“Listen up! Everything you are going to learn in the next few weeks is a matter of life and death. YOUR life and death. We’ll soon be heading for the Oñate compound –pay attention and you might come out of the raid alive!”
Pearl looked to me and I looked right back. I could see she was stifling a giggle and I had to turn away or I knew I’d lose it. Part of me wanted to laugh so hard! This guy, Filomino Brancos was right out of one of those World War Two war movies where the drill instructor trains the young recruits and they hate him and at the end of the movie they realize they owe him their lives.
Except this wasn’t an old war movie. Pearl and I and two dozen young zombies from La Familia were beginning our first day of training in a secret zombie training camp in the Joshua Tree National Park. And Filomino, who looked about forty years of age, was 150 pounds of trim muscle, profuse sweat and unrelenting determination was going to make sure we learned all we needed to survive the assault on the Oñate camp.
Filomino was right. We WERE into a life and death struggle and the sooner Pearl and I wiped the smirks off our faces, the better chance for survival we would have. I nudged her and gave her a reprimanding look.
“This is serious shit.”
“Yes, I know.” she replied equally seriously. And then she caught my eye and that was it.
We lost it. We broke out into hysterical laughter which we simply could not contain.
The drill Sergeant was not amused.
“You two think there’s something funny about trying to stay alive? Maybe it should have been you two at that cluster bomb explosion. Each of you. One hundred push-ups! And I don’t want to hear I can’t do them. You WILL do them, however sloppily, one hundred full! ”
Pearl and I settled onto our hands and feet and began to do the push-ups. I gave me time to think about what had occurred lately.
We had arrived the secret training camp that morning after a three hour drive from Los Angeles. The three passenger vans, with a banners on either side proclaiming CAMP HASCAWALLA RELIGIOUS RETREAT, had made only two stops. A pee break at the Cabazon Indian Reservation off Interstate 10 and a stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center on Park Blvd off of the Twenty-Nine Palms Highway. That’s when we had hit a roadblock.
The delay at the park entrance had to do with our contact at the office, a member of La Familia named Jerry, who was supposed to meet us and usher us through the permit for outdoor camping without raising anyone’s suspicions. But, we discovered, Jerry had gone out to lunch. The banner painted on the sides of the vans made it clear we were a throughly legitimate enterprise. By making it a religious retreat we figured we’d attract less attention. Still we had to wait an hour before Jerry returned. He arrived reeking of roadkill–I had wondered how a zombie might manage lunch around here.
A very chagrined Jerry quickly filled out the paperwork and ushered outside. Then he spoke in whispers with La Señora Falcón who had been assigned to get us to the training camp.
“Get the van drivers to take you on to the main road that runs through Joshua Tree. You’ll pass Hidden Valley and Ryan Campgrounds. A quarter mile beyond Ryan you’ll see a Joshua Tree with a tumbleweed caught in its arms. That’s where you’re to make a right turn into the desert and head due west.”
“Won’t the road give the camp away and invite unwanted guests?” La Señora Falcón asked.
“There is no road there. You’ll be heading out into wild desert. Be sure to cover the van tracks for at least forty feet from the road. Within a quarter mile you’ll run into a makeshift gravel road that will take you to the hidden camp.”
True to his word, an hour after turning off the highway that runs through Joshua Tree, we had found the hidden gravel road and soon had arrived at the secret training camp.
It was not much of a camp. Three sturdy wooden cabins, each about 40 by 60 feet elevated on cement blocks, were surrounded on all sides by giant boulders. A perfect hideout. A narrow crevice between one set of boulders was just big enough to allow the vans through. We camouflaged the entrance it with dead Joshua trees once the vans were in.
One of the cabins would be our kitchen. It was equipped with a sink, stove, a refrigerator powered by an outdoor gas generator and mess tables. A second building contained cots, arranged barracks style on either side of the interior–this would be our sleeping quarters. The third cabin would be our training center. I noted that in addition to the large meeting room, there were two other rooms, heavily fortified with metal braced doors. Completing the camp were two portable toilets, the kind with a sink, mirror and running water.
“That’s it, one hundred!” It was the voice of Filomino, the training coach, snapping me out of my reverie.
I stopped the push-ups but I saw that Pearl was continuing. The other recruits also saw this and started chanting numbers in support. “One hundred-and-two, one-hundred-and-three, one hundred-and-four!”
Pearl stopped at one hundred and twenty five, rose up and gave Filomino a look that said, “so there!”
After settling what few clothes and personal belongings we had into the barracks, we spent the rest of the morning doing a lot of physical exercises–jumping jacks, sit-ups, running in circles around the camp enclosure. Not much fun in the desert sun but I gathered that was why we were out here. Filomino made it no secret that he was there to harden us up.
“I’m going to work you till you can’t walk!” He threatened. “Like it or not you’re gonna be in great shape for the attack.”
Lunch was decaying cat entrails, raw sheep eyeballs and pitchers of cow blood with which to wash it down. Pearl and I sat at a large table in the mess hall cabin with some of our new-found friends.
Marcos García was a twenty-something zombie from El Paso, Texas who could have passed for twelve. The Gómez twins, Maria and Isabel, were two identical sisters who looked about eighteen but, they told us, were really thirty-five years old. All three were descendants of Mr. Nez’s zombie bloodline.
Jimmy Yazzie was Navajo. Living up to his last name (Yazzie means “little” in Navajo) he was short and slight, but possessed limitless energy and had a determined look about him. He too looked like a teenager, but was almost forty. It seemed that Pearl and I and the Caucasian-looking kid I had seen in the alley, who name I learned was Joshua, were the only three bonafide teenagers in the group. All the others were adults.
The anti-aging effects of the zombie mutant gene was clearly evident.
“What about this Filomino guy, eh?” Maria Gómez ventured amid gulps of cow blood. “He’s really something, eh?”
“I’m glad we have him,” said Marcos, his head cocked up as he lowered a cat entrail into his open mouth. “Rumor is,” he continued amid noisy chewing, “that he saw action in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, AND Iraq! He’s supposed be more than two hundred years old.”
“Well, we’ll need all his expertise, that’s for sure,” said Pearl.
“I just want him to teach us how to kill those Oñate zombies!” Marcos said angrily. “I want revenge for what they did to us!”
Marcos’s anger made me think of what I had avoided thinking about all day, the death of my mother at the hands of the Oñate zombies. I had tried all day to block the image of her mangled body on the floor of the La Familia meeting hall, lying alongside wounded and dying zombies.
I realized that if I had to describe my feelings, I was felt more sad than angry. I was really missing her. The thought of revenge was certainly on my mind. But I wondered if I was really up to killing other zombies. I recalled the closest thing I had ever come to killing something was the mouse caught in the kitchen trap so long ago. I had set the mouse free.
“I hope we’ll all be up to the killing when the time comes,” I said out loud, as much to the group as to myself. They all looked at me, several nodding understanding. I guess they had been thinking same thing. We finished our meal in silence.
Copyright 2013 Lazaro De La Tierra and Barrio Dog Productions Inc.
This Blog was previously posted on Latinopia on May 5, 2013.