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Gerlach has always been known for its colorful characters
by Larry Wilson
Aug 30, 2010 | 931 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Burning Man was a just a gleam in someone’s eyes when I taught school in Gerlach during the 1974-75 school year. I got the job on a fluke at the end of the summer in August 1974. I had just turned in my credentials to teach elementary school for the Washoe County School District. I hardly arrived home from doing that when the phone rang and it was Elaine McKenzie, the secretary in the personnel office with the school district at the time.

She asked me if I would like to take an interview for a job teaching elementary school. I said, “Yeah. Where, Gerlach?” I knew this late in the teacher hiring season it had to be a real “plum” of a job. Gerlach was like getting the old maid in a popular card game, and to my question she sheepishly replied, “Yeah.”

I thought for a second and then agreed to take the interview the next day.

I met with the principal of the school, Bill Parks; we talked for a few moments in the darkened board room of the school district when he announced I had the job. I thought that was too easy so I replied by asking if I could hold off on my decision to take the job until I could tour the area. He agreed.

My wife and I drove the 103 miles to Gerlach to see what I would be getting into. I was to teach fifth and sixth grades in Empire, a village 7 miles south of Gerlach, and the company town that housed the U.S. Gypsum plant and mine as well as the housing for the workers. As we drove through the village I saw some of the kids and they reminded me of the youngsters from the “Little Rascals” comedies of yesteryear. I thought these kids had possibilities and, based on that supposition, I took the job.

I truly enjoyed the job of teaching those kids. They were a fun bunch. For all intents and purposes, they were my family during the week as my wife and I had just bought our home in Sparks and my wife had a job and really didn’t want to live in Gerlach. I lived in my father-in-law’s 1953 travel trailer, complete with a swamp cooler, which he moved to Empire and set up for me to live in. I would drive to Gerlach on Monday mornings early and return home for the weekend Friday afternoons.

My wife used to say that per capita, there were more weirdos in Gerlach than anywhere else in the world. I would have to say that they were some interesting people for sure.

Charlie Loose lived across the lane from me in a ramshackle trailer smaller than my 20-some-footer. I never saw a light on in the place all year as the broken windows and flapping front door would give me a glimpse of the resident’s domain. Rumor was that he had an electric blanket to keep from freezing.

Charlie had retired from the plant, apparently, and drove around in a newer Chrysler 300. He would buy a quart of milk, drink what he wanted and throw the rest in the back seat.

He would, at odd times, go to the town dump and clean out the back seat of his car. As I was told, he would make an annual pilgrimage to Reno to see a doctor to have carbuncles removed from his posterior.

Pat Henry, another retired plant worker from Massachusetts, lived in a neat and tidy small blue trailer across from me as well. Although his home was a trailer, it was so well kept it looked like a doll house.

Pat’s daily self-imposed chore was to erect the American flag on the company flag pole in the morning and take it down every evening. It was the way he did it that fascinated me. He would reverently lay the flag on the ground like a bed sheet and then attach the hooks to the flag that would raise it into the correct position. He meant no disrespect in doing this; it was just his way of respectfully raising the flag.

I took my kids for a week’s campout into the forest and to pay for it, we made Christmas wreaths out of IBM key punch cards and sold them around the village. I had the kids go and ask Pat Henry if he would like to buy a wreath, knowing full well what he would say that he was on welfare (that’s what he called his pension) and couldn’t afford one. I knew his answer ahead of time so I told the kids to ask him what color he would order if he were to buy one. They reported back that he would want a blue one with silver trim.

We made up a blue wreath with silver trim and I had the kids take it to Pat Henry and tell him, “Merry Christmas, Pat.” That wreath hung proudly on his front door the whole Christmas season.

John Bogart was a struggling ceramics artist living a few miles northwest of Gerlach on a spread he called Planet X. It was a derelict ranch that John rehabilitated to his liking and has since purchased.  He would roller skate into Gerlach daily to get his mail. He was a free spirit then and still is even though he is older now — like we all are.

He came to my class one time to show the kids how he used a potter’s wheel. He taught the kids a trick he discovered, quite by accident: When he made a tea pot, he offset the spout and when he fired it, it turned straight. The kids and I really developed a whole other degree of respect for John and his work after his visit to our class.

Lola Sweet and Phyllis Watt were the two cooks for the two schools, Gerlach and Empire. They also were the school bus drivers. I had to have my bus driver’s license as a backup to the two cooks so if they weren’t able to drive the 26 miles northeast of Gerlach to the Hoage (we called it Hog) ranch, I would have to fill in for them. I always called Lola the world’s dirtiest old woman as she always had a different joke to tell you.

Lola was upset with the Hollywood crowd as they rented her hotel in Gerlach for the movie “Far From Home,” which starred Drew Barrymore. Lola said they trashed her hotel, which never was a five-star facility, but it was still home to her.

Brothers Joe and Bruno Selmi, were born and raised in Italy. Both owned and operated bars at different ends of the little village of Gerlach and never communicated for years as the result of a squabble of some sort. I could understand the squabble, but why continue the dispute in the middle of the Black Rock Desert?  

In short, I enjoyed my time in Gerlach. And yes, Gerlach had some interesting people when I was there a long time ago, but nothing like they have when Burning Man is going on.

Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. You can contact him at lawilson16@aol.com.
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