By Mel Marks

Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
November 30, 1988

Phil Rodriguez and I arrived at Camp Callan, California, for basic training on the same day early in 1943. He was a Mexican from Montebello, California, a cocky kid, as I remembered him back then, with his Indian heritage written all over his mongrel face. We were just kids, barely 18, and wary of each other at first, as you might expect, but eventually we became friends, a friendship that went on for the next 53 years.

We were a mis-matched in every way -- Phil, a Mexican who had never known a Jew, and I, a Jew who had never known a Mexican. We had been thrown together in a big melting pot of an army camp where soldiers from every imaginable background reported for duty with their new uniforms and home-earned prejudices. For me, alone and hard-pressed for a buddy, even a casual acquaintance like Phil meant a great deal.

Phil, however, fell short of being the ideal pal. To this day, I can't think of a thing we had in common. Actually, if I dare admit it, I was a little ashamed to be seen with him. He was uneducated and rowdy and only semi-literate. I preferred hanging around with Bruce Brodie, Charlie Murchison and Danny Cicchelli. With Bruce and Charlie, especially, I could talk about books and popular music because by this time I had already read such writers as Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos and Hemingway.

There was a strong sense of refinement in my family, even though my mother and I were poor and forced to live with relatives. My aunt, with whom we lived, had moved to California with her sister shortly after the war ended. They lived in Los Angeles at the Gaylord Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, and in their years together would sooner die than enter a restaurant that didn't have white linen tableclothes and napkins. My mother, too, even though she supported us with menial clerical jobs, would rather cross the street than have to pass people like Phil whom she would perceive as riff-raff.

Nothing that Phil enjoyed doing was of any interest to me, and that put the two of us at odds from the beginning. When he had an evening pass he would head for some of the dives off the base where he would drink, fight and raise hell, often staggering back to the barracks, weaving drunkenly toward his cot. Don't get the idea that I was an angel, but when I had the money and a pass, I went in for tamer pursuits. I liked hitch-hiking into LaJolla with Charlie Murchison for dinner at the Valencia Hotel. Not only was the food good but the table linens were gleaming white and the silverware was polished to a high gloss.

Phil and I went on to fight in the European theater in 1944 and 1945 and, along with the rest of the outfit, were finally disbanded at Chiem See, Germany, August 15, 1945. I was shipped home three months later, there to resume my life at peace with the circle of boyhood friends I'd left behind. Or so I thought at the time.

I was sure that there was no man in the battalion I would miss seeing again, not even Phil. But life is not so predictable. In 1949, within four years of our discharges, many of the men in the battalion discovered that they missed the old outfit, and I, the outcast, oddly enough, was the one who missed it the most. So we began having annual reunions, and have had them non-stop right up to the present. What I hadn't realized at the time was that the relationships that were formed during the war could not be shut off just because the war itself had ended. The shared experiences of wartime combat were too strong, too binding.

A few years before he died, I visited Phil in Montebello. He lived in a small unimposing house on Olympic Boulevard. His five sons had grown up in that house, and their framed pictures, each in a Marine uniform, hung on a living room wall surrounding a flag-draped photograph of Phil and his wife, Lupe, taken during Phil's early days in the army. A crucifix was mounted above the assembly of photographs, and the wall itself seemed to serve as a shrine for their worship of God, family and country. I have run across many self-described patriots over the years, the loud-mouth super patriots and the slick professionals both, but never one with the simple dignity and quiet dedication of Philip Rodriguez.

The photograph of Phil and Lupe, taken while we were stationed in the states, portrayed a smiling young couple, her cheek pressed against his, she a plain young woman with swept-back brown hair, dark eyes and fair skin. Phil, in contrast, was the dark-skinned, street kid, wearing a non- issue garrison cap tilted jauntily to one side. His uniform was barren of medals except for a sharpshooters medal on his chest and a gold "U.S." and gold artillery insignia pinned to the lapels of his Eisenhower jacket.

Phil and I saw plenty of action, and we both lived to tell about it. But it was the Viet Nam war that Phil couldn't escape from. One son, Reggie, a Marine, was killed in Viet Nam. His eldest son, Frank, also a Marine, was wounded in Nam and later died of his wounds in the states. Two other sons, Anthony and Phil, are serving in the Marines. John, another son, is an ex-Marine gunnery sergeant, having served in the Far East. If all that was not a sufficient patriotic sacrifice, Phil lost a brother at Iwo Jima.

Phil's second eldest son, John, had married a Japanese woman while he was stationed in Japan, and the couple had twin boys, Joe and Ray, whose mixed ancestry is visible at a glance. John's wife had refused to come to America, and the couple was subsequently divorced, the boys then coming to live in Montebello with Phil and Lupe. Handsome, studious and well-behaved, the boys have been brought up by Phil and Lupe and attend school in Montebello.

Phil and his wife had been married over fifty years. He retired in his early 60's after having worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for 36 years. Later he suffered a stroke which left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side, but his recovery had been so remarkable that there was no visible damage to his body.

"I feel great," he said, "I'm ashamed to feel so good."
"Enjoy it while you can," I told him at the time. "The years have a way of catching up with you."
"The hell with that -- you and me, we're going to live forever," said Phil.

The three of us were sitting in his living room. Their grandsons, Joe and Ray, were doing homework in a back room. Lupe, stocky and energetic, talked about her recent knee replacement operation, and she described her knee problems in a stream of words that rolled off her tongue in salvos.

Money problems had made it difficult for Phil to attend reunions. He never asked for any help, but when one of the men would extend it he accepted graciously, and no further word was said. Along with a few others, I was one of his benefactors, but it was Ed Harris, who has since passed away, who made the biggest sacrifice for Phil. Ed would drive miles out of his way from his home in LaCanada, California, to pick up Phil and drive him to Vancouver, Washington, to Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix or wherever a reunion was being held, and then return him to his front door in Montebello.

It was getting on toward lunchtime. I said goodbye to Lupe, and Phil and I strolled over to Jimmy's Family Restaurant at 7th and Whittier Boulevard. It was a comfortable coffee shop. From the look of the place I assumed it was Greek owned. While Phil and I were eating, a heavy-set man, an Anglo, stopped by our table. He was Montebello chief of police, Steve Simarian.

"How's the boss," he asked Phil.

Phil said she was doing great, and then pointing to me introduced me as an old army buddy who had come to visit him. We shook hands.

"Don't let him fool you," the chief said to me, smiling. "Lupe is the real hero in the family."

Before he left, the chief reached over and grabbed our check. I started to protest.

"Forget it," Phil said, "the cops always get their way." It was then that I became aware of just how beloved Phil and Lupe were in Montebello. They had been there all their lives -- law-abiding, respected and loved in this community of 40,000 just east of Los Angeles. I suddenly realized how much I was enjoying myself. I felt serene, insulated from worry. There I was in Montebello, in a pleasant restaurant on a warm January afternoon, surrounded by pretty waitresses, by Phil, my brother-in-arms, and by a good guy named Steve Simarian.

Phil and I traded recollections for awhile, but he suddenly paused and leaned toward me.

"If you have time, there's something I want to show you."
"If I have time?" I said, "that's all I do have."
"Let's walk back to the house and get your car. It's a short drive."

Along the way, I asked him how he was spending his time. Was he ever lonely? Did he feel depressed? -- all the dark feelings that had been expressed time and again by so many others in the battalion.

"Oh, sure, I get feeling low lots of times, but then I go out and exercise, and that helps. But there are times," he added, "when even that doesn't help."
"Same here," I said, "but what are we going to do when we can't exercise anymore?"

"Who knows?" he replied, "just keep busy. Lupe and I drive to Vegas a couple of times a month. We have a hell of a time there. I guess we'll keep doing that."

"That's not the worst thing you can do."

"Far from it," he said. "And of course we take care of Joe and Ray. That keeps us real busy. I take them to school every day, and then pick them up in the afternoon. Their school is only a block away, but I want to do it. Nowadays you have to."

"I was about to ask you if you thought times were better when we got out of the army than they are now, but you already answered that."

"There's no comparison," said Phil. "All my kids went to the same school. I never took them and never picked them up. We never worried about them. Times were much better then."

We got into my car, and I started the engine.

"Where we heading?"
"I want you to see the park the city named after Reggie."
"You're kidding," I said in disbelief.
"No," he said, "it's true. You'll see."

We drove several blocks to a large park, perhaps 10 or 12 acres in size. As we approached, I saw a large rustic sign reading "Reggie Rodriguez Park, City of Montebello." There were two plaques set in concrete at the base of the sign, dedicating the park to the memory of Marine Lance Corporal Reginald Rodriguez. Phil and I stood silently. Off in the distance, several youths stood around smoking, a boom-box blaring. As I stared down at the plaques, I noticed some cigaret paper on the ground, the kind used for rolling marijuana cigarets, in front of the plaques honoring the memory of Phil's son. Phil had noticed it, too. I expected him to say something, but he said nothing.

"Damnit," I said angrily. I kicked the cigaret paper away with my foot.

Phil seemingly felt no anger. He merely shrugged. He was past all the hurt, and no longer seemed to care.

"We didn't have this junk when we were in the army," I said.
He smiled.
"We probably wouldn't have won the war if we did," he said.
We stood together quietly, neither of us speaking.
"Philip," I said, finally, "do you have any idea why guys like us keep coming back to reunions?"

He bent down to pick up the litter in front of the plaques, and pondered my question.

"Well, I'm not exactly sure, but the old outfit is important to me. I love all you guys. I guess I'll keep going as long as we have them."

"I feel the same way," I said, "but I wonder if loving the old outfit and the guys in it is the whole answer."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, it's about loving each other, sure, but it's a special kind of love. It's not about love of the outfit, I don't think, or about love of country."

"Well, then what is it?"
"I'm not sure," I said, "but I think it's about survival."
He looked at me quizically.
"Did I hear you say survival," he said, "like staying alive."
"That's it exactly."
"Tell me what you mean. I don't understand."

"Look, I think we feel, somewhere inside us, that if the battalion survives, each of us, you and me and all the guys that show up for the reunions, are going to survive, too. And if we don't show up for the reunions, then the battalion will fall apart, it'll die, and all of us will die right along with it."

"Okay," he said. "So you're telling me that the battalion is our life. Right?"
"Yes, Phil," I said, "the blood of our blood."

"But the outfit broke up in 1945. It's dead. Deader than hell. There's nothing left but a few old guys like us."

"Yeah, but those of us left have this bond, see? Nothing's stronger than that bond, Phil. What forged it is the miserable war we fought together. Take away the reunions and you take away the battalion, and those of us left won't have a thing in our lives to replace it with."

I placed my arm on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. I continued talking.

"You talked about the battalion being dead, Phil. But when you come down to it so are we, you and me. We died a long time ago, and that's the truth. We don't work; we draw social security. All we do is take up space and drive ourselves crazy looking for something to keep busy."

"C'mon," he said.

"It's true, but at our reunions, for three lousy days a year, we rise from the grave and become something special -- not to the rest of the world but to ourselves. In short, old friend, we live again."

We stood on the sidewalk in front of his home. It was time for me to get on the freeway and head back to L.A.

We shook hands, and then, as we have done for years, embraced each other, almost as if we were afraid to let go.

"Goodbye, Phil," I said.

As I turned to leave, he called after me.

"Hey, watch that. We don't say goodbye, we say 'see you later.'"

Not long ago I received a phone call from Lupe. I heard the sadness in her voice almost immediately. Something was wrong.

"Phil passed away," she told me, struggling to get the words out. "He went very fast. He always talked about you, Mel. I wanted to call you."

"Damnit, Lupe. How did it happen?"

"He got up in the morning and did his exercises. He said he wanted to take a nap. He always took his nap after lunch. It wasn't like him to take his nap after breakfast. He always talked about you, Mel.

"Then what happened, I mean after he took his nap?"

"I could tell he was sick," she said, speaking very rapidly. "I called 9-1-1. Pretty soon the paramedics came. They gave him a shot and pounded on his chest but they couldn't bring him to. The ambulance came. They took him to the hospital. He never came to. He died ten minutes later. They couldn't do anything."

"I'm sorry, Lupe."
"He always talked about you. He went very fast."
"When is the funeral?" I asked.

She continued speaking rapidly, her words, spoken with a slight Mexican accent, poured forth in a confusing stream. She gave me the name of the mortuary. Moritz Funeral Home in Montebello. I told her I'd come out if I could get on a plane in time. She neither encouraged nor attempted to disuade me.

"I'll do the best I can," I said.

After I rang off I called the funeral home. A lady filled me in on the details. It was now Tuesday afternon. A viewing of the body Wednesday afternoon... a Rosary that evening at St. Benedict's...a Mass Thursday morning at St.Benedict's... a processional to Resurrection cemetery after Mass. It would have to be a quick trip, no chance of attending Mass Thursday morning. My wife and I were leaving for a week's vacation on Friday. I could make it, but barely. I considered not going but that would have meant not seeing Phil that one last time, even in a state of repose.

The flight to L.A. was long, six and a half hours, two stops. I rented a car, checked into a hotel near the airport, then tackled the 45 mile freeway trip to Montebello.

Montebello is a well-kept, predominately Hispanic community along the Whittier Boulevard corridor between Monterey Park and the city of Whittier, and getting there is not easy for someone who isn't used to the L.A. freeway system. You first have to fight your way through downtown LA with its maze of criss-crossing freeways each bound for different destinations in different directions. -- the Harbor, the Hollywood, the San Bernardino, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena and the Pomona. No matter how many times I've driven through the gray industrial thicket of east LA, the journey never gets easier. The eyes spin in their sockets, the head aches, the nerves jangle. I finally sailed east on the Pomona freeway until I reached Montebello. I found the mortuary nestled among the small shops and cafes of Whittier boulevard. It was located only a few blocks from St. Benedicts. I sense that an entire life could be spent on Whittier Boulevard without the need to venture beyond its borders.

The mortuary's parking lot was not filled. Standing outside were Joey and Ray, John Rodriguez's two sons, whom I had met the last time I visited Phil. They didn't recognize me. Both wore glasses, the lenses large and round, the frames dark. With their mixed Mexican-Japanese ancestry both boys looked like miniature Mr. Motos.

I entered the mortuary. Sitting in the foyer were several Mexican women, mostly young, heavy set. They were chatting amiably. Once inside the visitation room, I walked toward the open casket. Chairs were lined up auditorium style. A few elderly Mexican men sat quietly in the center of the room. An old lady, her head enshrouded in a black shawl, sat alone at the rear, her head bowed, quietly praying. At the casket, I took a long last look at Phil. I was appalled at what I saw. He was dressed in a colorful long-sleeved shirt covered with Indian designs, set off by a bolo tie with a turquoise lanyard. A silver buckle with a turquoise stone adorned his belt. His hands clutched his rosary beads. I had never before seen Phil in Indian clothing or wearing Indian jewelry. He had always dressed in casual American-style clothing or, when he appeared at our reunion banquets, in a conventional suit and tie. It was apparent that Phil had Indian blood but seeing him dressed that way in the coffin made him seem like a stranger. I was tempted to bend down and kiss my old friend on his forehead, but seeing all the mortuary war paint on his face only served to point up the differences between us, differences that had long been forgotten, until this moment.

All of a sudden, I wasn't happy about having travelled all the way to California only to find Phil lying in his coffin, all done up and powdered and rouged and looking like a wax likeness of Cochise. This was not Phil lying in front of me, not the sweet man I joked with and shared Calvados with during the winter of 1945. But I had to see him this one last time, if only to fix his face permanently in my mind.

It was something I failed to do with my friend, Danny Ciccheli. Danny had come to Chicago from his home in Detroit for his niece's June graduation. It was late in the evening when he called, and he wanted to meet me at a restaurant. I told him no; it was too late, I said, and besides I would see him a few months later at our reunion in September. That summer he died. He was loud, combative and profane, and a good friend. But which of his faces do I place in the locket of my mind -- Danny with the long scar running down the side of his face. Or Danny flicking the tip of his thumb from between his teeth in a gesture of reprisal directed to the back of Sergeant Snopek. Or Danny, that time on Louisiana manuevers, when he straightened my pack and held some of its weight with his free hand as we marched. I'm missing that single clear picture of him. I would have had it if I hadn't passed up seeing him in Chicago. I wanted to make sure it wouldn't happen in Phil's case.

There was no sign of Lupe. I walked outside the mortuary.

There were now more visitors than when I had first arrived. I spotted a tall, strapping Mexican, smiling and chatting casually with some of the visitors. He resembled Phil in every way except for the Indian features. As I approached him he took only brief notice of me and continued talking to the other visitors. I interrupted him and introduced myself as an army friend of his father's. He took that news matter-of- factly, and it was evident he had never heard my name. He told me he was John Rodriguez, the eldest son, the retired Marine gunnery sergeant who had fought in Nam. He was 51, the father of Joey and Ray, and he lived in Aurora, Colorado. I knew a lot about him from my previous visit with Phil, his multiple marriages, his divorce from his Japanese wife, his two sons who were cared for by Lupe and Phil. We chatted for a few moments, but he neglected to introduce me to any of the other visitors milling about, and exhibited no interest in my relationship with Phil or in why I had come to California for the funeral. When I asked where his mother was, he told me she was off running errands and would be back shortly. I told him I'd wait around, extended my condolences and walked off.

I sat down on a bench outside the mortuary. I was an Anglo among all the Mexicans, dressed up in suit and tie and looking out-of-place, and yet no one introduced themselves or showed any curiosity about my presence. Except for one man. Seated on the bench next to me was a burly middle-aged Mexican. I began chatting with him. He introduced himself as Ron Orozco, an old friend of Reggie Rodriguez, Phil and Lupe's son who was killed in Nam. He pointed to a young man in the crowd, who I would have judged to be 21 or 22. He was Reggie Rodriguez, Jr. I was startled to learn that Phil's late son had himself been the father of a son, now a handsome young man. It made Viet Nam seem so long ago, as though I had been lost in a time warp. On a recent visit to Washington I had visited the Viet Nam memorial. There, engraved in the marble was the name of Marine Corporal Reggie Rodriguez. I recall having sent a pencil tracing of his name to Phil and Lupe, imagining all the time that the man whose name I had traced was, even at that time, still a fresh faced young man.

Ron Orozco had a full black beard and walked with a cane. I noticed that his right hand was misshapen. He had one eye. His injuries had been sustained at Nam, where he had received massive shrapnel injuries. He was a gentle, patient man who explained what a Rosary was and gave me additional information about the following day's events.

Finally, I spotted Lupe just before 5 pm when the mortuary was about to close. She was in the center of a group of friends who had come to view Phil's body. As I walked toward her, she recognized me immediately. I hugged her and told her how sorry I was about Phil. She asked me if I had viewed the body. I told her I had. Nevertheless, she guided me back inside the mortuary and together we walked over to the casket, passing the same old men seated away from the casket and the old lady praying at the rear of the auditorium.

"Doesn't Philip look wonderful," she said, proudly.
"Yes he does, Lupe," I lied. "He looks very lifelike."
"My little Indian," she said plaintively.
"I was surprised to find that you put Indian clothing on him."
"Oh, Phil belonged to the San Gabriel tribe. He had a lot of Indian blood."
"I guess I never realized how much."
"Oh, yes, Phil was an Indian."
"Whatever he was, Lupe, he was my good friend."
"He always talked about you, Mel."
"Well, I'll miss him.

She told me she had to gather up Joey and Ray and take them back home for dinner.

"You're coming to the Rosary, aren't you?"
"Of course," I said.

I was hoping she would invite me back to her home, but the invitation didn't come.

It was shortly after 5 pm and I had nearly two hours to kill before the Rosary started. I hadn't the slightest notion of how to use up the time. I started driving east on Whittier boulevard, looking for a place to sit down and have a drink. I passed from one small town to another, each bearing a Spanish name, but there were no cocktail lounges, only one cheap Mexican cafe after another, each advertising the same specialties -- Tacos, Burritos, Tamales and Chili Rellenos..

I found a saloon shortly before I reached the city of Whittier and ordered a vodka. The barmaid shoved the drink and a bowl of popcorn in front of me. I watched a young couple shooting pool for a few minutes, the boy wearing his baseball cap backwards. Then, tiring of the whole scene, I asked the barmaid if she knew a good restaurant. She said her mother worked in a swell place on Rosemead Boulevard. Have you eaten there? No, but my mother told me the food was good.

I took her directions but decided not to stop, and instead continued driving west along Whittier Boulevard, back toward Montebello. When I reached 7th and Whittier, I spotted the restaurant where Phil and I had lunch a few years earlier. Jimmy's Restaurant. I thought about the good time I'd had with Phil. I recalled Steve Simarian, the Montebello police chief, who bought our lunch, and the pretty waitresses in their short skirts. It was as if I had come home. Suddenly I no longer felt quite as lonely.

There were only a few couples in the restaurant. I took a seat at the counter, and the prettier of the two hispanic waitresses took my order. After a while, I saw Jimmy heading toward the cash register. There was no doubt that it was he. He was a short, swarthy man with a thick mane of gray hair.

The Rosary would be starting soon. I finished eating and took my check to the register. I greeted him with the few words of Greek I knew. He asked me if I was speaking Greek to him. I knew then that I had made a mistake.

"I'm not Greek," he said, cordially. He spoke with a slight middle-eastern accent.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I sort of figured you were."
"Lots of people do, but I'm Iranian."
I introduced myself as a friend of Phil Rodriguez.
"We served in the army together," I explained.
"Did you come in for the mass?"
"Well, not the mass, just the Rosary tonight."
I was surprised that he already knew about Phil.
"Too bad about Phil. I've know Phil and Lupe for a long time," he said.
"He brought me here for lunch a few years ago. I didn't have a chance to meet you then."

We shook hands.
"My daughter and I are going to the Rosary in a few minutes. I'll see you over there."
"A pleasure meeting you, Jimmy."
"Same here," he said.

I was hoping he'd ask me to join them.

I caught a glimpse of him at St.Benedict's. He was seated in one of the rear rows, just as I was. No one spoke or nodded to me when I walked in. The church was a huge, hollow structure, and all the pews were gradually filling up as I sat and watched the Mexicans genuflect and make the sign of the cross. Finally, when the priest began to speak, his words came out as unfeeling, as hollow as the church itself. I saw no tears, and heard only the impersonal voice of the priest. It was as though all emotion had been snuffed out by the organized ritual of the service and by that huge warehouse of a church. I longed to hear the tearful wail of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

At that moment I was suddenly confronted by an unmistakable truth: I had expected to be accepted into Phil's world merely because I had attended his funeral. It was the delusion of an outsider. And yet, in contradiction, it was I who had once turned away from Phil because I didn't consider him my equal. The truth is -- I didn't belong to his world any more than he belonged to mine. Neither of us, no matter how intense the yearning, could push his way into the alien world of the other. Different people have different ways. It was best that I left it at that. He was a Mexican, a street-kid from the Mexican ghetto. I was a Jew, reared in a kosher household on Des Moines's northside, itself a ghetto. But in spite of our differences, we had one of those rare friendships, borne out of the loneliness and terror of war, that could never have sustained itself without those poignant memories of our years together in the army. Phil was gone and a piece of the battalion, and a piece of me as well, had gone with him.

I stuck around at the Rosary for half an hour before I walked out.

As I headed back to my car, I thought of Phil's parting words to me a few years before.

"We don't say goodbye," he had said. "We say, 'see you later.'"

I turned around and looked up at St.Benedict's, its huge spire outlined against the darkening sky. Inside lay the body of a fallen comrade dressed up in Indian clothes. That man and I had huddled together to ward off the cold during the winter of 1945. We had swallowed the mud of Holland during nightly strafings by JU 88's and had shivered in a frenzy of fear as German paratroopers descended in the darkness over our position near Wesel, Germany.

"See you later, Phil," I yelled out in the direction of the church.

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