Alexander Isley | Essays

The Light

Sperry Spotlight. Photo by Richard S. Eshleman

Editor's Note: Excerpted from Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives. Reprinted with permission from PRINT Books.

I once ran a searchlight from a car dealership parking lot. My job was to draw in customers like moths to a really big (800 million candlepower) flame. This was really my friend’s job, but one night he hadn’t been able to make it and asked me to fill in. I’m glad I did.

It all seemed simple enough: Show up to the lot, sit next to a huge light, shine it up into the sky for four hours, and get paid for the effort. That was all there was to it, and to be honest the whole thing seemed kind of easy (and kind of silly) to me. What was the point? There was no special sale or radio promotion, no “look for the light” advertising, or any other real reason for the light to be there or for people to care.

Nevertheless, it promised to require little effort and I’d make some cash while sitting around. It was a perfect job for a lazy high school student with no experience or qualifications. In other words, the position dovetailed seamlessly with my skill set.

I brought a folding chair along with a book to help pass the time over to the Toyota dealership on highway 15-501 near Chapel Hill, NC, ready for inaction. There I met the owner of the searchlight rental company (cleverly named “Searchlight Rental”) who showed me the how to operate the machinery.

The searchlight was huge, a 60-inch diameter olive drab WWII vintage army surplus unit, mounted along with a generator on a trailer. It was similar to the model that came with my childhood G.I. Joe Jeep Combat Set. Only this version was larger, not made of plastic, and it didn’t have a light bulb.

Instead, a bright white flame was produced by a carbon arc lamp burner mounted in front of an enormous coated mirror that beamed the light up and out. The light was generated by igniting 18-inch carbon rods that burned down as they were slowly fed into the reflector mechanism by an array of small gears.

Every 90 minutes or so I would have to open a small hatch, climb into the unit, and replace the rods as they burned down. If I neglected to do this and one burned through to the end, the whole trailer would explode. Or so the boss informed me.

And with that he shook my hand, wished me good luck, and left for the night.

I realized I was not going to be able to just sit there and relax at all, and I put the book away. At dusk I started the generator, fired up the light, and pointed it up into the night. It was a little cloudy so the beam was well defined. I was excited.

And it worked. People began to show up. Over the next few hours an ongoing stream people drove into the lot to discover the source of the light and pepper me with questions, none of which I was equipped to address.

They came from all over. Many had driven for up to 45 minutes “just to see what’s going on.” Veterans walked up to me, sharing experiences from the war. Parents made pilgrimages with their kids. High school students dropped by to hang out.

This was more than just a searchlight. It was Friday night entertainment, and I was the adventitious MC, fielding technical questions (and responding insufficiently) while keeping a nervous eye on flaming carbon sticks as they slowly ground down toward cataclysm.

None of these people had come to the parking lot with the idea of buying a Toyota, but that didn’t stop the sales guys who hovered at a distance and took turns picking off their marks as they got tired of the light and me. I was impressed with the (and there is no other word for it, as far as I’m concerned) fearlessness they showed in approaching complete strangers and launching right into a friendly pitch. I wish I could do that.

At the end of the night I shut down the generator (no meltdowns or explosions, thankfully) and climbed inside the glass enclosure to wipe down the carbon residue with Windex and paper towels.

And that was it. I went to the dealership manager for payment. That was the only disappointing part of the night. He seemed a bit condescending and smirked as he wrote out the check to “Searchlight Rental,” and I remember feeling defensive and suddenly loyal to my new, one-time employer as I realized that it was actually quite a perfect name for the company — there was no mistaking what they did and it was an easy name to remember.

So no need to be jerky, Mr. Manager. We all gotta work, and while I didn’t get to show up in nice khaki slacks with pleats and wear cologne, at least I got to wear a T-shirt to work, be in charge of an awesome piece of military surplus hardware capable of lighting up the night and possibly exploding, and having an excuse to talk to new girls (who were coming up to me).

Anyway, that was the first and last time I ran the light, but the things I learned that special night I use every day:
  • One must first attract attention in order to be able to convey a message
  • People are inherently curious and will often make great effort to pursue and learn about something that seems mysterious
  • People respond to things that are big, bright, and unusual
  • You learn the most when you have no idea what you are doing
  • Jobs that at first might seem boring often turn out to be quite interesting
  • If something works well it doesn’t really matter that it might be old
  • A Sperry antiaircraft searchlight is an outstanding conversation starter
  • Getting people to show up is half the battle
  • Don’t be shy. If you don’t engage people you have no hope of making a sale
  • In naming a company or service, it’s better to be simple and descriptive rather than clever and confusing
  • If you don’t pay close attention to all the details, things will explode

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business

Comments [3]

I very much enjoyed this essay.

It feels perfect for the medium, quickly brought back memories of being a kid and driving to see one these searchlights (memories that are pinged in a bittersweet way every year by the 9/11 lights downtown - searchlights should be fun again...) and has me thinking about a couple of upcoming presentations and how I might get that end-of-the-arclight-rainbow joy into them that always came when you'd finally arrive at the source of the light.

Thank you Mr. Isley.
Mr. Downer

Ditto from the comments above. It cracked me up! Then again I am taking notes. Thanks, Tammis

I grew up in Chapel Hill, NC and my grandmother managed a restaurant on 15-501 so we were out that way often. That very searchlight is what came to mind when I read the first paragraph of your essay. I remember looking for that light on our evening drives and I still associate it with that part of town. How thrilling that you've answered some of the questions I forgot I had. Great lessons, too!
Angela Norwood

Jobs | June 14