for his toughness. He didn't worry about being nice. If you got out of line, Big John served as judge, jury, parole and probation officer all in one. But he was the object of more hero worship than fear. Every kid in Searchlight seemed to want to be like him.
But it wasn't Big John who made sure that my life of crime was brief. It was Willie Martello, the whoremonger. It went like this: When I was in high school, sophomore or junior year, a friend of mine named Ron McAllister and I came over from Henderson, and we were kicking around in Searchlight, with not much to do, when we noticed cases of redeemable bottles stacked up behind a casino. Well, we looked at them and we saw dollar signs.
We just stole them, as many as we could carry, a case of them, two cases. The perfect crime committed in broad daylight. The next time I saw Willie, he had a serious expression on his face that I wasn't used to seeing. He looked at me and said, "You know, I saw you steal those bottles, so I could have gotten you in big trouble. Pinky, you should never steal anything from anybody. I didn't get you in trouble because I think you could amount to something. Don't you do stuff like that."
And I remembered that always. It was a good, lasting lesson for me. It may sound unusual, but I didn't learn many of those kinds of lessons from my parents. They never taught me things about basic honesty—maybe that's why I had to learn about it from the whoremonger.
But this lesson my mother did teach me, and it's the most important thing I've ever learned: She taught me to have confidence when sometimes I had no business having confidence. She taught me that no one was better than me, even if it wasn't true. She taught me that I could handle anything that the world could throw at me, whatever it might be.
Reprinted from The Good Fight by Sen. Harry Reid by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2008 by Harry Reid.