“There was such a tremendous turnover. that unit cohesiveness was lost. Marine Corps gone now to rotating the units themselves — one goes in, one comes out — say, every six months or so."
“Today we even got women Marines up here coaching."
Still call 'em BAMS?
"Ah shit, no! They'll hit y'r ass with sexual harassment quickern shit. Outta ITR I didn't know any fuckin' better, so I went up an' said, ‘I need to speak to the BAM.' I ducked just in time or I'd’ve caught it in the chops. Damn! I said ‘What are you doin? She said, 'Don’t ever call me bitch-ass Marine again!' Lotta things changed since those days."
Master Sergeant George Spears: "This is the only Marine base in the United States where ship-to-shore operations can be practiced."
Master Sergeant Raul Marroquin is my escort. I’d entered the main gate of Camp Pendleton (no problem) and bluffed my way onto the restricted grounds of Edson Range Marroquin's a Mexican-American from the old school, a Vietnam vet with 21 years in the Corps. We walk through chilling sea mist toward ghostly pops and cracks of Ml6s.
Mandated to have 3000 acres of riparian habitat on the Santa Margarita River, 1200 of those acres must be maintained as least Bell's vireo habitat.
"I tell these kids they don’t got nothing to worry about no more. When I came through, it was common practice for the instructor to beat the shit outta you right there in front of everyone. And nothing was to be said. Now they can’t do nothing. I saw this one instructor use his boot to kick a recruit's feet into position.
De Luz Canyon
Well, the fuckin' series command fucking rolled his ass. I was trying to intervene for the poor fuck, the poor idiot, but we have some series commands who’re real hard-headed. I mean hardheaded! They’re real hard asses. You got to really watch what you’re doing out here. I mean, he didn't really hurt the boy. He just put him in position.”
Combat Town #52. Myriad arterials of tracked dust creeping into canyons, crags, and buttes are marked by smallish green signs identifying Range 202, Rappelling Tower, Gas Chamber. Combat Town.
Through gray translucence, jungle-camouflaged bodies in desert emerge, sitting on black boxes, rifles between their legs pointing skyward. Atop an asphalted dike of dirt, other bodies lie prone, firing at 50 coruscating bull’s eyes 300 yards downrange. A disembodied voice piped from a wooden tower commands all movement. Instructors in eggshell safari hats pace between every other shooter. Shooters wear gas masks. I shoot pictures.
Slader Buck: "Mother Nature’s been growing that stuff for a long time, and to overnight create it can be very difficult.”
We head back toward I-5 and the ocean, toward the 500-meter dike, talking. "Seventeen or 18 — my understanding he had a lot of problems at home, you know, with his family and shit. We got here just after it happened, and we had to clean up the mess; and shit, the fuckin' kid was already green. The corporal was giving him mouth-to-mouth. I said, 'Hey, kid, he’s dead.' I mean, it don’t take a fuckin' genius to figure out, with his fuckin' brains all over the place. They had to call in an emergency helicopter. It come and landed right here, and we came out here with sandbags and shit and spread the sand out around here. And then we got to clean up all the mess. The goddam ants and the flies were already having a field day out here. The smell was already — the stink, you know the certain smell.” Yeah. “You don’t forget that fuckin' smell.” Nope. “It was already in the air. Damn. See, right there, all the white and shit, where all the sand and shit — that’s where it happened. See all this shit right here? There was blood all the way down to the bottom. He was lying more on his side and put the barrel right under his chin. Oh, it just tore his head all to hell. I don't know — I’d say you gotta have balls to do something like that.”
John A. Steiger: "The Oceanside School District used to go clear up, halfway up into Pendleton. Still does.”
We get back to the parking lot and get in Marroquin's pickup. “Let me take you to the gas chamber." Okay. A rosary hangs from the mirror. Catholic. Like Kennedy. Somewhere close — not here but near — Oswald learned to shoot.
Four months later. No mist from the sea. It's hot. And dry. We drive east in a white van on Vandegrift Boulevard, a four-lane strip of modern asphalt slicing through the foothills of geologic sediment, snaking smooth beside the Santa Margarita River. Planted palms with stunted brown fronds adorn the shoulders of the road like leviathan swizzle sticks. I wouldn't mind a drink.
The driver is my escort — this time official — from the public relations office. Master Sergeant George Spears talks about his job. "I don’t know if you saw CNN news this morning, but they had a reporter come out last week and do a story on standard of living — the contrast between Marines’ paychecks and what they have to pay for housing and the tough nut to crack a lot of young guys and gals have trying to make ends meet on the outside, living in town, young families, high rent in such a high-cost area." No. "Anyway — lot of housing going up."
Spears’s face resembles Ollie North’s, and he speaks with a smoothly masculine, professional voice. "Been with public affairs since 72 — four years before that as a grunt. Had my MOS changed to 4313 — Basic Broadcaster — kept taking voice auditions and finally got into Armed Forces Television. Took a long time to pass the audition." On the left, we pass half a dozen obtrusively dressed bodies walking the road. Chain gang? "Don't know, tell the truth." (Sure — orange overalls in sun, weed-eaters in hand, cammied MP with hardwood stick, five black, one white....) "Could be though."
Traffic on Vandegrift Boulevard — the main thoroughfare — is heavy (210,000 vehicles enter the main gate each week). Pendleton boasts a daytime population of 50,000 — in itself a self-sufficient community: own police department, fire department, hospital and dental clinics (22 branch clinics), 5 schools. 13 churches. 6 Laundromats and a dry-cleaning service, base newspaper (circulation 28,000), shopping centers (main side exchange. 20 outlets), 10 wastewater treatment plants. 4 libraries, a lake with camping facilities, 2 recreational ocean beaches, a marina, golf course, bowling alley, archery range.
"Many Marines like to stay on-base and take care of their recreational needs. What you and I remember from the late '60s in terms of Marine Corps Special Services — you know, the red sign, yellow letters, you go down, they give you a pair of tennis shoes, some gym trunks, and it didn’t cost you anything. That was Special Services. That was the recreational program. It's not like that anymore. In the past five years, the military services have had to start footing the bill for their own recreational services — for morale, welfare, and recreational activities. The catch is, every business has to be self-sustaining, there're no more appropriated funds. It's caused a big change in the lifestyle of Marines. Today you see Pontiac signs and cars on the Marine Corps Exchange — Pontiac has a big campaign. In the '60s, you'd see concession stands and that sort of thing, but you wouldn't see it as commercialized as it’s become now. They'll hire a contractor, for example, to run that concession at the beach. The cost is going up; it's no longer free — golf courses, bowling alleys — because it's business.”
Buzzing past a Burger King to the right, we approach and skim beside Marine Corps Air Station Pendleton on the left. Small and humming (more than 20,000 flights a month), its runways bake in the sun and appear sinuous in liquid delusion; above, long-bodied Cobra gunships swarm and dart like mutant mosquitos. Too bad. No real blood to suck here. We turn north off Vandegrift, just past the landing strip. Shadow engulfs the van as inaudible vibration disconcerts the air — holy crap what’s that?— then explodes into multiple-engines' roar and dark-green undercarriage descending. "Pretty big bird." laughs Spears. "A vehicle transport." Across our path, two Cobras scud, their rotor blades thumping, swirling in the now dead-an'-gone calm. Were on Basilone Road heading into the combat zone.
Major training facilities on Camp Pendleton are numbered in the hundreds — 90 rifle ranges alone, 5 landing beaches. 9 explosive-impact areas, 5 gas chambers. (No one likes the gas chambers — major purpose being to provide a little fee I for how it feels: invisible acid wash of the air passages, like a wire brush down the throat; mucous membranes like faucets, drooling clear bodily syrups.) Camp Pendleton’s PR boasts it is the busiest war-training facility in the Department of Defense — over 200,000 scheduled training activities each month: urban warfare, anti-terrorism, counternarcotics, hostage rescue, evacuation operations — a few evolutions for the modern spectrum of conflict.
"Everything is in support of the ground troops — that’s what it amounts to," says Spears. “Everyone is a basic rifleman first. Everything tooth t' tail is good in the Corps." (Tooth means infantry, tail means support.) Five or four in the rear to one in the front. “Comparatively speaking, that's pretty good." (Unless you're in the front; 90 percent of casualties occur there.) "Budget cuts are really going to have quite an impact in the Marine Corps. With the changing face of the enemy — the Reds are no longer perceived as a tremendous threat, of course — the needs for things like Abrams tanks is no longer a tremendous concern. That's large-scale warfare. We're going to be more concerned with Third World countries and some of the conflicts we may become involved with there. Tanks are impractical in that kind of scenario. Small-unit operations — to rescue hostages or to go in with a small strike force — is what we're looking at in terms of training for."
Basilone Road — named after “Manila" John Basilone, legendary bad-ass of the Philippines, first Marine in World War II to get the Medal of Honor, killed in the first wave on Iwo Jima (mortar between the legs); it follows a curving course, rising, dipping, turning, rising again, through a wind-eroded desert land of abrupt hills, barren mountain vistas, and drought-dried thickets of sage, shrubs, and dwarf trees. By Pulgas Road Junction, we pass antiquated howitzers — empty-barreled. Gothic, and asleep — secured behind razor-bladed fences. Myriad arterials of tracked dust creeping into canyons, crags, and buttes are marked by smallish green signs identifying Range 202, Rappelling Tower, Gas Chamber. Combat Town. Others declare audaciously: Dangerous Curves, Tank Crossing, and (no kidding) Buffalo Crossing.
Descending a balmy curve, we enter a village of concrete billets and curbed streets, cafeteria, parked cars, bus stop, and phone center — Camp Horno. Here is temporary “home" for Marines (mostly infantrymen) freshly back from deployments overseas. Gone are the days when Marine units would be permanently assigned to places like Iwo Kune and Okinawa, and individuals rotated in and out. “There was such a tremendous turnover." Spears explains, “that unit cohesiveness was lost. Marine Corps gone now to rotating the units themselves — one goes in, one comes out — say, every six months or so." I note that Homo looks pretty much the same as it did two decades ago. Just drier. The streets then ran like rivers from rains that wouldn't stop. And emptier. A seemingly endless hillside at the edge of the camp hosts nothing now but yellowed grasses. Once there sat a city — a city of tents — as far as the eye could see. I ask Spears if he ever was warned about "black syphilis” — the incurable “gook VD” — where anyone who got it got reported MIA, then got hid on some island 'til he died. Spears laughs. “Yeah. I remember those stories.”
Two miles past Horno and secluded, tucked at the foot of tree-choked gullies spilling precipitously from a scabrous crest, lies San Onofre and headquarters for SOI — the School of Infantry. Rampant building ($350 million worth on Camp Pendleton since 1976) continues to remove all but relic strips of Korea/Vietnam-era housing. Relatively new billets and cafeteria predict the outcome of nearby construction. Inside a surviving Quonset hut, a skin-headed captain traces his finger along a thin line on a wall-sized map. "Here,” he says, “is where you want to go." Spears examines the spot where the captain's finger stopped. Twenty minutes later, having negotiated eight or nine miles of primitive road winding northeast between the dry San Mateo and San Onofre creeks, we arrive at Range 314. A company of new Marines (ten days out of boot camp) are having their memories refreshed on nomenclature and assembly of the 50-cal machine gun (oldest weapon still in use in the Corps). A tall, lean, and intense Sgt. Rivera yells instructions to a group of 50 Marines sitting and standing in front of him.
"All you gotta do is drive the bolt out t' the rear! Drive the bolt out! Now what side we gonna lay the bolt on?”
The group responds sporadically, "The right side!"
“That’s right, lay it down on the right-hand side! If your bolt extension on your weapon's open, all you gotta do — what'm I pushin' up on?”
The few scattered responses from the group are muttered unsurely. One Marine in a group near the front barks “Hoo-rah!" after someone else in his group got it right.
With me and Spears is Gunnery Sergeant Sivels — a 6-foot-2 black Marine with 16 years in. Sivels points at the mountains to the east (edge of Cleveland National Forest) and scans with a swing of his hand the terrain south; there, scattered across a gentle slope spreading below a jagged hill, are twisted hulks of trashed tanks. "Those are our downrange targets," he explains. “We’ll be firin’ M60s at ’em today." in front of the tanks are scattered sand pits. “Those are for settin’ off claymores." (Two pounds of explosives and 600 ball bearings: up close they’ll dismember, like all mines; from a distance, they’ll turn flesh into cube steak.) “Bad-ass weapon,” Sivels says.
In the background, Rivera’s voice booms. “Don’t get ahead'a me! Do not get ahead'a me!” His voice has a familiar quality — like a DI. "No," says Sivels, “he’s an instructor. They all go through instructors’ orientation training. Prob’ly why they sound the same."
Spears asks if I'd like to speak to some of the young Marines. Sure! (Feigning eagerness.) Dressed perfectly for the beach. I feel conspicuously out of place in the combat-dressed throng. Moving to a group of four Marines working on a single weapon, I kneel and ask, almost in a whisper, if they mind being asked a few questions. Fresh from boot camp, they are deferent to anyone who looks older.
"No, sir." "Go ahead, sir."
“Okay by us, sir."
“You all going to be infantry?"
“We haven’t found out yet. We find out today or tomorrow.”
"So you could be anything from infantry to supply?"
"Yes, sir — most of us."
“This is all your basic stuff, right, your 50-cal?"
“And your M60 over there?”
I ask the one doing the answering his name. He is thick chested, strong-armed, dark brown.
“PFC Roundtree, sir."
"Get promoted outta boot camp?"
"Got PFC before boot camp — prior service. Navy. Four years. I needed a change and a challenge, so I came to the Marine Corps."
"What you expected?"
“That and more, sir. The Navy doesn't even come close to the Marines. You have a lot more self-pride after you accomplish the things that you do in the Marine Corps — boot camp, physical conditioning. You have a better attitude about yourself. There’s nothing that you won’t go out an’ try to attempt t’ do or tackle."
"No, sir. Came in as ’the needs of the Marine Corps’ — whatever they give me, that'll be fine."
He wears a ring. “Married?"
“Yes, sir. I’m in trainin’ still, so she’s livin’ at Vegas. Whenever I get done trainin' here, an’ with my school, she’ll be livin’ with me.”
One of the other members of the group is also from Las Vegas, Private Smith. He is very black, stocky, and round-faced. I ask him how long they’ll be out here.
“Got a 12-mile hump back.”
Thirty meters east, standing in covered bleachers, a group of 40 or 50 is singing the Marine Corps Hymn. "Why're they doing that?"
Equal distance west, a smaller group does push-ups, sit-ups, leg-risers, and other exercises. (Have been for ten minutes.) "And those guys? Motivation purposes too?"
"Don’t know, sir — prob’ly.”
I move to another cluster — three Marines, all white. PFC Tarbert is 19, medium height, fair skin, brown eyes. He came in on the Quality Enlistment Program and is guaranteed motor transport. "My brother’s in right now, went in a year ago. He pretty much let me know what was going to happen. So wasn't really disappointed, wasn't really shocked. My dad was in, went to Vietnam — there a year an’ got wounded."
Helping him with the final stages of the weapons assembly is PFC Schlick. "Went to my recruiter on leave and helped get somebody else in — so got promoted. My uncles were in the Marines." Schlick also came in on the QEP and is guaranteed wing mechanic. “Kinda wish now I’d come in open contract, so, y’know, by my scores, the Marine Corps woulda sent me where they would need me."
The third member of the group is PFC Tileson — guaranteed infantry. (Some guarantee.) Dark-eyed and tart-tongued, his view of the Green Machine: "Thought the Marine Corps would be tougher. Also thought it would be stricter."
"As to the amount of people and the quality. Don't want to say there’s a buncha — shit baggers — but that’s what I found. How that was explained to me by my drill instructor is that a lot of people are cornin’ in on four-years-an’-out. Marine Corps has to channel ’em in. I was disappointed. Always thought — ’cause my father was in the war too — it’d be really hard, y’know.’’
Spears had left me with the young Marines and was talking with Sivels. Joining them, I ask Sivels about the training mission here. "These Marines just graduated from MCRD.
They got a ten-day leave, then come here to MCT — Marine combat training. Me and my troop leaders kinda guided ’em all the way through the first day, an' now they in first a three stages, this bein’ weapons portion. Next week they go through what'ey call effects,' and that’s nothin’ more’n where they do squad tactics, things like that. Third phase they put everything together and do what'ey call ‘field, fire, an’ exercise’ — nothin’ more’n little war game. As far as firin' all the weapons themselves, no, they will not — it’s just basic familiarization. At MCRD they do the same thing. We just try to reinforce it, makin’ sure that in ten days’ leave, they didn’t forget everything they learned as far... ” (noise from two fighter jets drowns out Sivels’ voice) "... and that pretty much take care of alia Saturday. Sunday is like a little ‘lax day — they get classes like suicide prevention. Me an’ my instructors, we off on Sundays."
I ask Sivels if he’d ever seen the movie Full Metal Jacket. “I have the movie, sir — if I want a morale booster, that's it." Did he think the movie had any copy-cat connection with the recent young Marines’ suicides here? Sivels stands almost at attention and looks at Spears. Spears looks away, rubbing his cheek. Sivels says, "That can be a long, drawed-out answer—" pauses, looks back at Spears — continues disjointedly. “ 'Cause I look at when I came in, early 70s, suicide prevention was probably the last thing in a lot of Marines' minds at that time. Alls they wan’ do was fight for their country and do what they had to do. Today's Marines are smarter, yes — bookwise — they get a lot more technical knowledge — yes, we did go through M79 and basic flame thrower and these good weapons — but hell, in 1960s and 70s, lookin' at the '80s and '90s, if we had some’a this stuff in wartime, see we coulda raised hell over there — but, y’ talkin' bout a totally different time frame here, and I’m kinda in a 70s time frame, where some my staff NCOs are probably the late 70s slash early '80s — and the lance corporals and the privates, they could prob'ly tell a different answer on that — but they’re smarter, yes — but common sense? — they don't have a lotta that. They just don’t have a lotta that common sense. And they know it. An' we try t’ — we try t’ educate ’em by talkin' to ’em ... ” (The jets fly near again, ending what really wasn’t an answer.) “... we’re stuck with congress — stuck with a lotta things."
During the conversational pause, I glance around the area. Somehow it seems this mass of young men — all assembling, disassembling, reassembling the same old weapons — are functioning in their sleep. Even the older Marines — men like Sivels and his troop leaders, warriors without war — look heavy-hearted, frustrated, like some kind of unrequited lovers. Man! The most melancholy place on earth has to be a peaceful military base.
Later that day, each Marine gets the chance to live-fire an M60 machine gun (popularly known as “pig" or a "whore"). Fifteen weapons are spread out evenly along the firing line — groups of six or seven Marines lined up behind. One black has his belt of brass bullets draped around his thick neck (Hollywood style). They fire from their bellies, in pairs — one feeding, one shooting; the feeder changes positions by log-rolling over his buddy (under-fire style). A lumbering, 6-foot-5 staff sergeant asks me if I’d like to take part. Sure! He leads me to an M60 set up just for me and says to shoot — if I want — standing up (Rambo style). (Don’t get my beach clothes dirty!) Leaning forward, butt of the weapon snug under my arm, I remember a joke about playing war with women: “Pretend y’r the enemy and let ’em blow the..." I squeeze the trigger and waste a dead tank.
“You play God,” the man with schooled eyes and pastoral facade nutshells. Enviably named — Slader Buck — he glances at Spears, then suddenly (“It's — it’s... ”) stammers to make something clear: “... it’s not Pendleton that does that. everybody does that. CalTrans does it! Please understand, it — it’s... it’s just not the Marine Corps does this! CalTrans built a freeway where there was vireo habitat and took grasslands and put vireo habitat on it — same thing!" (Okay, okay.) Buck is head of the wildlife management branch of the Environmental and Natural Resources Management Office (NRO for short) on Camp Pfendleton — an organization so powerful it can stop a tank in its tracks with a handful of feathers and a beak.
Obscurely located deep within a mile-long strip of bland, corrugated-steel structures settled beside Vandegrift Boulevard, the NRO would appear to have as much impact on the goings-on of Camp Pendleton as the nearby commissary. (A well-planted minefield doesn't look like much either.) Recently, its importance has become corporeal. Having added nine environmental protection specialists since May. the office expects to add ten more in the near future; the office’s budget has also increased, from one percent of the total base budget in 1989 to eight percent this year. (Big piece o’ pie.)
There are two major sides to the NRO: environmental protection — hazardous materials, storage, air pollution, compliance with environmental laws; and resources management — water, land, and wildlife. “What our office does," explains Buck, “is review training exercises, construction projects, and facilities projects — tree trimming, building pumps and wells, things like this.” When a project happens, the designers of the project put a package together, the package gets circulated, and everybody on the base gets a cut on it. Eventually it comes to NRO. First, people in protection look for potential problems; then, it goes to land management; next, water management; and finally, it comes to wildlife management — Buck.
People who drive past Pendleton on 1-5 see a large sign that reads:
CAMP PENDLETON Protecting California’s Precious Resources
A more accurate sign might read: "Restricted by California's Precious Resources." The Marines have no sovereignty here. Camp Pendleton must adhere to all state and federal (and some county) environmental laws. From the perspective of grunt-level Marines (who once did their own thing as far as training was concerned), environmental regulations have become (under their breath) a "pain in the ass." (I recalled GySgt. Sivels allude, "Lotta stuff round here’s hard to get clearance for, like the TOW missile; to fire one’a those things ’round here you gotta go through everything. And the AT-4 — they can only fire one fakin’ round a month!")
Buck illustrates: “Say the Marine Corps wants to build something near the Santa Margarita River. Before they can do anything, we have to address the Clean Water Act — get a 404 permit — address flood control issues, and address endangered species issues. The Endangered Species Act states quite clearly that we must ensure, first, that no actions jeopardize the continued existence of endangered species, and, secondly, that everything's in compliance with all regulations of the act."
Nearly 400 species of animals flourish (at least receive sanctuary) on Camp Pendleton. Incorporated in that figure are approximately 50 buffalo, 1500 deer, 60 other species of mammals, and 250 species of wild birds (including three nesting pairs of golden eagles). Pendleton has 6 listed federal endangered species — least tern, least Bell’s vireo, Stephens kangaroo rat, light-footed clapper rail, peregrine falcon, brown pelican — and 22 “candidate" (close to endangered) species. Over half of the base’s 125,000 acres are designated for military maneuvers, and — with continuous housing and facilities construction taking place elsewhere — environmental conflicts keep NRO hopping.
When someone comes in with a project that will be in conflict with endangered species, NRO first looks at their needs to see if the project can be moved. If not, they’ve got to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Fish and Game to ensure that what is done doesn't jeopardize endangered species. Buck says sometimes that takes mitigation. "A friend of mine once called mitigation a runner-up in a losers’ contest. The reason is that what’s out there is usually real good. Let’s face it. Mother Nature’s been growing that stuff for a long time, and to overnight create it can be very difficult.”
Riparian (streamside) habitat for least Bell’s vireo reveals a diverse structure of big trees and small trees. Creating riparian vegetation is not difficult — creating least Bell's vegetation is. "To figure out a ratio of how many big trees, how many small trees, where to put them, how much water, what species composition, what diversity — to come up with the prescription for all this stuff gets astronomically expensive." The NRO possesses an official memorandum of understanding with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service stating that before Pendleton can take any action destroying least Bell’s habitat, they must first establish replacement habitat. Mandated to have 3000 acres of riparian habitat on the Santa Margarita River, 1200 of those acres must be maintained as least Bell's vireo habitat.
“We know that down the road someone’s going to make a mistake," says Buck. “Someone’s going to go in and destroy vireo habitat no matter how we try to get around it. What were trying to do is create a bunch of habitat five or six years before this happens — a mitigation bank." (And the winner in the losers’ contest?) “We just had a scenario where we had to remove least Bell’s vireo habitat and build an ordnance handling facility — where they load bombs onto the plane — and then go over and take an area that was grassland with a few willows and create vireo habitat. From a military standpoint, were ahead. Biologically — we lost diversity." (You play God.) “Essentially.”
While the impressive array of endangered species on base enjoys safe port, other species succeed too well: Pendleton has a very active hunting program. By federal law, all hunting must be done in conjunction with state laws. The only flexibility the base has is to be more restrictive. For example, the state allows limited hunting with a handgun — Pendleton does not.
Most game hunted is small: mourning dove, California quail, brush rabbit, ground squirrel, pigeon, jackrabbit, and mountain quail. Deer is the only big game hunted. “And that program," says Buck, "I selfishly guard, myself. We only hunt seven days a year — this year a lot less. Last year we harvested approximately 150 deer — that’s maybe 10 percent of the population. Hunters who hunted bucks had 25 percent success, based on number of tags — doe hunters over 50 percent. The surrounding community had maybe three to four percent hunter success.”
The majority of the area on Pendleton’s backsides — by San Clemente, the Cleveland National Forest, Fallbrook — is guarded by a 3- or 4-strand barbed-wire fence. There are a few gates, which the base attempts to secure as best it can. "Unfortunately, we do have a poaching problem. We’ve caught people who just drove right onto the base. We’ve had instances of people running dogs, of deer poaching, of small-game poaching — even instances of wood poaching. People come onto the base just before winter, chop down an oak, throw it in the back of the pickup and leave." I ask if the problem comes mostly from military or nonmilitary people. “The problem," he says, “is from people.”
So — anybody else (besides poachers) salivate when they see this gorgeous chunk of California turf? Spears (sitting beside me) uncrosses his leg, adjusts himself, inhales deeply through his nose. Buck chortles. “Everyone wants a piece of Pendleton!" Then, leaning forward a bit, he explains to me two “myths" associated with this gorgeous chunk of California turf: “One myth is that Camp Pendleton is a pristine environment. It's not. This land was modified before the Spanish got here — by the Indians, probably — and was highly modified by the Spanish as a cattle ranch. When the Marines came in, it was modified in a different way — effects of fire, they built it up; were a pretty big city here.
But — it's still grasslands, it’s still chaparral, it's still riparian woodlands, it's still oak woodlands. These people, these private operators, get their hands on Pendleton — you’re going to get condominiums, you're going to get home sites, you’re going to get commercial development, and you're going to get an incredible decrease in biodiversity. It’s going to be absolutely, 100 percent, unequivocally a disaster! A disaster — if that would happen."
Buck sits back, drops his arms on the rests of his chair, takes a deep breath. "The second myth," he continues, “is that the Marine Corps is always going to be able to forestall development, always be able to take care of this land, always going to be a big buffer between San Diego and Los Angeles." He again leans forward. "And I’m here to tell you that eventually you’re going to see this base, in the words of a professor of mine, ‘five-percented to death.’ Somebody comes in and says.
Hey, Camp Pendleton, we have this need here to put a freeway and only need five percent of your land.’ They work the political system and get the land; then they come back ten years later and say, ‘Hey, Camp Pendleton, we have this project and only need five percent of the land.’ See where this is leading?"
Looking at Spears and Buck — representatives of two organizations vastly dissimilar in purpose — I sense a sort of quintessential symbiosis: the Green Killing Machine and Great Granola in bed together eating crackers. Forty-year-old Buck is not in the military — never was (high draft number) — and implied an ambiguous irony that he now works on a military base. (“Even my colleagues didn't understand") And, despite his ecologically perched view — (“What makes Pendleton so darn important is 17 miles of untouched beach and a big chunk of land backing up on the Cleveland National Forest — this huge wildlife corridor from the coast inland") — he hesitates, eyes darting, before stammering on the notion of turning the base into a park. “Well... sure ... it — it... 1 think it goes without saying, nobody would deny the fact that you’re going to have more wilderness and wildlife if you're not blowing off bombs. But —"
Spears, who's been making a soft, stifled noise like a fish getting a hook removed, now interjects, "This is the only Marine base in the United States where ship-to-shore operations can be practiced. The Marines are an amphibious assault force. We land on beaches. We move inland. We secure objectives. Well, then — how should we practice this trade of ours? We have to have this area."
A door opens and a young woman enters. "I'm not here as a Marine,” Buck says, rising from his chair, "but I can sympathize with them. We've got restrictions from the City of Oceanside, endangered species on the south, and restrictions to the north from San Onofre Nucleai Generating Station. I mean, you don’t have to be very educated to realize it doesn't leave much room to get realistic training in."
“It's so neat!" the young woman exults, her bright face framed by blond hair full-fluffed. “The Marines are understanding that they have to work with the environment to have a good training thing." Dawn Lawson — reared by liberals opposed to war — now heads NRO's land-management branch. "That high-quality natural environment is what they need to train in.” She talks knowingly of Pendleton’s natural vegetation — its coastal sage scrub, its perennial grasslands, its oak and Englemann oak woodlands — all unique in their abundance; and she talks naively of real war. "They’re supposed to run rat-a-tat-tat through these obstacles, and it's not very realistic hiding behind a blade of grass." (Marines sometimes have less than that.) She talks about planting 200 shrubs — Mexican elderberry, toyon, laurel sumac — near Edson Range (where Marroquin cleaned up the dead boy’s brains). “To me,” she says, "it’s really exciting!"
We’ve got assholes who don't know what the hell they're talking about," opines John A. Steiger, president of Steiger & Associates Real Estate Properties in Oceanside. "The Oceanside School District used to go clear up, halfway up into Pendleton. Still does.” White-haired and overweight (his light-blue striped blazer could make a pup tent), he speaks in the deep drawl of a man who’s made it. "When I was a kid — that was in the '30s — I used to work out there, and that was the agricultural economy of Oceanside. It was like a factory — they had cattle, and they, well. I used to pull the morning glory out of the lima bean fields runnin' up and down the coast."
A lifelong resident in North County (bomber pilot during World War II). Steiger remembers the Marines coming in. "They moved pretty fast — think it was March '42; from Pearl Harbor, that's not long —so you know they'd been thinking about it.”
Observed many changes in the Marines over the years? “Well, you were in Vietnam. Remember you had a lot of assholes. Probably that’s the worst group that the good Marines had to put up with. They went out to places like Cleveland, Ohio, they'd go in the ghetto, and they'd take the whole gang — recruit 'em and bring ’em down. They were already accomplished thugs. Then they’d make good Marines out of 'em. Capable fighting men. Then they'd send 'em up here and turn 'em out on pass. They'd go down these alleys and beat the shit out of other Marines.”
What had brought me into his office was a letter to the editor in a local newspaper (from a Marine colonel) lambasting something about an Oceanside interest in annexing Camp Pendleton. Steiger reads the letter, then drops it on his cluttered desk. "This Colonel Gonsalez — whatever his name is — doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. The reason there’s an uproar concerns the city’s redevelopment people trying to build a 400-unit hotel at the beach. They’re right at the point where financing is being arranged — ” (Steiger is distracted by a phone ringing in another room) "— and they have all these lending institutions—" (it rings again) they have to have in their file to satisfy the — ” (r-r-ring) “I wish t’ hell —” Someone answers it; Steiger settles back in his creaking chair.
"Let’s get back to why the bitch. The bitch came because the people trying to get the financing for the big hotel near the harbor are making up this report, when here in the paper it pops up that the Marines are going to build a 100-room hotel at the NCO club. You know where the NCO club is. It’s used for large community meetings — the Boys Club benefit and stuff is there — ’cause it’s big. It's really part of the social activity in the area."
So there's good interaction between the community and Pendleton? "It comes this way — there is and there isn't. At the base, you have guys who get along with the community; and then you have someone who comes in here from Washington — and he's got a chip on his shoulder. He thinks, Well, I’ve got to protect all of the assets of the base and of the Marine Corps' — like Oceanside is a... uh... ” (parasite?) “Yeah, well, they call us that."
Steiger tells me he’s known most of the base commandants over the years and knows how things work. "Just to give you an idea. I was on the city council over here, and I worked with the base. We had our military affairs committee, and the mayor and I met with the commanding general and his chief of staff every month. You know — on what’s goin' on. I mean, we had a formal deal, but we had a lot of informal deals. We could pick up the phone and say, ‘What the hell’s goin’ on?’ or What do you need?'
“Well, somebody back in Washington was critical of the commanding general out here — that was General Ridgely — and didn't like what was going on. They’d make comments like, 'The civilians get their nose under the tent and next thing you know they’ll be in the tent.’ Some of those guys just think everybody wants their land. Well, there are people — there are big operators in real estate that would like to get the Presidio at San Francisco or the beach here. A bunch of the leading Democrats in L.A. — who like power, see, and want to get some of this beach frontage away from the military — think, ‘We don’t need the military,’ and all that horseshit. The L.A. people would love to move the L.A. International down here. They figure, 'What the hell — it's a big open area.'”
Steiger’s secretary enters and reminds him he has Rotary today. Taking my cue. I rise with Steiger as he gets up from his desk. Noticing a signed picture of Richard Nixon on the wall, I wonder if the signature is real. “Yes, it is. That was when he was governor. Was glad to see him finally get his library going. Of course, you had your usual noisy bastards."
Just as I'm about to step out, he concludes, “So anyway, I feel the Marine Corps needs all the elbow room it can get. The problem the military has — just like what they're doing with this hotel — is they're not talkin' to each other. When you get the Marine Corps coming out here saying they need to build a hotel for their people — and they say they’re going to have Marriott do it — well, that’s horseshit. They don't. In other words — talk about the camel gettin’ his nose under the tent.”
Following a family of five — tattooed father and dancing children led heartily by a sun-pinked, icebox-shaped mother in a lime-green swimsuit — I’d worked my way casually to the concrete walk above the beach at Oceanside. Below, a kinetic chaos of human shapes and ages crowds the sands and spills into infinity — the rolling, blue-green sea, bobbing heads, and shrieks of little ones — eschewing the approach of mundane school and working days. Having no aim to enter that melee of familial elusion. I walk the several blocks to the old heart of town. Along the way, I come upon a run-down row of adobe-style apartments. Catching a peek through a torn screen door, I see two Mexican men face-down on the floor (a woman on the couch) and little children running about.
This is the Hill Street section of town, an anachronism in reverse, a sleazy piece of the past. Newness surrounds it — energetic redevelopment is closing in — but on the sidewalk outside the Normandy (a “Live Entertainment Nightly” kind of place), the stench of stale urine lingers like a homesick memory. Displayed in the windows of untidy storefronts. T-shirts speak in cheap rhyme (“Mess with the Best — Die like the Rest") and sick mystique ("Born to Fight — Trained to Kill”) and forever suck the parade of mindless boys wanting to be men. Laundry businesses thrive on one-hour service and two-hour starch, along with sales of fake Purple Hearts and combat knives. For a few bucks, anyone going home on leave can replace his square Marksman badge with the crossed rifles of an Expert (just don’t get caught). Underage Marines can still go to the Play Girl Teen Club and drink Near Beer, while scantily clad women (old enough to be their mothers) entertain. Standing outside his cheesy-memorabilia store, an old Vietnamese smokes a cigarette and surveys the street with jaded eyes. "Many, many people," he says, "not no more — slow.” From an open doorway, the liquid voice of dead Marvin Gaye pours ("Mercy, mercy me — things ain't what they used to be").