Twenty-Nine Trees

I spent my last day in California laying in my dad’s yard – which is not really a yard, but an open blacktop car-park surrounded by a wooden fence on one side, and by a chain link fence on the other two. Albert, my dad’s dog also splayed out in the sun, and napped. Across the alley two men were laying new gutters on the roof next door. I watched them hoist an impossibly long metal gutter up to the three-story roof.

The one in charge yelled to me, after finishing the complicated maneuver, “You didn’t think we were gonna make it, did you?”

I laughed, and said truthfully, “Yeah, I couldn’t really watch. But congratulations!” I had visions of the entire thing crashing on my head, or through someone else’s roof.

I might have felt a little funny, a Tuesday morning lying with my book and my glass of juice outside like a princess, were it not for the dilapidated state of affairs in my dad’s yard/car-park. The man who lives in the apartment upstairs has an old truck and two motorcycles parked on one side, surrounded by tools and rusty parts. He comes out to work on them every afternoon. My dad will often look sourly in their direction holding a broom and mutter how the man is turning the place into a white-trash junkyard. My dad is also angry with the man upstairs for how badly he treats his dog. The dog is covered in strange sores and he only takes him out to pee or poop, never to run around and play.

I’ve been reading stories in The New Journalism today. I have been off and on reading this collection of 1960s and 70s journalism for quite awhile. The pieces, culled from magazine and newspaper articles of the time are short, but each one is so dense with story and meaning it’s hard to read more than two a week. Many are about Vietnam. One is from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which I’ve read and reread many times. It reminded me of the day before yesterday when I went to Twenty-Nine Palms with Gina.

It strikes me that the articles in the book have a tenor of the mangled world of this decade. Just saying “the 00’s” puts a finer point on how off things seem now. The Vietnam pieces are especially hard to read. In one paragraph a soldier tries to save a seven year-old Vietnamese girl who’s head has been blown apart by an American grenade. In the next paragraph the soldier’s own head is blown apart in a minefield.

I wonder when stories like these, with names and faces and real quotes instead of army-issued talking points, will find their way into newspapers and magazines. In the 10s perhaps?

In Twenty-Nine Palms there is a Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. Marine recruits, easily spotted by their jarhead haircuts, wandered in to bookshops on Highway 63 and waited in line at McDonalds with their young girlfriends or pregnant wives. Behind us at the Ranger station at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park one young Marine got out of his white Nissan to pay the entrance fee. There in his t-shirt, tucked and belted into his jeans I could not believe how young he was. All of them I saw are shockingly adolescent. It’s even more startling than the reel of dead soldiers they run off in silence at the end of The News Hour every night. Those pictures of young men and women, kids really, usually in military uniform are heart breaking. They break my heart in my Brooklyn apartment, and then I clear my dinner plates and turn the water to scalding levels to wash the dishes. Steam lifts out of the metal sink. It’s 8 PM.

The pictures are accompanied by name, rank, and hometown. But the worst is the ages: 18, 23, 19, 20. Twenty is the worst of the worst. I’m not sure why, but 20 gives me a lump in my throat.

The Joshua Trees are charming. The guidebook describes them as Dr Seuss-like. We played a game where we pointed out the mood of all the trees. That one is confused, with its thick branches reaching in all different directions. That one’s getting out of the way, its trunk is bent backwards from the road. That one’s a split personality, its trunk divided in 2 perfect halves. That one’s given up, its branches all point downward: “It’s just had enough!” I yelled gleefully.

Those are waving goodbye, its branches reaching up over us.

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