Sunday, October 18, 2015


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 
Chevy Biscayne.
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?”
“Four eighty.”
“I’ll give you four and a half.”
“Four sixty-five.”
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.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


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 describes 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.
Back from the Army
As I say, the decision to move to Buenos Aires was a long time coming. It hadn’t by any means been a foregone conclusion when my wife and I married three years before. Nor had it been when I first got out of the Army. My loosely structured plan had been to go back to exactly what I’d been doing before the Army interrupted my life, to return to being a nightclub musician five or six nights a week and to give private music lessons in the daytime, while seeking a way to return to college and get a dual degree in music and creative writing or journalism. I mean, I wanted to go back to Argentina for a while someday soon, but there were some other priorities I had to take care of first: education, a career, security, a pathway toward my ultimate dreams.
But then one hot summer day, on the way to my new job in the shoe department of a K-Mart store in Lima, Ohio—which wasn’t at all part of the plan I had outlined for myself—the decision kind of took itself. I can't pretend it was a revelation, exactly. But suffice it to say that just before arriving at work, I had to pull my VW Beetle off into the parking lot of the Westgate Lanes bowling alley, where I promptly stripped off my tie, ripped the collar button off of my shirt and then sat there gripping the wheel with both hands until my cold, sweaty knuckles turned white. I was hyper-ventilating like mad while my heart pounded like a trip-hammer and the blood sang in my ears so loudly that I couldn't hear the roar of the traffic whizzing by me on ever-busy North Cable Road. I was suffocating—almost literally.  Nothing, I realized, was turning out the way I’d planned. My young life was swiftly going down the toilet. Since I’d been away, the world had drastically changed. Now, I too was in desperate need of a change—for the better.
It wasn't the first time this had happened to me in that fateful 1973, the year they shipped me home from Europe and discharged me after a three-year tour in the US Army. Nor was the choice of Buenos Aires some wild whim. In fact, the series of events leading to this decision had developed almost in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy of errors ever since the winter of 1968, the year I graduated from high school. That was the same year that Virginia Mel, my future wife, came from Buenos Aires to my high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio, as an exchange student with the Youth for Understanding program.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to get out of it, when they told her where they were sending her. Who wouldn’t? I mean, why would any young foreign person want to go to Wapakoneta, Ohio, when there were such well-known and fascinating places in the United States, as, say, New York, Washington, LA, Chicago or San Francisco?
Long story short, however, her sponsor talked her into it. He said, “Virginia, you’re the luckiest candidate of all. You’re going to have a unique experience, totally different from the ones the kids going to big cities will have. I think you should take this destination. It’s fate.”
  So she came, somewhat reluctantly, to Wapakoneta in the winter of 1968, having finished high school in her own country a couple of months before. My attraction to her was immediate and powerful. Her American “sister” (the children of the homes where exchange students stayed were referred to as their “sisters” and “brothers”) was a childhood friend of mine, so although my friend, Jeanie, had already arranged to use her mother’s station wagon to take Virginia to her welcome party at a local gun club that had been booked for the occasion, I talked her into making up some excuse why she would be arriving later, so that I could stand in as designated driver for the guest of honor. 
Virginia (right) "luckiest of all"
Late that afternoon, I picked Virginia up at Jeanie’s house in my sleek, waxed and polished, ’61 Dodge Pioneer. I was proud of my car. I had worked since I was twelve and was now eighteen and doing well for myself as a professional musician, musical instrument salesman and private percussion teacher, besides going to high school. This was the second car I had owned in as many years, and a real step up from the rust-laced ’57 Dodge Royal that I had previously purchased for fifty bucks when I was barely sixteen. So I felt flattered when I held open the passenger-side door for her to get in and she said, “What a beautiful car!”
For a while, that was pretty much the extent of our conversation. We both felt shy and couldn’t think what to say. She was so beautiful that I felt awkward and unworthy. The gun club was about eight miles away, out in the country. It was a leisurely drive on two-lane country roads and I tried to think of something to ask her about her country or herself that wouldn’t make me sound like a stupid jerk from the outset, but my mind was a blank. Suddenly, she broke the ice.
A sleek waxed and polished '61 Dodge Pioneer
She said, “Would it bother you if I smoked?”
In response, I smiled, reached into the inside pocket of the winter coat I was wearing, and took out my Philip Morris Multi-filters in their classy plastic box, thumbed open the lid one-handed and shook a cigarette part way out, offering it to her. “Here,” I said, “have one of mine.” I handed her my fashionable, grown-up, Ronson gas lighter and watched out of the corner of my eye as she lit up. It seemed to me that I had never seen a more beautiful or sophisticated profile and I knew right then that I was in love. Using the car lighter, I lit a smoke for myself and opened the ashtray on the dash between us.
For a few seconds we smoked in silence. But then we started to talk and now the words came easier. The first thing she said was that her accent embarrassed her. I said that she hardly had one, that her English was excellent, “kind of British,” and that, anyway, I thought her Spanish accent was charming.
We had started out with plenty of time to get to the gun club. It was winter and the sun was already setting, but, on the spur of the moment, I decided to show my exotic guest some local color. So I drove a few miles out of our way and took her to see Grand Lake Saint Marys. With its thirteen thousand five hundred acres, Lake Saint Marys had once been the largest man-made lake in the United States and remained the largest inland lake in Ohio. It was built in the early eighteen-hundreds as a reservoir for the Miami and Erie Canal system, which carried cargo on mule-towed barges the length of the territory, from the Ohio River in the south to Lake Erie in the north, before the days of railroads.
Virginia was duly impressed, and it was a stunning winter evening so I parked and we took a walk along the now frosty shore in the abandoned state park grounds, where picnickers, water skiers, boating enthusiasts, anglers and beach-goers thronged in summer. It was freezing cold and daylight was fading fast, the sun now a creamy ember-orange glint on a snow-clouded horizon beyond the lake. But we strolled there in the dusk for a time and watched the last light of a stunning Midwestern winter day reflected on the breeze-ruffled surface of the water that was frozen along the edges. When we got back into the car to go to the gun club for the welcome party, it was as if we already had a tacit understanding between us. We liked each other…a lot.    
Despite countless efforts by Virginia’s surrogate American “mother” to get her to go out with other boys, we fell in love, and by the time graduation rolled around months later, we were doing what was known then as “going steady". There was even a picture of us in the high school year book, dressed in evening wear, at the Junior-Senior Prom. The theme for the dance was “Around the World” and the caption read: “Virginia Mel and Dan Newland are shown deciding what country to visit next on their round-the-world prom trip.”

Such Sweet Sorrow
The last time we went out together before she left town to return to Argentina following graduation turned out to be an oddly fateful experience—one that made us both think deeply about life and death and our own parting. I had taken Virginia out to a steakhouse called The Buckingham, in nearby Lima, for a fancy dinner, not with wine, of course, but with a glass of what was then known as three-two beer, which, at age eighteen, was all we were entitled to drink. But tonight Virginia and I felt very adult, like the protagonists of a romantic novel.
Virginia and Dan at prom night:
The theme was 'Around the World'
 Even so, it hardly felt like a celebration. We were both in a state of something like mourning, since we had fallen hard for each other and in the last months of her stay, had become deeply intimate and inseparable friends. Her leaving to go back home, halfway around the world, seemed a definitive and final event. It was indeed possible that this would be the last time we would ever see one another. The thought filled us both with a kind of dispair, but also with fateful resignation. While she thought we would never see each other again, however, I—eternal optimist that I was back then—had already convinced myself that we would, and I told her so. She refused to believe it. Her face was so sad and beautiful that I felt my heart would break when I looked into her eyes.
Now, we were headed back toward Wapak. She had to pack, get ready to leave the next day, spend a little time with her host family. I knew I had to get her back early, but I didn’t want the ride to end. So I bypassed I-75 South, which would have had us back in under twenty minutes, and decided to take the longest back way home that I knew, along country roads and county pikes on that warm summer evening.
It was as we were coming over a rise on one of those roads, somewhere between Lima and the village of Saint Johns, that I found myself face to face with another car, coming at us head-on in our lane. The other vehicle was a brand new American Motors Javelin, a hot car of the day that would garner success and recognition in Trans Am racing—just not this particular unit, which ended its days as a pile of junk on the side of that otherwise quiet country road. It would later be established that the driver was “test driving” his new car accompanied by his girlfriend, that he was moving at a speed high enough for the State Highway Patrol to consider it “reckless operation”, that he was passing on a blind hill and curve, and that I had done everything possible to avert a head-on collision.
I had started driving farm machinery when I was fourteen, having worked a few weeks on a spread west of town that year, helping harvest winter wheat. I had also secretly driven older friends’ cars on country roads after that, before I was old enough to have a license, and had practiced with my father in the family station wagon once I had a learner’s permit. I bought my first car a few weeks before I aced my driving test at sixteen. Since then, as a professional musician, I had put a couple of thousand miles a month on my car, driving to nightclub gigs and to schools in other towns, where I gave private percussion lessons after classes. So I had a lot of driving experience by eighteen and had also taken driver’s education in school to get even more. I had an eye and a talent for it. I was clearly no stranger to the road, yet all I could think of when I saw that Javelin coming at us head-on at, perhaps, ninety miles an hour or more was, “We’re dead!”
At the last second, however, my young reflexes won out. In a heartbeat, I managed to get two wheels and Virginia’s half of the car onto the berm, so that the point of impact was on my side. The other driver also swerved at the last second and we took the crash force at right about the driver’s side headlight. The fact that we both swerved meant that the impact was a glancing blow, after which the lightweight Javelin continued, in the manner of a thunderbolt stripping the bark from the trunk of a tree, ricocheting off of the heavy frame and body of the solid Dodge, while I managed to hold my ground and keep us from rolling into the deep ditch off of the right side. The battering ram sideswiping motion of the high-speed Javelin was so powerful that it drove the heavy door and frame of the Dodge in better than six inches, so that the armrest cracked one of my ribs and knocked me temporarily out from in front of the wheel (there were no seatbelts back when my car was built). I managed to keep my hands on the wheel, however, and to bring the car under control, coming to a complete stop on the gravel berm and grassy bank of the ditch. The Javelin continued to careen out of control for another couple hundred feet, before it rolled once, sailed off the road and landed right side up at the bottom of the deep ditch.
For a moment, there was just silence. Still gripping the wheel, I turned to look at Virginia. She was sitting there looking blank and stunned. I tried to see if she was bleeding anywhere. She didn’t seem to be. Incredibly, the windshield was still in one piece. Our side windows had been rolled down. So the only shattered glass was all over the backseat, from the breakage of all of the rear windows.
“Are you all right?” I asked. Virginia just looked at me. “Are you all right?” I asked again, louder this time and taking her by the shoulders.
She nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I think so.”
Automatically, I tried to open my door, but since it was crushed in halfway to the steering wheel, it obviously wouldn’t budge. We got out on Virginia’s side and she stood in the grass by the Dodge, while I made as if to walk back along to road toward the Javelin. It was only then that I felt the sharp pain in my side. I touched my shirt under my left arm with my opposite hand and the tip of my finger came back bloody. I pressed there again and winced with the pain. Despite the heat, I reached into the backseat, retrieved my blazer, shook the glass off of it and put it on to conceal the injury before walking back to the other car. I didn’t plan to spend my last evening with Virginia waiting to get X-rays at the emergency room.  As a new car, the Javelin did indeed have seatbelts and, to my amazement, neither of its occupants, a man and woman in their twenties, was badly hurt either. But they were sitting dazed and crying in a twisted mass of unidentifiable car wreckage that made me realize how close we had all come to sudden death.
When the State Highway Patrol arrived, I gave my version of what had happened to one trooper, while the driver of the other car gave his statement to another patrolman. The tall, burly officer who interviewed me said the on-scene evidence seemed to bear out what I had said. Seeing that he was—to the extent a policeman ever is—“on my side”, I took advantage of the opportunity to explain our situation: that Virginia was a foreign exchange student, that it was her last night in town, that I needed to get her home as quickly as possible, and so on. He gave no response, but within an incredibly short time, he had taken down our personal information and freed us to call my father to pick us up. I made the call from the conveniently located Army’s Wrecker and Salvage Service, which was just a hundred yards or so up the road, and to which both cars were temporarily towed.
My father always surprised me in situations like these. For more than forty years he suffered from what today is called “bipolar disorder” or “chemical imbalance.” Back then it was known as “manic depression”, which tended to make him an obsessive-compulsive worrier. But in situations such as these, he was always extraordinarily calm, collected and rational. When he picked us up, he asked about the accident, listened to my explanation, then said, “Well, all that matters is that neither of you got hurt. Too bad it had to be tonight.” He knew how much I was already missing Virginia, even though she was still here. He had married my mother toward the beginning of World War II and, a few short days later, had gone off to fight in the European Theater for three and a half years. He knew what it felt like to say good-bye and not know when or if you would see each other again. So when we got home, without a word, he handed me the keys to he and my mother’s second car.
I should have taken Virginia right home, but didn’t. Instead, I drove past the house where she was staying, out a little way into the countryside and parked off the side of the road. I lit cigarettes for both of us and we sat there smoking, holding hands and looking at each other, not knowing what to say. Then she said, in a quiet hoarse voice, “If my plane crashes, it won’t matter, because we will have had this time together.”
I was stunned. It was the first time I realized that she really believed we would never see each other again. And, truth be told, it was also the first time that I had realized how much I truly believed that we would. I knew we would and told her so. It wasn’t like I had a plan or anything. I simply had a gut feeling. I figured a relationship as star-crossed as this one couldn’t simply end because graduation and summer had come and it was time for her to go back home. Something would happen to bring us back together again. I said just that and, although she looked as if she wanted to believe me, she also looked at me as if I maybe belonged in a straightjacket. What kind of crazy, impractical optimist was I, to actually think there was any chance at all for a boy from a Midwestern farm town and a girl from Buenos Aires?
“You don’t believe me right now,” I said, “but you’d better get used to the idea. Before you know it, we’ll be seeing each other again.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’: A Journalist’s Memoir

The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of the memoir I’m currently writing about my early days as a journalist in Buenos Aires. I hope you enjoy it and would appreciate any and all comments you might wish to share.   

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times
Downtown Buenos Aires - Avenida 9 de Julio
I was excited about my decision to move to Buenos Aires just six months after I finished a three-year hitch in the US Army. I’d had a long time to think about it and the Ohio I had returned to—what with the start of a two-year-long American retreat from Vietnam and the corresponding initiation of an economic decline back home that was to turn the northern part of the state from industrial belt into rust belt practically overnight—was little like the one I’d left in 1970. Still, I wasn’t burning any bridges, really. The plan was to go to Buenos Aires with my native Argentine wife “for a year” to see what we could see. In the end, I could always come back to the United States. For now, however, this was the plan, and the start of a new adventure.  
Perón was back.
But if the Ohio of my pre-Army life had changed a lot in the last three years, so too had Argentina. The Buenos Aires of 1973 was nothing like the one I had known on my first visits, in 1968 and 1971. Oh, the porteños were still themselves—colorful, roguish, warm and generous to a fault—and the city was still as fascinating a metropolis as ever, but something in the climate had changed. The once impeccable walls of the city were covered with political graffiti and posters, cryptic phrases and open threats that suggested severe internal conflict. The police no longer walked their beats but were sandbagged inside their precincts. Something long covert was now boiling to the surface. And the cause of it all was clear: General Juan Domingo Perón was back.
There can be no doubt that during his decade-long reign in the 1940s and '50s—and especially up until the untimely death of his charismatic wife and co-leader, Eva Duarte (Evita), in 1952—Perón was the most popular president in Argentine history. But there can be little doubt either that he was also one of its most hated. While Juan Domingo and Evita enjoyed overwhelming popular support, Perón took ample advantage of that backing to create a popular dictatorship in the guise of a democracy. His government systematically persecuted its opponents, banned dissent, compiled and enforced blacklists and used brownshirt tactics to impose its will and dogma on the country. For a few brief years between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, Perón and Eva were the absolute monarchs of Argentina—with all of the beneficial and detrimental effects that this signified. But in 1955, the West's anti-communist/anti-fascist psychosis made Perón and his labor-based movement exceedingly suspect—as did his rather too obviously fascist-leaning "neutrality" during the Second World War. This, combined with his alienation of multi-national business interests, his imprudent clashes with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and his reckless nationalization of big business holdings of all kinds, provided his rivals in the armed forces with the political artillery they needed to revolt and overthrow him. Hundreds of his most loyal and humble followers died in the short but bloody revolution of 1955. Still others were executed in the anti-Peronist witch-hunt that followed.
Perón, for his part, escaped to the dictatorial haven of his colleague, General Alfredo Stroessner, in Paraguay, later spent some time touring other parts of Latin America, where he met—and subsequently married—María Estela Martínez, an exotic dancer thirty-six years his junior, whose stage name was 'Isabelita', and then retired from politics, in the lap of luxury, in Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Spain. There Perón was venerated not only as a great leader but also as a very wealthy man (a financial position he almost magically attained from the Spartan lifestyle of a career soldier and the relatively austere post of president, without ever having had any other visible means of support).
For over seventeen years, Perón lived in Spanish exile, puttering among his memoirs, his personal interpretations of military history and his reorganization of Peronist dogma. He probably could have lived happily ever after in semi-reclusion in Europe, except that his movement marched on in Argentina without him, thanks, ironically, to the Armed Forces' Revolución Libertadora, which proposed to abolish Peronism and inadvertently perpetuated it in the process.
The abolition was carried out with no apparent knowledge of human psychology. Childishly vindictive and almost ludicrously strict, the ban on all things Peronist literally defeated its own purpose. It wasn’t simply a matter of banning the Peronist Party (and all other party politics) 'for the duration', but was, rather, an attempt to make Perón and Evita non-persons. Busts, posters, books and pictures alluding to the two were removed, broken, burned and banned. The Peróns could not be publicly referred to by name. You could be reported to the police by a nosy neighbor for singing the Marcha Peronista in your own patio, and you could be arrested for daring to hum or whistle it in the street. Declaring yourself to be a follower of Perón or even an ex-Peronist could get you fired from your post and blacklisted from any new job opportunities. (This last was payback, since under Perón's government, in prime sectors of industry and trade, you were either a card-carrying Peronist or you were unemployed).
Ironically, the leaders of the also staunchly anti-communist Revolución Libertadora were applying methods of de-personification that were classically typical of Soviet domination. But as the intellectual defectors of the Soviet Union had long-since proven, a system of government that had to resort to brainwashing and historical lobotomy to preserve its power was not only tyrannical but also intrinsically weak and anemically supported. If a given personality was worthy of collective amnesia by executive decree, then that person must have sufficient power to be mortally feared by the regime. So it was that Perón's more than seventeen-year absence turned him into a national hero and a figure as charged with mystical power as El Cid. The obstinate ignorance of the anti-Peronist regime helped the myth of a Peronist workers' heaven spread among the country's proletariat and especially among laborers too young to actually remember the final period of Perón's "popular" dictatorship, when the general shut down Congress and ruled by decree. Suddenly, Juan Domingo Perón became the figure around whom thousands of rash young leftist students and extremist intellectuals also rallied. And in some cases, they armed themselves to overthrow "military oppression at the service of the oligarchy". These misguided scholars were precisely the type of educated ultra-liberals that Perón despised—a preference he would make clear once he returned and broke with what he called the "beardless idiots" who demanded he keep his long-distance promises of shared power with the left.
Still, the simple fact that Perón was the symbolic arch-enemy of the regime was sufficient for leftist rebels to take him as their leader in exile. So great was this political dichotomy and so meticulously misleading was the rhetoric of Peronism in exile, that the bold brushstrokes of underground revolutionary poster art often pictured Perón not only with the revered ghost of his beloved Evita, but also with that of Argentine-born Marxist martyr, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, at his side, when the truth was that, from the very outset, Peronist philosophy had been steeped in fascism, not Marxism.
Plan and Reality
 It was to this Argentina that I, like Perón, had returned and about which I planned to write. It didn't take me long, however, to realize that I had highly over-romanticized my idea of what life was going to be like in Argentina. I figured any of the major US-based multi-nationals would be more than happy to have a native-English-speaking American working for them. I would quickly get a job to support my wife and myself, get down to work on my first novel by night and within a year or so, I would surely be an up-and-coming published writer with no need to do anything but that, write. In reality, however, when I showed up in the personnel offices of the multi-nationals that I had found in the listings of the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, they all looked at me as if I were a Martian.
"Haven't you heard, son?" They invariably said. "Perón's back. All the Yankees are going home."
Downtown Buenos Aires - Calle Florida
I finally got a job as a graveyard shift bellhop in a downtown four-star hotel. They needed somebody on nights, other than the concierge, who could speak English. Heaven only knew they weren't hiring me for my Spanish, which was like the dubbed version of Tarzan on the Latino channel. Even in a big city hotel like that one, there was not a lot to do on the shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., except make sure the late-night drunks got safely to bed, check in the occasional straggler, check out the early risers, polish the brass on the lobby doors and elevators, wash to windowpanes on the double front doors, and make sure not to get caught napping by either of the managers should they decide to pay a surprise visit. And that was a distinct possibility because they were brothers and each had an apartment in the hotel. 

That left me a lot of time to sit and talk to the concierge when I wasn't trying to look busy. He told me his name was George, then immediately told me that wasn't his real name. He also told me his last name but said that too was phoney. He had assumed the name when he had come to Argentina back in the mid-1950s. George spoke seven languages, including perfect French, perfect German and perfect Spanish as well as good English. We traded off. He helped me improve my Spanish and I helped him practice his English. Beyond this entirely practical aspect, the conversations were, for me, extraordinary and fascinating.
George was a small man, not more than five-feet-six, with fair, neatly cropped, thinning hair gone to sandy gray. He was trim and wore his blue and gray hotel uniform with military correctitude. His eyes were an icy blue, but with a leprechaun twinkle that reflected intelligence and a sharp sense of humor. He was formally serious with customers and management, but when he talked to the bellhops, his face almost always bore a sardonic grin as he thought of new ways to poke good-natured fun at us. It struck me from the start that he had, on the one hand, the prim and proper look of the perfect little clerk, but on the other, an air of self-confidence and rigid bearing that made him look somehow self-assertive and even dangerous.
My instinct was apparently not wrong. As our nightly talks unfolded, I learned that George had been born in the mountains of Central Europe to parents who lived an isolated life in abject poverty and spoke a dialect that few people elsewhere in Europe would have understood. Suffice it to say that they were less than model parents and that George was brought up in a house where love and understanding were luxuries used sparingly. He ran away to Germany when he was sixteen, lied about his age and joined the German Army.
Smart, unobtrusive and extraordinarily gutsy, besides having a natural gift for languages, George eventually found his way into undercover work, where, under orders of the Third Reich during World War II, his job was to feed false information to the French, while collecting sound information for his handlers in the Gestapo. He once told me a horror story of how, on orders from the Nazis, he had slit the throat of a Frenchman who had been his contact and his friend for several years. Captured later by the French Resistance, he was given the choice of taking a bullet in the head or acting as their double agent, feeding lies to the Nazis and gathering intelligence for de Gaulle.
Calle Florida by night
That was how he had survived World War II. But after the war, fearing the vengeance of either side at any time, he had assumed a false name and joined the French Foreign Legion. By now a chameleon by nature, he served with the Legion for a number of years, first in Indo-China and then, for a year or so, in Algeria. He hated Algeria, hated the desert, with its broiling days and freezing nights, and began to have a very bad feeling about intense fighting against the National Liberation Front in which he frequently had to take part. After a firefight in which a bullet went clean through his thigh and killed his mule, he decided to escape at the earliest opportunity.
Once recovered from his wound, he eventually saw his chance to get away and ended up gravitating, almost by accident, to Buenos Aires—long known as a city that harbored anonymous exiles—where he took the first job he could get, as a bellhop, and faded, like many other former Nazis, into the urban landscape, changing his name once more and becoming a naturalized Argentine citizen.
Whenever I complained about the oppressive humidity of summer in Buenos Aires, he scoffed and said he loved the humidity. “Anything,” he said, “but the desert, thank you.”
 George’s Spanish-teaching methods were, to my young mind, extreme. When he asked me to answer a call on the switchboard one night after the operator had gone home, I made the mistake of saying that my Spanish wasn't good enough to answer the telephone. George laughed and said, "Ah, well then, Newland, we've found a new job for you," and turning to the other three bellhops, he said, "From now on, after the operator goes home, no one answers the phone but Newland, understood?"
I begged him to reconsider, arguing that the hardest thing about Spanish for me was understanding what people said over the phone. He said, "Look, Newland, the telephones in Argentina are notoriously bad. There's nothing uncommon about a bad connection. So if you don't understand what the caller is saying, all you have to do is say, 'Disculpe, no le escucho,' (Sorry, I can't hear you), and get them to repeat until you understand what they want."
Obviously, I quite often found myself saying, "Sorry I can't hear you," over and over again, while the poor callers shouted their business until they were hoarse on the other end of the line. But my Spanish quickly began to improve. It was George, too, who first introduced me to the Buenos Aires Herald. I saw him reading the English-language daily early one morning, when the fellow from the newsstand up the street brought us the day's papers, and asked him about it. He suggested that it should form part of my Spanish training. "Read the Herald first each day to familiarize yourself with the news and then read the same stories in one of the Spanish-language papers and see how much you can understand." I started doing as he said and found that my Spanish vocabulary expanded by leaps and bounds.
I only worked a few months at the hotel before I landed myself a slightly better-paying job as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car. But my pal George had provided me with invaluable help, not only with the local language but also by presenting me to the Herald. By the time I went to work for Avis, I was already planning to find a way to start writing for the city's only English-language paper.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Every once in a while, I find myself having to apologize to my blog readers. This is always when, in the midst of a sort of running dialogue (some would say monologue), I’ll just go silent for a spell without so much as a “by your leave”. This is one of those occasions, and I know all too well it’s not one of my better traits.

In my defense, I never mean for these broad lagoons of silence to form. They just do. They’re a lot like life itself for many of us, in which we find ourselves doing whatever it is we’re doing “because we’re supposed to”, from one day to the next, with such focus, so as “not to get off the track” that, all of the sudden, we awaken to find that weeks, months or even years have gone by without our realizing it, making us wonder, with something like panic, “where on earth the time has gone!”
And in my mind, there’s always a good excuse. It usually has to do with what I call “writing for hire”, meaning the writing/editing/translating that puts food on the table and a roof over my head—work that my Midwestern American upbringing tells me must always come first. (By this logic, it follows that doing what you truly love, and what fills you with passion, can’t be considered “serious work” and so, must be somehow “wrong” if you do it in anything but your “spare time”).
While most of the people I know and care most about would (and do) say that this Middle-American work ethic of mine is a good thing, something I should be proud of, I have to admit that, deep down, I’ve always wished I could cut it loose, like an unbearable burden, place it on a pyre and, in a less than solemn ceremony (I can only imagine drinking, dancing and general debauchery would be in order), burn it to unrecognizable cinders and then spit—or whatever—on the ashes. But I’ve never seemed to have it in me to do that. I guess you can take the boy out of the Midwest, but not the Midwest out of the boy.
Some would say it’s a virtue, a strength to always be “takin’ care o’ business” but that depends on what you see as business—whether business is going after “what you can” or going after “what you want most”. My late and ever-missed brother would have put it down to “a lack of balls”. Deep down, and to my everlasting chagrin, I would have to agree with him. Still, know this: that even if it has taken me the longest time imaginable to start getting a dose of courage, it’s finally coming, little by little and better, perhaps, late than never.
This blog, which I began writing in fits and starts just over seven years ago, was a first step toward writing more of what I wanted to and less of what I had to. To those of you who have followed it, commented on it, encouraged me, told your friends and generally enjoyed what I’ve had to share, all I can do is say thanks for your loyalty, indulgence and patience, and add: stay tuned…there’s more to come.     

Sunday, May 3, 2015


A large anvil-shaped cloud on the horizon over the Andes
It happened a week ago last Wednesday. Virginia got home from work in the early evening (most nights she doesn’t get here until nine but on Wednesdays, if she hurries, she can make it home by seven, and although autumn is advancing in Patagonia, the sun is still just setting at that hour), and we rushed to take a walk in the mountains together before dark.  After climbing the steep grade on our street to get to the high road, we stopped to catch our breath and looked back toward the mountains. There we could see a strange, dense, anvil-shaped cloud on the western horizon over the Andes, colored a breath-taking luminous peach and grey in the setting sun and in an otherwise cloudless sky. At once ominous yet incredibly beautiful, we took it as a visual gift of nature and walked on.
A neighbor warned us that Calbuco had erupted
Once we were back, I got a text message from a neighbor who suggested prudence in our water use (we draw our water from a natural spring) because the Mount Calbuco volcano on the other side of the mountains in Chile had erupted at 6 p.m., spewing ash and pumice high (about eleven miles high, in fact) into the atmosphere.
So, I thought, it’s starting again. The price we pay for living in one of the most beautiful places on the feet of a string of sleeping giants. Four years ago it had been Puyehue. This year it was Calbuco, both within sixty miles, as the crow flies, from our house.
Remembering the previous eruption, I could feel the first rumblings of barely controlled panic rising—like an internal volcano of my own—as I contemplated our potential fate. When Puyehue blew, we saw mid-afternoon on an otherwise sunny day turn new moon dark as a crushing cloud of coarse sand-like ash loomed over the mountains and pelted us with an all-enveloping blanket of over four inches of pyroclastic debris before edging on eastward to bury other areas beyond. We had braved the hot, abrasive ash-storm outside to shut off the water intake to our tanks and to get the dogs under cover in the workshop and then cowered inside with our family of cats awaiting a “passover” of biblical proportions.
The scene the next day was desolate, with a heavy, ankle-deep blanket of grey ash covering everything. But things were far worse elsewhere, in places where the furious mountain had dumped tons of ash a yard deep on people’s homes along the Chilean border, caving in their roofs, skewing their dwellings like houses of cards and closing the mountain pass between Argentina and Chile.
During the Puyehue eruption, a veritable storm of ash
We, then, were blessed. We lived, after all, in the manner of Johnny Cash, in a ring of fire...but literally, not virtually or poetically. And for weeks and months after that our activities were governed by the direction of the wind and whether the ash was blowing our way as Puyehue remained active for what seemed like ages, starving the nearby towns of Bariloche and Villa La Angostura of the tourism they live on, with the airport being shut down “for the duration”.
So awaiting the arrival of Calbuco’s wrath—better prepared this time, with bigger, better water tanks, an electric power generator and plenty of fuel in the shed—I set about covering the air intakes on our vehicles and finished my preparations just as the air outside started to turn dense and the first light ash started to fall, a bit like tepid grey snow.  We went to bed that night resigned, not wanting to think about what we would wake up to and only hoping what came our way wouldn’t be sufficient to strain the roof beams.  But we knew that it would be what it would be, that natural flood, fire and wind are phenomena which humans as powerless to control, especially here in “the wild forties” below the fortieth parallel.
The next morning the house and yard appeared to be enveloped in a dense fog and in the short time it took me to go out to the woodshed for more wood to fuel our fire, my cap and vest were heavily dusted in grey ash. I couldn’t help recalling a few trips I’d made over the years to the busy old crematorium in Chacarita, the biggest cemetery in Buenos Aires—a veritable “city of the dead”—where the clothes of the municipal workers who would come out of the furnace room to the reception hall to turn over the incinerated remains of scores of departed each day to their respective families were always covered with a fine grey layer of the ashes of the deceased—enough so that my brother-in-law would quip, “I wondered what percentage of these are really the ol’ man’s,” after accepting the little wooden box that a slightly hunched and red-eyed worker offered him.
Across the mountains in Chile some places were buried in ash
But by noon the air was much clearer and the fallen ash was so light that it resembled a sort of grey hoarfrost that clung to grass, bushes and trees. Nothing like the pyroclastic blizzard we had endured four years earlier. It was, I reminded myself, all a matter of wind direction and the luck of the draw. Across the mountains in Chile, a few villages and towns had been literally buried under five feet of heavy, sandy ash and other pyroclastic debris, with many homes being crushed under the weight and over four thousand people being evacuated to safer ground. And on the Argentine side, in the next Patagonian province north of us, the highway had to be closed until road graders could be brought in to clear the pavement for cars, trucks and buses.
By evening in our neck of the woods, however, the air and sky were clear enough for Virginia and me to enjoy an evening walk (her afternoon and evening classes at the institute where she teaches having been canceled as a safety precaution). Despite how pleasant it was on our side of the Andes, there had been two eruptions—one at six on Wednesday evening and the other at one in the morning on Thursday and the dense plume over Calbuco was over eight miles high. The second eruption had blasted four or five new craters in the mountain top and Chilean volcanologists were warning of a possible third eruption. That eruption came a week after the first two, just when the mountain had settled down and even some experts were venturing that maybe Calbuco would simply go back to sleep. After all, before this latest incident, it had been four decades since it last awoke in a rage of hellfire and brimstone.
But this time, in our area, twelve miles west and south of the ski resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, you would never have known, if you didn’t ask, that a third eruption had taken place. And there was a sense of gratitude mixed with guilt in knowing that the wind was standing between us and the brunt of the volcanic storm.
A hoarfrost of ash on dirt roads...
...and foliage
The week after the first eruptions, Virginia went back to work and I went back to taking my evening walk in the mountains alone. And although I was grateful for the beautiful, mostly clear autumn days nature was bestowing on me, Calbuco continued to give me pause for reflection. For one thing, I could still see the “frost” of ash that remained on the foliage and dirt roads. But more than that, instead of the usual sweet mountain air that greeted me in the great Andean outdoors of Patagonia, there was a hint, a reminder of cataclysm in the air, a whiff of brimstone, the sulfurous breath of a fiery hell belched up and out the spout of Calbuco from three thousand miles beneath the surface of the earth in the planet’s molten liquid core.
Flame-yellow leaves of an old Alamo poplar
But it was easy enough to distract myself from the latent threat of the volcano when my boots crushed the flame-yellow leaves of an old Alamo poplar, cast around its massive trunk like the fragrant and elegant lingerie of a shy but impassioned autumn Amazon, releasing beneath my soles their sweet "tobaccoy" scent that mitigated the rotten-egg stink of sulfur in the air.
When I walk in the mountains after a day of highly focused work, my mind ventures off in all sorts of directions, sparking the most eclectic of thoughts and memories. At one point this past week, I suddenly recalled H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. For those who have never read it or seen the movie, it’s about a British scientist in the times of Wells (it was published in 1895, when the writer was not yet thirty years old) who invents a machine that permits him to become a Time Traveler.
The Time Machine
At one point in the story, the Time Traveler journeys more than eight hundred thousand years into the future. There he finds a world that appears to be an absolute paradise. It is inhabited by a beautiful people known as the Eloi. The Eloi exist in a perfect and bountiful climate and live off of the land with no need to cultivate anything. Everything is provided for in this benign world and they have no reason to work. It is a bucolic life of peaceful Eloi co-existence, mutual love, harmony and plenty. The Time Traveler feels at his ease here and quickly becomes enamored of a beautiful Eloi woman named Weena.
H.G. Wells
There’s only one problem with this paradise on Earth, as the Time Traveler soon discovers, and that is that nothing comes free and the Eloi only enjoy the life they have thanks to the Morlocks. The Morlocks are trollish ape-like creatures who live in a subterranean world to which access is gained through a series of “wells” that dot the heavenly landscape. Subsisting in the bowels of the earth, the Morlocks do the drudgery that provides the Eloi with the perfect life they enjoy on the surface, but in exchange, the Morlocks frequently slip to the surface at night, snatch an Eloi here and there and drag them into the murky underworld, where they end up on the Morlock menu.
The round-about connection I made to the Wells sci-fi classic is that living in one of the most stunning landscapes on Earth has its risks. If you want the kind of beauty that one of the last frontiers of earthly nature has to offer, then you have to risk being at least a witness to— and perhaps a victim of—the cataclysmic events that such a place is also capable of hosting, and hellfire and brimstone belched from the guts of the planet like the acid reflux of the mountain gods is just one such event—a disaster in human terms but business as usual for this landscape that was largely formed thanks to the natural cycles of the “Morlockian” monoliths that ring this habitat.
But Wells’ story also prompted me to think beyond the Morlock-ruled world of the guileless Eloi. Later in the story, the Time Traveler ventures many millions of years into the future and what he finds there is a world with an ominous red sun and a planet with a rarefied atmosphere that can no longer sustain prolonged life. Frightenly, what Wells describes sounds chillingly similar to the world alarmed scientists are warning us of today if we fail to take immediate action to reverse the devastating effects of our noxious ecological actions in the name of “human progress”. These actions are proving, in the end, far more cataclysmic, not for nature but for the human species, than anything Mother Nature is wont to dish up.
Over the course of our evolution, nature has squeezed us often enough, but has yet to choke us out of existence. We, on the other hand, seem bent on goading Mother Nature into choking the life out of our species, ignoring, justifying or shrugging off the warning signs, putting off “until tomorrow” (when today is already tomorrow) the actions necessary to reverse the damage we’ve done and continue to do, as if nature might be counted on to give us yet another comfy extension on the debt we owe her.
It’s amazing what thoughts a little brimstone in the air can trigger, and that’s the point, in a way, of the brilliant Conservation International shorts being run worldwide on TV: to put a little whiff of brimstone into the air, to see if maybe people will wake up and start demanding that their leaders take immediate, and drastic action, to stop and reverse the devastating “human volcano” that is threatening to lay our habitat to waste.
In one of those shorts, Mother Nature (in the steely, dispassionate voice of a hardly recognizable Julia Roberts) says, in part, “I have been here 22,500 times longer than you. I don’t really need people. But people need me. I have fed species greater than you and I have starved species greater than you. I’ve been here for eons. My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests: They all can take you—or leave you… Your actions will determine your fate. Not mine.”
Mother “Julia” Nature’s final challenge goes: “I am prepared to evolve. Are you?” And beyond any worry about natural hellfire and brimstone, that’s the real question we should be asking ourselves and each other every minute of every day if we’re at all committed to leaving behind a livable habitat in which the human species—meaning our children and their children and their children’s children and so on down the line—can continue to survive. Nature won’t care, one way or another, what we do. But we should.