Jesse Camacho logged on to his computer on a recent morning and saw a little story about Smokey Robinson getting an award.
That sent Camacho back in his chair and back in time.
On Thursday, he flew to Niagara Falls, N.Y., to see his old friend. He hopes the Motown star remembers him.
But if not, Camacho is taking photos to remind Robinson of a night 47 years ago when the musician was playing a club in San Francisco and learned about a young soldier from Kansas City in the audience who was on his way to Vietnam.
The soldier was Camacho. He was 19 then and wanted to meet his musical idol. So much so, in fact, that he had delayed his trip to Southeast Asia.
“AWOL’s what they call it,” Camacho said Wednesday. “But it was just one day and I was going to Vietnam. What were they going to do to me?”
He thought he might get killed over there anyway — so what the hell.
Robinson invited Camacho backstage that night in 1969. They talked into the night about music and the war. The Miracles signed autographs, and they all took photos. Yes, the very photos Camacho took with him Thursday to Niagara Falls.
He somehow managed to tell his story to management at the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino Bears Den, where Robinson will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday. Word supposedly has gotten to Robinson’s agent.
Camacho thinks he might get a reunion with Robinson, now 76, and he hopes for a new photo of their long-ago pose, arms around each other.
“I’m going to tell him, ‘Brother, we made it. Still goin’ and here we are, together again after 50 years.’ ”
His sister, Linda Badami, said Camacho has always cherished the memory of that night.
“He was a 19-year-old kid headed off to defend his country,” Badami said. “I remember the anguish of my parents when he left. He was a free spirit and upbeat for them, but he didn’t know if he would make it back.
“I think he wants to see Smokey again to show him that picture and tell him what that night meant to him.
“If they get to recreate that photo, it will tie it all together for Jesse.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Camacho, 67, plopped down on a curb after senior volleyball at the Garrison Community Center in his old Northeast area neighborhood. He starts off his story about Robinson by rolling up his shorts to show a long, jagged scar where shrapnel tore into his thigh.
That’s how he reinforces his point about the possibility of getting killed in Vietnam.
Camacho grew up in a large family. They ended up in Kansas City almost by accident. The family was headed to California, but his dad got a job here when they passed through town.
“I told my mom if we’d kept going, I might have been Erik Estrada and I could have been on ‘CHiPs.’ ”
Not long after graduating from Northeast High School in 1968, Camacho got drafted. After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, he got assigned to an armored unit. Early in 1969, his outfit was ordered to Vietnam.
He had a break before he was supposed to board a flight out of Oakland, Calif.
So there he was, not yet 20, hardly ever been out of the old neighborhood, and he was wandering around San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, known for the ’60s era “summer of love.”
“There was all these flower children and everybody talking about peace, and that’s when I saw the billboard about Smokey appearing at this club,” Camacho said.
He said to himself: “I’m going to go to that. Smokey’s my man.”
So he did. The next day, he put those photos and autographs in an envelope and sent it home to his mother.
“Mom, don’t let anything happen to this,” he wrote. “It is priceless to me. I been wanting this all my life. Love, J.”
When he showed up in Oakland, his sergeant chewed him out for being late. But that was about it. He got his duffel bag and headed out. Next thing, he arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam.
Camacho was a gunner on an armored personnel carrier that resupplied infantry “out in the boonies.”
One day he got caught out in the open during a mortar attack. He said he tried to time the shells so he could run to safety.
“But they must have been using two,” he said.
His prayer was answered, however. He remembered asking God when he first arrived in Vietnam that if he ever got hit to let it be in his, uh, backside.
“And that’s what happened,” he said with a laugh.
Buttocks and thigh. He thinks the intense heat of the metal cauterized the wounds, preventing him from bleeding to death.
Medics patched him up and sent him to Japan. That was the end of Jesse Camacho’s war.
He came back to Kansas City, got married, raised a family and worked 37 years at TWA’s overhaul base.
Today, retired, divorced but still close to his ex-wife, he lives alone in a small house in Kansas City, North. Photos of children and grandchildren adorn the wall.
As does a glass case with his Army medals, including his Purple Heart. The license plate on his car says “Purple Heart.”
He’s immensely proud of his military service and stays in touch with guys in his outfit. But he has no regret about the night 47 years ago when he played hooky to see Smokey Robinson.
In a way, it’s all part of the same story. And now he’s hoping to finish it.
“I don’t know if he’ll remember me,” Camacho said. “But if he does, I’m thinking he might put me in the front row.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182