Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I saw this picture on Pinterest and it brought back some memories.

Memories of what? you may ask...

Thinking back 15 years or so, I had just finished graduate school and was teaching some classes at BYU. It was actually pretty fun, but it was only a 6-month position, with no guarantees that the contract would be extended at the end of that time. So I started looking for another job. What I found was a job creating online training modules for the U.S. Marine Corps.

I worked at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in Twentynine Palms, California. It's a lovely area... it is classified as having an arid, upland desert climate where temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees in the summer and drop to 15 degrees in winter. And then let's mention the sandstorms - where the dust and sand blow so strong that you can't see 5 feet in front of you, you can't breathe without a face mask, and it can scour the paint of your car. Occasional torrential rainstorms which cause near-instant flooding. The fact that you had to drive over 30 minutes to get to a Wal-mart for any large grocery shopping trips. The fact that there was no movie theater and only a couple of little restaurants in town.

I lived in a fairly spacious two-bedroom apartment with my own backyard. I went into that yard exactly once. In the 5 minutes I spent outside I spotted a scorpion, the tail end of some sort of snake slithering away, and (the final straw) a tarantula (I hate spiders). I ran back inside, closed the door, and never opened it again during my time there! The front yard was just concrete parking pads for the residents, so there was less wildlife. I was always on the lookout for that tarantula, though! (A fun side story on tarantulas... one of my buddies there was a marine and one night they were on manuevers in the desert. He was sleeping on the sand in a mummy bag, and he was completely wrapped up in it - the only thing exposed was his face. He woke up when something tickled his face and realized there was a TARANTULA sitting on his FACE! His arms were pinned in his bag and in his panic, he couldn't get them out. He couldn't open his mouth to yell for one of the other guys to help him because the TARANTULA was on his FACE. He flopped around frantically until the enormous spider fell off. Then discovered that the guys around him were perfectly well aware of his predicament, because they were all sitting around watching him. Apparently they'd watched the spider for quite some time and did nothing to stop it when it decided to crawl onto his FACE.)

One of the interesting things I remember about homes in that area is that there were no grassy yards (we were in the desert after all). Instead, people had sandy yards and they would rake the sand into elaborate patterns. People took great pride in maintaining their perfectly raked sand.

I lived right on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. There were some beautiful things to see there, though I didn't spend a lot of time hiking in the park (allow me to reiterate... 120 degrees, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas). The joshua trees can only be found in two places... that area of California and Israel. So that was kind of neat. And beautiful, too, in its own way.

So back to the ghillies that started this reminiscing... On my first day at work on the base, the Captain took me for a tour of the base. At one point he stopped the car to show me a large, empty area. There were acres and acres of nothing but scrub brush and joshua trees (much like the picture above). He asked me if I could spot the people... I could not. It looked like it was completely empty. He instructed me to keep looking, but as hard as I tried I could not see anyone in the space. It was not until a man in a ghillie suit stood up and walked over to us that I had any idea there was someone there. It scared me to death, to be honest. It was like the man just appeared from nowhere. Those ghillie suits let the marines look just like a piece of the landscape and they are VERY well disguised. It turned out there were actually a lot of guys out there in ghillie suits and you'd never have known it.

I really loved my job there. I got to learn - and teach - a lot of amazing things. If you need to program your combat radio, drive your Humvee through a flooding wash, check your vehicle for explosives, elude a pursuer in an urban environment, or disarm a landmine, I'm your girl. Those are some the courses I helped put together and oh, it was fun! Even though I was a civilian, I got to practice doing those things so that I'd know how to do it before I wrote the course. It was quite an adventure.

Several branches of the armed forces use the base to practice bombing runs and live fire exercises. Shortly after I moved in there was a pretty spectacular lightning storm one night. Big flashes of light followed by rumbling booms. But no rain. When I commented on that the next morning at work, they all laughed at me. Turns out it was a bombing run. I got so used to that after a while that once I moved to Colorado I heard a thunderstom moving in and automatically assumed it was a bombing run!

There were earthquakes, too. At least a couple times a week there would be a little tremor. On really active weeks you'd get something every day. The first time I was in a little earthquake I was at work. I could feel things start to shake just a little and I was confused at first. Then I realized what was happening and I felt a little panicked! "What do we do?" I asked Bill, who sat next to me. "Aren't we supposed to get under a desk or in a doorway or something?" And as I looked at Bill, I saw something odd. All of my co-workers were sitting at their desks holding their coffee mugs in the air. "This is what we do," Bill informed me. "You have to pick up your cup or the vibration of the desk might make your coffee slop over the side." Then the tremor ended, they put down their cups, and work continued. The earthquakes were really pretty much a non-event. We never had anything above a 4 point earthquake while I was there. A 6.7 did hit the week after I moved away, but luckily didn't do much damage.

I have a lot of great memories of my time there. There were spur-of-the-moment trips to Las Vegas and San Diego... just because we were bored. There were all-night movie marathons. There was a great ward there that I really loved (though I was in the Primary presidency there and it was pretty stressful because there were a LOT of kids in that ward). The work was interesting and I had some great co-workers. I had a crappy boss, though (the civilian one, not the military boss - all the military guys I worked with were awesome). And between the crappy boss and the inhospitable climate, I ended up deciding not to renew my contract there and moved to Colorado. I'll always be a fan of the Marine Corps, though, and I'll always remember my adventure there fondly!


MJ said...

Seriously? Coolest story EVER. And guys are jerks. I can't believe they let a tarantula crawl on their buddy's face. JERKS. :)

Tera said...

You sure have done a lot of interesting things! I know that climate in California all too well. I grew up and spent the first 26 years of my life in the High Desert (Lancaster and Victorville) which is about 3 hours from twentynine palms. I think some people find the scenery there beautiful...I always found it hot and dirty and drab. I prefer Colorado and New York much more! Thanks for the fun story!