Eating Out in Twenty-Nine Palms, Honoring National Service
—by Jinny Batterson
During part of our most recent political transition, in late 2016, I spent several days in the desert interior of southern California, exploring the area around Joshua Tree National Park. From a small vacation rental home in the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, my husband and I could drive several miles uphill to a park entrance. We could explore the park’s trails, marvel at its unique geological formations, view the large members of the yucca family that gave the park its name, and experience the variety of its altitudes and desert landscapes. Toward the end of our stay, a heavy wind kicked up, making hiking less appealing, so we spent some time indoors, learning about the town. At the Chamber of Commerce, we watched a film about the town’s history and viewed displays and pamphlets. We learned that the town’s first growth spurt had come in the wake of World War I. Then, a sympathetic veteran physician specializing in lung ailments had begun to recommend the climate around Twenty-Nine Palms to fellow veterans suffering from mustard gas exposure or tuberculosis. The dry air and moderate altitude provided an ideal setting for recovery. Several hundred veterans filed homestead claims in the area.
We also learned that a large modern U.S. Marine base existed nearby, in the opposite direction from the park. Soldiers could be stationed there for periods ranging from a few months to several years, with over 50,000 military personnel receiving training the preceding year. We drove out to the base gate—the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center/Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command—but were unable to enter without an approved escort.
That evening, we ate in town at a small local restaurant that catered to a burgers-and-milkshakes clientele. When we first arrived, the restaurant’s central area was completely filled by a set of pushed-together tables where a dozen young people, five men and seven women, were chatting and ordering food. They looked fit and tired, primed to enjoy a simple evening meal. Several were wearing matching sweatshirts with the initials “NCCC” on the back. I guessed they might be members of some rock climbing club, since the park was a mecca for climbers. After a bit, my curiosity got the better of me and I walked over to one end of their table.
“What does ‘NCCC’ stand for?” I asked. “Are you a rock climbing group?”
“No ma’am,” responded one of the young men. “We’re a team from the National Civilian Community Corps. We’re on our way back to our base in Sacramento after an eight-week assignment helping repair homes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that were damaged by last summer’s floods.”
As my husband and I ordered our food and waited while it was prepared, half a dozen young men with short haircuts arrived and settled into two booths nearby. They were in civilian clothes, but I guessed they might be on leave from the marine base: several barber shops in town advertised “Marine haircuts,” and these fit the bill. The men talked quietly among themselves as they too ordered and waited for their suppers.
Both the Marines and NCCC volunteers I saw at dinner in Twenty-Nine Palms were training and practicing to meet whatever threats and emergencies might require a military response, civilian action, or some combination of the two. I was grateful for their service, as I remembered previous generations of Americans who had participated in larger numbers in either military or civilian service—the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s depression years, or the military draftees of the 1940’s World War II era and beyond. Surveying these young service men and women at supper in 2016, I also imagined what it might look like for similar service again to become a bigger part of our American society.
Various bills introduced in Congress since 2003 have attempted to create a framework for some sort of mandatory service component for young people, including a modest monetary stipend and educational funding assistance. Our nation’s physical and educational infrastructures are aging. Elements of our natural environment are threatened. The needs are great; the potential even greater. On this Presidents’ Day, let’s renew the value of public service as part of our heritage and responsibility as Americans. From the loftiest tasks to the most humble, each of us has something worthwhile to contribute. When a service ethic is lacking, we are all impoverished, and not just monetarily.