Marine Base Alchemy
At the entrance of 29 Palms Marine Base in the Mojave, a man hands me a plastic orange card and a bottle of water as I find my seat on a bus next to my neighbors. We all live at the border of the base. Out the window, I watch the dusty red landscape, bitten by the sun, roll out behind us. There is no specific reason for the tour of the base; it was arranged by a neighbor and we were invited. Most of us simply want to see what is beyond the borderline. The base is mysterious, but part of our daily lives—the sides of our houses shake as test bombs are dropped and fighter planes fly low over our yards.
The card tells us:
TEN COMMANDMENTS OF SURVIVAL IN THE DESERT WHEN LOST OR STRANDED
- HOLD ON TO A SURVIVAL ATTITUDE.
- STAY WHERE YOU ARE—STAY CALM.
- MOVE ONLY WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY AND ONLY AT NIGHT.
- CONSERVE YOUR SWEAT. NOT YOUR WATER.
- PROTECT YOUR BODY.
- MAKE A FUSS WHEN YOU HEAR OR SEE OTHERS NEARBY.
- DO NOT EAT ANYTHING!
- KEEP YOUR MOUTH CLOSED.
- THINK LIKE A SEARCHER.
- USE YOUR HEAD. NOT YOUR SWEAT; DRINK THE WATER YOU HAVE.
Our first stop is the IED training station. It is in a place where the wind blows wild. But today, the air is still. Sun and only sun touches our eyes, cheeks, neck, and shoulders. The back of my legs will turn pink by the afternoon.
Inside the trailer, we have our first lecture of the day. Do not pick anything up off the ground. IEDs can be made with almost anything. The Marine shows us an IV bag and tube. You see it on the ground, you might want to pick it up. But it is a bomb masquerading as a life-saving device.
“There are soft targets and hard targets—you want to be a hard target,” the commander tells us. A hard target is protected. Ironclad. Armed with a situational awareness, a defense plan. A soft target is vulnerable. At the mercy of all existing risks. As I sit in my chair staring at the drawings on the white board, I wonder which I am, which I should choose to be.
As we move outside, visitors with toeless shoes are told to stay close to the tour leader. I assume this is to prevent the rare incidence of snake bite. But snakes do not burrow next to bombs. Wearing only sandals, I am a marked maiden. Today, I’ll learn to win all the battles, skipping over the soft sand. Step in the wrong place and a no-fire IED designed for training (a device that releases only fast tight air) might blow up around your foot. Knowing that bombs like feet, I think of trading mine in for territory. I can do without feet for walking today, for one moment of glory.
A veteran tells me a story:
It’s desert training. We drop a guy off at this spot, next to nowhere. He’s supposed to wait for the tank to pick him up again at the end of the day. Somehow, we forget to pick him up. When we come back, a couple days later, he’s gone. We found him, his body, on the road to Ludlow. Never made it to Ludlow.
If he’d stayed where we left him, he could have made a sunshade between rocks with his T-shirt. Should have known. Should have known.
Would have found him. Alive.
I turn the sun dial, changing the orientation of light and shadow:
The lost soldier approaches me on the side of the road.
Are you real? I ask.
Just a shadow. Left my body in the heat. They’ll find it when they remember.
Where do you want to go?
Where I come from. They forgot me, but I was forgotten the day I was born. That’s how I ended up here. It didn’t take much for my shadow to separate from my body and my soul to fly away into the night. They think I’m prettier as a pile of bones anyhow.
I’m on the white bus, rolling down a long road between the base headquarters and an invisible city, intersected by a road to nowhere. The low tank engines rumbling in the distance seeps through the bus windows. Voices scratch on the other end of the radio. Bus wheels turn, turn, turn until we reach a gravel road. A tanker passes us. And another. We ease off the pavement, making our way down the ravine. We are alone now, and go on for a long time.
Eventually we pull off and walk to the mirage we’ve come to see. A condo complex for tortoises. Like tents, long nets cover nearly an acre of land divided into small patches complete with burrows and native grasses for each resident tortoise. They are endangered as soon as they crawl out of their eggs, so they are quarantined here, protected from predators and bomb fire, making eggs and eating kale until the circumference of their shells reaches a certain girth, until they become hard targets, which takes years. We walk through the maze of white walls rising a foot off the ground. Small tortoises peer out of burrows, sticking wrinkled necks forward to greet us. Ancient eyes comb tall, two-legged beings. Who knows what they see.
The scientist directing the project tells us that in a hot year, the young will almost all be born female. So even though they are protecting young tortoise lives, there may not be new desert tortoises to protect in the future if the temperatures continue to stay high. Is this the way we’ll all go, driven to our species’ death by heat? Perhaps the tortoises are making a quiet choice to stop having babies, as they feel the vibrations of bombs rattling through the ground like a thousand tiny earthquakes stirring the shells of their young.
The scientist reaches down and hands me a tortoise, one that watched me from the shadow of its condo wall. Its shell is patterned with translucent shades of mossy green and brown. We laugh as its legs paddle through the air.
And what if the heart remains soft? The scientist says the mothers will leave their nest of babies after a few months to make a new nest. A fox could watch a mother tortoise come and go from her dugout for weeks, taking note of the entrances and exits. It’s a risk for the tortoise to leave her young, but eventually she has to walk away and begin again.
On the bus, someone asks if the soldiers stay in bunkers. The tour guide tells us that instead of bunkers, the soldiers now have modern rooms, like hotels, with private sleeping quarters and four walls. Since they designed these new accommodations, the rate of PTSD has gone up. In the past, after returning from a war zone, soldiers would spend a few months together, living in the close quarters of bunkers. They would talk and dream and cry and laugh and scream together. Like family. But now, they are separate. Alone. They have no choice but to go inside themselves.
And then, one Sunday morning, tears well up and laughter begins to heave through the body, cries dance between the ribs and broken spine. They change colors like the lizard. They build a burrow like the tortoise, hoping no one and everyone will leave them alone.
As we drive from the tortoise sanctuary back to the base center, the tour guide points to a city on a hill. I realize the silhouette is familiar. I’ve seen it in the distance while taking long drives or sitting on my porch. I have thought of it as a mythical city, always longed for, but never found. It rises out of the faraway sand, a raised cluster of muted colors forming a small city skyline. One cannot tell how high the buildings rise or how far north you’d have to go to find them. But I believe people have lived, loved, and died there, people who wanted to get away from everything. I believe they have prayed together and taken motor bikes through a nearly endless dry lake bed laughing in a cloud of dust—delighted and afraid of everything and nothing. I want to know the way in, to find the invisible road, but most days, I’m content to gaze at the muted colors and believe this story is true.
The guide tells us the city is a training center for urban warfare. The buildings exist for fake shooting, fake saving, fake running with machine guns. For fake taking hostages, for fake being taken hostage. Running through tunnels. Play at saving lives so you know how to do it when you get to the true city where there will be blood.
They tell us that the city contains some of tallest buildings in this part of the desert. Five stories, beating out all the bank towers down the hill.
Later, I will look at a job search website and find a listing for employment at the base: Actors needed. Indigenous people. Must speak indigenous language. Must be ready to be taken hostage. Must be ready to suffer PTSD.
What does this mean? Indigenous to where? I imagine these are the people who will fill the invisible city.
The tanks shot up in training exercises are sold for parts. Sell the part of you that speaks the indigenous language. Sell it for pennies on the dollar.
The city must be filled with ghosts who carry on as though they are living. Fill the windows with silhouettes. Provide the screams. Ring the emergency bells.
No one goes there unless it is a fake fight.
The joke is on you.
The last stop on the tour is the recycling center. I imagine piles of crushed aluminum cans and mountains of plastic bottles. The director meets us at the entrance. The alchemist. His skin is taut from decades in the sun. He wears a gray Raiders long-sleeved T-shirt and faded jeans. I notice he is not wearing sunglasses, even though he works in the bright light all day. I imagine the pain of his eyes, but notice they are the color of sand and decide they have adapted to the environment.
Brass bullets, mortar shells, bombed out buses—they all need to be recycled. The metals are worth millions and are sold to contractors, to metallurgy casting plants. He tells us his staff of six sit on aluminum piles and shell brass bullets like peas. Crush steel like apples at the press. Make sandwiches from lead pipes. Make martyrs out of women and men. Let tanks become wild horses rearing up against time.
He gives each of us two brass balls made from ammunition shells. A token of Marine base alchemy. “Are they lucky?” I ask. “They are if you want them to be,” he says.
“We snap brass peas all day,” he says. They don’t taste like peas, but nearly equal their weight in gold. Smiling to himself, the director boasts, “They say I’m crazy.” “They” must be the ones who stop by for a moment and watch the alchemist work under the sun. One hundred and seventeen degrees will make all of us crazy. The heat coming off the aluminum melting machine raises the temperature to seventeen hundred degrees. The aluminum melts into batter and is poured into giant pans. We see it, still hot, shimmering like cake for the gods or for your soon-to-be-dead soldier. How about that. It’s all the horror, I mean humor, I can take.
Crushed buses can be found in a pile, a fraction of their original size. Once they are bombed out, shot through during training, they come here. Practice, practice, practice. The real bus will be carrying sons, daughters, mothers, brothers, fathers, grandmothers. Pushed to the ground by the explosion, your aunt will weep new bullets into the sand.
A small crumpled plane sits in front of the pile. The director says it dove straight into the ground during a crash landing.
“Was someone killed?” I ask.
“Not in this one.”
“So, there was someone who was killed?”
“Not in this one.”
They have no word for what happened to the person who once flew this tiny, crushed plane.
Darkness starts to settle. We hear the familiar rumbling in the distance and know that bomb practice has begun and it is time for us to leave. We drive out, shedding tears inside, only for ourselves, only for the beauty.
We go back to our lives as neighbors of the invisible city. Back to washing pots and pans, hanging our laundry to dry in the sun, getting up, going to bed. Birthing and dying.
The desert is sand and wind and ocean bed at once. We are here, just being. I sit on my porch at sunset and look out at the invisible city in the distance, trying to remember the myth I once told myself.
Think like a searcher, the orange survival card told us.
I find the two brass balls in my bag and put them on my altar, a dark oak antique bureau where I set talismans for prayers and gifts from the desert—orchids, stones, a tuft of white alpaca fur from shearing day, a translucent snake skin, a card that says protection, and a photo of light pouring through pines from a journey I took to spread the ashes of my closest friend in a high mountain lake.
And I think of the turtles walking away from their nests, prayers rising from the invisible city, the alchemist’s eyes turning the color of sand, and the ghost I met on the road to Ludlow, shadow separated from body, walking until sleep finds him without a song for waking. Gone before I can ask how one becomes a hard target.
Photographs taken by and provided courtesy of author, with permission of 29 Palms Marine Base.