Deanne Stillman

Excerpt from Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (Nation Books, 2012)
My heart is broke
I have some glue

– Nirvana

They had names like Lizard and Paranoid Pam, and they were in bands like Let’s Go Bowling and Nazi Bitch. They hung out at a place called Spanky’s, a punk dive across the street from the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, the history-infused hospitality headquarters for presidents, foreign dignitaries, and well-heeled tourists. A lot of these kids were products of what were once called “broken homes,” but broken didn’t begin to explain it, and their stories spoke of a wreckage across the suburban lands of their home turf, the Inland Empire, that strangely named California region that is a corruption of a vanished real estate dream—the Orange Empire!—and has engendered all manner of jokes and disparagement—Conquer this!—and that no one can quite figure out the boundaries of, but most agree that it begins where greater Los Angeles bleeds into San Bernardino and Riverside counties and then the whole thing ends where a warehouse runs into the desert and people go shooting.

One day in 1989 ninth grader Chris Smallwood was walking through this region, down La Sierra Street in Riverside, where he lived with his mother and sister, heading to school. He met a kid named Chuck, aka Charles Donald Kueck, who had just rounded the corner from Doverwood, where he lived with his mother, her boyfriend, and two sisters, one from his mother’s first marriage and the other from her third. Chuck was tall and skinny and dressed in black—black T-shirt, black leather jacket, black jeans, black boots—and he was pushing a ten-speed bike. He was a bit embarrassed about his impaired vehicle situation and later, by way of explanation, added some information about his family, off-hand comments that to an outsider would sound an alarm: “My mother’s wasted and so’s her old man.” But not here in this working-class neighborhood of small one- and two-bedroom homes, where the mothers were beleaguered and the fathers were broken, often absent because of divorce or jail time, or at home, barely hanging on, drowning in booze or drugs, lashing out at their wives and kids, at ghosts, trying to shake off a legacy of poverty and violence that dated back to the clan rivalries of their Scots-Irish forebears, some of whom came to America as indentured white slaves. On the day of that first encounter, the boys formed a quick bond, mainly because of the neighborhood that they lived in and the mutual knowledge of what that meant. As they continued on to school, they discussed matters of the day, discovering their shared love of certain bands—Black Flag, Social Distortion, the Dead Kennedys—and spoke of their own musical aspirations. From then they on were buddies.

A few weeks later, a kid named Rande Linville was standing outside the window of a liquor store in downtown Riverside. It was 1:30 in the morning and he was about to break in. But he heard the sound of skateboard wheels on pavement and turned to look. “There were these two guys on boards,” he says. “I was surprised to see them because there weren’t very many skateboarders then. And most of them looked like me, blonde, clean-cut, with surfer hair. These guys were wearing black leather jackets and looked like punks.” They were Chuck Kueck and Chris Smallwood and along with Rande they were about to become a close band of friends who called themselves The Three Amigos—a reference to the John Landis movie with Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and Steve Martin, in which three actors who play gunfighters end up in a Mexican village where they actually have to fend for themselves.

As they stood in the parking lot on the night of their first encounter, Rande asked, “What’s up?” He was wondering if he was going to have to fight two people off for the swag from the liquor store, especially because there appeared to be a serious tribal difference if you judged the situation by clothing alone. And then came the response: “What’s up?” For a moment there was a standoff, and then Chris decided to end it, reaching into his crotch—to Rande’s alarm—and pulling out an American flag. “Dude,” Rande said, “whaaa?” Chris explained that they were out stealing flags and were on their way back to Chuck’s house to burn them. The news was startling and hilarious, and Rande cracked up and then they all started laughing, and then Rande explained his break-in plans. Chuck and Chris approved and Rande picked up his skateboard and smashed the window. Chuck dove in and then the other two boys followed, returning with candy, cigarettes, and beer, and then they jumped on their boards. Instead of heading to Chuck’s, they cruised back to Rande’s apartment, a small, three-room unit he shared with his mother and sister in a nearby Section 8 housing project. Inside Rande’s bedroom, they cracked open a six-pack and started to drink. “Dude,” Chuck said as he looked around the room, “you like Black Flag?” He was referring to a wall poster and he was impressed. Then Chris joined in, noting a flyer for the Circle Jerks, and high-fiving Rande. Surprised that the surfy-looking guy would be into punk rock instead of metal, Chuck and Chris exchanged a look, and then Chuck turned to Rande. “I play bass,” he said. “Chris plays lead. We need a drummer. Do you—?” Before he could finish, Rande was in— as it turned out, he was a heavy metal drummer transitioning into punk, and he had been playing for a long time. Soon after that they formed their first band, named one night after Chris and Chuck had seen the Oliver Stone movie JFK and Chuck, recalls Chris, “was all, ‘Dude, dude, dude,’”—mimicking his friend—“Oswald was set up, we gotta call our band Oswald’s Revenge and I said, ‘Dude, that is so right,’ and from then on, that was our band.”

Chuck was now part of a world that was getting some serious attention; it included bands like No Doubt and the local outfit Voodoo Glow Skulls, regulars at Spanky’s and famous all over the country. In fact, amigo Rande Linville’s best friend was a member of the Glowskulls, the most revered band in the Inland Empire. Because of the association, Linville became a sought-after drummer, and his crew— Chuck, Chris, and all of their musician associates— assumed a high profile in the Inland Empire, their fame only adding to their street cred. When Gwen Stefani was in town, they could go backstage, and a couple of times they partied with one of their idols, Henry Rollins, along with his seminal OC band Black Flag. Along with outlaws like William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, Rollins was a serious inspiration. Rollins looked and dressed like a skinhead, but he was anything but. Chuck often quoted from his book Pissing in the Gene Pool, with one passage holding particular relevance.

“I’ve got a roach crawling on my hand,” it went. “Should I kill it? . . . I don’t know, let me think. It was the first thought that popped into my head. I raised my other hand to crush it but all of a sudden I stopped dead in my tracks. I thought about all the people who think of me the same way I think of this roach. All the people who see me as a filthy crawling piece of vermin that should be destroyed. Hah! The roach is my brother and long may he prosper!”

Heartened by kindred spirits and part of a flourishing nationwide scene, Chuck and his friends were in demand as musicians, playing gigs around Riverside and once or twice at clubs in Los Angeles.

After a while, Oswald’s Revenge became other bands, as bands have a way of doing, but the three amigos were always in them, adding and subtracting other personnel, and they were always together, in spirit or in person, bonded forever by the fact that, as Rande recalls, they were “three fully abused kids who loved the same music.” In the annals of rough upbringings, this was not an exaggeration; they were indeed fully abused, but underlying that was a theme that ran through their lives, which could be summarized by way of one question: Where’s Dad?

* * * * *

In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a series of monuments called the Madonna of the Trail. There was one in each state along the National Old Trails Road, which extended from Maryland to California—twelve in all. The idea was to commemorate the pioneer woman whose strength and courage helped conquer the wilderness and make a new home in the Promised Land. Wrought from granite, the towering sculpture portrays a bonneted woman in full pioneer dress, baby in her arms and youngster at her side. She is in mid-stride, resolute, clutching a rifle. On February 1, 1929, the second to last of the Madonnas was dedicated in Upland, California, at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Euclid Avenue, a few miles from Riverside, where the first white trappers had entered the Golden State by land. The women who soon followed had not been acknowledged in such a way until this unveiling. “They were just as brave or braver than their men,” President Harry Truman had said at the ceremony for an earlier monument. “In many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies. They went, however, and endured every hardship that befalls a pioneer.”

Over 150 years later, little had changed on the frontier. Yes, it was modern and crowded, but still brutal, with women trying to hold the line. Amid a world of violence, on LaSierra Avenue in Riverside, Virginia Smallwood maintained a safe place—not for her, as it turned out, but for the kids who gathered there. Even while sometimes bruised and visibly battered, Virginia was everyone’s mother, or in the words of her daughter Amanda, she was “the community mom”—a comparatively stable parent with a steady job (she had resumed working as a dental assistant), a person who liked to take care of others, not so she could receive foster care payments from a government agency (as some who abused the system, and the kids in it, were known to do), but simply because she felt so inclined. Sooner or later, in this land of want and need, the children who wandered the malls looking for their own kind, or just drifted through because that’s where the trails led, made their way to the Smallwoods’ house, gathering ’round the table for dinner on any given evening, nurturing their weary bones with the burritos or chorizos and eggs cooked up by the generous Mrs. Smallwood, stretching her small salary to feed an army of haunted kids.

There was one kid who seemed a bit different, more troublesome, a tornado really; as soon as he started coming home with Chris, Virginia noticed that his energy was more chaotic and yet very intense and everyone seemed to fall under his spell. He was living with his mother at the time yet sometimes stayed on the streets, or at the homes of other kids, and soon, as always, his good looks, wit, and explosive charisma won the day, and Mrs. Smallwood permitted him to become a member of her household and move into her garage. Over time, she and the other members of her family learned the details of his personal story, and it was one of the worst she had heard, becoming more harrowing with every revelation, confirmed eventually by relatives and friends who had already fallen into his orbit.

Who can say when the trouble began? Certainly the fact that his father had walked out of his family’s life was a factor, opening up a fissure that would not come together again in spite of attempts by both father and son to reach across it after not having seen each other for over ten years. There were other factors too—a mother whose troubles were a mystery to outsiders and her involvement with a strange man whom Chuck and his friends came to call Ranch Dressing Rod, after his fondness for slathering food with this particular condiment. And by all means, we must consider genetics, which now show that nearly all aspects of personality, seemingly, are hard-wired (though susceptible to refinement in one way or another), and certainly we must acknowledge the general malaise that prevailed in the late twentieth-century cities of the Inland Empire, where the natural world was fast becoming a dream.


Stillman Deanne (Mark lamonica) (3)Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer, often writing about the modern and frontier West with the Mojave Desert as a main character. Her latest book is Desert Reckoning, based on an award-winning Rolling Stone article. It was just named a “Southwest Book of the Year,” was a Rolling Stone “must-read for the summer” (2012), and was praised in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Los Angeles Magazine, Oregonian, Denver Post, Tucson Weekly, and elsewhere. She is also the author of Mustang, an LA Times “best book 08,” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. In addition, she wrote the cult classic Twentynine Palms, an LA Times “best book 01” which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” Deanne is a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing program.

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