'Nam was raging. The Tet offensive—we called it the "tit offensive"—moved the stakes up. And there were bamboo stakes. They grew very fast. A guy could be tied down, someone reminded us, on top of teeny shoots. In a few days they penetrated the soldier all over, completely.
Nobody I knew wanted this. Nobody wanted to go to 'Nam. A useless, futile war. A huge empty rice field with only death lurking around. And it was not even a real war. And I thought they'd really be after a "Spanish surname" guy like me. Cannon fodder delight. So, I had nightmares: someone was always chasing me, trying to catch you and spill your guts, blood and more blood. But the second I looked back, thinking maybe I would fight to the death, there was nobody there.
I can speak for myself and, actually, all the other guys I knew. Nobody was interested in becoming a hero. Hell, it'd be a dead hero, at best. Anyway, it did seem anyone who died while serving was a god-damned hero.
But next door to me when I was growing up in the barrio two brothers had died in World War II; a third just hung around listening to the radio all day. Every afternoon I could hear Mutual's Game of the Day. I could see Abelino through the screened window and all he did was listen to the radio. Spanish, or English, but he wouldn't miss baseball. I knew his nephew Lalo, who was 20, of the next generation. He didn't like me; I was a little shrimp. Then a few months after he was drafted I heard the most horrendous screams and piercing cries I've ever heard. His sister and mother got a telegram from the President. He was in a truck in Korea, I heard later, and the truck had not made it around a hill. Rain and mud and a slick road, and a cliff. Everybody was killed.
Lalo's funeral services, at their house, made me think of death and the sadness around me. Abelino came out of the room and kneeled before his nephew's closed coffin. I thought of Lalo, and how little he thought of me, a kid who couldn't hold up his end in ballgames, and I returned the favor. Now he was a victim.
The truth was we were all scared shitless. Just the general condition of potential or even helpless and hopeless victims.
And now here we were. We had all gone to this large lecture hall, all us guys; we were overflowing in that large room. I couldn't help thinking: We were oozingly disgusting, like pus, guys barely hanging on all over, over the sides, sliding. The usual overcrowded UT couldn't contain us all. We were there to take a test that had nothing to do with serving in the army. But, on the other hand, was crucial. This test was one of those usual totally irrelevant tests. In fact, "relevance" was a much-used word then. Really, it was like the SAT and was supposed to separate the soldiers from the scholars. If you ranked high you got a draft deferment and could continue in school. If you didn't, you were cannon fodder in the rice fields of Vietnam.
Someone whispered to me, "Damn, I forgot all my high school math." At another time I heard another guy whisper. "I mean, how do you do these things? It's all crazy. What the fuck does knowing the multiple-choice answer to 'A germ is to an epidemic as. . . .'" So vocab, besides equations, were all tarnished, covered with junior-high rust. We all felt paralyzed and impotent, trapped, a panic hovering over us. But the answer was all over as you looked at the walls of that auditorium: "No Exit."
Afterwards, we all seemed to hang around the dorm mailbox at the appointed time the mail was delivered in our boxes in the mail room. We liked it when a magazine was put in, but really all of us feared a thick official...