Melvyn Binaley Danguilan Escueta
Born January 26, 1945 in Malabon, Luzon, Philippines
Died May 9, 1999 in San Francisco, CA, USA
When I was living down on the farm in Soledad, the old Filipino workers,
the Manongs, would gather around the porch outside the converted barn that
we lived in and talk story. They'd light up their pipes, roll their smokes,
pet their cocks, (for you
non-Filipinos, fighting roosters) and laugh and cry as they related the stories of their friends who had already passed-on. Of
course, the uncle's seeing that I had picked up the habit, often provided me with a few smokes from their packs as I sat there
listening to their stories. So let's talk story.
I first met Mel way back in the early 50s when we stayed with his family for a week in San Francisco. I always considered Mel, a year older then me, to be my older brother. Our great-grand-mothers were sisters, as well as descendants of the head-hunting Gaddangs from Nueva Viscaya in the upper Cagayan Valley of northern Luzon. We went to see the movie "Francis the Talking Mule," and I remembered he commented that it would be fun to be in the military.
In the early '60s, as I began my rebellious streak, I'd sometimes hop
a Friday night freight train, hobo-style, out of Soledad, and
head north to San Francisco to spend time with Mel's family. In those days, he had a bright-red motorcycle that he used to zip
around the hills of the City. When I was participating in last October's Veteran's Day parade down Market Street, I had these images of Mel racing his 'bike between two green and beige San Francisco muni trolley cars, with me on the back of his bike screaming in holy terror. Of course, Mel was laughing like crazy. Later, when we were cleaning up the mess that I had made on the back seat of his bike, I asked him why the hell he did that -- we could have been killed. Mel replied that the trolley's were moving too fast so he decided the safest course of action was to charge straight ahead.
On one weekend, broke as usual and unable to go anywhere, Mel and I were sitting on the back porch of his home in the Haight-Asbury. He lit up a Camel, and I pulled out my pipe and stuffed it with tobacco. He asked if he could try the pipe and after a few puffs, this smile came over his face. Mel grabbed it and disappeared only to reappear twenty minutes later with twenty bucks in his hand He gave me half and he told me to hop on the back of his motorcycle and we headed on down to the Coffee Gallery, a small coffee shop north of Broadway on upper Grant Ave. That's where the Beatniks, the pre-cursors to the Hippies hung out. We were good at chess, so we sharpened our skills on the locals. It was a great place to hang-out.
In 1965, Mel and I had both dropped out of college. He was working in a Chinese bakery in Chinatown and I was working down in Delano cutting grapes. I received my draft notice in September 1965 and headed up to Oakland to be inducted into the Army. At the last moment I volunteered for the Marines. I arrived at MCRD San Diego and was assigned to Platoon 386. On the first Sunday morning in bootcamp, I heard this familiar laugh coming from the other side of the Quonset hut. I walked over and saw Mel with his M-14 rifle laid out in front of him. He had enlisted in the Marines a few days before me. We were assigned to different platoons but we were both in Lima Company, 2nd Battalion.
The Orientals, as we were called in those days, were the butt of all
the anti-Viet Cong jokes the drill instructors told the
recruits. On the day we were given our mandatory two hours of hand-to-hand combat, Mel and I were the only two Asians there to receive the training. The D.I. got up on the platform and proceeded to tell his war stories of how the gooks in the 'Nam were sneaky-yellow bastards. He warned us that we had better pay attention or they'd slit our throats at night. When one of the recruits asked him what a gook looked like, he gazed out over the audience and fixed his eyes on Mel and me. He pointed his finger and said that Charlie Cong looked just like us. We could feel cold-hearted hatred as two hundred pairs of eye-balls locked on us and we heard the thunderous roar of "kill" reverberating in the air.
The instructor motioned for us to join him on the platform and ordered us to attack him. Mel and I both went flying through the air. The D.I. then told the rest of the recruits that he was going to teach them how to do exactly what he had just done to us. Mel and I were used as punching dummy's for the next two hours. Afterwards, as he summed up the training session, he said that he was going to put together everything that he had taught them that afternoon, and again ordered us to attack him.
I moved first and the D.I. came after me. The next thing I knew, he
went flying through the air and Mel was on top of him in a
heartbeat giving him an open palm slap across his throat, down hard on his solar-plexus, and slapping the D.I.'s gonads back into his body. As the instructor laid on the ground moaning in pain, Mel stood up and in his best imitation of Charlie Chan's Chinese English, bowed to the crowd of astonished recruits and D.I.'s, smiled and said "That D.I. one damn good instructor. I not know this until he teach me today." That was bull, Mel was one of the best street fighters, in the tradition of the Jets and Sharks, that Poly High School ever graduated. No one ever messed with him after that.
When I taught my first Asian American history class at San Francisco
State University in the fall of 1993, I invited Mel to give a
talk to my class on his experiences as a community organizer and one of the founders of Swords to Ploughshears, a Vietnam veterans outreach program. Mel spoke quietly of his own experiences in Vietnam saying that he was no hero, just a young American, (never mentioned the word Filipino), doing only what was asked of him in 1965.
He told the story of his impressions of arriving in Vietnam in 1966. He remembered the god-awful heat and humidity that engulfed him. To him, it was almost like being back in the Philippines. As the trucks took him from Da Nang out to his unit, he recalled that the Americans, when they drove through the villages, would gag and comment on the stink emanating from the huts that lined the road. Mel only smiled, to him it was the perfumed smell of bagoong.
Before he went on his first combat patrol, and as he and his friends sat waiting for the word to move out, he tried to describe what heaven would be like, since they might very shortly be there. They came to an understanding that heaven would be that one point in time when they were surrounded by their best friends having the best time of their lives. They went forth into the night unafraid and did their duty to God and country as they had been taught. As I reviewed that tape ,I saw the sadness and the hurt in his eyes as he spoke of the pain of watching his best friend die in his arms.
In the summer of 1967, he had just returned from Vietnam and proudly
wearing his Marine Corps uniform, he was riding the
Haight-Ashbury bus home when he was accosted by blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans who taunted him for being part of the criminal conspiracy to kill innocent people in Vietnam. Rather ironic, don't you think? In San Francisco in 1967, the "Summer of Love," he was hated. His voice choked when he recounted the story of walking down the street to buy bread and milk and he saw this vast tide of unwashed Americans claiming to be in love with peace, but being extremely violent whenever they encountered a serviceman. Mel reenlisted in the Marines and headed back overseas. He spent the rest of his tour in the Corps serving with Marine detachments guarding America's embassy's in the Communist bloc countries.
After his discharge from the Marines, Mel channeled the anguish of his
experiences into "Honey Bucket," a play about a Filipino
American fighting in Vietnam. Using Vietnam veterans who needed to exorcise their own demons, he took it on the road and performed the play across the United States. It was performed before the delegates at the 1984 Democratic Party convention in San Francisco.
In 1983, I began having my own nightmares and cold-sweats at night. Mel was running a storefront Vietnam veterans outreach center down in the Mission district. I met with him briefly and he got me admitted into the resident PTSD program at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital for treatment. He and other Vietnam vets helped me come to grips with the nightmares of Vietnam. It worked, and I was able to complete my military career. But in helping others, Mel absorbed their hurt and pain, and it became part of his own struggle to come to grips with the horrors of Vietnam.
For me, I still have visions of Mel, in 1963, walking up Grant Avenue
to the Coffee Gallery, in his black beret, and dark glasses
with me in tow. There in the dark, smoked filled room, the rhythms of the bong-go drums played and Mel stepped forward to read poetry. Let me share a few with you, as best as I can remember them today.
This one reflected his ideas of sharing with others. [POETRY OMMITED]
In this one Mel is asking us to remember him in our own way. [POETRY OMMITED]
And finally, something that all of us sometimes do as we sit and contemplate where we have been. [POETRY OMMITED]
On a May Saturday evening, Mel, attended the senior prom given by his students at Galileo High School. For a few brief moments, there was indeed a heaven on earth. There, he was enjoying life to the fullest, surrounded by his best friends. Then, it was time to go. He was finally at peace with the world when he crossed over from mere mortal to that of eternal legend, knowing that his best friend, Arlene, his wife, was holding him in her arms.
I miss him.