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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 Louie Flores

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the summer of 1973, I was one of the kids who painted the mural in the Estrada Courts housing project in honor of the gang I belonged to, Varrio Nueva Estrada.

That was my last summer in the varrio before my enlistment.

Varrio Nueva Estrada had formed thirty years before by guys who lived in the project in the 1940s. By the 1970s, VNE was very large, one of the largest gangs in East L.A. It included several cliques. Mine was the Dukes. I was 18 years old and the first gang member in my family. I never knew my father. My oldest brother was my father figure. He painted furniture at a factory and was fifteen years older than I was. He was an alcoholic and a very prideful man. His pridefulness must have rubbed off on me. Anyway, my mother used to worry a lot about me. There was a lot to worry about. The gang was like my family. I felt I needed to protect my family at all costs. At the time, the varrio was something I would die for.

The mural that summer was funded by the county, which wanted to beautify the East L.A. area. The fire department donated the paint and the Kiwanis Club lent us the scaffolds. A mural was better than graffiti, they figured, and the neighborhood artist proposed a mural that no one would deface with graffiti. It turned out to be a mural showing how long VNE had been there and how long we were planning on staying. It was pride in the neighborhood, meaning the varrio, the gang.

People who didn’t belong to the neighborhood didn’t have any business in the projects – that’s how we felt. We viewed the mural as a statement to other gangs to stay out; that this is VNE headquarters – all of it funded by the county.

About a hundred homeboys worked on that summer youth program, and the VNE wall mural was the first one approved. After it was finished, other murals were painted. Murals went up in the Maravilla projects, the Hazard projects, in Primera Flats – all on county property with county funding. They all did the same thing we did, which was to glorify our neighborhood, our gang.

The mural takes me back to that summer of 1973. I was drinking a lot and I used to get high on reds and whites. I smoked marijuana a lot, too. I was a follower and I needed to fit in. I got picked at random to help out on a crew of five painters. None of us were artists, but it made a lot of us feel good for a change. The artist, Danny Martinez, directed us, telling us which colors to paint where. He had the whole mural outlined in chalk.

The mural is of two hands growing from a tree stump and holding up the letters V-N-E, atop which stands an eagle with a ribbon proclaiming “In memory of a Home Boy. 1973” – all against a royal blue background.

Back then, gang killings were much less common than they became a couple decades later, and we rarely used guns. One night in 1973, though, we got invited to a party in the Florencia area. One of our homeboys was a kid named Noely who lived a few blocks from Estrada Courts. His parents were Russian immigrants, but he spoke Spanish, grew up with us – a white guy and a member of our gang. He was shot and killed at the party. That set off big problems between us and Florencia for many years.

The mural was painted in Noely’s honor. There’s a banner below that reads, in Spanish: “Que Rifan Todo Las Cliqas del Varrio Nueva Estrada, Que Vivan.” (May the Cliques of Varrio Nueva Estrada Rule. Long May They Live.)

For a month I worked on the mural, painting its blue background and the ribbon across the top. I painted with great care, thinking that it had to be perfect so that the rest of the mural could look nice.

Many years later, I talked to Danny Martinez. He explained that the tree stump represented the years that the varrio had been in the projects. Like a tree, the varrio had grown. The hand represented how we were holding up the varrio to glorify it. The eagle was showing the Chicano struggles in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the ribbon was dedicated to Noely.

Many younger homeboys were on crews that painted those murals. One who became infamous was Ernie “Chuco” Castro. He was about 13 years old at that time, getting high on reds and whites.

The year before the mural, I was arrested for possession and suspicion of sales, so I was on probation when I turned 18. That year, I was beating up a kid in a park and cops arrested me. I was facing my first felony and my probation officer recommended me to the military. So a few months after helping paint the VNE mural, I enlisted in the Army, which turned me around. When I came back in 1977 I was military minded. I moved out of the varrio with my wife.

Later, after I moved away, I remember meeting Chuco’s ex-wife, Jackie. She told me that Chuco was doing some time and they had kids already. He’d been doing heroin by then. Heroin was an epidemic in East L.A. at the time. A lot of guys into heroin were doing a lot of robberies. I think Chuco got caught up in that.

But I missed it. I was working, driving trucks in the 48 states. So I lost contact with many homeboys. I was no angel. I’d drink heavily for a while. I smoked PCP for a couple years, and gambled.

Then 27 years ago, I just stopped it all. The blackouts got to be too much. I’d come home from the racetrack with nothing. I lost a wife over it. Since then, I’ve been clean, driving trucks, and working on older cars. My second son is getting a PhD in English in New Mexico, so I’m happy about that.

I don’t get over to see the mural too much any more. But when I do, I feel lucky to have gone to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division. I could have ended in prison, or been killed at the rate that I was going. I was sly, sick and wicked and got away with a lot of crimes. I got shot at a couple times, but they missed.

I still run into a few of the homeboys from time to time. One guy, name of Ciclón, was a pretty bad dude then. Now he’s got a bad back. He told me about Chuco. Chuco, he said, had been doing some work for the carnales – the Mexican Mafia. He became a made member. Then, a few years later, he was arrested and, facing life, Chuco became an informant. He testified in a famous case that sent many of the carnales to prison for life.

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

____

Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
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