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Over the years, OC Weekly and the Darnel Squad—which eschews shaving, cosmetics, antiperspirant, deodorant soaps and daily showering—have enjoyed a sort of love-to-mock/hate relationship. When a Darnel Squad meeting announcement did not appear in our Calendar mere days after it was mailed, founder Julie Mandrake sent us a blistering letter accusing us of censorship in defense of advertisers who "exploit" women. When we attempted to contact the group for a profile, a member told us their meetings were now closed, that they were going "deep underground." On more than one occasion, after other stories or letters mentioning the Darnel Squad appeared in the Weekly, we received letters from women who wondered why we gave any ink to a group whose members hung around Huntington Beach beauty shops hectoring the clientele.
The Weirdness Meter topped out with "The First (and Probably Last) OC Weekly Poetry Contest," which ran on March 5. Weeklycontributor Victor D. Infante organized the contest, but due to some personal issues—and the fact that the original batch of submissions sucked—he postponed the contest's appearance in the paper. A poem by Mandrake was among the entries. Another Darnel Squad member e-mailed me asking when the contest results would run. I wrote back that I'd forward her message to Infante, who was in charge of the contest. She then accused me of making up "this Victor person" to hide the real fact: that Mandrake had clearly submitted the best poem but that it was too hot for the Weekly to publish. I responded with an expletive-laced e-mail that essentially said I didn't give a fig about her, I had no control over the contest, and the winners would appear soon.
While Mandrake's poem wasn't the best—oy! Not even close—the whole episode amused us enough that we ran her entry, which ended like this: "Fifty yards away under darkness/The butt of my Rifle I caress/One day, you might become a big bloody mess/When you fall under our crosshairs/It won't be a test."
That was it for a while. Then, several weeks ago, Weekly editor Will Swaim received a thoughtful bury-the-hatchet letter with a Sedona, Arizona, postmark and Mandrake's signature. She praised the Weekly for its independent voice and wondered if perhaps, when she got back into town, they could get together and patch things up.
Julie Irene Pappas Mandrake had died of pneumonia in Sedona on May 10. She was 33.
"She'd been sick for quite a few weeks," Spon said. "She didn't take care of herself. She didn't believe in getting medical help."
Ilearned from Spon that Mandrake grew up in Torrance. She was a tomboy. She won several BMX dirt-bike races as a preteen. She competed on her high school swim team. As an adult, she sculpted, made pottery, fished, hunted, camped and participated in jiu-jitsu competitions, insisting on entering the men's division even though she usually lost. She worked as a fast-food worker, seed seller and a handywoman. She staffed a bait shop, a department store and—something that gave Weeklystaffers pause—an indoor firing range.
After spending time in Europe in the early '90s showing her sculptures, Mandrake returned home with a new habit: not showering.
"She was living pretty naturally," Spon said, "and she was very intent on starting a group that would promote this."
The Darnel Squad—"darnel" is a type of Eurasian grass—began in Huntington Beach with four members in 1995 and grew to 60 followers in California and Massachusetts. "Julie was very proud of it," Spon said, "and in recent years, the group was very active."
Mandrake debated fashion-magazine representatives, got hauled by security officers out of the Gillette Corp.'s annual stockholders meeting, and was profiled on National Public Radio and CNN's Health Watch.
Family obligations prevented Weekly staffers from attending the memorial service. That apparently did not sit well with Darnel Squad members. "The end got very emotional," Spon said. "It was probably better that you weren't there."