Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Veterans Day 2020: First Day Is Forever. Memory of DDLMs Pasados

The Limping Veteran: Day One of Basic 

Michael Sedano


Basic Training at Ft. Ord began in fits and starts, mid-January 1969. Down in the Reception Station some clerk gives us a personalized rubber stamp and a pad of white paint. We paint our name & serial number onto the duffel in a specified spot. We take the empty duffels smelling of strong paint to a narrow room where we strip to skivvies, leaving our civilian clothes on hooks in plastic bags.


Bored faces behind plywood partitions hand over stacks of six of casí everything: shirts, trousers, drawers, tee shirts, one each field jacket, a green dress uniform, an overseas cap with a dirty name and a smirk. Stamp your name on every item in just the right place. Two sets of combat boots. Patent leather dress shoes that hurt my feet and that’s the shoes you get, move along. Crap. Our duffel bags hold every piece of clothing we now own.


“You have ten seconds to get off that fucking truck and line up on one of those numbers! Now move! Move! Move!"


Six smokey bear-hatted Drill Sergeants stand on the street, shouting up at the flatbed truck that ferried us from Reception to the Hill. I hear "Negro Nonstandard English" and Mexican- and Cuban-accented voices warning me about my fucking ten seconds. I abandon fighting into the tense mass of bodies crowding to jump off the open end of the deuce and a half. I toss my duffle over the stakes and follow with a two-booted leap. A voice chases me up the slope to my fucking number. Move! move! move!


You’re supposed to say “fuck” a lot, like real soldiers. One white guy calls one black guy “baby” and nearly gets his ass kicked. Gutierrez, an enterprising Hopi from Arizona, sells polaroids to guys with cash. He doesn’t have the fixer chemical and the fotos will quickly blacken. There’s a near fist fight in the latrine when the malcontent blows his nose on rationed toilet paper. “I don’t want to run out of toilet paper because you blew your fucking nose!”


Rise and shine and assemble downstairs, but without as much irrational screaming.  We get acquainted with orderly movement and cadences, learn the Daily Dozen exercise ritual, we run, we groan, finally the platoon turns toward the barracks, and chow. First morning a soldier, so far, not so bad.


After chow, PCPT. 

Soldiers aren’t trained, they’re measured. After chow, the first morning of Basic, we run our first Physical Combat Proficiency Test(s). Two hours of running, leaping, jumping, balancing, climbing. Drill Sergeant orients us then leads us to a dirt track. The first test, the 25 meter man carry. Choose someone your size.


Piggy back, over the shoulder, cradle-style, figure out a method and run as hard as you can from Point A, over here, to Point B, tweny-five meters pa’lla. Sanchez eyes me, I eye Sanchez. I think he’s small enough I can handle him. Climb on, Sanchez, piggy back.


Ready. Go!


Damn, Sanchez is really heavy. Being a hero is a slow painful slog. We’re under fire, gotta get him to cover. Sanchez’ butt hangs low, my legs bang into him. We’re not making much progress, nowhere near the finish line. I’m leaning forward to counterbalance and gain some clearance on Sanchez’ overhanging nalgas. Sanchez urges me on "let's go! come on!" We're not first, we're not last, all of us are struggling.

My feet advance by inches. I feel all of Sanchez’ weight transfer from right to left with each foot’s impact. My right foot lands heel first. Sanchez’ mass shifts when I land and I feel every ounce shoot up from the heel into my knee where the pain radiates into the hip then rebounds to settle back in the throbbing right knee. I know all this via a single synaptic moment of awful "I'll be damned" gut-wrenching recognition. I'm going down, a weight lifted off my back.


Sanchez flies forward, rolls so he doesn’t hit face first. I land on my right shoulder, dazed from the insistently screaming knee. “Get up!” Drill Sergeant screams. We scramble in the sand like insects, pendejos racing a clock, fighting pain and rage. I drag Sanchez to the finish line.


I almost complete the PCPT, walking or fake running with grunts and determination. At the next-to-final obstacle, a ditch thankfully not water-filled, spanned with horizontal poles. I’m supposed to leap on the pole and get to the other side triumphantly. I run with what I have left and plant my right leg visualizing myself landing left-footed on the pole and three steps I’m raising my hands in victory.


I roll into the ditch and land looking up at the beauteous Monterey sky, and Drill Sergeant's grim visage. His Smokey Bear brim nods., I’ve done enough, proved myself. He signs for me to rise and abandon the task. I pass my first PCPT despite not running a mile with my platoon.


Next morning, I take my enormously swollen knee to the hospital. I become a regular in the ortho ward. I quickly figure out how to extend hour visits, hang around until a clinic issues lunch chits. The hospital serves the best chow on Ft. Ord, with fruit punch, Kool-aid, and chocolate milk, multiple main dishes, puddings and jello, all you want to eat. Mejor, the PX runs a Country Store behind the hospital, where the clerks sell to guys wearing maggot patches even though I’m not supposed to leave the hospital. 


The Doc writes me a “Profile” for the knee: No extended running. I ride the sick, lame, and lazy truck. I do my best not to smile at the platoon as they make that long march from the firing range and disappear out of sight from my seat on the back of the truck.


Rx: There’s nothing for a stress fracture but stay off it. It might not ever heal. I accept that’s my fate, but damn, the very first day of Basic? Ni modo, the truck gets me there on time, like Jefferson airplane. I heal pretty good and double-time now and then with my boys, only a memory of pain. I can run again.

I take regular days off at the hospital, the chow, sabes? Doc gives unlimited Darvon. I don't feel the knee but I don't like it. Some of the GIs love that stuff. Mensos. I can aguantar.


The last day of Basic Combat Training arrives and the final PCPT. Profile my ass. I gotta run the PCPT. Sanchez is pissed at me, so Schweitzer gets on my back. Damn, he’s heavy. Who would have thought the little guy to have had so much weight on him? Out, damned knee. And sure enough, I get two steps with Schweitzer on my back, and out goes the knee. 


If you see me standing stock still in the middle of the store, or a parking lot, like a statue, it’s my Army Knee acting up again. It happens now and then. I’ll be walking at a normal pace, a day like any other day, except I step down on that right foot and pain shoots straight up like I had serious bone spurs or something, straight into my right knee, where that pain takes up independent residence, throbs for a while and screams, then subsides, five, six minutes. I take a gingerly step then another. It gets better until the next time.



Looking Pa'tras: Calavera for Coachella
The following is from a DDLM column originally run on Tuesday, October 28, 2014.
Michael Sedano

It’s that time of year when cultura shows. Gente paint their faces to resemble skulls, erect spectacular memorial altars, hold processions, art shows, and craft sales that honor our dead. It's Dia de los Muertos and calacas rule the day.

Calaca cultura captures artist imaginations to create particularly gratifying art and collectibles. It's a time turn-of-the-20th-century artist Jose Guadalupe Posada's popularity increases with countless tributes to Posada's style. In classrooms, activities remind kids the calaca motif in Mexican art antedates European incursion.

Calavera frieze recreates Templo Mayor wall, Museo Nacional de la Antropologia

Calaca glitz sparkles across the US Southwest, Dia de Los Muertos splashes cultura across local news with an array of entrepreneurs hosting events from humble sidewalk congregations to this-year-better-than-last-year extravaganzas at cemeteries and concert grounds.

One elegantly cool small show was the Crewest/Gregg Stone annual calaca show. Stone donated ceramic skulls for emerging and established artists. They painted and elaborated the small skulls then exhibited in Crewest’s annual Top of the Dome shows. Be sure to click the link.  I collected several over the years. Sadly, Crewest gallery closed its doors and the annual shows with them.

The idea of decorated skulls rekindled this year in the form of giant papier mache skulls destined for Dia de los Muertos USA, a Coachella Valley DDLM extravaganza making its premiere event. I’ve found the skull I’d love to add to my collection, it’s shown in process in the video below, Margaret Garcia's tiled skull.

Margaret Garcia invited La Bloga to have a look as she, volunteer Bonnie Lambert, and two apprentices, put the finishing touches on the massive beauty headed to the Imperial Valley city of Coachella. The truck is due in a few days so she's on deadline.

Garcia's assembled a professional crew. Artist Bonnie Lambert volunteers her work and has been a key part of the team from its earliest hour. Be sure to visit Bonnie's gallery at this link.

 A pair of apprentices join the team with masonry and tile experience. Monumental scale art projects like Margaret Garcia's tiled calavera skull are job creators.

 In a project imagined by producer Rodri Rodriguez and Art Director Juan Rodriguez, artists were offered a papier mache skull to paint and decorate. Garcia told them she was happy to have the massive object but would not paint it. She saw the skull covered in tile. She also smothered it with love, as in labor of. And seeing this wonder, who wouldn't want to own it?

Over the past weeks, Garcia has been documenting her process on Facebook. Videos illustrate how she covers the papier mache with successive layers of fiberglass fabric. The crew trowels Portland cement across each curve and contours it by hand. Final layers brush on cement slurry for a smooth finish of its concrete skin that's the substrate for the tile.

Garcia buys tile shards, decorative beads, ceramic figures, adding her own found pieces. She lays cement mixture across the skull, section by section, sinking shards into place.

Walking around the creation finds a corazón surrounding a woman and man at dawn, setting out on a journey. Her blue shawl evokes Lupe, the curlicue at their feet at once suggest the black moon of tradition and a Mexica glyph, perhaps flor y canto symbols since flowers abound behind the couple.

Treating the eye at a wider scope, Garcia outlines the valentine heart in green shards with a tessellated lotus blossom pattern. The tight regularity of that pattern is hypnotic against the randomness inside the corazón. Other places geometry is irrelevant to pleasing gatherings of intensely bright colors and ceramic motifs.

A sirena floats quietly above an eyebrow. A gecko rises from a lobe. Eye concavities sparkle with blue beads in raggedly concentric circles.

With tile layed in place, the crew mixes grout into a stiff but pliant mixture. Owing to the irregular joints and surfaces, grouting is done by hand. Press the ball of putty onto the surface then work it tightly against both sides of the gap until the surface is tile, then a black line, then tile; no gaps, few exposed edges.

I arrive as the work takes on an extra laboriousness. The team is scraping away with razor blades,  the task complicated by irregularities and the importance of avoiding scratches and gouges.

Margaret uses a Dremel tool’s abrasive bit to raise clouds of black dust. She works with artist’s precision, getting mostly grout and not clamshelling her ceramics nor dulling their shine. Garcia is due for a break so we go for ceviche.

Someone changed the grouting plan, Garcia reveals, getting it done instead of getting it done right. Grout that smears across its boundary needs to disappear, that's expected. Working to plan would have made the touch-up far less laborious. No one complains, they find the blade's preferred angle and scrape scrape scrape away the sandy black grit. The whole crew knows someone messed up. So it goes.

The crew is happy for the botana we bring for their lunch.

Excess grout gone, the tile gleams with appreciation.

The skull is a labor of love and explosion of creativity. Garcia's muse, Rhett Beavers, arrives from a landscaping task to scrape for a while.

Margaret Garcia's tiled calavera skull is a marvel of sculpture and cultura that belongs in the Norton Simon or my yard. I’m sure I cannot afford it, but I do have the perfect spot for it.

My Calaveras

One of my DDLM treasures is the chuparrosa skull, a gift from Gregg Stone. It's extremely fragile, as witnessed by the lost wing tip on the right of the foto. Lástima. Please do not touch.

Chuparrosa skull by Gregg Stone. 

Mexico City’s Zona Rosa struggles to awaken with the first stirrings of sanitation crews cleaning up after Saturday night’s raucous club-goers scattered McDonald’s bags and other trash on every available horizontal surface. I heard them from my window last night. By habit, I'm up early and heading out to walk las calles.

I aim for the antiques market where there’s usually a Sunday patio sale. I’m in luck.

The sleepy kid is probably a college student. Half-shaven, he's laid out his wares on a shabby blanket. Glass, china saucers, rusty hardware, assorted detritus of estate sales and a packrat eye for junk. I spot an expertly-hewn sandstone gargoyle. He knows its value but offers a discount. I'm not prepared to spend a hundred fifty bucks so I turn to his books. I scan the spines noting lots of Mexican history, some mass market art books, and a thin folded spine. I pull out a grey cardboard pamphlet and it’s a treasure. Posada.

In 1952 the Mexican Typographers Union struck a small collection of Calaveras and calaverones from Posada’s zinc plates. Printed on aging tissue paper they're impossible to display and eventually will be eaten by the paper. But at forty dollars the portfolio of eight letter-size sheets are one of those strokes of good fortune that happen to others.

Calaveron detail

Calaverititas, size of a nickel coin

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