The Chocolate Mt. Bombing Range, 2nd largest in the world covering a few hundred square miles, lies adjacent to my Sonora desert property.  The main target of cardboard tanks, green dummies on posts, and stacked pallets is 2.5 miles from my burrow.  When a 1000lb bomb goes off the ground shakes, but I shored up the burrow mine-style after a slight collapse five years ago, and sleep comfortable in my waterbed.

A handful of people, mostly ex-Vietnam vets, scrap the range in home crafted dune buggies gathering up to a grand a night in recyclable brass and aluminum from helicopter bullets and bomb fins. It’s a nighttime operation without light, so a smugglers moon is ideal. I’m the only one who scraps the range on foot, which began in a curious way. Actually, the range is supposed to shut down at 11pm nightly after all of the 4th of July’s across the USA crammed into one range for a war practice.  But after midnight, the place is theoretically quiet.

When my old man died last year, I scrapped the range on foot to get airfare back east to the funeral.  It was a perfect 90F night with a smugglers moon to see the gleam of six-inch brass shells littering the hillsides. I walked for hours until nearly sunrise, limited by my backpack of booty. Each brass shell brings about $.75 at the Niland, Ca. recycle center, so I was lugging a treasure chest. The only creatures out were giant green scorpions and jackrabbits.

Suddenly, out of the black, I heard chop-chopper blades whirling. The helicopter had no running lights, so I knew it had the front running heat-seeker tuned on me…somewhere above.  The infra-red, the vets claim, can spot a moving jackrabbit a half-mile away. Quickly a ladder of lights burst a quarter-mile to my right, like a new constellation 300 meters off the ground. There would be about three seconds before the six lights ignited to flood a half-mile cratered landscape.

I stepped into a shallow wash and dove into a slight hollow in the side with my feet sticking out. By now, the lights enabled me to read a survival manual, had I had one. The search lights on parachutes, normally used to find enemies within a half-mile diameter, would enable the chopper and crew to focus the infra-red seeker and read me like a book – after their search lights extinguished in five minutes. In those five minutes, I built a wall of one-foot boulders to enclose the cave and block the infra-red, and tucked in my feet and trembled like a hobbit. Suddenly the nearby hillside was riddled by machinegun fire from the copter, and a jet they called in swooped overhead. I clamped my hands over my ears like the vets advise, to avoid a concussion should a bomb be dropped, that didn’t.

The lights fizzled out, and the helicopter lifted, and the jet flew back to the Yuma Proving Grounds. In case they had called in ground troops to search, I Jettison my shells and shed tears.  It’s only a misdemeanor if caught meandering without ordinance on the bombing range. On lightened, energized feet I worked my way along gullies for an hour off the range and back to my desert trailer.

The next night I scrapped the range again so I could get to my old man’s funeral.