Year of the Serpent
Part Two


 
Bert apparently enjoyed having guns around and liked to collect them. His Chinese friends knew this as far back as 1975, before the kung fu studio days at the tattoo parlor. He gave them a big party at his then home in San Bruno on Jenevein Avenue. Wayne and Gary were present.
Bert announced, with braggadocio, that he was holding several guns for many of the kids at the party. He said the guns were in the attic of the house, but he wouldn't show them to anybody. Privately, however, he felt the boys had left the guns there too long and told the kids to take them away. He didn't want the weapons around anymore. He went so far as to say that he had moved from Jenevein Avenue in San Bruno to Firecrest in Pacifica because too many Chinese kids were hanging around the San Bruno house.
His resolution came to nothing. The Firecrest house filled just as easily with an array of boys, although Bert did make an effort to limit the numbers mostly to the more responsible types, somewhat more than a dozen. Bert liked good manners around the house. Those he accepted wholeheartedly understood that Bert's home was not a clubhouse and were generally respectful of the tattoo artist's privacy.
Back in February of 1974, a silk screener named Rodney Williams, who worked for an electronic circuit board firm in San Mateo, went into the Western Sportsman's Shop at the San Jose Flea Market. He bought a .45-caliber, semi-automatic Mark III Golden Commando rifle, an impressive piece of weaponry. With the gun, he received a 30-round clip and purchased, as an accessory, a second clip for 90 rounds. The shop gave him a bonus of a die to use in reloading. His bill ran to $154.35.
Williams proceeded to use the gun for hunting boar in Los Palos National Forest near Monterey, California. By 1976, tired of boar hunting, he figured it was time to sell it, so he approached his friend John Cameron. Cameron was a plumber's helper during the day, but worked at Bert's tattoo parlor at night. Williams visited his friend Cameron at the shop a couple of times a week. He was proud of the tattoos Cameron and Cameron's older brother needled on his arms: a Crow indian, a rose with a panther crouched in it, a peacock designed to cover a no longer cherished Marine tattoo, and "the Taz"--a Tasmanian devil.
Actually, it wasn't just the tattooing that Williams enjoyed at Bert Rodriguez' shop--he liked to watch the belly dancing more than just visiting John. But Williams did continue his visits to the shop after female students found other places to flex their tummy muscles, and after the martial arts took over.
It was in December 1976 that Williams asked Cameron to help him find a buyer for the Mark III Commando. The part-time tattooer knew how to come up with a prospect quickly. He asked Bert. Bert found one right away, so Williams packed the gun in a white styrofoam case and took it to the tattoo parlor.
On that day, while Robert Huey, kung fu instructor--and an operative at Chinese Youth Alternatives--prepared to leave home for a practice session at Bert's shop, Wayne Yee called.
"We're going to the tattoo shop," Wayne said. "You're buying a gun. I'll pick you up right away."
The boss came by shortly in his gold-colored Plymouth Duster. According to Robert, Wayne broached the subject of the gun sale as soon as the kung fu instructor got in the car: "I want you to sign your name on the sales slip."
"You want me to sign my own name, Boss?" Robert asked with some concern.
Wayne shrugged. "Just sign anybody's name; it doesn't matter."
Robert's first reaction was negative, but the boss was the boss. He agreed to do it.
When Robert finally stood before the seller in the back of the shop, Williams thought him a bit heavy for an Oriental, about 150 pounds, especially noticeable since Robert was only about 5 feet 4 inches tall.
Williams asked $145 for the gun. He had already prepared documentation for the buyer to sign, constituting a bill of sale and a receipt. He paid scant attention to the other man with the buyer, except to notice that the Orientals talked to each in "their foreign language," apparently discussing the deal. He hadn't a clue as to their ages.
Robert Huey signed the papers. "Gary Wong," he wrote. As the boss had told him, it didn't matter what name he used. When Wayne Yee spoke, his men listened.
John Cameron set up another gun sale at the shop for a friend a few months later, in 1977. That time it was three weapons: two pump shotguns and a .22-caliber rifle. Bert ushered the seller into the back room with the guns, and Cameron went in there awhile after and saw some Chinese kids "fooling around" with the shotgun, which is to say pumping it or working the slide action. The guns were purchased on the spot and taken away. It turned out that Cameron's friend, the seller, was a convicted burglar and had offered stolen weapons for sale. Such knowledge would have made no difference to the buyers. A gun was a gun.
A few months later in late summer of 1977, Robert Huey received a telephone call from one of Wayne's best boys. Robert had taken the Mark III Commando sub-machine gun into his home after Wayne instructed him to do so, on the promise that Wayne would give him the reloading die that came with it.
"I am going to come by and pick up the gun," the kid said on the phone.
Within 15 minutes, he came for the weapon. Robert, knowing that the gun technically belonged to Wayne Yee, willingly gave it up on the assumption Wayne had O.K.'d it.
That evening, the usual bunch of guys appeared at the door of Bert's Firecrest home. One of them carried a white rice sack in his arms. Bert welcomed them inside.
"What you got there, man?" asked Bert.
"Guns," replied the one with the bag.
He allowed Bert a peek into the sack. The older man smiled in recognition. "Oh yeah, Wayne's Commando from the shop--and the shotguns you bought! Gonna do some huntin'?"
The kid grinned. "Pretty soon. Up at Satterfield Ranch. You know we like that place."
Bert opened the closet door off the landing above the sunken living room. "Stash 'em in here. I'll tell the wife and kids to keep away from 'em."
The youth placed them in the back of the closet, and there they sat for over a month, carefully tucked into the white sack. Bert's kids did steer clear of them. They were obedient to their father, and besides, Bert's wife, Sandy, would have been upset with them if they weren't.
The guns seemed to lay all but forgotten by the boys, but not by Bert. He didn't like having them there. He thought about telling to keep them somewhere else. He hadn't said much about his plans, but he was seriously thinking of relocating himself and the family to the Santa Rosa area an hour northeast of San Francisco. The kids could use the fresh air, and there wasn't fog half the time like in Pacifica. Of course, he'd keep the tattoo parlor on Mission, but he felt it was time to expand the business.
So, when the kids stopped by on Friday evening, the 2nd of September, Bert thought about telling them to take the guns away. But it was the Labor Day weekend, so he set the thought aside. Holidays were not the time to make issues. Maybe next week.
The boys strolled in and made themselves comfortable, sprawling on the sofa in the living room and settling into chairs. Bert Junior and the younger kids watched television in the family room. Some of the boys wandered in and out to watch a couple of shows. Everybody had coffee, and around 10 o'clock, Sandra hustled the children to bed. She and her husband retired to their bedroom. The boys, left alone in the living room, immediately shifted from English to Cantonese.
About 11, Bert came out of his room to get a cup of coffee. He saw one of the Chinese playing with a of the shotguns from the closet, cocking it. Annoyed, Bert snatched the gun away from him and checked the chamber to see if it was empty.
"Put the damned thing away!" he demanded. "No more of that tonight, guys. I wasn't going to say it, but I think it's time you moved those guns out of my place. No hard feelings, men, but I've got my kids to think about."
Sometime after midnight, Bert, dozing off, could have sworn he heard the bedside phone ring, but the sound of the damaged instrument was no louder than a cat's purr. He slept on.
The next morning, Saturday, he found the Chinese boys sleeping on the floor in the living room. They obviously hadn't left the house. Cigarette butts in the ashtrays and a half-smoked joint. A deck of cards on the table. So they smoked a little pot. Everybody did. So they played with guns. War games. What the hell? A comfortable place to crash was the least he could offer.
They finally woke up and left about 11.
 

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2000 Brockman Morris