Thursday, September 05, 2019

Faces behind the Smiles

This story is fictional. Similarities to persons living or dead are coincidental. Veterans in the photos are real.

For those who served, and for Daniel Marquez USMC (RIP) whose battles with the demons are finally over.                                                                        
From the neighborhood playground to the battlefield and back
     Look, Raul, buddy, you don’t need to worry about me. My wife’s making a big deal over nothing. We had a nice trip. We got home safely. The kids had a good time. They rode horses on a ranch her three uncles own, shot rifles, and swam in the canals with their cousins. Now, here I am, talking to you like I killed somebody or something.
     Just ‘cuz she thinks I need help doesn’t mean I’m a psycho. Does that sound right to you, really? Like, here I am, nearly got my doctorate and doing some T.A’ing. I’m cool.
     So, I heard you play basketball with a group of Chicano Vietnam vets every Saturday, guys from the neighborhood, that you guys get together after and talk about...things...whatever. You believe this? I thought I was the only guy from the neighborhood who went to Vietnam. Nobody wants to cop to it, that’s all.
     Do you know Kiki Salas? I ran into him. He’s having a hard time of it, but hanging on, still teaching junior high school but wants to be a counselor, maybe a vice-principal. He goes to the VA for physical therapy but says no way to shrinks, says nothing wrong with him that Johnny Walker won’t cure.
     Anyway, if playing basketball, hanging out, and talking afterward with the guys satisfies my wife, I’m in. The VA thinks as long as we’re not about to kill someone, or ourselves, everything is cool. It’s like they’re pretending a guy can go to war, return home, and get on with life, like nothing.
     Chicanos don’t dig shrinks, no way, no how. When you finish your psych internship, man, you better make friends with rich gabachos because you’ll starve if you try starting a practice for Chicanos. Yeah, yeah, back to my old lady.
     You imagine that? She said I needed to see someone—you know, about my “reckless behavior,” endangering the whole family and all, like why don’t I go see someone at the VA? She takes a psychology class and thinks she knows it all.
     I told her I went to the VA after my discharge in ’71, to see about the shrapnel in my arm. You know what the doc said? He tells me he'll approve you 10% disability. Let’s leave the metal in, too many complications if we try removing it.
     Then I ask him about lead poisoning or infections.
     He says it's a small chance… the metal's been in there a year, no problem, but we can deal with infection if it happens. Nothing else he can do for me, so I shouldn't come back. Seriously, now. Get this. Before I leave, he tells me I can never have an MRI with that piece of lead in me, something about the radiation ripping it from my body. That’s messed up, and with cancer from Agent Orange always on my mind…. They dropped that stuff on us like boughs of cotton candy. I said Doc, that right there was worth at least, 40% disability. He upped it to 30%.
     Now I got this thing with my wife to deal with. Come on, man, give me a break. You think I’d put my kids in danger--on purpose? Yeah, right. It was only a tab of acid. I’ve done it a hundred times. She’s pissed because I dropped it right before I drove across the border into Mexicali.
     Acid, man. So, what? No big deal, I tell her. I wanted to drive through the desert high, experience the trip. I’m cool on acid, never had a bad trip, never did to me what it did to other people, you know, the psychedelic trips, imagining shit that wasn’t there, feeling like you’re going crazy, none of that. No, man, for me, it just brings everything into focus, like a camera lens, makes reality more vivid, you know, the colors brighter, the sounds clearer, the smells stronger, all of it, even my ideas sharper.
Brothers in arms
     I could drive anywhere high on acid. If I’d been driving with a few shots of Tequila in me, now, that’d be reckless, or if I’d had too much rifa.” I drove through downtown Mexicali like nothing, and you know how those Mexicans drive down there, right? Not a problem for me. Martin was on my tail, following with his family in his van and Junior in his Rivera behind him, with Carmen and the boys, a real gypsy caravan. The Brown Hippy-Freedom Train, we called it, blasting El Chicano and Credence all the way.
     We stopped to visit Martin’s aunt who lives in a shack on the outskirts of Mexicali, a really poor barrio. Man, it was hot. Then we drove to the ranch, about fifteen miles outside of the city. I mean, if you want to call it ranch, more like twenty acres of dirt, to me. We hung out with her family, good people, you know. No one even suspected I was high, I mean, except for Martin and Junior. They knew. I gave them each a tab after we arrived.
     It wasn’t until she saw me with my Super 8 filming a half-eaten watermelon rind covered in flies, beautiful, man, a truly magnificent sight. To me, at that moment, it was pure life, base survival, right? I got mesmerized and filmed a little too long. I knew she'd suspect something. But, get this, I couldn’t stop filming. Man, it was truly transforming, the watermelon’s reds, greens, and black seeds with so many flies they looked like black blotches of paint, better than a Jackson Pollack. That’s when I hear, “Are you high? Did you drive that way with the kids in the car?”
     I couldn’t deny it. She knows me too well. Anyway, I didn’t want to be like my old man always telling my mom he quit drinking when he was standing right in front of her and had to keep shifting his feet to keep from falling. So, now she says she’s fed up. I got to see somebody or she’s leaving with the kids, dig it! And this time she means it.
     I heard you’ve been doing your internship with neighborhood Vet Centers, and you’re practically a shrink already. How about I join you and the guys on the basketball court. I’ve got a mean outside shot. I’ll even join a group at whatever center you recommend. Can you believe this? I’m nearly finished with my doctorate, got some teaching gigs lined up, and she’s saying I’m out of control.
     So, I smoke a little yesca every night to calm my nerves. I tried telling her the VA doesn’t have anything for us. Hell, the last troops barely left Saigon four years ago. That was bunk. I watched the pull-out on the tube, hour after hour, until the last chopper took off from that rooftop. It brought everything back, like I was there again.
     What a debacle. That’s the word, right, like fiasco? The entire war, lies, lies, lies, a complete sham. The Chicanos protesting at the Moratorium in East L.A. were right, much as I hate to admit it. I mean, I wanted what we did over there to matter, to show it was worth something.
     No way. It means nothing. With all our firepower, losing a war to chinito farmworkers wearing pajamas and huraches. If nothing else, at least people now know, right? We’ll be the last generation to fight a war—conflict, whatever. Americans won’t stand for any more wars, not after this one.
     If politicians want to attack another country, people will cry, “Remember Vietnam. Lies, lies, lies.” Sorry, man, I’m rambling, I know, except—I mean, okay, now that it’s over and we’re all back, why is everything so different? People have changed. The generals and the Department of Defense say we need to be like the WWII vets, suck it up. Time heals, shit like that. Whatever we’re feeling will pass. I’m not so sure. For now, nothing a little acid won’t mask.

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