May

10

 Out of the blue as I plant cactus in my front yard sounds a rumble and I gaze overhead at a 155-Howitzer. The 15-meter cannon, generally towed behind an Army truck, dangles on a thin cable under the green belly of a whack-a-whack Sea Stallion helicopter. It lumbers south above a cyclone of red dust and I drop the shovel to grab binoculars and ascend my library van to a crow's nest. I view the copter touch down the Howitzer a kilometer away and release the cable. My ten-acre plot in Sand Valley, California lays two kilometers off the Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range and the military apparently has misjudged that distance. I descend the spiral stair into jogging shoes and take a camera.


While trotting I zero in on a ten-story dust cloud blown up by the blades. The copter ascends above it sans cannon, banks hard north over the Rancho and vanishes through the ringing valley hills. Soon a second chopper approaches and lowers a 10-meter coffin-like tin of ostensible shells, and lifts off as I peek around a barrel cactus with dust settling over a city block.

The long cannon perches on wheels next to a shallow dry wash where a Marine sentinel in camouflage looks the other way. In gym shorts with black duct tape on my nose as a sunshade, I quietly pad to 20-meters behind him and quietly ask, 'Aren't you a bit off range?'

He whirls, recovers a youthful grin and stutters, 'Wellla_.'

'It's okay. I won't tell.'

'Sir_' he insists.

'Really,' I raise a palm. 'Just don't point at my house.'

'Sir, clear out for that incoming copter!'

My turn to whirl as a black speck speedily enlarges to another Sea Stallion CH-53E. I scamper out the zone but, maybe to raise a scare, the pilot hovers over my head and descends. I jump from under the belly not a second too soon to avoid a hell of a headache. Pelted by clods, unable to stand, I go to one knee pressing my hat to my head like MASH. I squint through the brown swirl at the set copter ten steps away but turn as inch rocks zing at my face and the duct tape flies off at 40mph. The 15-meter blades whine to a standstill, dust falls heavily, and ten soldiers in camouflage file out the craft ignoring me and march with automatic weapons in the direction of the Howitzer toward the range. Maybe, I think, they deem me undercover.


I stand and brush off recalling the soldier's prayer that discretion is the better part of valor, and hike away from the barrel around Ironwoods to the Rancho. Scaling the spiral stair to my crow's nest, I peer through a spyglass to reckon this afternoon's field exercise. The Gunnery Range now bursts at the main target three miles to the south: 1000-lb. bombs rock the earth, rockets flare from jet noses, bullets snap from smaller choppers. Closer by, the ten Marines walk the wash in the direction of the barrel to the supposed shelling on the range as the sole sentry guards the Howitzer. The squad disappears into the wash, and in an hour a copter returns to pick up the cannon, and another lifts the ammo. They swing over the Rancho and disappear through the hills.

It's the first time since moving to Sand Valley eight years ago that I've seen a cannon roped from a helicopter to earth, and I judge the Marines just plum missed the coordinates to land near my Rancho. No shots are fired but it beats watching cacti grow.


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