Joe and the Junkyard Dog


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 Case of Karma: Vernon ‘Comes Home’


The massive artillery bombardment was constant.

The Marine garrison in Khe Sanh was bombed daily – 67 days and counting. It was February, 1968, and the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) were intent on destroying the garrison.

Vernon Baxter and his Marine comrades turned back wave after wave of determined Viet Cong and PAVN soldiers. It was Vernon’s birthday – February 12th . He was twenty years-old and was having strong doubts he was going to make it to twenty-one.

He never imagined the savagery of hand-to-hand combat where every move could be your last. He wasn’t sure how many men he’d killed. All the days were morphing into one endless nightmare with no end in sight.

He heard Sgt. Borgalack’s voice and sighed with relief. He was a great squad leader, even if he was an alcoholic. He was going from bunker, to bunker, checking up on his men. He suddenly slipped into his sand-bagged firing position.

Vernon and Adam Butiskowski both looked at him, hoping to hear a word of good news.

“How’s your ammo holding up?” he casually asked, while pulling out a pack of Kools and offering them it to them. Both automatically accepted. There was a loll in the bombing – fifteen minutes now – and the remaining Marines were sneaking snacks and lighting up their cigarettes.

The 6,000 weary marines were facing two infantry divisions, two artillery regiments and an armored regiment. Counting support troops, the North Vietnamese had 25,000 men.

It’d be dark soon and the bombardment would resume. Marine casualties were piling up. At 0330 hours, soldiers of the NVA 6th Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 325C Division, attacked the Marines on Hill 861.

Adam was killed almost instantly – bullets peppering his body like angry blood bees as a NVA soldier burst over the barrier with fixed bayonet. In a mystic moment they both ran out of ammo.

Vernon barely had time to draw his K-Bar from its sheath when the bayonet plunged into his right shoulder! The pure pain gave him the strength to stab his enemy in the chest.

The NVA soldier, Nyung Van Tron, let go of his AK-47 and rolled to the other side of the firing line away from Vernon. Pulling out the bayonet almost made Vernon faint. He was so weak and exhausted he could barely move.

Nyung was holding his hand over the wound trying to stop the massive bleeding. Flares were going off all around the perimeter and the two men could see each other by the reddish light.

The two enemies stared at each other. Both waiting for the other to make a move. When Nyung starting coughing up blood he knew a lung was punctured. He also knew he was going to die.

Vernon saw a funny look in the other man’s eye and watched him pull a grenade off his belt. Then a surprising thing happened. Nyung reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a 3×5 notebook.

His photo was inside. It was just two wrinkled pages crudely stapled together. The second page had a photo of a woman holding a baby. Both had writing in them. With a great effort he tossed the notebook towards Vernon.

Then he pointed over the sandbags, urging him to leave. Vernon instantly realized he was being granted his life. Summoning up all of his waning strength he picked it up, put it in his front pocket, and crawled to the exit.

Just before going over the top he looked back once and saw tears in the young man’s eyes. The explosion rained sand and blood on him.

The siege ended after 76 days with a reported casualty count of 205 American KIA (this turned out to be a false count – there were more like a 1,000 American casualties), and 10-15,000 dead NVA. It turned out to be the bloodiest battle in the entire war.

September 10, 2017.

Vernon is married with two children; a boy, and a girl. They are grown-up now and they each have a child. Grandpa Vernon and his wife of 45-years, Susie, are retired and living in a small town in Idaho.

In the last few years Vernon and his wife have spent countless hours on the internet researching the 3×5 notebook that Nyung had given him. Then one day Vernon got a break.

He read an article in National Geographic about a small Vietnamese village that was struggling in Ta Con, which use to be the Khe Sanh airfield, and featured a man named Hieu Nyung.

In the 3X5 notebook the photo of the woman and the baby was captioned, Hoa and Hieu Nyung. Vernon knew what he had to do next. A week later Vernon and Susie went to Vietnam.

They found Hieu, but his mother Hoa was dead. When they gave him the notebook he broke down and cried. He was desperate and his extended family were starving. Local officials had imposed harsh new taxes.

It took a week before Vernon was able to relocate them to another province. Then he set Hieu up with a bank account of $20,000 to build a business that could support his family.

It was a big chunk of their savings, but Susie never questioned it because Vernon was finally able to “come home.”

As It Stands, as a Vietnam veteran (1970), I longed to see more compassion among my comrades, who were scared and angry young men like me. Now, over a half century later, I’m finding Vietnam veterans who learned compassion in their old age.