Highway 95 in Nevada
December 29, 1967
The desert outside Beatty was always black and desolate at night. Stars skated high across a wide sky, sliding away from the emptiness of the land.
Braking, Melvin Dummar let the car roll forward until it thumped onto the dirt. For a moment, he waited, listening to the chug of the car’s engine, the headlights bleary against the emptiness of the night. He stared ahead at the road he’d found, what he could see of it. It disappeared almost immediately into a black hole.
Melvin sometimes felt like all he ever did was chase after Linda. It didn’t used to be this way. She’d run off, and he’d simply wait for her to come back. It was a game they played. When she would disappear for a month or two, leaving their two-year-old daughter behind, Melvin would pretend she wasn’t gone. And when she returned, Linda would pretend she hadn’t been sleeping with other men.
Melvin let his mind roll back to the day they met, in the school parking lot in California. He could picture her perfectly, checking herself in a car window, pulling her blouse tight as he started to introduce himself. She turned toward him slowly, but she was smiling, like it was about time someone approached her. Maybe it was. She was clearly waiting for something, and not just a ride home. She was fifteen years old.
Melvin liked being married to Linda. It made him feel important. If he had to go after her every few months, that was all right. He didn’t mind driving long distances. Melvin erased that first image of her and created a fresher one, a view of her leaving. He had thought these same thoughts earlier in the day as he set off into the Nevada desert. He’d rolled them over and over in his brain until, finally, he had to pull over, because he was blubbering, unable to stop. That only made him feel worse, because he knew Linda always felt ashamed for him, a grown man, whenever he would cry.
That was one of the reasons that, a couple of days before he decided to go after her, Melvin had taken his motorcycle out into the desert. He’d wanted to wipe Linda out of his head; he needed to clear his mind and blow the gaskets. And just when it seemed like he could spread his arms and lift off, simply fly away, the bike squirmed out from under him. He landed face first, sliding butterfly-stroke style through the dirt. Years later he would tell the filmmaker Jonathan Demme about the accident, and he would regret opening his big mouth about it. “That’s where they got the beginning of the movie,” Melvin says now, shaking his head, still not able to believe it. “I was the one out there on the motorcycle. But that’s not the way they did it in the movie.”
Sitting in his car two days after the accident, though, Melvin Dummar couldn’t possibly have conceived of someone ever making a movie about him. It wasn’t even something worth fantasizing about. He flicked on the interior light in the car and checked his face in the rear-view mirror. His cheeks were still pretty bad, swollen and raw and caked with little scabs. He sighed and looked out the windshield. He couldn’t see much, but he knew what was out there. In the distance, the Funeral Mountains unrolled like the wound on his face, inflamed here and there, too tight against the earth’s skin. Then the range dipped down into the depression that was the Amargosa Desert, which quickly beat the personality out of the landscape. Keep going west and you’re in Death Valley, Melvin knew; keep going straight ahead and you hit Devil’s Hole. Mostly, the open range just lay in front of Melvin like concrete, as though the highway were a miniature copy of the desert, cutting right through itself. There was nothing out there. It was just heavy, flat, dead space – ideal for a nuclear testing ground, which was exactly what it had been until a couple years before when the government decided it had made enough craters in the desert. Many local residents still woke up at dawn, waiting for the blast, their skin prickling. If you were a regular on Highway 95 around daybreak you knew to keep your windows rolled down, because the shock waves could suck them right out like God Himself wielding a plunger.
Melvin wasn’t a regular, but he had made the trip a number of times before. It was still a ways to the next town and he didn’t think he could make it; he had to pee now. So he tapped down on the accelerator, the engine revved, and the car, a blue 1966 Chevrolet Caprice that looked cherry but didn’t sound it, bumped slowly over the embankment that separated the highway from the dirt road, which he figured was probably an old, abandoned mining road. Dust filled the void outside the car, and Melvin leaned forward in his seat. Patches of scrub loomed up out of the dark like small beasts and rushed at him. Melvin squeezed his crotch with his hand to relieve the pressure; he knew it was dumb to have drunk so much beer when he was going to be driving all night. He’d hung around in Tonopah, gambling, too long. Long enough for any alcoholic buzz to wear off, but the bladder was something else. Of course, most guys would have just pulled onto the shoulder and unloaded a stream right there on the side of the highway, but Melvin could be rather prissy about such things. He didn’t want some passing trucker to see him.
Appearances had always mattered to Melvin – perhaps more than they should have. He was, by his own description, a twenty-three-year-old “hillbilly at loose ends.” He’d run himself out of the Air Force. He’d dropped out of junior college. His wife had left him. And he spent his days filling bags of magnesium in an old factory that seemed to be held together by stale sweat and phlegm. At the same time, though, he also knew none of that really mattered. Melvin had a picture of himself in his head that had nothing to do with any of those things, and he was determined to live up to it. That was why he didn’t stop at the Cottontail Ranch to take a leak. Melvin didn’t want to be seen going into a whorehouse, even by customers, even to take a leak and come right back out. So here he was a couple of miles away, on a dirt road that led nowhere. The road snaked away from the highway, nearly ending in a rut and then starting up again along the base of a low mound. Melvin continued further than he had any need to go – he didn’t know why – and when he came around a bend he finally slowed to a stop. He squinted out at what looked like a couple bags of garbage or old mining debris his headlights touched at feebly. Melvin had to pee so badly that his stomach hurt, but he waited again, looking at the dire blackness of the night as his brain repetitively turned over a new phrase he couldn’t quite get right. He could hear the melody in his head being plucked simply on an acoustic guitar and the chorus kicking in with rising voices in the background. Melvin loved to sing and write songs. He knew that this was how he was going to score one day: one hit song – just one – could bring you six figures a year for a decade.
Melvin put the car into Park and climbed out. He hugged himself against the cold, searching for the right place, finding an open spot a few steps away. What happened next has varied slightly in Melvin’s mind every time he’s told the story over the past thirty-five years – and he’s told it hundreds of times. Did he hear something or only see it? Had he taken a piss or was he about to? In this telling, he had just unzipped and let out a loud sigh of relief when he noticed movement. The breeze had caught something, and it was flapping lazily as if waving at him. He knew it wasn’t garbage or old mining equipment. Melvin buttoned up, the near-freezing temperature gripping him. He became conscious of sound: The rustle of his shoes against the hard dirt, the phhlitt of his zipper, the disgruntled mumble of gravel at his feet. He felt suddenly small, like he had been shrunk in size and could be swept away without any warning. The blackness of the desert can do that to you, he knew – disorient you, send you spinning, the sky moving along with you as if it were stuck to your face and hands. Thinking about that, he turned, searching for the weak glow from the car’s lights, and found it, seemingly moved off to his right. He stepped forward, looking for the flapping noise, until he saw the wavering mass again just beyond the headlights. He stopped. He could hear his breath rasping in his throat as he realized what he was seeing: a man, face down, with long white hair laid out across the ground like a carpet. Melvin instinctively dropped into a defensive posture, scuttling in a half-circle as he tried to see if there was anyone else out there. No one. Nothing. The man on the ground didn’t move. It was an old man, he could see now, very old, wearing a long-sleeved denim shirt and loose, stained trousers. Melvin was sure the man was dead. A drunk or an old prospector, or something worse – whatever it is that gets a man killed and dumped on a dirt road in the middle of the desert.
Melvin hugged himself again, trying to figure out what he should do. Should he drive over to the whorehouse and tell them to call the police? Should he leave some kind of a marker so they could find their way back? Then, as if he were in a dream, Melvin watched as the corpse started to roll, one arm akimbo.
Melvin leaned forward in an effort to peer through the darkness that clouded his sight. What was he looking at? The old man wasn’t face down at all. He was up on elbows and knees. Melvin leapt forward and grabbed the man under the arms, and he could hear the man’s breath suddenly accelerate and feel his arms become rigid. Melvin pulled him to his feet. It was like lifting a bag of groceries, he thought. The man was more than six feet tall but astonishingly thin and trembling badly. It was near freezing and the man didn’t have a coat. Another couple of hours, Melvin thought, and the geezer would’ve frozen to death.
“I’m all right,” the man said, his voice a thin rasp, but Melvin could see that he wasn’t. He was bleeding, for one thing. Melvin propped him up with an arm and his hip. The man resisted at first, but then leaned against Melvin, his legs buckling, drool running down his chin. He looked at Melvin sidelong, eyes drifting as if unmoored from any internal circuitry.
Melvin Dummar had just met the man who would change his life.
Hefting him like a duffel bag, Melvin helped the man into the Caprice and then climbed behind the wheel and turned the car around. The old man was shivering uncontrollably.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you to a doctor,” Melvin said. He repeated himself, but the old man didn’t seem to hear him, though his fear appeared to be dissipating. The man leaned against the passenger-side door, his head lolling. It looked like he’d been living out in the desert a long time: his hair hadn’t been cut in months and he had the pallor of the malnourished. “No,” he finally said in a whisper. “No doctors.”
“We should tell the police about this,” Melvin said.
“No. No police. Just take me to Vegas.” With that, the man turned away and rested his head on the passenger-side window. He wouldn’t answer any more questions.
“I figured he was just some old prospector,” Melvin would say more than thirty-five years later, his eyes alive with the memory, his voice rising. Melvin knew that this was his story and his alone, and he always told it with relish, building it slowly, piece by piece. “He gave me the heebie-jeebies,” he continued. “He had blood on him; the hair on the side of his head was matted with blood, I couldn’t tell from what. I asked him what had happened to him, but he just stared at me. I told him we should go to the doctor, that we should go to the police. He didn’t say a word. He told me to take him to Vegas, and that was it. No doctor. No police. Just take me to Vegas.”
Melvin could have gone into Beatty and left the old man in an emergency room or a police station, or simply dropped him off at the whorehouse that was a couple miles away; that would’ve been the easiest thing for him to do. But Melvin was an accommodating person by nature. He wasn’t going to force the old guy to see a doctor, and he didn’t mind taking him to Vegas; it was on the way. He guided the car back onto the highway and headed south again. But, soon, the silence ate at him. If there was another human being in the vicinity, Melvin had to talk to him; the urge was just hardwired into his brain. And if that other person didn’t hold up his end of the conversation, Melvin would do it for him.
So he told the old man he was going to Los Angeles to see his daughter, Darcy, because he couldn’t work for a couple weeks thanks to a motorcycle accident that had put him in the hospital for a night. He could have added that Darcy was in LA because her mother had left him again and that this time, for whatever reason, Linda had wanted her daughter with her. But he decided not to mention that. Just the thought of it might make the tears come.
Melvin stared out at the empty highway, the old man silent in the seat beside him. The night and the landscape, what you could see of it, were lulling. Endless. After you came through Tonopah on the way to Las Vegas, you had better be prepared for nothing, because that was what you were going to get for mile after mile. Melvin knew that if he wasn’t careful he could lose the white line in the syrupy darkness and run off the road without even realizing it. If he did that, he’d find himself right back in the hospital again, or in the morgue this time. Then how would he get Linda back?
Melvin noticed the old man was staring at him, and so he decided to talk about something positive, something that would get them the couple of hours into Vegas on the right note. “You want to hear a song?” he asked his passenger. No response. “I’m a singer,” Melvin said. The old man continued to stare, but he didn’t respond. Melvin said he’d always been able to hold a tune, he just had the knack. He wanted to get himself into clubs and start singing for people; he’d written some pretty good songs. You had to do your own material, he said. You’re not going to get anywhere just singing covers.
That didn’t get any response either, which didn’t surprise Melvin. He thought about all the great songs that never got heard, that never got recorded, whenever someone like him – someone who truly loved music down deep – had to set aside his guitar to make a living. How many hours had he sat with his friend Johnny Roman, God bless him, watching Johnny playing the guitar? Watching him attacking some difficult stretch of notes again and again and again until, finally, the notes cracked open, like a dam breaking, and music just poured out. The excitement of watching Johnny play was something he could never really talk about, could never explain, and that was okay. That’s what the music was there for. For Melvin, so drawn to mournful, lonely melodies and country-and-western cheatin’ songs, his musical ambition took some of the sting out of the music: he was too busy breaking down the chords and the melody to let the slap of the lyrics overwhelm him.
The old man didn’t move, like he’d been paralyzed by an overdose of mournful songs himself. Melvin gazed out at the sky and the stars and decided to try another subject. “I love to fly,” he told the man. “That’s what I always wanted to do.” The statement hung in the air between them for a moment, then the old man sat up a little, and asked him for his name. When Melvin told him, the old guy said, “You’re a pilot?”
Melvin said he’d been a medic during his brief stint in the Air Force, “but I wanted to be a pilot.” He’d wormed his way out of the service because he’d fallen for some girl, and he’d regretted it ever since. “I went back to the military and talked to them, and they said I could probably get back in, but I’d have to get these waivers and be examined by a psychiatrist.” The old man turned to the window, breathing deeply, gazing out at the darkness. Silence again. Melvin went back to talking.
“I told him I was working at a magnesium mine in Gabbs right then, bagging magnesium,” Melvin remembers. “I told him that I wanted a better job, that I’d been looking for something else, like at Hughes Aircraft in LA, but they wouldn’t hire me.”
The old man turned back to Melvin, as if a bell had just gone off. Then he said, simply, “I could get you a job at Hughes Aircraft.”
“Is that right?” Melvin said. “How could you do that?”
“I own the company.” The old man asked Melvin for his name again, and Melvin found himself smiling at his passenger, smiling like a fool, and he decided to play along.
“You own Hughes Aircraft?”
The old man didn’t say anything at first, just looked at Melvin with those tired, drifting eyes. Then he said: “I’m Howard Hughes.”
Melvin turned his attention back to the road, but he couldn’t take the smile off his face. Anyone who lived in Nevada knew who Howard Hughes was. He was a famous gazillionaire and he pretty much owned Las Vegas, but he had disappeared from public sight years ago. Of course this old man wanted to be Howard Hughes. Why wouldn’t he? Melvin shook his head. Not that he minded. Sometimes he wanted to be someone else, too. No, that wasn’t quite right. Melvin wanted to be himself, but with a better shot at things. Better opportunities. He’d prefer it if the old man were a scout for a record company; then he could really be useful.
“You want to hear a song?” Melvin asked again. “I write good ones.”
The old man didn’t respond, but he didn’t say no, so Melvin launched into his favorite, “When a Dream Can Become a Reality.”
When a dream can become a reality
This is all you do
When a dream can become a reality
Work hard, have faith and courage
You can rise from a beggar to a king
With hard work, faith and courage
You can conquer anything.
He finished with a rat-a-tat-tat drum roll on the steering wheel. That pretty much brought the conversation to a close.
“He was just enjoying my singing; he didn’t really say another word all the way in,” Melvin recalls. And soon enough, the twirling lights of Las Vegas came into view, and the old man straightened himself in his seat, like he hadn’t really believed they would make it to the city. It was still dark, but the first hint of dawn backlit the Strip. The casinos listed into view like distant buoys in an ocean of pavement and abandoned lots, the sidewalks ending in crumbles amidst waves of wild grass. As they rolled down the Strip, the man directed Melvin, finally saying: “There. Pull in there.”
The empty parking lot of the Sands Casino could have been for a football stadium. Melvin’s passenger pointed, and Melvin weaved around the light poles. In the back lot, just past the dumpster pen, the old bum told him to stop the car. With a grunt he heaved the passenger-side door open and climbed out. The man steadied himself, and took a step back. He seemed to give the car a good long look.
“You sure you gonna be okay?” Melvin asked him. The old man nodded and then, thinking better of it, stepped back to the car, grabbing hold of the door.
“You got any change?” he rasped.
Melvin sighed and fished a couple coins out of his pocket. He handed them over without looking at them. The man held the coins in his hand, examining them, turning them over. He gazed into the car, his eyes sticky. “Thank you, Melvin,” he said. Then he turned and walked toward the back of the building.
Melvin watched him go, trying not to think about what would become of the old guy. He looked off at the still-quiet Strip beyond the parking lot, where even at this hour a few all-night gamblers wandered aimlessly. A couple of weary cocktail waitresses in short skirts and baked-on makeup exited the casino and crossed in front of him, headed for the back of the lot. Melvin knew it was at about this time of the morning that the government used to conduct its nuclear weapons tests out in the desert. For years, second-shift cocktail waitresses like these girls, giving in to an old wives’ tale, put on sunglasses and slathered on sunscreen to protect themselves before leaving work every morning. There were billboards all over town in the ’50s to make you think about being extra-careful like that. Melvin didn’t know it, but because of those billboards, any cocktail waitress from back then might have thought she recognized the old man who’d just disappeared around the back of the Sands. With his matted white hair and puffy beard, Melvin’s passenger was the spitting image of the hoary prospector – well, it was probably just an actor playing a prospector – who famously got his beard checked for radioactivity by a bikinied girl hefting a Geiger counter. Famous in Vegas, at least. The billboards were the chamber of commerce’s way of downplaying the significance of the testing site when it came on line. But Melvin had never seen the picture, or at least had never paid it any mind if he had. He took a deep breath and rubbed his face to verify that he was awake. He put the car in gear and rolled back out onto the Strip, a couple of hours behind schedule but with a story to tell Linda when he got to LA. What he didn’t know was that this story was more radioactive than anything that girl with the Geiger counter – or her old prospector – had ever come across.
- Douglas Perry, from "The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame" (Tarcher Penguin, 2005)