We climbed onto the Greyhound with some trepidation. It was dusk as my brother Sidney and I started our journey from downtown San Diego over to Yuma. Mom’s last admonition was, “Don’t get off until you’re sure it’s Yuma.” Some passengers in the front seats smiled as we walked off our embarrassment. “O.K. Got it.”
Making our way down the aisle we were in a different world. The sights, customs, and smells of bus travel were new to us. But after Mom’s advice, we waded into it feigning self-confidence, doing our best to pretend we did this routinely – until I was relieved to find two seats together on the left, three rows from the back restroom.
In the rush and fray of the return to active duty, Dad was aware (as were we) that he was spending less and less time at home. To counter that pattern, we were going to him – to visit him at his work. … on a Friday night, in the dark. The big bus ran parallel to the Mexican border, making stops along the way through El Centro and across the southern slack of the Mojave. Rolling into Arizona we were tired but glad to see Dad for the first time in a couple of weeks. He was smiling broadly and, I think, a little relieved we’d arrived without incident. This visit had been his solution to “spending more time with the boys.” He had convinced Mom – even though her eyebrows initially furrowed at the prospect.
This was hardly Dad’s first trip to Yuma. Usually he flew over – but for this trip he brought the Plymouth. It was more convenient to have a car for this longer stint than hitching a ride anywhere off base. Surviving (but sagging) after the long drive down El Camino Real from the peninsula to San Diego, that car always made me smile. A muffler remained attached but grumbling noises foretold inevitability. Sid and I jumped in with our small bags, both in the front. Rubbing my hand across the soft, worn upholstery that showed ever more wear, I briefly flashed back to Natoma Road, headed for a ball game.
The three of us made our way onto the base and the BOQ (Bachelor Officers Quarters – dormitory life). The desert air was cold in the November night as we climbed wooden stairs to the door. Dad had rolled a couple of extra beds in for us and we were all tired. Sid and I were both a little old for it but Dad gently ‘tucked us in’ to the standard issue roll-aways. He talked softly in the dark about how happy he was we could come and how he had planned for us to visit an old silver mine the next day… and there were other things to see and do – but mostly he was glad we’d arrived and could spend time with him in his work life. The feeling was mutual.
Next morning, in addition to seeing everything in the daylight we’d passed the night before, we had a big breakfast and headed out about half-an-hour into the desert where we turned off the main road and saw a shed in the distance. The silver mine was almost straight down into the desert floor – but we could inch along and get a sense of what one man’s mine felt like. He was an old-timer Dad had met while in town. We were polite but mesmerized by his soft manner, leather-like skin, and glistening eyes. This was ‘his life,’ he said, and he was happy to share it. On our way back to the car he mischievously told Sid and me that while in Yuma we should always check our shoes for scorpions in the morning before we put them on. “Always check your shoes for scorpions, boys, that’s just the way life is.” Dad debunked this precaution as facetious in the car – but for the rest of the visit, I checked. Sometimes I still do.
The Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range stretches across hundreds of square miles of uninhabitable desert. Practice using the 20mm canon lodged in the nose of an F-8 was hard to come by in populated areas. Yuma was one solution, among few others. One of the main reasons this landlocked Naval facility in the middle of the desert stayed open at all was proximity to the gunnery range. Our next stop was the flight control tower back on base. “As far as the eye can see,” is an expression you understand in the large glass room six stories up. Endless horizons in all directions.
Coincidentally as we looked down at the the tarmac, I saw a Chief Petty Officer rolling out long shimmering clips in the midday sun. The ammunition was stored and transported in large octagonal metal cases – but I couldn’t figure out why it was being ‘spread out’ on the concrete below. I knew bits and pieces – but I wanted to know more about how this worked – and Dad’s offhand explanation led to as many questions as it clarified. But we got there.
A large, layered white nylon banner (fifty feet long by six feet wide) with a dominant, bright orange spot in its center is towed by a different, designated plane until it is over the target area. When the time is right, fighter aircraft are cleared to ‘attack’ the banner in waves. They peel off in formation, aiming at the bright orange midsection of the banner and pull the trigger – basic target practice.
Down the flights of stairs, we stepped out of the tower structure. Even more rolls of ammunition had been spread in lines and two or three sailors were carrying buckets of bright enamel paint. The chief recognized Dad and they shared some banter before he turned to us. Seeing I had questions – he walked me over, as the men were finishing up. They dipped thick brushes into the sticky colors and began slopping that one glowing color on each and every shell in that particular clip.
Several used targets were nearby (used targets were used as fencing for livestock locally) so the Chief showed me the traces of color on them. He explained – that was how they knew, in the end, which aviator had shot each round that pierced the target. Each jet (and its pilot) was assigned a color. When the practice run was finished, the fliers wanted to see as much of ‘their color’ on the target as possible. This was as close to the gritty aspects of Dad’s work as I had ever been.
This was NOT ‘Gunsmoke’
I don’t think it was at all calculated, but our last stop for the day was the Yuma Territorial Prison – an old west prison carved out of sandstone in the side of a small hill. (N.B. Since the early sixties the prison has been commemorated for historical heritage and, as a result, it has been spruced up for contemporary Yuma tourists. As counterintuitive as it seems in this case, historical designation provides upgraded curb appeal.) The modern sanitized version is not what we saw. We ventured into an unkempt unattended facility on the other side of town. No velvet rope for distance from the displays. No goddam souvenir shop.
We toured it at our own speed, taking in the small dark cells with chains and manacles mounted in the walls. The filth and cruelty of the place was palpable. Here, among small tributes to Yuma’s role in westward migration, were old, copied photos and daguerreotypes showing off the hanged and the haggard… men who’d wandered so far off the path that this ugly corner of the world held their sad fate. Some of the haunting black and white images were next to the very cells and chains on display. This was not ‘Gunsmoke.’ No Matt Dillon – no Miss Kitty – neither Festus nor Chester limped good-naturedly along the wooden walkway.
What Dad, Sid, and I could never have foreseen – was the role such a setting would soon play in our otherwise comfortable lives. Men died here.
This sandstone smelled like suffering.