Hunger in Manhattan: Portrait of Stepanka Horalkva

We are used to thinking of it as a David and Goliath affair: the immigrant against the city. We are used to watching want-to-be supermen from around the world come, struggle, rise, and many times fall. And sometimes we are even the spectators, waiting in anticipation for the jaws of New York to swallow up the ones who don’t work hard enough. Some just simply fail. That’s just the way it is supposed to be, right?

To take great risks, to make it rich, to be great: that is the mantra so many New Yorkers live by. And if you’re not working hard toward that aim, you shouldn’t be here, you know what I mean? No doubt New York is a hungry place when it comes to letting others struggle for success. But sometimes even New York chokes.

To Stepanka Horalkva, a young artist in her early thirties who came to New York from Prague when she was 19, the choice of coming to New York on her own was a risk by itself. But for Stepanka, getting rich has never been the goal. Even though she is just as hungry as those who have an appetite for risks that stretch beyond surviving, so many who meet her still doubt the strength of her hunger.

They should. Stepanka’s hunger is a mysterious sort. For years her drive to be something greater than the ‘misfortunate sister,’ a role carefully carved out for her by her Mother, hid from the world, disguised and quiet, inside the frail, Cosette-like frame of this young Czech woman. But it kept a steady pulse as strong as her determination to leave Prague was certain, and as urgent as her dreams to come to America were vivid. And like so many starving artists in Manhattan, most who meet her still think she just another artist. Starving.

Fortunately for Stepanka Horalkva her hunger turned out a fruitful struggle – and like most immigrants who pass through the hungry jaws of New York City, there was a great deal of hard work in that struggle, but Stepanka insists that it has never felt that way.

No. Hard work isn’t always the right word for what happens in New York City.

Born in 1975 in a small farming village in the south of the Czech Socialist Republic, Stepanka Horalkva grew accustomed to hunger from an early age. She knew it from growing up under communism, where it took her father a long, frustrating 6 years to build their family’s house, using hand-made cement, brick-by-brick. She knew it by her mother’s fastidious saving of small bits of cash from what seemed like a place out-of-thin-air so that Stepanka could attend school in Prague. And she knew it because her Grandfather, Bohumil, was always talking about his dream – to go to America – and how sharply his obsession contrasted with the hunched-over haze of picking apples, potatoes and herbs in the fields to make ends meet.

My Grandfather always wanted to go to America,” she recalls. “And so for me to come to New York and to know that it’s something he wanted to do but he never got the chance to do is to affirm the connection we had.” Inspired by the unfulfilled dreams of her Grandfather, Stepanka says that her passion to go to New York “seemed impossible,” but she was still determined.

Her Grandfather is the one who showed her that there was more beyond her small farming village in the south of the Czech Socialist Republic. But it was her mother who dosed her with a stronger, more pragmatic medicine. So when Stepanka was still young, she was sent to Prague to study. But instead of finding fulfillment, Prague was where she learned to be hungry once again. This time, however, it was for something other than what she had grown to know of her country. It appeared more magical than the boredom of her farm back in the country and less painful than the mundane of her mathematics and schoolwork. Stepanka despised schoolwork.

Stepanka flung herself into Prague, trying to escape the boredom and beat the mundane. She met men and Americans who taught her little bits of English. She worked hot commercial fashion shops, where she lived vicariously through the worldly strangers who passed through. But it did little to excite her and all the while something like Grandfather Bohumil’s dream began to grow inside of her.

Even though her dream was tragically naive, it fortunately failed to be shy and modest. It was shameless too as it starved for attention, and sometimes, as Stepanka found out through countless episodes of trial and error, an honest shamelessness about what you are craving can be the simple, raw ingredient for making the perfect sorts of feasts in life.

One day in Prague, the spontaneous generosity of the man who owned the gym where she worked abruptly transformed Stepanka’s circumstances. Knowing she had been dreaming to visit New York, he promised to loan her money for a plane ticket. The little girl was ecstatic. She would pay him back. It was a deal.

Stepanka flew to New York and promised her family that she would return, but her hunger was too strong, and deep inside she knew she would stay no matter what. So at the end of a month-long stay in an apartment with a pair of Czech strangers, whose fighting exhausted her and whose thinning hospitality estranged her, and with 4 days before her flight back to Prague, she set out on a quixotic search for a job, and after what felt like hopeless wandering, she landed a gig bussing tables at a small cafe in the Upper West side of Manhattan.

Of course, she couldn’t speak English, but she was cute. And being cute was enough to survive.

Stepanka’s hunger wasn’t satisfied though. Even though she was finally in New York, there was so much she did not have. Even though she had a job, she couldn’t afford her rent. Even though the manager of the cafe finally put her up with room and board, which he paid for from her tips, she could not afford more than a bagel or two per day. And about her English – she had to learn English.

Quiet Stepanka stayed in a crude hostel paid for by the owner of the café. But life was more like indentured servitude than the New York she had dreamed of.

“It was a place on 85th St. And it was $80 for a week. And it was the most disgusting place you’ve ever seen. There were roaches crawling everywhere. Roaches crawling in my pants, in my bed, in my… it was so disgusting, and the first time I took a shower I didn’t have a towel. I only had a few sheets of toilet paper.”

The starving circumstances of Stepanka Horalkva stung. But the stinging eased when a Frenchman named Mario, who had been dining with his friends at the cafe where Stepanka worked, slipped her a dollar tip with his business card tucked tightly inside. She called his number. They met.

“You’re bussing tables and you can’t speak English,” explains Stepanka, “And people are looking at you as though you’re secondary, you know? But for me that was always motivation to excel and learn more and get better. But Mario didn’t look at me at all like that. He saw me and wanted to help me and protect me and he was just… the nicest man ever.”

But Stepanka didn’t necessarily want Mario’s help. To struggle was how it was supposed to be in New York.

“I was homeless. And I never asked anything from him. He didn’t know I was homeless. I started staying at his place and sleeping at his place and at some point I had to tell him… because I was really homeless, and I had nowhere to go, and I finally told him because I was just… I was just… I was so afraid! I never wanted him to think that I wanted anything from him!”

“I never wanted someone to support me,” says Stepanka, remembering the dilemma of choosing between the generosity of a stranger or another semester of her impoverished ways.

But Mario’s generosity was ultimately irresistible for Stepanka. He invited her stay with him while she began to put her life together, and though a part of her felt reluctant, she chose to take his offer. Indeed she took more than just that. Mario and Stepanka lived together for 8 years, and finally married. Not necessarily for reasons of love, but rather, for a visa.

Mario was Stepanka’s cradle. “Why don’t you take classes,” he encouraged her. The Frenchman opened a doorway for the young Czech immigrant. Rather than snagging vulnerable little Stepanka and making her a victim, Mario wanted to see her grow.

“I just want you to excel,” Stepanka remembers him saying.

“And you know what was beautiful?” she recalls, glowing. “He saw me– he didn’t take advantage of me – he saw that I didn’t want to stay at home and cook for him. I wanted to do my own thing. The most amazing thing for me is to be independent.”

Through Mario’s doorway Stepanka’s hunger learned the kindness of a stranger in a new city, the power of money, how love hurts and heals and how ultimately, in spite of the pain, it helps one grow. The key turned, and Stepanka, 21 and still starving to be something greater than the daughter of a poor farmer, began to feel a passion flicker inside of her.

When Mario convinced her not to worry about money and start looking for her passion, she took up his offer to fund her education.

Stepanka was finally lucid about what came next.

Since her childhood Stepanka says that she had always possessed a private obsession for circles – the shapes that made up order on the farmhouse table back in Czech, the things that let her eat and drink, the cups and bowls, glasses and plates, spoons and saucers.

“When I was a child I always loved ceramics and it came to me…!” Stepanka exclaims, remembering how Mario lifted the pressure off of her and how he let her find her purpose.

She chose ceramics classes, and though Stepanka’s hunger had never been stronger, the hope of becoming a successful artist in Manhattan – especially as a potter – was one of those fragile topics that brought about a hard, stubborn doubt in the people around her.

Even Mario flatly disbelieved her when one day, after several classes, she declared, “I’ll make one hundred cups and sell them at the fair this weekend. I’m sure I can sell one hundred cups. Or I can at least sell some.”

But Stepanka was determined, and after 3 days and $4,000, Stepanka’s appetite began to fill. But the hunger didn’t stop. That was in 2001. Soon afterward she began taking classes at a ceramics studio at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College where she could have access to more space and produce more work. After a little more than a year, Columbia University offered her to teach classes and later to manage their studio.

For Stepanka, this went beyond all expectation.

“I just couldn’t even dream of it,” she says. “I mean – having a studio in Manhattan is something that I thought would never ever happen.”

Now, 16 years later, sitting on a stool in the quiet of her studio, Stepanka still reminds you of a weary little Cosette. Indeed the frail young woman from the Czech Republic might lead you to think that she is just another starving artist, chained to the work bench, with change in her pockets for barely two bagels to last her through the day, but you would be deceived.

Stepanka starves less than she used to.

Surrounding a dusty work bench in the center of her basement studio there is a massive wall divided into shy, modest shelves where hundreds of circles:  half-finished clay pots, upside-down bowls, colorful plates, urns, and glasses wait patiently for their turn, starving to get some attention from the meticulous hands of Stepanka Horalkva.

Stepanka is the manager of the studio at Columbia’s Teacher’s College. She works for the use of the space and sells her work online. She says that there’s more demand than she can handle.

Working away in the center of a large white room, Stepanka Horalkva wears a short girlish skirt. When she moves her head, her ponytail bounces playfully. There is a brilliant smile on her face that says something courageous and hopeful about her. Two prints of ink are stained into her skin. They show through her sleeveless top. One is a Japanese letter that means “love” and the other one is a gigantic circle tattoo-ed into the center of her back. Only a narrow crescent shows.

“I think a circle for me is a metaphor for life,” she explains. “Everything is a circle, you know?”


People around Manhattan still doubt the young Czech woman. Stepanka remembers going to a cocktail party and introducing herself as a Manhattan Artist. The man she was talking to looked at her as though she were a liar. He didn’t believe her. Being a potter in Manhattan defies the odds of almost-inevitable failure that so many assume to be the status quo in a city that is more notorious for swallowing starving artists than it is for letting them live.

Some New Yorkers might never know what it really means to feel filled up after being hungry just to be part of this American place – a place known for its chaotic, unfair, and tragic ways – to survive it all despite the starving. But Stepanka Horalkva knows that there is beauty in starving. She has lived it. Hard. Finally, she is full.

It is easy to grow up in America with the notion that the American Dream is about hard work and making heaps of money, not about hard work and finding your passion. It seems that the passion story often runs along the lines of this: to be a starving artist isn’t about hard work, it’s about starving. That narrative is a great misfortune to anyone with energy and passion to do their work for the sake of doing it.

Fortunately, Stepanka never cared to listen to it.

When I ask her what hard work means, she can’t answer. The question doesn’t make sense to the successful Manhattan artist.

“It’s not work,” she says. “It’s passion… I never do anything that doesn’t feel right. And I know that I will never ever fail.”


May, 2012

Breaking Joplin: Portrait of Tom Rogers

“I’m not telling you it wasn’t a difficult road. It was a very difficult road because I burnt a lot of bridges. I had stolen from people. My gambling addiction was out of control. I had bled my parents dry of money. The whole thing was a train wreck.”

Tom Rogers is a tall, sturdy man. Dressed in black shoes, a blue striped dress shirt, and black slacks, Tom Rogers greets me in a thunderous voice and puts a strong handshake into my palm. Like the unwavering confidence of a salesman, Tom Rogers looks as though he could never break.

But the truth is that Tom Rogers lives in a world where the past is not just broken, it is shattered, and yet the Missouri man somehow manages to keep his present – and the present of others – full of life.

That is, after all, his profession.

During the interview, Tom Rogers crosses his legs and rests his hands on his knees. He appears calm and collected. He doesn’t talk with his hands. His face is serious and controlled. Well kept, his voice is relaxed even though there’s something of a fiery growl that rears its head almost as if the man possesses a demon that wants to get out.

The Watered Gardens Gospel Mission sits behind Joplin’s main street. It is housed in what looks like a former brick industrial building. Outside, in the parking lot, there are members of the mission lazing about. Some look at me, some don’t. Some are smoking Pall Mall cigarettes and laughing like cuckoos.

Then one calls out to me, “Hey! It’s Elvis Presley!” It’s a sure gesture to my slick style hair cut. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Elvis is dead. The faces in the parking lot appear bent, twisted, and deflated. These could be the saddest faces in America.

There’s little anger in them. No palpable aggression. Instead, I see hopelessness. A magnificent loss.


The sadness that wells up around the mission is a sadness that Tom Rogers knows cold. In fact, defeating hopelessness is his mission. And at his best, Tom Rogers transforms the deflated faces I see in the parking lot into people who feel and want to be alive – people with purpose.


Tom Rogers describes himself as a life coach. “Some describe what I do as Evangelism,” he says.


But Tom Rogers says that he is not so keen on the sort of religion practiced by Joplin’s Evangelical mega-churches. Instead, he has formulated his own sort of spiritual healing. After defeating his own personal history of brokenness borne out of drug and alcohol abuse (including a near-death experience), Tom Rogers dedicates his time at the mission to repairing the broken lives of others.

“I was born here in Joplin… at the hospital that was destroyed in the tornado. I grew up with an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. And only through a searching and fearless, moral inventory that I did over the last couple years did I really discover where I had to make a decision that I would have to be a person that had to shelter himself and to create a new personality and to find the safest route through life without really expressing who I really was.

When you grow up in a non-affectionate home where there’s not a hug, a kiss, you try to help yourself with that a little bit. You give yourself some atta-boys. You seek approval from people in destructive ways. You seek approval. Even to this day I catch myself seeking approval from people and seeking attention. I grew up a confused child.”


Tom Rogers says he knows the worst in people and the best in people. It’s difficult not to believe him.

When a tornado ripped through Joplin in May of 2011, it decimated one third of the city and left one hundred people dead. Tom Rogers lost his house, his car and all of his personal belongings. Fortunately, he kept his life. And what he experienced with that life was the aftermath of a horrific natural disaster, and though it might have seemed peculiar on the surface, Tom Rogers knew exactly what was poisoning Joplin.

It was the same thing that had poisoned him.

“We have a lot of people here who are transient,” explains Tom Rogers. “So a lot of folks came to town because they felt led to come and help clean up. It was a new start for them. Since Joplin was devastated they’d be able to come and blend in – knowing that so many people would displaced. I think there was a natural gravitation to come here and be involved in helping clean up – to make themselves part of the community.

That’s one thing that attracted a lot of people – these guys knew there would be a lot of work, a lot of clean up, a lot of work that wouldn’t require someone to look at their past. They had an opportunity to have a fresh start.

One thing that always comes with catastrophe and Joplin’s type of tragedy is unity. You never create any greater unity than with tragedy and catastrophe.

So you see a new spirit in town. I see the best of people, but I also see the worst in people. And I see people who have probably been in the position that I was in my past: how can I take advantage of this situation, how can I profit from this situation?” he explains.


Inside the mission, dinner is about to finish. There is a cluttered kitchen where three chefs busily push food onto a small counter.  Some mission guests poke around at their plates. The food is stacked on green plastic hospital plates. Most people eat alone. Hardly anyone speaks. The faces I see are as plain and bland as the food. Lining the kitchen wall there are glass panels where short success stories about mission members are neatly taped up in a line.

One story is about man who fought a methamphetamine addiction, how he needed to change and how he did, and how now he drives a rig all over America for a national trucking company. It is told using the word “I.” I search for a name. There is none.

Now, after all the addiction and the pain, after the desperation and the sadness, after the brokenness, this truck driver is healed. Some, it seems, get to leave the mission and the sadness of Joplin behind. Some get to rejuvenate their American road.

Fortunately the repaired truck driver has Tom Roger’s gospel to show him the way.

May 2012

Owning Oklahoma: Portrait of Greg Griffith

The sting of manure is strong.

The only noise I hear is the crunching of tires against earth and the rattle of metal against metal. Soon the clanging and clattering that resounds through an open lot filled with rows of tired, mud-stained trucks surrounds me. Their carriages are vacant, but the sting of the manure tells me that cattle were here. As I step out of my car, my shoes crunch against hard dirt.

A woman in the Stockman Commission Company office tells me where to go. She tells me to follow the hallway to the end, then take a right. Go to the final door. Then exit. The stockyards are across the lot. You’ll need to take the catwalk.


“Look for the auction house,” she says, “…just follow the smell.”


She says it in that bumpy deep-in-the-middle-of-American-heartland accent. I am following a scent. I am finding the auction house.


The auction house is at the center of a maze of cattle and people and fences and horses and mooing and manure, making up an industry that marks the heart of America – livestock. Oklahoma City’s stockyards and auction houses are the places where thousands of head of cattle are bought and sold by ranchers from all around the Great Plains every day.

The smell of manure is stronger now, but not as sharp, as I pound my boots up the steps that carry me to the top of the catwalk. I reach the top. In front of me what spreads out in every direction is a labyrinth of bobbing-up-and-down cowboy hats, gates and pens and rusty steel cages, and three or four galloping mahogany-red horses circling majestically around the static of what must be thousands of mooing heads.

I walk the catwalk.

Greg Griffith, I am told, is somewhere inside the brick building, an auction house that towers above the stockyard, where a fast talking man rambles prices to an audience of straight-faced ranchers in one of Oklahoma’s largest cattle markets.

Greg Griffith, I am told, owns the show. And boy is it a show indeed.

Finally I find the auction house. Greg Griffith has explained to me that he will be the only one in the auction house, rambling away from his post at the auction stage, which sits high above the pen. He says it will be easy to spot him. He has told me it will be easy to know which one he is because he will be the only one who wears a cowboy hat.

I enter. What feels like one hundred cowboy hat brims shift their shadowy gazes lazily toward me.


“My first job was working here at The Oklahoma City Stockyards. My grandfather owned a commission company here. But back then it was a four-day sale and that was before they had automatic waters and concrete water troughs. And there were always a lot of kids who worked here. Most of them – their fathers worked here. And our job was to water the cattle all day long… I started in 1974.”


Speaking in a genial drone Greg Griffith explains how he earned a degree in Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and took a job with Oscar Mayer foods company in Sherman, Texas, right after college. But he quickly learned that factory work wasn’t for him, so he came back to Apache, Oklahoma and entered auctioneering school.

For twenty years using that hard, melodic ramble that Oklahoma owns has been the profession of Greg Griffith.


“Well, you know I always had a pretty good voice. The pay was always pretty good and it’s a pretty competitive, intense-type job, and it fit my personality.”

I enter the auction and sit down.

Almost everyone wears a cowboy hat and several fellows have kicked up their legs, put them across one another, and rest two muddy boots on the paint-chipped railings in front of them. Some younger hands wear baseball caps and sneakers. It is as if the wide brimmed hats and heavy leather boots are a mark of status and heightened respect.  The distracted faces remain for only a second as the whirring din of the rambling stereo voice of the auctioneer sucks their focus back into the market.


A bell rings. And then the massive beasts come rumbling into a tight space where cowboys swat the cattle hides with a wire rod. The auctioneer begins to ramble hard. Next to me an old man with a trimmed white beard and a modest hat absorbs respectful handshakes from passers-by in his thick, meaty palms. One after the other the hands come swooping in for a hard shake. There is a distinct hierarchy among the members of the audience. Some are young and watch and listen. The young ones are quiet. Their faces look on, following the scribbling of numbers and notes on worn out notepads clutched in the hands of older, more seasoned boots and hats.

Greg Griffith is more than just an auctioneer now. He has retired his fast rambling voice and instead moved on to other, more entrepreneurial adventures.

“We operate Stockman’s commission company here in Oklahoma City. We also operate Apache auction market in Apache Oklahoma. And then we have a video company where we sell cattle over the Internet. So we have film representatives that go out and film people’s cattle at their ranch. And then they email the films to us and we write out all the parameters and all the delivery conditions, and when we deliver, what they will weigh, and then we auctioneer them live over the Internet on Wednesday.”


Mr. Griffith’s company deals business with ranchers from all over the Great Plain states.

Out on the catwalk, I meet a man clad in a bright red prairie shirt. It is pleated and clean. He wears an austere cowboy hat, but on his feet there are extravagant red cowboy boots. The man comes from a ranch 50 miles away from Oklahoma City to buy and sell at Greg Griffith’s auctions.

“We’ll see how the prices are today,” he grunts. The red prairie shirt seems tough to satisfy.

Greg agrees. Finding satisfaction in his clients is not only hard work – it is a precarious business.

“There in about 10 minutes we sold 404 head of cattle that probably averaged around $1,000 dollars a head,” he says, referring to the last ten minutes of rambling that I fail to comprehend, “… and so that’s $404,000 dollars of cattle that we probably did in under 10 minutes…. And well, you know, these people have bank loans and operating expenses and household expenses…”

“And you’re the one representing their livelihood, right?” I ask.

“Exactly,” he says serious as stone.


The way Greg thinks about his hard work is that his success depends not so much on his skills, but on how much stress he can take on.


“As you get older, the more you handle people and the more stress you can manage, the more profitable your work is to you.”


Below the auctioneer’s stage, there is a pit of dirt where the drafts of cattle that come thundering into the ring are guarded off from the cowboys by two narrow spaces separated from the ring by a worn out metal fence. One young cowboy in a mud-colored plaid shirt uses a long rod to swat the cattle as they come pounding across the dirt.

He looks scared, timid and fresh. No more than fourteen years old.

Later, on the catwalk I see the young boy. Hanging out from a straight, tight-lipped face a cigarette is burning. He breathes it in hard. The kid is staring across the maze of pens and cattle and cowboys, out toward two lone skyscrapers that poke up from the middle of downtown Oklahoma City. You can barely seem them behind the gray. The young boy has dirt on his hands and under his nails. His blue jeans are stained. He doesn’t look me in the eye. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s intimidated or tired. Whatever he is, the kid looks worn out. And this is only 14 years in.

In Oklahoma’s stockyards, it seems that just plain growing up can be hard work.

“The toughest part,” says Greg Griffith, reflecting on how he started out, “is finding out how terrible you really are. How intimidated you are by what you’re trying to do.”

I start to pity the boy a bit, watching him smoke hard, covered in dirt.

I start to pity him for the mindless swatting of manure-crusted cattle that make up the boy’s existence down there in the cattle pen. I pity him for the ramble that he does not yet comprehend.

And then I halt myself, remembering something Greg Griffith said just moments ago inside the auction house.

“Work’s not the enemy,” he said matter-of-factly.


I look the young kid up and down again.

Then again maybe he’s not worn out at all. Maybe he’s just getting hard. Maybe the sort of boring pain that comes hand in hand with the hard work that we put ourselves through is the way we appreciate our successes. Maybe this is just simply what it looks like to grow up in the heart of America. Maybe this young cowhand is just another young Greg Griffith, breathing it all in, getting used to the sting of manure, getting used to the mundane swatting of hides, and trying to understand the incomprehensible ramble that comes from underneath the shadowy brims of older hats – maybe this is just a young boy growing accustomed to the stink and the ramble and the gray and the fragile patience and determination to palate it without quitting early.

Breathing it all in.

Indeed, there might be a day when the young boy needs to breath in deep and ramble out every bit of what he possibly can.

As I stomp across the creaky wood boards of the catwalk, the sounds of cattle mooing fall in on each other and become a low moan, but there’s something about the sound that comes from the yard that still feels clear and honest and strong – it’s the sound of the auctioneer’s voice rambling on.

May, 2012

Hunting Down The Mojave: Portrait of David Denslow

“Combat is not fun,” the ex-marine says crossing his arms tightly in front of him.

I press my thumb into the map and observe. It does not fill the gray patch of area that represents a massive drag of dessert in southern California’s Mojave where young men outfitted with weapons learn to gamble their lives all inside the vacuum of a humongous playground where the trials of war are understood as best as they possible can be.

I move my eyes southward across the map, and see that there is a space roughly equivalent in size. Another swath of government land.

Joshua Tree National Park is a 1,235.37 sq mi property where Californians arrive in droves to feast their eyes on the natural beauty of the park and wonder over its alien-like Joshua Trees.

What I learn from David Denslow, the man who I meet in the desert, is that the land underneath my thumb – that gigantic gray patch – is not the same paradise that Joshua Tree National park is. The gray patch on the map is a different sort of desert – another desert that David Denslow used to know all too well. The gray patch on the map is Twentynine Palms US Marine Base, Twentynine Palms, California.

The gray patch on the map, according to David Denslow, is more like controlled hell.

“The base is the world’s largest base. 944 square miles of training area. So they can actually do a mini-Afghanistan over there. The only thing they don’t have are camels. They got oil. They got … They have an Iraqi village built out there so they can practice combat insurgency and all that. The only thing they can’t do is drop nuclears. They can shoot drones out of the sky. They can drop 500 lbs. bombs. It’s real life training.” David Denslow tells me in an empty auditorium at Joshua Tree National Park.

When I walk through the door I spot him. David Denslow has his hand raised high above his head. He does not look at me. He ignores me. Or maybe he’s simply absorbed in his own train of thought, a concentration magnetized by a soldier’s discipline. Raising his hand, David Denslow stares down two young boys in front of him. He says a pledge. The boys recite it.

David Denslow does not smile.

David Denslow wears sand-colored canvas, a moustache, and commands a wiry figure. His hair is silver and straight. And it seems that the blood is always rushing to his beat, red face. Maybe it’s just the Mojave and the sun and the dust and the West, I think.

Pure Mojave Man. That’s my guess.

I’m wrong.

“Michigan Man.” David Denslow spells it out and lets it sink in like hot steel, and then he continues. “I was born in Lansing Michigan. 1954. Middle class family. Nobody rich. Nobody poor.”

David Denslow’s life began to unfold fast when he became a rifleman for the US Marines. Between years of 1973 and 1976 he was on active duty and completed tours in South East Asia.

“In the fall of 73’ I was stationed in the Phillipines. That’s where I met my first wife. Then we moved back to United States. From there we went to Hawaii. Things didn’t work out. We got divorced.”

After the pledge, David and I enter an empty auditorium and pull up two chairs. The walls around us are plain. Tightly wound, David Denslow talks bullets. He talks sharp. He talks hard, like Michigan steel.

But what he says takes me by surprise. David Denslow is not the aggression-crazed man one might expect to find wound up in an ex-marine. In fact, David Denslow is very much his own man.

“In the marine corps we don’t have black, white, Mexican… there was never a color difference in my 20 years of experience. If you stab him in the arm and me in the arm, then what color is the blood? It’s the same!,” he exclaims passionately.

But then the ex-marine tells me about his duties, not as a soldier, but as a human resources manager, as if those times were the golden years of his military tenure.

David Denslow was a personnel manager during the US Military’s Desert Storm operation, where he was responsible for processing thousands of marines for training at the base in Twentynine Palms.

“It was the uncertainty that was tough. I was getting the emergency stuff set up. Wills set up. Power of attorneys set up. Making sure service records were current. And I was an office manager at that point. So I was running an office with 50 marines in it.”

“So when desert storm hit in 1990, 50, 60 thousand marines would be called up. They’d have shoved them through Pendleton, but then they realized, oh wait, we’re going to be sending them to a desert, so maybe we gotta give them some desert training, so they’d send them up to us. Camp Pendleton got all the glory for the activation process, but all the training happened here, and Twentynine Palms didn’t get anything, but we’re the ones that trained them for our country,” he says vigorously.

David Denslow holds a Masters in Human Resource Management. He says that he believes he has out-educated himself. Now, in addition to his Ranger responsibilities, David Denslow oversees the Operation Wounded Warrior and Post to Parks Program at Twentynine Palms, which helps young former marines unwind and cope with the monsters that often come hand in hand with traumatic tours of duty as well as help them find jobs. The Post to Park program works by letting tired, troubled, and anxious soldiers wander the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Some of these young marines – now even though they’re not physically damaged, they’re mentally damaged.”

David Denslow says that the purpose of the programs is to prevent disturbed marines from ending up on the street.

“This is a place for you to unwind, a place for you to forget about it, a place for you to relax.”

The aspiration to join the marines followed from observing his older brothers’ choices, David Denslow explains.

“Growing up in HS I didn’t really have a specific aspiration. But after seeing my older brothers go into the military… I didn’t want the Army, Navy, Airforce because the other three were already there. And the Marine Corps is a challenge. It’s not an application it’s a commitment… so in 1972 I entered the Marine corps.”

“That was one of my aspirations. I knew it would be hard work.”

David Denslow says it without hostility, without arrogance. He says it with a calm, somber, but tired-as-hell satisfaction. He says it as though he is happy it is over, but he is happy to own it as part of his history.

It was hard work, too, explains David, when it came to growing up in Michigan as the son of two alcoholic parents, whom David says caused damage, but that he only realized that later in his life.Both of his parents died of alcohol-induced dementia, he says.

“At one point, I just knew I had to get away from Mom and Dad. I had to get out of dodge,” says David Denslow pensively, thinking about his decision to join the corps.

He also remembers how his father used to believe in the parks and how they kept David and his brothers away from the ubiquitous drug-use that became a normal for kids growing up in the 1970s.

And he also remembers how his father liked to hunt.

“My dad hunted. My Dad liked pheasant. He owned a gun,” says the ex-marine.

And then he shifts his posture and puts his head up in the air, as if trying to present a dignity others might not let him have.

“But I never owned a gun,” he says.

May 2012