Mario ran “jalda arriba” as fast as he could- more goat than man. He was supposed to be in class. That is what his mother wanted. He would be the first one in his family to finish high school, not fourth grade or eight grade like the enlightened people in their barrio in Naranjito- but real high school, all the way to twelve grade, and perhaps, even attend one of the vocational schools being built all over the island. He knew his mother would not be happy to see him out of school, but he had a good excuse.
It was October 12, 1950 and as Puerto Rican newspapers and radio announced that the men of the 65th (el sesenta y cinco) were fighting in Korea, the whole island seemed to have erupted in celebration.
Horns, sirens, whistles.
Professional and amateur musicians played “La despedida” on every corner, bar and tavern.
Government officials, politicians and patriarchs made announcements and gave patriotic speeches.
The day resembled a holiday more than anything else.
The island’s newspapers were full of stories and pictures of the 65th and the ceremonies held previous to their secret departure. A local newspaper proclaimed: “As it was yet another symbol of the United Nations, under the American flag flies the flag of the 65th Infantry Regiment, this flag flies today in Korea.” Yes, the public tone was celebratory and someone unfamiliar with Puerto Rican culture could’ve thought that the news had announced the end of the war and not that the island’s men had just been sent into combat, into war.
Mario made it into his mother’s rustic house. She was coming back from the yard with a chicken she had just killed and that would the main ingredient in several meals.
“Mamá, the men are gone, the men are gone.”
Camila’s heart sank. Her husband had gone to Michigan to work in beet fields almost six months earlier and she knew why Mario was so excited.
“Mamá they are recruiting men for the war and I’m going to volunteer!”
Camila barely let Mario finish “You are only sixteen years-old and you are going to finish high school like you promised me and your father. You can join the army when you are done with school.”
“But mama, the war will be over by then.”
“There will always be another war Mario, there will always be another war” said Camila hoping that the war would be over by the time she could no longer stop her only son from joining the army.
Mario knew that his mother’s word was final. Joining the celebrations to give los muchachos a proper farewell was all Mario could do, for now.