Twentynine Palms



A PACK of coyotes had rationed the cats at Twentynine Palms and the point values of cat had gone up. But one cat outwitted these butchers. The siege had been a long one, and when he had made good his escape and managed to reach the fortress of our hill, he must have been drawing on the reserve of his ninth life. His fur was matted and mangy, and his ribs showed. He had two ugly bright red wounds that were taboo to our touch and sent shivers to the tip of his sad tail whenever we forgot.

Wallace and I were asleep out under the desert stars in a peaceful world when this cat brought his private war home to us. Once his desperate and persistent appeals for help had thoroughly awakened us, we rose to the emergency and with flashlight and gasoline lanterns converted our homesteading shack into a base hospital. He proved to be an excellent patient.

We hadn’t expected that his gratitude would be a problem — but it was. He persistently left the quilt-lined box I provided, preferring the sand directly under Wallace, where he could rub his head against Wallace’s hand, or lick it as it hung over the edge of the bed. Wallace withdrew the hand each time the cat wakened him, but nothing could shut off the outboard-motor purr. Finally, with an “Oh, for the love of Pete!” Wallace jumped out of bed, gathered up Mr. Mew, and made for the shack, where he locked up the disturber. “That,” said Wallace upon returning, “is one for the book. I have just put the cat in for the night.”

The next morning we opened the shack door to find the eight-by-twelve room empty. We searched and we called; we returned bewildered to the adobe house. There a smug Mr. Mew peered down at us from the roof, with a leisurely stretch and a yawn that smacked of a smile. The jail break is still an enigma. At last we lured him down with a bowl of milk; but before he had time to finish it, his eye caught the movement of a chipmunk and he was ofl in a flash. He returned to us with tattletale gray hairs sticking out of his mouth, and we knew there was one less chipmunk to chatter — an episode which makes what I am about to tell utterly inconsistent.

In a month the emaciated feline had become a cat of character. His gray clotted ruff turned out to be an unusually lovely white bib, which Mr. Mew keeps immaculate. It is stunning in contrast to his brushed coat of long, fine, blue-gray fur — beautiful in the sunshine against the background of the purple sage of the desert. He has a distinct personality.

One afternoon I was settled for my siesta when a chattering that would not be denied forced me to get up and look out the window. There was Mr. Mew by the chimney with a chipmunk he had cornered. The little fellow was standing up on his hind legs voicing his indignation and interspersing his remarks with flying jumps at the cat’s nose. This little prisoner was certainly a game loser.

I closed the window and tried to become drowsy again, but the commotion continued in my mind’s eye as well as beneath my window. As my disturbed hour drew to a close, so did my patience. I went out and kept Mr. Mew at buy with a broom until the chipmunk could reach his hole beyond our breakfast-room window.

Early the next morning Mr. Mew was sitting by that hole with a subtle tail movement that portended no good; and by the time I had reached the loggia with my broom, around the corner of the adobe came Mr. Mew carrying the chipmunk in his mouth as carefully as a kitten. “Good-bye, Mr. Chips,” thought I, but the cat deposited him on the flagging and I waited, ray broom poised in neutrality until one of the belligerents should start action.

When the action started, it was not what I anticipated: the chipmunk took the offensive. Instead of trying to escape, he boldly confronted the cat. Chattering, with his tail quivering indignantly, he jumped up and bit the surprised cat on the nose. The fight was on. For hours Mr. Mew would catch Mr. Chips and carry him back to the shade of the loggia, where they would lie side by side, Chips lying absolutely flat — bear-rug fashion — until the spirit of playful camaraderie would possess one or the other. Then either the cat would make a pass at the chipmunk or the chipmunk would start sassing the cat.

After nine years of intimate association with the impossible, I believe that almost anything can happen. Even so, I felt it necessary to mark the chipmunk to convince my unbelieving eyes that Mr. Mew was playing with the same friendly enemy day after day. Of course we keep Mr. Mew well fed. A skeptical friend was on the hill one day and said, “Well, if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t believe it.”


MY decision had been made: I would not rent my guest adobes to cadet wives. It had taken us ten backbreaking years to make the adobe brick and to build our two guesthouses. They had been inspired by Herrick’s Master of the Inn and were not to be used as a hangout for camp followers. Moreover, the job of cleaning them without a vacuum put a burden on me each time tenants came and went. This time we were going to wait for permanent guests.

The constant inquiries for houses at my husband’s office and whenever I appeared at the post office or the store made us uncomfortable, but we remained firm. Our houses are three miles outside the town. The desert roads and the tire and gas situation would, I thought, spare me the necessity of having to turn any great tide of tears from our ranch.

But I hadn’t counted on the invincibility of love. These young war wives have the instinct of homing pigeons and the scent of bloodhounds. The three who routed me out of my routine had followed their soldier boys all the way from Michigan to California. With houses high and scarce, they had trained their Chevrolet to turn up every road that might lead to a roost, and so they found me. I was sitting smug on my sandy hill anticipating callers when they came. I opened the door with my sweetest smile and beheld three young women tucked in a load of luggage.

“Have you a house?” they asked.

I do not lie well.

“Yes,” I answered, “but we do not rent to transients.”

“We’ll be here six weeks,” they informed me, “while our husbands are training at your Air Academy.”

I looked at their too red lips and too pink checks, their silly veiled hats and high heels, and said, “I’m sorry.”

“We’re sorry too,” said the ringleader, “for we’re so anxious to get settled so our boys will have a home to come to for Christmas when they got out of their two weeks’ quarantine.”

Home for Christmas! My son, now twenty-two, was about to spend his second homesick Christmas on the sands of India. My “decision” disappeared. I said, “Well — under the circumstances — perhaps.”

I went in and returned with the key. We exchanged introductions and started the tour of inspection. We crossed the flagged loggia and stepped into the long living room with its deep sills, thick adobe walls, and corner fireplace. The afternoon sun rainbowed the hand-woven drapes.

“Jees!” said Katenka, the young Russian. My back arched. “This is really beautiful.” I relaxed. She was merely being appreciative. We went into the breakfast room, where the handmade table with the blue glass on it stood facing the window which frames snow-clad Mount Gorgonia sixty miles away.

“God!” said another. Who was I to shudder? I too had thought of God when, standing in this same spot, I had planned the window for just this picture. “This is really swell.” There was genuine respect as deep as their remarks were shallow. We went into the fifteen-by-twenty bedroom with the fireplace filled with smoke tree and desert holly.

“Jees!” said Katenka. “You see, we all have our homes and we’ve been camping in rooms and cabins all the way from Michigan and working at anything we could get — and then to find a place like this for Christmas! This is what we just dreamed of finding.”

“We could only find one room in town, and we girls don’t mind; but we sure wanted a place so the boys could come home for Christmas.”

Every time the words “home for Christmas” fell on my ears their meaning was flashed to my brain through my heart.

“All right,” I said. “When do you want to move in?”

“Now!” from three mouths.

“But I’ll have to have a little time to do the final cleaning and to air blankets and pillows.”

“God! We’ll do all that,”

I forgot their language when I looked at their eager faces, but I had no way of knowing that these ordinary-appearing war wives would teach me a new set of values before the month was up.

That night the lamps burned late while they scrubbed and waxed floors, doing a better job than I could. In the morning they appeared in blue jeans and bandannas, without war paint, ready to go down to the office at the Air Academy to find work. When they returned, they had been fingerprinted and signed up to work from 6.00 P.M. to 2.30 A.M. They were to wash planes! I was appalled, for working with cold water in a cold hangar on desert winter nights was punishment I could not have taken.

Nor did their enthusiasm wane after they had experienced their first night of work. They slept until ten the next morning. Then the lines in the patio were full of clothes they were airing, washing, and cleaning, and I saw dust mops and brooms shaken outdoors and heard their merry chatter. At four they came up to my house with three fat letters addressed to their husbands. Would Mr. Trigg please take them, as the girls were headed in the opposite direction to get Christmas presents for their men. I offered them two pairs of Wallace’s socks to hang on the fireplace and they squealed with delight. They would buy razor blades, gum, cigarettes, and soap to wrap up and put in them.

The next afternoon I was invited down and I shall never enter that room again without seeing it as I did then: a wreath from the Five and Ten adorned the door, and red paper Christmas bells hung from every beam. Paper Santa Clauses and little houses and paper trees and paper sleighs crowded every window sill. Mixing bowls filled with apples and nuts barely left room for the tall red and green candles in paper poinsettia holders. The fireplace hood had been covered with red brick paper. A three-foot Christmas tree stood on the raised hearth. Yet somehow under all the cluttered, ornate cheapness was a “Welcome home!” that brought tears to my eyes and made my own cool arrangement of white desert holly, smoke tree, and white tapers pale by comparison.

My charming tenant in the other house later remarked, “Our houses are so darned refined they don’t even look Christmasy!” Whereupon she put red cranberries on the thorn ends of her smoke tree and tacked a huge red bow to the desert holly on her front door. I got the old tinsel from last year’s tree out of storage and thumbtacked a skeleton Christmas tree right on the wall over the table.

For two weeks these amazing young women worked by night, and by day cleaned, washed and ironed, planned their big turkey dinner, wrapped Christmas packages, and wrote their faithful daily letters to their husbands. Then, learning that there were some boys from their home town who would have to spend a lonely Christmas, they invited them for the week-end. Wallace and I vacated our bedroom in favor of the visiting Army and took to a cot and davenport in our living room. Christmas Eve, just as our own party was breaking up, we and our guests were treated to caroling. The cadets and their wives had come to bring me a gift. We invited the crowd in, and the fun began all over again.

Christmas Day one of the wives stayed home to cook the feast while the group drove to our stables four miles west and rode back. Hours later the distressed cook was trying to keep things from drying up, until the long overdue horsemen should return. Finally the first silhouette showed at the edge of our hill. The horses had had a holiday too. They had nibbled at greasewood and taken little side trips of their own choosing. The last horse was half a mile behind the first one, but all were enjoying themselves immensely. By five o’clock the lower house was again in order, dishes were done, and the tired and lame cadets and their wives were ready to return to barracks and plane-washing.

I tried to persuade one of the girls, who looked especially pale, to stay home from work that night. She said simply, “They need me. I’ll be all right.” She had lost premature twin sons three months before. As the Chevrolet drove off the hill that night I felt very humble. These misjudged youngsters are earning the better world they deserve.