In the spring of 1953, most of the soldiers had their sentences remitted and were returned to duty. But there was no all-Puerto Rican 65th to return to. The regiment had been integrated with Continental troops and most of the Borinqueneers were dispersed throughout the army.
With the war over, and a shaky armistice in place, the Borinqueneers started to return home. When they left, they had taken a troop cargo ship that took them through the Panama Canal to Japan, and eventually, Korea. The return was different.
There were no parades in Puerto Rico to receive the small groups of veterans arriving every week. Once, the governor had declared a national holiday when the first group of Borinqueneers returning from Korea arrived in the island way back in 1951. Even the wounded soldiers and former prisoners of war who returned in 52 and 53 were received with parades, both in New York and in San Juan and, of course, in their hometowns. Monuments went up to honor those men.
But it was different for those who were returned to duty and dispersed throughout the army.
For them it was the lone way home.
Camacho took a flight from San Franciso to La Guardia after receiving his honorable discharge. He carried a small tin can with him. Once in New York, he took a cab and soon found himself on Fulton street, Brooklyn. The cab stopped in front of a dilapidated house with the number 116 on the door. Camacho paid the cab driver and walked up the three steps to the house’s door. He hesitated, looked at the can and held it tight. He could hear people inside. He finally knocked at the door. A woman wearing a black dress and a short black veil covering her hair and forehead opened the door.
“May I help you?”
“No, yes, I mean…, are you Marisela de Colón?
“Yes, I’m. Who are you?”
“I knew your son. I was with him when it happened. I brought you this.”
He handed her the tin can. Inside the can were dirt and pebbles from Jackson Heights, where Colón had died. He didn’t have to explain the can’s contents- she knew.
“He always talked about you señora” said Camacho almost inaudibly. Colón and him had become close since the miracle at Outpost Kelly. Now Colón had become another ghost in the ever expanding pantheon Camacho carried with him. It had started with the first North Korean he killed, now there were too many too count, and they were too familiar too forget.
Marisela’s eyes watered. Like many parents and wives, she had buried an empty casket for there was nothing left of their loved ones to bury.
“Thank you. What is your name again?”
“Please come inside and have some coffee.”
Carlos declined but Marisela insisted. He went inside and they talked about private Ernesto Colón over coffee. Time flew. Carlos noticed it was almost sunset. He apologized and told her he had to leave. She walked him to the door.
It had been decades since anyone had called him Carlos- it felt right.
“Thanks for bringing my son home. Find your way home too.”
Carlos nodded and walked away.
González ran up the hill as fast as possible, as he had done as a kid hundreds of times- more goat than man. He ran jalda arriba just as he had done when news broke out that the 65th was fighting in Korea back in 1950, when he could not wait to go to war.
“Mamá, llegué!” he said as loud as possible as he entered Camila’s home.
Camila could not say a word. González had arrived unexpectedly. He had written to let her know but the letter got lost in the mail. She had waited for this moment and now, there she stood, immobile and unable to speak.
A knot in Mario’s throat prevented him from talking. And there they stood.
Melita came running into the house and hugged her big brother.
Mario extended his arm and pulled his mother in the embrace. She finally spoke.
“You are home son, you are finally home.”
It had been a rough time for Camila and Melita. Camila’s husband had died of pneumonia in Michigan in early 1953. Mario had been sent to military prison and then to a different unit to complete his service. She had not seen him in more than three years. But he was home now. That was all that matters.
He was still her Mario but he was no longer a boy. This time he wanted to stay. He went to college and became an engineer- always seeking to make his mother proud. He built a cement house where her mother’s shack once stood. When he retired, he moved with his wife to that house and lived peacefully until age caught up with him in 2003. He lived a good life.
Carlos visited Mario through the years. They never spoke of the war again but for an interview they gave to a Boricua history student from Temple University during Carlos’ last visit in the late nineties. They both opened up to the young historian as the vellonera played bolero after bolero and the three of them drank pitorro shots at Barra y Colmado El Gallo. Carlos and Mario wept as they remembered their fallen friends and the horrors of war, their youth cut short. Mario pour some pitorro on the floor to honor the fallen. The historian’s training was not enough to hide his admiration for these men and what they went through. He thanked them for sharing their story with him and promised them to one day write it. After the historian left, Carlos and Mario went back to their usual conversations- knowing they wouldn’t speak about the war ever again.
Carlos’ visits were his way of continuing to take care of his platoon. Mario was all that was left off it. He would’ve liked to visit more often but that proved difficult after he relocated to New York. Carlos had tried going back to Lajas. It didn’t work. The hills in the distance reminded him of Korea- and his ghost came back with all the others in tow- every night. Now the ghosts were a reminder of everything lost, and when he saw the jibaros from Lajas he could only think of the Puerto Rican, Korean and Chinese peasants who have died as soldiers back in Korea. He moved to New York trying to escape Korea, the war, and his ghosts.
He met Marisela again by chance at a Hispanic Club. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love. They married in 1962 and moved to Harlem. The ghosts eventually went away. Carlos was finally home, with his familia.
Straight to my heart. I have the blessing of meeting 17 Borinqueneers and spend a week with them for Revist Korea 2016. Gentleman and true heroes. They are in my heart. God bless them.
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Thanks for the comment. Great men indeed.