Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Veterans Day 2020: Loco


Michael Sedano

January 1969: Ft Ord, California 

I took an instant like to the way this vato ate his food, con ganas and gratitude, like until four days ago, he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. 


“Te voy a decir una cosa, loco,” he started his observations. I agreed with him more than I could say, but te voy a decir una cosa. I didn’t like that he thought I was crazy. He kept calling me loco. I called him on it. “No me dices ‘loco.’”


He laughs and explains. Órale, loco, it’s not me, it’s you. This is how we talk. Then slowly, the huero ‘splains it, ‘Loco’ no es loco, es como fren, vato. 


Seven months later some Sergeant tells me to watch those Koreans shoveling brass ammo casings. I stretch across one of the mounds of .38 cal brass in the humid morning. The shovels remind me of shoveling steel mill slag, scrape-scoop-lift-toss-land. Scrape-scoop-lift-toss-land. I sleep.


I sit bolt upright. What did that Korean call me?


“Hey, chingao!”


My ears don’t deceive me, “chingao.” I rise with attitude. The Korean laborer is smiling and laughing. The Sergeant is headed my way and my new-found friend is giving me a Lifer-alert.


“Oh, you Metsican G.I. ‘Chingo’ fren, you fren, chingo.” 


Loco fren. This kid whose name I don’t remember doesn’t make it past the third week of basic training.


Rose was the first to go. He gets on the bus in Santa Barbara covered in his father’s tears. Desolation gave way to anger at being drafted and fuck yous at anyone around him on the bus to Los Angeles. Why didn’t you just refuse?


Sullen getting on the bus, five days later, unshaven and wound up tight, Rose stands in front of Company A-3-1. We stand stiffly at Attention. Rose stands alone facing the Captain who leans out his window, taunting Rose for looking like shit. Rose refuses to dry shave. He’s wearing the same green fatigues and field jacket we all wear but Rose gives them a disreputable look that you know there’s something wrong with that guy.


We Double-time away from the ugly scene. Rose and that Captain. They deserve each other.


What was the vato’s name? In the Army you read people’s name, you don’t have to know it. He’s probably eighteen, maybe younger and he lied to get in? He really likes the chow. We do K.P. together. The kid with no name chatters with energy, disarming, like un locutor del radio, but one who’s totally freaked out. This kid has been immersed in an English-speaking world and I’m his ally and buffer. I have to listen hard, translate unpracticed Spanish through grad student ears. Once I travelled in realms of gold and now I’m asshole deep in pots and pans and this vato from East El Lay is making it funny. Loco.


The drill sergeants like him, the kid has that effect on gente. Even the Cubano who likes to push my face into the mud with his boot takes it easy on loco. 


The second lieutenant fresh out of ROTC smells blood. Loco makes an easy target, mystified by the hubbub, physically slight, an inconspicuous trainee, no threat. We’re a couple weeks into basic training. We’re getting strong, but P.T. is still challenging. I’m grateful for respite when some guy’s getting chewed out for doing it wrong. 


These guys mess up a lot, but a lot of the chewing is equal opportunity ritual. When it’s your turn you take it and speak silent oaths. Mostly, harassment has good nature behind it, classic are you laughing at me? Outrage with a smile “Position of a dying cockroach, Ho!”


Out the corner of my right eye I see the LT stride over and stop at Loco’s spot. We’re in the front-leaning rest position and Drill Sergeant calls “exercise!” ROTC observes the body at his feet. “1,2,3, one! Drill Sergeant. 1,2,3, 2…”


2LT bends and shouts into the kid’s ear, “Straighten your back!” When the body doesn’t offer a response to his command, the lieutenant yells a little louder, “straighten that back, I said!”


The kid doesn’t move his espalda but keeps pumping out those push-ups, counting out, “1, 2, 3, 4, Drill Sergeant!” 


“I said ‘straighten that back’!” Loco’s thin arms tremble with the upward push. Army push-ups use four counts. The fourth push-up represents the sixteenth straightening of the arms. The kid who devours his chow doesn’t have big muscles that flex like elastic bands. His arms shake and struggle to extend. The young Lieutenant is not satisfied. 


“That’s not straight,” the officer declares. ROTC grabs Loco’s right wrist and pulls it out from under.


Mexicans are tough, you know? We can take it. And all Loco says is something like a surprised “ahh” as his left shoulder suddenly tears apart inside. Loco doesn’t even writhe. He tries to resume push-up position and collapses with another soft “ahh”. The lieutenant’s boots back away and out my sight. “…Ten, Drill Sergeant!”


The kid with no name goes through the rest of the day with the platoon. At chow the next morning the kid whose name I cannot remember doesn’t eat with much gusto. That cabron lieutenant chingared this arm so bad, Loco moans. Get on the truck, I tell him. No, I can make it. Get on the damned truck. I read his name and say it. Loco.


Outside on the company street, Drill Sergeant marches us away. Behind us on the spot where Rose stood that morning, waiting for the “sick, lame, and lazy” truck, Loco must have saluted us farewell.


What if there’s a comfortable house in Montebello where a 100% disabled American Veteran lives after a career as a bilingual 5th grade teacher? What if the teacher’s friends called him “Lefty” because he has a useless left arm that he alternately calls Lieutenant Pendejo and My Golden Ticket Home? I used to wonder what ever happened to Loco? 

Ft. Ord now Cal State University Monterey Bay

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