The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the memoir I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires. This entry continues describing the events leading up to my decision, following discharge from the US Army, to move “for a year” to Argentina. I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your comments.
Like I said before, at the time, I was doing pretty well as a rather precocious professional nightclub musician, musical instrument salesman and percussion teacher, and had been already for several years before I graduated from high school. After graduation, I did even better, picking up a steady five-night a week gig with a jazz trio at one of the area’s top clubs. I played every other date I could get as well, worked six days a week at the music store in Lima and managed to assemble fifty private students between individual and group classes.
Within a few short days, I was the owner of a ’63 standard
Shortly after the accident and Virginia’s departure, an insurance representative showed up at the music store to deal with me directly on a settlement. This must surely have been illegal, since, for all intents and purposes, I was still considered a minor back in those days when eighteen-year-olds were old enough to go to Vietnam and die but not to sign contracts, drink hard liquor or vote. But that didn’t stop the insurer.
“Son,” the adjuster said, “the accident you were in was clearly our client’s fault. We aren’t going to dispute that. Luckily for everybody, there was no serious bodily injury. Anyway, your car bluebooks at three hundred and fifty dollars.” As he said this, he was retrieving a checkbook and signoff form from his briefcase. He laid both on the glass-topped counter where we were standing. His back was to my boss and store manager Bruce Sims, who had mentored me ever since I had started working for him and who was now sitting at his desk, smoking his pipe and looking our way with more than curious interest. “Now I’m authorized,” the insurance man went on, “to pay you that fair price for your car right now, no questions asked.” Behind the man’s back, Mr. Sims bit down on the stem of his pipe, furled his brow and shook his head. He gestured, palms up, to go higher.
I too shook my head and said, “You saw my car, right? It was in really cherry condition before your client wrecked it.”
The man said, “Well, I’m only authorized to pay Blue Book, son.”
I hesitated. Mr. Sims shook his head vigorously.
“Sorry,” I said. “But I can’t accept that price.”
The insurance man raised his eyebrows, rolled his eyes upward and sighed. “Look, you seem like a nice young guy. I’m going to go out on a limb here.” He drummed his fingers on the glass counter, as if thinking, and feigned a worried expression. “I could get my pay docked for this. I could even get fired. But I’m going to offer you ten percent more. If you take it right now, I’ll write you a check for three eighty-five…and I’ll take the consequences,” Again, behind the man’s back, Bruce Sims shook his head, rolled his eyes and made a fiddle-playing gesture, as if to say that I shouldn’t fall for the guy’s sad story about risking his job.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling. “No dice.”
Now the insurance man looked stern and sighed again, but this time with something like irritation. He lifted his leather-bound attaché case onto the counter, popped it open and returned the checkbook and form to it with a very deliberate gesture. He dramatically shut the lid, snapped the two catches and folded his hands on top of it. He leaned forward and, in a confidential tone, said, “Son, I been doing this job a long time and it’s my experience that turning down these outright offers is a mistake. The company might turn the case over to the legal department and it could take ages for you to get your money and there’s no guarantee it’ll be anywhere near what I’m offering you.”
But I wasn’t thinking about what he was saying. I was thinking about an article I’d read recently covering what were being called “whiplash-associated disorders”. It was one of the top claims that insurers in the United States were compelled to pay, since even if X-rays and other modern testing methods showed no sign of trauma as such, it was next to impossible to prove that a claimant wasn’t suffering whiplash symptoms in the back and neck caused by compression and decompression of the vertebrae.
“So what’s it gonna be, son?” the guy was saying. “Do you want to take a second to rethink my offer, or should I walk out of here right now?”
“Well,” I said, with a grimace, reaching up and taking hold of the back of my neck with my hand, “I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve been having a real bad pain in my neck ever since the accident. In the background, I saw Mr. Sims grin and raise his fist in a victory salute. Then he got up and walked off into another part of the store, as if to say, “Okay, I’m outa here. You don’t need me anymore.”
The insurance man’s eyes turned cold and hooded and a sardonic smirk twisted his lips. “Okay, kid,” he said, “what do you want?”
“I’ll give you four and a half.”
He opened his briefcase again and wrote me a check for four hundred sixty-five dollars. He held it in one hand while he handed me the release form with the other and then handed me his pen.
“Sign by the ex,” he said, and when I had, he handed me the check and walked out of the store.
Left to my own devices, I would surely have ended up blowing the money on some overpriced flashier car than I ended up buying. But this time, my father intervened. The Ol’ Man was a real horse-trader when it came to buying cars. I’ve never heard of anyone who got better deals on cars than he did—with the possible exception of his Uncle Dale Newland, a star used car salesman, who was always welcome to work for commission on just about any used car lot from Detroit to Miami.
“Hey, by golly,” Dad said when I told him the story of how I’d gotten top dollar for my car, “I just heard about a grocery company that’s selling off its sales fleet.”
“What kind of cars?” I asked.
“Good serviceable ones, three-speed stick-shifts with reinforced springs and no frills. I’m sure I can get you one at way below market.”
So I put dreams of a flashy ride out of my mind and let the Ol’ Man work his magic. Within a few short days, I was the owner of a ’63 standard Chevy Biscayne. It was a car that would easily fetch six-fifty on the market. Thanks to Dad, I got it for simply endorsing my four hundred sixty-five-dollar insurance check.
Gimme a Ticket for an Airplane
That car ended up being my ticket to adventure.
At the end of that same year, I decided college and my playing career could wait. To my family’s utter amazement, I quit the jazz trio, got a passport, drew part of my savings from the bank, sold my five-year-old Chevy at a two-hundred-dollar profit, bought an airline ticket and was on my way to Buenos Aires for a month. I celebrated my nineteenth birthday on the flight. I ordered and the Pan Am flight attendant served me the first vodka and tonic I had ever drunk without stealing it from a liquor cabinet, and I drank it watching the moonrise from the window of a Boeing 707, on a direct flight from JFK in New York to Ezeiza International in Buenos Aires.
|Took a Pan Am 707 Clipper out of JFK|
By noon the next day, Virginia's mother was rushing me through Customs. She spoke no English, but gave me a warm hug, made me understand who she was and motioned me to follow her. At the last minute, Virginia also showed up at the Customs desk and we were all hugging and laughing and paying little attention to the irritated Customs officer, who finally handed me back my passport and waved us through, just happy to be rid of us. It wasn’t usual for common everyday civilians to be permitted to hang around in the Customs area with incoming passengers, but Virginia's mother had made up a story convincing enough to get the MP at the door to let her through. When the same guard stopped Virginia, she asked him why the “other lady” had been let through if she couldn’t go in.
"Secret Service," the guard said.
"Secret Service my eye," Virginia said. "She's my mother!" and the guard let her through too.
Those were obviously gentler times in Buenos Aires, despite the rigors of the dictatorship of General Onganía, whose days were already numbered. An unapologetic dictator, Onganía made no pretense of being a constitutional caretaker as had other coup leaders before him and as would others afterward. Instead, he was bent on establishing a new political and social order in Argentina, in which the Armed Forces would be the legally established rulers.
|I celebrated my 19th birthday on board|
For now, I knew next to nothing about any of this. I was simply an enamored Midwestern teen, who had followed his heart to an exotic city in South America. I fell instantly in love with Buenos Aires, with its people—who, I learned, were called porteños—with the lifestyle, with my girlfriend’s family, with their friends, with practically everything.
From the very first day, Virginia’s family and friends went far out of their way to make me feel at home. They took me on personalized tours of the city, took me out to bars, restaurants and night clubs, to movie theaters downtown, to a Christmas party in the suburbs. They made me an integral part of the family’s year-end celebrations. They even took me on what then, before the days of four-lane highways, was a seven-hour car trip to the Atlantic resort city of Mar del Plata. As a Midwestern boy, it was my first glimpse of the ocean, and once I’d seen it, I never wanted to leave.
Buenos Aires itself was my first experience with urban life in a major world capital and I was fascinated. Even the subways, buses and trains that were part of the most mundane of the city dwellers’ world seemed to me an almost magical environment teeming with the stories of the millions who road them daily to the common events that formed their separate lives and that crossed their destinies in random fashion.
First passport - the trip had only whetted my
If I had fallen in love with Virginia when we had met and dated back in Ohio, I was now to the point of no return. I wanted to be with her, to share in her life and to invite her to share mine. And far from satisfying my wanderlust and my yearning to delve into her world and into other exotic destinations, this trip had only whetted my appetite for more.
I returned to Ohio promising I would be back. The pain we’d felt when she returned home from Ohio was now intensified by this month of daily intimacy that we had shared. And the image I carried with me back to Ohio was of her waving tearfully from the observation deck at the old Ezeiza Airport as my plane taxied away from the terminal to the runway.
Truth be told, I would gladly have stayed on in Buenos Aires right then. But for now, I didn’t feel I had any choice but to go back home. I had made a commitment to the musicians who had mentored me, to my high school band director, and, I felt, to the opinion of my community, which expected great things from me in the arts. I had also made a commitment to myself, to get a music degree, and to study writing as well, to eventually be a writer by day and a musician by night, to garner a career that would someday lead to New York or LA and what I saw as my destiny as a renowned writer and musician. It was, in the end, the theme of the great American novel: small-town boy makes good. And back then, there was no question in my mind that this was to be my happy fate, even when I had no real idea how I would go about achieving it.
Nor could there be any delaying the next step. It was the Vietnam era and you were either in school or you were drafted into the Army. Simply staying in Argentina was out of the question. Although I was against all of the underlying reasons behind the Vietnam War, I had no thought of dodging the draft. Draft-dodgers—as Thomas Wolfe might have said—couldn't go home again.