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A watcher sees across the divide

Max Kennedy patrols the U.S.-Mexico frontier as a volunteer. But this alienated man may be the most ambivalent of border warriors.

June 23, 2007|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

He's not sure if he can blame them. In some ways, Kennedy, who ran away from home at 14 and has been on his own ever since, says he feels a kinship with the migrants -- more kinship, at least, than with many of the Minuteman Project's political and financial champions, the "Orange County Republican types."

"They have nice houses and they're rich, and they have no idea what other people live like," he says. "They kind of look down their nose at you."

In fact, he thinks of the migrants not as illegal immigrants but as economic refugees, and admires their cunning. But he figures someone has to stand for all those Americans -- the ones he's known his whole life -- who can never seem to carve out more than a precarious toehold.

Running through the indefinable crazy quilt of his worldview is a belief in vast conspiracies -- 9/11 was orchestrated by U.S. and Israeli intelligence, and the moon landing a hoax -- and a conviction that forces of government and big business have their boot on humanity's neck.

So he'd like to strike a blow for the little guy, somehow. That, he says, explains why he's out here. But since he arrived, his sympathies have expanded in ways that surprised him. "Most of the people jumping the fence are pathetic," he says. "I see the poverty in their faces."

Off his truck rolls, rocking up and down, playing havoc with his bad back. He doesn't trust the medical establishment any more than he trusts the government, and even if he did, couldn't afford a doctor. "If I had $100, I look at that as 10 days on the border, or half of a doctor's payment," he says. For his teeth, he visits a cheap dentist in Tecate, Mexico.

He survives on donations from the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, getting by on as little as $150 a month, much of which goes for gas. There are few human voices to break the desert silence. On his little Grundig radio, he listens to audio of Fox News Channel in his truck. "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" are highlights of his week, and he says he doesn't mind that he gets no picture.

"I'm not much on visual jokes," he says. "It's usually the lower IQ that gets visual jokes."

By 9:58 p.m. he's planted under Tower 139, where he figures he will be able to spot the migrants crossing right beneath him. He chain-smokes Skydancer cigarettes, which he gets tax-free at the local Indian casino. He keeps the lighted tips low, out of sight.

"They know Sunday night there's not much Border Patrol, so they think they got a free run," Kennedy says. He takes a swig of Coke. "It's like being a kid. It's hide 'n' seek between me and the coyotes."

A voice comes on his walkie-talkie, which is jury-rigged with a piece of wiring to extend its range. The voice belongs to a new Minuteman on the border tonight who calls himself Northstar.

Kennedy hasn't met him and doesn't know whether to trust him. He might be a drug smuggler or a lunatic looking to bust some Mexican heads.

"We're down in La-something Canyon," Northstar says. "We got Mexican voices down in it."

"That's La Gloria Canyon. Let them go past. We're waiting for 'em," Kennedy says. "We found their path already. Hold your ground. Don't scare 'em too much."

Time ticks by. Overhead, power lines crackle. He waits, musing about some of the things he's seen. "It's usually the women who get caught, because they can't run like men can," he says. "And older people. They give up easier."

By 10:15 p.m., his hopes of catching the group have dwindled. He thinks coyotes have intercepted their radio transmissions, that other Minutemen, maybe this new guy Northstar, have killed the operation with excessive chatter. The migrants might be fleeing. He points into the dark eastward mountains. "They're probably heading that way."

Still, he waits. He scans the desert with his goggles. The desolation reminds him of dreams he used to have of nuclear annihilation. After the bombs fell, he sensed he would be one of the survivors. "This is like the post-apocalyptic universe," he says. "It's a battlefield. Sometimes you can't think of a reason to go on."

He waits. Smokes. Scans. The temperature drops. He wants to participate in history. He wonders what it would have been like at Antietam or Gettysburg. He imagines he would feel right at home with Spartacus' army of rebel slaves.

"I know I should be somewhere else," he says, waiting for a sound, a flicker of movement, anything. "I just can't find that niche that I'll fall into perfectly."

A little after 11 p.m., a sound comes from the desert. "Cracklin' bushes, brother! Cracklin' bushes!" He seizes his night-vision goggles and scans. "Where are you? I definitely hear you." He puts his goggles down, disappointed. "Animal. Coyote. Four-legged."

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