Before Beatriz

by Gabriel Urbina


George's friendship with a French-Vietnamese family, who eventually leave for New Caledonia, to escape the chaos of war. How George became severely wounded, which landed him in the field hospital where Beatriz worked.

I was born in San Leandro, which is located in the East Bay, south of Oakland. I was raised in the mist of a very happy family. We are of Portuguese ancestry. I lived with my parents, Jorge and Estella, and my grandparents Manoel and Amelia were born in the old country. My father was a bus driver, and my mother ran a dry cleaning business. My grandfather was a bookbinder, and I enjoyed very much watching him work, because he was such a great craftsman. My grandmother was the household manager. While still in high school, I used to help everybody with their tasks, and running errands. I felt my family was more than a family; it really felt like a very good team, where every member was happy with his or her lot.

There was no concern for me or my family about military service. For all of us, it was simply an obligation that had to be fulfilled. It looked like I was going to serve in a peacetime Army. I was not drafted until I was twenty-two years old. During the four years before induction into the Army, I increased my participation in my mom's business, and began to take courses at the local junior college.

I liked the subject of Accounting, because everything had to add up; everything had to be accounted for, and everything had to balance. It was a subject that made total sense to me. I learned just a little bit later in life, that the world is not like that, and that many things are left unexplained, unaccounted for, and out of balance.

Before entering military service, my eye doctor told me I had a "lazy eye." My right eye had a "blind spot" right through the center of it. This condition did not keep me out of the Army. When I went for my physical either they didn't believe me, or they didn't care. Maybe they thought I was faking it, to avoid military service.

During basic training, I was a "bolo." There were six of us in the company. We were considered screw-ups because we were failing our rifle qualification. We were shamed every morning; we were put on display in front of the entire company. Miraculously, at the end of basic training, my record showed I had qualified as a rifleman at the firing range. As it turned out, it didn't matter that I could not hit a target.

Since my records showed I had taken accounting courses, that I had some background in business, and that I knew how to type, after basic training I was sent to receive advanced training in the clerical field. I was destined to be a company clerk. I was given "on the job training" at the Oakland Army Terminal, where many inductees and enlistees were "processed," creating mountains of paperwork and files.

Six months later, I was assigned as a company clerk to an infantry outfit based in Kansas, which within a few months would be sent to Vietnam. My outfit was in the field, but near Saigon. We were given day-passes to go to the city. About 0800 hours, a truck would take soldiers to Saigon; then a truck would come at 1700 hours to take the same group of soldiers back to camp.

I was a wanderer though the city, taking long walks. I liked to go to the central market, for the humanity of it, for its liveliness, for the sense of normalcy it projected. For calmness, I liked to walk through the residential areas, lined with trees, nice houses, which gave me the impression of being somewhere in France.

One day, unexpectedly, I found a nice library. I was glad because it added to the sense of normalcy I seemed to be looking for at the time. I went inside the library. At the desk was an Eurasian young woman. Her name was Marie-Ahn, which at first thought was Marianne. She helped find some materials in English, as I did not know Vietnamese or French. She was keen to talk to me, because she wanted to practice her English, I thought. After several repeat visits to the library, I met her father, whose name was Georges, with an s at the end. He was a distinguished looking Frenchman, who was part owner of a big hotel that catered to Americans. He was married to a Vietnamese lady named My-Duyen, which meant "beautiful." This couple had decided to give their daughter one French name and one Vietnamese name. Ahn meant "Peace." Their daughter's name did indeed sound like Marianne; and it was done on purpose, because as Georges explained to me, Marianne is a symbol of France. I had lunch with Georges and his family many times.

During what turned out to be my last visit with this beautiful family,Georges told me he had been planning their departure from Vietnam for a long time. He believed the chaos of war would eventually arrive to the city. He had a brother in New Caledonia, and he was planning to take his family there. He did not know if they were going to stay there, or return to France. He would worry about that later. The priority was to leave Vietnam as soon as possible.

Somehow, I knew I would never see them again. I felt the need to spend extra time with this family, so I stayed with them for dinner, and remained at their home overnight. I was right; I never saw them again. I will always remember them. I am sure they are living in peace,somewhere in this world.

I returned to the compound the next morning. I knew there would be consequences for staying in Saigon overnight. I expected a demotion, a fine, no passes for a while; any or all of those actions. My punishment was the loss of my job as company clerk, and reassignment to a rifle platoon. Well, with my lazy eye, with the blind spot in my right eye, I sensed that it was very likely I would not kill anybody. I was only good to stop a bullet, which I did.

Beatriz took care of me, and then I was sent back to the States. I recovered from my physical injuries, except for my voice. For a while the medical staff believed my inability to talk was something psychological; maybe I was in shock. They didn't know I was quite a talker, and that no shock in the world would keep me from talking, if I could.

I learned sign language very quickly, because my desire to communicate with others is very strong. This is also the reason I began to write.

I was discharged from the Army six weeks before my two-year obligation. I was happy to be alive. I was a happy civilian when I was reunited with Beatriz, in San Francisco.

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