By Michael W. Rodriguez
Dedicated to Charley Trujillo, author of Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam. And a special thanks to Jim Bradley and Lise Engel for asking Charley to send me a copy of his book.
The 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, left their pleasant little Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) in September of 1967 for the dubious honor of assisting the 3rd Marine Division in its mission to keep the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from decivilizing (and depopulating) the DMZ.
We set up on our mountain west of Khe Sanh-just where I never did know, and did not very much care-and ran a few company-size patrols to get a feel for our new TAOR.
My Bró, Luis Alejandro Parker, was sent on "R and R" soon after we went north, so he missed the impromptu party held one late afternoon by the battalion's Chicanos on our mountain. Who started it is lost to time and memory:
"Let's have a party, esé."
"Orále, púes." Great idea.
Tell the others, son. "Dilé a los otros, m'ijo."
One vato (dude) passed the word to some dude whom passed it to somebody else. The battalion's Chicanos were going to have a party, down in the saddle that separated Hotel Company from Echo Company's hooches. One of us brought his guitar and canned tamales, another his tortillas-in-a-can (Rosarita; I have not found them since) sent to him by his mother, and someone else brought the hot sauce and refried beans.
We built small fires out of C-4 explosive on which to cook our chow and we sang our songs: "Ojos Verdes," Green Eyes, and "Sabor Ami," the songs of our youth. We told each other about our "Girl Back in The World" (Baby-san). We swapped lies and war stories about chicks and cars and bars and growing up in SanAnto, SanJo (San José), East Los (East Los Angeles), El Paso, Fresno, Santa Fe and wherever else we came from. Even some cholo, a 'street bopper' from Kansas City made an appearance.
We reminisced about Whittier Boulevard and the Plush Bunny, that most famous of all nightclubs in East L.A., and Saturday night dances at the National Guard armories in small Texas towns. We agreed on green-eyed Chicanas and disagreed on Hüeras. Yes, we agreed, the '57 Chevy was the coolest automobile ever built and Coors' beer was highly prized.
We spoke of pumping gas and cotton fields and orange groves where most of us had worked at one time or another, agreeing that picking cotton or fruit was just like The Nam: it sucked. We cursed La Migra, the Border Patrol and its tactics (irony of ironies: one of us would survive Vietnam and later join the Border Patrol. Go figure... ).
We slipped easily into the idiom of the Barrio, calling each other carnál, or brother, camarada and esé. We ate our tortillas, refried beans and tamales and wondered, as we licked our fingers and wiped our hands on our trousers and shirts, what our jefitas (Mothers) would think of our table manners. No, we agreed, they would not like how we chowed-down at all.
¿Tienes hermanita? was followed by threats of dismemberment if anybody put la movida on a little sister. All of us laughed at the age-old right of the older brother to protect his sisters.
Individually, we were are aware of being... different. We were a minority. We spoke a minimum of three languages: Chicano, English, and Marine. Some of us, like me, even spoke Spanish. We spoke and understood Chicano; some of us could speak English with difficulty, but all of us understood-and spoke-Marine.
We may not have understood high school English or everything that was said in las películas, the movies; we probably did not know how to write a check or fill out a job application. We all knew, however, about fields of fire, general orders, Claymore mines, vertical envelopment, squads on-line and the nomenclature of the M-16. We were, after all, professional fighting men.
We came out of the Barrios, the cities and the rural countrysides. A couple of Grunts at the party that night had lived their entire lives on the King Ranch, never once having been off the property. And, they vowed, once they returned to the ranch, they were never going to leave it again.
We knew gang fights and being refused service in restaurants and being told to get out of town. We knew discrimination (although we did not know it by that term; we just thought it was the way of the Gabácho, the White man).
We did not talk that night about why we were in The Nam. Cabula shuck and jive like that we left to the Chaplain or the Navy doctors down in Da Nang. Serving in the Armed Forces of the United States was something we grew up knowing we were going to do, so we did it. De verdád, we looked forward to it.
We did, that night, ask each other why we decided to join the Marine Corps. Some of us joined the Marine Corps to avoid the draft, although I could never figure out that one. Some of us enlisted because the Marine Corps was a tough outfit, and we were tough dudes. Some of us signed up because it was a way out: of the Barrio, of the towns we lived in, to see something different, go new places and meet new people.
As we talked and joked and laughed, the professionalism of Fighting Men showed through. Wary eyes kept a watch on the mouth of the draw that led up to our mountain. As guitars played and some of us sang of lost loves, others of us wiped down our M-14s, M-16s, and shotguns with carefully-kept cleaning rags.
We noted with appreciation as a squad of Echo Company Grunts--mostly whites and Blacks--set up blocking forces on the ridges facing both sides of the draw. Our party would not be interrupted. We tipped our soft covers in salute; they flipped us the 'finger' and grinned.
Acknowledged that night was the fact that none us could conceive of serving in Vietnam as anything other than a Marine. As Marines, we were all one color: Marine Corps Green. We left the problems of race to the non-hackers in the rear. In The Bush, all that mattered was that you carried your own weight.
One of us remarked on the reality, la realidád, that we were a minority--twice: Chicano and Marine. We thought about that and nodded our heads at the rightness of the observation. After all, we reasoned, how many of us can be La Raza--The Race? Very few, we agreed.
One of us, looking out into the darkening gloom that was the DMZ, remarked, "And the meek shall inherit the earth."
Sandoval, a machine-gunner from Fox Company, looked up at his Bro' and said, "They will, esé. That's why God made Marines." He laughed at himself, at the situation in which he found himself. "He just wants to make sure the meek have their chance."
As the sun set, the music slowed and conversation became desultory. We lay on our backs and stared up at the night sky that covered Vietnam like a feral cloak. ¿Qué vas hacer quando regresas al Mundo? When I get back to The World? Man, I am going to shuck these duds and find me a hüera, esé. That's what I'm going to do. We all laughed. Exactly right, my man. Oye, dáme otra tortilla.
It was a great party; and, so far as we knew, the only one of its kind ever to take place in The Nam. Take what shots we wanted at the Lifers, they cut us a hus and left us alone.
To be Chicano and Marine was as good as it got; the best of every world. We had a fine time enjoying the camaraderie of fellow Grunts and fellow Chicanos. Brothers all. We did not think about tomorrow or the day after. Vietnam would take care itself and the Marine Corps would take care of us. For a few hours, we were very content.
Some days thereafter, the First Marines mounted Operation Medina and got shot to pieces by the North Vietnamese Army inside the Hai Lang National Forest. It was a killer ambush. Among the stacks of dead and wounded Marines were many of those Chicanos who had attended the party on the mountain that night.
Perez was killed.
Guerrero was wounded.
Rodrigués was wounded.
Sandoval was killed.
Sanchez was wounded.
Dennis "Doc" Gonzales escaped without a scratch, although it was his platoon that suffered the most dead. Un milagro.
I was wounded.
I returned from Charlie Med, a few weeks later, to the stunned faces of my Bros. "Andávamos mortificados!" We were scared to death, esé. We heard you got killed.
No, I said. But it was close, esé. It was very close...
Parker returned to us from "R and R" in Hong Kong, regaling us with stories
of malaria and British Army hospitals and the nurse he met. ¿Una hüera,
Parker? Yes, he said. He lit a cigarette and looked around our mountain.
Where is everybody, he wondered...
Nos matáron, esé. They killed us, Lou.
The war went on. We grieved for our friends and camaradas and opened a can of cold C-rations and chowed down. We brewed tins of coffee, saw to our gear and smoked a last cigarette. Then we saddled up because the Skipper said so and the Gunny said so and we humped one more mountain and then one more mountain after that.
Sometime later, just before I rotated back to The World, back to the Land of the All-Night PX and olive-skinned chicanitas and cold beer, I was manning a hole just inside the perimeter. It was cool and the sky was cloudless and black. Pitch black. Señor Carlos--Mr. NVA--was out there somewhere, and that cabrón was a stone pro. To doze off was to risk death or injury or-worse-dismemberment.
About two in the morning, 0200, I heard it, soft at first, and then clear and low. Off in the distance, I swear I could hear the mournful tune of some guitarra in some faraway valley playing "Ojos Verdes."
My face felt grimy and flinty as I wiped my hand across it. I wished for a cigarette, knowing that was impossible. Ghosts, I thought. That's all. Camaradas. Es el aigre; nada mas. It's just the wind, homeboy. Don' mean nothing.
No; however much I wanted it to go away, I could hear it still. I looked
around, knowing no one could see me. Rational; that's what I had to be.
Still...off in the distance...
I strained to listen: it sounded like Sandoval...
"Yo nunca olvidaré..."
Michael W. Rodriguez..... firstname.lastname@example.org
6350 N. New Braunfels, Ste. 185
San Antonio Texas 78209
(F) 210.826.1839....... (VM) 210.525.4924