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Paintball in the Wild
Michael Ortiz wiped the steam from his eyeglasses and turned off the iron. He held up the top of his military uniform. The creases in front were sharp. He felt pleased with himself, a cadet in seventh grade and with the rank of corporal. He had been in cadets only since the beginning of school and by October he already had two stripes, plus three ribbons for drill, hall patrol, and conduct.
The conduct one was special because he used to be moody before he joined cadets. In sixth grade he sat through all his classes with his chin in his hand, his eyes half closed, and a yawn from boredom building up at the back of his throat. His grades were Cs and Ds. Sometimes he got into fights, but he usually thought they were just too much trouble.
Now he was a year older. His body said so. He was two inches taller.
"Sharp," he said to himself. The hot iron answered back with a sigh and a burst of steam.
He hung the shirt over his pants, already ironed, and pinned his ribbons back onto his uniform. He undid them when he noticed they were a little crooked over his shirt pocket. He petted the ribbons. He fogged the bars with his breath and polished them with a Kleenex, careful not to undo the creases on the front of his shirt.
When he heard his mother holler from the kitchen, he turned away from his uniform. "¡Miguel! ¡Miguel, telé-f-onooooo! ¡Apúrate! ¡Ya! Tenemos que comer."
Michael, born Luis Miguel, wished that his mom could speak English, but she was in her own world, a world that remained rooted in Mexico. He loved her deeply and would never tell his mother to please learn English like his father had. His father was so proud that he would stop at telephone poles just to read posters aloud in an accented mutter.
"Voy, Mami," Michael answered back.
He hurried out of his bedroom and took the phone from his mother. His nose twitched when he smelled breakfast-papas and huevos con weenies. The little weenies were marching in the fry pan. Breakfast was almost ready.
"Hey," Miguel said. It was Trung, his classmate from Jackson Junior High and a corporal like himself but with one more ribbon than him-a bivouac ribbon because his platoon got to go camping and learn how to use a compass. Miguel made no bones that he was jealous of that extra ribbon on Trung's shirt. He had repeatedly told his friend that he would have gone on the weekend bivouac except his mother didn't like him staying at anyone else's house. When he'd tried to explain that they were camping outdoors, she still remained firm. That evening he pouted in his room with the lights out. Not even the sight of his uniform could perk him up.
"You gonna be ready?" Trung asked.
They were going to a paintball war in the foothills outside Fresno. He was going to tell their teacher, Mr. Mitchell, the cadet commander at school. Maybe this outing would count as a bivouac.
"Nine-thirty," Michael said. His eyes looked up at the clock over the refrigerator. "You gonna lend me the stuff?"
The stuff was a gun and goggles.
"Yeah, like I said." Trung reminded Michael that it cost twenty-five dollars, plus there were paintballs you had to buy. At least a thousand rounds were needed for the day. He also reminded him to bring drinking water.
"I got water," Miguel answered. Earlier in the week he had biked across town to an army surplus store and bought an authentic canteen. He liked that it was dented and imagined that bullets had ricocheted off its side. "And I got the money." A rich uncle from Los Angeles had sent him fifty dollars for his birthday.
Michael hung up the telephone. He stared at the frying pan, then at his mother, who asked, "¿Dos huevos?"
He held up two fingers, then saluted his mom-he just couldn't help himself. He was a military boy.
Michael sat in the back of Trung's father's truck, with his knees up to his chin. Although it was a sunny morning, he was cold in the whipping wind. He was wearing only a flannel shirt, flecked with paint that he figured would work as camouflage. His tennis shoes were also flecked with paint.
He turned to Trung. "It's cold."
"You should have brought a jacket," his friend answered. The collar of his own jacket was flapping like a sail.
"You didn't tell me." But Michael knew that was a poor defense. A cadet, he knew, should be prepared for all kinds of weather conditions. He was glad that he had brought water. He patted his canteen and touched the front pockets of his pants, where he had stashed candy bars and pumpkin seeds. He closed his eyes, wrapped his arms around his chest, and rode out the cold.
A half hour later the back window slid open when the truck pulled off Highway 41. Trung's brother, Truc, and his friend Tran, were in the cab, each of them cradling the gun barrel with one hand and fingering the trigger set on safety with the other. Truc said something in Vietnamese to Trung. Their father said something, too, and it sounded like he was angry.
"What did your father say?" Michael asked. They were approaching the paintball war ground called No Man's Land.
"He said be careful."
To Michael it sounded like a lot of words just to say be careful. In Spanish it was simply cuídate.
When the truck stopped, the two boys gathered their equipment and jumped out of the back, landing like ninjas. Michael felt ready for combat and was already searching the trees for snipers.
"Thanks, sir," he called to Trung's father, who was going fishing while the four boys went to war. Bright fishing lures hung from his vest like war medals.
Trung's father said something long and maybe angry at Michael. He grinned sternly and showed his ruined teeth. The truck pulled away, stirring up dust over the gravel road. The taillights flashed like gunfire when he braked at the end of the road. Then the truck turned left and was gone.
"What did your dad say?" Michael asked.
"He said that his father died in the war." Trung had shouldered his equipment.
It was too late to say that he was sorry. He didn't know that Trung's grandfather had been in the Vietnam War. He saw Trung in a new light. Maybe Trung deserved that bivouac ribbon after all on account of his grandfather getting killed. Michael's own grandfather had gotten his foot crushed by a forklift, but that didn't count as much.
"Let's go," Trung said, with his hand already in his pocket, searching for the twenty-five-dollar admission. They approached the front office. A woman with a tattoo of a butterfly on her throat sold them tickets and six cartridges that held the paintballs.
"How about candies?" she asked. The butterfly on her throat seemed to flap its wings when she spoke. Her breath was anything but candy. It smelled sour.
Michael knew that the candies were overpriced. And he already had some candy in his pocket, enough to give his blood a good blast of energy. But he wanted to be friendly and said, "Okay." He bought a Milky Way.
Their hands were stamped and the four boys entered the gated area, where they walked down a dusty trail. At the end of the trail they came across three white men wearing T-shirts that said VIETNAM VETS. They were sitting on top of a picnic table, loading their guns. The men locked hard stares on the four boys.
Copyright © 2005 by Gary Soto
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