Breakfast Stories: In a Box

A black and white photo photo of a Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert. Captured by Jay George from Pixabay.

We will show them Our signs in the universe and within themselves… 41:53, Quran

Having no street legal car or bike to race, Rob and I were to race each other—not what we’d expected at this once noticed-in-the-mags, Ramona drag strip, aka, San Diego Raceway. We both knew Rob would likely win, his having the newer bike, better tires, but racing each other at least met the first rule of adventure: wasting time in a manner that could kill you.

And kill it might have had Rob not noticed that my front tire was nearly flat and a danger at speed, even in a straight line. No alarm, though, a pump was available and I was near certain the air would hold for the run.

———

How fortunate the bike held up for the long Mohave Desert ride up to 29 Palms Marine Corps base to meet Rob. Didn’t need to ride so far just to come back toward Daygo, where I was stationed.

“Tank-up before the open desert,” Rob had warned. “Running dry you’d bake a good while before anyone comes along to help,” he added.

Had left the Daygo Naval Base early, and aimed north-easterly, the sun was still a squint in the right eye, the first chance for this east-coast boy to see real western desert.

Sand ran to the horizon in all directions. Looked and looking for life, a snake, a wild horse, scorpion, the sand began looking back, rising above the long strip of pavement that seemed increasingly impatient with my impatience. It knew me entirely, knew I knew nothing of it.

First impression: this was the desert of cowboy movies I never took to, flat and nonstop sameness.

But there’s a meditative silence inside the howl of wind and heat and machine riding a loud old Harley near 80 mph. The convective wind. The simplicity of such vastness…not a friend…not an enemy…Probably should have packed some water.

Years back, after watching Lawrence of Arabia, I’d turned the American west into Arab land; dunes and camels in abundance; before me lay cowboy movie staging. I found myself wishing for just one Ibn al-Somebody to show himself.

How much further to the gates of 2-9 Palms?

That long scene of Lawrence as a slowly growing speck in the sand. I was a speck, engine roar my soundtrack.

At least I rode T.E. Lawrence’s favored vehicle, though his, a `29 Brough Superior SS-100 motorbike, nicknamed George VI, a two-wheeled Rolls-Royce of its time, a gift from George Bernard Shaw and his wife. Neither WW1, nor the Arabs, but that bike took him out. Recalling this, I did not ease back the throttle. The flashing light…flashing light?  Touch of siren … From where? How?…brought me to a stop.

Where had that trooper come from? Was there a sand-painted sign his big Plymouth hid behind?

He didn’t pull to the side, stopped halfway in the lane. Out here he turned off the rotating light. Not a big guy and unlike town cops, trim in the waist, but he strode up to me with full confidence. “Going a little quick aren’t you, son,” he said.

“Long, empty road, Sir,” I replied.

“Sure is, and that bike’s running loud too.” This was also true; I was running straight pipes, my mufflers rolled under my bunk back at the base.

Restraining a smile, I said, “I hope I didn’t disturb anything out here, Sir.”

“The only one complaining is the law,” he replied. “You headin’ for 29?”

“29,” I said, “Sir, my first time in your desert.”

“Bet you thought there’d be camels and turbaned men with long curved swords,” he said, still holding his police tone.

“Sir, I did see Lawrence of Arabia,” and…

“You remember the opening scene?” he asked.

“You mean the speeding motorcycle, Sir, the crash?”

“Yeah, that,” he said, “Speed on a bike takes no prisoners. You Marine or just out of boot camp?”

“Boot camp, Sir” I said. “Why’d you ask?”

“All this ‘sir’ business and raising your voice when you say it. I had the Army version of that myself, years back,” he said, dropping his police tone while scratching out a citation, which he pulled off of his pad and handed me.

“This isn’t a real ticket; just put your mufflers back on and find an officer in San Diego when you get back. He’ll sign it, you mail it in, and that’s the end of it.”

“How’d you know I’m here from San Diego?” I asked.

“Son, you have Navy written all over you.”

“You seem to like it out here in the desert,” I said.

“I do. In that god awful long movie you mentioned, just before I’d had enough and walked out, someone asked Lawrence why he liked the desert, I agree with what he said.”

“What was that?”

The trooper raised his right hand, almost a salute, “He said it was clean,” drawing out the word. “I agree—best placement I ever had, free from being all closed in by ramps and cross streets all crowded with idiot drivers and even this big car feeling like a box. Take it easy the rest of the way and this flat, cowboy desert will open up to you and say howdy.”

He waited to make sure my bike cranked then pulled ahead. Soon his Plymouth was a diminishing spec below the horizon. I pulled out, in no hurry, slowly back up to 80, with each shift feeling a warm appreciation of the trooper all the way to the gate at 29.

———

Rob had said to find the chow hall and meet him there well before noon. Signs and arrows were as clear as I expected, Marines being so good at following orders. I saw his bike, parked next to it, and there he was waving over by the mess hall door. “Let’s grab something and get on the road if you want to race at Ramona,” he said.

I was ready for a little time off the bike and very ready for food. “It’s almost lunch time, how about we eat then ride?”

“No time, let’s duck in before the crowd and see what we can find.” Looking around in the mess hall the only thing still abundant were those small boxes of cereal. We each took a couple and stored them in the bag we’d each secured on the back of our bike seats. We cranked up and I followed him over to the base gas station where we topped off our tanks and soon were through the gates. I thought we’d be heading out on the open road, but Rob signaled to pull into the cheap burger joint just outside the base.

“Man, we’ve no extra money; why pay for food when it’s free on base?” I protested.

“Tell you later,” he said. “We can eat here for a buck and change.”

Glad to see him, I didn’t argue. Sitting at the small, dusty outside table, Rob asked,

“How’d you like real desert?”

“Not the desert of camels and dunes and Holy Books,” I said.

“Yeah, cowboy movie desert for sure. You’re not still on that Holy Book/God thing, I hope.”

“The trooper who pulled me over was something of a holy man,” I said.

“I know your god writes tickets, that trooper wrote you a ticket, too?”

I smiled at Rob’s quick take and said, “No, not a real ticket, not for speeding, was only running 80, but for the straight pipes. He said put the mufflers back on, show a cop back in Daygo and have him sign it.”

“So just a little nothing. Trooper’s a good cop—how was he holy? You know I’ve been waiting for a sign of that foolishness since I was eleven and nothing yet.”

“Yes, I know, Rob, since you were eleven, very precocious.”

“That whole damn nonsense comes from the desert,” he said, “out of nothing, based on no physical evidence, only ever-changing story telling.”

“Signs don’t have anything to argue; when they come, they shoot straight into you and won’t go away.”

“I’ll stick with what makes sense,” Rob replied.

“Rob, you’re as stuck with your reason as ever.”

To his credit, Rob held up his hands and said, “Enough knocking our hard heads—let’s roll!” and soon we were on the long, sandy road for Ramona.

We rode well together, no races, just precise positioning, first him near the center line, me slightly back to the right, then my turn, then one ahead, then the other, automatic.

Ramona drag strip looked a bit more used than we expected, but entry cost was low enough and elimination didn’t begin for an hour.

“Rob, we didn’t have to rush getting here, what was your hurry?”

“We’ll be up soon—tell you later,” he said.

“It’s an hour before elimination, there’s time,” I said.

Hesitating, he began: “The chow line…really stupid.”

“Something stupid?”

“What happened this morning, hours before you got there,” he said.

“So what happened? Did a chopper crash, a field practice turn deadly, an accident?”

“No accident to it,“ Rob replied. Well, maybe sort of an accident. At chow line this morning this one guy, I don’t know why, walked ahead and shoved himself in line right at the door. This guy, didn’t hear his name, stepped in front of the whole line. You don’t do that sort of thing in a line of wired Marines. The guy behind him, maybe he didn’t like the guy anyway, he picked up the intruder and threw him to the ground head first, like something in kung fu movie, I was told. The guy never regained consciousness,” Rob described, looking just past me.

“Bronze Star at Nam, court-martial stateside,” I did not say out loud.

Finally, I said, “You saw the guy shove in front and the other guy throw him to the ground?”

“No, I came late, after this happened, after security hauled the one guy away, after they carried the dead guy off on a stretcher. I was in the mess eating and a friend came up to me,” Rob said. “First thing he said was ‘how can you eat?’ I said, ‘what?’ and he told me what happened. It seemed to bother him that I kept eating, and I said, ‘look, the guy was stupid to shove ahead of people, so dumb it was like his time had come.”

“Do you think his time had come?” I asked.

“It seemed like it; didn’t make any sense,” Rob said.

“Like some power had come over him?”

“Like some…I see where you are going,” he said, “like some power from above! The only thing that takes over is not some power above, but stupidity below, and the guy who shoved himself in line was ruled by it.”

“Maybe the guy had just learned he was going to Nam,” Rob wondered, his eyes shifting around.

Our attention moved back to activities in the pits. Maybe someone we’d heard of was running this evening.

Walking back to the bikes, Rob noticed my low front tire and borrowed a pump. Soon we were the next up and Rob did take me by nearly a bike length.

———

It was getting dark when we pulled out of the raceway property. We could not afford any place to stay; we wandered and found the town park, offering enough privacy that the small-town constable would not likely bother us. A picnic table would serve as a bed; our jeans, boots, leather jackets, helmets would work as mattress and pillows. Ramona stood at some 1400 feet ASL and it got cool that mid-September night. Cold or not, we fell asleep.

Morning had just begun to glow when Rob elbowed me and whispered to hush. I opened my mouth as to ask what was going on and he gestured to look around. I heard them before I looked up to see the stray dogs, maybe eight or ten surrounding the table. Instantly, we knew our only reasonable action: roll off the picnic table, grab our bike’s handlebars and jumpstart the bikes down the nearby hill.

This we did, our bikes coming to life, leaving the dogs behind; they probably only surrounded the table for a handout and were startled by our forceful movement. Rob had run track in school and was ahead of me and I saw him come down on his bike seat as he let the clutch out in second gear. That instant I heard him grunt in pain. Had the dogs followed after all? Down the hill, no dog in sight, he explained he’d come down not just on the seat but also onto a wing of the trophy he’d won and had tied up on his bike beside his utility bag.

“You going to make something of this,” he shouted, “say it was some sort of sign from above?”

Smiling, I let him cool down. “Or from below,” I said. Ignoring the pain, he starting smiling too.

“It is very like a sign, Rob, one you cannot see, no matter how hard you try, and not one you’d have someone else try to find,” I said, probably only to myself.

Recipe: In a Box

Stash several boxes of cereal, any brand, Kellogg, General Mills, Post. Find potable water and rinse hands; as directed, use the box as a bowl; for a spoon, improvise.

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