Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Más Antes: Cesar Chavez Opens An Urban Front. Ayer: Vietnam War Veterans Day

Michael Sedano

In addition of March being Women's History Month, March wraps with a pair of commemorations that aren't the kind of holiday that closes down banks and post offices, they're "days".

March 29 marks Vietnam War Veterans Day. It's to acknowledge guys who went to Vietnam, but also guys like me who were in uniform during the war but who did not get those fateful orders to show up at Ft. Lewis for overseas movement to Vietnam.      

March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day. The Post Office is open because it's not a federal holiday. Your state offices might be closed to mark the day as a State holiday. President Obama (link) called it a Day, and left it up to you to do something about it.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 31, 2014, as Cesar Chavez Day. I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez's enduring legacy.
Back in 1974, when it was still possible to look at the world from the back of a pickup truck, these UFW members rode the streets of Aztlán, headed for Soto Street's Safeway in Boyle Heights, then 5 Points in Lincoln Heights. A hot afternoon of educating shoppers, waving flags, shouting awareness.
Cesar Chavez leads the protest. He's brought a well-organized group of determined gente. They crowd close to the leader to hear him speak and to form a protective phalanx when a reporter pushes a microphone at the labor leader.

For me, the boycott protest offers an opportunity to capture close-up portraits of Cesar Chavez with my own camera. This is a special opportunity so I use Plus-X film and have the reward of richly toned black & white portraits. Regularly, I load Tri-X film. As usual, I employ my 35mm Army camera, a Topcon with a 58mm f/1.4 lens.

Photographers around the world exposed thousands of frames of the labor leader, published them, hung them in the Smithsonian, maybe even won a Pulitzer Prize for their fotos. The world has no shortage of fotos of Cesar Chavez. But they haven't seen these.

No one else in the world has these images, no other image of those thousands of images can replace these in particular. Every foto is a unique moment in life and time, and these are my fotos.

Boycotts make a difference.Boycotts Make A Difference.

Vietnam War Veterans Day 2021

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 29, 2012, as Vietnam Veterans Day.  I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Millions of Vietnamese died in a war fought from 1955 through victory in 1975. By the time the US finally pulled out on April 30, 1975, 58,256 United States military had been killed in that country’s war. In 1969 and 1970, I was a soldier, and in June 1969 I was told to “report for orders to Vietnam tomorrow.”

That night my wife pleaded with me to go to Canada. She feared I’d be number 58,257. I told her I wouldn’t know, and she could go on with her life. I was going to report. Like the Draft, it was my turn.

But it didn’t happen that way. This is the story of how a tiny little fit of pique probably saved my life.

"Sedano," the company clerk spots me leaving the chow hall. His Boston accent calls out from the office window. “Report tomorrow for orders to Vietnam." 

The building at Ft. Ord where the Army processes its doomed, forms a long, dark tunnel. Strip down to skivvies, take your clothes and yellow shot record booklet to the first station.

Lean to the left. Soft hiss. Stamp the shot record. Lean to the right, another air gun pumps crap into that arm. Stamp. Move along, hold still don’t move.

Guys who flinch away from the stainless steel nozzle walk the rest of the line with coagulating blood oozing where the air gun blasted apart the skin.

Men recoil at seeing needle stations, jostling into one another as if that can bypass the stab. The air smells of the tension of today’s soldiers and the thousands who’ve come and gone before us today. 

"Move along" the medics say, stamping the record with that station's disease and handing it back. Thud. Yellow fever. "Move along." Stamp. Bubonic plague. Thunk. "Move along." Halitosis. Athlete’s Foot. Immortality. Thunk thunk thunk.

Ahead of me, moving toward the rectangle of light marking the end of our stay at Ft. Ord, silhouettes of soldiers emerge into pools of light before darkness swallows their presence. I turn to look behind me to see calaveras smiling at me out of pools of darkness. We already, all of us, are dead. I take a deep breath, hold it. Lean to the left. Thunk. "Move along."

Outside a voice screams repeatedly.

"Move away from the window before you open your orders. Move away from the fuckin' window before you open those orders, troop!"

I step into the light and noise to find another line: The Orders window. Step to the white line. Sound off. Receive your manila envelope. 

Off to one side, men stand stunned, mimeographed pages in triplicate flapping in the gentle Monterrey Bay summer breeze.

"I’m going to Vietnam" 

"I’m going to Vietnam" 


They look at no one in particular, empty voices echoing each other’s destination. They knew it. It’s why we’re here.

"Private Sedano reports for orders" I say. 

The clerk turns to a pile. Not here. Turns to another pile. Not here. He looks into the room and calls my name. 

“Yo!” I recognize the clerk who holds up an envelope. He makes eye contact with me.

"Step away from the window before you open that envelope" the Sergeant barks. I about face and step away from the window to join the stunned ranks. My finger has a mind of its own. The finger flips open the envelope. The eyes scan the military verbiage. 

Assigned to Ft. Lewis “fur asg as indic” report to…what does it mean?

Mid-January 1969. I start basic training. A-3-1, the best damn company on the hill, Sir!

I’m an old man among teenaged boys. I can vote and I can buy a drink. I’ve been drafted out of graduate school, a newlywed in September, a Thanksgiving letter from Richard Nixon.

Old, young, we look the same in green and mud. We’re not the same, though. One kid is a puny guy who quickly becomes the target of a trio of bullies. They call him “Mama’s Boy” and taunt his weakness mercilessly.

“Double time, harch!”

Every time Drill Sergeant takes us out, we hit this long, steep hill that we run, a green segmented beast stretching along the ridge line all the way to the top. And every time, our concealed Company Commander’s cackling laughter greets us near the top, where he pops riot control CS gas at the approaching platoon.

The laughing asshole enjoys knowing how CS gas burns sweaty skin, knowing that the platoon has double-timed up that long hill. Our sweaty  armpits, sweaty necks, sweaty nalgas, sweaty balls react to the chemical warfare agent and we burn furiously. 

We do not stop, we do not mask, we run through the billowing cloud of choking grey smoke screaming “Gas! Gas!” gasping with exertion and poison. We reach the crest and fall out.

This particular day the cackling asshole has particularly irritated me, so I am doubly pissed off when we fall out at the top in a grove of young live oaks and grass flattened by daily smoke breaks. I drop my pack and follow it to the ground.

The three bullies ritually approach Mama's Boy with the same kind of glee I hear in the Captain’s cackle when he gasses us. 

I snap. 

I stand up and in three strides I’m standing between Mama’s Boy and the eager bullies. 

"From now on, if you want to fuck with him," I say and look at the leader then the other two, "you'll have to go through me, first." 

The biggest bully makes fists and glares. I know he can kick my ass all by himself. He mumbles angrily, but steps back. The two henchholes deflate in confusion.

The three bullies remain cowed throughout what’s left of basic combat training. The kid does his thing and I do mine. Thanks to my moment’s blind rage, Mama's Boy has only the Army to torment him for the remainder of Basic Combat Training. 

Mama’s Boy hands that envelope to the soldier at the window.

I shall forever wonder if that day I reported for orders, it came after some officer tells AOR clerks, "We need one guy in Korea." 

Mama's Boy works in the AOR office. Like an automaton, he goes through the stack of tomorrow’s overseas replacements. They all get the same form, the one that sends them to Vietnam. The kid reads my name. He reaches for a different form, the one with APO SF 96220. He rolls the form into the platen and types my name.

“Step away from the window before you open those fuckin orders,” the bored Sergeant is screaming. Stunned men stand to the side. They look over at me as I decipher the orders.

“I’m going to Korea.”

Of course, I never see the kid again. I hope his name is not on that wall. If it is, that’s something I do not want ever to know.


Jesus Trevino said...

My God Michael, these photos are priceless. And that photo of you cuando joven, oh hell you're still joven, is great! Kudos to you, vato. Choo

SoCal Yankee said...

Thanks Michael, for the photos and the stories. The photos are beautiful.

The story---you never know how a seeming instant can change the course of a life. I hope Mama's Boy made it back.

liz said...

More! More! More of these. Compelling writing, stories, and photos. Thank you.