Sixteen with a Bullet
The 9 mm Smith & Wesson balanced on my right thigh had its grip wrapped in white medical tape. It was a big son of a bitch, and it had been fired numerous times before. An engraving tool had been used to scratch and grind the trigger. This, along with the tape, would make lifting fingerprints all but impossible. Over the last two years, I'd held and fired numerous weapons. When TEC-9s were cool, we would drive out to New Mexico deserts and shoot shit up. But this was something different. The 9 mm resting on my leg wasn't going to be used for target practice.
"I wish this pussy-ass muthafucka would hurry up and get home," Damien said as he looked at the house three doors down the street. "I'm ready to do this."
We were both ready to do this. We'd cinched knots in the rags wrapped around our heads and tucked them up under our hats so they could be quickly yanked down to cover our faces, like a train robber would in a western. My rag was brown. Damien's was black. That day I wore stereotypical 1990s-style Hispanic gangster gear, complete with Ben Davis threads, Mad Dogg sunglasses with "100% Chicano" emblazoned on the sides, and a black baseball cap with raiders stitched across its face in Old English script. The car we were staked out in belonged to a fellow gang member. I was sixteen years old.
Damien was in my gang and was down for anything. He was half-white, half-Mexican, six feet tall, with brown eyes and slicked-back dark hair. His girlfriend's jealous ex-boyfriend--the one whose house we were spying on--had just been released from jail and had, two days earlier, sworn his intention to kill Damien and me. Sitting in the borrowed car, sloshing a bottle of Olde English 800 back and forth, we were preparing to beat him to the punch.
"I still can't believe this muthafucka tried to fuck with us," Damien said. "I ain't gonna let that shit ride."
Damien was referring to the events that had taken place just two days earlier. Around 3:30 p.m. on a hot Albuquerque afternoon, Damien and I had just left his girlfriend's house and were driving down Eubank in Damien's sapphire-blue 1982 Buick Regal lowrider. Bumping Oldies music with the windows rolled down, we came to a red light. That's when a dark-gray Chevy Beretta with limousine-tinted windows pulled up inches from Damien's driver door.
"What the fuck?" Damien said.
The passenger side window rolled down. An outstretched arm holding a 9 mm handgun was now pointed at our faces.
"What's up, motherfuckers?" the ex-con, ex-boyfriend yelled.
"What the fuck you going to do, pussy?" Damien yelled back.
"I'm going to blast you and your bitch friend, motherfucker!" he said.
"Shut the fuck up, pussy!" Damien yelled.
The 9 mm pistol in his hand was the same style of weapon I'd later carry with me in Iraq, but at the moment the handgun was pointed at me. I should have kept quiet. I didn't keep quiet. Instead, I went primal.
"Do it, pussy!" I yelled. "Come on, bitch! Do it! DO IT, MOTHERFUCKER! Shoot me, you piece of fucking shit!"
Taunting an armed homicidal maniac fresh out of jail is generally a bad idea. But I wasn't smart. I was a shithead.
I yelled out my "set" (gang name).
Slowly the gun began to lower.
He knew my gang. He'd fucked up. I pressed on.
"Yeah, bitch!" I screamed through the car window. "That's right! Do it and see if you don't get blasted, you stupid motherfucker!"
The light turned green. He U-turned. We sped straight. Damien immediately dialed up his girlfriend to warn her and tell her what had just happened. More phone calls were made, guns and cars were supplied, and before we knew it, we were armed and sitting in a car in broad daylight, dressed like the hoodlums we were, just three homes from the would-be assassin's house.
Two hours. That's how long we waited--the first day, that is. The next day, we faced more of the same: no homicidal ex-boyfriend, no one to shoot and kill. Inside my sixteen-year-old shithead mind this was about honor and protection. This was something worth dying for. But whether he saw us and left or whether he had been tipped off in advance, the person we had come for never appeared. Sometimes when I lie down at night, my mind rewinds to that exact moment. There I am, sitting in that car with that gun, an insecure, violent, cocky, disgraceful little sixteen-year-old punk. I want to reach through time and kick my own ass. I want to scream at him: "What the fuck are you about to do? This isn't worth dying for. Turn around! There's more for you; this isn't what God put you here to do. Go home!"
But I can't do that. And even if I could, it haunts me to know it likely wouldn't have done any good.
Many years later, long after I'd left gang life and been given the privilege and honor of becoming a U.S. Marine, I learned that the ex-con boyfriend who'd sworn he'd kill us got killed in a gang shooting. That would have been my fate had it not been for the United States Marine Corps. Of this I am certain.
All I am or ever do, I owe to my beloved Corps.
I'm not sure I have a good answer as to how a kid with solid and supportive parents fell into the gang life so young. But what I do know is that ever since I can remember, I have dreamed of being on the battlefield. That's true of a lot of military brats. I craved adventure, and that's one thing gang life is never short on. Growing up on Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, my childhood friend Abe and I played "war" with the neighborhood boys every single day after school. We were four years old and already seasoned "playground warriors." Our childhood was the type that would horrify a child psychologist, but military brats would call it normal. My friends and I lived in the worn-out cammies (camouflage uniforms) our mothers bought us from the local PX (post exchange) and scribbled pictures of tanks, jets, troops, and rifles in tropic scenes. It was great. The parents of future Olympians ship their kids off to training centers at ridiculously young ages. Earl Woods had Tiger gripping a putter straight out of the womb. So I guess you could say that base life was my military training ground.
When my neighborhood buddies and I weren't slow-creeping through brush in anticipation of ambushes, sprinting to invisible chopper LZs (landing zones), or pumping imaginary rounds from our blue toy M-16 rifles into enemy chests, we were sitting in front of a television mesmerized by my childhood idol, John Rambo. That movie influenced me so much that as a kid I tried unsuccessfully to copy Rambo's chest scars. Mom's butter knife never could get the job done.
All my earliest childhood memories are related to the military. My dad being a soldier in the Army only fueled my desire to serve. Growing up military, every day was a blur of cool military vehicles whizzing by, tough-looking men in serious-looking uniforms, aircraft rumbling overhead, and powerful weapons carried by our fathers. Generations of American boys have grown up playing with G.I. Joes, plastic green Army men, and toy guns, but the military bug had bitten me unusually young and unusually hard. I remember being five years old and asking God to please let Rambo pick me up in a helicopter so we could go on missions together in misty jungles. For the life of me I couldn't understand why the armed forces had yet to recruit me. Not having finished kindergarten seemed like such a technicality.
Being consumed by all things military was also a family affair. Even my mom got in on the action. I used to sit in my bedroom on an olive drab cot while my mother and father set up a slide projector. My mom would flick off the lights before gripping the little projector clicker. I'd sit there wearing my ragged cammies as she advanced through slide after slide of friendly and enemy aircraft (most of the latter were Chinese- and Soviet-made). The images would flash up on my bedroom wall, large and in color. When an enemy aircraft would pop up on the screen, I would pretend that I shot it down with an antiaircraft (AA) gun. As part of his job, my dad had to memorize and be able to identify aircraft instantly.
My mom then called out Dad's official time. Some nights these "family bonding" sessions lasted hours.
When I turned five, my father was ordered to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The house the Army put us up in was less than a quarter mile from a hangar that housed a fighter-jet squadron. This was back when the movie Top Gun was huge. So when I saw the movie with my new friends from across the street, Charles and Richard, we got a brilliant idea: We should sneak into the jet hangar. Dodging sentries as we went, we somehow made it all the way to the jets and actually touched the aircraft and missiles. (Thank God government facilities are better guarded now!) Our plan to get into a cockpit was cut short when an ordnance technician started yelling and chasing us. We narrowly escaped capture and later bragged to all our friends that we had flown the jets.
My earliest understanding of actual warfare came in 1991 with the first Gulf War. I was in fifth grade and a few guys in my class liked playing war and some even had their own green jungle boots. I bugged the hell out of my poor parents for a pair of my own, which they picked up at Kaufman's, a surplus store. Once the war broke out, and images of bruised POWs began popping up everywhere on TV, I started watching the news. Unlike Rambo, this was real. I tuned in daily to see what would happen to the twenty-one Americans being held hostage. I think that's when war began morphing from fantasy into reality for me. My neighborhood friends and I had spent our time watching war movies, exploring the flight line near our homes, and getting as close as we could to the hangars to steal glimpses of the gargantuan C-130s, sleek F-16s, and even the occasional Stealth Fighter that came and went. But now I was beginning to connect the dots. The POWs on TV were somehow connected to those aircraft. The sound of F-16s taking off now began to take on new meaning.
I lost and gained friends on a regular basis. It was just a part of military life. The relationships and memories all stay with you, but the whereabouts of those friends and what happens to them just fade away. Living like a nomad forces you to learn how to hitch and unhitch yourself emotionally from people and surroundings. When I entered middle school, I found it all too easy to hook up with a new crew and quickly integrate myself with the new culture.
My new best friend, Angel, was a tough kid from a bad neighborhood called "The Kirt." Angel was a dark-skinned Mexican American kid who taught me an essential lesson in Hispanic culture: Mexicans weren't supposed to part their hair. He said his older cousin had taught him that, and he urged me to slick my hair back along with him. I had never had any problems with my hairstyle and even kind of liked it, but now I couldn't believe I had been oblivious to this important rule. So, on the last day of sixth grade, the decision was made: We would show up on the first day of seventh grade with our hair slicked back with a fade. I spent that summer reading Lowrider magazine and training my hair back with a woman's knee-high stocking that I wore while sleeping. To this day, I still read Lowrider magazine. But the knee stocking hair thing was ridiculous.
On the first day of school, I proudly met Angel and a bunch of other Mexican kids, who all had slicked back their hair. Then I noticed my friend Jerome had changed, too. A skinny, short black kid with short hair and a reputation for not giving a fuck about consequences, Jerome was now dressed from head to toe in red clothes and walked with a small group of black kids from Angel's neighborhood who also wore all red. Standing not far from us was another group of black kids, but they were wearing all blue. They had issues with Jerome and his crew.
This was my first real exposure to the Bloods and the Crips. Things went downhill immediately. Kids flashed gang signs, yelled out their "sets," and then started shoving one another. The school staff quickly broke it up, and when the bell rang, everyone was forced to disperse.
At lunch, Angel's older cousin and a group of older Mexican kids told us that if anyone messed with us during the year, they would take care of it. Angel's cousin said our newly formed group of a dozen or so Mexicans should agree to have one another's backs. And that's how fast it happened. By the end of the first day of seventh grade, I was part of a crew.
I soon took to wearing gangster gear--Nike Cortez, heavy starch creased jeans, white T-shirts, and Mad Doggs or Locs (sunglasses). I wasn't in a gang yet, but I was headed in that direction. It started off with jumping guys and starting shit with other kids. But it wasn't all just fighting. In my English class, I'd met Kevin, an upper-middle-class white kid who lived in a nice area of Albuquerque. He didn't look the part. He had hazel eyes, longer, nicely styled light brown hair and looked like he should be at a country club somewhere being an asshole to a waiter. But in reality, he was one of the most skilled "taggers" (graffiti artists) in the southeast section of Albuquerque. Kevin taught me his style. I taught him mine. And from that point on, a friendship was born.
Since we weren't eighteen yet, Kevin's older cousin would buy some of our "art supplies." It was illegal for minors to buy Magnum 44 markers. Tagging and sniffing were near epidemic. At night, we would sneak out of our houses and meet up at the Taco Bell on Gibson Street right outside the base gate and spend the whole night "bombing" the southeast section of the city.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hard Corps by Marco Martinez. Copyright © 2007 by Marco Martinez. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.