by Laura Schulkind
Two towns in the California desert,
settled by those who settle deserts.
Those with nothing left to lose.
Those with everything to lose.
Squeezing hope from stone.
Digging, digging to the source of dreams.
In one, growers imagined palm fronds whispering at night.
Traveled to Arabia for seed.
Planted Deglet Noor and Medjool and Halawy and Thoory.
Called it Mecca.
In the other, homesteaders claimed their 160 acres of dust,
accepted the challenge to last five years.
Called it 29 Palms
for what was right there in front of them.
In the first,
came the cyclic pilgrimage of pickers
to this eastern edge of the Coachella Valley.
Some took root. Built homes, a school, a church.
But were treated like weeds.
Fought to stay on this dry earth,
surrounded by waste dumps and tumbleweed.
Hernandez, Arroyo, Benitez, Duarte.
Still, not many stay. The town swelling when
the date palms are heavy with fruit.
In the second,
they ranched and prospected.
Prudey, Bagley, Cambell, Bixby.
Built homes, a schoolhouse, a church.
Founded a clinic for soldiers after World War I—
the dry air good for their mustard-gassed lungs.
Perhaps from this came the town’s discovery of
what grows best in that dry heat—soldiers.
Grew the biggest marine base in the U.S.
The town swells with young men.
A mural in the center of town
(on the side of the NAPA Auto Parts building)
presents: “Desert Storm Victory Parade & Homecoming.”
In it, the marines of 29 Palms are returning from Iraq,
ancient mother of all date palms—
traced back to 4000 BC.
Another mural shows them toppling
a statue of Hussein.
These painted soldiers,
how many drifted over from Mecca,
from all our imaginary Meccas,
on a wind that smelled like change,
a few sweet dates in their pockets?
And what did they think
as their planes approached Arabia,
desert and date palms stretched before them,
knowing they came to kill?
And where are they now?
Do they drift with the harvest?
Do they cry out when heat lightning rips the sky?
Do they breathe the desert air and gasp?