The moon of the desert is just like any other, capricious. It’s there one moment, the next it’s gone, making its nightly appearance as nonchalantly and inconspicuous as possible.
But come a Bomber’s Moon, the Joshua Trees, the roadrunners and jack rabbits all dance a fiery moon dance on a pink stage painted pale with silver blue curtains in a sky suitable for a desert follies. The cactus shadows are so ridiculous and lit up, you’d swear it was the multi-colored exaggeration of a cartoon. You can hold a giant tumbleweed up into her light with only two fingers and see all the way through it, each prickly briar and twisted branch as sharp and as vivid to the eye as the thorny crown on Christ’s head.
She is a beautiful and mournful desert moon.
We would leave the house just around four in the afternoon. First making sure the jerry cans mounted to the side of the jeep were full of fresh water, we’d put on trashy old clothes, grab our coats and kiss mama goodbye. I’d always think about that movie Shane each time I’d kiss her as the fear of abandonment swelled mighty and unabashed within me.
The cold night air would bite and blow through the wing-shaped window on the passenger side of the jeep, perpetually broken and stuck in a resentful angle which shunted chards of cutting bitter air in, directly in line with our faces, our ears and noses numb by the time we arrived. The ride itself was really quite lovely. The flat, never-ending violet slabs of earth, the mountains way off in the distance like a magnificent caravan of purple-gray elephants roving the plains. But the closer we got to them, their chiseled bluffs and raw rocky ridges resembled more bloody chunks of meat turned to carrion. Ultimately, my father’s lengthy streams…oceans of consciousness would destroy the serene beauty and magic of the moment, and once again, the only thing we could think about, my brother and I, was that damned broken window.
This was our primary objective. We had a small window of time with which we would try to load up scrap aluminum into the back of the jeep. Sounds easy enough I’m sure. Who hasn’t picked up a few beer and soda cans along the road on a cool weekend afternoon to earn a little extra cash? Easy as spittin’! Well, let’s just say that in our case, it was never easy, it was never cool, and it was certainly never beer or soda pop cans.
The first time I remember ever going out to the desert with my father and brother I was just around ten. My brother Kimbo had started going out about three years before I ever had to, so that would have made him around eight his first time.
We drove quietly through the surrounding town, old banditos hawking tamales on street corners while the tiny stores closed up for the day. Once we arrived at the outskirts on the jagged plain of the desert, its vast flat floor dotted with giant alkali dry beds regretfully reflecting nothing, we sat and we waited. The bats, turning cobalt from the setting sun circled dangerously low, but were no match for my brother, loading his finger pistol, picking them off one by one, dipping dramatically, then ascending once more. Then we drove down into the dry beds, their surfaces cracked like the hands of an old man in water too long, and set up our makeshift camp. But this was all an act. A ploy if you will. We, my brother and I, once the jeep finally stopped, would immediately go to the back of the jeep and remove a burlap sack full of tin cans, which we would then line up and use as targets for shooting practice. My father brought along a .22 rifle and we would take turns cracking off a few rounds, just long enough so as to create a believable scenario, just in case anyone spotted us out there and got nosey. We’d stay there for a while, finishing off the sardines and crackers my father brought along, blowing up tin cans, until finally, my father would say the word. Waiting for a sign…waiting for her.
And then, suddenly, there she’d be! Miraculous and lovely! She was always so very beautiful. She had the face of a child, woken to a totally new and exciting world each and every day. She would look down on us, catching the glimpse of a single…solitary cactus blossom. And then, as if that single cactus blossom were enough to make and to keep her happy and content for the rest of her life, she would lift her brow, and then she would smile. And when she did, she did not only marvel at a single desert flower, she smiled, and that smile, lit up the world.
She was the misbegotten moon of a child.
Quickly, we gathered up all of the punctured aluminum cans and oily sardine tins, being very careful not to leave even a single clue as to our presence. We would keep the binoculars out for surveillance purposes. Nervous and excited, we’d scurry back into the back of the jeep, as my father gently fired her engines, careful not to rev to loudly, as it would surely roar and echo across and into the canyons.
Then even slower, and with practiced stealth, we would crawl down deeper into the depths of the desert. Up and over mountaintops, the jeep inching, at times nearly vertical to the mountains themselves, as if defying gravity. Many years later I would have this recurring nightmare. I am stuck back in the jeep, smeared up with grease and nicked and bleeding from flying sharp metal, completely perpendicular to the mountain, somehow floating. Then suddenly crashing! I would awake and recall the place and the time, but I would not believe any of it ever happened.
Once we descended from the mountains and entered the forbidden valley below, suddenly our stomachs would turn, and we would abruptly go into a state of alert only the prey of predator animals should know.
Once the headlights were killed and the engines calmed to a low purr, we were engulfed by the stillness and dark all around us. From hereon it would be flashlights only. The first time I ever went, I was told by my father to look the other way, to ignore it. I don’t know if this was done as a means of protecting me from my own overly active imagination, what for me would have surely spelled certain doom, or for morally conscious reasoning. Reason being, to render me unconscious to its morality or lack thereof. At any rate, each time we came to these dark crossroads, I would reach down into my pocket and pull out my flashlight. I would hold it straight up and out the broken window and the white beam would naturally gravitate to its exact position. In bleached out, military stencil, the sign read;
This is a military Installation
Warning; Impact Area
We would creep along the hogbacks of the dry desert floor, hi-beam, hand-held flashlights like white arms reaching out and over the rocky terrain, feeling our way like blind men, crawling like crabs. One false turn would mean disaster. We could just as easily fall two hundred feet down a deep gorge of mountain, thrown against its jagged sides like a tiny toy truck as we could move a single inch. Our minds were trip wires and a single fly lighting on an eyebrow could cause a much regretted and even fatal error, that is, if we weren’t alert as we were, to even flies.
Once down into the open belly of the valley, now miles away from the highway and our makeshift shooting gallery, we were faced with two major obstacles. First, there was time. We had approximately three hours to get the job down and to get out. And second,
And much more importantly, The United States Marine Corps.
Heavy gauged aluminum at that time was going for around twenty-seven cents a pound, which was a pretty good price. I we could manage somehow to get around a ton, it would be a pretty good pay-off. When profits were finally divvied out, I usually came away with around fifty bucks and Kombo would get around seventy-five. I never was all too good at mathematics, but I knew that a tube of butter split three ways, was enough for everyone’s cornbread. Now, if a ton sounds like a lot, then you would be correct. But remember, like I said before, we’re not talking about beer and soda pop here.
If you, if anyone, could just see, firsthand, the incredible capabilities of even a single bomb, you’d be truly amazed! I once stood at the rim of a bomb blast in the middle of the desert that formed a crater larger than my high school football stadium. And there are all sorts of different types of bombs, which through the years, I learned a great deal about. There was what was called Cluster Bombs, which when dropped from above, released five hundred smaller dart-like bombs, and could destroy an entire city block. There was something called Iron tails, which upon impact, released deadly shrapnel. Pop bombs, smaller explosive devices used for smaller targets like trucks and/or cars and Dragon tails, five hundred pound dummy bombs. All of these bombs were either entirely or partially constructed of heavy gauged aluminum and steel. Once detonated, their twisted alloy carcasses were either left out of the desert to be eaten alive b y the earth’s ravenous alkali, or to be dismantled and hauled away by desert rats, my father, my brother and me. Some of the bombs had massive wing-like units mounted onto them, which would act as guiding mechanisms and could direct the bombs into certain and very specific targets. These were the ones we wanted most, as the fins to the guiding systems were solid hi-gauged aluminum and weighed close to seventy-five pounds each. Enough complete sets of these and we would have a full load in no time. Complete sets were, however, unusual and very difficult to find, as the explosives tended to destroy the guiding mechanisms upon impact, twisting the aluminum wings, half an inch thick, into incomprehensible shapes and sizes.
When I first started going out with them, I remember my father had us both picking up the shell casings of spent copper ammunition. But that was back when copper was worth scrapping and could fetch a fairly decent price. Back then, at first that is, it was, for my brother and me, somewhat of a game. We loved the excitement and the clandestine nature of it, and Kimbo and I would race each other to see who could load up the tiny penny colored shells the fastest. Of course, Kimbo always won, as I spent most of my time rubbing my eyes raw from the dry hot desert winds and gunpowder from the copper casings.
“Never ever go any further than twenty yards away from the jeep!” My father would repeatedly warn us. This was the one safety measure he insisted on, in the case we were ever spotted by the marines, we could then make a beeline for the jeep and race out of the dark and blasted bomb drop area. Kimbo and me would carry the jagged-edged and extremely heavy aluminum back to the jeep and try to arrange it all into some twisted and mangled geometry, while often, my father would stand on the hood of the jeep with the binoculars and keep look out for marines. Kimbo, obsessed with all things military, would call out to our father while we cradled the aluminum between us, “all clear General Rommel?” My father, turning 360 degrees, surveying the vast panoramic vistas would respond, “All systems clear soldiers…carry on!” There was however, the time things did not quite go as planned.
We were, what with the constant prodding of my father’s verbal mule whip, way ahead of schedule and had about an hour before we would have to drop everything and get out. The marines started bombing usually around ten o’clock at night, so if we were careful, swift, and made proper use of our time, we could have a complete load and be a couple miles up the public highway with our shock absorbers weighing heavy come midnight..
Kimbo and I were just about finished digging a complete set of Iran tail fins out of the hard ground when suddenly we heard something. Our ears turned suddenly much colder than they ever were before. We heard something far away, in the distance. Then we realized, and without a doubt, that it was most definitely some sort of aircraft. The wind whipped up and around our ears as we turned to my father mounted atop the jeep. He held the binoculars up to his eyes with his left hand and with his right, motioned for us both to be still and very quiet. We froze and did not move a muscle, our eyes wide and black. Then, once again, all was quiet save the wind, so we chocked it up to a far away echo rumbling through a canyon or the savage cries of a bobcat ripping into a kill. We looked to our father for the cue to resume our work. But then, just as we started digging, out of nowhere and streaking across the sky, an F-15 fighter jet’s scream heralded its ominous approach as our ears collapsed resoundingly with its thunder. I fell face first into the hole and onto the cold metal belly of the bomb, my cheek flush with it, my mouth now bleeding and full of dirt. Quickly I turned my face upward, just in time to see an electric streak blaze across and into the black ink of the sky. Then, looking up from the hole, I saw Kimbo standing right at the edge of it, completely straight, his mouth agape and astonished. I didn’t know what to do next. But before my next thought could even reach my shattered brain, thankfully blood and adrenaline getting there first, another fighter tore across the sky, cutting a deep slit there, piercing my eardrums once more. I slowly stood, my ears full of sand and static, and for some unforeseeable reason, reached down and began pulling at the bomb again. Neither of us thinking, Kimbo jumped down and into the hole with me, and together we finally managed to get the fins off of the bomb, up and out of the hole. Standing stiff as statues, holding the seventy-five pound fins between us, suddenly the ground shook from a horrifying boom, and all at once, our eyes turned ablaze, as a jet fighter launched into an all-out barrage of fire against some target just on the other side of the hill from where we stood. Luckily then, finally, we snapped out of it. We dropped the metal to the ground, and ran like mad back to the jeep. When we got there, a sudden chill overcame us. My father was gone. Out of breath, we looked around, surveying the immediate area, when we realized the he, my father, had broken his own cardinal rule, and as far as the eye could see, was nowhere to be found.
And then it happened.
Approximately half a mile away, up near a hillside embankment, an old service truck set out by the marines for target practice, which earlier Kimbo and I had been playing on, became just that. Again, suddenly the F-15’s appearing out of nowhere, and just as easily and effortlessly as swatting an insect, strafed the landscape with fire and shell, instantly demolishing the otherwise full-size truck, as if it were a fly. With the inferno raging in my petrified eyes and the charred stench of rubber tires, I immediately started thinking about our shooting gallery earlier that day. I never liked shooting guns, that was my father’s and Kimbo’s thing. Guns always scared me. But now, I started thinking about the bullets and the tin cans, comparing them to what I saw now.
Neither Kimbo nor I knew what to do next. Neither of us could drive, though given the circumstances, I’m certain our improvisational skills would have been quite impressive and we were both prepared to drive the jeep ourselves.
Then far away in the distance, I saw something, somebody. It was my father and he was running for his life. He was so far away I could barely see him. He blended into the blue sand as if a tiny grain himself. When he finally made it to the jeep, he jumped in, slammed it into gear and immediately turned on the headlights. My father had hoped the pilots would somehow see the beams, and the bombing would miraculously cease and desist.
We flew across the mountains, gorges and cliffs like they were nothing at all. I looked back and I could see pieces of the demolished truck sprawled everywhere. Some of the pieces were still on fire and from a distance looked like tiny gutted fireflies. I quickly turned away and looked at Kimbo and my father. They both had a dead cold flatness in their eyes, but their skin was shining and strangely alive.
Once we were out and onto the open highway, safe from getting caught in a place where we were not supposed to be, not to mention annihilated, I sat in the back darkness of the jeep and I started thinking. I thought about a lot of things. I thought about how dangerous and how stupid it was to be doing what we were doing. I thought about Sodom and Gomorrah and that woman who disobeyed God and turned around. I wanted to turn around and look back. I looked out the front window of the jeep, through the immediate carnage of dead mosquitoes and crickets, and I lost myself in the purple, celestial sky. But I could not resist. I turned slowly and watched the varying degrees of purple turn from red to orange and finally into pale yellow. Turning, I looked up into the sky behind me, and directly into her face. I looked at her cool and indifferent smile tilted toward the earth and I realized that not only was she the beautiful moon of the desert, and the innocent face of a child, but she was also a burning torch of a murdering people, and that the same light which lit up the ground for us below, was the same light that guided magnificent killing machines above. She was also a bomber’s moon.