rambo-first-blood


January 17, 2015

From South Shore, amazed at the progress of the new bike lane, reducing Shoreline Avenue by half, we bike the 4 miles to Alameda Point, to where the U.S.S. Hornet (CV-12) berths, a floating museum dedicated to its combat and peace time service. T stops, pulls out his iPhone, snaps away at the area of Crab Cove, high tide, behind Paden School, amazed he did not know this was here, then back in the saddle where two blocks later cutting through Encinal High School where I tell him toilet paper is why the school mascot, the A-4 Skyhawk, is high off the ground. I think of the very few JROTC cadets, avoiding P.E., who actually entered service, enlisted or officer. Very few. Very naïve. Very under-sized. Those who cannot take orders, the dress code, the stifling uniform, the work conditions, often combative, the physical fitness, often humiliating, the persistent scrutiny, often homophobic and misogynistic, the base pay, not really worth sacrificing life for presidential doctrine, in this case, Reagan’s followed by Bush I. How many of my classmates before entering our first year in high school were motivated by Maverick’s overcoming the loss of Goose to famed MIG killer in Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986). I think to Google their names or find them on Facebook or Linkedin. How often did I ride these streets in my gull-winged Huffy patrolling with a wingman. We cut past the school cafeteria and I want to yell out “Talk to me Goose!” to see how my son responds, an inherited wing-wave. How often did we pace the A-7 Corsairs attached to the Firebirds (VA-304), descending rooftop level, practicing their landings, leaving us in the dust. Did those pilots in turn imagine dropping napalm? Hence the fog of war, hence friendly fire, hence collateral damage, hence our cynicism. No, I was inspired to be a naval aviator by way of Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). Zach Mayo, tattooed, shoulder-length hair, lived in Olongapo with a reluctant father after his mother’s suicide. I had more in common with Richard Gere’s chip, crusty enlisted Robert Loggia, than Tom Cruise’s chip, phantom pilot father shot down during the Vietnam War. Between the two films is privilege. Further, it’s a choice between Debra Winger’s stuck working class wood pulp mill Polish versus Kelly McGillis’ polished glass shattering astrophysicist blonde. One wanting marriage to a naval aviator solution to poverty. The other, a trophy to the ace who impresses the most.

We push along Oriskany Avenue and beyond the public storage where my library, a third of which was the entire Play and Poetry stock of Kevin Patrick Books, gathers in wine and beer boxes. The Hornet’s radio shack rises above reconciled warehouses of light industrial and the barren reality, the toxic soup beneath that failed to nurture Biotech Island and Silicon Island.

I have taken my son to two films that would have inspired me to serve if I were at his age. The air combat fatality of Joe “Lightning” Little played by David Oyelowo in Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails (2012) gave him nightmares. The kids in the theater were asking why are the Germans the enemy? Why are the black pilots discriminated? Why are these people fighting? I would have relished the cockpit, the self-sacrifice, the death wish. F-22 Raptors defending Earth against invading Formics in Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (2013) would have also lent to romantic heroism. Children with a talent for tactics. For my son, I prefaced this is a film about the state’s fear of the unknown, the tendency to react with violence, and the tool of its violence-children. My war film, war history, war biography, war toy, military models, and sniffing glue began early. I’m glad he was not as informed. Not as desensitized. Would he have felt conflicted watching the repeated killings of Asian soldiers, their demonization, their caricature even when presented as allies?

My classmates, did they in their second year of JROTC sing the Mickey Mouse song marching in formation, shortly after Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket? Could they see themselves leaving the burnt husk of a city? A city trampled by them. Did they ever continue desiring service as a career in their third, fourth years, then post graduation? Jillian’s at the Metreon, our class reunion—10 years, waiting for college friends, a planned rescue from a cohort I thought would be distant unrelatable, my cue to see The Matrix because my favorite Marxist professor, Collen Lye, raved about it in the Reading Postcoloniality in Asian American Literature seminar. In a graduating class of about 250, of the 60 attending for billiards and beer, I was the only veteran-I think—and would have traced their employment if such things as Linkedin or Facebook existed. How awfully pleasant it was for them to play soldier in safe and sanitized simulations. Yes, enough of being the dutiful colonial subject, the expected janissaries, at least you rode helicopters in high school, at least we fulfilled our parents’ dreams and not become plain fodder. But dreaming nonetheless. We, or I, interrogate negritude and the spectrum by which Asians are identified and pandered agency.

M-I-C-K-E-Y. M-O-U-S-E. My company sure droned at Great Lakes Great Mistakes, similarly shouldering mops for rifles, though the blizzards of 1993-94 muffled our humor. All the caution and I still joined after a year of college. As I remember 071, a third of my company was black, mainly from the South, barely passing high school, choosing structure than the lack of inner city safety net when athletic scholarships were scarce. The military was hauntingly unavoidable, especially after images of dead, naked, American soldiers, which eventually set the tone for Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001).

Make “Love Not War”—I was introduced to Berkeley that year when Joker became my conscience, cutting school with my sister’s boyfriend, also a Navy brat, much later to be husband, and there diminished my applications to Harvard or Purdue or Reed where a degree in nuclear science would lead me to develop next generation Peacekeeper or Trident at Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore Lab–the Naval Academy long out of focus by then. My vision loss I will get to in a moment. So when I eventually signed on, I intended to be a war correspondent as well and write for the Stars & Stripes and wear the crow’s feet as was my nature.

My son is 10. I was 10 when my (step)father, a West Virginian Scot-Welsh of coal miners, a redneck in all its endearment, Donald Sutherland with Robert Mitchum voice, was assigned Master Chief leading Ship Services—convenience stores, barbershops, and laundry, aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson (CVN-70), then the newest nuke carrier, homeported at NAS Alameda, joining the Enterprise (CVN-65). My first visit, Dad’s department heads watched Fraggle Rock, and the men looked twice at his brown boy. In the Vinson’s 1984-85 WESTPAC cruise book, I see the men descending in rank below him, the fathers of my classmates. Mixed-race Asian/Pacific is more common, rather more physically marked, and the usual looks, always unsettling, guessed an adoption. The classmates are more forgiving. More vocal.

Having lived in Guam and Hawai’i earlier that year, I was quite sheltered from overt mainland phobias. Of course the rotation every two years of servicemen and women at any military post taught the individual tolerance, or will reveal the individual’s intolerance. Alameda was my lesson in racism outside of tourism, the cruising for and the performance of brown bodies, the presumed reservation of beaches for itinerant whiteness, the aggressive claiming of sand, the dreaded dredged façade resurfacing the postcard coastal, the unstable aggregate, the shifty dominant gaze, a persistent mastery in the phantasmatic, and in hospitality, where Grandma Mary laundered between nauseating rising shadows and rents the absentee landlord’s linens, at least in the tide, washed the territorial pissings and circle jerks, a recuperation from its presence. Remember, Asian bodies dominate Hawai’i (and I say this in regards to the imported labor, to the economic refugees, to the sojourners, to the generations before tourism), brown bodies dominate Hawai’i, so coming to America, minoritization was difficult.

The National Historic and California Historic Landmark is tied at the same pier as was the Vinson. I tell T about the Battlestar Galactica by way of Star Trek. The former unfamiliar and the latter somewhat strange, a pop culture figment. Within a few weeks settling in to his new post, Dad, solicited a nickname for the carrier that can rival the Enterprise’s “Starship.” Obviously, I insisted, the “Battlestar” and it stuck. T was not as impressed that I am in the lore of another carrier, bigger and more powerful than the World War II relic. Though, I was glad he did not immediately share my fascination for war machines, the destructive capability, the industrial complex that built them. Perhaps, the long lesson on the Defense Budget and corporate war profiteering at Occupy Port of Oakland had really taken root, disgusted by the pie chart I drew in the air, and the crumbs for Education, the diminishing returns when my college tuition invested in a single tank-busting missile. I mean we hoisted together the sign, “Schools Not Bombs.”

We locked our bikes beneath the gangplank. The Hornet’s gangplank much like the Vinson’s, galvanized and sharp. The U.S.S. Port Royal (CG-47), the last gangplank I crossed, my ticket to Pearl Harbor, however my contract deliberately shortened, and after an Atlantic storm suddenly swamping the Chesapeake revealing slight leadership potential, I left behind, but a Plankowner regardless. Had I stayed in for a pension, I would be retired by now—perhaps with my own mortgage, a new car, starting college, and money in the bank. The gray paint like any and all warships, the slow rehabilitation from corrosion, the aging volunteer crewing the Quarterdeck, the time warp leaving dry land, the ambient 1MC mustering Boy Scouts from onboard classes to lunch in Hangar Bay 2. I stumble with my permission to come aboard. The Quarterdeck’s similar feel, less guarded now, less official. Museum self-guided tour headsets borrowed after the cashier remarked about the health of my long black hair—a crux in my brief Navy stint; I complimented hers.

When T and I saw Boy Scouts, some in shorts, others in switchback pants, geeky and awkward, follow their noses to hot dogs and hamburgers, I asked if he recognizes any friends, thinking they were Boy Scouts from Alameda. He said some, though quickly, and I dreaded his answer, maybe he will want to join a troop, join its church, learn to salute, subscribe to very white washed Boy’s Life, be conflicted with the homophobia, become manic for patches, and yet those patches themselves measure so many forms of knowledge. In the military, patches, or ribbons, suggested participation in state violence, often with bittersweet results. I was in the Scouts for camping and outdoor survival skills, only. Patches, I resisted.

The video orientation of Hornet’s brief history and museum offerings informed the obvious, though fascinating to a 10-year old not Navy brat, denied of war toys or replicas, allowed for the retelling of his maternal great grandfather’s connection to the Philippines, the Lingayen Gulf landings in 1945. A Gunnery Officer on the troop ship U.S.S. Sumter (APA-52), T’s great grandfather help land army troops on the beaches of San Fabian, two towns west of Binalonan, my mother’s town, in Pangasinan—she was 7, hiding in caves, waiting for MacArthur’s return. The Hornet most likely provided air support for these troop landings as did the many carriers of Task Force 38. T is the only child to express the great grandfather’s red hair. Must be the Illokano-Spanish-Chinese that complements the Dutch by way of Iowa. He self-identifies as white, but in summer, I remind him, that as he warms in to narra tones, he is all mine, yet not near the mahogany of his cousins. The cousins born to what my step father found repulsive, the same mixed raced couple, my sister and her high school sweetheart, who showed me Berkeley, and its promised alternatives.

As we explore the other hangar bays, the Boy Scouts were identifiably from Orinda. Not Alameda. My guard kicked in. I was surrounded by forces taking for granted, privilege. The uniform demanding respect, a uniform preparing for those in authority, a uniform to normalize the persistence of uniforms either forged by state or corporate governance, a uniform that feigns paramilitary. The Sea Scouts in digital Navy blue camouflage marched in tight quarters further aft. M-I-C-K-E-Y. M-O-U-S-E. Left-face avoiding patrons attracted to the vending machines.

The War on Terror, the Wars succeeding the War on Terror, then there’s Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Iran, Nigeria, Gaza, West Bank, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Philippines, etc—and I see a new crop. Most would not survive real urgent brutal emasculating feminizing boot camp, a mockery or parody of endless war, the bait and switch. PTSD begins here. Alas, serve and write a book about service and a Hollywood deal.

I was a Boy Scout, there was not that much diversity–any DIVERSITY–in Boy Scout troops on the other side of the Oakland Hills. So I was surprised to see the many awkward and lean Chinese and South Asian kids making what seemed half that troop. Meaning they were not Pilipino—meaning this Boy Scout troop of noticeable Chinese and South Asian could not be from Alameda—meaning Pilipinos in Orinda would surprise me—meaning I was bothered by this racial slippage—meaning I was bothered how privilege solves some racial boundaries—meaning I was contemplating Pilipino flight to the suburbs to Contra Costa County—meaning I was remembering a sudden brawl eerily similar to a black and white photograph capturing Soviet and Chinese soldiers in a 1950s border skirmish—meaning my feelings back then as a perpetual Tenderfoot are still strong. Back then, my NAS Alameda-chartered Boy Scout troop met on Mt. Diablo a troop solidly monochromatic—from Pleasanton, might as well be from Orinda. We were rappelling Sentinel Rock when they arrived. Pleasanton, very white, very rosy, had contempt for us, we had contempt for them. Pleasanton had clearly expensive gear, we had military surplus. Our Eagle Scouts wore Doc Martens instead of hiking boots and wore their The Cure tour tshirts more flagrantly than the uniform. Our runt, Rainbow had a nonstandard bandana tied around his forehead—more proto-Lost Boys Frog Brother than the then current Special Forces drifter, Rambo. Frogger, no relation to Rainbow, was swimming in his larger uniform. Mike, the lead altar boy above me at the base chapel, was quite the model Scout, braces, unremarkable at school, the white leader of an all Pilipino patrol. We were clearly The Bad News scouts, out of our element, and our Scout Master, just another Morris Buttermaker/Walter Mathau.

Our Scout Master arranged a game of capture the flag for the next afternoon, the last activity before returning to base. The evening, we decided to do a reconnaissance in force, to survey the arrangement of tents, to determine points of entry and egress. Pleasanton anticipated our approach, in the darkness, threw stones where they expected us to be hiding.

In the serious game of Capture-the-Flag, losing the pennant defines humiliation, defines a lack of pride, defensive impotence, reckless team spirit. Winning means seizing the opponent’s pennant, meaning seizing the offensive initiative, meaning eluding contact or capture with the defending forces. We were not going to play that kind of game. We were expected to touch, tag opponents out, and hold prisoners, defend the Hill. We relocated our tents to higher ground, posted sentries beneath live oak. Quiet for 30 minutes, and whether we understood or not appreciated the rolling green hills, not the noxious harbor, plate metal of warships, the corrugated steel, the barbed wire, the division between military and civilian, the acridity of ubiquitous lubricant and solvent, of jet fuel, and the subtle buzz, we attributed to radiation or circulating high frequency pulse. Pleasanton was anticipating our attack, but we were not going to draw First Blood (1982), so we enjoyed the lull, the grassy breeze different from San Francisco Bay mudswept, the rustling from canyons diffused through chaparral, not turbines testing, foghorns between ships, the occasional klaxon drills. We could have yelled Wolverines! but Red Dawn (1984) was old news like the fear of car bombs penetrating lightly defended Gates long gone, or Reagan-blundered thermonuclear war, we meditated on our inner-Rambo, Part II.

The enemy exploited our respite sooner than we thought, jumped our lines as expected, allowed to seize the flag, the blonde runner surrounded by blonde flankers descended the slope, a straight line to their camp, we broke out of slumber, reluctant to give chase, more so irritated to lose the peace of the hills, and an energy swelled in us, vengeful, predatorial, a trot gave way to wolfpack speed, we stared at one another fiercely, nodded tacit directions and swooped the flankers, drove them into the ground, punched them when they complained about rule violation. The flag runner now fearing for his safety, “Why are you doing this?” As if he would ever understand my motive—slammed in to the hillside.

Rambo should evaluate his exposure to Agent Orange. Maybe in his fifth installment, cancer gets the better of him and not a Mexican cartel but he goes out fighting. My education in war films, especially the narratives of the misunderstood Vietnam Veteran has always been an attempt to understand Dad, maybe my biological father, my uncles, the men they served with, joined in that distance, joined in their abiding obedience to General Orders and foreign policy whim.

When not at camp, I spent my weekends at the San Leandro rifle range “qualifying” on the AR-15, squirrel carcasses littered the 100 yards. Radioman Phil Courier of Lakes Charles, Louisiana, the source of many bootleg VHS films as I suspected, was my surrogate stepfather when Dad was on 3-month or 8-month deployment, and in this case WESTPAC. He fit Dad’s description of race relations in West Virginia. The fish pulled from the Kanawha River were offered to black folks like him. To the left, he was our next-door neighbor in our assigned North Housing enlisted family townhouse complex, and to the left of him was perhaps the hottest Pinay in high school, but with a gangbanger boyfriend—the same girl, who compelled a long line at our Class Reunion at Jillian’s, boy’s who were too afraid to say hi to her, now men, offering hugs. Our neighbors to the right were memorable in two ways. The husband, a First Class, got busted when dogs at the Main Gate sniffed cocaine during a random search. His very skinny wife would often interrupt my struggle with the community lawn mover’s chord and yank the chord alive. First Class, seems to live up to Dad’s expectation of the general fate of Black’s in the Navy.

From the Hornet’s deck, the Boy Scouts muster before the carrier’s island, class next in the bridge. I try to make out residual features in the Orinda Scout Masters and the chaperoning parents. Were they once the scouts of Mt. Diablo. While I lived here in this hard scrabble, this potential ground zero, they nestled and secluded. I can barely make out North Housing, still standing and boarded up. A cancer plume prevents development. The Superfund insufficient and lagging. The water below is poison but today visitors come to Alameda Point for the wineries, distillery, and brewery, or this Gray Ghost. A retarded Oakland skyline beyond. T snaps away at San Francisco, the menacing Rincon leading the explosion in rent, fingering all those crossing the Bay Bridge, will the tech corridor finally rear its constriction here? The island has become such valued property, even levels of toxicity can be mitigated on legal paper—just do not dig any new foundation further than need to, do not grow a garden, do not provide enough backyard space that attracts a family to raise its Victory. I guide T’s photographic eye to what I am seeing, a punctum in this ghost city within a city. Today, that punctum is that 6-plex I shared with Radioman and his stories of concealing rifles in his Suburban because he needed to defend himself when driving through particular California towns. Today, that punctum is the house where my intransigent white Dad could not be my intransigent white Dad because of his love for deployment, and because of his love for deployment, my black surrogate father filled a role, showing me how to navigate a white world, to see the world through rifle sights, to breathe between, to see myself differently in the white mirror, the struggle with a presumed unreachable whiteness, searching in films, that vet, whether villain or antihero, war weary drifter and lost sailor nonetheless, who didn’t know how to return home. In this process, I reloaded and spent magazines, I lost my 20/20 vision, constant battery of my eyes because I refused to wear protective glasses at the rifle range, and with blurred vision, a military future, the academy, marksmanship, sniper school. Was it a vision worth losing? To not have blood on my hands.

Perhaps these Scouts will be engineering new aircraft, new WMDs, new fuels, new software, writing the million lines of Terminator code, because the money is there. Perhaps these are kids investing in defense industries, more drones, more warheads, more surveillance, more armor, more ships, more environmental waste. Perhaps these are the kids with trust funds and portfolios benefiting from the War on Terror. Perhaps these are the kids who would send other kids to war, to die for natural resources, who will decide what countries to sell or sell out, what regimes to buy or buy out. Or perhaps, real estate; enough said. But then they could just be as mediocre and care not for shaping world events. “So why am I doing this?” getting my hands dirty, realizing the adversarial division between? Because you do not struggle with whiteness! About being accepted. About being seen as white. Didn’t my fathers serve for the privilege? Now, the Boy Scouts of Orinda are here and I am displaced, no, that moment in Mt. Diablo displaced, and I feel they have won, or is it my guilt less so, and I feel safe for my son, that he does not understand punctum, to see the colliding feelings surfacing.


About the Author: Sean Labrador y Manzano lives on the island off the coast of Oakland and imagines snorkeling or canoeing every day in his birthplace of Hawai’i. He edits the print journal Conversations at the Wartime Café; founder of Mixer 2.0, an M.F.A. reading series held every third Thursday of the month at the Cat Club in San Francisco; and curated the recent symposium From Trauma to Catharsis: Performing the Asian Avant-Garde. With collaborators Dillon Westbrook and Robert Woodcock, he performs as Jose Rizal in the ninety-minute jazz choreo-poem, “Das Kapital, Volume 4, Elimination of the Industrial Phase and the Accumulation of Debt.”