In late January of this year, during the same moonlit nights when the United States military was bombing Iraq, the U.S. was also bombing California. Not the mythical California of simulated tropical paradises and never-ending abundance. The California that was being bombed was a nearly ignored but mysteriously beautiful mountain range in the rugged desert of Imperial County.
While the civilians of Iraq, we are told, were fleeing into Jordan to escape the pestilence from the sky, the citizens of Imperial County — or at least a considerable number of them — were waiting not so patiently on the early-morning fringes of the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range.
Within minutes after the bombing stopped and the dark planes turned and flew almost silently to their aircraft carriers waiting 100 miles away on the coast, ragged crews of homeless, impoverished, drug-addicted, or simply brain-addled “range runners” grabbed their plastic buckets and raced each other to the target areas, where they began greedily picking through the rubble of wealth that the United States military had rained down upon them.
These brass, 40-miliimeter machine-gun shells, these aluminum fin mounts from 500-pound bombs, these twisted shreds of aluminum shrapnel would feed their children, put gasoline in their broken-down machines, and, at least for some of the range runners, would calm the horrible drug cravings already pounding in their veins. In some ways the scene was like the biblical Israelites going into the desert each morning to gather up manna.
By midmorning, the rattly old Bonnevilles and El Caminos, with their mufflers bellowing and their leaky head gaskets spewing clouds of blue smoke, come limping up to the loading dock at K&W Metals, on the outskirts of Niland, California. K&W Metals consists of a sunny but badly battered warehouse beside the railroad tracks and an oil-stained parking lot littered with pieces of dead machines. A hand-painted sign out front reads: "Buying aluminum, copper, brass, batteries, iron. 7 days.” In the eastern distance, rising up colorfully into the blue sky, are the Chocolate Mountains.
Inside the warehouse at K&W Metals, several workers are busily laboring over heaps of twisted metal, sorting aluminum shrapnel into one blue-plastic barrel, brass shells into another. On the floor of the warehouse, there are at least 100 of the 60-pound aluminum fin mounts, which only hours earlier guided 500-pound dummy bombs filled with cement on their brief journey through the night sky.
The proprietor at K&W Metals is Ken Hines. He is fiftyish, gray-haired, and has a good-natured beer belly peeking out from under a red Kenny Loggins T-shirt. “There are maybe four or five dealers in Imperial County who buy scrap off the range,” he says warily, “and so far none of us has been harassed by the law. But you oughta talk to the range runners. They’ve really been harassed. They’ve had their vehicles impounded and then had to pay two or three hundred dollars to get them back.”
None of the sullen and bleary-eyed range runners unloading his manna at the K&W dock will admit to knowing anything about this highly illegal activity. So Ken Hines gets on the phone, and in a few minutes another rumbly pickup truck appears in the parking lot.
This range runner is thin and blond, apparently in his mid- '30s. He has a look of pained intelligence and wears a freshly laundered white shirt, which adds a professional element to his appearance. With his milky-blue eyes and wispy beard, he looks something like a down-and-out Jesus, and for this reason he might be nicknamed “Jesse.”
“Sometimes I think it’s just like the military is dropping them bombs into a big old net,” Jesse says regretfully. “That’s how fast the junkers snatch them up.”
The range runners call themselves “runners,” “scrappers,” and sometimes “junkers.” This last title is probably intended as a pun. A lot of heroin enters the United States from Mexico by way of Imperial County, and a lot of the heroin gets consumed in Imperial County, which is said to have the highest rate of heroin use in the country.
“Long as you got ahold of that bomb, it’s yours,” Jesse says, explaining the first rule of range running, “but if another junker comes along and grabs it, even if you saw it first, why, it’s his.”
The tough competition out on the range has gotten Jesse a bit depressed today. “Some of the junkers out there are getting greedy. I mean, if I see another junker out there broken down. I’ll stop and help. Hell, I’ll even give him the spare tire off my truck just to get him back into town. But some guys.... Christ, if you leave a broken-down rig out there, by the time you get back to fix it, the battery’ll be gone, the tires, the radiator. Your rig’ll just be sitting there on the ground.”
Jesse has been scrapping hard almost every day since last April, getting up every morning at three o’clock so he can be on the range by dawn, which is when the military usually stops bombing. He’s been averaging about $100 per day, though his best day was 2300 pounds of aluminum, or roughly $900. But a lot of what Jesse earns he ends up spending on gas and on repairs to his fleet of throwaway trucks.
Even before the current recession, the unemployment rate in Imperial County was nearly 30 percent. And now, with a lot more people in Imperial County out of work, more and more of them are turning to range running for a source of income. Jesse estimates there are at least 50 range runners working the Chocolates right now, and that competition means he has to take greater and greater risks to bring back a load.
“I’m not worried about getting caught,” he says. “Everybody’s been caught. They take your picture and give you some kind of military ticket that says, ‘trespassing on government property and larceny of government property.’ I know guys right now that got 18 of them tickets, and most of ’em never show up in court. Even if you’re convicted, all they do is give you two months’ probation. Big deal.” Jesse speaks with a curious mixture of enthusiasm, bitterness, elation, and anger. “One time we got stopped off the range by the border patrol,” he says. “They looked under our tarp, saw we had a load, and then made us sit there for six hours waiting for the military police. Freezing! Starving! That Marine base at Yuma is only 100 miles away! Where the hick was their military police!