Joe and the Junkyard Dog

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If you’ve a mind, stay a moment and I’ll tell you a story about a lonely man and a vicious dog.

It’s the kind of story that fits this high desert community with its eccentric old-timers and desert rats who live on the outskirts of town; only visiting long enough to get supplies before going back to their self-made shacks near the Panamint Mountain Range. Or, in an area known as Wonder Valley.

Unless you’re a Marine (it’s home to the biggest Marine base in the country), you probably haven’t heard of the city of 29 Palms, California. It has a small civilian population consisting of military families. Then there’s the old families with histories going back a hundred years, when relatives moved there after WWI to take advantage of the high desert’s clean dry air to treat their lungs damaged by mustard gas in Europe.

Most of the businesses in town have connections to those old families. The family that owned the county’s only junkyard, the Mercer’s, had one of the oldest active businesses in the city. Family members belonged to organizations like the local Masons, and the Rotary Club. They were considered important members of the tight-knit little community.

Mercer Wrecking sponsored local events like “Pioneer Days,” and rodeos. They were a normal family with one exception. Percy Mercer who ran the business, had a mean son named Zack, who was a troublemaker that liked to bully people, and who taunted the family dog, a German Shepard named Max, mercilessly for years.

By anyone’s book, Zack was an asshole. When the families old dog died and they got a new puppy, Max, Zack went out of his way to make the dog miserable. Max had the run of the junkyard and was considered extra insurance against thieves. But after years of sustained cruelty heaped on him, Max became vicious and no one could approach him.

He was chained up during the day next to a wrecked hulk that was once a 1968 Chevy Camaro SS. It was gutted and the rusted frame provided little shade for Max when it was in the 100s – which was often in 29 Palms. With no kind human contact, Max lived to bite someone stupid enough to try jumping the gate at night when he was free to roam the junkyard’s perimeter.

The junkyard was a mile east of downtown 29 Palms. It sat like a blight in the middle of the desert with floodlights at night that attracted insects in massive numbers. Roadrunners ran by the perimeter, often crossing Highway 62 and getting run over by half asleep Marines at night, heading back to the base from a weekend pass. Coyotes avoided the junkyard. They were well aware of Max.

If you were to travel further east of the junkyard, on Highway 62, you’d eventually come upon Wonder Valley, home to hermits and desert rats. There was one small community building that served as an informal post office, firehouse, and meeting place. The residents paid for their crude services by holding constant fundraisers. Bar-b-ques and lots of cold beer held the odd community together.

One of the more eccentric residents was Joe Knudsen, a retired US Navy captain who served in Vietnam’s “Brown Water Forces” on the Mekong for two tours. He was wounded twice on his second tour. The most serious wound was a piece of shrapnel embedded in his forehead. Somehow he survived delicate brain surgery and was honorably discharged with a 100 per cent disability rating. It was 1975, and he ran away from human contact as soon as he got back to California. A friend told him about the high desert and its sparse population. It served his purpose. He bought a five-acre parcel and built a shack to live in.

The thing about Joe was he had PTSD, and his brain injury slowed down his reflexes and ability to think clearly. Staying focused became increasingly difficult since he sustained his injuries over 50 years ago. Sometime he would become confused and would wander outside his shack, rambling around the creosote bushes and dry rivers on his land. More than one local resident found him dehydrated and hungry in the middle of nowhere, and took him back to his shack. There were a few old veterans that tried to keep an eye on Joe, but he lived more than a mile from his nearest neighbor. It wasn’t easy. He was as lean as a rail and could walk for miles with little effect other than sweating. At 67-years old, Joe was in remarkable physical shape.

No one ever thought of calling the county, or anyone else, to take him away for his own safety. It was against the code of the desert. Live free. Die free. Not in some nursing home where a man couldn’t see the fantastic sunsets and sunrises the open desert offered daily.

Late one afternoon, Joe had a flashback and wandered out into the desert like a man in a trance. In his mind he was on a recon mission looking for a VC encampment. His feet carried him into the night and he walked along under the full moon searching for an invisible enemy.

When he saw four floodlights bathing a fenced perimeter he crouched down and inched forward. He heard a man drunkenly cursing something as he low-crawled on the desert floor, unmindful of the rough underbrush.

“Damn dog! I’m going to kill you!” someone shouted.

Joe stopped crawling for a moment. He was confused. His consciousness was torn between an alternate reality, and reality. To him, the angry shouts were in Vietnamese. He came to the chain link fence and easily scaled it, landing lightly on his feet inside.

Cautiously he trotted over to a row of piled up old heaps to get a better look. He listened closely, and heard the man’s angry voice again.

“Tried to bite me you son of a bitch!” Zack Mercer screamed. Joe saw him stumble between a row of piled up cars across from him. Zack had a gun in his hand, and a bottle of booze in the other. His arm and leg were bleeding. When someone ran out of the office to confront Zack he shot them! It was one of his cousins that was spending the night at his house.

Max sprang from the shadows and went after Zack who fired his remaining bullets at the charging dog! One of the bullets hit Max’s shoulder and he flipped over howling in pain. Zack was walking up to the wounded dog while clumsily trying to reload his revolver. Something took over Joe who found a rusted tie-rod on the ground and picked it up. He  ran up on Zack from behind and swung the rusted piece of metal at his head. There was a sickening thud and Zack sank to the ground…dead.

Joe moved past him and over to the wounded Max, who was panting in pain and laying on his side. He picked the big dog up like a baby, or wounded comrade, and carried him out of the yard and into the rapidly cooling desert towards his home.

Afterwards, no one in Wonder Valley asked Joe about where he got his new dog, a mild-mannered German Shepard he called “Buddy.” To be sure, Joe wasn’t entirely sure how he found Buddy, but it sure was a boost for one lonely old desert rat.

As It Stands, in a world of blacks and whites, there are gray areas we don’t fully understand and are left to marvel at.

A Hitchhiker on Death Valley’s Scenic Byway

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Listen to this story narrated by master storyteller Otis Jiry

Hardin was driving east along SR 190, also known as the Death Valley Scenic Byway, when he spotted a man in a wheelchair.

The man held up his thin arm briefly, wearily cocked his thumb like he didn’t expect anyone to stop, then dropped it back to the wheel. With both hands he spun the wheels forward at a pace a tortoise might have overtaken on a good day.

It was the peak of the day, and a brain-frying 129 degrees. Heat waves shimmered off the highway like faraway lakes. Hardin had been driving in the relentless desert for hours without seeing man or animal. He was looking for his turnoff at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, near the settlement of Furnace Creek. He had important business to take care of there.

Furnace creek consists of a visitor center, museum, and headquarters for the Death Valley National Park Service. The tiny village, with less than 20 inhabitants lived in a nearby campground. Most who lived there made a living working at the Park’s major tourist facilities, the Inn at Death Valley and the Ranch at Death Valley. There were also few retired senior citizens living in the campground.

Hardin was so surprised to see a man in a wheelchair in the middle of nowhere, he passed him by. He went a mile before turning around and going back. After making another U-turn he was parallel with the man.

“Can I give you a ride Mr.?” Hardin called out after opening the passenger window.

“Reckon I could use one,” the old-timer replied and spat out a wad of tobacco. His long beard was stained with tobacco juice.

Hardin pulled ahead of him and off to the side of the road. He popped the trunk of his SUV and walked around to the back. He helped push the old-fashioned heavy wheelchair through the soft sand and to the passenger door of the SUV. The old man stood shakily and steadied himself with the open door. When he was securely inside, Hardin closed the door and pushed the wheelchair around to the back and loaded it in.

Driving down the road, Hardin tried to make conversation with his unusual passenger.

“Where you going out here, anyway?” he asked conversationally.

“Furnace creek.

How about that! That’s where I’m going.

After that it lapsed into silence, and Hardin refocused his thoughts on the business ahead. If all went well, he’d only spend a matter of hours in the hot hellhole. A day at the most. He prided himself on efficiency. Stopping to help someone wasn’t something normal for him. If he wouldn’t have been so surprised at the sight he might not have stopped. Plus, he was bored. But the old bastard turned out to be a lousy conversationalist.

At one point Hardin had to piss and pulled over to the side of the road. He asked the old man if he needed to go? He said he didn’t. As he got out he made sure to take his keys with him. Just in case. You never knew. He took his time and stretched his arms and legs afterward, trying to ease the dull ache of a very long drive.

It was getting dark when Hardin spotted the turnoff. He could see a few distant lights and followed the dirt road to a campground. “Is this where you live?” he asked.

“Yup.”

He stopped the car and got out. Two old men were sitting on rickety lawn chairs in front of an old mobile home. They watched him with curiosity as he unloaded the wheelchair and took it to the side of the SUV. He helped the old man out and into the chair. There was an awkward silence before Hardin finally said, “Well, here you go.”

The old man looked at him as if he were sizing him up and grunted, “Thanks.

Hardin got back in the car and drove over to the Inn at Death Valley. “Screw the ungrateful old bastard,” he mumbled out loud as he pulled up to the Inn. He’d reserved a room for the night, even though his business wasn’t expected to take him long. As he checked in the clerk gave him a sealed envelope with his name on it.

“This is for you sir,” he said, like Hardin couldn’t read or something. He went back out to the SUV and grabbed his overnight bag, and his gun from the glove department. It was all he needed. When he got to his room he opened the envelope. There was a photo with a man’s name written on it, and an address. The thought of getting a good night’s sleep was irresistible. He decided to take care of business in the morning when he would be more rested. The air conditioning in the room lulled him into a comfortable sleep.

The next morning after having a cup of coffee and a light breakfast he studied the note and photo again. The address was in the campground he was at last night. Driving over to it he thought about the old man in the wheelchair.

When he got there, the two old men from the day before were sitting on their lawn chairs, talking with his hitchhiker friend in his wheelchair. He pulled out the photo again and got out of the SUV. As he walked up to them he called out, “Hi! I’m looking for Jude Grishom.”

He held the photo out and waited for an answer. As he looked at the hitchhiker something slowly dawned on him. He imagined him without his long beard. Like the shaved face in the photo. Instinct took hold and he pulled his concealed gun out and said, “Hey, Jude! This is from Harry Connell!”

To his surprise nothing happened when he pulled the trigger! Jude smiled at him and threw the bullets on the ground by his feet. He pulled out an old six-shot Smith and Wesson from a bag hanging off his wheelchair.

“You tell Harry that Jude said I’ll meet him in hell someday, but he’s going first!

Hardin spun around as the first shot caught him in the chest. The next three shots brought him down and he died in the sand.

“Well boys, old Harry ain’t ever going to quit sending these goons after me. I’m going to get tired of trolling the highway for ’em one of these days, and I’m going to hunt him down,” he said, as he stood up and stretched his legs.

As It Stands, every good favor doesn’t always warrant a reward.