|Juan Domingo Perón|
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
This is the first chapter of my as yet unpublished novel about the bloody clash between left and right-wing factions in Argentina in the 1970s as seen through the eyes of a young American drawn into the fray by his own ideals and a young woman's love. As this scene opens, after nearly 18 years of exile, iconic leader General Juan Domingo Perón is returning to Argentina for one last term as president, defying the military and on a wave of popular support that ranges from far left to far right. The comeback will be short-lived. He will die the following year, plunging the two factions into a veritable civil war that will eventually spark a military coup. And Argentina will be changed forever. But the writing is already on the wall even before the elderly general's plane lands in Buenos Aires.
"For a Peronist, there is nothing quite as good as another Peronist."
—Lt. General Juan Domingo Perón—
June 20, 1973 — Ezeiza International Airport, Argentina
"Fireworks," he thought when he first heard it. It was like the crackling sputter of a string of lady-fingers, followed by several deeper, duller pops, like M-80s going off.
He pictured a lesson in one of the texts they had used in Mrs. Garth's high school Spanish class—a lesson about celebrations which showed pictures of Roman candles bursting in the night-time sky over Mexico. His mind scanned the text for the Spanish term for fireworks, then he turned to Beto and tried it on him. "Fuegos artificiales," he heard himself say.
"¡Ojalá!" Beto muttered, which, Paul had recently learned, meant, "Let's hope so! Stick close to me, and if I say move, we move, okay?"
"Sure," he said, but he thought ojalá was a funny thing for Beto to say. Paul would have known the sound of fireworks anywhere, and this was, after all, a big celebration, even if it wasn’t Mexico. Of course, the sound was, he had to admit, somewhat indistinct, and distant from the spot where they milled with the flow, shoulder deep in a heavy sea of Argentine humanity that had turned out to meet General Perón's plane, after his seventeen years in exile. The remoteness of the sound reminded Paul of the distance of his high school days and of everything familiar to him back then, including M-80s and lady-fingers. He didn't feel sad about being so far away, just strange somehow—out of his element, on foreign turf. Even though he was with his new and trusted friend, Beto, he felt a little uneasy in the swelling crowd. There was a tension, a mob-like fearsomeness in the air, despite the festive occasion, as if an ulterior motive underlay the festival-like patina.
The crowd was surging, like a single-minded, seething mass, toward the staging area for the welcome, where there was a reviewing stand from which Perón was to speak on arrival in Buenos Aires, and a platform below it, where the National Symphony Orchestra was set up to welcome the aging general with some musical selections, including the National Anthem. Paul didn't understand a great deal about what was going on in the crowd, except that on arrival he and Beto had hung around with groups made up mostly of what his friend had described as student organizations and intellectuals. As the growing crowd organized itself into a kind of loose honeycomb of political constituencies, a crossfire of collective chants had broken out between one section and another. The chanting had been spirited and aggressive and it was clear that the chants of some groups stirred up something more provocative than shared enthusiasm in others. The increasingly hostile tone reminded Paul of the taunting blood-and-guts bravado of the high-school and college football cheers that he had always despised, that false togetherness, that kind of you're-with-us-or-dead undertone that brewed beneath the surface of every Ohio State-Michigan game, for instance, when bullies who had never made anything but the beer-drinking team did the rounds of the bars trying to pick fights with the Michiganders in Columbus for the big game. But he found that kind of bloody-mindedness odd at a celebration where everyone present was theoretically Peronist.
He had asked Beto about this early on, right after a scuffle broke out between two rival cells and fists flew for a few minutes until calmer heads moved in to separate the scrapping opponents. Beto had explained that, to begin with, not everybody there was a Peronist. He, for instance, wasn't. He was a socialist. Many people, like him, were sticking close to the events from here on out to make sure that everybody that deserved it got a fair shake in the new democracy. People like him didn't want to see this turn out like Perón's old government that had gone from popular uprising to incipient democracy to iron-fisted dictatorship. But even among the majority here, who were indeed Peronists, one Peronist wasn't the same as the next. It was a very broad movement and there was much rivalry between the leftist and rightist extremes. The problem, said Beto, was that the old guard rightists didn't want to understand that Peronism was growing with the times. It could no longer be content to be a nationalist movement. It must seek to join the inexorable rise of international socialism, the development of a new world economic and social order, of greater equality in the distribution of the world's wealth. Perón understood this, Beto had assured Paul. It was obvious from his discourse from exile in Spain. He was up on what was happening. He hadn't wasted those seventeen years of exile. He knew what was coming off worldwide. The dinosaurs thought it was the same old Fascist Perón of the forties who was coming back. But no, this was 1973 and el Pocho was nobody's fool. He knew that without the nation's youth, without the pressure the students and intellectuals, and indeed the guerrillas had brought to bear on the milicos, Perón would have died in exile. Hadn't it been Perón himself who had preached la tercera posición, the third position, before anyone had ever thought of Third World unity and the rise of a new power to be reckoned with? No, the Fascist dinosaurs of old guard Peronism were finished. The news just hadn't been broken to them yet, but Beto figured that would be one of the first things Perón would do on his arrival. The movement needed new blood and Perón knew it. Youth and social justice would surely take its rightful place in Peronism.
Now, once again there was a volley of lady-finger crackle and several M-80-like pops, louder, much closer this time. And although it was a comfort to associate the sound with fireworks and joyful celebration, Paul was no longer as sure of what he was hearing as he had been before. The smell of gun-powder floated above their heads and mixed with the pall of smoke from the chorizo vendors' makeshift grills. Paul was just turning to Beto, in a gesture akin to whistling in the dark, to tell him about his wild days back in Ohio, when he heard Beto mutter, "¡La mierda, che! ¡Son tiros!”
"What's the matter?" he asked, noting Beto's pallor, but not catching what he'd said.
“Don't you hear it, amigo?"
"Fireworks, ¡las pelotas! Sounds more like shots to me."
"Shots?" said Paul only semi-credulously. He laughed a weak nervous laugh, not wanting to be caught out by a porteño-style joke, and certainly not wanting to believe the sound was gunfire. But Beto didn't laugh at him or with him, and now there were six pops in rapid succession very near them. Others around them screamed, cursed and jostled, trying to disband or at least to put some distance between themselves and the sound. A nearby chorizo vendor flattened his back to a big eucalyptus tree, made a rapid sign of the cross and touched his thumb and forefinger to his dry lips.
"Shots?" Paul heard himself say again, but this time there was a genuine and urgent query in his voice. A woman with a baby elbowed past him and got under the tree with the vendor, where the greasy criollo sausages continued to sizzle and hiss festively over the coals on a bedspring-grill, oblivious to the impending bedlam.
Beto grabbed Paul's arm and pulled him toward another small grove of trees a little further on. But it was impossible to move fast in the crush of the crowd and everyone was suddenly scrambling, trying to remain on a solid footing for fear of falling and getting trampled if panic broke out. And it did, when an older man just a few people away from them careened crazily into the arms of two adolescents behind him, shouting, "¡Ay, la puta madre! ¡Me han baleado!"
People screamed and swore and started to push, wanting to break and run in any direction but where they were. Paul hesitated as he saw the two youths kneel with the wounded man, whose white shirt and beige coat were fast turning scarlet. The man's eyes rolling back in his head, as the boys tried to ward off the careless feet of a mob in flight. "¡Cuidado! ¡Cuidado!” the boys cried, "We've got a wounded man here!"
In the mad rush that followed, the crowd surged mindlessly toward the action, rather than away from it. Paul and Beto were in sight of the blue and white-festooned stage and VIP reviewing stand that had been rigged up for the caudillo's arrival. Paul looked that way just in time to hear screams and see the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra cradle their instruments and lurch forward out of their seats onto the wooden floor of the makeshift stage, as close-cropped men wearing suits, overcoats and sunglasses a tier above them produced machine pistols and 9mm semi-automatics and began to exchange fire with unseen armed opposition below, in the core of the violently jostling mass.
"Come on, gringo, come on!" shouted Beto over the tumult, jerking him sideways against the main flow of the mob. "We've got to get out of here. Move!"
Suddenly, the initial shock drained from Paul's head and survival took over. He moved in unison with Beto, placing himself in his friend's hands, side-stepping against the human wave, pushing, heaving, surging leftward, away from the staging area for Perón's welcome. Still Beto shouted, "Come on! Come on! Move! ¡Movéte, boludo, dále!"
Around them, some men's hands disappeared inside their winter coats and reappeared armed with pistols. A swarthy young man with a straggly beard, not an arm's length from Paul, hollered, "¿Donde están los hijos de puta? Do you see the sons of bitches?"
"Up there! On the right, Negro!" another man shouted, and Paul saw the young man take aim with a large-bore, long-barreled revolver." The gun exploded so near, that Paul felt the heat and his ears rang as if they'd been boxed. Beto yanked him leftward, as four more loud blasts, just ahead and to the right, answered the young man's shot.
Before he could secure a foothold, Paul felt himself being jerked violently to the ground on top of Beto, as if the two of them had been lassoed with a millstone. Seeing the kicking, digging feet all around him, Paul forced his body to spring upward and expected to see Beto jack-in-the-box up in front of him. But Beto didn't get up. Paul reached down through the crush of swirling bodies, as if shoving a hand into a deep gunny-sack of uncertain contents, and latched onto his friend's coat collar. He tried to pull Beto to his feet, but it was as if Beto's clothes had been poured full of inert sand, a deadweight too heavy to lift one-handed. Paul panicked and began to push and shove, at first as if against a sandbag levy. But then he started shouting, "Hey! Hey! Come on you bastards! Open it up! Open it up, here!" He shouted it in English, momentarily unable to think of a single word in Spanish. To his amazement, the people around him, surprised by the sound of a foreign tongue, made minimal space for him to kneel down in aid of his fallen friend.
But when he rolled Beto over, it was obvious it was too late for aid of any kind. Beto's right eye was staring sightlessly back at Paul. The left was dangling from the socket by a bluish-red mass of nerves and veins, like a macabre, novelty-store gag. The whole left side of the face was bathed in a thick sauce of blood and brain-matter.
"Beto?" he said in an oddly quiet voice, although he knew already that his friend was dead. In a stroke of efficiency, he pressed an ear to the blood-soaked chest of the corpse, listening for a heartbeat. Nothing. "Beto?" he said again and pressed two fingers to the gore-sullied throat. No response. Then he stood and looked dizzily around himself. Everyone was pushing and shoving, trying desperately to move out, as a Fourth-of-July barrage of gunfire ripped through the crowd. Things seemed somehow muffled and unreal. Only a terrified young woman, perhaps eighteen or twenty years old, was looking his way, staring first at him and then down at Beto's cadaver.
As Paul stood half-dazed, wondering what to do—an idiotically organized side of him pondering was how he would get Beto's body out of there, while another more practical part of him frantically asked how he himself would escape alive—he turned again toward the staging area. He was thinking that, perhaps, if Perón's plane indeed landed, things would calm down. But then, his practical side asked him, why would Perón's plane land in the midst of utter chaos? The tower must surely have radioed the plane by now to tell the pilot what was happening here. But then, if Perón was the iron-man they said he was, maybe he'd chance it. (Perón wasn't, of course, and didn't. He was flown to the safety of a nearby Air Force base and tried publicly to pretend the whole thing hadn't happened, the abortive welcome being a personal let-down for him, after so many years and so many miles).
High on the reviewing stand over the crowd, a half-dozen men—three in jackets and jeans, three in coats and ties—appeared to be calling orders down to comrades in the disbanding crowd. They pointed and gesticulated, letting the others know where the opposition shooters were. Their leader was a pear-shaped man in a tweed jacket, button-up sweater-vest, white shirt and tie. He was bald and wore glasses and a carefully trimmed mustache. Paul was thinking that if the man weren't now waving a semi-automatic carbine over his head to attract the attention of one of his men below, he would look very much like Mr. Jackson, the chief teller at the Feningsville National Bank. The thought struck him oddly funny and he started to laugh and then he began to sob. Mr. Jackson's look-alike aimed his carbine into the crowd below and fired four shots in rapid succession, lowered the weapon enough to assess the damage he had cause and then squeezed off four more rounds.
And then the crowd was tearing open like a thick sheet of wet paper, pealing into two flanks, as a score of fast-moving men in civilian clothes, carrying pump-action shotguns at port arms, drove a human wedge down through the middle, shouting as they went, "Get out of the way, carajo! Move! Let us through!" And as the crowd closed again like quicksand behind them, there was a sudden storm of small arms fire and then the deafening answer of twenty shotguns opening up against all resistance.
The terrifyingly explosive din scattered the crowd around Paul like shattered safety glass, and he suddenly found himself and the frightened young woman to whom he had spoken standing alone together in a clearing, under a blue haze of gunsmoke and barbecue. On an impulse, he grabbed her hand and tried to cut and run in the direction he intuitively sensed was safest. But she panicked and tore her hand from his.
"This way!" he yelled for no reason he was sure of, as if he had smelled danger in the other direction. But she paid him no heed. She had gone no more than ten terrified, reckless paces when he saw her pitch forward, face-first onto the ground, preceded by a pinkish shower of bone and blood that spewed onto the grass.
Paul felt his body heave involuntarily and his vomit blew onto the ground, his shoes and his pants legs. But the next wrenching spasm was cut short by a rocketing surge of adrenaline as a slug whistled past his left ear, and another tore bark off a tree to his right. He dived instinctively to the ground and low-crawled for the cover of a nearby official car. But he found the spot crammed with other cowering mortals. And now, he was back on his feet and running like he never had before—not even when he set the high school long-distance track record, what seemed like centuries and a million miles ago. And his feet didn't stop pounding the ground until he had reached a wooded area, somewhat removed from the main crowd and the epicenter of the fighting.
Though not the center of action, however, the woods was far from peaceful. He had been lucky, he could now see, to enter the tree-line from the far end of the dense grove of eucalyptus, away from the section that directly faced the reviewing stand and stage several hundred feet away. Now, as he embraced a tree and gulped air into his burning lungs, he could see clearly that had he run toward the middle of the woods, he would surely have been killed in a hail of crossfire. He was now looking that way from the cover of the large eucalyptus under which he was catching his breath. In that area, not fifty yards from him, there was an armed man behind nearly every tree, some with revolvers and pistols, others with shotguns and what looked like .22 carbines, a privileged few with machineguns. It was a disorganized array of mostly "domestic" weaponry, nothing at all like the neat Hollywood divisions of opposing bands, one group armed with brand new U.S.-made assault rifles, the other with brand new Soviet ones. But, he was thinking in his muddled, dream-like half-shock, that there was indeed something movie-like in all this. He watched the men in TV-learned poses, parapeted behind trees, returning fire from the staging area, probably—and fortunately, for the death toll—somewhat ineffectually out of range, given the civilian nature of most of the arms. Only the men with rifles on either side of the fighting were occasionally creating casualties.
What was obvious was that distribution was hardly even. The close-cropped men near the reviewing stand definitely had the better hardware and were whittling down the odds fast. Even as Paul watched the shooters behind the trees, a bullet slammed into one of them with such impact that it knocked him flat on his back. He immediately began to scream and curse that he was hit. Another man moved to his aid, but when he saw that it was only a shoulder wound he dragged his downed comrade to cover and returned to the firing line. Half-dazed, Paul leaned against the tree, slowly recovering his breath and watched the shooters in a kind of fascination, saw how their right shoulders bucked with each shot, followed the shockwaves through the backs of their denim, tweed and wool jackets, saw how they turned, backs to their cover, white-faced and a little queasy looking, as they dug for ammo in their pockets and shakily reloaded their overheated weapons. These were mostly young men, his age or a little older, a few in their thirties. Paul was thinking: "This is real! This isn't a nightmare! This isn't some newsreel of Beirut or Nam! Beto's dead and these guns are real!" And again the adrenaline filled his veins and he once more lit out in a mad dash through the trees.
It was the wounded man lying on the ground who saw Paul break from behind the tree.
"Hey! Hey! Who's that? Hey, get that sonuvabitch!" the man yelled.
Paul didn't turn back but he could hear more shouts behind him and then there were shots and bark skittered off a tree a few yards ahead of him. He zigzagged, running full out, limbs and brush snatching at him like enemy claws as he picked his way, full-speed, as best he could, through the wooded area.
A blow like a line-drive across the bridge of his nose dropped him on his back. He rolled, moaned and tried to sit up but fell back, blood gushing down his throat from his broken nose so that he had to swallow fast to keep from choking. He tried to roll to one side so that he could spit out the blood and breathe through his mouth, but a heavily shod foot kicked him over onto his back again. Then someone dropped down astride his chest, knees pinioning his biceps painfully to the ground. He heard the voices of others nearing fast from where he had fled—not many, two or three at most, but certainly armed and surely more than he could handle. The one who had hit him must have been up ahead, alerted to the situation and waiting in ambush behind a tree. He felt cold metal against his forehead, felt and heard the click and whir of a revolver being cocked and thought, "I'm finished." He heard the footfalls of the others as they arrived. Three of them, he figured. He braced himself for the blows he imagined were coming, but then, the man on his chest eased forward the hammer of his revolver and said, "Falsa alarma, muchachos."
"What do you mean, false alarm, Negro?"
"I think he's with us."
Paul opened his eyes and, through the tears of pain from his smashed nose, recognized the swarthy young man with the straggly beard and the long-barreled revolver who had been shooting from the crowd right next to him just before the barrage from the reviewing stand killed Beto.
"That's right, isn't it?" he said, sitting more or less comfortably astride Paul's chest, the barrel of his revolver now pointing at the sky. "You're one of ours. I saw you with Beto."
"Beto?" Paul said dumbly. "You know Beto?"
The man smiled at the others, who stood one at either of Paul's shoulders and out of his range of vision, except for their feet and the cuffs of their pants. The three of them laughed aloud.
"Yes, said the one sitting on his chest, "we know Beto."
"Beto's dead," Paul gurgled through blood and mucus and then a sob tore through his body and he began to weep, lying there on his back, the blood still running down his throat, but slower now, tears squeezing out the corners of his eyes and draining off into his hair.
The man on his chest grabbed Paul's chin firmly and spoke imperatively into his face in deliberate, foreign-accented English. "Look at me. Look at me, rubio!" Paul opened his eyes and looked the man on his chest directly in the face. "You are sure Beto is dead?" The young man's face was serious, hard and full of sorrow at the news. Paul nodded and began to cry again, his mouth wide open. but with nearly no sound coming out, except for an airy, wheezing moan."
"It was the hijo de puta with the carbina," the Negro said.
"El pelado, the bald one," Paul heard himself say accusingly through his tears.
"Yes," said the man against whose leg his pounding head was resting, the man the others called Negro. "Yes, that's the one. You know him?"
"No. I saw him. Up there on the reviewing stand. I saw him shooting into the crowd with his carbine."
"What you are doing here, yankee?" the Negro asked.
"I just came with Beto. I room with him."
"Vino a acompañarlo a Beto," the Negro explained in Spanish for the others' benefit. "He has nothing to do with anything."
"Un pobre boludo," one of the others said, referring to Paul as something akin to "just some poor asshole".
"I'm getting this one into an ambulance," said the Negro, "then I'm going to go kill that pelado hijo de puta with the carabina."
Paul moaned as the Negro eased off of his biceps and stood up. Then Paul himself sat up. Pain throbbed through his face, and his nose felt enormous and all-important. He wondered vaguely how boxers stood having their noses broken again and again, how they could continue to fight after such a painful blow. The blood began to flow again and he had to fight an urge to sneeze.
"I lament the breaking of your nose," said the Negro in English and with no real pity in his voice, presenting an apology that was little more than simple battlefield etiquette. This, he appeared to figure, was a fortune of war, after all. "A friend of Beto's is a friend of us," he offered, and then with a note of irony, he added, "Even a yankee imperialista. Keep your head back until the bleeding is stop."
"Where'd you learn your English?" Paul asked, seeking to calm his own nerves with a touch of sociability. But it came out sounding a touch sarcastic.
"Why? Because is so good or because is so bad?" the Negro said with a suddenly coy grin that made Paul feel less frightened of him for the first time.
"Neither. Just wondered."
"I live sometimes in the USA," he said it as a word, like oo-sah, instead of ewe-es-ay. "Also sometimes in England. Come, gringo, we put you in an ambulancia."
"I don't need an ambulance."
"Is the only way you get out of here okay."
There were renewed shouts from back the way they had come and the shooting was more sporadic and closer by, as if the men in the woods were being pushed back by their more heavily armed opponents located in the staging area.
"We must go pronto," said the Negro, and to the others he said, "¡Vayan, ya! They need help back there."
Paul was seeing the other three for the first time, now that he was on his feet. When he had been on the ground they had loomed large and frightening over him. When he had been running with them in hot pursuit, they had seemed like terrifying, invincible monsters, snapping at his heels. Now he noticed that they were barely beyond boyhood—youngsters, students with long greasy locks and incipient beards, college kids in unwashed jeans and denim jackets. One of them, with olive skin, dark, burning eyes and a sparse black beard, wore a jauntily placed beret to enhance a Che Guevara image. The others had to be content with who they were. They turned, on the Negro's orders, not without a touch of fear and reluctance in their eyes, and headed cautiously back in the direction of the shooting, two of them with .22 revolvers in their fists, the Che with a .22 carbine—a Marlin, like the one Paul's grandfather had given him on his fourteenth birthday.
"Come," the Negro ordered as he stuck his revolver in the waistband of his jeans, under his olive drab field jacket. "We go."
The Negro had the lay of the land, and they moved quickly away from the epi-center of the violence that raged on behind them. They made rapid headway through woods and fields onto a road beyond the airport. It was crammed with cars, buses and ambulances, caught in a snarl, the bigger vehicles unable to advance or retreat.
The ambulances that had managed to load up wounded from the staging area were making their way out of the airport complex off-road through the fields. Police units had sealed off the area to other vehicles. Now that he thought about it, Paul was surprised not to have seen more uniformed police inside after the shooting broke out, almost as if they had decided to sit back and let the two sides shoot it out. The Negro pulled him into the path of one of the retreating ambulances and waved it down. The medic on the passenger side rolled down his window. One of the rear windows had been pierced by a small-caliber bullet and two bigger slugs had torn holes in the right front fender of what Paul now saw was a Ford pick-up converted into an ambulance. Medic and driver were visibly shaken and short-tempered.
"What the hell do you want?" the one on the passenger's side snapped.
"What does it look like," the Negro snapped back. "I've got a wounded compañero here."
"No walking wounded," said the medic brusquely.
"He's a foreigner, a yankee" the Negro said, turning on the charm and smiling. "I want to get him out of here before he gets hurt worse."
"I've got critically wounded in the back and you're holding me up," the medic said and started to roll up his window, but the Negro was quicker. Suddenly the long-barreled revolver came into view and was against the medic's temple before he could react. The man immediately put his hands on the dash and began to tremble, saying, "Please don't shoot! ¡Tranquilo! ¡tranquilo!"
"I am tranquilo." the Negro said softly, "and that is how I want you to be, Sr. Doctor. " He flipped open a credential of some sort with his other hand, flashed it through the window and immediately stuck it back into his jacket pocket. "I am with police intelligence and this man is an undercover agent of the United States embassy. Now, Doctor, you can join the wounded in the back and let your driver take this man back to town or you can stay here with me under arrest. Which do you choose?"
"It's all right, agente," the medic said tremulously. "I didn't know who you were. Está bien. We will take the señor with us. There is room up front with us."
The Negro lowered his gun but didn't put it away. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed what was going on. Apparently no one had, amidst the confusion. He kept the gun out of sight, now, down to his side. Even if the medic didn't believe the police story, he probably would ask no questions now. He was too frightened and would prefer to believe rather than question the Negro's word. The Negro stepped back and let the medic get out of the cab of the ambulance. Paul climbed in the middle, and the doctor climbed back in after him.
"You are muy amable, Doctor," said the Negro again with a smile. He touched his imaginary cap in a kind of salute and waved the ambulance on. He had already turned and was making his way back in the direction of the fighting when the ambulance, with Paul on board, pulled away.
The three of them, driver, doctor and Paul, sat stiffly, staring straight ahead until the ambulance was out of the fields and up on the highway headed into Buenos Aires. They had the siren blaring, and no one stopped them, the cops waving them through, even making way for them where they could. Once they were out of the immediate area of the airport and well on their way into Buenos Aires, the medic turned sideways in his seat, with a whistling sigh of relief, his back against the door, and faced Paul and the driver.
"This," he said past Paul's swollen profile to the driver, "is my last run. Let them kill each other. I'm not going back." The other man, frozen to the wheel, nodded stiffly, without a word. Then, almost tenderly, the doctor said to Paul, "Quiere que le examine la nariz, señor.”
"¿Como?" said Paul still dazed and too exhausted to think much in Spanish.
"The nose," said the doctor in English, demonstratively touching his own. "You want I look?"
Paul shrugged. The medic reached across and placed thumb and forefinger on the bridge of Paul's tender nose. Paul hissed through his teeth and sat stiffly as the medic gently felt the break. Then suddenly the medic's hand snapped, and Paul heard a crunch and saw stars.
"Shit!" he cried, feeling the blood flow freely again.
"More good now than when is already, how you say, set," said the medic softly.
They rode in relative silence. Only once did the medic make reference to the Negro's introduction, saying "You are with the North American embassy?" to which Paul shrugged and said, "Sort of."
He was thinking about having left his dead friend behind. Beto had never mentioned family. Paul didn't even know whom to notify. But there must be something he should be doing about it. He thought better of telling the doctor anything, however. If there was one thing he didn't want, it was to be held for questioning. And there was nothing to keep the medic from telling the police whatever Paul told him. In a way, it was Beto who told him not to say anymore. He checked himself because he remembered how twice when they were walking down the street together, they had passed policemen who were also on foot and once past, Beto had, on both occasions, hawkered up and spat on the street and then sworn under his breath, "Cana hijo de puta, sonuvabitch cop." The second time it happened, Paul said, "You know that guy?”
"What guy?" Beto had said.
Beto had burst into laughter. "Here," he said, "we call them cana. We also call them hijos de puta, because they are all sons-of-bitches.
"Well there must be some good cops," Paul had said with a laugh.
Beto had stopped walking and firmly grasped Paul's forearm. Speaking very seriously and looking Paul in the eye, he had said, "You remember this and you live longer: Here in Argentina, the only good cana is a dead cana. This is not Norteamérica, where we believe this about the policeman is your friend and all that. Here you go to the police station to ask for help and you end up in a cell. They arrest you for spitting on the street and you end up dead. You go into the comisaria because you have a traffic accident and maybe you never come out. Here the police is, as you North Americans say, bad news. "
No, he would say nothing to any stranger until somebody closer to him helped him decide what to do. But who?
They were doing maybe 90 miles and hour, with the siren screaming, fast approaching the Federal Capital. At one point the medic looked over the seat into the rear of the ambulance at the wounded man they were carrying. Paul looked too. The face of the grizzled older man strapped on the stretcher was grayish tallow. The eyes were open and staring sightlessly, the mouth lolling agape. Paul wasn't sure, but he thought it was the man who had been wounded near him when the shooting first started, the one that the adolescent boys had been trying to protect from the disbanding crowd.
"Excuse me," the doctor said, as he climbed over and around Paul into the rear of the ambulance. He checked the man's vital signs, which were apparently no longer vital and called in Spanish to the driver, "Che, Luis, you can slow down now, and don't bother turning off at the hospital exit. This one goes to the morgue."
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Please click on the links below to read Parts 1 and 2
I wrote two lengthy articles about Padre Argentino’s “school of love” for the Buenos Aires Herald. The popularity of the first one took me completely by surprise. I was young and had little idea about the power of human interest stories. I liked them and liked writing them, but was convinced that “hard news” was what sold newspapers. My predilection for stories that were about the unique lives of people no one knew I considered a personal weakness, a kind of dirty little secret that I tried to mask with the cynical self-image of a hard-nosed reporter. So, I was astonished when the priest’s story brought a batch of letters to the editor with people expressing admiration for the padre’s work, or sadness for the children’s plight, or asking how they could help. I suddenly found myself acting as a go-between, putting people in contact with Padre Argentino and his project.
“School of Love Revisited” expressed gratitude for the reaction to the first story and told more about the school, its students, the neighborhood and the padre. That one even started bringing in money, checks made out to my name or to “cash”, at a time when my wife and I pretty much lived one month to the next and didn’t even own a bank account. I realized I had to get something organized quickly—especially after receiving a letter from a suspicious donor who said he wanted to get a letter of receipt from “Padre Argentino, not Dan Newland” as proof the money he had sent in (about 20 dollars if I remember correctly) had been received in full.
I had recently become a member of a US expatriate charity group in Buenos Aires called The American Society of the River Plate and decided to go talk to them. They didn’t want to get involved themselves, but pointed me toward some influential friends who did. Suddenly, Padre Argentino wasn’t completely alone. There was a small group of volunteers to receive aid when it came in, to make some improvements in the impoverished little school and to organize some community aid—food donations, used clothing, school supplies, etc. They even found an assistant for the padre, a young teacher with some special education experience who was willing to donate her time and expertise. And she, in turn, got a physical therapist friend to go to the school occasionally and work with the youngsters who were physically disabled.
It wasn’t a solution to every challenge facing Padre Argentino’s Escuelita de Asís. Not by a long shot. But it was, indeed, a start. As for myself, I was hard at work on my budding career as a journalist at the time, working pretty much round the clock both at the paper and as a free-lance stringer for US and British publications, so I was glad to be off the hook. I told the people who were helping out that I’d be glad to meet with them from time to time and publish updates as things progressed, but that I would leave the day-to-day in their capable hands.
“Done!” I thought.
But then, I got a call from an Army colonel attached to the US Embassy. He was an athletic, boyish-looking Steve McQueen sort of guy of about forty with an easy-going manner, whom I’d gotten to know and like in my dealings with him in the American Society of the River Plate and at a few embassy functions I’d been invited to. You almost never heard anyone address him as “Colonel”. Everybody called him “Skip”.
Skip said he had “something he wanted to run by me” and asked if I’d meet him for a cup of coffee. I said sure.
“What’s up, Skip?” I asked over a cup of espresso in a downtown café.
“The ambassador’s been following your Padre Argentino story.”
“Yeah. He was moved.”
“He wants to get involved.”
Skip smiled but held up a staying hand. “Just one thing, Dan,” he said. “If the ambassador’s getting involved, we have to as well.”
“Have to what?”
“How do you mean?” I asked suspiciously.
“We’re going to have to run a background check on the padre.”
I mulled this over a second and said, “Why?”
“Well, because we’re not talking about just anybody. He’s the US ambassador! I mean, what do you know about this priest, Dan? Like, what’s his real name? Do you even know? Padre Argentino doesn’t cut it, if you see what I mean.”
I could see the colonel’s point. Indeed, I knew precious little about Padre Argentino’s life. In fact, as Skip had surmised, I didn’t even know his real name. I had asked and he’d said, “I’ve been Padre Argentino so long my other identity is no longer part of my life. Let Padre Argentino suffice.”
He had told me a few anecdotes, like when, because of one instance of his serial disobedience, he’d been made the chaplain of a remote provincial girls’ school where he and the mother superior were at odds throughout his stay: “She’d bring a group of girls into the chapel and if I was there she’d say, ‘Come girls, come, we’re leaving. We’ll come back later. Right now there’s a smell of man in here!’ And I’d shout out from wherever I was, ‘Ask her how she knows what a man smells like, girls!’”
The parish priest at San José de Flores had
wanted to charge Padre Argentino for his
mother's funeral. "The deceased is my
mother and I'm the priest!" he protested.
He had also told me about what he saw as the corrupt practices of major parish priests, like one, years before, at the busy San José de Flores parish, who, when Padre Argentino’s mother passed away, had wanted to charge him for the use of the sanctuary to hold her funeral there. “Charge for what, you crook?” Padre Argentino had shouted. “I’m the officiating priest and the deceased is my mother! It’s the house of God, you cretin, not yours.”
Other than these and other stories of his younger years that the padre had told me, however, I was really at a loss to respond to Skip’s queries about anything but the Salesian father’s current mission. But in those dangerous days of bloody military rule, in which so-called “third world priests” (those who formed their missions around the poorest segments of society and were outspoken about repression and inequality) were nearly as vulnerable as armed leftwing extremists were, I didn’t want US intelligence stirring up things with the local Armed Forces’ intelligence groups, which were precisely the sources from which “dirty war” hit squads were getting their orders—especially the 601st Intelligence Battalion under the orders of General Guillermo Suárez Mason, which was known to operate numerous clandestine detention and torture centers throughout the country.
I tried to politely dissuade the colonel. I offered to set up a meeting between Padre Argentino and him, or with the ambassador himself. But it was no use.
Finally, I said, “Look, Skip, I appreciate the embassy’s wanting to help but if this is the only way to do it, thanks but no thanks.”
“Yeah, Dan, but the ambassador’s mind’s made up.”
“So tell him to just help and not poke the beehive! Let him do it off the record.”
Skip grinned and said, “I’m afraid ambassadors don’t do that sort of thing off the record, my friend.”
“Then tell him to forget it! Tell him to just butt out!”
|With the military government in charge it was a dangerous |
time for so-called "third world priests".
“Not your call, I’m afraid, Dan,” he said. “I’m just letting you know. The wheels are already turning.”
And indeed they were. Probably long before the colonel ever invited me to meet him so he could “run it by me.”
Before I ever had a chance to get hold of Padre Argentino to warn him of what was going on, he called me.
“We need to talk,” he said. “But not over the phone. Meet me tomorrow morning at the little coffee place at the far end of Plaza Flores, at Artigas and Yerbal.”
The place was tiny, owned by an old friend of the padre’s. It was basically a counter and four tables with a back-bar bearing, perhaps, a dozen bottles and an espresso machine. We ordered coffee and sat at the table nearest the wall, away from the door and windows.
Right away, Padre Argentino launched into one of his anecdotes.
“When Perón came back from exile in seventy-three,” he said, “here in the capital there was a huge influx of people from the interior, mostly negritos of very humble means, desperate people who for a couple of decades had been hearing about the golden days of Peronism and came to Buenos Aires like pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. When they got here, what they found was more poverty and more inequality and they didn’t have the means to return to their provinces. It was like they were shipwrecked in the capital.
“Seeing so many of them washed up here with nothing and no one to help them, I managed to find a place in midtown, Barrio Once, to start a soup kitchen. I got some people to put up the food and went doorbelling for the rest, and pretty soon we were serving a couple of meals a day to people who didn’t have enough money to eat. And I put in a little chapel there as well to tend to their spiritual needs.” He paused to drink his demitasse of espresso. I asked if he wanted another one. He considered it, nodded, and I motioned to the owner to make us another round.
Paramilitary hits squads: Standard operating procedure
under the last populist government of General Juan Domingo
Perón and the military regime that replaced it.
“One day,” he went on, “just after I’d celebrated Mass and was getting ready to go oversee the preparation of lunch, the door to the sanctuary burst open and a group of armed men came in. I found myself standing face to face with the one leading them. When he saw me, his face suddenly changed and softened. Without turning, he told the others to wait outside and to close the door behind them. He was still holding a pistol trained on me and I knew he and his men had been sent there to kill me. When they came in, I hadn’t said anything but ‘Señores, how can I help you?’ before I crossed myself and started making my peace with God.
“But as I stood there facing that young man, his face crumpled up and he fell to his knees weeping. He stuck his pistol into his waistband, took my hand in both of his and kissed it. Then he stood up, took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Padre, God forgive me, I came here to kill you. You must leave right now and not come back. If you stay, you won’t live a week.’
“I asked him why he was doing this. He said he knew I wouldn’t remember him, but that when he was a boy, living in the slums, he’d been all alone with just his mother. He said that she had fallen deathly ill and that they hadn’t been able to find her the help she needed. He said that I had intervened, used my contacts to get her proper medical attention and had visited her while she was in the hospital. He had never been able to thank me, he said, and this was his chance to square it with me. I’d saved his mother’s life. Now he was saving mine.
“I left immediately, went to Bolivia, and I only just came back a couple of years ago, when I started the escuelita. I was warned not to, but I missed Argentina, mi gente.”
The owner brought us the two coffees and left. There were tears in the padre’s eyes as he picked up his cup and sipped, and when he swallowed, it went down hard.
“That’s quite a story, Padre,” I said.
“It doesn’t end there,” he said. “Son,” he went on, “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us...”
“I’ve done nothing, really, Padre...”
He held up a hand to silence me, and continued, “But all of the publicity and the people you’ve gotten involved...”
I shook my head sadly. “I know, I know, Padre, I thought I’d have time to warn you about the embassy...”
“Your intentions were noble, m’ijo,” he said kindly, “but now I’m in trouble again. This friend, the one I told you about who’s in military intelligence, warned me that a new investigation has been opened because of the embassy probe. I need to leave right now...today...as soon as we’re done here.”
I felt a horrific sense of guilt and my voice cracked when I asked him, “Where will you go? What will you do?”
He shrugged. “I’ll be fine, m’ijo. I still have some friends, a bishop up north who’s said he’d hide me as long as I promise to respect and obey him.
“And what about the school?” I asked.
He sat up straight and stared into my eyes with steely conviction. “That’s where you come in, son,” he said. “I’m placing the escuelita, my mission, in your hands.”
Suddenly, it was as if I’d just been hit in the face with a bucket of ice-water. “Whoa! Wait a second, Padre! Back up!” I said. “I’m not prepared for anything like this. I’m not a teacher...”
“You’ll be fine...”
“Not a Catholic...”
“It’ll all work out...”
“Not even sure what I am...a hopeful agnostic at best...”
“Everything will be fine, m’ijo. God will guide you...”
“No! I’m sorry, but, no! I can’t...No way!”
“He’ll show you the path...” Now the padre was standing up and buttoning his coat.
“No, Padre, sit back down here! You can’t leave...”
“Time to go, my son. I’m counting on you...and so are the children. Their mothers already know you’ll be taking charge.”
“Padre! Padre, come back here!” I called to the back of his head as he was leaving. At the door he stopped, turned, made the sign of the cross in my direction, then wheeled about and was out the door.
It was the last time I would see him for the next several years.
Now, my world was thrown into an uproar. I had trouble working. I couldn’t sleep. I was irritable and distracted. Why on earth had I ever gotten involved with this damnable priest and his school?
But now knowing about it, having written about it, having made it part of me, how could I just abandon it and the kids. Ignorance was bliss. Knowing came with accountability.
Then again, what did it have to do with me? Why should I feel duty-bound? Well, fool, I told myself, because it’s all your fault that the padre had to once again go into exile. If I’d kept my big nose out of his business, he could have kept on running his school forever and no one would have been the wiser, because, in the end, the powers that be always care more about crushing any rebellious unifying force than about projects that promote the greater good.
No question about it. I was stuck. I decided, however, to give myself a week or so to think about it, to study my next move. But the week hadn’t passed before a delegation of mothers from the Escuelita de Asís showed up at the newspaper to talk to me. The padre had told them that I was in charge from now on. What, they wanted to know, was I prepared to do?
First, I called the little group of volunteers who had been helping out and made them aware of the situation. The said that, of course, they would pitch in and do everything that they could, but that, without the padre, it wasn’t going to be easy. He was the heart and soul of the school and still the one who raised the most aid with his persistent cold-calling. Couldn’t I take a more leading role?
I suggested we try to find some permanent benefactors to pay the teacher an actual salary so she could take over. They suggested she was a great teacher but not the organizational type. They needed somebody who could really take charge and who knew what he or she was doing.
I started calling everybody I knew in the social action field. They were all sympathetic and had liked my articles but said, to a man and woman, that they already had too much on their plates. Growing more and more anxious, I cursed the priest under my breath. God would show me the way. God would be my guide. God would provide. “Yeah right,” I thought. “My ass He will!” I suddenly realized that I was at a complete loss, out of ideas, out of my depth, and truly unable to take it on myself.
Then it happened. In fact, it happened the day after I’d almost decided there was nothing more I could do. Sitting at my desk in the editorial department at the newspaper I got a call from Reception. A young woman was there to see me.
“I’m pretty busy right now,” I said. “Did she say what she wants?”
“She said a mutual friend said she should come see you,” the receptionist said. She told me the friend’s name and I knew I couldn’t say no.
The young woman in question was tall and slim with paper-white skin and shiny black hair. She said her name was Martha. She was Canadian.
“And what are you doing in Buenos Aires,” I asked.
“My boyfriend’s from here. We decided to come live here for a while. He got a good job offer. I’m kind of at loose ends right now. I’m looking for something to do.”
“Well,” I said, “we don’t have any staff openings right now, but you could do some free-lance work for us. I’m afraid it doesn’t pay much though.”
“Like I say,” she answered, “for the moment, we’re okay with my boyfriend’s job. Maybe I could do some work for you on social issues. I have a lot of experience in that field.”
“Yes, that’s where I met my boyfriend. We were doing volunteer work there. But I came down with TB and we had to leave. I’m all better now and want to jump back into something. I’m hoping to do some kind of similar social work here.”
Suddenly, I could feel myself getting excited.
“Really? What exactly were you doing there?”
“We were working in Calcutta, with Mother Teresa, in the organization of her children’s missions.”
“Lady,” I said, “have I ever got a job for you!”