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Beam Me Up!

September 4, 2013

For me, summer is a time for reflection, the season most loaded with memories of people and events gone by, seemingly endless carefree days of tree climbing and reading books from the bookmobile parked a few blocks from our house. I remember the hot stickiness of an era before air conditioning, water balloon fights to cool off, gorging on cold water from garden hoses, brushing away buzzing flies as hot dogs and hamburgers sizzled over briquettes with watermelon somewhere on ice. It seems only yesterday that I’d lie on the grass as the night sky deepened from violet to indigo, staring at stars that looked infinite yet close enough to swirl with my finger.   


I had no idea what an “economy” was but now I realize it was booming back in the late 50s and early 60s. Businesses were springing up everywhere. People in the suburbs where I was raised had more money in their pockets than ever before, along with confidence in their families, government and religious institutions. It was an exciting time to be young and alive. Many hallmarks of summer still remain, but one has gone the way of the five cent candy bar—searchlights.


I’m guessing that most people today conjure up Batman when they hear the word searchlight, or they think of that iconic image at the beginning of movies filmed at Fox Studios. But, for me, searchlights were a magical part of summer.


I grew up in the Santa Clara Valley in Northern California. The topography was perfect for unobstructed beams of light slicing through a night sky that was warm and still. The heavens always fascinated me and I received a telescope for Christmas when I was twelve. When Star Trek premiered in 1966 I was blown away. The notion of beaming people up to a spaceship or down to a planet was intoxicating—but by then I was fourteen and in my imagination I’d been riding around on beams of light for years.


My conveyance was in front of countless grand openings for shoe chains, grocery stores and fast food outlets. At night when my family was sitting on the front porch we’d see the searchlights and pile into our Packard to seek the source of the light, which usually drew us to another grand opening with ice cream, prizes and games. One time the light drew us to a new hamburger joint called McDonalds. The sign out front claimed a half million burgers had already been served, but I didn’t believe it.


I was always more interested in the searchlight than the games and give-a-ways, and my desire to get as close to the light as possible usually got me shooed away by those operating the machine. When I close my eyes I can still see the moths and bugs attracted to the light, iridescent and luminous, tiny ethereal beings dancing in the sacred light. Like those bugs I was also captivated by the luminosity, wanting to shimmer in the radiance of a summer evening.


I might not have had a transporter like the one aboard Captain Kirk’s Enterprise, but I managed to defy gravity and experience the infinity of space thanks to my imagination—and searchlights. It’s been years since I’ve seen white fingers of light reaching into the firmament. I hope they’ll return. I’d love to be beamed back to my childhood.  




It is rare to see searchlights these days. I guess it's more effective for a TV spot or cheaper to Tweet.
By: PT Dilloway on September 4, 2013
Beautiful, Stephen. I haven't seen a searchlight in years, but I never noticed their demise until now.
By: Kerry on September 4, 2013
I can't remember the last time I saw a searchlight. It must have been in my childhood.
By: David Walston on September 4, 2013
There was a car dealer in our town that used those search lights all the time :)
By: The Bug on September 4, 2013
Searchlights are cool. This post reminds me of the story I read online about a skyscraper in London that's melting cars.
By: Michael Offutt on September 4, 2013
Yeah...when did they stop doing that? Used to be multiple beams moving all around. Can't say we ever followed them to their source though...but they were cool. We called them Klieg lights. Is there a difference?
By: Cranky on September 4, 2013
we've had a few use them locally over the last few years, but they're rare.
By: TexWisGirl on September 4, 2013
I remember all those searchlights, circling the sky...
By: fishducky on September 4, 2013
We have them here once in a while. but not often enough any more.
By: mimi on September 4, 2013
I grew up in the exact same era as you and I are the same age but you seem to have a much more detailed memory. I do, however, remember some of the things you mention in this post. Nickle candy bars, hot, sticky summers with barbeques and cold watermelon. You don't see those beacons any more? They are still used for grand openings and such here in Kansas. Probably as so little happens here, they need to draw attention to it when it does. I lived in Chicago when in 1955 the first franchised McDonalds opened in Des Plains, IL I remember as a little girl, my dad taking us to the restaurant with the arches. It was all so exciting then.
By: Cheryl P. on September 4, 2013
You're right. Those searchlights were fun to follow down to their source. I have't seen one in years. I wonder where old searchlights go to die? :(
By: Scott Park on September 4, 2013
I remember searchlights! They were cool!
By: Kathe W. on September 4, 2013
I'd actually forgotten about searchlights. It's been that long since I saw one. How wonderful that you and your family would go to the source of the light. Keep looking for it. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 4, 2013
I'd forgotten about searchlights! I always associated them with car dealerships.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 4, 2013
I saw some a few years ago up here. Not sure what was going on but they were splaying across the sky. Of course, it IS Fargo, after all. ;)
By: Rita McGregor on September 4, 2013
I'm pretty lucky. I've seen spotlights plenty of times. They still used them in NYC sometimes (at least in the 80s and 90s), and they use them here in Egypt for store and club openings. Unlike you, I've never (intentionally) followed one to its source. They're prettier from distance. I loved hearing about your childhood and your desire to "beam up." Great post!
By: Lexa Cain on September 4, 2013
In the old days airports had light beams that pilots followed to the airports. there was one close to our farm and many evenings I had a little look at the contantly revolving beam.
By: Red on September 4, 2013
I love the way your memories evoke so many of my own. Thanks for that. I have seen these searchlights a few times over the past few years. They're not a s popular as they once were but they still have their place. At least they do in my neck of the woods.
By: Hilary Quint on September 4, 2013
I never saw a searchlight. But I remember the grand opening of a Montgomery Ward's at a shopping center in Poplar Bluff, MO. They gave away cake on a napkin, and my dad won a tool box. I'm pretty sure it was summer.
By: Val on September 4, 2013
I know right???? I used to love watching the searchlights cut through the night sky. We had a Saint Bernard who also loved to watch and chase the lights in the sky. She was very adept at jumping up at least 4 ft in the air and trying to catch her some lights. We used to call them Annabelle lights for that reason. There were some here last year during the State Fair, first in many, many years.
By: Oma Linda on September 4, 2013
There is central theme emerging from your post. Most of us share similar memories. Your writing style is disarming and allows the reader to think of it as their own personal account of life. Thank you!
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 4, 2013
What a lovely piece. It left me with a wistful feeling I don't get very often anymore.
By: Shelly on September 5, 2013
I so remember those searchlights. Like you, we always wanted to find out their source and would pester our father to go. If we managed to convince him, we would be disappointed if it was anything other than a carnival. Funny. When I see them today, I'm reminded of my childhood. Before I jump in the car and race to see if the carnival's in town.
By: Al Penwasser on September 5, 2013
I'm in my most nostalgic state during the summers too. I also remember when McD's advertised a fraction of a million burgers had "already been served." I wondered who'd eaten so many burgers. I'd only had a few. Nicely written, Stephen. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on September 5, 2013
I would hate to be beamed back to my childhood. Please God no!
By: LL Cool Joe on September 5, 2013
The bookmobile and the hot summer nights wishing a breeze would find my bedroom window. Your post brought it back to me! We also still have an occasional search light, but not nearly as often as when I was younger. Now I'll really notice them.
By: Nancy Felt on September 5, 2013
I just saw one the other night, and I was really astounded because I can't remember the last time I saw one before that. I remember being fascinated by them as a kid, too. How lucky that your parents took you to find it! That sounds like a great adventure :)
By: Kianwi on September 5, 2013
I don't think we had any of those around here ... of course, I did live fairly far out in the country ... sounds like a really nice childhood memory, along with the rest of them.
By: jenny_o on September 5, 2013
The magic of youth and youthful imagination. grerat days.
By: John on September 6, 2013
I always find it absorbing to hear of the things that remind us of our childhoods. I think I'm at that age to reflect on experiences that I didn't fully appreciate the first time round.
By: Bryan Jones on September 8, 2013

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