Last Man on Killer Hill
"Not yet," says the guide. "This is the middle of nowhere. His place is 10 miles farther out." Every soul within 100 miles tells tales of the man we’re looking for. They say he’s a living legend, the last of a dying breed: a gunnery-range scrapper.
We’re four-wheeling through a land time forgot near the California-Arizona border; hot, dry, uninhabitable desert terrain. General George Patton chose this living hell south of Chiriaco Summit as a training center for the million troops he took to North Africa in the Big War. At 18,000 square miles, it was the largest military training ground in history.
"The desert is a killer itself," noted Patton. "We must acclimate our men to ... the harshest conditions imaginable."
No kidding. The temperature is 114 degrees in the shade. But there is no shade, so it’s 121. Ocotillo branches and fuzzy-tipped Munz cholla cacti sprawl upwards of 15 feet, but they’re too gangly to shield out the sun. And dry? Hell, back in relatively humid Palm Springs, 100 miles away, we had to cover our poolside Margaritas to keep them from evaporating. Either that or drink real fast. And the natural heat is the good news about this place.
By the end of World War II, Patton’s big sandbox was pockmarked by craters and littered with ordnance. No halfway-sane person would live there anyway, so Uncle Sam deemed it perfect for a bomb drop.
Our destination is the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, surely the most inhospitable place on earth: Jurassic Park meets Top Gun Beyond Thunderdome. The Chocolate Mountains look like a Mesolithic diorama at the Natural History Museum. The mocha-camou backdrop is perfect military issue, a mottled blend of bittersweet hues and textures—Hershey’s, Nestlé’s, Ovaltine, Ghirardelli. Up close, the larger rocks in this primordial brownout appear more like char-broiled chunks of beef. Above are crystal-blue skies without even the ugly rumor of a cloud.
But there’s plenty of thunder: F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-6 Intruders, Harriers, Broncos, A-10 Warthogs, A-111s. They scream in from all directions—but mostly from around San Diego, home to more than 110,000 Marine and Navy personnel and one-third of the Pacific fleet (including two aircraft carriers), as well as the air bases at Miramar and North Island, El Toro and El Centro.
Indeed, the $9.6 billion annual financial impact the military has on America’s Finest City depends largely on its proximity to this desert range. Out here, the awesome winged beasts are upon you by the time you feel the firmament tremble, swooping low to unleash all manner of hellfire—500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs. Kaboom! Huge soaring canisters of napalm and cluster bombs. Whoosh! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Daytime runs produce mushroom clouds 1,000 feet high that can be seen all the way to the Salton Sea, 30 miles away.
Barooom! At night, they fire up the sky like a Desert Storm light show. Kablooey! Indeed, right here, hard by the Chocolates, is where those Gulf War flyboys got their shooting practice.
And look at the choppers: Cobras with 30mm Vulcan guns and 2.75 rockets that’ll take out a truck; CH-53 Sea Stallions with .50-caliber rockets and mini-guns; CH-46 Sea Knights, double proppers with .50s; "Mad Hornets" with .308 mini-guns; Hueys loaded for bear with .50s and rockets—all of them shooting up a storm night and day, spewing rockets and spraying bullets. Whoooa, boy! This place is more terrifying than when T. rex supplied the thunder.
And everybody knows it. It’s absolutely crazy dangerous to be out here. The government posts signs every 50 feet on the range borders to notify you that it’s also illegal. Get the hell outta here, they say. In multiple languages. El bombo muy dangeroso. ¡Andele pronto!
"He’s been living out here more than 10 years?" I muse aloud, staring at some mushrooms hovering over the range. "That’s impossible!"
"Yeah," the guide says. It took the guide, who is actually a professional photographer, a few months to find this guy and another few months to earn his trust before he could haul in a writer. Now, after three hours of four-wheeling through desert washes, some as narrow as our truck, others as wide and flat as the San Diego Freeway, we’ve finally arrived 10 miles past the dead-center middle of nowhere. There, near the gunnery range border, we approach a compound marked with a wooden sign that says "Freedom Village."
I kinda know what to expect. "Freedom Village" is Marine Corps lingo for "home safe." At training camp, they drop you out of a chopper somewhere, and if you make it back to camp without getting "killed" or "captured," you’re at Freedom Village.
It’s quite a spread. Ten acres of auto/industrial detritus strewn about a group of trailers: generators, camper shells, oil barrels, propane and water tanks, torches, appliances, truck beds, hitches, machinery. Mostly it’s an oasis of vehicles—a big old pickup, an El Camino flatbed, a large van, a three-wheel ATV and a half-dozen Volkswagen Bugs in various stages of disassembly. These aren’t just any Bugs, but custom desert "sand rails." It’s obvious the compound exists largely to service these stripped-down, tricked-out Bugs. Parts lie everywhere—transmissions, motors, drive shafts, axles, you name it.
But it’s the scrap scattered through the compound that provides a decorative and distinctive touch. Not just any scrap —ordnance. Big gray aluminum bomb fins. Piles of brass shell casings. Napalm canister lids. Everything from WWII howitzer shells to high-tech cluster bombs and mortar rounds.
Seven bad-news dogs, chain-stationed to posts around the compound, bark up a chorus to announce our arrival. I step from the vehicle to scan the stunning scene of ordnance and Mad Max vehicles. "Geez. It’s like Road Warrior," I observe.
The guide laughs. "Nah, it’s more weird than that," he says. "This is real."
The GUY WE’VE COME TO SEE goes by the handle J.R. He’s short and wiry, a bantamweight, late 40s, with a thick hillbilly drawl. "Yeah, I’m crazy," J.R. admits right off, soon as we start talking about how he makes a living. "I’m a psycho. But that helps keep people away."
One look and you know he’s a die-hard bush vet. Not just because he’s still wearing frayed camou fatigues from his four—he claims—tours in Vietnam, or the way he chain-smokes generic 100s, or that hyper-alert eternal patrol vigilance. No, it’s those untamed eyes. They’ve probably been that way since he broke from boot camp 30 years ago. This one hasn’t come back yet. You can tell. This one is never coming back.
"I’ve been playin’ Russian roulette a long time," he says with a near-toothless grin. "If I buy it out there, it’s because my time is up."
He only works under cover of darkness. By 10 p.m., when his sixth sense tells him the flyboys are done for the night, the three of us climb into one of J.R.’s rails and tear out onto the range. The temperature has plummeted to a bracing 93 degrees. The desert sky is ablaze with stars. We’re in for the ride of
"These lights are just for your benefit," he says, turning on the headlights. "I don’t need ’em." I’ll discover how true that is soon enough.
The rail has big wheels in back, tiny ones in front. There’s no roof, no windshield, no hood, no windows, no doors, no sides, no fenders, no backseat, no interior, no dash lights, no gauges, no speedometer, no glove box, no plates, no registration—no nothing. The backseat area and front-end trunk are just metal cages for holding scrap. Seatbelts? Ha! I’m happy there’s a shotgun seat and a handle to grip on the dash—like a cowpoke riding a bull. The rail is built for hauling scrap and hauling ass. Nothing else. I get the feeling that total disregard for safety features is part of the design plan.
But there is one exception. I notice a huge 18-inch bolt right in front of us, about neck high, sticking up out of the cowl like a rhino horn. "That’s for tow missile wire," J.R. explains. "So thin you can’t see it. It’ll take your head clean off."
As we ride, I can’t help but ask the obvious. "Yeah, it’s like ’Nam," J.R. admits. "It’s living on the edge. This is as close as I can get to a war zone. In fact, once we cross the line, we are in a war zone. Ain’t no such thing as friends out here. Everybody is the enemy."
Years ago, as many as 300 scrappers worked the U.S. gunnery ranges. Today, only a handful of real professionals remain across the vast Southwest. And that number continues to dwindle. Attrition has real meaning in this profession. "A lot of them got caught, lot of them retired, some is in jail, but most of them is dead," says J.R. You can’t train for this career in school, and it’s got an interesting set of requirements. "You have to be crazy," he explains, "but you can’t be stupid."
Officially, scrapping on gunnery ranges is not tolerated by military authorities. Most would-be scrappers get busted in a New York minute. Just how J.R. has managed to survive and make a tidy living out here for so long is one of the mysteries I’ve come to explore. Besides having to avoid military patrols, he also has to watch out for county sheriff’s deputies and all the acronymic feds—BLM, INS, ATF and DEA.
J.R. shouts above the clang as we bounce over the rutted terrain: "The bombing patterns change day to day. Sometimes you think they’ve gone away, and they come back screamin’ through." He grins. "Heck, I been bombed, shot at, napalmed. One time I got caught in a deep wash, and a ball of fire rolled through right over my head, just rainin’ fire out of the sky.
"Sometimes, right before a bomb hits, you hear the detonator clickin’ in, and
you know you got a live bomb on its way. You got a few seconds to get down. When you hear that click, you dive into a 1,000-pound bomb hole [a 20-foot crater] real quick. If you’re out in the open, the shrapnel will kill ya. It’ll fly five, six hunnerd yards. I’ve dug myself out of a lot of them bomb holes."
Most of the jets drop practice bombs, or "inerts," but you don’t want to be around those either. A cement-filled thousand-pounder can ruin your whole day if it comes screaming out of the sky and spears your vehicle. That happened to J.R. once, while he was standing just a few feet away. The bomb split his motor in half. He had to walk off the range—across 8 miles of hell.
For the next few hours we drive in darkness over 20 miles of hardscrabble desert terrain. We wind through moonscape gullies pocked by 20- to 30-foot bomb craters. Like giant darts, 500- and 1,000-pound inerts stick up in the dirt. Some have earth plunged right up to their fins, like an arrow that’s gone in to the feathers. Scores of others lie strewn on their bellies. Under the gray-cast moonlight, they resemble schools of beached dolphins.
Wooden mock-up targets of tanks and missiles appear every few hundred yards, many of them blasted apart and flickering in flames from the day’s bombing runs. Giant real guns, torn from scrapped battleships and brought out here to serve as targets, sit aimed at the sky. Baby-blue 5-pound "practice bombs," used to mark the target with a smoke charge, lie bent and twisted everywhere. White nylon parachute bombs caught in the brush billow like ghosts.
A huge 5-ton truck used as a target lies charred and mangled from a direct hit, a smoldering glob of tortured die castings that could as well be bulldozed stereos or Mixmasters. It looks like something you could plunk down on a platform at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art: Detonation Ordnance Sculpture. Surrounding all this jagged metal are piles of bullet-riddled oil barrels scattered in the charred dust.
As I stare in stunned silence, J.R. continues to rap. "Blue bombs means inert. Green or gray with yellow or brown stripes are H-O-T," he explains. "See that rocket right there?" He points to a 2.75 rocket that looks like a 5-foot-long fluorescent light bulb. "That son of a bitch has an explosive tip still in it." He swerves to avoid hitting it.
J.R. salvages all varieties of scrap, but mostly he pulls the fins off 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs. These fins are a prized score; they contain nearly 70 pounds of pure aluminum. When attached to a live bomb, they’re blown into shrapnel and a few salvageable chunks. But those attached to inerts remain intact and can be salvaged whole. All you have do is remove eight screws and yank ’em off.
It’s the fins on HE (high explosive) bombs that for some reason did not explode that really test a scrapper’s nerve. We come across one of these, a 500-pounder, brown with a yellow stripe, live as hell, and J.R. decides he wants it. He can’t pass up those big, beautiful fins.
First he’s gotta dig the sucker out with his marine shovel, because this bomb is plunged into the sandy soil past its fins. J.R. has me hold a flashlight while he chucks the dirt away. Then he pulls his ratchet wrench out of the metal .50-caliber ammo crate he uses as a toolbox and starts unscrewing the bottom or "bell" of the bomb, where the fins are attached. While he’s doing this, he provides the play-by-play: something about defusing detonators, knowing how to remove and snip the correct "hot" wires and the proper way to pull the fins away. Something about not touching the clock or timer, because that’ll cause it to restart.
"When you pull on that, you could be pullin’ your last." He laughs. "Then you got nothin’ to worry about. A white flash and you’re history. Instantaneous hamburger."
But I’m not really listening to any of this. I’m not there. I’m thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be some desk-jockey editor in New York. I’m thinking about how Mom wanted me to be a doctor. I’m thinking about Mom.
"Whoooeee! That’s 35 bucks right there, with the current price of aluminum," J.R. hoots, tossing the 70-pound fins into the back of his rail. They clatter like money in God’s jukebox.
"Swell," I mutter.
"It pays the bills," he says. "You don’t get rich."
Truth is, J.R.’s had some pretty good years. As high as 60K. A scrapper’s lot is tied to the fluctuating price of scrap met-
al. When aluminum and brass are way up, he can make $1,000 in one night. When they’re way down, it’s hardly worth go-
We come across a live bomb that’s been attended to by EOD—Explosive Ordnance Disposal. The bomb has four blocks of plastic C-4 explosives set on top of it, with a primer and detonation cords attached. The C-4 looks like the rectangular chunks of clay schoolkids play with. Only this is kablooey putty. "That shoulda blown up by now, but it didn’t," J.R. says.
He shrugs. "I don’t know." The C-4 could net him 15 grand on the black market, he explains. Terrorists love the stuff. "And it’s not so dangerous to detach if you know what you’re doing." Still, he won’t touch it. "That stuff will get you 50 years if you get caught with it. That’s a serious crime." He lights up another generic. "Besides, that’s part of my job: makin’ sure them bastards don’t get it."
His watchful and patriotic eye, J.R. claims, is one of the reasons he’s been allowed to go about his business for so many years. I ask him just how he keeps potential Tim McVeighs from getting their hands on explosive contraband. By informing EOD?
"Nah, I don’t talk to them," he says. "That would incriminate me. I suppose—hypothetical, now—if I saw someone trying to do it [remove C-4 from a bomb], I guess I could shoot that 500-pound bomb with my M-1 carbine with a steel jacket, penetrate the bomb: The bomb goes off, the C-4 goes off, and ain’t nothin’ left." He laughs. "Of course, that’s just hypothetical."
He also keeps an eye out for drug desperadoes, who are always a threat. Meth cookers like to set up labs near the range, where they won’t be disturbed. Sometimes they get iced out of their brains between batches and decide to go out scrapping. They’re stone-cold amateurs, bad characters, as dangerous and unstable as any ordnance. According to J.R., he once engaged in a war of sorts with some cookers. "A few bomb craters was filled," he says.
He stresses that real scrappers like himself are not part of that breed. "All scrappers are not druggies or drunks or thieves and killers," he says with emphasis. "Some are good people."
Suddenly, sparkling in our headlights, there’s a field of brass 20mm shell casings, recently deposited by a helicopter gunship. "I ain’t leavin’!" J.R. exclaims. He jumps out and starts scooping ’em up. "It’s 50 cents a pound on this brass, and it only takes three to make a pound."
So for the next half-hour we scan the ground with flashlights, picking brass shells like bright berries. Eerie mountain silhouettes are visible in the distance under vast blankets of stardust. I breathe deep the not-unpleasant wafting aroma of smoking mesquite and creosote mixed with traces of jet fuel and gunpowder. This is really weird.
Before long, we’re loaded and rolling. The guide’s in back, perched atop a huge pile of fins and brass. J.R. takes a slow roll down an expansive, brush-filled wash that’s alive with smoldering fires. A number of sturdy ironwood trees, having been set ablaze by napalm and bombs, flare into flames with the fluctuating wind. Framed by darkness and the mountain silhouettes, they emanate a surreal glow. It’s a lot like riding past those fake burning houses at Frontierland—only these fires are art as directed by Dali, not Disney.
"Red lights at 10 o’clock," J.R. suddenly barks, jolting me from my daze. "Treetop high." Before I can ask what it is, he kills his headlights and stands on the gas.
"Them’s choppers outta Yuma," J.R. whoops. "You boys are gonna see some action now!" He zips blind through the bush, no lights, the rail sailing from each bump. "Get down!" he cries, a split-second before a huge branch whaps into where my face would have been.
"How’d you see that?" I yell.
"I got night vision," J.R. shouts. "Besides, I’m on a first-name basis with every tree, rock and stump out here."
For a half-hour, J.R. keeps one eye on the pursuing chopper as he races like he’s at the Baja 1000. Finally he ducks into a narrow wash and zooms off like a bat out of hell, 70 mph, with no lights! Burning bushes whip past us now like giant sparklers. Tree limbs flog our flying rail with lethal force.
We ultimately reach a dirt road that leads off the range. We’re safe now, having lost the chopper, but J.R. is not about to turn on his lights. We fly hellbent down the road at 90 mph. I know the number because I can feel the speed, the wind, the rumbling —even though I can see nothing in front of me but darkness.
"Whoooooeeeee!" J.R. cries above the wind. "Now this is what I call freedom!" He’s lit up like a rocket, adrenaline coursing through his veins. "It gets in your blood," he shouts. "It’s addictive." No doubt about it: He’s a junkie.
Back at the compound, we stay up most of the night listening to J.R. and his wife, Lorelei, relate wild desert tales. Tough, hearty and independent, Lorelei is J.R.’s weathered yet good-looking gal Friday—cook, mechanic’s helper, scrap-cleaner, driver, lookout and armed sentry. She’s also an artist, rockhound, ATV explorer and gentle friend to the deer, quail and coyotes she often feeds.
J.R. tells us about the worst spot on the range: Killer Hill. "The jets make their drop when they’re on one side of the hill, and by the time you see ’em the bombs are on their way. It’s already too late."
He won’t even go up there anymore, except one day a year: the 4th of July. That’s the only time he can be sure the flyboys will get a day off. J.R. knew one scrapper who bought it on Killer Hill—blown to pieces by a 500-pounder. Another nearly died from some steel through his leg.
Lorelei and J.R. spin strange tales of life in the desert, of places abandoned or people mysteriously disappeared or dead from drinking and the heat, of crazy characters like the nudists who drive around in a pickup, of ghostly sights and sounds—such as covered wagons rolling in the night. They recount stories of silver bars and skeletons found in caves, of abandoned tanks and planes and ammo stashes from Patton’s patrols. About the only thing they don’t believe in is UFOs. They know how to identify all the aircraft they see.
All in all, they describe a land inhabited by people who’ve either fallen or been pushed through the cracks, people willing to endure any hardship for the sole luxury of being left alone. "Out here," Lorelei explains, "we have nature—and incredible freedom."
"Nobody comes out here and tells me what to do," chimes in J.R. "My permit is propped up there against the door. It’s a .30-caliber permit."
For the next few days we explore their desert netherworld. We visit a target graveyard, an area the size of two football fields, covered with tanker trucks, cars, tractors, boats, troop transports, motors, jeeps, appliances—all mangled and twisted and melted and blown to hell by bombs, then crushed and compacted by bulldozers. We explore an abandoned survivalist compound that’s larger and more sophisticated than that of Texas’ Waco Branch Davidians; an old, abandoned stagecoach stop and bordello; and Slab City, the rent-free, anything-goes mecca for eccentric squatters and snowbirds near Nyland by the Salton Sea.
Later, experts verify everything J.R. tells me about a scrapper’s life. According to Soldier of Fortune senior editor Don McLean, the military policy toward scrappers ranges from "tacit tolerance to armed intervention." The military may look the other way, but scrappers could also find themselves being chased by the CIA as well as the Marines. At the height of the Cold War, foreign spies were known to masquerade as scrappers in an attempt to retrieve experimental ordnance. Nowadays, of course, the government’s primary concern is terrorists. "A terrorist could have a lot of fun with a 1,000-pound bomb," says McLean.
"Our policy toward scrappers is that we try to apprehend them," says Captain Don Little at the Range Management Office in Yuma. But Little admits it’s impossible to patrol 212 square miles of gunnery range, so they rely on reports from pilots and various federal agents. He estimates that 50 people may drive out on the range some nights searching for scrap. But he supports J.R’s contention that these are mostly amateurs—druggies and desperate dilettantes.
Occasionally, the office has been informed of highly sophisticated scrapper rings, Little says. "They’d actually take orders from gangs for certain types of munitions—tank rounds, mines, rockets." It’s reports like those—of live ordnance taken off the range—that get the government’s full attention. Agents from Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms or the FBI launch frequent raids at Slab City, many of them fruitful, in search of live ordnance. Some bad characters will haul a live 1,000-pound bomb off the range to mill out its C-4.
The mystery to me is just what makes a man choose such a life. Eventually, J.R. tells me his story. J.R. is Jacob Ray Taylor, born in 1947 in Oklahoma. He ran moonshine when he was 14; joined the Marines at 17. Shortly thereafter his wife and baby were killed by a drunken driver, and his brother was caught and "butchered" by the Vietcong in Vietnam. "I had no reason to live," he says. "I didn’t care about livin’."
He first went to Vietnam in November 1966 with the 3rd Marine Division. He claims that he did four tours, one in a "shadow unit" engaged in covert ops that haunt him to this day, that he survived 26 months as a POW and that he "stayed to the last," leaving at the fall of Saigon in 1975. He displays scars from 17 wounds.
"I got one kidney shot away, part of my gall bladder gone. I got a little strap holdin’ my spine together from an AK-47 round. I got a metal pin in my leg. One time this NVA [a soldier of the North Vietnamese Army] put a knife right though me, pinned me to the ground. Took a whole clip from my .45 before he went down."
Lorelei, who met him in ’82 just before they moved out to the range, attests to his pain and injuries. "For a long time he had nightmares," she says. "And one time when we were foolin’ around, I kinda flipped him, and I paralyzed him for about three hours."
J.R. claims that after the war, the military eventually steered him out to the gunnery range. "They sent me out here where I couldn’t hurt nobody but myself. They said, ‘You gotta do this. People are takin’ live stuff off the range.’ So I did. It’s my job to plug it." By way of payment for his unofficial security service, he says, he’s allowed to scrap out a living. "They could take me any time they want. They could bust me for trespassing, but this here [scrappin’] don’t become a felony till you sell it. I don’t sell it." He grins. "I just collect. Somebody else sells it for me."
I ask J.R. if he’s been treated for PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder. "I treated my own self," he responds. "That’s why I’m here. I gotta live on the cutting edge all the time. That’s the life I choose, the life I want. That’s the only way I can survive. That’s what keeps me goin’. And if I go tomorrow it don’t bother me one iota, ’cause every day I’m here on this earth it’s hell for me—one way or another.
"Most people don’t understand what hell is. Hell is a lot of different things, but mostly it’s a pain that never goes away. They say people make their own hell, and that’s for damn sure. I made mine. I’m payin’ for mine. I’m payin’ for my stupid mistakes I made when I was younger, and I’ll be payin’ for them till the day I’m dead."
As we head back to civilization, winding through dark desert washes, the guide and I are mostly quiet. "Think he’s crazy or telling the truth?" the guide asks.
"Both," I suggest, haunted by a voice in the darkness, shouting at the onrushing void: "Whoooooeeeee! Now this is what I call freedom!"