The day arrived when our brother Johnny had to report for duty in South Viet Nam.Pleiku to be exact.
Ma, me, Arnie, & Xavier went with Johnny to the local airport, Miller Int.
At the time,1968, Miller airport had one airline.It was named Trans-Texas air.
The planes they used were propeller type.Two giant propellers,two engines, one on each side.
The scheduled time for departure came.We said our goodbyes, not realizing the very dangerous situation, Ma’s son,our brother,was going into.
Johnny grabs his duffle bag, & leaves to board the plane.He left his duffle bag & deplanes,to spend more time with us,while the rest of the passengers were boarding.
Johnny says goodbye again,& boards the plane the second time.
It might have been a case of nervousness, Johnny exits the plane once more.
The pilot somewhat understood.The hour of departure was there. Johnny delayed the plane to the limit,the pilot began to rev up the engines,slides the small window, & beckons, waving to Johnny to come on board.
One of the stewards comes off & pleads with Johnny to come on board or be left behind. By that time, all of us were in tears, flowing like water from the Rio Grande river.
Johnny finally boarded the plane, crying also.
We did not know whether we would ever see our loved family member again.
It was a cold,wet,rainy day that morning.
As the plane began to taxi to the runway, its big engines roaring, in the middle of our crying & biting our lip,as it turned, the draft from the propellers sprayed us with a mist of cold rain.
Our family waited for the plane to come speeding down the runway.
As it gained momentum & thrust, we saw Johnny sitting by the window waving goodbye.
We cried all the way home.
July 03, 1949-Sept.18,2017
Johnny, as he was affectionately known from childhood, grew up in Edinburg, Hidalgo county,Texas.
Our childhood was difficult growing up as we were raised by a single parent,long before it was in vogue, due to an absent father.
Our Mother Eva worked long & difficult hours for low wages at the local citrus & vegetable packing sheds for her sister Elena’s husband, Larry.
Our Mother earned a small weekly check of $35-50.She supported her two sons on that,plus paid monthly rent.
Johnny’s youth was basically normal. He attended public schools.
I remember I used to bug him in his classroom at Travis elementary to ask for writing paper.
He’d always share, sometimes grudgingly.I was probably in 1st & he in 5th.
Johnny’s classmates would sometimes tease him.
Since money was scarce, Johnny decided he wanted to help our Mother by working in the agricultural fields.
We worked picking cotton, tomatoes, bell peppers, & carrots.
I wasnt much help,more of a tag along kid brother.
Summers we’d go to the Citrus theater where he’d sneak me in to save a quarter admission.
Other times we’d go to the municipal pool & he did the same thing. Snuck me in.
Once, when an older guy tried to drown me, I told Johnny & he got mad as hell. He grabbed the perpetrator & almost drowned him.The guy came up gasping for air. I was laughing so hard.
Johnny tried his hand at selling newspapers. Only thing was we enjoyed spending the money we made on sodas, cinnamon rolls, gum and candy.We did not care.When the guy came by asking for the sales of the newspapers, we said,”What money?”That was a short lived career.
Johnny loved sports & joined Tide products little league.
He was fond of his baseball uniform.
When the season was over, Johnny’s coach came to ask for the uniform.
Since Johnny wasn’t home, & the coach making bodily harm threats, me as a kid, I gave the JeRk his property. The coach was whining for the uniform.
Johnny had planned to be photographed with his uniform,but it was never meant to be, thanx to his kid brother.
Johnny never let me live that down. It still bothered him.
At Edinburg high school, Johnny was in the junior varsity football team which won district that year.
Eventually Johnny dropped out of tenth grade.
Johnny preferred to work at jobs he liked doing.
He worked at Tide products Edinburg(driving a truck which he later took joy riding) Shamrock filling station in McAllen and other occupations.
In 1965, our family moved to Houston, Texas
In Houston, Johnny worked at Western Union delivering telegrams by bicycle downtown
After he left the job he left his bicycle locked at the bike rack.When Johnny went to pick it up, all he found was the frame.
Then, Johnny got a job at an Exxon filling station.
One morning, as Ma was making breakfast for our Pa, Johnny walked in looking & acting very strange.
Our Ma asked him what the matter was & Pa said to her, “cant you see he’s drunk?”
Ma let out a loud scream whereupon Johnny bolted for the door. Johnny was trying his best to run away. Ma told me, “hurry Mario, go catch him.”
There I was, a skinny lanky kid running after my brother trying to catch him. All the while, Johnny trying to fight me off.
I was riding a bike to catch up to him.Johnny still trying to fight me off, swinging at me.
I waited til he had his back to me & I tackled him from behind,both of us falling into a small ditch on the side of the street.I held on for dear life while our Mother caught up.
When Johnny & I got up we were laughing our heads off.
Our Mother was beside herself very angry. She wanted answers. “What happened Johnny?” Who did this to you?
Johnny was about 16 in ’65-’66. He answered that the negroes had gotten him drunk.
The heck with that shit, Ma was seething angry. She went to the filling station to rip them another one.Don’t remember if she called the police, but more than likely, she did.
In 1967, our maternal grandfather Eliseo Escanamé Espinoza passed away.
Our Ma, heart broken & sentimental as she was, wanted to move back to our hometown. Our father had been difficult with his drinking problem.
While in Houston, our dad drove a truck for his cousins Contreras brothers. Also for J.E.Hammer trucking.He also worked as a diesel mechanic.
After we moved back home, Johnny worked at any job he could find.
He rode along with our dad’s aquaintance named “Pepino.” There was another trucker called “Chalupa” In the 60’s seemed truckers all had nicknames/monikers.
It was easier remembering them this way, & know who was being talked about.
Johnny had found a job with local neighbors Pancho De Alejandro family. They went to Michigan to work in agricultural fields picking vegetables.
Before getting the job, our parents spoke with Mr.De Alejandro to tell him to watch over their son, & be reassured for his safety.He said he would.
The rest of us went to work in Ohio to pick tomatoes near Bluffton.
One day, our father decided to go pay them a visit near Ithaca, Michigan
Our parents & Johnny were very glad to see each other, as I was.
We returned to Ohio. This was in late ’67.
Somehow, Johnny got himself in some sort of jam with the law in Michigan.
In those days, judges had a shitty disposition & gave our brother two options.
One: go to jail or
Two: volunteer for Viet Nam.
Johnny decided to join the Army. He always favored uniforms, so it fell into his likes.
Basic training found Johnny at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Johnny wrote us from there. Our family was thrilled to see the fancy envelope with the gold embossed eagle on it. It made us proud.
Johnny came home on leave after basic training dressed up in his Army uniform, looking sharp.
Well he found use for his younger brother.I was chosen to polish his brass buttons with Brasso, & spit shine his Army boots. Dammitboy! He might’ve paid me a couple of quarters.
After a while, I didnt think it was worth the trouble.
Johnny went back to Ft.Polk for more Army training & life.
I remember he went awol(absent without leave) once, & was detained.Sent back.
Little did I know. Guess who shows up again? Went awol again! The reason being his girlfriend.
Johnny also served at Fort Hood, Texas largest military base in the U.S. He was in Hell on Wheels division.
Elvis Presley had been stationed there before.
One day, Johnny shows up in his military uniform again.I thought to myself, Oh no, not again!
But life & destiny had other plans.
Our parents were very glad to see him turn into a young soldier with purpose, dedication, resolve, & structure in his life.
They took Johnny to visit relatives & out to eat at a restaurant.
While they were out, I had noticed Johnny’s duffle bag(Army green)had a padlock on it.This made my curious mind start to wonder. It got the better of me, so I stuck my hand inside & began feeling around to see what he might be hiding. All I could feel were folded clothes.
Until. Until I felt a small booklet. I pulled it out. I read the title.
“How to speak Vietnamese phrases” or something to that effect…