Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Memorial Day 1969, 2019

Memorial Day 1969. Ft. Ord, California
Michael Sedano

Basic Training builds strong bodies and washes minds. Unless a man is a total dud and gets his ass bounced out of Basic, military training infects a person’s spirit and over 8 weeks intensive physical training, even a dissident develops a powerful sense of personhood unique to soldiers and Veterans.

Double-time up the same hill grows easier daily, and soon the men reach the apex and keep going, building up a good sweat not winded at all. A man develops a sense of uniqueness and accomplishment running in circles inside a tear-gas filled room, without a mask, reciting your your name, serial number, and your First General Order before fleeing to sweet salt air of Monterrey Bay. Week after week, drill and ceremonies, running, rolling in dirt and crawling in mud, firing guns, throwing hand grenades, fighting in hand-to-hand combat, the Army builds a man’s sense of bravado and savagery.

Visiting Ft Ord Basic Training February 1969: Barbara Sedano, Private E-1 Michael Sedano, PFC Marcel Sedano

By the last week of Basic Combat Training, the Army has its hapless trainees softened up for the pièce de résistance of combat preparedness, crawling under machine gun fire. The training highlight comes with exquisite dramatic flair.

It’s just before dusk when the Army musters three training companies behind wooden bleachers in a hidden dell. Over a hundred of us fill the rows in orderly fashion and when our company is ordered to take your seats we shout our allegiance, “A Three One, the best damn company on the hill, Sir!” and 40 asses hit the boards with the sound of a single nalga.

Our bleachers face a flat dirt space 30 yards long. It’s a movie set. Dim lights on twenty-foot poles cast eerie shadows. Barbed wire fences criss-cross the sandbag-checkered plain. We’re going to crawl across the field under those barbed wire fences.

To our left, where we will begin tonight’s exercise, a gentle hillside rises dotted with the California Live Oaks that make this part of the Salinas Valley so serenely picturesque. A disembodied voice broadcasts from a MASH-like loudspeaker, distorted and ominous. Don’t stand up.

The M-60 machine gun fires 500 7.62mm rounds per minute. Every fourth round is a red or green tracer so soldiers can witness the firepower of bullets traveling 2800 feet per second.

The final glow of day limns the ridges above with a golden halo when the darkness before us roars to life with the deep throated thunder of that machine gun spitting bullets before our eyes, weaving a lethal tapestry of red and green lights strung across the field. Two M-60s fire continuously for minutes. Thousands of rounds pulverize the earth of the shadowed hillside. Then the dim light catches massive clouds of Ft Ord's light brown dust rising roiling and swirling completely obliterating the beauty of the serene hillside behind a lethal curtain of power.

PFC Michael Sedano leaving Pasadena for LAX, July 1969. Next stop: Korea.
Like a single organism we hundred soldiers rise helplessly at the spectacle. Moved by the unmitigated destruction we're witnessing, we stomp our boots screaming mindlessly at the raw destructive power. We are a cheering, whistling mob consumed with the glossolalia of eager stupidity. We are raring to get out there and crawl under those ribbons of fire!

I complete Basic Training and move into Radio School. We’re in the Army now. My wife leaves Isla Vista, rents a hovel converted from a farmworker shack, and I go AWOL every night. She works at Macy's to pay the rent. The Army pays me an extra twenty bucks for being married.

Memorial Day Weekend arrives and Ft. Ord is all abuzz. John Wayne and The Green Berets are coming to Ft. Ord movie house. The lines move slowly past the ticket booth. Guys who were in Vietnam last week pay their dollar to watch a movie about Vietnam. Guys who will be in Vietnam in a few weeks lay down a dollar. A buck private gets $115.00 a month, before deductions.

The Green Berets is a good song but a dull movie, plodding along event to event, character to character, breaking its monotony with tastes of battle. As the plot drags out, the confrontations with Charlie Cong grow increasingly lethal to our guys.

Finally, our boys are up against it. Holding out on a hilltop redoubt, VC sappers have begun to penetrate the wires. Characters we recognize are getting shot up. Charlie doesn’t miss. It looks bad for our side.

Every soldier in the house, and John Wayne as well, would prefer to duke it out with those rotten enemy, but desperate measures demand John Wayne call in “Puff, the Magic Dragon”, in real life a propeller-driven airplane mounted with three 7.62mm Gatling Guns on one side. The driver tilts the airplane so the gun side points down and fires. 18,000 rounds per minute pelt the earth when Puff does its stuff.

On screen-- as in real death-- red and green tracers ribbon down onto Viet Cong bodies. People are dropping like flies. The camera pans actors in throes of screaming agonized run-but-it-don’t-do-you-no-good horrible meat grinding death. For every tracer that strikes the place beneath, four unseen slugs hit with lethal reality.

Ft. Ord movie house explodes like we did in those bleachers, tonight with wilder cheers and louder whistles than during training. This is what we are trained for. This is why we are here at Ft Ord on Memorial Day 1969. "I want to be an airborne ranger. I want to go to Vietnam. I want to kill old CharlieCong. hup hup hup."

Light reflects off the screen illuminating a full house of soldiers. These men are boys a few months out of high school who can’t drink and can’t vote, and me. I’m a 23-year old with 17 years of education and like those kids, I’m stomping the wooden floor with  fevered intensity, screaming out of mindless bloodthirst and raising a cloud of light brown dust left behind by the boots of thousands of souls who came to this theatre before me and whose spirits fill me and every soldier in that surreal John Wayne moment fifty years ago this Memorial Day.

SP4 Michael Sedano, Memorial Day 1970, Hq 7/5, Camp Page, Chuncheon Korea


Concepcion said...

Beautiful, heart-wrenching, heart warming, personalized Memorial Day ode.

jmu said...

A single nalga? Surely you all did not keep the other nalga on the air, did you? ;-)