On the Way to Disneyland
As I remember the Mojave, it was so rough and arid, with garish reds, blacks, and yellows highlighting grays and browns, it seemed more dreamlike than real. As did all of California for that matter, including the smooth, brushy hills of Camp Pendleton. The West, the land of opportunity. Go west, young man. Okay. I did that and found mirages.
My battalion’s 12 days at 29 Palms taught us how to function on jagged ridges, in sand, on hard lava, among cacti and scratchy brush, under pale blue sky and sun so bright it tricked our vision, the daytime air scorching, dry, windy, rasping, the night air chilling. Despite the military’s obsession with order, the tents we put up made ragged lines because the stakes, driven into the sand’s loose heart, weren’t stable. The shelter-halves we snapped together into an elastic shell flapped as if they might fly. Nomadic. We wondered if our burrows would be there upon our return whenever we marched off and lost sight of them.
For live-fire exercises, we’d hike to distant locations, load our weapons, and with mortars attack hills as if we were angry at them simply because they existed—duplicating, i.e. aping, the way most white settlers approached the wilderness they “discovered” in America. Once, spread out on-line attacking a hill, my company hit the deck while mortars pounded the earth ahead of us. We’d luckily dropped into the ruts of an old road so the shrapnel whined past us overhead. The coordinates given were short. Seemingly, chance kept our attack from slaughtering ourselves. As a platoon runner I happened to be on hand when the regimental commander observing that assault braced one of our more immediate leaders: “Those mortar rounds came down too close.” My Captain answered, “Sir, our men need to experience real combat conditions.” Which meant it wasn’t a mistake that we almost killed ourselves.
The lesson I learned: you play with fire, you can easily get burned.
The cooks set up a field mess under large tents at our campsite. Our packs carried C-rats that we ate farther afield. The best of our menus? Yummy baked beans and wieners, pound cake, peaches in juice, coffee heated over Sterno with powdered cream and sugar if we wanted to be sweet. While our stomachs wrestled with the preservatives that were dumped into our food, we’d suck on after-lunch smokes to relax, Camel or Lucky Strike (free fags in the C-rats with nicotine so strong many troops became hooked). Puffing away, we’d lie down in whatever shade we could find and stare up at the deep sky to contemplate the torturing years of enlistment that lay ahead of us (over 3 more years in my case).
One time I lounged in shade beneath a tall, thorny bush when a man in my fireteam screamed and rolled madly away into the sun. We looked where his finger pointed above us: a huge diamond back rattler. It looked 20 feet long but was probably just seven. We left it untouched and moved away to watch it bask, stretched out on the branches. No one, not even those most afraid of snakes, wanted to kill it. We understood why it relaxed there, hanging in the tree of knowledge. There was a kinship between us.
Sidewinders we never saw, but they patrolled around us at night. We’d see their signs, the back-and-forth ess-trails that circled our tents some mornings. Tarantulas and scorpions? There were enough of them to develop the habit of shaking our boots upside down before we put them on. Those critters could leave ankles, feet and toes so sore, you’d have a hard time walking. Because we couldn’t keep them out of our tents, we’d lay there at night while their possible sting or bite became a nagging worry. With a coyote’s accompaniment, the Native North American trickster howling, we realized how far out of our element we were, then dreamt of swimming naked with sharks at the western end of the desert.
Saturday our last weekend there, a truck loaded with cases of beer cans pulled up to the mess tents and dropped its tailgate. Surprise introduction to Hams, Pabst, and Coors. Most of us underage, everyone happy to have the diversion, the older Marines laughing, though, telling us children it was only three-two (3.2 percent), only a hint of real beer. “Ain’t no alcohol in that shit,” a sergeant said. We noticed, though, that all the noncoms drank it.
It was also unrefrigerated, but we novices guzzled the semi-hot stuff anyway, diverting ourselves after 11 days of sweating from our expedition into abnormal living. It smelled like beer, looked like beer, tasted like beer, meaning just as I’d imagined beer tasted. And it had the desired effect. We danced around, screamed, and fights broke out. Macbeth had said something I didn’t like weeks ago. His looks and manner antagonized me. Something had been lurking in my internal gray desert, waiting to spring onto him and attack. I applied a headlock, wrestled him down, rolled around insulting him, let him up, and we exchanged a few punches. He was four inches taller, with longer arms and heavy fists that left a few welts and bruises on my face. We never become friends, but we’d nod in passing. He had learned my secret: a sinister self.
The party was a prelude. The next day a padre arrived. I confessed only to overindulging, then attended mass with men in uniforms of every stripe, Jews, atheists, Christians, all agnostics more than believers, I sensed. Kneeling in the sand made the ritual seem simply human and much older than Catholicism. The sermon was, I think, about completing our march home, about giving our all, about sticking together, about brotherhood, about the example we’d start setting the next day. He didn’t mention the carrot dangling in front of us, the four-day next weekend reward at the end of our rainbow, after clean-up and inspections back in our barracks.
What we were going to do was something to be proud of, he told us, unnecessarily. We were already proud. Marching from desert to sea was unique. Most pansy-assed civilians had never done it. We were hardened exiles returning to the land of milk and honey after fasting and atoning in an earthly hell. The brass had made announcements, inviting California if not the whole nation to watch our march as an athletic event, a championship game. Before attempting the 150 miles in 5 days, we were already proud of showing off for the white-bread eating crowd. It’d be a public relations coup for the Corps and, we assumed, a personal triumph for us.
This thinking seemed wrong-headed somehow, but my subconscious dealt with that. I obsessed instead on practical memories of the two 50-mile-in-a-day forced marches we’d done weeks apart in full gear at Camp Pendleton. Like everyone else, I remembered the extra early starts and late finishes, 3 or 4 AM to 9 or 10 PM. Also fatigue, blisters, and strained muscles. We knew that what was coming was not a romantic excursion.
We spoke enthusiastically, but stowed in our seabags, which we’d receive back from trucks at each night’s bivouac, all the guts we could take from our weapons without revealing their inoperable state; our bayonet; all clothing except for two pairs of socks, one pair of skivvies; rubber lady; poncho; sleeping bag; anything unnecessary. Our backpacks would carry mostly air but still look full. You might say we were trying to pack away our fears. We knew that we were already tired from desert training, restless sleep, and yesterday’s binge.
Our desperation to prove ourselves morphed into urgency. It was a transfusion of emotion that bled down to us from The Colonel, who led our two columns forward the next morning. Back at Pendleton’s Camp Marguerita, his speech on the grinder extolled the need for infantry units to travel quickly long distances by foot and arrive at the end in good enough shape to defeat an enemy. History had proven that, said this man, and he knew we had the ability to do it.
He was a living relic, a veteran of Korea and WWII, including Iwo Jima. His reasoning about doing this 150-mile march convinced us that completing it would place us with him in the pantheon of the greatest warriors ever. During the march he reinforced our dedication, joining us grunts in portable showers erected at the end of every day’s march. Under the water we saw the bandages on his heels, the scar on his chest where he’d lost a lung, the sagging age he carried.
We followed that old man enthusiastically on tire paths in the desert, then on worn dirt paths parallel to paved roads. Realities surfaced at once, dispelling our illusions quickly. A familiar rhythm developed: rushing forward, slowing down, etc. The straps of packs and rifles rubbed sores under our arms, around shoulders and on our back. Together, the dirt and our sweat scraped the skin raw. Thirst began within an hour, and with it our tendency to over-drink from the 400-gallon water buffalos positioned every few miles on our route. Until sweat drained the swilled liquid, we’d feel bloated and hear the water sloshing around inside ourselves. A few placid moments of normality followed, then thirst, and the cycle repeated.
Our uneven and shifting footsteps in loose soil distributed our weight awkwardly, producing strains, then an aching that gradually spread from our feet, up our legs into our hips, our back, our neck, even our arms. Our eyes wouldn’t water in the dry air and hurt. As the miles piled up, our efforts transformed into an involuntary reflex like sleepwalking. We plodded on coma-like. Our pains dropped into a part of the mind that we couldn’t access. The body seemed outside, separate, disconnected from our thoughts.
Escaping the sand on day two, we welcomed the more solid earth, but we also reached the public roads and the first spectators. A few of us did occasionally wave and say something nice to them, but that took energy we didn’t want to waste. Far off, directly ahead to the west above the long straight road loomed something unbelievable: a huge dark bank of clouds. For hours I imagined the coolness a storm might bring, but soon I was worrying over the possible complications of wind and lightning, heavy, saturating downpours. Recalling stories of flashfloods in the desert, I sank into doldrums appropriate to the darkness of day’s end.
The third day our urgency and fatigue combined and turned into anger. The herky-jerky expansions and contractions of our progress became maddening. We sometimes yelled at the people ahead to slow down or speed up although we knew there was no logical reason to blame anyone. We barked and snapped at each other, unhappy with collisions, holdups, large intervals between us we had to make up, the quality of the sandwiches, the tasteless water, the smokes at noon break. Nothing pleased us. We sulked and the anger grew. Which was good. Anger spewed adrenaline through us and we nursed on it because it renewed our vigor.
Honking horns became a bother. The closer we got to that slow-moving bank of storm clouds, the greater the number of spectators grew along the roads. These people were vocal, offering what they meant to be encouragement. Cameras flashed taking pictures. Occasional vans with markings indicated news agencies. Teenagers ran alongside, keeping up with us. We tried to remain aloof and looked away, passing them mutely.
About the same time, reaching the presence of homes confounded the situation. Houses and shacks were mostly without shrubbery, garage, or much of a driveway, nothing to brag about and maybe just cottages people visited occasionally. Even houses made out of bottles, two I think I remember. Observed in the right mood, they’d have impressed me as clever, the making of something useful out of trash, something pretty, certainly unusual. Now they seemed to be stunts and oddities. Ironic too, and mocking. Glass was a product of sand, wasn’t it? These processed silicon pieces glittered so they hurt my eyes. Worse, we’d been free to relieve our physical needs, then run catching up with our assigned positions. An audience hindered that.
Aggravation! Those eyes seemed to watch us the way people stared at monkeys and gorillas in the zoo. Eruption. For a few moments our lines gestured and yelled insults. Some of us gave the middle finger to the world. A few guys urinated in the open, exposing themselves. Noncoms and officers immediately ran between our columns screaming, threatening to punish us for any obscene comment or gesture. They’d cancel our promised liberty, impose captain’s mast, even court martial. The Bastards! It never occurred to me that some of the people watching us might be our leaders’ relatives and friends. Our bodies moved on as if they were a costume we wore. The real us retreated inside.
During this period of exhaustion, a trick of light produced a vision that amazed me. We were in the gloaming, with the sun itself down out of sight but its rays shining above through the storm clouds I’d seen ahead. “It’s a mountain,” I said aloud, laughing, perceiving the outline of two or three peaks that we’d nearly reached. “Big Bear Mountain,” the guy across from me said. “We probably got to climb over it tomorrow.” That made the relief I’d felt plunge toward despair. I couldn’t climb a steep mountain. Wait a second. No, that guy was wrong. The trucks that carried us to the Mojave had circled it. The ocean lay somewhere beyond it. There wasn’t enough time left to climb it.
We didn’t know the mileage we’d achieved nor the mileage left. The fourth day we did almost entirely the rest of the march. Hectic and hallucinatory, it took us past pain and exhaustion. I could concentrate only on constantly moving. When we stopped for a break, I crashed into sleep. Then up and at it again. How many times this cycle repeated is uncertain. I can’t tell you if we entered Pendleton at day’s end. We were too tired to wonder or ask. We didn’t know where we were. We simply ate, showered, and slept. The next morning, the last day, we started later than our marching had started on the other days. Barbers were available. We washed up, shaved, brushed off our boots, and put on the starched utility uniform we’d been ordered to pack in our seabags two weeks before.
Despite fatigue, positive energy rushed through me. Almost done! We covered a few miles on a dirt path, then veered onto a paved road. Marching on it seemed novel, a luxury. Was this Pendleton? Maybe we’d passed through a gate that I hadn’t noticed. Landmarks appeared, hills we’d climbed and descended in previous training exercises. We passed an obstacle course we’d run several times, were called to attention, put into lines of four, and platoon leaders marched us forward counting cadence. Ahead of us a band began playing and took the lead. Our temporary home. The music echoed between the Fifth Marines’ stucco barracks. Quonset huts, mess hall, PX ,and theater came into view. Sousa was playing, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
There was a cursory inspection, then liberty, so the exercise was completed. But not over. Extended stress stays with you. It became part of me physically, of course, but also mentally and spiritually. It became part of my identity.
Riding on a train north to LA, three friends and I finally saw the ocean. Our long march had not actually reached the sea, and we were again Jonahs in the belly of a huge animal, not the Marine Corps this time but powerful engines on rails. Padded seats cushioned our weight pleasurably. Real earthen surfaces were so much harder. This was civilization with a capital C.
I was reading a short newspaper account of our march from desert to sea. It had, I believe, a picture of Marines in two columns near a two-lane road where people stood next to parked cars, watching the troops. The arid landscape surrounded them all. When a conductor came for our tickets, I asked if he’d heard about Marines marching 150 miles from the Mojave to the ocean in 5 days. Yeah, it was on the TV news, he said, but he didn’t believe it. That was a whole lot of miles. The Marines were all the time saying things to make themselves look good. I showed him the story and its picture. No sir, he said, he still didn’t believe it. That picture could come from anywhere. Who knows who those men are or how far they walked?
We didn’t become angry. We didn’t argue. We didn’t show him our blisters and other sores from the march. We all had them. We laughed and said things like “You got that right.” He had his illusions and we had ours. One thing we knew for sure, though, was what we’d done.
When he left us, we passed around the vodka we’d illegally bought in the city of Oceanside. A pint wasn’t much for four people, but it wasn’t three-two percent alcohol, and we were kids, inexperienced drinkers, so it put us in a mood and relaxed us even more. Pictures of fabled places scrolled through my mind: Union Station, Olvera Street, Chinatown, Hollywood, Grauman’s Chinese theater, Disneyland. I’d seen them all in still photos and movies. They’d be a relief, but I knew they’d be different from what I imagined. Plus, after being there, I’d probably remember them different from what they really were. Wasn’t that the nature of being alive? A kind of coming and going, knowing and forgetting, imagining the past, but changing the facts here and there no matter how accurate you try to be.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town, and his poems, stories, and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including As You Were: The Military Review, Good Works Review, Bull, and CHA: An Asian Literary Journal.