Al Armendariz

Since he was a kid, Al Armendariz had always been fascinated by medicine.  He joined the army after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and entered basic training and medic training.  He remembers his drill sergeant taking role call at 4:30 A.M.  His motto?  “We break you, or you’ll break us.”

As a Latino who grew up in Los Angeles, Al experienced discrimination in the army.  He was always chosen to be the one in the kitchen cleaning dishes.  “I didn’t join the army to be washing forks and spoons.”  He remembers how other Latinos he knew felt.  “We were like prisoners,” he says.  “Even when you were in your barracks, you were on call . . . it was very depressing.”

Al was shipped overseas in 1944.  After landing in Bombay, he worked as a medic, treating people who had been in accidents, had malaria, or even burn cases.  He cared for locals too, despite being ordered not to.  Al recalls the animals he saw in India, from the army mules to Bengal Tigers.  He also had two pet monkeys, Tojo and Mike.  Al says he was just an ordinary sergeant.  “So I taught Tojo to salute me!”

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April 9, 2012 was one of those silky warm spring days in Pittsburgh’s vibrant Oakland neighborhood.   Our first interview of the day was WW II veteran Al Armendariz,  who met us in the stately Board Room of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.  The room’s lush wooden paneling, high ceiling, and brilliant clear-story of hand-crafted glass are visually stunning.  However, as a recording space the room offers up its share of technical concerns, chiefly sound reverberations.  It’s not that anyone would really notice the sonic distractions, least of all Al, who pleasantly answered our questions with thoughtful candor.  But for us–with our sensitive headphones–a little sound treatment of the room with blankets and covers softened the echos.  None of this, of course, distracted Al from telling his story, especially when museum curator Mike Krause and photographer Andy Marchese stepped into the room to meet our guest.


By Naomi Meskel

Night crept over a sturdy house in the LA suburbs and snuck into every room.  In the kitchen, Al Armendariz’s mother switched on an electric light, picked up a Spanish copy of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and sat down.  She began to read aloud in a clear voice.  A few years before, Al’s father bought the land for two hundred dollars and built their little house the same way he built his American dream—with his two callused hands.  Now, as the shadows stretched out around the single bright light, Al’s father took a seat by his wife.   By the door in the next room, Al leaned on his pillow listening to his father’s solid, rhythmic breathing, savoring the lilt of his mother’s voice as she narrated the trials and triumphs of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus crew.  A curious boy with a vivid memory, Al was attuned to nature.  He loved the LA hills, the hot sun on his hair, and the descriptions of faraway places in the books he read.  As he drifted off to sleep, his father’s breathing became rolling waves punctuated by the whir of the Nautilus propellers.

Through the Depression years of the 1930s, Al’s father made sure the family of five had enough—enough food not to be hungry, enough clothing not to be cold or look shabby, enough hope to see a better future.  Years passed this way, but when Al was in eleventh grade and looking forward to graduation, his father died suddenly.  Al became the man of the house.  Bill collectors, one after the other, came knocking.  Al dropped out of school and joined the army of unemployed searching for work.  Soon, he left the house his father built and signed up for President Roosevelt’s “Tree Army,” the Civilian Conservation Corps.  He shipped off to some of California’s most stunning wilderness areas, building bridges and roads in Sequoia and Pinnacles National Parks, and earning $30 a month, $25 of which he sent home to his mother.  Al thrived under the otherworldly enormity of the redwood forests and the lengthy shadows of rock spires.

One Sunday morning in Pinnacles National Park, Al woke up earlier than usual, dressed in his Sunday best, and decided to take a stroll before breakfast.  With no particular destination in mind, he came alongside one of the numerous cave entrances in the park.  Stepping closer to the mouth of the cave with an adventurous air like that of Tom Sawyer, he stopped to contemplate the sign warning against cave exploring.  Sure, there was some danger for the average tourist, but he was now a CCC veteran.  Anyway, a cave was nothing more than a hole in the wall.  So, Al strode out of the heat and into the cave to see what there was to see.

Once inside, he blinked from the sudden decrease in light, the cool air drifting lazily over his skin.  There was dewiness to the cave in stark contrast to the arid breeze without.  Intrigued, Al followed the path into the heavy, wet gloom.  About a ten minutes’ walk down the main passageway his eyes were fully adjusted, and he saw the cave split clearly into three separate openings.  Despite his daring, Al wasn’t foolhardy; he looked at each of the three dark holes in turn and thought, Oh, I’d better not.  He turned on his heel and strolled for a few moments back the way he’d come.  Before long, the passage opened into a kind of room he had passed through on his way down, and lo and behold!  There were four holes, and Al hadn’t the tiniest inkling which one led to the way out.  He scratched his head and hazarded a guess.

He guessed wrong.  Al’s senses, so heightened when he’d entered the cave, now strained against the dark blanket of silence.  Time was measureable only by his breath and the movement of his feet along the sloping stone floor.  How long had he been groping in this dripping vacuum?  One hour?  Five hours?  Had he passed this bend, this angular rock before?

Eventually he came to what seemed like a dead end or maybe the passage he’d been following had collapsed.  He carefully inspected the rubble blocking his path and found a gap less than a foot wide he might be able to squeeze through up near what used to be the ceiling.  As he scuffed his shins and elbows squeezing through the gap and bumped down the other side, he felt his body reaching the point of exhaustion.  His gusting breath through dry lips ticked off the seconds in darkness.  His fine clothes were soaked and he could feel grit rubbing through them on his arms and legs as he stumbled on.  He began to wonder if he’d ever get out when the low rift he was following opened into a gigantic, pitch black cavern with a sloping floor and domed ceiling, much like a theater—except that the floor was covered by an underground lake, and he had no way of knowing how deep it was.  Looking around and listening closely, he was able to discern that water was falling in droplets like rain into the lake, sending ripples and rings in all directions.  He inched along, pressed against the walls, shuffling his feet through the water on the lake’s edge.  He finally came to where the water flowed out of the cavern and this drain in unyielding darkness, saturated shoes plopping and squelching the whole way.  If the water is getting out, I can get out, too, he thought.

Abruptly, his plops and splashes turned into crackles and crunches.  He reached down and picked something up from a pile of similar other somethings that littered the cave floor: a bone.  Animal bones.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them covered the rock like a centuries-old carpet.  He shuddered despite himself and pressed on, crunch and crackle, at times up to his knees in bones, praying that the path would lead somewhere, that he could stand under the sky again before the day was over.

How long after, he didn’t know, but a sparkling green curtain appeared in front of him.  Light could only mean one thing in this abyss.  He ran headlong towards it and leapt through, only realizing midair that he had no idea how high up or down he was and that he might very well have thrown himself off the peak of a mountain or the ledge of a cliff.

Fortunately, Al landed at ground level, blinking in the evening daylight.  A young couple on a romantic outing cuddled in front of him.  Their eyes grew wide as saucers as Al stood up and brushed himself off.  Looking over his shoulder at the little waterfall, weeds, and shrubbery, he saw no indication of a cave at all.  To the picnickers, he must have looked like a madman hurtling out of solid rock.  And after fourteen hours lost underground alone in utter darkness, what could he say?

He just smiled bashfully at them and wandered up the side of the mountain without a word, hoping that camp was somewhere close.  For all he knew, the couple could have been honeymooners in China!  If he could get to a vista with a decent range of vision, he knew he could find his way.

Tired and footsore, he came to the edge of the mountain and was flooded with relief at the sight of the CCC camp in miniature at the bottom.  He had struggled with the adversary of darkness to stand in the light of a red sun.  Dehydrated and on the brink of absolute exhaustion, he saw creation laid out before him in all its twilight beauty.

And so, he made his way back to camp, at last arriving safe and sound at half past nine at night after fourteen hours in the cave, learning (as all adventurers eventually do) the life or death importance of reading and heeding signs in the wilderness.  He fell asleep that night to the sound of his own rhythmic breathing, as regular as the waves of the ocean, and he dreamt of the shadows in the cave, the bones, the glittering green waterfall, and the red sun stretching long shadows as far as the eye could see.