The RONS: Baltierra,Fillingham,and Allen
The middle Amigo is Ron Baltierra, a former champion high school wrestler who now owns a construction company in the windy city. "Balti" was 20 years old when we met at sniper school in Dong Tam, I was 18. We called Fillingham "Gramps" a name that has stuck with him to this day. After all, 37 was ancient to soldiers that were 18 and 20 years old.
The long days turned into weeks and then months as we humped the paddies, drove over them in APCs or hovered over them in helicopters, looking for enemy movement. We were ordered by our government to go to Viet Nam but we became snipers by choice. Gramps decided to volunteer to enroll in the 9th Infantry Division Sniper Training School and convinced Balti to join him. Balti was a radio operator and I was a clerk typist. One day while talking to Balti on the field phone, we both decided that we were in vulnerable positions working in the same spot day and night, while enemy mortar rounds and rockets fell around us on a fairly consistent basis. We wanted to control our own destiny and becoming a sniper seemed somehow the means to that end.
We were among the first group of graduates from sniper school in 1969. Every mission was different in some way from the last one. We were equipped with the finest rifles and ammo available. We had a scope with crosshairs that we used during the day and a starlight scope that enabled us to see at night by the rays of the moon. There wasn't a Ron among us that had anything against the Vietnamese people, nor did we ever plan to kill another human being in or out of war. However, between the three of us we did indeed kill several people. Strangers to us but someone's father, mother, brother, or sister. It's somehow possible to do when they are labeled "the enemy" and you know that it's them or you. The months passed and we went from rookies to professionals. We met new friends then watched as they were killed before our very eyes.
Finally one day, Balti and I were called out of the field and were told that we were going "back to the world". The hurry up and wait tactics of the military however, saw to it that we stayed around and got mortared and rocketed for a few more weeks before that big beautiful silver bird swooped down and took us back to our grateful families. Gramps for some reason wasn't so lucky and ended up staying even longer. Just before heading down the battle scarred runway for home, Balti and I learned through a mutual acquaintance, that Gramps had been shot in the face five times and was KIA. An errant machine gun had gone off and arbitrarily sprayed bullets. Five of which hit "Gramps. That was the last we heard about the macho E-7 Sergeant. He almost made it out alive, but, if a bullet has your name on it, it will find you.
It would be 25 years later that Balti would receive a call from Mobile Alabama. "Are you Ron Baltierra that was a sniper in Viet Nam?" "Who is this" Balti inquired. "It's your amigo, Gramps". Balti had seen lots of dead men but he had never talked to one. Balti called me immediately and informed me of the great news. Gramps had indeed come very close to death. He lost 14 teeth, the end of his tongue, hearing in one ear and all feeling in his lips. He assured us that the scars tell the tale of what metal does to skin and bones. But he was alive and retired from the U.S. Army. The same government decision makers that sent Gramps to Viet Nam the first time, actually had the audacity to send him back to the same war again six months after recovering from his wounds. This time he was luckier and came home in one piece.
There was no question in any of our minds that we had to get together and see for ourselves that Gramps was indeed alive and well. We arrived in Chicago on June 4th 1997, some 28 years after first meeting in conditions much scarier than Chicago traffic. It was a very emotional reunion; one that can only be described as a once in a lifetime experience, more pleasant but somewhat like the emotions of the war. Gramps the buff expert marksman was now 65, Balti was 50 and I was 48. (The same age as my father was when I went off to war).
We all looked different of course but, the memories made us feel so close that it seemed appropriate that we all shared the same name. For that one weekend, we were like one veteran soldier, seeing the sights of Chicago and recalling the times of our lives, both good and bad.
We finished a beer at Mother's on Rush Street and decided to walk back to Balti's place in Wicker Park. We headed down Division Street. I asked Balti if there were any combat zones in his fair city and he said "sure, in fact, we're in a tough neighborhood right now". That's when I saw the sign: Cabrini Green. Balti explained the failed program under Mayors Daily and Byrne. An attempt to house people in the big boxes now looming immediately in front of us. The next five minutes would bring me as close to the feeling of combat as I had felt since Viet Nam.
A tall unkempt man stepped out of the shadows of an abandoned building and asked us what we were doing in "his neighborhood". We had traded our fatigues for shorts and polo shirts and the only thing we had that could shoot, said "Kodak" on it. He must have been as surprised to see us as we were to see him suddenly appear. The reason he gave for stopping us was to offer to escort us through the area where "we would probably be robbed and shot if we attempted to walk it alone". We informed the would-be escort that we would simply turn around and walk back the way we came, but he said we had no choice but to go with him. I had $575 in my pocket, a diamond ring on my finger a camera over my shoulder and several more years to live. I didn't want to give up any of the above but what could we do to get out of this spot. I said "so this is a hold up right"? The man assured me that we could "work something out", a free pass out of the hood for something in return, like everything we had on us. My heart was pounding through my Nordstrom shirt (at least it was mine for the moment).This place was abandoned except for a few thugs sitting around smoking what we assumed was crack. There was no traffic coming or going on the street. We were definitely alone. Balti had told us earlier that even the cops don't come running when something goes down in Cabrini Green. I longed for some safer place like Thunder Road! Suddenly like an angel from heaven, down Division Street, came a yellow taxi cab. It was the only car that could be seen for blocks. Without thinking, I jumped in front of the cab and put my hands up, forcing the driver to either stop or run over me. He stopped. "Git in" he shouted in his Indian accent. He didn't have to tell us twice. As we watched Cabrini Green disappear in the rear view mirror, Balti pulled out a $5 bill to give to the angel behind the wheel. I reached into Balti's wallet and pulled out a $20 bill and tossed it on the drivers lap. The sight of that yellow cab was every bit as sweet as the big silver bird had been 28 years earlier. After three days, we exchanged 28 year old pictures then said our good byes and headed for our homes with renewed memories of events that took place a lifetime ago on a different continent as well as new ones to last the rest of our days. Gramps is retired, Balti owns a successful construction company and I am Senior Vice President for a title insurance company in the state of Washington. We are all three healthy and happily married with children. We got together again August 1-3 last year to celebrate the baptism of Balti's 4 month old daughter, Cassidy. That's right, he's 52 now and a father again for the fourth time. As we sat in the Esquire Theatre watching Saving Private Ryan, we realized that between us, we had 16 bronze stars for heroism. We may not be heroes, but we are proud Americans and proud of all that served with us. War is hell but surviving it and forging friendships like the three amigos is a little slice of heaven. I look forward to seeing Gramps, Balti and all of you on the fourth of July in Kentucky. Sincerely: Ron Allen.
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