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Twentynine Palms: Prelude to a Kill, Land of Plenty.

by Deanne Stillman
 

Prologue: Prelude to a Kill

The concern here is the Mojave Desert, the dry, baptismal font of national consciousness, mythological birthplace of America. It takes a big, white-hearted desert to fuel the pursuit of happiness, vast stretches of emptiness to suggest that the world can be possessed like an oyster, extreme tableaux of beauty to obliterate all memory of bad news. “Have a nice day!” the Mojave Desert tells the crossing parade—the Donner Party, the seekers of buried treasure, the cowboys, the ranchers, the people who rush for Hollywood gold—“Good luck! Think positive!”

Cholla cacti in the Mojave desert.  
Cholla cactus in late afternoon sun, Mojave Desert.
Photo courtesy Twentynine Palms Convention and Visitors Bureau.
 
     

Called the Mojave Desert after the Indians who once lived there, this blank, sunny slate bears a name that has defied the plundering of linguists, the meaning of the original term, hamakhaav, long ago swept away by the Santa Ana winds, that strange atmospheric condition born in the desert which raises the skin on all living creatures and is said to warn of earthquakes. But the mysterious name fits; the unknowable is unnameable, too. The Mojave was here before California, Nevada, and Arizona planted their flags in it, and it will be here tomorrow. Not that it’s keeping track of time—history doesn’t matter out here; it’s space that counts, space that drives the country, space that suggests the possibility of declaring bankruptcy and starting over somewhere else, space that maintains the illusion of hitting the jackpot on some get-rich-quick scheme, space that whispers, make bombs and bring down the government all by yourself. In a weird bakery of the impossible, a vast scape of tortured beauty where all things are equal and do what is necessary to survive, personal demons aren’t demons at all, but just some other creatures who need a drink.

Senseless violence, the world calls it, but the Mojave knows otherwise. The Mojave knows, has always known, that the violence is not senseless, the disturbing acts that unfold on its sandy stage in fact make perfect sense. For that is the very nature of the place, to convey meaning, to show events in living color on a giant screen in bas-relief, to make it seem as if everything is happening for the first time, even if for some, it is the last, or simply the latest in an endless spiral of repetitive, nowhere acts. And this is the nature of the people who come here. They are starting over in the oven of American Zen, refracting into new souls with each infinitesimal turn of the earth, cranking up the Van Halen as the sun becomes the moon, being right here, right now, this is it, but Officer, last chance for new ID.

But the concern is not really with all of the Mojave, just a part of it—one aspect of is character—its very heart. This is the town called Twentynine Palms, which is found at an elevation of four thousand feet at a longitude of 34 degrees 08 minutes 09 seconds North and latitude of 116 degrees 03 minutes 15 seconds West, one hundred and eighty miles east of Los Angeles, a short distance but a long way. Its stage props are the tortured rocks and freak-show plants of its progenitor, but it is a heightened version of the Mojave; from it the Mojave might have been cloned. It sits on top of seven known fault lines and perhaps countless undetected cracks in the earth. The bottomless fissures crisscross and zigzag for hundreds of miles in every direction, creating the most volatile web of geography in the American West, a region geologists call the Eastern California Shear Zone. To the north and east runs the Emerson Fault, epicenter of the 4.5 Emerson Quake in 1975. To the west run the Galway Lake Fault Zone and the Pinto Mountain Fault, site of nonstop temblors ranging from one-pointers, which are imperceptible to all but the most highly attuned desert creatures, to jolting slip-and-fall three- and four-pointers, which make for a noisy response among cactus wrens and mourning doves and send jackrabbits skittering across the sands and collapse the fragile nests of the desert tortoise and snap its freshly laid eggs in two. To the south and east run the Cleghorn Lake Fault and Homestead Valley Fault; these two cracks in the earth met fiercely tens of thousands of years ago, and they have continued to collide with each other so violently and so frequently that they have shaken and thrust upward the Coxscomb Mountains—a peculiar range outside of town that always looks bruised. In 1992 the intersection of the Cleghorn Lake and Homestead Valley faults ruptured in a quake of 7.2 magnitude, epicentered near Twentynine Palms in the town of Landers. As the ground in the Eastern California Shear Zone fell away, the Coxscombs lurched skyward—some say the ancient peaks gained two inches in the blink of a raven’s eye. The Landers Quake echoed across the West, at the beach in Santa Monica where the palm trees swayed in response to the distant ground shivers, in Las Vegas where the casinos blacked out for a moment, hinting that there might be such a thing as time, in Montana where a truck driver drove off a two-lane, and in New Mexico where nervous desert dwellers in white helmets checked and double-checked missile silos that seemed relics of a distant global configuration.

  Joshua tree.
  Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park.
Photo courtesy National Park Service.

In Twentynine Palms, some residents were so alarmed by the force of the quake that they did not sleep inside—under a roof—for days. Was the Mojave Desert beginning to eject its latest squatters, reclaim itself? Perhaps so—in one way or another, every so often, perhaps when it tires of its own stillness, it likes to scare people away, to writhe in pain and shake uncontrollably in delight, to stir things up, to make people think—otherwise how can its treasures be callipered, appreciated?

And then there are the times when the Mojave Desert gets serious, wants more than fear and awe, demands a blood sacrifice. The personal-rights party has gone too far. Things must happen. Often, a girl is involved. Often, some boys. Generally, a knife. And then there is the military. In this case, the few, the proud... the Marines. The blood must flow, attention must be paid: the desert says, “Don’t tread on me, I’m where the party started and one of these days, I might just shut the whole thing down.”

Land of Plenty

I wish all the ladies were pies on the shelf.
If I was the baker I'd eat 'em all myself.
Left...left...left, right, left...
I wish all the ladies were bells on the tower.
If I was the hunchback I'd bang 'em on the hour.
Singin' hey boppa-ree-ba, he bobba row...
Wish all the ladies were holes in the road.
If I was a dump truck, I'd fill 'em with my load.
Left...left...left, right, left.

               
 —  Gulf War marching cadence

Who is this coming up from the desert
like a column of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and incense
made from all the spices of the merchant?
Look! It is Solomon's carriage,
escorted by sixty warriors,
the noblest of Israel,
all of them wearing the sword,
all experienced in battle,
each with his sword at his side,
prepared for the terrors of the night.

                   —  Song of Songs 3:6-8

MESS WITH THE BEST, DIE LIKE THE REST! said the bumper sticker on the back of a Chevy pickup. Although it bore the Marine logo of the eagle atop the globe and anchor... this was not a government-issue bumper sticker. It was a popular item in the local variety store, along with "Death Before Dishonor" and "Marines Don't Just Read About History—They Make It." These stickers and tattoos and decals—extreme to outsiders—expressed the famous Marine esprit de corps, a mind-set that set them apart from, say, the Army, whose members often announced themselves with Mickey Mouse tattoos. The truck snaked its way through the back roads of Twentynine Palms, today clogged with traffic, looking for a way to hook up with the massive military advance that was making its way into town from the 10, across Highway 62. The people in the truck, wives and girlfriends of Marines, were all decked out in their most alluring tube tops, tight jeans, high heels. In the back of the Chevy were four teenage girls in stretch denim and T-shirts that said LUNCH BOX GANG. For the first time in eight months, they, and just about everyone else in town, were happy: their boys had just kicked Saddam's ass in the Gulf War and now were coming home to the Mojave Desert, where they had trained, and trained well, for the desert operation. In fact, the military and the desert—well, they had a thing going on. In World War II, General Patton trained his troops in the Mojave in preparation for the desert battles in North Africa. The training was so successful that it gave rise to the military saying "We do deserts, not mountains." In fact, tracks from World War II tank maneuvers are still visible in the sands to the south of Twentynine Palms. Returning to the Mojave was not just a homecoming for those who fought in Desert Storm, but a communion with one of the proudest moments in American military history. And then of course, there were the two things that were of most concern to all who longed for this moment—sex or money.

U.S. Marine Corps marching band.  
U.S. Marine Corps marching band moves through the town of Twentynine Palms.
Photo courtesy Twentynine Palms Convention and Visitors Bureau.
 
   

For Mandi Scott, now fifteen, it was money. Debie had been tending bar at the Iron Gate, one of sixteen bars in town, and ever since the boys went to Saudi, the tips had dwindled down to a few bucks per week, courtesy of whatever the cash-starved locals could extract from their pockets. More than once, Debie had been tipped with food stamps. But she never used them because she was too embarrassed. Not that the family didn't need them. Pretty much since the deployment of troops to the Middle East, Twentynine Palms had been a ghost town. Most of the stores were closed or had scaled back hours. Homes, furniture, entertainment units all over town were being repo'd every day; even life on the installment plan wasn't cutting it in the low-cost Mojave. Tourism took a hit, too; the hotels were empty because there had been no wildflower blooms that season. The only signs of life were colors and sounds: the neon of bar signs—THE JOSH LOUNGE and THE VIRGINIAN and DEL REY'S—which looked so pretty against the dusky desert skies, betraying no hint of the desperation unfolding inside, and the occasional rumble and then sweet fade-out of Harley pipes on Highway 62, hightailing it to Yucca Valley, where the gas station was open twenty-four hours—and wasn't this why we were fighting the Gulf War in the first place? But here in the town that was home to the world's biggest Marine base, residents were stuck. Mandi, Krisinda, and Jason weren't the only kids in town eating macaroni and cheese for dinner every night. Having to serve it up all the time humiliated Debie and all of the other working poor in town; the local edge felt sharper, people sucked harder on the last of their cigarettes, as if the inhale would take control of things, and then they downed pitchers of beer, because they knew it wouldn't.

The driver of the pickup approached the convoy of tanks, Jeeps, artillery guns, buses and started honking furiously; there they were, all the scruffy-looking guys, when they left they were kids, now they were war heroes (though having engaged in no combat) who had saved America, the world, and they acted in the manner of all returning victors: as the crowd waved flags, and red, white, and blue streamers, and placards that said, HEY SADDAM, EAT MY DUST, as some spectators ran to the buses crammed with war vets and proffered six-packs, the boys in their cammies reached down through the bus windows to slap five, grab beers, grab some tit—for eight months they had lived in a world where women were "off-limits," covered with veils, and some now contorted through the windows backward, mooning the welcoming crowd.

The desert two-lane was festooned with eighty miles of yellow ribbon—all the way from the interstate to downtown Twentynine Palms where 62 became Main Street and intersected Adobe Road, the major north-south thoroughfare that led to the main entrance at the base. The red truck carrying Mandi and her friends from the Lunch Box Gang fell in line at the end of the parade and followed the boys for a while. They looked good—all grungy, tanned, roughed up, hardened, if only from living in a desert bunker for thirty-two weeks, eating MREs, and traffic-copping Iraqi paws down the line toward the detention area at the back of the advance.

"Hey, boots," Mandi shouted, "you rule!" A couple of the guys responded with a nasty, "Oorah."

"Mmm, mmm, mmm, look at that fine desert scenery." This was Lydia Flores, one of Mandi's best friends, beautiful, sixteen, tough talking, and self-possessed in spite of her hardly menacing "Lunch Box Gang" T-shirt.

"Not for me," Mandi said. In other words, not black Mandi, who was still carrying a few pounds of baby fat, was into black guys, and they were into her. Black guys liked the extra poundage, and also the fact that she liked to dance.

"You seeing Kevin later?" Lydia asked.

  Mural of U.S. marine in Iraq, statue of Saddam Hussein falling, tanks.
  "Iraqi Freedom" mural in Twentynine Palms, dedicated in honor of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003.
Photo courtesy Action Council for 29 Palms, Inc.
    

"Yeah, he's coming to the party at the Gate. If my mom doesn't throw him out." Debie was not happy about Mandi's choice of color in boyfriends, and in fact often told her daughter not to "burn coal." "Why do you care so much about color?" Mandi would say. "What difference does it make?" But in the high desert, Debie was not alone in her view; for all of Mandi's refusal to choose friends based on skin color, there were plenty of others who did just that. In the Mojave, for instance, there was the unspoken tradition of stopping black people on the freeways for being a mile or two over the speed limit, while never stopping white people, unless they were driving spent muscle cars held together with duct tape, which generally translated as drug dealer. There was a well-known situation in certain restaurants, in which minority patrons who desired a table would be kept waiting for hours while white people were immediately seated. And even Mandi's own brother Jason, attempting to stake his own identity, fell in with a white-power crowd at school, after being repeatedly taunted by black kids and "wiggers" (white kids who fancied themselves gangbangers from Watts) as a "Hessian" because of his buzz cut. Indeed, as America and the world retreated into genetically coded tribes, the Lunch Box Gang was a breathtaking manifestation, a crosscultural "point of light" that neither President Bush nor his speechwriters would ever behold.

Mandi's friend Tina, also in her LBG T-shirt, suggested hopping off the truck and racing to the base entrance so they could personally greet the guys when they got off the buses. Her reason for being happy that the boys were back had nothing to do with sex or money. A good friend had been in the Gulf and she was happy that he'd come back alive. She thought maybe she could give him a hug if she was lucky enough to be at the right bus at the right time; he didn't know that his father was in jail on another DUI and his mother had cracked up three months ago. The girls took off, easily outpacing the parade convoy, high-fiving friends in the crowd, four teenagers skipping for joy, adding to, driving the swarm of jubilation, Mandi especially hating it when her mother felt low, loving it that her mother's tip jar would once again overflow, for she was the most popular bartender in town, that is, when anyone was in town. Now, like the desert frogs that manifest after a rainstorm, Twentynine Palms would once again come alive. At the base gate, the Lunch Box Gang, Mandi leading the way, squeezed through the crowd past weeping women, ecstatic women, seductive women, until they got to the front of a bus, only to find that another member of the town's greeting party had planted herself at the doorstep, hoping to get kissy-face with a Marine she liked. This was twenty-year-old Rosalie Ortega. Rosie liked black guys, too. "Hey, homes," Mandi said, "waitin' for the man?" "Yeah," Rosie said, hugging each member of the LBG, "I paid my cousin to fill in for me at work. I'm losing money on the deal, but hey"—and now gesturing at the Marines"—check out all these rockin' bods." "Where's Shanelle?" Mandi asked. "She's with my mother and Tom on a truck run," Rosie said. A tall, black Marine stepped down from the bus, eyed Rosie, and grabbed her hand. This was not her boyfriend, but she was happy to see him, though she couldn't remember his name. "Welcome home, Devil Dog," she said, and pulled him down for a kiss on the cheek. "Yeah," said the LBG. The Marine sized up the pretty young girls who were so joyful at his return. "It's good to be back," he said. "Party at the Gate," Rosie said. "And don't be late." He winked and headed for his barracks. "Hey, what's your name?" Rosie called out. Turning slightly, he said, "Val-enteen. Remember me?"

United States Marine Corps, Air Ground Combat Center logo. Courtesy USMC.  

In front of the Iron Gate on Mesquite Road, several young women in hot pants and Joe Camel tank tops put the final touches on the bar's entrance. Like every commercial establishment in town, the windows displayed gleeful homemade signs: WE LOVE OUR MARINES, THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE SAYS SEMPER FI!, AMERICA—BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN. Out of the bar came Debie, wiry as always, shooting energy sparks. She wore tight pants, vest, and high heels in her favorite color, red, and her favorite fabric, leather. "Looks awesome," she said as her fellow workers tacked up red, white, and blue bunting around the door. "Okay, Jason," she called out. "We're ready." Inside the bar, Debie's thirteen-year-old son and two friends maneuvered to the entrance with a roll of thick, red carpeting and unfurled it across the sidewalk. A small fleet of Budweiser trucks approached, trailing yellow streamers, honking wildly, and stopping at the bar. "Drought's over," Debie said, and ran to greet the first driver.

The sun on this fine March day went down and the Iron Gate began to fill up the way it was supposed to before the trouble in the Gulf. As the jukebox blasted "Dirty White Boy," Marines filed in, along with the various local tribes all dressed according to affiliation, and each having to walk past Corky, who sat atop the bar at full alert in shades and a red, white, and blue doggie vest. The guest list included Crips in red bandannas; Bloods in blue; white bikers in their leathers; Samoans, who were easily identified because they looked Samoan; young girls and old women all tarted up; kids and toddlers—out here on the frontier everybody goes to a party. While the ground troops got plastered and General Norman Schwarzkopf and General Colin Powell weighed lucrative book offers, on television George Bush basked in his skyrocketing ratings: the Gulf War had been good for America, on the face of things; once again, we had control of the oil supply, and for the first time since the Korean War, it was all right, perhaps even fashionable, to be a member of the American armed services. For the military, the moment of glory was brief, and in Twentynine Palms, the Marines seized it like a beachhead.

In the back room of the packed tavern, a postwar ritual unfolded. It was familiar to locals, but this time it was more intense, carried more meaning. Underneath a sign that said, BIG BULGE CONTEST, a local band called Velvet Hammer cranked rock covers for dancers who had converged to show off their wares. About a dozen Marines of all ages and shapes, partnered with women of similar demographic and physical status, shook their hips wildly, back and forth, to the right, to the left, back and forth again, as a mob urged them on. A pair of bikini-clad Jagermeister girls circulated, pouring shooter after shooter to Marines who knelt on the floor before them, mouths wide open and bleating, waiting for their welcome-home baptism. And the drink calls echoed across the floor: "Hey, Debie, bring me a double Jack... Hey, Debie, I want the usual... Hey, Debie, Midori on the rocks. . . And give it to me nice and slow. . . Hey, Debie, I greased an I-raqi for you. . . Whachu gonna do for me?" Yes, the Big Bulge Contest was in full effect, and there was one leatherneck who danced like a sex machine, a white boy from the South, grabbing his crotch and fondling his cock Michael Jackson-style as the lead singer in Velvet Hammer belted out a liquored-up "Proud Mary." A voluptuous black girl in leather and a thicket of beaded dreadlocks jumped in front of him and mirrored his strokes, his bumps and grinds. The crowd liked this, as in "Let's get ready to rumble," and the Marine removed his sweaty T-shirt that said, GOD MADE DRUNKS SO UGLY WOMEN COULD GET LAID. He threw it to an eager teenager on the sidelines, who happened to have been wearing her own badge; her T-shirt identified her as a member of the Lunch Box Gang, and she quickly joined in. A couple of her friends followed dressed likewise, and then came Mandi, holding five-year-olds on each hand. "Let's show 'em our new moves," she told the kids, and now the dance floor was a mass of townies and Marines, a census report come to life only you would never find this stuff out in a census, never know how the groups were grooved together like a lock and key, all you would know is that there were a lot of kids and single mothers and Marines in Twentynine Palms. After a while, the music got slow and funky, suggesting a Gulf War victory sex show, the singer growling a mean "The House of the Rising Sun." The Marine continued stripping, removing his belt. Now another Marine cut in, pulling the dancing rasta queen his way. It was Val-enteen.

"Turned his ass down before Saudi," said a girl who was watching as the guy showed off his big bulge, stealing the spotlight.

"What the fuck are you doing back here?" a big, burly white man called out, approaching the dance floor. He was the club bouncer, and he reminded the dancer that he was banned from the Gate. Valentine Underwood, a regular at certain bars around town, had been thrown out of the place before. The bouncer considered him a freak who was always hassling female patrons.

"It's a free country," Underwood called back.

"Tell me about it," the bouncer said. "I was in 'Nam. You didn't do jackshit in Saudi."

Underwood ignored him, continuing to grind. His dancing partner matched him, dancing more erotically, with more anger; no one was going to interrupt the moment.

"He's achin' for a breakin'," said another girl on the sidelines.

"Fucked up Saddam and thinks he's twice as bad," said another, loudly, for the benefit of the girl with dreadlocks.

Mountains, sky, and thin clouds.  
Providence Mountains in the Mojave Desert.
Photo courtesy California State Parks.
 
   

"Either you go or I'm comin' in," the bouncer said. Underwood ignored him. The bouncer bulldozed through the crowd. Underwood and the girl in dreadlocks kept dancing. The white boy tried to cut back in but Underwood would not let him, so the white boy threw a punch. Underwood hit back. The bouncer—bigger than Underwood—came from behind, grabbing him by the neck. Everyone else piled on; the Big Bulge Contest erupted into war, with Mandi's two charges lost in the action. "Mom!" Mandi called as she made for the bottom of the heap, through the tangle of flying elbows and clenched fists. Debie heard her daughter above the band, the shouting, the drunks, the chorus of "oorahs" that erupted every few minutes from Marines who clanged their pitchers of beer in sloppy toasts. "Corky!" she called, and put her fingers into her mouth and whistled. Corky leaped off the counter, flying for the brawl, snapping and pawing at the bodies. "Not in my bar," Debie said as she ran with the dog into the heart of the action, diving under the mass of bodies and retrieving Mandi and the kids. In a few minutes, the party was over—the crowd had dispersed, the kids were safe, Mandi had a black eye, Debie's tip jar was overflowing with five- and ten-dollar bills, and on television, all night long, and maybe forever, there was George Bush receiving a standing ovation from Congress. As the last of the revelers headed for various desert points, the band—which included a couple of Marines who had served in World War II and Vietnam—sang the leatherneck version of "Good Night, Ladies," a parody of the original cooked up decades ago by drill sergeants at the recruiting depot in San Diego to pass on tradition to the Corpsmen of another era:

Good night, Chesty! Good night, Chesty!
Good night, Chesty—wherever you may be!
After you the Corps will roll, Corps will roll,
Corps will rooooooll,
After you the Corps will roll-on to victoreee!

Chesty was the nickname for Lewis Burwell Puller, a combat officer who was the ultimate Marine superhero, more notorious than Gimlet Eye Butler, Bigfoot Brown, or Pappy Boyington, a rough and tough bulldog who, according to legend, chased bandits in Haiti and Nicaragua, commanded the Horse Marines in Peking, battled his way from island to bloody island in the Pacific, led the landing at Inchon, and fought the most savage rearguard action in the Korean War. For a brief moment after the heady victory of the Gulf War, Marines, and through them, every citizen of America, gloried in this fine tradition, recalled with pride how the Marines had beaten the Japs at Okinawa, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, how the Marines were "the pointy tip of America's spear, out in front, kicking down the door," always the first on the battlefield, the last to leave…. Yes, maybe duty! courage! bravery! were desirable traits after all, and so every Gulf War veteran was toasted from coast to coast, honored for his service. But several months later, after they had restored order in a region of chaos, the other war, the one at home, had resumed.

  

Deanne Stillman's book Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (William Morrow) was critically acclaimed from The Washington Post to L.A. Times Book Review, which named it "one of the best books of 2001." Hunter S. Thompson called it "a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer," and it has been added to various college courses on literary nonfiction. Currently, Deanne is writing Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West for Houghton Mifflin. She also writes for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, and elsewhere, and her work is widely anthologized. More information is available on her website at www.DeanneStillman.com.
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Resources.
 
 

City of Twentynine Palms

Explore Twentynine Palms

Joshua Tree National Park

Mojave Desert California State Parks

Mojave Desert Ecosystem Program

Mojave Desert Heritage
and Cultural Association

Mojave National Preserve

Twentynine Palms Military and Civilian Overview and History

U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force Training Comman
 

 
     
 

Twentynine Palms, by Deanne Stillman.

Twentynine Palms was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001; was praised in the Washington Post, Maxim, Asian Journal, and beyond; and Hunter Thompson called it "a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer." Click here to purchase the new, updated edition.

 

    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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