Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Veterans Day salute to a kid from basic.

The fellow brandishing the .45 is a twenty-four year old S-1 Clerk named Michael Sedano. That's me on Independence Day 1970. In the photo, I am a Specialist 4th class 05B serving as the 71Q Information Specialist for the 7th of the 5th Air Defense Artillery at Camp Page, Chunchon City, Korea.

As you can see, some things don't change. In Monday's post, Dan Olivas notes how author Rudolph C. Villarreal felt the need to include a glossary of all those military acronyms that defined the service of 77 Arizona chicanos who flew and perhaps died for our country in World War 2. My dad drove a tank in Patton's army, through the Battle of the Bulge, all the way into Leipzig. Thanks, Dad. Glad you made it home.

The war in Vietnam raged in 1969-70. By the time the US finally pulled out, 58,256 of my comrades had been killed in that damned war. That I wasn't among them makes my wife happy. But in July 1969, she was pleading with me to go AWOL from Ft. Ord because the next day I was to report for my orders to ship out. It seemed a 100% certainty I'd be heading over to Vietnam two weeks later.

Didn't happen. This is the story of how a tiny little fit of pique probably saved my life.

"Sedano," the company clerk shouts out his window as I’m walking back from chow, "report tomorrow for orders to Vietnam." My heart sinks. I'd pulled a slick movida I think will keep me stateside as permanent party at Ft. Ord, and have been so for two weeks after graduating Radio School and refusing training as a teletype operator. In fact, as the new guy in my company, I’m scheduled for riot training next week and I’m laughing thinking I’ll be pointing my bayonet at my wife and college friends at future protests. So, I’ve lost the gamble. That night, my wife pleads with me to head to Mexico--nope, extradition. Canada--no way, too cold.

I want to take my chances, I tell her. If not me, who?

"You might get killed!" she screams though she’s controlling her tears.

I tell her, "If I do, I won't know so I won't care."

It's a restless night.

The quonset hut at Ft. Ord where you get your orders is a long, dark tunnel. At the entry, we are told to strip to our skivvies and given a yellow shot record. Lean to the left, get inoculated. Lean to the right, another air gun pumps crap into that arm. Guys who flinch walk the line with coagulating blood slowly dripping down arms where the air gun has blasted apart the skin.

"Move along" the medics say, stamping the record with that station's disease and handing it back. "Move along." Thud. Yellow fever. "Move along." Stamp. Bubonic plague. "Move along." Thunk. Halitosis.

Injection stations sit in pools of light from overhead bulbs. We shuffle in darkness toward the dim light, bumping into one another, smelling the tension of today’s guys and the thousands who’ve come and gone before us today.

As far as I can see before me, the backs of these guys’ heads are glowing calaveras staring back at me. I look behind me. Calaveras glowing in the dark. I realize we are already all of us dead. I take a deep breath, hold it. Lean to the left. "Move on." Thunk.

At the final station I’m ordered to dress and exit into the light, the bright rectangle of door. Outside, a voice screams repeatedly, "Move away from the window before you open your orders, move away from the fuckin' window before you open those orders, troop!"

I step into the light and into another line. The orders window. Off to one side, men like me stand stunned. Their brown envelopes flapping in the gentle Monterrey Bay July breeze.

"I’m going to Vietnam" "I’m going to Vietnam" "Vietnam". They look at no one in particular and echo their destination with empty voices.

"Private Sedano reports for orders" I say. The clerk turns to a pile. Not there. Turns to another pile. Not there. He looks into the room and calls my name. A clerk whom I recognize from my basic training company makes eye contact with me, smiles as he hands the orders to the windowman. "Step away from the window before you open that envelope" the Sergeant barks. I about face and step away from the window. I slip a finger under the flap and flip open the envelope. The orders blither for a few paragraphs then my heart stops...”121 Replacement Company. ASCOM City, Korea."

"I’m going to Korea," I say. The guys look at me with a mixture of envy and happiness. I know some of their names are on that wall today. Not mine.

Mid-January 1969. I start basic training. A-3-1, the best damn company on the hill, sir!

What a lot we are. Draftees like me are called "US." I am US56735584. Enlisted are "RA", Regular Army. These are fresh out of high school kids for the most part. There are "ER" and "NG", the Enlisted Reserve and National Guard, older guys who are here for a few months then back to civilian life. I’m the old man, I can vote. I’ve been drafted out of graduate school in that empty period between the involuntary draft and the lottery draft. There are no rules for a few months, so the Selective Service reaches out to me, a newlywed, with a Thanksgiving gift, a letter from Richard Nixon.

So I’m the old guy among the kids. Kids indeed. One kid is a puny guy who quickly becomes the target of a trio of bullies. We've just double-timed up a long, steep incline at whose summit a laughing asshole in a tree drops CS gas on us that burns sweaty skin. A quick time march followed by that long run and my armpits, neck, balls, and nalgas have worked up a sweat. It is the captain's favorite trick, to gas us as we run up that hill. So I am already pissed off when we fall out along the roadside. The bullies quickly surround mama's boy, as the puny kid is called. Something inside me snaps. I drop my pack and stand up. Three strides, I’m standing between the kid and the bullies. "From now on, if you want to fuck with him," I say, "you'll have to go through me, first." The big guy makes fists and glares. I know he can kick my ass all by himself. He glares, mumbles angrily, but steps back. Typical asshole bullies, they remain cowed throughout basic and mama's boy has only the Army to torment him for the remainder of Basic Combat Training.

It is he I make eye contact with that day. The mama's boy has gone to clerk school and I to radio school. He hands that envelope to the window guy.

The real power in the Army rests with its clerks. The day I report for orders for overseas movement some officer tells the clerks, "Send everyone to Vietnam. We need one guy in Korea." The clerks process the jackets--personnel files--easily, typing out the standard orders. Mama's boy recognizes my name and remembers, one guy has to go to Korea. He types out the orders I hold in my hand.

Of course, I never see the kid again. I hope his name is not on that wall. I do not want to know.

Happy Veteran's Day.

Here are a few words and photos of what came next, a summer and winter on a surface-to-air HAWK (Homing All the Way Killer) antiaircraft missile site. If you're a vet, I'd love to share your stories.

See you next week.



Lisa Alvarado said...

M -- another accounting of the personal ties, the personal stories, battles small and potentially huge that our servicemen faced and still face day in and out.

Thank you for that.

It's also another way you reveal the color of your character and your own thoughts about what it means to be a man.


Manuel Ramos said...

I liked that story. I have come back to it a couple of times today. Thanks.

msedano said...

thank you. i still choke up when i tell it. other than the emotional content, i think it's coming along pretty well as a piece of prose.