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By Andrew Ramirez

[dropcap1]B[/dropcap1]ombs fell and the shrapnel cut through the soldiers and burned like molten lava as enemy troops advanced on them through the Vietnam jungle.

Bullets hissed by, hitting tree, rock and man. Enemy chatter echoed out of the marsh. Soldiers from Recon Company took cover and fired.

Among them was Private Louis Ramirez, a 140-pound nineteen year-old boy from the streets of Northeast Los Angeles. Ramirez had been drafted into the U.S. Army. His father had petitioned the Office of the President for a reprieve. His other son, Edmund Jr., older by two minutes, had volunteered and was fighting as a seasoned jarhead in the North. The request was granted.

But Louis Ramirez had other plans. Confused and directionless, he sought purpose and his place in the world. He defied his father’s wishes and shipped off to fight in Vietnam.

He was assigned to a battalion of South Vietnamese Regulars. Their job was to provide air support.

This particular morning was like every other since the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese broke traditional cease fire agreement during the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations and left all Vietnam in bloody battles.

So now a few months in, Recon Company had left base camp that morning and headed out on another search and destroy mission against a gathering of Viet Cong in a local village.

*

In a small Victorian in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, two children ran about playing. Valerie was two and her brother, Anthony, Jr., was four. Their infant brother, Ricky, slept in the back room.

Their mother, Hilda, finished cooking dinner and prepared to leave.

Anthony Sr. arrived from work.

He chatted with Hilda and his in-laws. They talked of the party they planned for the return of Hilda’s brothers, the twins: Edmund Ramirez, Jr. was in Barstow, processing out of the Marine Corp; Private Louis Ramirez was in combat in Vietnam, two weeks from discharge.

“Can you watch little Ricky?” Hilda asked her husband. “He’s asleep in the back and I’m going with my mom and dad to Sears to get Father’s Day gifts.”

Anthony nodded.

Anthony and Hilda hugged and kissed.

They piled into the black Hillman sedan. Hilda’s father, Edmund, sat behind the wheel, Hilda by his side. Anita sat in back with Valerie on her lap and Anthony Jr. on her side.

The engine started.

Anthony Sr. stood at the door and watched them drive off.

*

The drive took two hours of twisting and turning through the jungle before they came to a clearing. The men jumped off the Armored Personnel Carriers to continue on foot. There were no more roads.

Splashes of water and mud flew with the thumping of military issue boots. The sun beat and the bush felt like a sauna. One hundred and twenty men sloshed through the high brush, searching for the enemy.

Ramirez carried a radio pack and an M-16 while surveying the land as his fellow soldiers chatted in Vietnamese. He could only discern a few words.

Beads of sweat rolled down brow and neck. White smoke filled the atmosphere as the soldiers exhaled from their standard issue. The soldiers swatted red ants crawling up their legs. Dead and stinking bodies lay throughout. There had been battles here before.

Trudging through three feet of water and mud was exhausting. The men checked their fatigues to ensure they were tightly wrapped. Leaches were bad here. They couldn’t keep them all out.

A village appeared in the distance. They approached it through a rice patty and interrogated the village women and children. There were no men. All were fighting as guerrillas in the surrounding hills in the war. The Vietnamese commander screamed at the women.

“Where are they?”

Confused, the women screamed back what sounded like cuss words. Then the answer came.

Shots fired. Grenades exploded. Twenty yards away at the nearby creek, a group of his men who had proceeded to survey the land were pinned down and now engaged in a firefight. “Get down, take cover,” yelled a young soldier, clenching his cold M-16, bayonet fixed in place.

From the marsh appeared a soldier yelling in Vietnamese, “Medic! Medic!” interrupted by gunfire.

Before long the entire village and platoon was surrounded. Bullets rang from every direction. More grenades. Men were cut down left and right. The Vietnamese commander looked to his American advisors and yelled for an air strike.

Ramirez grabbed the microphone. There was time only to react. He had been trained, like a machine, to carry out the mission. Months prior, he might have frozen in shock. As a new infantryman in battle he had felt inept. Men had ridiculed his jumpiness at the sound of gunfire. Not today.

“Bourbon bucket Alpha, this is Bourbon bucket Bravo. We got Charlie hittin’ us pretty good right now. We need some air power. Requesting air support. Friendlies marked by green flares, I say again requesting immediate air support, friendlies marked with green flares. Bring ‘em in close…”

Soon, on the horizon, the sun reflected off the windows of choppers loaded with guns and missiles. The propeller blades cut the air. Their loud thump beat like the young hearts below.

They banked as if floating in the breeze. Then like hawks diving for prey, they dipped and emptied their shells. Ramirez felt the heat of the missiles on his face. Heavy artillery flew like shooting stars towards the enemy stronghold and balls of fire lit up the sky.

Ramirez looked at the beautiful chaos surrounding him.

“I can’t wait to tell Eddie.”

He admired his older brother and respected him. Eddie had just written, telling him of the party the family had planned for his return. Soon they would be together.

The choppers departed and silence came. Private Ramirez cleared his eyes from the smoke and debris and saw his remaining brothers-in-arms alive, guns in hand, peering into the smoke. He looked to the heavens and thanked a God he had not talked to in some time.

*

Sirens blared near the 7th Street onramp to the Interstate 5 Freeway as the firemen ripped away at the mangled metal trying to remove the lifeless bodies inside. It was just after sunset on a hot summer’s night.

In a reported attempt to avoid the oncoming semi, Edmund Ramirez Sr. lost control of the small Hillman sedan. The wheels locked and the car rolled. The roof ripped off. Bodies flew and smashed into the concrete.

Ramirez, a stout man, freshly turned sixty, hunched over the steering wheel still. He grasped it with stubborn might, exerting his last force of energy on the broken vinyl steering wheel.

Just outside three others were spread out. Hilda, a young mother, and her son Anthony Jr. were both dead. Valerie was found wandering the freeway.

On the backseat floor lay a woman nearly sixty.

“She’s alive!” cried a fireman.

Unconscious but breathing, she was rushed to the hospital, alone.

*

Several weeks after the firefight and the gunships that saved his platoon, still fighting in the bush, Private Ramirez heard radio chatter.

“Only him?” asked the sergeant.

“That’s right. We’re coming to pick up Bravo. He’s coming out.”

Ramirez and the Sarge looked at each other.

“We are in the middle of a firefight — not advisable, over.”

The voice on the radio insisted.

“Bravo is coming out…relay your coordinates, over.”

The Sarge turned to Private Ramirez. “Get your gear.”

Ramirez thought, “I still have two weeks left before my discharge. Why in the hell are they going to pull me out now?”

An hour later, Private Ramirez was back at headquarters, feeling thousands of miles away from the battle zone. A green captain’s jeep awaited his arrival.

“What’s going on?”

“Orders,” the driver answered. “I am to take you over to the Chaplain’s office. That’s all I know. Where’d you come from?”

Ramirez was soaking wet and covered in mud.

“The battle field.”

They passed the familiar rows of Quonset Huts. Chow halls and offices were busy. They passed the bar where Ramirez and his friends went to drink Brown Derby Beer. Off in the distance a mail plane flew in for the daily drop.

A short while later he was in the chaplain’s office.

Captain Crowell had spent months in the field with Ramirez’ battalion earning his service medal badge.

“Sit down, son.”

Private Ramirez sat.

“There’s been an accident back home.”

*

Five years later, Louis Ramirez sat at a desk at home. He now attended the local community college after work and was doing homework. The house was dark and only the desk light illuminated. His wife and daughter were asleep. The clock ticked.

As he was writing, drops of water began to hit the paper. He was confused. His mouth dried. His throat balled up. He shook. Fits of crying overwhelmed him. Tears hit the paper, drenching it. Their sound grew louder. The drops resembled muffled shots of M-16s. He closed his eyes. He was lost.

He had stepped back on American soil less than twenty four hours after leaving battle in Vietnam. On the tarmac, his brother Eddie, brother-in-law Tony, and friend Dan hugged him.

On the ride to the hospital they bombarded him with details of the accident. He wasn’t sad. A year in the bush had left him numb. His mind began to drift. All he wanted was to share stories from Vietnam. When he responded, the only words he spoke were of war.

At the hospital, his mother was in a sling, bandaged from head to toe, her back broken. She was conscious.

“Mother, I’m home.”

She wept.

At the funeral parlor they rolled out two caskets from the freezer.

His father lay in a casket wearing a black suit and tie; in another lay his sister holding her young son in her arms.

They were like every other dead body he had seen while roaming the Vietnam countryside. Scenes of the war flashed through his head. He remembered every encounter, every skirmish and battle. He was devoutly Catholic but he recalled desperately wanting to kill the enemy. … “Die motherfuckers!”

Now he stared at the faces of his dead father, sister and nephew and thought, “This is what I deserve.”

He tried to cry but found he could not.

So for five years he barely spoke of what he’d seen in Vietnam. It remained with him as he married and had a daughter and found work as a janitor and attended night school.

Now, late at night, his wife, awake, came into the room.

“What’s wrong?”

“My family is dead!”

He continued to sob.

“What?”

“My father is dead. My sister is dead. Little Tony is dead. They are all dead!”

He continued to cry. He tried to stop but found he could not.

____

Andrew L. Ramirez (Two Trips Home) is an aspiring author and speaker. He is happily married and is the father of three beautiful girls. He was born and raised in Northeast Los Angeles. He recently published The Adventures of Alex and Andi, a children’s book series. He hopes to connect with families around the globe as he shares his true stories about his real family.
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By Sam Quinones

In the 1970s, Pomona was a big thrift store of a city in the smog-covered valley east of Los Angeles that bore its name.

I grew up in the neighboring town of Claremont, which had five colleges, two graduate schools, a strict zoning code and large old oaks and elms.

But by the time I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Pomona was about two decades past its prime. The Fox Theater downtown had once been a major venue. Bing Crosby had once played its Fox Theater. As I entered junior high school, The Fox showed B movies, then B movies in Spanish.

Pomona’s downtown was quiet. In the early 1960s, city fathers were persuaded that outdoor shopping malls were the wave of the future. They put in a fountain and piped in music. A Buffums department store was supposed to feed the smaller shops along the mall with customers.

The Pomona Mall was finished by the mid-1960s, about the time that the wave of the future turned out to be the indoor mall. A decade later, pawn shops replaced the jewelry stores and boutiques, which left for the air-conditioned comfort of the Montclair Plaza about 10 miles away.

Pomona had neither luck nor luster; it was a flowery polyester shirt 10 years out of style. On Holt Boulevard, the city made a vain effort at attracting glitz. Anything went along Holt, as long as it had neon and an oceanic parking lot. Running parallel a few blocks south was Mission Avenue, where Pomona gave up entirely and bared its true soul. Neon was too expensive for the shops on Mission. The United Mission Inn was on Mission. So was the YMCA. Both were home to derelicts and drifters who paid by the week. They were men who tried to hide their desperation behind greased-back hair and blazers one size too big.

Midway between Holt and Mission on Reservoir Street sat Tropical Ice Cream. A `Help Wanted’ sign was painted on the building in bright red letters. I’d seen the sign before. I’d gone in once and learned that to work there I needed a driver’s license and, for insurance purposes, I had to be 19.

It was September of 1976, about three weeks before the start of my senior year in high school. I was back from a summer trip and I needed a job that I could quit easily when school began. I was 17. I went down to Tropical.

A pasty-faced man with gray hair met me at the door. I think his name was Ed.

Nineteen, I told him. He asked for my driver’s license. Simple math would have told him my true age. You’re hired, he said.

I had to work one day free for a driver who would train me. Then I’d be working for myself, and Tropical Ice Cream. I’d make 30 percent of whatever I sold. That day they put me on a truck with Wilson. Wilson was a nice old guy. He was retired from some job that had worn him down, but Social Security didn’t pay enough, so now he spent his golden years living in a trailer home and selling ice cream around the Pomona Valley. That’s how I figured it anyway. He didn’t talk much about his personal life.

Wilson was like a lot of guys at Tropical: pensioners who had never saved enough to make retirement a time when they could take life easy. Some did it to get out of the house and away from their wives. Tropical attracted another type: the Down-and-Outer. They were usually younger men. This, apparently, was the only job they could hold. Anyway, Tropical didn’t ask for references. Nor did management get too upset when an employee didn’t show up for work. This happened often. Management figured the driver had moved on or died.

These drifters were usually less dependable than the pensioners, so Herm Trop showed them no mercy. Herm Trop and his brother, whose name I’ve long forgotten, owned the company. Each was as squat as a fire hydrant, with curly brown hair, thick necks and a bustling waddle to their walks.

The Trops had played football. Their gridiron memories – from the days when helmets had no facemasks — were dear to both men. Graying photographs of them in action graced the imitation-walnut paneling of a dark room where the ice cream men counted their money late in the afternoon. The Trops had played the front line.

We always knew Herm was coming long before he appeared in front of us. His gruff, cussing baritone was the soundtrack to everyone’s day at Tropical Ice Cream. I don’t remember his brother saying much. But Herm never passed up an opportunity to bark his wisdom at his crew of retirees and alcoholics. He clearly viewed today’s male specimen as lacking the toughness that allowed him to claw his way to the top of the Pomona Valley ice cream game. Few who stayed had the gumption to talk back to Herm Trop.

At Tropical, the ice cream men were gruff, unshaven and with poor teeth. They grunted a lot. They never, for example, said “Yes, ma’am,” or “Okie-dokie,” or “Coming right up.” They showed little feeling for the kids.

I figured I’d be different. At first I was eager to engage the children. Countless five-year-olds came to my truck, plopping 17 cents in gooey change on my counter.

“How much can I get with this much?”

“Well, let’s see,” I’d say, trying my best to sound like Mister Rogers. “How much do you have? One, two, three. Do you know how much this is worth? That’s worth five, so now you have eight.”

And so on. Finally I’d have to let him know the brutal truth. He could only afford a Popsicle.

“But I want a drumstick.”

“You don’t have enough for a drumstick.”

A drumstick, a cone of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup and sprinkled with nuts, went for 35 cents. Our positions thus stalemated, the discussion would go on as a line would form. One of us would eventually relent. As time went on, it was the kid.

In time, I became more “efficient.” I’d quickly count the kid’s change and give him two or three choices. I’d grown to understand a little about the old men I worked with. They figured that life owed them more for years of toil than a retirement spent in the oppressive Los Angeles heat in a tin box on wheels selling ice cream to kids with dirty faces.

Wilson and I spent that first day rumbling along his usual route through Walnut, another faceless L.A. suburb. Like so many towns, I knew of Walnut only from the tacky television commercials where some discount furniture mogul with a bad toupee would stand in front of a dinette set reading from cue cards that announced his latest great deal and easy credit terms. He’d then launch into his inventory of stores around the L.A. basin where these great deals were available: La Puente, La Canada, Marina Del Rey, Glendale, Costa Mesa, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Ontario. Then he’d usually finish with something like: “And our new store in Walnut. Se habla Espanol.”

Here I finally was in Walnut. As our jingle blared out the loudspeakers and down its quiet streets, Wilson shared with me the sacred tricks of the ice cream trade. Jealously guarded tips like: “Go slow,” “Turn your jingle off when you’re selling” (a lesson I quickly ignored since I didn’t see the point. The jingle let people know I was there), and of course, “Put the most expensive ice cream at the bottom of the freezer because people don’t buy it as much.”

Wilson showed me how to fill the truck freezer. Every morning, the drivers would load up, ordering that day’s product from a porthole in the Tropical building. Behind that window was the company freezer. Gusts of frost blew out of it into the early morning sunshine. Inside, two guys would shuttle between the window and the stock, filling orders. The product came hurtling out: boxes of Ice Cream Sandwiches, Drumsticks, Sundaes, Push-ups, Popsicles, and their red-white-and-blue, rocket-shaped cousin, the Astrojet.

Wilson taught me to read a routebook, a tablet that had the turns written out from the moment the driver left the Tropical lot: “Turn left on Mira Vista. Turn right on Del Mar. Turn left on Rancho Val Verde,” and so on.

Under the smog and relentless sun, the truck grew furnace hot. To quench my thirst that first day, I gulped down six orange sodas. I returned home with teeth coated in sugary moss. I never ate or drank anything out of my truck again, and I haven’t had an orange soda since that day. Instead I brought a gallon jug of water, put it in the cooler and drank it throughout the day.

After the first day, I was a pro. I’d sub for whatever driver turned up missing that day. I often had work. I did Baldwin Park, Hacienda Heights, Upland and other cities that I can’t remember. The jingle was my constant companion and even now, 36 years later, it still comes readily to mind.

Only once was I asked to sell someone marijuana. “The other guy did,” said the disheartened customer, when I told him he was out of his mind. And only once did someone ask if I wasn’t scared, since someone had shot at a competitor’s truck a few days earlier.

About two weeks into my Tropical Ice Cream stint, I walked into work and heard Herm. Drivers stood in a circle around him and another man whose pride Herm was dissecting.

The driver, a scruffy younger fellow, had apparently had his truck towed from Santa Fe Springs when it broke down the day before. Repairmen later determined the problem to be a snapped fan belt. Herm seemed to think that any moron could have figured that out.

“A simple fucking fan belt. Don’t you know how to fix a fan belt? It’s the easiest goddamn thing in the world.”

And the abuse went on and on. The drivers crowded around, looking uncomfortable, but drawn to the smell of blood. Finally the driver, whose name I never knew, could take no more. In front of all of us, he began to cry. He held up his hands. They trembled.

“You see these hands,” he screamed, losing control as he tried to explain. “They used to slap ab in some of the best restaurants around. Now they can’t do it any more. I used to be one of the best abalone chefs around. Fuck your job.”

He ran out and stalked toward Mission. I never found out what was wrong with his hands and why they no could longer cook abalone.

We all stood there for a moment, embarrassed. Then Herm broke the silence that he could never stand for long.

“I don’t know what his problem is? All I said was it’s easy to fix a fucking fan belt. Jesus, he takes things too personal. Everybody back to work.”

Then with a wave of his cigar, he was off.

We all took our cue and slowly dispersed. Ed came up to me and informed me that the Santa Fe Springs route had an opening that day. I’d never heard of the place, not even on television commercials.

He gave me a routebook, an ice cream order and as I was walking away, he said, “Oh, and watch out for Big Al.”

I was a little too numbed by what had just occurred to wonder much about what he meant.

Santa Fe Springs proved to be about 30 miles away, over the hills and into the Los Angeles basin. It was near Downey. Downey, as any kid who watched commercials could tell you, was the home of Bob Spreen Cadillac: “Where the freeways meet (pause) in Downey,” went his commercial. I was glad to finally know where Downey was.

Still, I doubted I would make much. Santa Fe Springs sounded middle class. Ice cream men learn quickly that the best selling is in blue-collar neighborhoods, which can’t afford store-bought ice cream, but have the money for the occasional Popsicle or Push-up for their kids. So in the 1970s nothing warmed the ice cream man’s heart like driving down streets lined with big and battered American sedans, Doughboy swimming pools and seeing guys in blue mechanics shirts and Budweiser baseball caps going to work.

Once in town, I followed the routebook, then parked under some trees to read my path for the day. With my jingle going loud, I didn’t hear him come up.

“Hey, you!”

I looked up. Next to me was another ice cream truck. Sitting in the springy driver’s seat, which was begging for mercy, sat an enormous squat white man, with a cap, a mustache and a scraggly beard. His belly-button peeked out from beneath a faded blue t-shirt.

“You work for Trop?’

I nodded.

“You see that book in your hand there, that’s my route. I wrote it,” he said. “This is my town. I’m going to dust your ass of the road.”

He roared off. As I watched him go, I said to myself, `There goes Big Al.’

I don’t remember much about that morning, except that I didn’t see Big Al at all. I forgot he existed and concentrated on making a killing.

I did all right that morning, for a morning. Santa Fe Springs wasn’t as middle-class as I’d feared. I saw a couple of Doughboy pools. And a few women were out watering their yards with curlers tangled in their hair. The yards were small, the grass was not too green. It was going to be an excellent day.

Still, any ice cream man knows the real selling doesn’t start until the sun is high in the sky. It was just after noon when I saw Big Al again. We were both making turns onto parallel streets, a block apart. He must have seen me because as I rounded the block and made a left onto the street between us, he had already made a right. He had sped up, come down the street ahead of me, and now slowed to a crawl as I trailed him. Down the street we marched, our jingles turned up loud. We sounded like a calliope run amok. The peace of the street was ruptured. Housewives came to their doors, holding their children to them.

Half way down the street, Big Al stopped for a customer, blocking my way. I could only sit and wait until he finished his sale. By this time our dueling jingles had brought the neighborhood to their front doors.

Big Al moved on and I left him as he turned down the next block.

The war escalated throughout the afternoon. Half a dozen times we met on some quiet street. Big Al, more familiar with the lay of the land, usually had the advantage. As the afternoon progressed, I found myself less concerned with selling and more preoccupied with beating Big Al onto the next street and leading our mad calliope for while before I stopped in the middle of the street and blocked his path. On a couple of occasions I sped by little children waving for me to stop. Wilson’s counsel to “Go Slow” was forgotten.

Once, as I stopped to sell, Big Al sent over a stringy-haired teenage boy who I’d seen working in his truck. I’m still mystified as to why. The kid stood in line, trying to act nonchalant. Some kind of reconnaissance mission, no doubt. He got to the front of the line and I told him to go to hell. He walked off, apparently lacking the intelligence he was supposed to gather.

Through it all, I thought of all the reasons why Big Al might have it in for me. Clearly, when he looked at me he saw Herm Trop. I could imagine Herm cussing the big fellow out.

Still, I had my competitive edge honed fine when about 3:30 that afternoon I was finishing the route for the second time. I found Big Al stopped and selling. Great. A golden opportunity to wreak havoc on the fat man. I parked beside him, relishing the thought of stealing his customers and forcing him to back up to get around me.

The plan was succeeded. As our jingles rocked yet another quiet neighborhood, I took three of his kids. I think I even sold a drumstick. I was hot. Big Al would be displeased.

Sure enough, his tires squealed as he backed up to get around me. I stood at my window selling Astrojets as fast as I could. The kids were all mine now.

I remember vaguely sensing him not pass by, but stopping instead. Strange.

Then I heard something fall into the front of my truck. The next moment the vehicle shuddered with a thunderous explosion. I fell back. The sound ricocheted against the tin walls. Shards of paper littered the floor. My ears were humming.

Outside a mother stared up at me with her mouth agape. She quickly pulled her son to her as I cursed and ran to the driver’s seat, pulled away and gave chase. I rounded a curve and saw him at a stop sign.

I accelerated. Big Al was mine. I’d like to say I rammed him and sent him headfirst through the front window. But at the last moment I lost my nerve and only bumped him.

My ears were still ringing and I was dazed from the attack. But I quickly realized my mistake. Big Al was truly enormous. Not tall, but wide. His arms were like hams and his stomach still peered out at the world from beneath his sweaty t-shirt. His truck sighed with relief as he got out.

He trundled up to me, hitching up his pants and adjusting his cap. There was no fooling him.

“You hit me.”

Here I figured I’d play dumb.

“What? You threw a cherry bomb in my truck and I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

He reached in and switched off my jingle.

“You hit me,” he said with a sneer, “and if I wasn’t on parole I’d rearrange your face.”

I left Santa Fe Springs that afternoon and didn’t return for 20 years or so.

I stayed for another three weeks at Tropical, working intermittently, then school started and I never went back.

I’d love to know what became of Big Al. I saw where Herm Trop died a few years back, at the age of 87.

Pomona’s downtown has made an unexpected and successful transformation, and the Pomona Mall is now an arts and antiques district and the Fox Theater has been restored. The last time I drove down Reservoir, there wasn’t an ice cream truck around for miles.

____

 

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