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Desert Rats

11 Nov

Most of us, at some point in our youth, have at least one friendship that surpasses all others. Someone that is closer than a sibling, a spiritual companion, with whom we can share all the foolhardy, even suicidal, stunts that only teenagers can survive.

Ken and I were best friends, and we led and followed each other down the twisting path of adolescence, blithely defying our own mortality, much to the chagrin of our parents. We did everything together, to the point that neither of us really felt comfortable without the other. Most of us have experienced this sort of friendship, at least for a while. Ours lasted throughout high school, and into our respective careers in the Navy.

Ken came from a small rural area in northeast Indiana, to the comparative hustle-bustle of Calexico, California, and was immediately marked as a hick, by the other hicks in Calexico. I had been there for a year or so before him, and had already enjoyed the status of “new guy”, so I was relieved when a new target showed up, to take the heat off of me. Not able to resist a challenge, however, I one day found myself at his side, as three or four locals were about to try to teach him “a lesson”. Their lesson backfired, and we were inseparable friends from that day, on.

Ken and I had a few common interests: fast cars, firearms, and rock ‘n roll. Since neither of us could afford to build a proper hotrod, and we couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, we spent a lot of time shooting up the Mojave Desert. We used to head out into the desert at every opportunity, sometimes for weeks at a time, living off the land, and filling the landscape with expended lead.

It was nothing for us to take off for a couple of weeks, with 10,000 rounds of assorted ammo, two cases of beer, and a couple of cartons of cigarettes, and only return after we had run out of all three. We often gained weight on these trips, because the desert can really provide a lot of nourishment, if you know where to look, and you aren’t too particular about what you eat. Suffice it to say, it helps to be really hungry, when you consult the menu.

On one such trip, that lasted nearly three weeks, we went up Shell Canyon, from near Interstate 8, all the way up near Warner Springs. As the crow flies, that isn’t far, but via the canyons, it’s about a 70 mile trek, only the first 6 miles or so that can be traveled by truck. We hid my pickup truck, carried everything in our backpacks, making only 5-8 miles per day. Once we left the truck, it was a simple hike for the first hundred yards or so, but then quickly became a climb, to nearly 4,000 ft., over extremely rough terrain. We had a lot of fun, of course, but we also tempted fate, quite a bit.

One of the more idiotic things we used to do was our “fast draw” contests. We thought we had arrived at a safe, sane method, but then, we weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, either.

We would stand side by side, with our guns holstered, and one of us would toss a tin can out and up, and when it hit the ground, we would draw and shoot. Whoever got the closest to the target, first, was considered the winner. We were both actually pretty good shots, and often hit the can on impact, but Ken was usually the fastest. He packed a .22 magnum Ruger Single Six, and I usually carried my .44 magnum Ruger Blackhawk. His was a respectable piece for plinking or for varmints, but mine would do a LOT more damage.

Near the end of our planned stay, we were heading back down toward the truck, and the day before we figured to arrive there, we were practicing our fast draws, as the sun was setting. After the last go-round, I shed my holster, and was heading back down to the camp, and Ken said, “Let me try the .44”. So I passed him my gunbelt, and he handed his to me, and reloaded my .44. I strapped on his .22 mag., and retrieved our can, and took my position at his side, and when he was ready, I tossed it out. When it hit, we both drew, but because I wasn’t used to the .22 mag., I cocked it while drawing, and it went off before I got it clear of the holster. The round kicked up sand at my feet, and I thought, “THAT was close!” I headed out to get the can, for another toss, and noticed that my pants leg was sticking to my leg. When I looked down, I realized that my entire right leg was bloody! I had shot myself in the leg, and hadn’t even felt it!

Of course, as soon as I realized what had happened, my sense of feeling came alive, and it began to hurt like hell! I dropped my pants to survey the damage, and was shocked to see how much blood was spurting from behind my knee. We spent maybe a minute, deciding how serious it was, and Ken threw me over his shoulder, and started down the canyon.

It was maybe two miles on to the truck, and he carried me the whole way, without stopping. I lay down in the back of the pickup, and he headed out of the canyon, toward Ocotillo, the nearest settlement. It was nearly an hour before we got there, and stopped at the gas station to ask for a doctor. The guy there gave Ken directions, and we shortly ended up alongside a mobile home on the edge of town. Ben Straker was the doc, and he cleaned, and cleaned, and CLEANED the wound, ‘til I thought he was being ridiculous. He made a long swab, by twisting cotton around a long slender stick, and pouring hydrogen peroxide into the entry wound on the outside of my thigh, he pushed the swab in, until he could grab it behind my knee, and pull it on through. As I watched him do this, it suddenly dawned on me that I had a hole all the way through my leg, and I nearly passed out! Not from pain, because it really didn’t hurt that much, but from the IDEA of it!

Doc Straker finally was convinced to accept $20 for his trouble, and gave us his card, and told me to go by the ER in El Centro, and tell them they could call him if they had any questions about the shooting. (We had admitted to him how it happened, and he got a great kick out of it!)

Ken helped me into the cab of the truck, and while he was starting up, I looked at Straker’s card, and realized I had just been treated by a veterinarian! We’d forgotten to ask what KIND of doc he was!

When we got to my house, my mom went ballistic, while my Dad just looked at me out of the corner of his eye, as if to say, “Are you SURE you’re not adopted?”

For nearly six months, every time we would meet someone, he’d say something like, “This is my son….he shoots himself!”

I still wonder how I could have managed to pop off around several hundred rounds that trip, without mishap, and yet managed to shoot myself in the leg the first time I drew Ken’s gun. Imagine what my .44 would have done to my leg!

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