To Catch a Fly
Little boy: “Mr. President, how did you become a war hero?”
President Kennedy: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” --Adler, The Kennedy Wit
I had always thought about joining the veterans group in town. I had been out of Vietnam 20 years and figured it was time to find camaraderie. The building where the veterans met was antiquated and rickety and stood next to the town’s largest bar. The veterans center was small, but large enough for a small town such as ours. It had taken all these years to find an excuse to join because I had felt guilty about not contributing enough to the war effort and undeserving of such a distinguished honor. But that day, I had finally capitulated and I went in to join.
When I entered the building, the hall was dark, stale, and smelled of cigarettes and booze. The veterans were a bunch of strange characters; most were frightfully elderly, lost souls in the wintry time of their lives. I told the bartender that I wanted to join. He looked at my DD-214 to prove my veteran status, gladly took my money, said “Welcome,” shook my hand, and offered me a beer.
I thanked him for the beer and looked around as I enjoyed my ice-cold drink. In one corner sat a subdued centenarian in a wheel chair—the unquestionable patriarch of the group—barely able to move his body, his head motionless, and his eyes barely open. In other parts of the room, there were other parties talking—barely audible—about sundry things. But as I paid closer attention I could discern some of the conversations:
Well, Mr. Jones, my father here don’t talk much no more; he’s incapacitated, as you can rightly see. But he’s told me many a tale about the heroes of the Great War. He fought in the Second Battle of the Marne in late May, 1918. Now that was a war! He was wounded at Chateau-Thierry but repulsed them Huns several times before he was taken to the field hospital. He lost a leg, as you can see. Now here’s a real hero for ya! They don’t make them like they used to!
In another corner of the smoke-filled hall, I heard another group talking about their exploits in World War II. “Yes, Bill, I fought at Pearl Harbor. I was there when them Japs attacked and destroyed most of our Pacific fleet, but I shot two planes down with my machine gun before they was done. Yup, I sent them a runnin’! I gave ‘em a black eye. Ya betcha!” And Bill replied, “Well Gus, it got a tad hotter as the war continued. We kicked the Krauts’ asses in Normandy and shoved them back to Germany where they belonged! We was tough hombres!” “Both of you have forgotten somethin’,” responded a third party. “We got them Krauts at the Bulge. Give us credit for that! They thought they could drive us back to the sea, but they was wrong. We was real heroes! Them guys from Korea and Vietnam and the Gulf War—if it was a war!—don’t deserve to be here! They’s just a bunch of second fiddles. Granted, World War I was a war and a tough one at that, but most of them guys is gone now!”
In yet another corner I heard a small group talking about Korea:
Yeah, George, we just don’t get any credit. Pusan was a bitch. Them was cold days in Korea, frostbite, cold biting wind in your face, and frozen rifles. Nobody knows what we went through. Them was tough days and there was a lotta’ heroes around, but ours is the forgotten war. Them WWII vets get all the credit, but what they don’t remember is that ole MacArthur was with us then, too. Yeah, and these Vietnam dopes and Gulf War blockheads also get a lot of credit. Everybody feels sorry for them PTSD hippies, not to speak of them Gulf War loonies claiming the oil and weird chemicals is affectin’ their health and well-bein’!
Finally, in the other corner there was yet another group drinking and complaining.
I’m tired of comin,’ Henry. These old farts get on my nerves. They don’t pay us no respect. They act like we didn’t do nothin’. They call us baby killers from My Lai, dope addicts, long-hairs, you name it. But we done a great job. There was a lot of us who were real heroes. Imagine, not knowing the enemy, everybody lookin’ alike, wondering where they are, when they’ll attack, not knowing if you’re shakin’ the hand of the gook who’s gonna kill you later. Yeah, times were tough. We weren’t appreciated. That’s why so many of us went crazy and some others of us killed ourselves. These old farts don’t realize they’ve gotta die off someday; then we can get some respect!
These low-voiced conversations made me question the very nature of heroism and unity. I had hoped to find brotherhood and harmony: E Pluribus Unum, so I had heard. But I realized that I had joined a veterans organization that depended on war to sustain it. Without war and its veterans, there would be no need for the organization because its raison d’etre was to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan”: it could not survive without wars.
I also wondered about the concept of heroism. The word had been tossed around by the cliques in the bleak, squalid hall and I wondered about its nature. Naturally, a sailor on a ship off an enemy coast was no hero to me if he hadn’t done anything “heroic.” Somebody killed on a ship by a suicide tugboat, while eating brunch, was no hero. A person held hostage in an embassy was not a hero. What had these soldiers and sailors and civilians done? Nothing. Yet some of the men in the hall were probably legitimate heroes; that is, if their stories were truthful and valid. You see, veterans sometimes have a tendency to embellish their war stories.
And how about these new “veterans” fresh out of the Gulf War and Afghanistan? After all, these are the veterans that will soon perpetuate the life of the organization. It was a strange situation, indeed. Would they fit in? Probably not, not until the rest of us died off. And the women veterans…now that was a new twist!….Well, I was getting disgusted and depressed and felt it was time to finish off my beer and go home to shoot myself.
Then, I heard the bartender yell out, “OK everybody! The meeting is about to start. Let’s go! Get up you lazy bastards! The men in one room, and the women in the other!” The old man in the wheel chair, already fast asleep, was wheeled into the room for a meeting he would not hear nor see nor understand. The cliques slowly staggered into the hall. Some of the guys were already drunk, some were still bitching, others had their arms around each other in true fraternity. And they all went in to address the agenda: renting a “newer” and more spacious building, reviving the buddy poppies program, a “booze and beans” meal centered around the Sunday football game, and finally—although nobody really wanted to address the issue—they would assign burial details to lay to rest the old veterans that had died the previous week. It really was an interesting bunch of battered, calloused veterans.
And, although they invited me to join them, I declined the invitation to attend the meeting. I was certain now that I was no hero. I set my glass down, and proceeded to leave the premises. Coming my way I saw a young kid, not much more than 21, who went to the bar and said, “Excuse me, I’m a Gulf War veteran; I’ve got my DD-214; can I join up?” Disgusted, I postponed suicide and went to the bar across the street for another beer.
Amando Álvarez October 23, 2001
When good fortune comes, they drink. When they have no fortune they drink to the hope of good fortune. If fortune be ill, they drink to forget it. If they meet a friend, they drink. If they quarrel with a friend and lose him, they drink. If their love-making be crowned with success, they are so happy they needs must drink. If they be jilted, they drink for the contrary reason. And if they haven’t anything to do at all, why they take a drink….When they are sober they want to drink; and when they have drunk they want to drink more. –John Barleycorn, Jack London.
In the Navy, while at sea off the coast of Vietnam, there were two items we sailors were certain never to lack: coffee and cigarettes. If either were ever depleted, there certainly would have been a mutiny. But we never ran out. Our lives were monotonous: watches at all hours of the night and day, work during the day, re-arming at night, bombing in the day—24 hours a day. One day blended into the next, Saturdays were Tuesdays, Tuesdays were Fridays, and Fridays were Sundays—what was the difference?
Drinking on the ship was strictly prohibited. If anybody was found drinking or even with booze on board, he was immediately demoted—no questions asked. But in port, it was completely different, there our lives began. We alleviated our anxiety from days on end at sea, without women, by hitting the bottle. Boatswain’s Mate Hatch was a character true to the old Navy tradition. He was quiet, dedicated, and friendly—at sea—but when we hit the shore, he was transformed into a Mr.Hyde. He changed into a boisterous and disorderly brawler at the clubs. “I’m a real Indian!” he would brag, “and real Indians—especially from Alaska—drink and party all night long! I can lick anybody here and have energy left over to make any girl here happy till the sun comes up!”
These drunken bouts were nerve-racking and would worry me miserably. He was a serious drinker, no doubt like a true sailor, but a serious Indian drinker that was a tad bit more serious than most of us; and my job was to keep him under control, if I could, and usually I couldn’t.
At the clubs, the girls would say, “You wait till 1:00 and we go home, handsome! Meantime, drink, buy me drink, and be happy!”
He was a fool. He seldom made it till 1:00 a.m. before we had to carry him back to the ship. Oh yes, he had a charming, faithful girl in Alaska who got all kinds of gifts from his father and him—they were in the salmon fishing business—but gifts can only go so far. His girl got tired of waiting for “her sailor” to come home and her sailor drank to forget the loneliness, the war, the Indian ways, and this girl in the beautiful north country he had left behind.
So it was just another night in port, kindred to all the other nights we sailors had to endure. We drank, we sang, we bought drinks for our “girls” who always repeated in their rich vocabulary: “I love you, marry me, buy me Cadillac!” And Hatch always promised but never delivered.
Finally, his “faithful” girl in Alaska lost her faith; she tired of waiting for him, she was also lonely, and devotion to her boyfriend yielded to the temptations of another man. The “Dear John” letter soon followed; he lost his girl to the wilds of Alaska and turned to drinking even harder.
And I tired of carrying him back to the ship and left it to the Shore Patrol to carry on with him. Finally, Hatch was kicked out of the Navy and went back to Alaska. But it most assuredly was not the same Alaska he had left behind. Nature hadn’t changed, it never does, but we humans have a way of changing things, changing ourselves, ruining everything.
Before Hatch left our ship, I told him to write, but I never heard from him. He is probably walking the streets of Ketchikan in complete intoxication, numb to the cold, the wind, the war, and his past. But when I go to Alaska, I’ll look him up. Maybe he’ll be at the Last Chance Saloon in some dark corner, on his 10th beer. If so, I’ll buy him another for the road and offer to carry him home.
Amando Álvarez October 20, 2001
For the urban poor the police are those who arrest you. In almost any slum there is a vast conspiracy against the forces of law and order.—Michael Harrington
“Ya me voy, vieja. Ten cuida’o, por a’i dicen que ‘hora viene la migra,” my father said that morning before he went off to work in the fields with my older brothers and sisters. He was worried. There was a rumor that the INS would raid the labor camp sometime that day, but my father had to work, there was no choice. My mother understood, “No te apures, escondo a estos dos escuintles si viene.” I was one of the two children that would stay behind since my brother and I were too young to work with the rest of the family. But, experienced as she was, I could tell something still troubled my mother.
Outside, the warm sun was rising and shedding its luminous rays on a labor camp that was coming to life. The white farmers were arriving to load up the Mexican workers in their panel trucks and haul them off to the fields. All able-bodied men, women, and children were loaded onto the vehicles. The strongest were loaded on first. Consequently, there was a Darwinian struggle among the workers to prove their strength; it was a perfect example of the law of the fittest. The strongest always boarded the trucks first.
When the trucks sped off in the self-imposed dust, the camp completely changed in nature. Only the weak, the very young and the very old would stay behind. We were left to fend for ourselves until the workers returned. This spectacle never changed. It was a daily affair. Yet today was a bit different because I had also heard my father’s warning and I was worried.
But I still wanted to play. I wanted to go outside and play with my friends a las canicas. Betito came over and begged my mother, “Ándele, doña Panchita, deje a Mando jugar conmigo.” But my mother was worried. “No, Betito, ‘hora no,” she would say regretfully. But my mother finally gave in. She had a soft heart for Betito who reminded her of one of my brothers who had died earlier that year. “Bueno, Mando, vete a jugar,” my mother finally yielded, but with a warning, “¡pero no te vayas lejos!”
And off we went to play marbles in the dirt. But the dirt near our cement rooms was hard. Betito suggested that we walk a distance to the irrigation canal where the dirt was softer. I hesitated but was easily persuaded. We were still within sight of the camp—a speck in the distance—but still visible. When we reached softer ground, we made a hole the size and shape of a cup in the ground and each of us took turns throwing the marbles in, some bounced out, others stayed in. If an even number stayed in the hole, the thrower won, if not he lost. It was a simple game for children living an impoverished, ordinary life.
Time stood still and we were having fun. The wind started to blow and the dust started picking up. In the distance, I could see dust devils starting everywhere. My vision was blurred and I started to worry. “Betito, vámonos,” I said apprehensively. But Betito was engrossed in his recreation. “Espérate hasta que te llame tu mamá,” he answered, upset that I wanted to interrupt his game.
In the distance I could hear my mother’s voice, “¡Mando! ¿Dónde estás? ¡Ven, pronto!” I knew the Migra was coming. Dust was everywhere, but I reasoned that hidden in that dust were the dreaded paddy wagons. I grabbed Betito and yelled, ¡Vámonos, tonto! ¿No ves que viene la migra? And we ran, but Betito had forgotten his marbles and ran back to pick them up. I had no choice, I had to obey and kept running, hoping Betito would make it in time.
When I got to the camp, my mother hid my brother and me under the beds. We were not to move or make a sound. My mother hid in a closet and locked the door. Our apartment room looked abandoned. The Migra didn’t bother coming in. They peered inside, concluded the room was abandoned, and did not bother breaking the locked door.
But trouble was still lurking in the neighboring apartment rooms. I sensed something was dreadfully wrong. After the Migra had left our premises, I sneaked out from under the bed, unlocked the door, and peaked out. The Migra was still scrutinizing the other rooms in the camp. Any irregularity, sound, movement, or Spanish voices, were cause for inspecting a room. One was Betito’s family’s apartment. His mother had already been caught outside looking for her son. I could not understand the English language at that time, but I could see the terror in Betito’s mother’s face. She was being beaten and boarded onto the paddy wagon along with her other children who had hidden under the beds.
Betito’s mother and his siblings would be sent back to Mexico; possibly they would come back someday, if it was deemed worth the effort. After all, Betito’s father was still in the fields. But I wonder if he really wanted his family to return: the beatings and terror were too much for some of us.
Later that day, my father and other siblings returned to the camp. The tortillas, beans, and chili were warm and served on the table. My mother looked at all of us as we sat around the table, wiped her forehead, and sighed. I detected a tear in her eye, but said nothing. It was a terrible day, yet a typical day for many of us. We lived like this to improve our plight in life. Many years later, I still wonder if it was worth it. Some of my family is buried in Mexico, some in the United States. When I go to Mexico to visit relatives, they talk about going to El Norte. ¡Debe de ser una aventura! they say. A real adventure. I’m afraid they’ll find out some day. Some day they will find out about the Promised Land.
Amando Álvarez October 21, 2001
To Catch a Fly
I was but a child then. It was an uneventfully cruel morning. The Northwest darkness enveloped the boxcar where we lived. It was early; only 3:00 a.m. We were always up at this time in the summers, six days a week, barely awake, eyes half-closed, smelling the aroma of the percolating coffee, waiting for it, waiting to wake up.
My father knew our condition, our feelings, our suffering, and he always tried to find a way to entertain us in the early mornings, to keep us awake while the coffee brewed on the stove. So he broke off a small piece from a tortilla and placed it on the table. “¿Ves esa mosca? Look at that fly and see if it alights to taste our nourishment,” my father said sympathetically as he passed the tortilla while we waited for the coffee; he knew the fly would detect the morning sustenance.
And the fly lit on the table as predicted. All was quiet except for the sound of the percolating coffee. My father cupped his right hand behind the fly, with fingers slightly spread, closer, menacingly closer to its prey. But the fly was entranced with its repast, trusting its instinct and sense to warn it of any impending danger. And the hand crept closer and closer.
Suddenly, a single swoop came down on the fly from behind. The trap was set and the fingers closed on their prey. Although the fly was in his cupped hand, my father mercifully went to the door and released it into the precarious night. Meanwhile, the coffee was ready and we drank “of the grail” and finished the tortilla pensively, speechless….serenity.
Then, we soon followed the way of the fly. We left the boxcar and entered the cold tenebrousness and walked to the fields where work awaited us. All was tranquility and Nature entertained us with the chirping, the distant howling, and—yes—a faint buzzing sound.
And I knew we were a bit smarter that morning as Nature devoured us in its own embrace…and the immensity and wildness of the Northwest countryside gripped my imagination as we disappeared into the desolate, chilly night.
Amando Álvarez October 14, 2001
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