A Dark Day at the 'Welcome POWs Festival'

A concert is planned to honor POWs. What happens when one actually shows up?

Credit: Don Bayley/Getty

SAN ANTONIO – "What if the President hears about this? I'm not sure he would approve," said "P" only half-jokingly as he chain-smoked nervously in the back seat of a car that was hustling him out of town at 90 per. "You're sure now that this is a tribute? I mean, it's not something funny, is it?"

Nothing to worry about, assured the two men in the front seat, but they began a bit of nail-biting of their own as their objective – America's first "Welcome Home POWs Rock Festival," held Easter Sunday in the flatlands west of this central Texas city – grew nearer. The two men – a reporter and a photographer – were escorting to the festival a man who was an authentic, certified, Grade-A, genuine ex-Prisoner of War, only recently released from a North Vietnamese prison camp.

Phone calls to a friend of a friend (in state government) to a friend (in the military) had led to phone contact with P, who presented a most convincing POW story. At first, he turned down the entire proposition, but later he agreed to attend on the condition that his identity remained a secret.

The festival had been advertised on posters which announced, under a festive garland of barbed wire, a "Young People's Welcome Home POWs Rock Festival, Easter Sunday, all day to midnight, 12 miles from San Antonio." It was clearly an event requiring the presence of at least one POW.

P had, he slyly hinted, heard a few juicy details since his release about the "way-out festivals the kids used to have," and he was openly curious about the goings on. Sort of a sociological interest, he said. P considers himself "mod" and has spent a goodly portion of his back pay on a fast car and a closetful of garish clothes. He was wearing one of those flowered silk Korean shirts, a macrame belt, baggies with 22-inch cuffs and two-tone stack-heeled boots.

As the car turned off Highway 410 onto Somerset Road, P let out a soft exclamation. Ahead was a police checkpoint with cars backed up a good city block and a dozen or so scruffy young Texans milling about. A Bexar County Deputy Sheriff flagged the car down, checked the driver's license, scrutinized the occupants, and gruffly waved the car on. P's apprehension level rose as the car bounced down the narrow blacktop, past knots of scruffy youths – who were leaving – sagging trailers with junk heaps in the yards, wrecked cars come to rest at drunken angles and clusters of Chicanos eyeing the passersby.

The trio parked several hundred yards from the festival entrance, nosing the car into a clump of weeds off the road. They walked, P lagging behind, past a van from which a thick green cloud of smoke issued. P sniffed inquiringly: "So that's it, eh? Smells like barbecue. Why don't the police do something?" His companions hurried him toward the gate, where red-eyed loungers leaned against a high wire fence. P was getting more skittish. Tickets – $5 each – were bought at a ramshackle structure labeled "Fred's Riverside," and the threesome had their hands stamped (CONCERT) and slipped inside the gate, passing through a phalanx of armed deputies.

Inside, the three met one of the promoters, a burly, tattooed, middle-aged man who introduced himself as "Pete Ibarra, retired US Navy from San Antonio." P eyed him with transparent disfavor. Ibarra said he and nine associates had invested $8000 in the festival and that there were about 3000 people on the grounds. He was asked if he was using the "POW" label to sneak a festival by the authorities?

"Oh, no," Ibarra answered with a straight face. "This is a tribute to our POWs. We're going to donate part of the funds to the POW memorial in San Antonio." Which POW memorial was that? He wasn't sure. How much would he donate? He didn't know yet. Why was this called a POW festival?

"We invited them," he said. "We had an open invitation to all POWs." How were they invited? "The posters were around, word got out." Had any POWs come? "No . . . I don't think any have come yet."

P, who had remained silent, began turning red in the face and opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and turned away. He was still quiet but his jaw muscles were flexing furiously. The three paused at the rise of a low hill to survey the scene below. A low, brooding overcast barely illuminated a shallow valley. A few faded tents struggled to remain upright, 15 port-a-cans ringed the perimeter, smoke from a cooking fire rose fitfully from in front of a collapsed lean-to and clusters of tattered human beings were slumped here and there. Ibarra's body count of 3000 appeared to be off by only 2500 or so. P ducked involuntarily as a police helicopter buzzed the valley. "Christ," he said softly.

From a rickety wooden platform directly across from the hill, a power trio was producing a metallic artillery barrage, interspersed with the clanking and rumbling of tanks. At least that's what P thought it sounded like.

A long-haired, dirt-smeared child, who appeared to be about five years old, paused to inspect the trio. The photographer took its picture. It said "Fuck you" and ran away. P's jaw dropped.

The three made their way to the center of the valley and sat down, P spreading his jacket so as not to soil his baggies. He talked a little bit: He did not like or understand the music; he could not understand why people would voluntarily emulate "dirty gooks"; he did not think it appropriate that the Stars and Stripes be displayed at such a function, and he did not fathom the appeal and could not discern the nature of a "festival."

A youth with a camera stopped to talk. He said he would stay for the duration, even if rain fell, because he had heard that Malo might make an appearance.

"What's mallo?" P asked.

The sky darkened and the gloom thickened. The power trio was replaced by another. Three or four persons applauded. The rest were laid back watching a stack of wine bottles grow near the stage. There were three empty pill bottles included.

A few feet away, a bra-less girl wearing a gauze curtain danced alone, scratching out a queer sideways shuffle. P stared at her and she, catching his gaze, waltzed over and shook her pendulous breasts tauntingly in front of him. He reddened again. The band stopped to make an announcement: The cops were starting to tow cars away. "Fuck them pigs!" responded a boy walking by. P jumped to his feet. He was going back, he said, to watch the car. He hoped his driver would not be long.

The reporter and the photographer stayed long enough to catch another metal storm from the stage. Then they left, exiting by way of the love bead booth, the watermelon stand, the pizza concession and the beer trucks.

Out on Somerset Road, they found three sheriff's cars with lights flashing, blocking the road. A clutch of deputies was directing a line of tow trucks beginning to haul away the cars parked along the roadway.

P was in the car. He and the sky were turning gray. "One of those deputies," he said in measured tones, "told me he was 'putting the quietus on this little party.' He said to get this motherfucking car out of here. He said he was sick of this kind of thing. He said this was the end of this kind of shit."

Did P, the reporter asked, tell the deputy who he was? "No," was the slow reply, "I didn't think it would be a good idea. Let's go."

He was silent all the way back. Except when he got out of the car: "To anticipate your question, gentlemen, here is my answer: No, this is not what I fought for. Goodnight."