HEAR NO EVIL
Betwixt and Between
Childhood is ephemeral; the fleeting and fanciful realm of the blissfully innocent and blindly ignorant. Everything is right with the world. There are no problems. Everything just is and it is all good.
For some, childhood fades like an early morning mist off a mountain. For others, it ends in an instant, the casualty of a catastrophic event or sudden realization. Mine died in an afternoon. I was almost 12.
It was a Sunday in early spring, a dismal, dreary day with grey skies and a bite still left in the air. As usual, Father, Madame-Mere and I had gone to church and then returned home for our Sunday dinner. We ate at midday on Sundays since the staff took the rest of the day off.
The table conversation was minimal and uninspired. A somber air shrouded the room. As soon as allowed, I folded my napkin, loaded my napkin ring and excused myself from the table. As I headed for the door, Father asked if he could speak with me later on.
Oh boy, what have I done now?
Something was not right. Father did not usually make appointments with me; I made them with him. When he asked to speak with me I knew I was in for one of ‘our discussions.’ They usually involved one of my many misdemeanors, which, in his calm, cool, collected and controlled manner, he would question the advisability of said action and query my thoughts on the matter. I always ended up feeling like bird poop at the end of it.
Given my druthers, I think I would have preferred corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was not practiced in our household. When the physical pain went away so did the guilt. Not so with psychological punishment. It remained and most often festered.
My mind ran rampant with jumbled thoughts as I awaited the appointed hour. I searched my conscience and found it surprizingly empty. I fidgeted, fussed and tried to focus but nothing came to mind; I could not figure out what I had done wrong.
The appointed hour arrived and I descended downstairs. Father and Madame-Mere were both sitting on the same sofa at the far end of the living room in front of the full bank of leaded-paned windows. They were holding hands. I hadn’t seen them do that in ages if ever.
Something was definitely not right!
Normally, our fireside chats took place in the library and Madame-Mere was not in attendance. This was different – real different.
I cautiously approached and was enjoined to take a chair next to the sofa. The sky was overcast, the sun non-existent and the adjoining golf course empty. I sat down and waited.
Silence reigned for a few minutes. After looking at Madame-Mere, Father cleared his throat, looked at me and then began to speak:
“I went to the doctor a couple of weeks ago for my six month checkup. We got the initial result last week. Everything was fine.”
My mind raced back in time. I remembered the dinner conversation when Father informed Madame-Mere that he had received an all clear on his checkup. She had lit up like a Christmas tree and bubbled for the balance of the meal. At the time, I had thought:
So what’s the big deal, it’s only a checkup.
Father continued. He said that the doctors, after further study of the tests, had found a tumour and wanted to operate. He would go into the hospital the next day for surgery on the following day. He expected to be back home a few days after that. Did I have any questions? I had none; I was too stunned to speak. He ended by saying that everything would be fine.
Bells and alarms rang through my brain.
Why would he say that everything was going to be fine unless it wasn’t? What the heck was going on?
I was excused and bolted for the hall. I shot off to the kitchen in search of Nanny. The kitchen was clean and cold. She had already left to go visit her family.
Taking the back stairs two at a time, I returned to my room. Everything was the same. It was the same room with the same maps on the same walls. The same unfurled flags on the window seat. The same globes sat in their same places of honour. Yet somehow, everything was different.
A half hour later I couldn’t handle it anymore and retracing my steps down the back stairs, I headed out the back door towards the pasture. My friend lived across the street. We had been best buds since kindergarten. We were currently building a fort in the corner of the pasture. With a perfectly good two-story tree fort in the middle of the orchard, it didn’t make much sense but we were doing it anyway. We probably had a good reason at the time. I don’t remember.
When he saw me in the fort, he came out and we worked on it together. We didn’t work long. It was getting cold and what little light we had was fading. We said our goodbyes and I returned to the house and then to my room. It still looked different. But then again, I felt different – not bad exactly but definitely different.
Father returned from the hospital about a week later. I greeted him in the main hallway. He looked old and feeble; like he had aged overnight. Now he could barely walk when before he strode. Madame-Mere immediately took him to their bedroom and remained there. I went to the kitchen and sat at the snack bar with Nanny. It was definitely different.
The house exuded an alien aura and the atmosphere had altered. What once had been bright and ebullient was now somber and subdued. The hustle and bustle and herds of houseguests had withered. It was as if someone had dimmed the lights and turned down the sound. Life had muted.
Normally when Father was home, the living room and library blazed in brightness. Now only one or two lamps were ever illuminated, like little islands of light in a vast ocean of darkness. It was downright depressing.
The routine resumed; school, my independent international studies and camp in the summers. My siblings resurfaced at the holidays and school breaks but they were most often off doing their own things. Periodically Father would go off and meet with his doctors. Nothing was said, but he didn’t look any better and appeared to be in a lot of pain.
This was confirmed one Sunday night. Madame-Mere had run over to the post office to mail her weekly letters to the sibs. She had left Father sitting in his favourite black leather wing chair in the library watching the news. I sat opposite him.
He suddenly doubled over in pain. I freaked then froze. In a strained yet controlled voice he told me to go fix his medicine. I bolted for the downstairs powder room. I knew the proportions but had never had to fix it myself. It was 10 drops of belladonna in a jigger of water. I had been told that belladonna was a deadly poison. It also had the image of the skull and crossbones pasted on the label.
I prayed that Madame-Mere would return in time to prepare the potion. She didn’t. My hands shook as I counted out the drops.
Was that one or two drop that time? Damn, what if I kill him!
Finally figuring that I had gotten it about as close as I was going to get it, I carried the tumbler to him. He was still doubled over and had to work to sit upright. I handed him the glass and held my breath. He downed the drugs and we both waited.
Ever so slowly, he began to uncoil. I could see the chemical relief unwinding his body.
It had worked! I hadn’t killed him after all!
Madame-Mere returned soon thereafter. Once she had settled herself with Father in the library, I fled the room and sought sanctuary in my own. I started shaking and couldn’t stop. Things were not the same and never would be.
Father got marginally better and was able to take me on my tour of prep schools. We started on Friday in Vermont and ended up on Monday in New York City. Interim we hit Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
It was a strange time and a strange trip. Uncle Sam was performing a national defense test over the weekend to ensure that he could effectively counter a Communist invasion. All civilian aircraft were grounded for the duration of the exercise. We barely made it into Vermont before the ban went into effect. We did Vermont and then trained it to Boston where we finally found a rental car. It beat the heck out of the trains but the heater didn’t work. My feet froze until Father told me to take off my loafers and stick my feet on top of the dashboard. The sun and the windshield thawed them out.
We didn’t talk much except about the schools. We mostly moved in silence. It was a dreary trip with depressing weather. I already knew where I wanted to go so I thought the whole thing a waste of time.
Normally, I would have been thrilled with any alone time anywhere with Father but this time I wasn’t. Perhaps I was too cold. I just wanted it over. We finished off the rest of the schools, hit the Big Apple and then flew home. It was over.
I had done dismally on the national tests, completing the entire test in under the allotted time, something which no one could or should do. I could not comprehend the concept that no answer was better than a wrong one. Part of the reason for the trip with Father had been his quiet discussions with the various Deans as he attempted to convince them that I was not totally brain dead. It is my firm albeit belated belief that Divine Intervention played a critical role.
Whether because of my earthly Father or my Heavenly One or both, I was finally accepted into the school of my choice, the same one as my older siblings. I began a calendar countdown to D-Day (Departure Day). It seemed to take forever. Would it ever come?
I did get a bit of a reprieve. My acceptance into school had been based on attending their summer school. I forewent camp and flew east. It was grand. This boarding school bit was going to work for me. The academics were stiff but my roommate was from Colombia. What’s not to like?
I returned home after summer school to a house loaded with foreign females. Now that was different and dynamite. The house and its environs assumed their natural identity. Fast and furious was the watchword of the day. The hustle and bustle had returned.
It had finally come out after the second surgery that Father had the big C – cancer. The second surgery seemed to have worked. He returned part time to his office and even played an occasional round of golf. However I did notice that his belladonna had been replaced by morphine.
It was late September when D-Day finally arrived. I awoke early, eager to get back to school. I had already packed. I was good to go. Madame-Mere was taking me to the airport.
I started into the master bedroom to say my goodbyes to Father. She headed me off at the door, closing it behind her. She informed me that Father had finally fallen asleep. It would be better not to disturb him. I was internally agitated but agreed. We departed for the airport. I flew off then caught the school train from Grand Central station.
Full session prep school was even more amazing than summer school. Of the five hundred and some odd students, over 100 were foreigners, including my Colombian roommate. It was like life at home B.C. (before cancer), only better. This house party ran for months on end and these houseguests were there for the duration.
I settled in well. I was in a new house with a new roommate, but my old roommate was just down the hall. To the shock of most everyone, especially the school, I made honours and was granted room study instead of study hall. In October I was elected head of my form.
For fall sports, I crewed; reminiscent of the Royal Regatta at Henley. Every crew team needed a coxswain and I filled the bill. I enjoyed the distinct advantage of being the smallest kid in school. I had stopped growing five years earlier at four foot, eight and tipped the scales at eighty-eight pounds. The doctors had deduced that it was a result of the polio. Whatever, it was it worked. The less dead weight one hauls around the faster the team in toto.
We had church at school also. It was called chapel but we went daily, just before dinner. On Sundays we had a full service. It was called non-denominational but was housed in a beautiful Christopher Wren-style Georgian chapel with double–decker seating and a fully-operational bell tower. It seemed awfully High Anglican to me but that was o.k. I never saw God there either but it was a lovely building nonetheless.
All seemed to be going well until my sibling came to get me late one Sunday evening. We were to call home. We tromped across the campus to the main hall and descended into its bowels. The phone booths were in the main mail room. For some unknown reason the walls, ceiling and floors of the labyrinth had all been painted a peculiar tone of red/brown, like blood that has not yet fully dried. It reminded me of the Cro-Magnon cave paintings in southern France. Somehow the dark brown wood and glass phone booths blended with the walls, the dim industrial light fixtures and overhead pipes. It was primal and a bit eerie.
The call was placed and my sibling spoke for sometime with somebody. I asked to speak with Father. That was not possible. The call ended. I was informed that Father was dying. I wanted to go home and see him. That was not possible. I wanted to call back and talk to him. That was not possible. It was agreed that we would not tell anyone. It was a done deal.
We parted at the entrance of the main hall. I returned to my room, numb and confused. Nothing made any sense any more. I guess the distance, denial and downright ignorance helped. I didn’t know what else to do so I just continued doing what I had already been doing.
End of term was rapidly approaching. We were midway through exams when I went down to check my mailbox and found a note summoning me to the Headmaster’s office after luncheon. It was typewritten not handwritten. I had never been to Headmaster’s office before nor received one of his love notes. I wracked my brain to figure out what crime I had committed. The Dean handled misdemeanors; the Headmaster handled the crimes.
When I saw my sibling in the outer office, it finally all came crashing down on me. I hadn’t done anything wrong after all. That only left one thing; Father had died.
Moments later the Headmaster confirmed my realization; Father had died the previous night. He then pointed out that we were mid exams. We could leave now and take the remainder of our exams upon our return or finish them up on an escalated schedule of leave the following afternoon. We elected the later course and departed to cram for the exams.
The following day we flew home and arrived in the mid-evening. We were met at the airport by some family friends. This was different. Before it was either family or Nanny. We rode home in relative silence.
As we drove up the front driveway the house shown like a beacon at full wattage. It seemed like every light was lit everywhere. We entered through the front door and dropped our bags on the flagstone entry way, crossed the main hall and stepped down into the living room.
Madame-Mere was at the far end of the room sitting in the same place where she and Father had told me about his forthcoming surgery. She was dressed in black and almost appeared to be holding court. People were scattered about the room. This was totally different. We greeted her then I excused myself, left the room and headed for the kitchen.
Nanny was not alone either. Part time help bustled about the kitchen and pantries. I gave Nanny a hug and headed up the back stairs to my room. I couldn’t deal with all the people everywhere. I just wanted to be with my family without intruders.
It only got worse. By the day of the funeral people were coming out of the rafters. More staff and more visitors. The house resembled a train station at rush hour. We hid in our wing with the doors closed.
The service would be simple. Earlier in the year, Father had thoughtfully purchased a new black Cadillac so Madame-Mere would not have to bother with a limo. We drove ourselves to the church. The church was packed with overflow everywhere. The service was simple but poignant. There was no eulogy. Father did not believe in them; saying “if the fellow was a good man, he didn’t need a eulogy, if he wasn’t a good man a eulogy wouldn’t help.”
After the service we returned home to house an open house. After much debate, liquor was served. It was standing room only. People I didn’t know or didn’t care about kept accosting me, telling me what a grand fellow I was. After putting in an appearance I retreated to my room. I felt badly deserting Madame-Mere, but I couldn’t take it anymore.
One of my friends dropped by. We talked normally, mostly about normal things. He did offer his condolences about Father, saying it was sad that the illness had lasted such a long time. I queried him, asking
“You knew that my Father was dying?”
He replied: “Of course, everyone did.”
Everyone but me!
Later on, I questioned my siblings. They had known all along. Inadvertently rubbing salt in the wound, they had both had long discussions with Father before leaving for school. I was the only one who hadn’t.
What the hell had I done wrong? Everyone but me knew. He even discussed it with my siblings. But not me!
I felt like an only stepchild with a social disease. I was hurt, angry and confused. Thank God, we were returning to school. I could leave all this crap behind me.
The rest of the school year was o.k., but the holidays and spring break were the pits. We were officially in mourning and lived in limbo. No parties, only discrete dating, basic black and a flurry of family funerals.
Fortunately, there were definite perks to boarding with foreigners. My Colombian roommate invited me to spend our four month summer break with him and his family in South America.
Surprizingly, Madame-Mere agreed. When school recessed, I headed back home long enough to swap suitcases; snag my passport, file for my visa and hit the road.
I was back home long enough to furtively follow the deteriorating political situation in Colombia. Politics was taken seriously south of the Border and the Colombians were no exception to the rule. The Right and the Left were doing battle with one another. So was the disgruntled Colonel who had been left out of the previous political parley.
He added new dimensions to the game, having turned terrorist and then wreaking havoc on the hinterlands. Leftists attacked Rightists. Rightists reciprocated. Both blamed the other for the Colonel’s murderous militia.
Fortunately, T.V. news in the early Sixties was limited and local. Pre-Vietnam, international news, other than the Cold war, was posted in the papers.
Normally, I slept in during the home breaks. The South American situation forced me to alter my sunrise scenario. During that brief period at home, I met the newspaper boy at the door every morning – bright and early. It was the least I could do after falsely blaming him for the sad condition of the papers which consistently obliterated all the pertinent Colombian news articles.
I had decided that nothing, including a revolution, was going to interfere with my impending departure. According to my calculations, by the time I returned directly to school and completed the first term, the period of mourning would be over.
When D-Day finally arrived, Madame-Mere was still blissfully ignorant of the crisis in Colombia. We headed off to the airport without a hitch. With the admonition to immediately contact the American Embassy upon arrival, Madame-Mere and I bade our farewells. I cleared the ticket counter and hit the tarmac.
Pre-jet plane travel was lower and longer. There were few passengers and fewer flights. Flying from the Heartland to Bogota necessitated roughly twenty hours and several stopovers and changes of aircraft and airlines.
Miami was the last American stopover. From then on it was foreign travel on foreign carriers.
The Miami stopover had given me a marvelous opportunity to survey my fellow voyagers while we cleared Emigration and Customs, prior to enplaning. There were very few Americans and fewer non-adults. Most of the travelers were either Europeans or returning Latin Americans. As it turned out, I was the only unchaperoned, underage passenger on the plane.
Across the aisle, my two seatmates were a pleasant middle-aged couple. He was Belgian; she was Colombian. They were returning to Bogota for a visit with her family. Apparently during the previous generation the wealthy and well-placed Colombians had schooled their children in the Benelux. It had only been since World War II that America had replaced Belgium as the preferred place of study. My French was mostly adequate so we ‘franglaised’ our way south.
My seatmates were somewhat surprized to find a young American traveling internationally. In those days, few Americans adventured beyond their own borders. They were even more surprized to find out that this young American was traveling alone.
Shock set in when they discovered that this particular young American was not only fully cognizant of the current Colombian crisis and had, nonetheless, remained totally determined to pursue his sojourn.
The fortuitous fact that my roommate was a nephew of the President of the country did not exert the same calming effect on them which it had on me. In fact, to the contrary, it seemed to exacerbate their emotions. Ultimately, we agreed to disagree over the judiciousness of my judgment call and continued to chitchat over the Caribbean.
Having crossed over one arm of the Andes, we had begun our descent into El Dorado airport when an announcement came over the intercom. It was delivered in rapid Spanish with no subtitles. Neither my French nor my schoolbook Latin was up to the task of deciphering the message. I looked to my couple for clarification. They were engrossed with one another. They told me to be careful and severed all further communication.
We circled for quite sometime before we landed. My travels with Father, the aviator, had taught me enough to know what was normal and what was not. This was not at all normal. We had circled the control tower for almost an hour. I had watched it out my window. I knew what a control tower looked like.
It was well past midnight when we finally landed. Our plane crossed the tarmac and came to a stop adjacent to one end of the terminal. The steps were wheeled up to the plane and the forward door was opened. Uniformed, armed men entered the aircraft. Staccato phases in Spanish announced their entry.
I didn’t understand a word. Since these were not the sort of folk one asked for enlightenment, I sought none. They ordered. I didn’t comprehend, but like a good little lemming, I followed.
The night was dark and cold. There was no moon. Bogota, lodged between two branches of the Andean mountain range, was over a mile above sea level. The tarmac was ablaze in the lights of a convoy of military vehicles. Two rows of soldiers lined the pathway to the terminal, sort of like the exit processional at a military wedding. They were all sporting heavy artillery. We quickly walked the gauntlet and entered the terminal. I was beginning to feel that perhaps I should have studied the articles about Colombia a bit more closely.
Inside the dimly-lit rotunda, the passengers splintered into little groups, exchanging excited chatter in unintelligible languages. No one sought me out, nor I them. I found a corner and put my back to it.
Another hour passed before we collected our luggage and were herded towards immigration and customs. Ten rows of gleaming metal counters abutted bullet-proof glass partitions, lined with armed soldiers. A uniformed Inspector stood to the left of each counter.
My turn arrived. After placing my luggage on the counter, I handed over my passport and visa to the Inspector. He spoke to me in Spanish. I responded in English. Neither of us understood the other. He signaled for me to open my bag. I did. He very thoroughly inspected the contents; forty-four pounds of Madame-Mere-approved, Brooks Brothers clothing. He closed my bag and pointed to the counter, closest on his left.
I retrieved my passport and papers and moved with my luggage to the next counter. Everyone else was heading out the main sliding glass doors. I was the only one going sideways.
The inspection process was repeated several times. Each time the inspection became more thorough and more intense. Tempers rose. The Spanish became shorter and sharper. By the fourth inspection, my suitcases gave up their linings.
As I was leaving inspection counter number four, I saw Senor, my roommate’s father, through the glass partition. By gesture he asked what was happening. In response, I held up my hands and shrugged my shoulders.
I had barely settled the remains of my luggage on counter number 5 when I caught a glimpse of Senor. He had waited until a departing passenger had triggered the electronic sliding glass doors and had entered the off-limits, immigration area at a brisk pace.
One soldier, armed with a rifle, stood on each side of the doors. Senor sported an umbrella in his right hand. As a soldier moved to block his entry, Senor swung his umbrella horizontally, directly into the soldier’s midsection. The soldier doubled over.
Senor issued a curt command and continued towards me; the encounter with the solider had not even broken his stride. No one else moved. Both of the soldiers shrunk back. I never learned what he said.
Senor cordially greeted me in his soft, cultured voice. He told me to collect my things and turned on the Inspector. A string of staccato statements shot from his mouth. The dynamics of the entire place transformed. Several, newly servile Inspectors converged on us and began to gingerly reassemble my beleaguered belongings. A soldier then grabbed my suitcases and followed us as we passed through the glass partition.
The cavernous reception hall was almost empty, only a few meager clusters of people. I followed Senor out the entrance to the sidewalk. Senor snapped his fingers. Headlights popped on and a dark car pulled up in front of us.
The driver jumped out of the car and went to the rear to open the trunk. The soldier carefully handed him my bags which he stowed away. Then the driver came around the car and opened the door. Senor gestured for me to get in. He followed and the driver shut the door.
The driver returned to his front seat. He started the engine and we headed out. Senor issued a short command to the driver and then turned to me. The soft cultured voice spoke again. I felt relieved and safe. Senor asked me what had happened. I explained to the best of my limited understanding.
Senor filled in the blanks. There had been severe rioting in the City that day. Many people had been killed. A rumour had run rampant through the Capital stating that ‘bad’ people were going to lace the city’s water supply with deadly toxins. It had been also stated that these toxins were being secretly smuggled in by an innocent-appearing foreign youngster.
Traveling alone and not speaking Spanish, I had inadvertently filled the bill. While I was not happy about the rumour, at least it was nice to know why I had been subjected to the ordeal.
Senor explained further. Because of the current crisis, my roommate, his older brother, younger sister and mother, had left to City and were staying at one of the family haciendas in the country. That was why my roommate had not come to meet me at the airport. We were going to join them and remain in the country until things quieted down.
This particular hacienda was located on the opposite side of the City from the airport. Therefore we were heading first into the Capital and then exchanging cars and heading out on the other side.
The closer we got to the Capital, the more military checkpoints we encountered. At each one, we were stopped. The driver rolled his window down and said something. Usually, we were then waved through. Sometimes Senor had to join in the conversation, but usually not.
An hour or so later, we drove into the City. The streets were empty and deserted. Finally we arrived at the edge of what I was told was the old Central Plaza, built by the Spanish conquistadors centuries before.
The car stopped and we got out. It was still dark and cold. The driver retrieved my luggage from the boot and we headed off across the Plaza. Senor led and I followed.
The Plaza looked like a movie theatre after the third feature had ended. Bits of signs and placards and other stuff were strewn all over the place.
I had to pick my way through the mess. I tripped in the dark but caught my balance in time to keep from falling. I looked down. Part of a human torso with head lay at my feet. Pools of congealed blood bloomed all around on the Plaza stones.
Senor heard my cry. He turned back and saw my dilemma. He spoke to me in that soft, secure voice. He told me to follow him and to keep my eyes focused on his back.
I was numb. I nodded my head in agreement. We set off again. I did pretty well. I only looked down a couple more times in the quarter hour that it took us to cross the Plaza. It didn’t get any better or easier.
A second driver emerged from another car and came to greet us. He took my luggage from the first driver and put it in the trunk. We got in and started off. Senor spoke calmly to me, reassuring me that the worst was over and we would be out of the City soon.
I thanked him for his concern but did not continue the dialogue. Senor let the silence settle in. It was comforting. I didn’t know what else to say.
At 15, I had already become familiarized with death. Father had died some months earlier and other family relations had died before and since.
I had already seen dead people in coffins. Other than some graphic photos from World War II and the Korean War, I had never seen humans who had been hacked apart; least of all, up close, in the flesh. I had never seen arms, legs, heads and sundry body parts scattered around, out of order and sequence. I had never dreamed that I would.
Usually death feels unreal. That is to be expected. This was not. This was surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting gone gory. It would definitely take some time to sort this one out.
Senor did not seem terribly distraught; at least he didn’t show it. However, Senor was like Father; a carefully controlled man who did not show emotion. I guess that he had probably seen this type of thing before. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want an answer.
Later on, Senor explained the situation. Earlier in the week, the Leftists had run riot. Their escapades had left lots of people dead and more wounded. Today’s events had been the Rightist response. These people really did take their politics seriously. I quickly concluded that Colombian politics could be hazardous to one’s health.
We made it safely to the hacienda and stayed there for almost a week before returning to the Capital. Once back in Bogota, I remembered my promise to Madame-Mere to register with the American Embassy and brought up the subject with Senor.
He became positively animated, showing more emotion than he had on the night of my arrival. Under no uncertain circumstance was I going to register with the American Embassy.
Kidnapping was a cottage industry in Colombia. Since the Embassy employed locals in their Consular offices, registering with the Embassy was the same as taking out an advertisement in the local paper. Anyone and everyone in the kidnapping biz could easily acquire the State Department rosters of Americans currently in-country.
Americans were popular targets because they were thought to be wealthy and willing to pay the ransoms. So much for seeing my Uncle Sam.
Madame-Mere rang through a week later. It had taken her several days to book an overseas telephone line. Through friends in the government she had already learned that I had neither checked in nor stopped by the Embassy. As far as she knew, I had never arrived.
Once the sound of my voice had allayed her fears, Madame-Mere vocalized her displeasure, with decibels to spare. After several failed attempts to explain the situation, I passed the phone to Senor. Ultimately, they sorted it out. I was allowed to remain in Colombia with a few new caveats.
Bodyguards were issued. To make matters worse, the Embassy, after receiving the full force of Madame-Mere’s displeasure, periodically sent their fellows along to further muddy the waters. My gringo status was elevated from indifferent to irritating.
It was the last time that we were allowed to go anywhere unattended. Bodyguards, it seemed, always traveled in pairs, like nuns.
Ours were no different. When one added plural pairs of bodyguards to the usual grouping of my roommate, myself, and our friends, we ended up with a tour group.
It got real old real quickly. My roommate and I spent the rest of our time trying to ditch our sidekicks. We were seldom successful and never for long.
The visit came to an end and so did our bodyguards. Escorted to El Dorado, we returned, unchaperoned, to boarding school.
It would be several decades before I headed back south of the Border. Much would happen in the interim. Nonetheless, I would never forget my arrival in Bogota nor my first encounter with the results of partisan politics.
Back in New England, the fall term began. Things were mostly back to normal. Somewhere along the way I had acquired a contagious souvenir from my South American sojourn. As a consequence I was incarcerated in the infirmary - in complete quarantine.
As a special treat, I was allowed out of my private penitentiary long enough, at a suitably safe distance, to attend President Kennedy’s speech.
He was alum of the school and had come back for a visit. I had only seen him once before, on the campaign trail a few years earlier. This time there were only a few hundred students and the faculty – no press, no visitors. He delivered his speech and returned to the White House. I was returned to my holding cell.
Soon thereafter, I conquered my contagion and rejoined polite society. The fall term progressed; exams began to loom on the horizon. I had just finished afternoon sports and was sitting in the Tuck shop, eating my grilled cheese, when the news came across the radio.
President Kennedy had been assassinated in Texas.
He had just been here – at school; alive, in the flesh. Now, they said that he had been killed – fatally shot. More death. More violence. Last summer’s visions from Bogota flashed through my brain. The blood-stained photos from Dallas did not help matters.
To make matters worse, we had reporters roaming the campus, searching for interviews. They were finally run off by the campus cops. The appropriate services were solemnized. The semester ended; on a subdued note.
Death had dominated my life for over a year. Regardless of where I went, be it home, South America or boarding school, people were dropping like flies. It had often been said that God or one of His messengers was always present at a passing. Perhaps not seeing God was not such a bad thing after all.
Hell, I was still a kid. I wasn’t expected to know this stuff yet. I assumed that it would come later, after childhood.