Fallout

Observations from my Communist roadtrip

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in Features

I stand before bland Mid-City storefronts — dry cleaner, computer repair, abandoned — on Pico Boulevard, the early hour keeping traffic light. I’m here, alone, at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, to rendezvous with a vanful of Communists; my goal is to hitch a ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in time for a protest scheduled six hours from now. Something about a massive bomb christened “Divine Strake,” which the Department of Defense plans to blow up momentarily out among the flat planes and jagged peaks of the Nevada Test Site — a vast expanse of barren, blistered land about an hour north of Sin City.

I’m no warmonger, but I’m here more out of professional ambition than political outrage, heeding the forwarded email of my editor — a veteran of anti-whaling clashes and cannabis standoffs — whose connections snagged him an invite to this Communist carpool, which he passed along to me because he had better things to do than spend all of a beautiful Saturday in a van. I try the handle of the address in my editor’s email, but the door is locked tight and the lights off. I wait five, ten minutes for someone to show up, wondering if I’m late by just being on time. After all, I’m engaging with a cohesive philosophy here, a worldwide ideology. I should’ve been early, should’ve been smarter, but this is still pretty new to me, covering hard news for LA’s also-ran alt weekly. I’m a cub reporter at age 29, having retarded my professional development with a half dozen years in reality TV, mostly spent compiling written logs of video footage and transcribing interviews and wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else. My big takeaway from those lost years is that people are weird, and fascinating, and pretty terrible — at least the ones willing to be on, and produce, reality TV (an admittedly skewed sample). Perhaps sensing the toll our time together had taken, reality TV gave me a farewell kiss in the form of a coworker sleeping on the couch of the editor who co-chaired the internship program at the aforementioned also-ran alt weekly (it’s all about who you know).

I had come to LA with screenwriting dreams but slid down the path of least resistance into the cesspool of reality TV, a form of media that literally HAD NO WRITERS. The closest they came were “story producers,” who strung together bits of footage into a hopefully cohesive — if not fully representational — story using the logs and transcripts I helped churn out. Even in my low-level positions creating written content from canned AV, I held on to a perverse superiority that at least I was typing words every day; that’s what I loved: writing words, and even if the producers used them to create dumb-ass shit, I had at least stayed pure by simply processing my perception into this beautiful and utilitarian thing called language. So the idea of working at a newspaper, where words were the end of the line and not just part of the process, felt like manna.

After a quick stint as the paper’s oldest-ever (and technically illegal) intern, I hustled into a spot as a regular contributor, which meant I no longer made no money and instead made $100 for a 1200-word story, which is like making no money but at least allows you to call yourself a professional. In my heart, though, I’m a rank amateur who, sure, reads a lot of news and has seen a lot of movies about reporters, is fairly intelligent and reasonably articulate, but has no actual training as a journalist. I compensate for my lack of experience with a willingness to go the distance — like, say, piling into a van and hauling off to Las Vegas for boots-on-the-ground reportage of an anti-nuke rally.

Truthfully, though, the test — and protest — is more complicated than nukes. Divine Strake would actually deliver a conventional — if largest ever — payload. But the bomb unnerved on two levels: 1) conventional though it may be, Strake’s massive explosion would vault tremendous amounts of irradiated rubble from atomic blasts past (the Nevada test site had born the brunt of a thousand nuclear detonations since the ’50s) into the upper atmosphere, where cancer could catch the high pink breeze downwind to the thyroids of Utah and beyond, and 2) Strake’s design as a “bunker buster” — penetration before detonation, perfect for the cave-dwelling enemy du jour — is a decided turn away from the relative quiet of mutually assured destruction and toward the Sturm und Drang of actual deployment. To thwart these threats, the Communists of Los Angeles rallied the troops.

But my ride is missing.

After 15 minutes of pacing and chewing my lip (in this era before cell phones’ ubiquity), a long white van pulls up to the curb. Out jumps a 40-something guy who looks like a wizened biker, or anyway someone who would play a wizened biker in a TV show, and from the passenger side comes a lion’s mane of a woman cradling an oversized plastic shopping bag erupting with curled poster board. He’s Brian, leader of the local chapter, whom I have emailed with previously, and he explains that they had to pick up supplies. His companion, Kate, seems to also be his companion-companion, but it’s hard to say for sure and she’s ten years younger and they’re all business. Upon Brian’s arrival, the doors of three nearby vehicles open, and out step the rest of our party.

They’ve been here the whole time.

After a quick bathroom run in the office, all seven of us pile into the van, Brian taking the wheel and Kate shotgun, the seats directly behind them empty; then a mountain of a man named Jorge next to 50-something Nancy; behind them the 60-something Mrs. Bai with a row of seats to herself; and finally 50-something Harold and I sharing the back row, me tucked in the far corner. Turnout isn’t quite as robust as expected, with several last-minute bails, but spirits are high as we pull away from the curb and then we stop at the end of the block for coffee and snacks and maybe one more quick potty stop for Jorge.

Finally on the open road just shy of eight a.m., we climb our way through the freeways until we reach the 15 North, leaving behind everything but desert vistas and the sun’s scorch. Brian has forewarned the group that I’m a reporter, which thankfully saves me from having to convince everyone (the paper won’t spring for business cards let alone press passes, and my email is my AOL). Eager to engage the media, Mrs. Bai turns fully around to inform me of America’s sins. She is originally from what is now South Korea, and in the early stages of the Korean War, when the Marines had approached the seashore near Mrs. Bai’s village, the locals, not privy to the machinations of international military alliances and with no heads up about the friendly invasion, had gone to investigate the new arrivals. In Mrs. Bai’s telling, the Marines eschewed dialogue in favor of a barrage of automatic weapons fire, slaughtering the entire welcoming party where they stood. We should be really concerned with the Divine Strake test, she punctuates, as it puts another devastating weapon in the hands of such indiscriminate killers.

Nodding, somber Harold shares his tale of regret; he has spent decades working for the Defense Department, helping manufacture the wars that have wreaked havoc across the globe. When I inquire as to what he does now, he sheepishly admits that he still works for Defense. I ask how he reconciles his beliefs and his actions. How can he live in — and work for — a country that he holds in such contempt? He doesn’t say anything for a good long while, and when he finally does speak it’s a mumble and a turn back to the window.

I pose the same question to Mrs. Bai and get a similar, flummoxed nonanswer. My gaze, too, drifts to a window, and as the rocky, brittle landscape races by, it occurs to me that people with an axe to grind with the government maybe don’t want to verbalize their ultimate motivations to someone with even a tenuous grip on the power of the press. I scribble gibberish in my notepad to escape the awkward tension.

Maybe it was a dumb question, so on the nose, so basic and fundamental as to thwart direct engagement — like a solar eclipse. For certain it’s a rookie question, asked by a soft boy without the default stance of government as criminal enterprise. Raised in the gooey ignorance of suburban Minnesota, I watched a lot of TV, played in the woods behind my house, and didn’t consider the imperialistic cruelties enabling my Middle-American stupor. I did read A People’s History of the United States to impress a girl in college (well, I got as far as the robber barons and then gave up, numbed by the repetition), and at one point I had amassed a collection of recorded-from-broadcast VHS tapes of The X-Files, so the notion of the US government not having its people’s best interests foremost in its thoughts wasn’t totally foreign, though it held an aura of fantastical abstraction; the government that so precisely and ruthlessly coordinated the false flag attacks that came to be known as 9/11 is the same government that can’t carry through the scheduled pick-up of an old mattress (which ended up sitting at my curb for a full two weeks!). But is that the brilliantly cunning double bind? Staged incompetence to deflect attention, deft control of perception’s production. How deep does the cabal run? How can you confront a shadow? I realize my scribbling has sunk into a terminal spin of loose overlapping circles when an inky ovular bruise glints sunlight up from the page.

We pull off at a rest stop halfway up a mountain, and everyone slowly climbs out before ambling off to stretch legs or straight to the pisser to relieve the coffee from an hour ago. I stroll around the perimeter, circling the restrooms and snack machines, taking in the surrounding desert cliffs that fall away to a distant beige floor strewn with boulders and brush. Glancing at my watch, I do a quick calculation of our pace and the remaining distance. Suddenly feeling a bit squeezed, I go in search of the group but spot only Brian and Kate, sharing an intimate embrace near an explanatory plaque placed next to a set of trash bins. I silently congratulate myself for sniffing the scoop, but wonder if riding on the freeway of love is maybe making our pace soft. I wait another ten minutes as the party finally fully regroups, and then offer to take a turn behind the wheel, hoping for both a show of solidarity to the collective philosophy and a chance to make up some time.

The Communists accept.

We’re cruising for a solid hour, and each mile marker that zips past feels like a pat on the back. Then we hit Baker, California, featuring the world’s tallest thermometer and the biggest cluster of restaurants for hundreds of miles, and Brian informs me we’re stopping for lunch. I’m clenching a fistful of running sand. The meal is unhurried, leisurely even, capped by a milkshake for Nancy, which Jorge eats most of. I drum my fingers on the table, checking my watch every few minutes, but the rest of the group seems unbound to time itself. Brian casually notes that the group hasn’t made their protest signs yet. Kate suggests taking advantage of the stillness of the parking lot as the creation location, where the calligraphist’s lines won’t be jostled by road conditions. A cold sweat breaks beneath my eyes, and I anxiously observe that it would really behoove us to get back on the road — you know, if we’re still trying to make that protest. Brian points out that it would be a little foolish to show up to a protest without a protest sign. I counter that it would perhaps be even more foolish to have signs but miss the intended protest, especially if it were the making of the signs that caused the miss. After a moment of group consideration, my logic ekes it out and I’m back at the wheel trying to keep things steady but swift as the smell of ink permeates the van’s interior and the wet tips of markers chirp against poster-board gloss.

Jorge rides shotgun, having ceded the construction of his protest sign to Nancy, who gladly does double duty. When Jorge compliments my driving, I explain my early jobs as a production assistant, driving cargo vans to and from set, including winding the oversized vehicles down a subterranean Tetris game of a parking garage. With my mention of the entertainment industry, Jorge leans closer. Bashfully, I confess it was just reality TV, but he isn’t deterred, mentions that he always thought his life would make good TV. I press, and he launches into a story of mean streets and spilled blood, of no good choices left to him by a sinister government that — Jorge clams up. After a beat, I steal a sidelong glance and register his heavy brow sinking lower still. Are you CIA, he asks? I laugh and insist I am far from it. Still, Jorge looks skeptical. I run my gaze over the rearview mirror, see that the others are immersed in poster prep, turn up the agitprop radio and fade it to the back, and then I spill a hurried, hushed tale of a coworker and I slipping away from our reality TV job to score. Six blocks over from our production office was a collection of three streets that formed a little H sandwiched between two busy thoroughfares — an insular world abundant in foot traffic and piles of trash and home to a crew of hustlers ready to take cash and pop balloons of hard drugs out from their cheeks and into the palm of your hand. My coworker was a regular, but when the trans slanger approached the car, she eyed me, hesitated, and asked if I was a cop. Guess it’s the belly and the haircut, I suggest to Jorge, trying to play it cool. He stares, and asks if I got the drugs. I nod. Jorge doesn’t return to his diatribe, but his suspicions seem to have at least morphed from government agent to wastoid.

Las Vegas’s funhouse skyline — castle, pyramid, Eiffel Tower, Midtown Manhattan, big chunky buildings that gleam like gold bricks — rises into view, and I feel a weight lifting as there are still 45 minutes before the protest. But Brian delivers the final set of directions, revealing (at least to me) that the Mercury entrance to the Nevada Test Site is another 65 miles beyond the city. Then I bungle the exit to a local highway. By the time we’re finally cutting up a stretch of road between two sets of low mountains, past loads of chain link strung along the edges of a prison and then an Air Force base, I’m white-knuckle driving. Finally I spot some parked cars on the unfenced side of the road and figure this must be the place, bringing the van to a stop with just a hint of rocky skid. After throwing the van in park and jumping out, I sprint up a small rise, tape recorder and notebook in my pumping fists.

We’re only about ten minutes late, and I’m holding out hope something can be salvaged for the story, but with beige rocky desert rolling away from me in all directions, nestled in this wide shallow valley, inundated by unmitigated sun, I struggle to situate myself within any larger narrative than it is hot and it is bright. Across the wide barren highway is a short road leading behind a rise to what very well may be the fabled Mercury Gate, but I don’t see any police or protesters. Then one, and another, and another, a loose string of people slowly crests the rise and approaches. I catch the eye of a raven-haired woman in her early 50s and ask about the protest. She explains it’s over: the protestors lined up on one side of the property line and the police lined up on the other, and one by one the protestors stepped across and one by one the officers arrested their corresponding offender and led them off to a processing station, which was really just a place to stand while they wrote you a ticket. The whole thing was very ceremonial. I present my tape recorder and ask if I can tape our conversation, explain that I’m a journalist (and get a thrill when she doesn’t object to either the taping or the claim). But as another young woman descends the rise, my interviewee waves her over and turns to me to explain that Lily here knows a lot more than she does. The first woman — whose name I haven’t gotten — introduces me to Lily as a journalist from LA, and I could just die. Scenting big-city press and eyes wide with adrenaline, Lily, like a pro, asks if I want soundbites. I’m still reeling from the fact I have missed the whole reason I came all the way out here, so Lily’s confidence is intoxicating. I nod and hold up the recorder, my notepad clamped against its back, pen at the ready. Fresh from processing, Lily clenches her ticket and paces as she peppers the air with complaints against the government’s management of her ancestral home. I scribble away in my notepad, storing her barbs with jotted keywords and a crude shorthand for longer bits — I’ll draw the connective tissue later when I listen to the playback. Right now I just let the words rain down on me. Lily isn’t even talking about Divine Strake but some sacred mountain the government has stuffed with radioactive waste. I’m completely unmoored, letting the subject run the interview, not knowing enough about anything to ask probing follow-ups. I imagine a real reporter falling back on some poignant J-school moment to remember how to tease out a story from any situation, but my training makes me a reality TV camera gobbling up footage to be processed later.

Finally Lily proffers a flyer that outlines the greatest US travesties, like an imperialism crib sheet, and tells me I’ve got to come to the peace camp. She leads me past the parking area, now dotted with people but I don’t see any of the crew I arrived with, and on to a series of low-slung tan tents set in depressions scattered across the rolling rocky plane, making it difficult to gauge the perimeter or population. Lily leads me down inside a nearly flat, wide tent and introduces me to Robert Three Bear, an elder reclining on a stack of blankets like a spread toad in denim. He tells me of broken promises, violent greed laying waste to what was freely given, how it hurts his heart. Robert Three Bear lifts his clenched hand from his chest and spins it around his head. This land is spirit land, and the United States government ravages it with a terrible power that spreads only sickness. Sickness of body and sickness of mind. Recalling these devastating wounds, Robert speaks evenly, calmly, like the waves of the sea lapping until today’s wrongs finally yield to the Great Spirit’s turning wheel. I jot notes sporadically but mainly imbibe the atmosphere, catching a hit of rustic nostalgia.

Though never ascending past Tenderfoot (thanks to merit-badge performance anxiety and maudlin tendencies on overnights), I did time in the Boy Scouts and am familiar with its fetishizing of the indigenous, with names like “Tomahawk Camp” and “Order of the Arrow,” the latter a somber bonfire affair to honor elite scouts. I witnessed Arrow’s induction ceremony only because my oldest brother had been invited and got to bring his family to bear witness to big white dads beating on drums and wearing feathered headdresses. And now here is Robert Three Bear, the genuine article; it was like meeting Saint Nicolas after a lifetime of mall Santas, but also knowing you had a generational hand in the wasteful slaughter of his reindeer and plundering of his coal reserves and now Santa’s workshop and the whole North Pole was little more than a bowl full of jelly.

I aced history back when it was Scantron bubbles in the Great White North, but outside the strictures of academia history isn’t a piece of paper but a shouting match and I don’t have anything to say because all I know is the dumb shit nobody really believes in their heart of hearts except out of fear that changing demographics will bring retribution, a fear based on being the winners of a rigged game for centuries. Nobody wants to hear from the guy whose foot fits the jackboot whether or not he’s actually in it, because he and every other generally well-meaning SOB have had plenty of time to say or do something to better balance the scales but have been too hung up on navel gazing and fuckoffery. And now that oppression has a hashtag, everybody is just doing for themselves anyway — don’t need you anymore, dinosaur.

The year prior there had been a series of huge immigration reform marches, and I was riding the subway home from downtown after having covered a march near Olvera Street. In a train car full of Latinos (many dressed for protest), him, and me, a black teenager loudly and generally announced his support for the impending Mexican takeover, that white people done fucked up now. I was technically still covering the day’s events, so I spoke up in a journalistic capacity though not announcing it as such, not identifying myself by anything other than exterior, maybe it was gonzo and maybe it was that fear and maybe it was the hope that we could engage with each other directly and admit that things were a bit more complicated than that. Even my cursory coverage of city hall had revealed the historicity of black-brown tensions, so I asked where he was going to go then, after this return to Aztlan. His response was just to reiterate his original point, once again addressing it to the space between people. “Where are you gonna go?” I repeated, receiving no acknowledgment let alone reply. It didn’t matter — nobody wants to hear from a turd as you flush it. But a turd has been up in the guts, knows the twists and turns of the system, knows that it all just comes out bullshit (naturally) and whoever is in charge just ends up being terrible. That’s what all that grunge apathy was about, why people were so rooting for a Y2K apocalypse to come flip the board over and ruin the game — because it’s not going to get any better from here, which is of course the ultimate white privilege.

So I just listen to Robert Three Bear, tape rolling, even as the tiny reporter voice in the back of my mind nags that, sadly, the US government’s continued gang rape of all Americans here pre-1492 isn’t breaking news. There’s no smoking gun here, but I listen because I should’ve listened long ago, in the basement of the Methodist church of my youth where a drum circle of indigenous performed cultural exchange. Their high-pitched yelps and whoops proved outrageously funny to the eight-year-old ears of my best friend and me, and we spurred each other on to a full-fledged fit of giggles that never let up. After the performance, my face aching from sustained smiles, someone else’s mom — clearly cross — approached and demanded to know why I had been laughing. I didn’t know, couldn’t articulate the absurdity of the foreign to one ensconced since birth in like: the conquistador’s excuse, essentially. By the time Robert has said his piece, the blood of bitter centuries have rouged my cheeks.

Leading me out of Robert’s tent, Lily offers to introduce me to some other people around the camp. Robert’s words felt essential, but I’m still not sure how this spins into a news story, so I jump at the chance to collect more material. As we emerge, Brian flags me down — time to go. But we just got here, I think, saying nothing other than “Okay.” I thank Lily for her time, and she asks me to email her the article when it runs. I promise to, even as I question whether there will be any article. Ceding to the will of the carpool and facing the desperation of being hundreds of miles from home, I follow Brian back to the van and the fully assembled — and visibly restless — rest of the group. Brian holds out the keys to me. Since I drove last (and in fact have already taken two straight turns), it seems a little off message for these Marxists to call my number yet again, but the indebtedness of having bummed the ride in the first place gets me back in the saddle. As we drive off, Jorge jokes about missing the protest, and I force a smile and shrug but feel deflated by the whole experience. Before I can fully process, Brian informs me that we’re stopping at the same restaurant on the way back, this time for dinner.

I order a chocolate malt in silent declaration that this is a continuation of the meal we had here mere hours ago, but the others manage a full feast, pleasantly surprised by their early-bird eligibility. As the group tucks in to chicken fingers and French dips, I flip through my notepad under the table, sifting for gold. I came to the desert for Commies and nukes, and am leaving with, what? Tardy poseurs and a list of historical grievances with the US government. To run today’s collection of woe would require giving the accused an opportunity to respond; training or no, I get fair play, which in my experience leads to pronouncements that numbers have been misconstrued or studies have been discredited, points are soon countered or even redirected to self-incrimination of the accuser, leaving my notepad awash in clashing scribbles, a clog of claims that won’t allow any single strand to be pulled free and clear. In my search for an even keel, the murk of perception descends, funneling my articles into a sprinkling of facts and a smear of talking head snippets tapering off into draw-your-own-conclusion conclusions. My rough approximation of reportage ultimately comes across like a hard news gossip column, which I compensate for by framing my openings around a telling firsthand detail, a signpost in history’s progression that says this happened and I witnessed news. I can’t vouch for the rest of it all, but I promise you this detail is as real as anything I know. Today’s detail, however, is lost, swallowed up by the vastness of events and temperaments, as well as insatiable Communist hunger, leaving me with the same old symphony of opposition, cheering sides if not the issue, crafting a kaleidoscopic lens that twists and trickles the view by the precision of human need.

I just want to say something true to everybody all at once.

As I close my notepad on the brink of despair, I spot a note that takes me back. Early, in frenzied scrawl: HOT!!! Again, I feel the singe deep in my nostrils, on my soft palette, as air baked by the overhead sun races into my body while it also pushes against my skin, creating a bubble of stark awareness. Cradled in this shallow trench between two rows of low mountains, the atmosphere feels thick, charged, resistant to existence save its own sun-bleached and bowed one. The sky looms closer, and the lessened space presses spirits earthbound. While natives took the hushed barren landscape to be a spiritual portal, the US government saw it as the perfect hiding spot for its dirty work, trucking in enough radioactivity to grow the Great Spirit a second head. The low mountains gather up everything between their stubby peaks and simmer the stew of spirits and split atoms until fat and meat alike tumble loose, leaving simply glimmering bone. This desolate landscape carved by angels and devils strips away everything beyond basic existence. The place. The sensation. The bubble of perception made tangible. My detail for the opening. It’s a bit of a cheat since it still doesn’t directly relate to the protest, and it’s a bit abstract and poetic, but it’s all I’ve got.

Dusk descends by the time we pay the check. As the group gets up, I lay the van keys on the messy table. The Communists seem confused, but having driven half of the entire trip and finally content I can at least shit out a story from this, I begin to fade. When Brian, the only other person who has driven today, takes another turn at the wheel rather than some brand-new comrade shouldering the load, I want to scream that they’re lousy excuses for Communists, that all the snacks and the stops and the late start and the lackadaisy felt horribly cliché for the LA branch of anything. But instead I crawl into the backseat, with Mrs. Bai my seatmate now, and slouch low, pretending to sleep for the remaining two and a half hours of the trip, taking my place within the enfolding abyss.

Eight months later, Divine Strake is officially cancelled. •

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.