Whenever I see a new postage stamp produced by the Postal Service, I think of another one issued three years ago which honored an old friend of mine. He was Ruben Salazar, a pioneer Hispanic journalist from California I met during our mutual tours of journalistic duty in Vietnam in 1966.
You won’t find the following in Salazar’s official biography because it is personal with me; but, added to the many published anecdotes about his life and death, it may shed some light on the character of an unusual man.
Ruben Salazar was born in 1928 in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, the son of a watch repairman. A year later, Salvador Salazar moved his family across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, where young Ruben lived when he later attended the University of Texas, graduating with a degree in journalism.
Early on, Ruben had two goals in life: perfection as a journalist and an activist’s regard for the betterment of other Hispanics.
Salazar served his journalistic apprenticeship at the Sonoma (California) Press-Democrat, spent two years in the Army in the Korean War, and then landed a reporter’s berth with the Los Angeles Times.
I met Ruben in Saigon, Vietnam. Since he knew I had come to Vietnam from San Diego, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border at Tijuana, and because of our mutual love for journalism, we struck up an immediate friendship. Many nights when the tropical heat of our city became almost unbearable in the one-room, non-air-conditioned apartment I rented, Ruben invited me to share his own refreshingly air-conditioned room in the downtown Caravelle Hotel, a modern, high-rise hostelry owned by Air France.
There, we swapped endless stories of our respective careers, drank copious amounts of Cutty Sark scotch, and shared thoughts about the war that now seemed determined never to end. We worked together on many news stories in Saigon, Ruben for the Times and me for Copley News Service out of San Diego. One story I’ll never forget was the trial of a Chinese merchant from the Cholon section of Saigon accused of black marketing. That crime might have brought a slap on the wrist in America. In Vietnam, where the hatred of Chinese by the Vietnamese ran deep, it resulted in a death sentence.
Ruben and I decided to cover both the trial and firing squad execution jointly, sharing our notes. The trial itself was a first class circus, complete with a brass band in the courtroom, which performed during every recess.
Next morning at dawn, after steeling ourselves all night with Cutty Sark to deaden our disgust and nervousness, we stood only a few feet away from where a South Vietnamese rifle squad carried out the sentence.
Many times during our Vietnam duty tours, Ruben and I rattled around the country together in search of news copy. And here is my favorite story about my good friend.
We were in the coastal village of Bong Son, covering an Army military operation. Not wanting to sleep in a tent with the troops that night, we booked the last available two-bedroom in an old motel in the village itself.
About 8 p.m., the owner of the motel knocked on our door. In broken English he explained that the Viet Cong had attacked a nearby village and refugees from the incident were pouring into Bong Son, but had no place to stay that night.
“Many are children,” the old man said. “I have no place to house them. Could I put some of them in your room?”
Ruben answered yes immediately, but another question followed: Where would these kids sleep?
Ruben’s next response was as swift.
“Let them have our beds,” he said firmly.
With six kids snugged down crosswise on our beds, Ruben and I spent the rest of the night slumbering on the floor.
Ruben and I returned to our respective newspapers in June 1966, but we vowed to keep in touch. Twice, he drove from L.A. to San Diego when my wife and I scheduled a party at our coastal apartment. We invited him a third time but the night before, he phoned to cancel. Having left the Times for a new job with Spanish language TV station KMEX in Los Angeles, he said he planned to cover an anti-Vietnam War rally the next morning at an L.A. park, labeled the “National Chicano Moratorium March” against the war.
The rally drew thousands, and at noontime, Ruben dropped into the nearby Silver Dollar Café for lunch. Accounts of what followed vary widely. But that lunch on Aug. 29, 1970, was Ruben Salazar’s last. As he sat sipping a beer, the noise of a jukebox drowning out the command of sheriff’s deputies outside to vacate the bar, Ruben was killed instantly by a 10-inch tear gas projectile that penetrated his head.
A few days later, I attended Ruben Salazar’s funeral in Corona del Mar. So did hundreds of others including Ruben’s wife, Sally, and their three youngsters, John, Lisa and Stephanie, whose portrait Ruben always displayed so prominently in his room in Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel.
Then I remembered six other kids, stacked comfortably sideways like cordwood on two beds in an old motel in Bong Son, South Vietnam.
Joe Brown is a semi-retired California writer who now lives in Rockport. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org