When Mario Salas was a teen in Monterey in the late 1960s, his stepfather looked at his long hair and wayward choices and said the young man needed to join the Army.
The stepfather told Salas his friends needed to join, too, to avoid lapsing into the world that was unfolding just up the highway in San Francisco. Hippies were taking over, the older man said, and he wanted none of that for his son.
As it turned out, Salas and both his friends enlisted, and then were quickly drafted. They were barely two years out of Seaside High School.
Salas spent two years in the Army, one of them in Vietnam, where he drove a supply truck heading out on the treacherous jungle routes before the landmines were cleared.
He made it home after that tour, but those two years would set a lifelong course for Salas, who died last December of lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease caused by his exposure to Agent Orange.
In October, Salas was honored for his service and for his years of work with veterans’ organizations when his name was added to the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Capitol Park in Sacramento. He is the first Tuolumne County Vietnam veteran to be honored under a bill passed in 2013 that allowed Vietnam veterans to be added if they had died of a service-related illness.
The memorial was erected in 1988 to honor more than 5,600 Californians who died in Vietnam, and since the law was changed, 48 others have been added.
Salas was born in Panama and came to the United States when his mother married an American GI. Salas was 14 when his mother, sister and stepfather moved to Pacific Grove. He didn’t speak much English and barely got by. He told a Union Democrat reporter a few years ago that his teachers just let him pass.
Nevertheless he was in Seaside High’s first graduating class. Before long, he was in the jungles of Vietnam.
“He didn’t like to talk about it much,” his daughter Lorie Salas Thomas said.
Her father was a quiet man, sort of shy, and sensitive. What he saw in the war shook him. Children with bombs to blow up GIs, speeding through the jungle, not knowing if he was going to be blown up by a mine, firing at random, at no one, just to clear the way.
He said he never knew if he had killed anyone. He didn’t want to know.
He had a Vietnamese girlfriend while he was there, Thomas said.
“She had all these little children and he gave her the care packages my grandma used to send,” Thomas said.
And then he came home. He became involved with a woman with whom he had two children, including Thomas, bur the relationship ended. He managed to dig himself out of the trauma of war to a degree and went to school to learn cabinet making. He got a job at a factory and worked there for a decade.
He built a family home in Prunedale, where he could raise his growing family with his wife. Then he cut off two fingers in an industrial accident and was never called back to work.
That’s when he came to Sonora. He bought five acres on a dirt road in Phoenix Lake Estates; one of his high school buddies bought the five acres next door. Their plan was to start a cabinet shop together and call it Marlon Cabinets, taking the first three letters of their first names.
As it turned out Lonnie Dickson didn’t come, but Salas managed to start a successful cabinet-making company. He was known to barter. If his kids needed braces, he’d find a dentist who needed cabinets, his daughter remembered.
He built a house that looked like the one from the Walton’s television show, only bigger. His shop was in the garage. He did the home construction himself and benefited from a VA loan.
When his marriage ended, he sold the house and built a third house off Phoenix Lakes Road near Bear Cub Drive. The whole bottom was his shop, where he not only built cabinets but also furniture, jewelry.
“He’d look at anything and could build it,” Thomas said.
Once he saw a dead fox in the road, scooped it up and made a hat. He built a sauna and crafted leather goods. He polished rocks for his jewelry.
And he spent time with other veterans. He became involved in just about every organization that had something to do with easing the pain of war.
"Most of my friends are veterans because we're all brothers. We all have the same experiences. If you're not a veteran, it's hard to understand,” he told The Union Democrat in 2015.
He was a member of the Tuolumne County Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Disabled Veterans of America and the Tuolumne County Veterans Committee.
Not a joiner but a doer, he marched in all the parades, worked the pancake breakfasts, took part in the color guard for military funerals.
He felt that Vietnam was the forgotten war, his daughter said. That the veterans who came home were forgotten as well.
He never forgot. He never stopped trying to help his fellow soldiers, even as PTSD crippled him. Depression rarely left him when he was alone, Thomas said.
Otherwise, he was Mario, the guy everyone liked, the one they saw wearing tie-dye tee shirts, the one who listened to the Rolling Stones and regularly threw up a peace sign.
“He needed to help people like him to get what they were entitled to,” Thomas said.
He, too, had to fight for his benefits, for his disability pay, and ultimately for the $300 monthly payment when he learned he had lymphoma caused by Agent Orange exposure.
He’d had debilitating headaches for a few years and stomach problems, a cough, rashes on his arms. But it wasn’t until last year that doctors discovered what was happening, He had chemotherapy for six months, Thomas said
Then, on the Wednesday before Veteran’s Day, in the VA Hospital in Palo Alto, doctors said he not only had large B-cell lymphoma, which is highly aggressive yet treatable, but also classic Hodgkin’s, which is not.
“We never left there,” Thomas said.
His family brought photos of their grandma and themselves to his room in the hospice unit. Also, his Army blanket that he curled up with on the couch because he said it kept him warm when it was cold and cool when it was hot.
Salas died on Dec. 10 last year. He was 70.
Now, Thomas says, it’s up to her to help veterans, filling in at pancake breakfasts and anywhere she can be useful.
She’s mad at the military for its response to Vietnam veterans, for not doing more to discover what was truly wrong with her dad, for using Agent Orange to kill jungle foliage.
But her anger doesn’t extend to the veterans. Helping them, she said, honors her father.
“He was my everything,” she said.