I finished my basic training at Fort Ord, California. . After basic training I was trained in the clerical field. I was already a good typist, so that was a plus.. For my regular assignment, I was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, then home of the First Infantry Division. I was assigned to a Company as a clerk.
Roberto Rivera was a member of that company, and one day, when I was at the Recreation Center, he came to introduce himself. He saw my name tag, "Almeida," so he assumed that I spoke Spanish. I explained to him that my parents were from Portugal, that I had learned Spanish playing with the kids in my neighborhood, in San Leandro, California, and that I had taken Spanish in high school.. Roberto spoke very little English, so he was always happy to chat with someone in his own language. He asked me what my first name was, and I said, "George." Very soon he was calling me "Jorge," which I liked, because that's my father's name..
Roberto was much older than the rest of us draftees. He was almost 25 years old. Once I knew him a little bit, I asked him why was that. He said, laughing, "Because I used to ran for the hills." He was from Puerto Rico. He hailed from Yabucoa, a very small town, near the ocean, but also near a rain forest. So, what he was saying was more than an expression; it sounded like he really hid in the forest.
Roberto was simply not interested in military stuff, because that meant he would have to leave for the continental United States. He had never left Puerto Rico, and had no plans to leave the island, ever.
"But Roberto," I said, "most of us were drafted when we were 18 or 19 years old. You came in at 23 or so. How did you manage to elude the authorities for 4 or 5 years?"
"Well," he said, "I was not in a hurry to register for the draft. Then, I did not report for my physical as scheduled; I had to be taken there. I was declared fit for service, and soon after I received my draft notice, which I ignored."
"But that would take care of months, not years."
"I was hard to find. You see, I'm a jack of all trades, and very good at it. I was always working in Yabucoa, and nearby towns. I even had a few jobs in San Juan, which is in the opposite side of the island, but it is only one hour away from my hometown. The government easily finds people at their place of employment. In my case, that didn't work for them. They went for the obvious. They went repeatedly to talk to my widowed mother, but she couldn't give them specifics about where I was working. My friends told me they went to the beach looking for me. Maybe they thought I was a beach bum. It was easy to spot these detectives by the way they dressed, and simply because they didn't belong in my small hometown. In the rare occasions when I didn't have a job lined up, and I knew they were in town, I went to the forest for a couple of days."
"So, how did you get caught?"
"Well, my luck ran out. One day, when I was coming out of the forest, they were waiting for me. The brought me back to civilization, and provided me with free transportation to the induction center. Then I was sent to a two-week English course. After that, I was sent to Louisiana for basic training, and stayed there another eight weeks for advanced infantry training. And here I am."
He did not refused induction into the Army. He knew that wanting to stay at home, and to be left alone in peace, did not carry any weight compared to religious or philosophical objections.. He was not going to get a college education, so no student deferment for him. Of course, moving to Canada was totally out of the question.
A few weeks later, our brigade received orders to go to Vietnam. Everybody who had 6 months or more left in the service had to go. I knew I would be there for an entire year. Roberto had six months and one week left. He told me, "I wish those men in suits had caught me two or three weeks earlier."
Rivera did not see any military action. He actually served 5 months in Vietnam, because the three weeks we were in a ship on the way there, and the one week he was in a transit camp waiting to be sent back to the United States, counted as part of his overseas duty. We spend several months building our base camp in Bien Hoa, and then we had guard duty, and had to patrol the areas near our base. By the time the big military operations started, Roberto was gone.
During our last conversation, he told me, "Well, George, the Army did not succeed in getting me killed. You know, my father was killed in Korea. He was part of an all-Puerto Rican regiment that took a truly excessive number of casualties. Now that the Army is fully integrated, we are all equal. We all have an opportunity to get killed. Yes, there is equality in death."
I will never forget my Puerto Rican friend. He made me think, because he went against the grain of many expectations and beliefs we have. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and they are free to move to the United States. They have done so by the millions. Rivera wasn't interested. We live in a mobile society. Young people from small towns move to the big cities. Workers move in search of jobs, and new beginnings. Somehow, we consider travel as part of our pursue of happiness. Rivera didn't want to move, he always had work, and he was happy in a small town. He didn't feel the need to go anywhere. He didn't need to pursue happiness. It was already there for him.
What I learned from Roberto Rivera was to stay put. Otherwise, find a place you like and stick to it. In my case it was easy. After military service, I moved to San Francisco, which is 23 miles from where I was born. Personally, I would add to Roberto's way of thinking, "Beware of long searches, there is a strong chance you will not find happiness that way."
Roberto returned to Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and he never left again.