Letter from Honduras: dodge'em cars and real bullets
After the Christmas holidays Chemo, his brother Marcos, and I headed for Tegucigalpa to renew my Honduran residency visa and to send Marcos back home to Tocoa. We knew the bus out of Victoria would be super crowded, so we got up real early and managed to catch a ride from Las Vegas on a pickup loaded with big coolers of fish caught in the lake up in the mountains of El Zapote. Judging by the smell, I'm not sure how fresh the fish actually were, but we loved the ride because we got to Victoria just as Reyes was pulling his big bus out of the yard.
In Tegucigalpa we had to make three trips to MigraciÃ³n to get my visa, and the office is a long, expensive cab ride away on the outskirts of town. First, it was still closed for the holidays, and then they sent me back twice to the bank to get just the right wording on the "Constancia" that declares I have faithfully "converted" (not "changed," not "exchanged") at least $1,000 every month into the "moneda nacional," that is, Lempiras. Of course, I had it easy compared to the long lines of folks trying to get (Honduran) passports. The government had just announced that they were rationing appointments all the way till March or April because they'd run out of the little booklets.
We had a few other items on the agenda: a new modem, but also to celebrate Mema's birthday. So we invited her and Elio to lunch at their favorite restaurant, Mirawa. We even got her a little cake at the mall. Nobody said anything, but it was exactly two years ago that Mema celebrated her last really "happy" birthday, just before she and Elio had to abandon their house and livelihood (a little supermarket) to escape death threats from a mafia gang demanding extortion. This little party at Mirawa was one of the happiest times I have seen Mema since then.
Most people like to relax after a life of hard work, but Elio and Mema loved keeping busy and have had nothing but health problems since their enforced "retirement." And I appreciate their counseling Chemo and Marcos on the virtues of school, hard work and sociability.
Speaking of social, I thought a look-see at a new mall would be just a courtesy call. "NovaCentro" is a weird thing, a mostly vertical mall hidden behind an office building. We checked it out, riding the escalators up one level at a time. Just a thicket of boutiques, you know, those gaudy eyesores that cater to the hip and rich who, in a country as poor as Honduras, seem an absurdity, if not an outrage.
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Up and up we went, just marking time, I thought, till we could get out of there and go to Pizza Hut for supper with some kids from Las Vegas who work in Tegus. Suddenly, at the top, the escalator drew us into a cave-like darkness broken up by flashing lights, loud noises, carnival music. Oh no! We had reached The Game Level.
I would have grabbed the boys and run, but the escalator would not stop; it delivered us right into the middle of it. And there, right there, a spacious rink of Dodge-'em cars. Chemo and Marcos lit up like Roman candles. Nirvana! They even got me in on one round, something I hadn't done in 50 years. Oh, sure, it was fun and I didn't begrudge them that, but how long would the money hold out? "Again!" "Another!" "One more time!"
If I spoil Chemo, it's only because he's alive! Chemo got his life-saving heart operation in September 2008. And now look at him--ramming dodge-'em cars without a care in the world! So, another "appointment" we had was to check in with Ron Roll and the latest "brigada" of doctors and nurses from the U.S. who had come to perform open-heart surgeries on about 22 little boys and girls. Sponsored by Helping Hands for Honduras, they come four times a year.
Ron moved the brigada this time to San Felipe Hospital, a quiet, park-like facility specializing in recuperation therapies, more serene than the busy, stressful hospital where Chemo was operated on. We wanted to see Dr. Christian Gilbert, too, who helped Chemo's big sister Rosa last year (fortunately, she could be treated with medication rather than surgery), but he was just starting his fourth operation of the day. Incredible! Just waiting four hours when Chemo was in surgery drained me of every physical, psychological, and spiritual resource I had, unknowing whether he would emerge alive or dead, and here was this wonderful doctor four little lives passing through his skilled and caring hands, in one day!
When we spotted a couple pacing and looking anxious in the waiting room, we asked if it was their little girl in there. "Oh, yes." Chemo immediately whipped up his shirt to show them his scar. "Don't you worry--she's gonna be just fine!"
May the Lord answer you in time of trial;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May the Lord send you help from the holy shrine
and give you support from Zion.
May the Lord remember all your offerings
and receive your sacrifice with favor.
May the Lord grant you your heart's desire
and fulfill every one of your plans.
May we ring out our joy at your victory
and rejoice in the name of our God.
May the Lord grant all your prayers.
I am sure now, O Lord,
that you will give victory to your anointed one,
and will answer from your holy heaven
with a mighty victory of your arm.
Some trust in chariots or horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord.
Others will collapse and fall,
but we will hold and stand firm.
Give the victory to your servant, O Lord.
Answer us on the day we call!
A contemporary version of the same message can be found in a "speech" by Mark Tychonievich, longtime Latin teacher and coach at St. Louis U. High School. He recently died of the cancer he had been battling for years, but not before he recorded a thank-you to his students. My cousin Tim McKernan hosts a pretty crazy sports talk show on AM 590 in St. Louis, but he got serious one morning in tribute to "Coach T": www.insidestl.com/insideSTLcom/McKernan/tabid/61/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/5897/Remembering-Mark-Tychonievich.aspx
It wasn't till we got back that I realized what had really happened a few days before Christmas over in La Catorce, about a mile from Las Vegas. Two shot. Men? teens? Boys? -- attempting to rob a soda-delivery truck about 10:30 at night, Dec. 20. Attempting to rob a truck...with machetes? is that possible? when the drivers have guns...? One dead, one badly injured, probably going to lose his arm.
From what information I could piece together I found it might be a youngster named Olvin who, with his best friend Selvin used to come to visit me on Sundays. But I hadn't seen them recently; in fact, the last photo I had of Olvin was from 2005. But I printed it out, and went to La Catorce the next day.
Despite the years, I recognized Olvin right away, but he did look somehow harder now than the little boy I first knew. His arm was bandaged like a mattress. He had almost lost it, his left; the bullet had shattered the bones.
Nothing was said about the robbery, or whether it was some kind of tragic mistake, wrong place, wrong time kind of thing. Making conversation, I ask, "How's your pal Selvin?" Olvin looked at me as if I was holding the gun now. "He's dead, he's who was killed." Shot three times in the back, while Olvin played dead. Oh, my God, no! I instantly saw his broad, earthy face in my mind and knew I'd have to visit his mother.
But first I read Psalm 20, a prayer full of wishes, for Olvin from a prayerbook I had with me. I asked him what he did all day. Nothing. But you can read, right? So I promised I'd bring him a Bible, to pass the time.
I was surely nervous about visiting Selvin's mom, Domatila, or Tila for short. What could I possibly say? Psalm 20 wasn't gonna cut it. I sort of wondered if she blamed Olvin for her son's death, or was maybe resentful that Olvin escaped and Selvin did not. But she was very gracious and fixed us coffee, though the loss is etched in her face. Hoping in the darkness, I feebly promised her a Bible, too.
After several days visiting my best friend Fermin, who lives in MorazÃ¡n, I did take the bibles to Olvin and Tila. Tila was nothing but thanks; she held it like a treasure. "This is good, this is so good." And she made us sit and stay, she sent off her little girl to fetch some sweet rolls at the store while she made a fresh pot of coffee.
Olvin read Psalm 20 for himself, rather haltingly; he quit school after sixth grade--I guess he'll improve with practice.
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