Friday, July 31, 2020

New -- From Virus to Vietnam

This week, more new books. Presenting an eclectic collection of recent or upcoming literature.


Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Ray - June 30, 2020

[from the publisher]
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed speculative novels Gods of Jade and Shadow, Signal to Noise, Certain Dark Things, and The Beautiful Ones; and the crime novel Untamed Shore. She has edited several anthologies, includ­ing the World Fantasy Award–winning She Walks in Shadows (aka Cthulhu’s Daughters). She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.


Gloria L. Velásquez
Arizona State University and Ediciones Eón -- July, 2020

[from the publisher]
Gloria Velásquez' new heart warming novel in Spanish and English, is a powerful example of perseverance, loss,and the struggle of living a life of poverty and dislocation, one in which the oral narrative of the main character transcends words on the page and touches deeply the heart of all who read it.  It is Esperanza's story, her life as a child growing up in a farmworker family, and the shattering loss of her brother in the Vietnam War.  It is also Esperanza's journey.  


Edward Vidaurre
Aztlan Libre Press -- August 15, 2020

[from the publisher]
Pandemia & Other Poems comes to the world as a salve to a trifecta of crises—border issues of children in cages and immigrants being held in tent cities to wait with little or no hope; a virus that has crippled the world forcing us to reevaluate and test our resolve as survivors; and the ongoing issue of police brutality stirring protests around the
world. Vidaurre is a poet who wants to help people, and who works through “the ghostly streets of uncertainty” in the midst of this pandemia with dreams, hope—and love, always, there is love. “There is a different quality to these poems,” writes Odilia Galván Rodríguez, “a maturity that comes with mas
golpes de la vida.”


Thelma T. Reyna, Editor
Golden Foothills Press -- September, 2020

[from the publisher]
A ground-breaking anthology of 44 distinguished American contemporary poets and prose writers, written in real time in the first half of the historic, devastating coronavirus COVID-19 invasion of America in 2020. In heart-wrenching, wide-eyed observations, firsthand events, tragedies, and reflections, these top authors document for us the horrors, grief, and heroism of friends, family, neighbors as we watched the disease unfold. Here are moments of hope and togetherness as well, seeking respite and balms. This gathering of Poets Laureate, national award winners, poet leaders, essayists, academics, and short fiction writers is a collection to treasure and a touchstone for generations to come.



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction and is working on another Gus Corral novel.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Chicanonautica: Going Postmodern at the Canción Cannibal Cabaret

I was impressed with a couple of videos by Canción Cannibal Cabaret back in 2019. I put them on Facebook and Twitter. Then I forgot about them. The world blew up, you know, 2020.

Therefore, I was happy to hear about the book The Canción Cannibal Cabaret & Other Songs by Amalia L. Ortiz. According to the back cover it’s “Set in a not-so-distant dystopian future . . . a Xicana punk rock musical—part concept album, part radio play.” Sounded like just the sort of thing for me to review here. And it seemed like a good thing to follow my José Torres-Tama trilogy.

Talk about a strange little book! There’s a lot going on between its covers.

Here’s what I said on Goodreads: “A helluvalot more than meets the eye here. The guerrilla woman with guitar, lace-gloves, and guitar is more than a mere cover girl. What we have here aren't just poems, song lyrics, performance texts . . . There's some world building that ain't just a backdrop for commercial melodrama. I see the influences of Guillermo Gómez-Peña/La Poca Nostra, José Torre-Tama, Gloria Anzaladúa, and believe it or not, Weird Al Yankovic. And the now ancient tradition of punk, with footnotes to keep track of the cultural references in a post-apocalyptic scenario that holds up a shattered mirror to our current reality and evokes a goddess while declaring the death of gender. Plus cannibalism, cabaret, canciónes . ..”

Along with other things. A lot of other things. 

There’s science/speculative fiction, some futuristic world building centered around La Madre Valiente, an iconic goddess-figure, a new Virgin of Guadalupe (who was an updating of older goddesses) has emerged from the wreckage of  the world to bring about a feminist revolution against the repressive State and lead the Fugees (the refugees, including all of the downtrodden, similar to Oscar Zeta Acosta’s cockroach people.) to a utopia that not only defeats the patriarchy, but declares that “Gender is Dead.”

It’s told in a series of narratives that provide the origin story for La Madre Valiente, and songs that act as manifestos.

At this point, I must remind you that the book was published back in 2019 (seems like at least a decade ago, doesn’t it?), before the protests that have El Presidente sending unmarked, unidentified, undocumented troops into our cities in name of “law and order.”

Could we see a real-life Madre Valiente soon? Is Portland’s Naked Athena a manifestation?

The sensibility is postmodern and punk. But then punk was postmodern, and now it seems to have become a venerable tradition—a “Punkera Scholar” with a Phd is quoted on the cover. The author/bandleader Amalia L. Ortiz sounds like an academic in her introduction. Would this make it postpostmodern? Postpostpostmodern?

Maybe it’s just cultural cannibalization.

I remember the original punk movement back in the last Seventies. How just about everybody—especially the academics and intellectuals were offended. My own generation, who just a few years earlier were offending their parents with long hair and acid rock, were disgusted by someone else’s rebellion.

Now punk, like the songs/poems printed in the book, has cultural references up the yingyang. I remember a lot of the original songs when they were first played on KROQ in L.A. If you're just reading the book without the music, you miss something.

I recommend seeing the music videos on YouTube; there’s also an hour-long concert that was livestreamed as a book launch event. While watching it, I found myself opening the book and following along, as if it were the prayer book for the mass of a new religion.

And who knows? That just may be what all this cultural cannibalization is leading to.

Ernest Hogan has always been proud of his cannibal heritage.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

JIMENA PEREZ PUEDE VOLAR / JIMENA PEREZ CAN FLY- Winner of a Skipping Stones Honor Award


Jorge Argueta's haunting narrative poem about family separation, JIMENA PEREZ PUEDE VOLAR / JIMENA PEREZ CAN FLY, is the winner of a Skipping Stones Honor Award!

Esther Celis, grandmother and Skipping Stones Board President says:


These  are  two  books  in  one,  two  front  pages,  one  in English,  and  the  other  in  Spanish. Each  a  translation  of  the  other,  the same  verse  format  in  both  languages.  It  begins  as  a  thoughtful  and sweet  story  about  Jimena  living  a modest  and  sheltered  life  with  her parents  and  friends  in  El  Salvador. Unfortunately,  gang  members  can threaten  even  young  children  like Jimena  and  her  friends.  Her  parents  decide  she  won’t be  safe;  Jimena  and  her  mother  risk  the  long  journey north  to  reunite  with  family  living  in  the  US.  Jimena describes the trip; we imagine the danger. She is innocent;  we  are  not. We  haven’t  forgotten  the  reports  of children separated at the border from their parents. We haven’t  forgotten  the  thousands  of  Central Americans forced to stay in the Mexican side of the border while applying  for  asylum  in  the  U.S.  Jimena  is  brave,  she keeps  telling  us  her  story,  and  she  keeps  living  despite the cruelty and sadness around her.



Congratulations to the creators of  all the winner books under the three categories.

To download the reviews of the 2020 Skipping Stones Honor Books  click

From the publisher, Arte Público Press:


Ten-year-old Jimena Pérez loves life with her parents in El Salvador. They sell fruit at the market, just like her grandmother and great grandmother did. “Fruits / are a blessing / like you, Jimena,” her mother tells her.


But one day a group of boys threaten her friend Rosenda at school. “You know / what will happen / to your family / if you don’t join us.” Jimena’s parents, afraid gangs will try to recruit her too, decide she must go to the United States with her mother. She is excited and fearful, and doesn’t want to leave her father, friends and dog Sultán. “I felt sad / the way fruit looks / when it’s past ripeness.” By bus, train and on foot, mother and daughter make their way north, until one night, bright lights fill the sky and men in green uniforms rip Jimena from her mother.


Imprisoned with children from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, Jimena and the others cry for their parents. One boy repeats over and over, “My father’s name is Marcos / He is in Los Angeles.” A box full of books brings her some solace, reminding her of the ones donated to kids at the market in El Salvador. “The letters kiss me / like my mama’s words / like my papa’s words / I am a little bird / Nothing can stop me / I can fly.”


In this poignant narrative poem for kids ages 10-15, award-winning Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta movingly captures the fear that drives so many Central Americans to flee their countries and the anguish created by separating children from their parents at the US border. Putting a human face on the millions of people who flee their homelands each year, this book will help young people understand the difficulties of migration and leaving behind all that is dear.



Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Training Wheels. Gluten-free Shepherd's Pie

Random noises in Plague-time: Training wheels.
Michael Sedano

I don't look up at strange noises any longer. Living behind glass for months now, I've come to identify and distinguish between recycle garbage trucks and garbage garbage trucks, a pool cleaning pick up from hot-rodders with bad mufflers. Quotidian noise fades away. Today one long, agonized sound of hard friction, of metal wearing against a mechanical device. It's the sound of despair.

The little girl works her bike pedals, her helmet secured under a chin, the training wheels protesting a mishap, or a poor installation, or a dad who doesn't work at being daddy, lets the child's bike just go through the motions. Behind the little girl, a man follows a toddler exploring independent mobility. Dad’s got his hands full, and his face unmasked.

He's not unique nowadays, not anymore. Lots of faces like his pass my window in Plague-time. Their masklessness screams out loud like poorly installed training wheels. We're falling off gente, and we can't get up.

The Gluten-free Chicano Cooks
And the Plague-time Cupboard Was Bare
Michael Sedano

Compromised people do not venture into public for essential supplies like food. For us, the Gig Economy steps in for a $15 fee and an optional 5% tip. What sin vergüenzas of the employers. As usual, labor provides all the productivity and some programmer gets all the money. "All tip money goes to the schlepper," so I sweeten the pot. 

This is the information age. I sit at home on the computer and create information. All the money gets loaded onto the info- element and a trickle comes to minimum wage labor.

Our household food dynamic shifted from just-in-time stocking to bringing inventory and managing its outflow. I muck up a lot, expecting one content only to have ordered the wrong package and that's what the order-puller delivers.

What you get is what you ordered, unless the shopper substitutes. Tortillas are tortillas, que no? So when the corn is out of stock, here's a dozen tortillas de harina--wheat--for the gluten-free Chicano. 

No Grapefruit Juice, instead, here's Ruby Red drink with no high fructose corn syrup! Just a shitload of sugar. The Gig Economy turned these people into servants of the computer, they do not make pulling errors. When you clicked on the screen that was what is in the plastic bag on your front porch. Kinda. 

Shortages happen. Milk sours. So it goes, the Mother Hubbard look on the Gluten-free Chicano, who stared at the empty places between unwanted jello, ghost chile sauces, two jars of sweet pickle relish? I have rice noodles, red quinoa, gf lasagne noodles from a year ago, a two-thirds used box of instant mashed potatoes.

The freezer has a slice of ground beef chub and frozen mixed vegetables. Ideas begin to spin, meat and potatoes.

Mrs. Hubbard finds a piece of bell pepper, carrot, and brown onion. There's always yellow cheddar in the Gluten-free Chicano's refrigerator. The spice rack is well stocked, garlic powder, salt, peppercorns.

Shepherd Pie: Gluten-free By Design. Carb-cautious.

Reading ingredients matters, the ingredients in your hand, not in a recipe. The Gluten-free Chicano doesn't expect any of these ingredients to contain wheat, barley, or rye products, hence "by design." Any Shepherd's Pie should start out an inherently gluten-free preparation. But read the labels.

Mashed potatoes with still-frozen mixed vegetables

Shepherd pie carbs. Source link.

Mashed potato flakes, milk, butter. 30 g / cup. 2 cups = 60 g
Frozen mixed vegetables. 12 g / cup
Cheddar cheese. 1.45 g / shredded loose-pack cup
Onion, raw. 11 g / medium
Carrot, small. 6 g / each
Beef. 0 g
90 g in this Shepherd pie.

Six servings provides some 15 grams of carbohydrates per serving. That's not bad for diabetics like the Gluten-free Chicano who holds to a 50 g per meal limit.

I would add a thinly sliced serrano chile to the beef. Sra. Gluten-free Chicano lives with a hyper-sensitive palate, so the chile goes on the side. But chile. A day without enchilando yourself is like a day without sunshine.

Meat and savory vegetable layer
"Shepherd Pie" calls for rustic preparation, so I rough-cut/chop the carrot and hunk of bell pepper. 

In a cast iron pan over high heat, I wilt the onion then crust the  small portion of beef. Add the vegetables, break up the beef and create a good mix over medium flame.

Non-stick spray a loaf pan. Sprinkle a pinch of cheese on the bottom.

Using the potato flakes available, I make a scant two cups. I keep them dry to give the mashed potatoes some texture. Smaller amount would be better.

Flatten a couple of spoonfuls of potato-frozen veggie mix as a bottom crust.

Make a meat layer, the rest of the mashed potato layer, cover with all the remaining grated cheese. This is extra sharp brick cheese. Sprinkle the top with good Paprika.

Bake at 350º 30 minutes. If your oven burns hot, check to ensure the crust doesn't overbrown.

This is the cross-section with two servings removed. There's a breakfast, a lunch, a dinner, another lunch, and chicken feed here.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Remembering Regents Professor Gary Keller

[NOTE: The following remembrance of Gary Keller was published by Arizona State University. I reprint it here in full because it clearly states the many accomplishments of this important Man of Letters. But I want to add my own thoughts: Gary published four of my books with Bilingual Press, the first one being my 2003 short-story collection, Assumption and Other Stories. He showed support for my work when larger—usually New York-based—publishers rejected my writing not because of its quality but because it was not “commercial” enough. Gary believed in publishing primarily Latinx writers, and served as the ultimate cheerleader for the stories, poems, and histories we told. I remember pitching the concept of Latinos in Lotusland to him, and he was both enthusiastic as he was disturbed by the fact that no prior anthology of Los Angeles Latinx fiction had been published before. He came out to L.A. for the book launch in 2008, and I still remember the great joy he expressed at the wonderful writers who showed up for the event. I documented that event here on La Bloga, and here is a group photo with Gary and several of our anthology authors:

Gary will be missed, and I am heartbroken by his passing. But his legacy is mighty. And so, as we celebrate the life of Gary Dennis Francisco Keller, let us offer a loud: ¡PRESENTE! –Daniel Olivas.]

From the ASU website:

Keller, who was also the director of the Hispanic Research Center and Bilingual Press, is remembered for his commitment to underrepresented students, writers and artists.

Arizona State University Regents Professor Gary Keller, a lifelong advocate for underrepresented students, died July 15 at the age of 77.

“Gary Keller was a tireless champion of educational access, and a scholar and mentor who dedicated his life to supporting student success," ASU President Michael Crow said. "Through his commitment to Latina/o students and other historically underserved communities, Gary helped lay the groundwork for the ideals later reflected in our ASU charter and the socioeconomic diversity of our student body. We will always be thankful for his advocacy and leadership.”

Arizona State University Regents Professor Gary Keller is remembered for his commitment to underrepresented students, writers and artists. In his 34-year-career at ASU, Keller taught Spanish and Chicano studies, led the Hispanic Research Center and served as founder and editor of ASU’s Bilingual Press. His many roles and projects at the university captured his passion and driving force: to champion minority voices and culture and help students reach their full academic potential.

"Gary was gifted in many different things and at many different levels in an absolutely unique way; he was a singularity,” said Michael Sullivan, a project administrator at the Hispanic Research Center Project who worked with Keller for more than 30 years at two universities. “There’s not many people that I’d pack up my family and move across the country to continue working with.”

Keller earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, a master’s degree in Hispanic literature and linguistics, and simultaneously, a master’s degree in experimental psychology and a doctorate in Hispanic literature and linguistics. His broad education served as a foundation for decades of research projects and community efforts.

“Trying to explain how important Gary has been would be like trying to catch the wind,” said bioengineering Professor Antonio Garcia, the associate director of the Hispanic Research Center. Garcia knew Keller for 30 years. “It is hard to imagine anyone matching his energy and success in so many different areas — a true Renaissance man who made a great impact on the mid- to end of the 20th century and set in motion 21st-century changes to higher education.”

Keller’s work was widely acclaimed. From 2012–16, his academic enrichment projects through the Hispanic Research Center drove unprecedented results: 268 underrepresented minority students graduated with doctoral degrees in STEM fields and doctoral enrollment increased 622%. The following year, Keller received the Dr. Loui Olivas Distinguished Leadership in Higher Education Award; other accolades during his career include the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education President’s Award and the Dana Foundation Award for Pioneering Achievements in Education. At the time, the Pioneering Achievements in Education award was the largest annual prize in education in the country and Keller received a $50,000 prize, which he promptly donated back to his minority projects through the ASU Foundation.

He also served as the executive director of More Graduate Education at Mountain States Alliance and principal director of the Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities. These two initiatives provide underrepresented minority students in STEM fields with funding and mentorship with the goal of increasing the number of these students enrolled in and completing graduate programs.

“Professor Keller embodied the spirit of ASU’s charter to measure success by whom we include and how they succeed decades before the language was adopted at the university,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “His scholarly writings and innovative research along with his unwavering support of all undergraduate and graduate students will be greatly missed across the university, his scholarly community throughout the world, and the state of Arizona writ large.”

Brandon Ortega began working at the Hispanic Research Center as an undergraduate student and joined as a media specialist after graduation. He helped elevate Keller’s research through various mediums including video and photos. Ortega recalled Keller’s passion for research and learning.

“He loved education so much, he never stopped being a professor,” he said.
Keller authored or co-authored more than 30 books and produced more than two dozen documentaries. As editor of the Bilingual Press at ASU — the largest Hispanic-focused publisher and distributor in the country — Keller committed to publishing high-quality writing from established and emerging writers in English, Spanish and bilingual format.

In an interview more than a decade ago, Keller’s spirit of dedication to the Hispanic Research Center and the Bilingual Press was well-captured.

“If you go for something and commit to it for decades, then you can accomplish great things. If you do something for three years, even if it’s a great three years, it just vanishes,” he said. “Our philosophy is not that.”

Keller’s vision was to benefit the most people as possible to create a paradigm shift, Sullivan said. To achieve that vision, Keller needed support and his approachable, familiar personality allowed the Hispanic Research Center and its employees to thrive, with many team members having worked together for decades.

“Gary had a gift for personnel, he knew how to hire people who could share the vision, we have almost no turnover in the center. Low turnover tells you something, it tells you that you’re treated like a human being and the job is interesting and inspiring,” he said.

Keller’s impact on The College, ASU and the broader world is significant and will be remembered for years to come.

“There’s impact in his Chicano art books that will be in libraries forever, archival materials of a period no one else could or would do but we did it. There are many other authors that Gary found and published that probably wouldn't have been published otherwise, again living on in libraries and people’s homes,” Sullivan said.

“The biggest legacy is the people, the tens of thousands of students turned professionals. Every one of them is an infection agent, everything they benefited through our programs, they consciously or unconsciously will share with the people around them. This is a virtuous expansion, where each of them in turn helps somebody else. That can’t be taken away and is a lasting impact that will be generational.”

Kimberly Koerth of the School of International Letters and Cultures contributed to this article.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Discomfort During the Time of Covid-19

Melinda Palacio

After two weeks of being in New Orleans, I can say that lockdown during the pandemic here is not much different than lockdown in Santa Barbara or anywhere else. The isolation is real, especially if you want to be part of the solution and wear a mask and social distance. There’s the one issue of weather. Santa Barbara boasts near perfect weather all year. My friends think it’s absolutely insane that, given the choice, I come to Louisiana in the summer where the triple digit weather, along with the humidity, is unbearable to most people who didn’t grow up in the South. I would say I consider it a badge of honor that I can take the heat, but there’s more to the story. I’ve learned to adapt and in some cases, especially at night, I’m more comfortable in New Orleans because of air conditioning, the big game changer. I also wake up much earlier in New Orleans and go for a brisk walk at 6:30 am. In Santa Barbara, I’m usually still snoozing at that time, but if I don’t get out and get moving super early in New Orleans, I will miss the window of opportunity for outdoor exercise, and with the Rona out there, yoga and other group exercise classes have moved online. 
Sometimes, it seems as if all aspects of life have moved online and everything involving community is a zoom meeting. I don’t like it. I much prefer life in person. I didn’t realize how much of a people person I am until the choice to socialize in a close-knit way was taken away. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an extrovert. I do enjoy my alone time and feel fortunate that I am very comfortable by myself, writing, playing music, and doing all the things I did before alone at home was the only option. 
As much as I miss my friends and family, I feel as if a social change has occurred in me. I often feel uncomfortable around strangers because not everyone respects the idea of social distancing or wearing a  mask. While walking in the park, there are several people who seem clueless, as if they’ve lived in an alternative universe these past four months and brush by me too closely without a mask. I don’t want to feel anybody’s body heat on me or smell their shampoo, that's too close for comfort. 
        Earlier this week, I went to a coffee shop and was enjoying an outdoor table in a covered patio. For a moment, I was reminded of how much I enjoy something as simple as drinking coffee outdoors. The pleasant feeling soon ended when a pack of moms with strollers descended upon the place. They all huddled around a table for two people, spilling over into the space near the other socially distanced tables, none of the moms or kids wore masks and one of the children had a bad cough. The women soon lost control over the kids, some of which started to run around the other tables. It was a situation where kids were doing what kids do, socializing. They don’t know that they can’t run up to someone’s table and sit on a stranger’s lap. Something that under normal circumstances would be sweet and innocence is hard to control. This group of friends didn’t see any problem with breaking the current Covid rules. I started to have a panic attack, I didn’t know these ladies and I didn’t know their coughing kids. I left the coffee shop’s patio, so did a few other people. 
I suspect this is why we, as a country, can’t get a handle on the virus. It starts with something innocent like wanting to hug a friend or have a too close a conversation with your neighbor or mail carrier. How many times have I seen my neighbor in Santa Barbara get too close to the mailman, neither of whom are wearing a mask, and proceed to have a long conversation! The blatant ignoring of someone else’s comfort and safety zone happens both in New Orleans and Santa Barbara, and I imagine everywhere else. When individuals fancy themselves to be more entitled than everyone else, it creates a vicious cycle that fuels the pandemic. This virus is asking everyone to consider others and four months later, we are still having to beg for people to wear a mask and argue with people who think the small sacrifice is infringing on their well being, instead of helping everyone beat the virus. I realize that human interaction during a pandemic is desired and needed, but we can safely interact with friends and strangers by following the rules, wearing a mask, washing hands, social distancing. 
         Stay safe, wash your hands, don't stand too close to people, wear a mask. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Batch Plant

     I cover my mouth and face, thin surgical mask first then cloth mask on top, extra protection, just in case. You never know, right. I take off my indoor shoes and put on my outdoor shoes. They say the bug can live on cement up to nine days. I don’t’ want to bring it into the house on the soles of my shoes. My wife and I are a little more casual with grocery bags and food wrappings, stuff like that. We found it nearly impossible to wipe everything down, so we toss the wrappings and bags as soon as they’re empty and wash our hands.
      The latest update is that scientists suspect the virus passes mostly through person-to-person contact and not so much by surface contact, but nobody knows one-hundred percent. That’s kind of what bugs me about some people. If they can’t get a hundred-percent guarantee, they reject everything else, or they say people are lying to them, to the detriment of themselves, and others.
      So, I strap Phoebe and Rocky into their harnesses, pick up the leashes, place a hat on my head, and take off for the evening walk, protected, as if walking into a combat zone. It’s sunset, the sky an orange hue, clear, and beautiful, yet, a hidden enemy in each stranger's breath, under every footstep, or around every corner.
     Most people walk by wear face coverings, some don’t but stay distanced. I am aware in California, a population of about 40 million, a few hundred thousand people are infected, many sick, and, in some cases, dying, last count close to 8,000 dead, but, fortunately, the vast majority are well.
      I pass a 1950’s stucco home, nothing fancy, clean, well-maintained, house and garden. The guy who lives there is in his 80s, white hair combed back like a 50s country singer, and he’s always piddling around the place, fixing stuff.
     One day, he opened a side gate, and I saw an old cement mixer, just like my dad’s, years of hardened cement caked on the sides, but the inside clean as a whistle.
      “Don’t see many of those anymore,” I’d said once when I saw him.
      Turned out he was in construction, like my dad. He was the guy who mixed the cement. We talked for a while, reminiscing about the old days on L.A.’s westside, before the dot-commers, techies, and entertainment industry-types changed the face of the neighborhood.
      As I walk by with my dogs, the side gate is open. I see the old cement mixer. It raises a flurry of images, as a kid working with my dad, and the Batch Plant at Cam Ranh Bay. Just then two young people jog past me, a few feet away. One wears a mask, the other doesn’t. I step farther away, in case the heaving runner blows the corona my way. A thought comes to me. Right now, people in their homes are sick and quarantined, some are in crowded hospitals, on respirators, some are dying, and the business of living continues. This isn't new to me.
     My orders hadn't reached me when I arrived at the replacement center in Long Binh, about twenty miles north of Saigon. There were about twenty of us in the same predicament. Without orders you don't exist.
     After two weeks in the same clothes, no laundry, bad food, a rare shower, dust, and the worst work details, they asked us if we wanted to go work at Cam Ranh Bay, to help engineers build the new military base, at least until our orders arrived. Some guys chose to stay behind, fearing their orders might never catch up with them. About a dozen of us, mostly guys I knew from jump school, chose to stay together and try our luck at Cam Ranh Bay.
     It was past midnight when we landed at the Air Force base. They shuttled us on a deuce-and-a-half to our temporary home, a brand new two-story wooden barracks. The first morning, I stepped out onto the second-story landing and looked out across a massive military complex in various stages of construction, nothing but sand everywhere.
      After breakfast, everything moved quickly. Guys with construction skills worked alongside the engineers, drivers got assigned to transportation, and the rest of us marched up a sandy dune where, at the top, we looked into the dark mouth of the largest cement-mixer I had ever seen. The thing was at least ten feet high and held fifty shovels full of rock, sand, and cement with each mixing.
     I’d recognized the smells and sounds right away. My dad worked in construction. He had an old mixer at home. Sometimes, he’d take me along on weekends to help him on side-jobs. Compared to the cement mixer he hauled behind his truck this was a monster.
     Eight hours a day we worked mixing cement, the sounds of shovels hitting rocks and sand, the groan of the cement mixer’s motor, and our own grunts and hollers, an hour break with a sack lunch in between. By day’s end, we were “done”, exhausted, so what if we were in the best physical shapes of our lives. That’s why Bert Jacobs named the place, the “Batch Plant,” because of the perspiration drenching our bodies all day long.
     Jacobs, a corporal, outranked us. He’d been in the Army five years. He had a Combat Infantry Badge stitched into his fatigue shirt. He’d fought with the 82nd Airborne in Santo Domingo, in ’65, barely a year ago. At 24, he was also the oldest, married, and with a kid, so we, 19 and 20-year-olds, our first time in a combat zone, looked up to him.
     At Long Binh, water and good food were scarce. This was paradise, showers and clean fatigues. At the mess hall, after downing all the chow we could eat, Bert would stand proudly and announce, to the annoyance of the marines, sailors, Air Force guys, and army engineers, “Another day, another dollar!”
     Each morning before breakfast, an engineer, Sgt. Sackett, our squad leader, made us exercise and run five miles in the sand. We were strong, fresh out of advanced individual training and jump school, some of us enduring Georgia’s 100-degree summer. Sgt. Sackett ran right alongside us. He did whatever he asked us to do. The guy never faltered. When one of us wised-off or started our “Airborne-crap,” he’d challenge us to a run. “You call it, 5, 10, 15 miles. I’ll leave the lot of you in the dust.” The thing was we knew he could.
     In the enlisted men’s bars at night, we could be loud and obnoxious. We’d tease the marines, engineers, quartermasters, and clerks who, we thought, would never see combat. What we didn’t know was many of engineers had been in the jungle, clearing paths, blowing up tunnels, and building bridges in enemy infested areas. They were here because of their expertise in building a large complex, and to ride out their final days in relative safety.
     At the time, something like 7,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, and even then, many in Washington and the Pentagon knew the war was unwinnable, but nobody listened to the experts. Ten years later, the number would reach 50,000.
     Sackett let us know airborne meant nothing to him. The days of large airborne drops had gone out with WWII. He once barked at us, “You know why you are infantry and artillery-airborne?” We looked at each other. “Because you got the lowest scores on the intelligence tests, dummies. Engineers get the highest scores. Where you guys are going, you’d better start eating some humble pie or you’ll never make it back.” He had a way of bringing us back to reality, and he understood, it was for our own good. Hubris kills giants.
      After work on Saturdays, we’d put on some shorts, grab our towels, and follow a trail over three or four sand dunes to the top of the last one and look out over the South China Sea, warm, aqua-blue water, like a postcard, mountains far off in the distance. We’d spend hours in the warm waters and lazing about in the sand. We’d watch the American donut dollies who volunteered at the Air Base as they sunbathed and swam. Most had already been claimed by the officers. Then, there were always a few Vietnamese families, usually those who worked at the Air Force Base. They stayed a short distance down the beach.
     Sometimes, Sackett gave us afternoon passes, and we’d race to the Village, a maze of Vietnamese streets, to shop, drink, and forget about home. One day some of us got our friend Leroy Delgado, an Indian from Denver, so toasted, we had to carry him back to the barracks. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but it changed that day.
     At night, we’d hit the EM clubs and drink until we could barely stand. I once remember hanging out with Australian commandos, a flap of their caps buttoned up on one side, and South Korean marines, tiger insignias on their sleeves, who were returning from R & R, and getting ready to go back to their units. We listened to their harrowing tales of combat, reminding us there was a war going on. Death surrounded us. Something that seemed so remote from us here.
     After the Koreans had left, an Aussie told us, “Tough bastards. Charley fears them. If a ROK gets caught sleeping on guard duty,” he made a movement like holding a gun to his head, “they execute him on the spot.”
     Hungover or not, each morning, Monday through half-day Saturday, it was back to the Batch Plant.                                                                               
     A month passed. Still no orders. Our muscles grew firm, as if we’d been lifting weights. Our skin shone golden, and no matter how many trucks they sent up for us to load, we’d have the cement waiting, never letting anybody see our exhaustion, or to say paratroopers couldn't carry their weight.
     After a while, we forgot all about our lost orders. To us, this was the war, our new way of life. Cam Ranh Bay and the Batch Plant became our haven, our home. There was no suffering and death, at the worst, just arguing, sometimes fighting with the marines, engineers, and each other. Somebody in our group had one day mouthed-off to an officer. Sackett ordered that we stay in the barracks, and he banned alcohol, no EM club, no Village, and no beach for the weekend.
     At our age, most of us had barely learned to drink, mostly high school stuff, but we really started liking the brew and the "hard stuff" in the army. Uncle Sam and the tax payers provided it by the plane loads. Booze was everywhere.
     Ban or no ban, we weren’t going a weekend without booze. We bitched and griped to each other until Leroy, the only leg (non-paratrooper) among us, said, “I know where they store the beer, cases of it.” He was tall for an Indian, light skin and a bright smile, a really nice guy, and smart. He volunteered to lead a squad to liberate the booze. James Simmons, a black kid from Detroit, thought about it. “Man, the army don’t just lock up merchandise like that. My bet is they got a guard on duty watching it. But if you guys go, me too.”
     Delgado, Simmons, and Jacobs sat down and planned a raid. We all pitched around different scenarios, you know, the “what ifs.” They said the raiding party couldn’t be more than four guys. Alfred Martinez, a muscular, high school wrestler from the San Fernando Valley, wanted in. Wearing dark, olive-drab t-shirts, fatigue trousers, and boots, they traipsed down the back stairs and disappeared into the night, Delgado at the point.
     An hour later, they returned with four cases of beer, which we nearly polished off while listening to Tommy Samaniego’s Motown collection, on a portable record player he bought in the Village. We bullshitted, laughed, and had a good old time. Once drunk enough, Leroy said he wished he’d gone to jump school, said he liked the way the jump wings looked over our pockets. Somebody came up with the idea to make Leroy an honorary paratrooper.
     For his daring raid on the beer depository, we quickly devised a jump school for him. Of course, we were all pretty drunk, so we had a hard time trudging out on the sand making him run a mile and back in the dark. We had him doing exercises and jumping from a four-foot wall to learn how to land as if he was jumping from a plane. Can’t say he didn’t deposit most of what was in his stomach on the sand, but he wouldn’t quit, kept at it.
     Whatever we conjured up. He did it. In jump school, to earn our jump wings, we had to make five “blasts” from a C-130. As we had no plane and no parachute, someone came up with the idea to have Leroy jump from the second story landing onto the sand below, five times, to which Leroy agreed, good-naturedly. Someone else said, “That’s barely fifteen feet and not moving. He should climb up on the roof and jump from there.” We all looked up to the second-story roof, a good thirty feel high. No one said anything. Leroy looked up, “I’m game,” he said, his eyeballs rolling around in the sockets. We weren’t too drunk to nix that idea. We sure didn’t want him breaking his legs or getting hurt.
      Bob Smolarsky, the captain’s driver, said he knew how to get ahold of a jeep. We could drive the jeep at 20 MPH and have Leroy jump off the back for his final, graduating jump. “30 MPH, someone else called.” A few minutes later, Bob showed up with the jeep. He and a couple of guys got in, Leroy sitting in back, facing the rear, his leg dangling free. Bob took off, raising a little dust in the sand. He disappeared where he made a U-turn and came racing back towards us. I thought the jeep was going a lot faster than 20 or even 30 MPH. Just when Bob passed the place where we stood waiting, we heard Leroy yell “Geronimo!” and leap out the back of the jeep. He hit the sand hard, rolling and tumbling. We didn’t think he was going to get up. Then, just like that, he popped up and raised his arms. We all cheered.
     About midnight, we had a ceremony, calling in a bunch of other guys to observe. Bert Jacobs had an extra pair of jump wings, and he pinned them on to Leroy’s uniform as the rest of us watched. After, we congratulated him and finished what remained of the beer.
     The next morning, Sunday morning, the MPs marched into our barracks to arrest the guys who broke into the PX commissary. None of us admitted to anything, but Leroy took the blame. We couldn’t let him do that, so, we pulled an I, Spartacus. If they were going to arrest him, they had to arrest us all.
     The guy who had been guarding the beer commissary said he couldn’t be sure who it was because of the dark. He said someone grabbed him from behind, tied his wrists with a belt, took his keys, and broke into the commissary. An MP looked over at Simmons and hollered, "Where's your belt, trooper?"
     That was when Sackett stepped in and told the base commander our orders had come through and we’d all be heading out to our units in a matter of days. Why put us in the stockade when there was a lot of fighting to be done in the jungle? Who knows what else Sackett said, but that’s what happened? They ordered us to stay in the barracks. And as sure as Sackett had said, we got our orders, Jacobs to the 173rd Airborne at Bien Hoa, Delgado to the 17th Armored Cavalry, and Alfred and me to the 101st Airborne at Phan Rang. A few days later, we were gone, the South China Sea but a memory.
      A month or so passed. Our artillery unit was bivouacked off of Highway I, not far from our base camp. About noon, a caravan of jeeps and trucks came rolling around the bend. They pulled off the highway and parked next to us. I saw a flag I recognized as the 17th Armored Cav, Leroy’s unit.
     After they got settled and started eating C-rations, I walked over to see if any of them knew Leroy and where I could find him. I remember Leroy saying he specialized on the recoilless rifle. The sergeant pointed us to the guys in that section.
     I found them and asked if they knew Leroy Delgado and where I could find him. They said they knew him. He’d only been in the unit about a month. “The new guy,” said the guy talking. He looked down and shook his head. “He’s dead, sorry.” Everything got hazy as he spoke. Leroy would be the first close friend I’d lose in Vietnam.
     The 17th Armored Cav carried machine guns and rocket launchers attached to the backs of jeeps, trucks, and APC’s. When the rocket launchers fired, flames shot out the backs of the weapons. Guys knew to never, under any circumstances during a firefight, go behind the jeeps. The guy told me when they got hit, everything had been chaos, blinding dust, dirt, and smoke, then the noise, deafening blasts. In the madness, Leroy ran to get some ammo. Maybe he got disoriented in the dust and smoke, confused, and lost his bearing. He ran behind one of the jeeps just as a rocket launcher fired. When it was over, they couldn’t find him. The guy said Leroy was listed as missing in action, until they could identify what was left.
     I broke the news to Al Martinez. Neither of us spoke about it. We didn't know how.
     There comes a time in combat when you realize this isn’t a movie or a game. Leroy taught me to understand my own death was not only possible, but imminent--to take nothing lightly. There are nights when you must sleep with your boots on and others when you can remove them.
     Even now, after all these years, as I walk past that old cement mixer behind the man's gate, I can still see and hear Leroy, as if it were yesterday. I think of him running blindly in the fog of war, terrified, lost, and hearing the final blast, then of him laughing, jumping off that jeep to earn his wings, and I can’t help but think how death, for all of us, is just a footstep away.
     I arrive home from walking the dogs. I remove my face covering and shoes. I take the harnesses off the Phoebe and Rocky, put on my indoor shoes, and wait for tomorrow, to repeat the process, never letting down my guard.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mario's Notebook



By Mary Atkinson


Cover illustration by Elizabeth Gomez



Print Length: 122 pages

ISBN: 1983745871

Publication Date: March 14, 2018

Language: English



Ten-year-old Mario must flee El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s with Mamá and little brother Nico after his journalist father is killed. As Mario struggles to adapt to his new life in the United States, he must also come to terms with the decisions his father made that have left him fatherless and illegal in a new country.


Kirkus Review: “War has come to the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, but Mario and his little brother, Nico, just want to act like normal kids.

When a soldier in the street takes their soccer ball and slices it open with a knife, Mario is confused: “Why do they have to bother us like that?” he asks his father, a writer, later that day. “We’re only kids. We have nothing to do with the war. Why does there even have to be a war?”


When soldiers burst in and arrest Mario’s dad in the middle of the night, the boys and their mother are forced to flee the country... As the family attempts to build a new life for themselves in Texas, Mario is haunted by what has happened, filled with a mix of anger and fear. His father left him a notebook with a letter, offering his advice on how to move forward. Mario isn’t interested in writing, but he does have a passion for drawing.


Atkinson writes in a smooth, conversational prose that perfectly enlivens Mario’s first-person narration, capturing both his anxieties and excitements. With its quick pace, the novella makes for a compelling read. Along the way, the author successfully tracks the complex evolution of Mario’s inner landscape, including his attempts to deal with the trauma of his father’s loss, his responsibility toward his mother and brother, and his instincts as both a witness and a budding artist: as Mario’s new American identity shapes itself, he uses pictures to try to tell his own story. A well-crafted, emotionally resonant tale for younger readers"