Antonio and I cruise the desert of our childhood like time stopped a decade ago, with the windows rolled down. I would have been in my last year of high-school and when you are young the blinders are turned on hard.
I never noticed so many people wandering the streets of my home-town before, but I assured myself that they had always been there. Some of the strangest people in southern California reside in Palmdale, a refuge from the inner city of Los Angeles. It is always a mix where the flat middle class intersects with the poor and everyone of every background lives together in stucco houses mass produced between the middle 1980’s and the late 1990’s.
When I was young I watched the city grow from a one stop-light desert community to the small metropolis it is today, Palmdale grew with me. The only notables that I ever knew crawled out from under those desert rocks were Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, both were young men influenced by European Avante Guard music and for some reason I can’t get this useless fact out of my head because it makes the most sense of any analysis I have ever heard about this desert.
Tumbleweeds blow, on the outskirts the farmers still work their alfalfa, the suburban police helicopter takes flight at night to find someone doing the same, a pool-hall is still a good place to get stabbed on a Friday but there is something I miss very much from this community I left to heal some time ago. People seem themselves in the desert, or they are more like me than where I reside in green Oregon.
Antonio and I are going to end our cruise in a trailer park to visit our friend Jerral. We had not seen Jerral since a fourth of July party my parents hosted before Antonio and I took off to film our documentary. If there is one place in America that is looked down on by even the most progressive; it is the trailer park. As we pull in the children are riding bikes, they look as innocent as any others so we take care not to run them over, like any others. We park and enter Jerral’s home.
He tells us it is good to see us, the fish tank humming in his living room; a beep from some other machine, the television is on and set to cartoons, Jerral’s children will be home soon. Antonio and I take a seat so that we can begin shooting the shit. Jerral says, “Man, I haven’t been out of here since the fourth of July.” My heart sinks but it is now very important to listen to every word my friend tells me, because he has had all of this time to think, almost six months solitary.
ask him why he has not been able to leave the trailer? He explains that his van is still being worked on, something about the wiring. Jerral sits in his chair. Jerral and I returned to the same community, in the same year of 2007 after our war. I remember how slow everything seemed to me, so Antonio and I began a television commercial production business, but every week I would get the jack-rabbit in my blood and I needed to get out to see something big.
We would usually go to Las Vegas, only a four hour drive. All I could think about was the war at the time and I was very curious to learn how to shake those feelings of darkness. I would try to drink them away, or get away, I would have crawled out of my skin if I could but the reasons are too deep to explain.
Jerral never had that option, no Vegas lights and no hopping in the car to make a bad decision. He had joined the Army and became a tanker. I was a Marine infantryman and our connection is made through my father who had also been an Army tanker. Jerral and his tank commander were happy to be at the front of their convoy, they had volunteered for the dangerous duty. The people who detonate a roadside bomb like to hit the first vehicle in a convoy because it traps the other vehicles in the kill-zone to an ambush.
My fight had been in 2004 and house to house, I had always thought to myself how much I preferred that fighting to what later became a convoy war fought through roadside bombs. The waiting during a convoy was always the worst part; crammed into a small space with too much gear for hours on end, maybe your burning coffin, I could hear an explosion that had not caught up to me yet. On Jerral’s 21st birthday his explosion caught up to him.
The 21st birthday is what the young enlisted man lives for, the day he can finally have a legal drink, maybe to escape from the previous years and tax that being a warrior becomes, or maybe because young people like to drink. I remember that it was a constant fear of mine to be killed before my 21st birthday.
Jerral was stuck in or to the driver’s seat, the tank’s turret needed to be rotated 180 degrees before he could be removed and many had written the driver off as dead. Antonio and I sit and listen to Jerral recall it, a half hour spent cooking consciously until it all went black. His left arm was burned so bad that it required three amputations and a severed spine leaves him paralysed with some basic function in his right arm.
The scars cover the left side of his body and the tattoo’s on his right side, one of a tank, another the crest of his unit the famous horse head of the 1st Cavalry Division (1st Cav). As if the story could not get harder, Jerral speaks of his wife who ran away with an Army ex-buddy of his, she left her children with Jerral, who manned up in a wheelchair and remains a proud pillar of father-ship. He explains that sometimes the young beautiful children don’t listen to him and there is nothing he can do from the chair except wait for his mother to come home so that control can be maintained. I ask Jerral about the van, his only escape to the outside world and he explains that the guy working on it since shortly after the fourth of July stopped returning his phone calls a month ago. If Jerral is down at all it is hard to notice, there is an inner strength that glows, his eyes are steel and his position remains something not negative. As if to say, what can I do about it?
An anger washes over me and embarrassment; how could it possibly be that this man on a very short list of other paralysed vets who gave just short of the ultimate sacrifice under service to the taxpayers of his homeland, taxpayers who sent Jerral across the world to get blown up.
When we went to visit Jerral a couple of days later he signed off by saying, “I’ll be here man.” When I left Jerral to return to Oregon I felt the ribbed plastic on the key between my fingers; and the desert air in my hair, I felt the fabric of the driver’s chair and sat down. I pulled the switch on the shifter and moved it to reverse, gave it some gas and backed up, I moved the shifter to drive, gave it some gas and went home.
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