In these pages way back December 2013 I started the story of my trip to Nicaragua with two life guard buddies – Lamar Cope and Bubba Kepley – in the fall of 1962. That’s # 16 in these Rants and Yarns. That first story was mostly about Lamar fighting a losing battle with his super-handsome hammock in a rain storm down by a snake infested stream deep in the heart of Mississippi. Story went on in # 114 to talk about our famous coward guard-dog puppy that some barroom bum said we’d need once we got south of the border – although actually what he advised was for us to get a mean ol’ junk yard cur. We ended up with the puppy because Bubba felt sure God intended for us to have that particular worthless piece of dog meat… that we tried unsuccessfully to make mean with gas station attendants and gun power. # 114 ended with us in a crater lake high over San Salvador, where a mother’s prayers saved a wretch like me.
You got to understand too, that we three were in our late teens, early twenties, without a clue, making our way to a country on the verge of a revolution.
I had gone to military school with a fellow from Nicaragua who had said…“come on down any time to my country and I’ll show you what good living’s all about. Here’s my telephone number down there.” In offering that invitation and telephone number a couple of years before, he didn’t know 1) that his countrymen had taken a real liken’ to Castro and had fallen out-of-like with the long-time Nicaraguan dictator – a personal friend of Joe’s family and 2) that anyone would be crazy enough to actually keep that telephone number and take him up on his offer to come on down. Hell, come visit some time is just what you say… you don’t necessarily mean it!
Following is what Lamar, Bubba and I remember of what happened after Rants and Yarns # 114, when we left El Salvador and continued south in our 1950 Willis Jeep and trailer…
We arrived Managua, Nicaragua, three days travel from the volcano crater lake over-looking San Salvador. We were to learn that Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator since 1937, was assassinated in 1956, and his oldest son, Luis Debayle Somoza, assumed power. To appease the people’s demand for more voice in the government, elections were planned for the fall of 1962 – as in, the month we arrived. The only name on the ballot to oppose Somoza, however, was one of his henchmen.
The landed gentry — an insulated elite — had a vested interest in the status quo. They expected the Somoza dictatorship to survive. They had the power, and more importantly they controlled the ballot box.
No one seemed to be in the middle. You either supported Somoza or Castro… and the common folks, generally called the Sandinistas, liked Castro a lot.
We drove slowly into Managua – could almost hear the music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly playing out of sight (though that movie hadn’t come out yet, you get the idea). We had a meal in the center most town plaza and the owner there directed us to a nearby reasonably priced boarding house.
First thing, I telephoned Joe. A Spanish-speaking woman, possibly his mother, said in halting English that he was at a family farm on the east side of Nicaragua and would not be back for several days. I told her who I was and said I would call back in a few days.
With time on our hands we developed friends with the landlady, her nephew Rudy Gutierrez, and neighborhood kids, especially those who hung around the plaza. Rudy, who was educated in Los Angeles and spoke English fluently, took the lead and guided us on excursions around the city and to Lake Managua. We flirted with local girls and exchanged English for Spanish language lessons as an excuse to spend time together. As we engaged the locals, Bubba was the most visible because he played his guitar at the local plaza at night.
Other than some U.S. Marine guards from the American Embassy we met, we saw no other Americans. Life was good. The boarding house, I forgot the price, but it was very reasonable. Buck or two a day each and meals came with the room. Beer was cheap at a variety of cantinas nearby. We were known to be beach bum happy-go-lucky drifters roaming south of the border, and had a certain celebrity about us.
Within the week, we were sitting with some new Nicaraguan friends in a sidewalk cantina when a group from Somoza’s military, the National Guard, walked past. With their blunt features, drab uniforms and Sam Browne belts, they looked like Latino police thugs out of Hollywood casting. Everyone stopped talking and looked straight ahead until the National Guardsmen had passed. When they were out of sight, someone in our group spit on the ground. One of the others said something in Spanish under his breath. I asked what he said. “Their mothers should have their bellies cut open and stuffed with hot rocks for bringing such monsters in this world.”
Somoza lived in a palace that dominated the skyline ridge overlooking Managua, heavily guarded by the National Guard. Cold and dark up there almost in the clouds, it looked like an evil place, where Dracula might find refuge. People rarely saw Somoza… he didn’t venture out much and made no effort to develop respect or trust among the people. He and his henchmen were easy to dislike, but I told my new Nicaraguan friends that it was going a little too far with this thing about cutting a mother’s belly open. Be realistic, I said. You don’t dislike those people that much, do you?
They said they did.
Though we didn’t have any particular political orientation, the three of us became sympathetic to the common people. We were young, tan, big smiles and made friends where ever we went. Joe seemed to know pretty much how we were fitting into the local scheme of things when he returned from the east coast and pitched up on the steps to our boarding house.
Greeting was loud with all the right words, “You Fuck… what are you doin’ here?” “You ol’ sumbitch, I told you I’d come…,” but there was tension in the air. Joe obviously wasn’t excited to see us. But he did invited us to ride with him out to a family farm on the outskirts of Managua. He was civil during the drive, but he did not volunteer to introduce us to his family or friends or offer us a place to stay. He pointedly said at one juncture that men were killed in his country just for having the wrong friends, knowing the wrong people.
I said, “Hey, don’t mean to impose… we’re just here on a visit. No big deal. You want to give us a meal, show us your place, that’s all right. You don’t want to, that’s all right, too.”
Joe said, “You’ve arrived when we’re going through hard times. Dangerous times. All the peasants love Castro. Sandinistas agitators are everywhere. Government officials and police getting killed every day. The communists, they want to destroy my country. We must have a strong military… and Somoza needs to be tough to keep the country working, to protect the government. Ain’t popular, Castro is… but Somoza needs to be strong.”
When Joe returned us to the boarding house, he said that he had to make another trip to the east coast and he would call us when he got back, probably in the next week. He told us to watch who we were seen with.
Talking about it later in a local cantina, we all thought Joe’s parting admonition told the story. Emboldened by our youth, unconcerned that we were foreigners in a violent environment, we said we would associate with whomever we wanted, whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted. Which wasn’t necessarily all that smart. But like I said, we didn’t have a clue.
A couple of days after our outing with Joe Rener, our landlady and her American-educated nephew, Rudy, asked for a ride to the village of Masaya to celebrate the Festival of San Jeronimo. They said we would have fun if we went — everyone did – lot of color and dancing and good eats.
So we agreed to the trip and gathered our group by the Jeep in the front of the boarding house the next morning. The landlady had invited two elderly lady friends to accompany us – so it was the three of them, the three of us, plus Rudy. As we were leaving Managua, Bubba and Rudy led us in songs, alternately in English and Spanish. The windows down even through a light morning drizzle, our trip through the countryside was scenic, breezy and fun.
By late morning we arrived in Masaya at the foothills of mountains to the east. Crowds of country merrymakers thronged the streets. Driving slowly toward the town center we passed a building more prosperous looking than the rest. Loud Latin music coming from within. Taking directions from our landlady, Lamar pulled to the side of the street and parked. The ladies wanted to go to the church before anything so we agreed that we would meet mid-afternoon for lunch and separated. Rudy suggested that we go back to the town club, the source of the loud music we had passed on the way into town, and see if we could get in. Along the way, people dressed in bright clothing and masks were dancing in the streets.
A couple of well-dressed men guarded the doors to the club; they did not respond when I said, with a festive smile, “Buenos dias.” Rudy stepped forward. Over the thumping beat of the band inside, he spoke for us in Spanish. Finally one of the men moved aside. As we walked in toward the sound of the music, I asked Rudy what he said. He told them, he said, that we were from the American embassy. The club was for Somoza faithfuls and us being from the US Embassy, we were welcomed.
Inside were two large rooms filled with smiling, yelling, singing, dancing people, young and old, some dressed for the festival, some like us, not. A Mariachi band was playing on a bandstand at one end of the room off to our right. The musicians had on similar ornate Latino outfits. The band was big on guitars and violins. Another band was sitting on another bandstand at the opposite end of the room to our front. This second group was not playing but was following the music. One man in this group sat holding a trumpet, bouncing one of his feet to the beat. We made our way to a bar near the archway between the two rooms and ordered a bottle of the Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Cana, with limes and glasses and ice. Across the room Bubba saw a girl we had met days before in Nicaragua. He made his way over to her through the dancing crowd and soon was out in the middle of the floor with the girl, trying to imitate the stomping, twirling movements of the other dancers. Occasionally the crowd would break into rounds of thunderous hand clapping to the beat of the up-tempo music. Occasionally too, the band yelled “Ole’” and everyone responded, “Ole’, Ole’.”
The noise was so loud it was difficult to talk. The heat and the liquor and the music and the party attitude of the crowd overtook our senses. Lamar and I shared a smile and moved to the pulsating music despite ourselves, shuffling our feet and slapping the sides of our legs. Lamar made eye contact with a girl. She smiled back and he was off dancing. Rudy mixed me a drink and with a big smile put the bottle to his lips and drank heavily. He slammed the bottle down on the bar, picked up a lime half, tilted his head back and squeezed it into this mouth.
Soon, off to our left, the second band began playing with the first band. Stereo sound. One of the members of the first band began stomping one of his feet and everyone joined in. The foot stomping soon shook the building. Lamar and Bubba were in the middle of the dance floor. Bubba had his hands up in the air clapping them high over his head.
Rudy moved off from the bar where I was standing and began talking with a group of men.
The first band stopped playing and the second band continued on, though at a less frenzied pace. Lamar, gasping for breath, walked back to where I was standing. The girl Bubba had been dancing with suddenly appeared in front of us and took my hand. She led me out on the dance floor. Bubba was dancing with another girl across the way. The band was playing a rumba. Aided by the rum I moved to the rhythm. The girl had a warm, sparkling smile. What a grand place. What a party.
The pace of the music picked up, the first band joining back in. Bubba and I, with the girls we were dancing with, began a slashing mixture of a Mexican hat dance and Kentucky square dance and just Dixie drunk/stumble. A few of the dancers stopped and formed a small circle around us.
Bubba and I were yelling “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” as we clapped our hands over our heads. Suddenly we heard Lamar shout. It was an exclamation, a warning, “HEY, STOP IT,” he yelled clearly over the noise of the club and the bands. We looked over toward the bar and saw Lamar addressing a group of men standing near the archway.
The men were shoving and pushing. Someone in the group yelled out in Spanish. The dancers near us stopped and turned.
“STOP IT, GOD-DAMMIT, I SAID,” Lamar yelled into the group. Bubba and I, unsure what was happening, started moving toward him.
The band stopped playing. We heard Rudy yelling. Other men shouted rapid Spanish at the same time. Lamar grabbed a man on the fringe of the group and started to pull his arm. Two other men slammed, stiff arm, into Lamar’s chest. I was close to Lamar and could see Rudy in the middle of the group of men. Someone shoved me and as I was gathering myself, someone else tried to pull my wallet out of my pants.
“HELP ME, GUYS,” Rudy yelled from deep in the group. Bubba jumped forward into the crowd, sending a couple of the men to the floor. Someone punched him in the face. Rudy lunged out trying to punch someone near him. Lamar waded in. I stood behind Lamar, and helped Bubba to his feet, noticing blood running down the side of his face. Rudy reached out and grabbed Lamar’s arm with both of his hands and held on. Lamar yanked back and Rudy was pulled free.
Sometimes in your everyday bar room ruckus, there is a lot of yelling and pushing, but not much hitting… not a lot of wholesale pain and suffering. Not here. This crowd seriously wanted to hurt us. Cut the belly of the beast and putting in hot rocks kind of hurting.
We stood close together, the four of us, near the bar and the archway. A knot of men stood between us and the front door. 50-100, hard to tell. A lot. One man nearby kept yelling in Spanish so loud the blood vessels were standing out in his neck… he was shaking his fist at Rudy. Then he started jabbing his finger in our direction. Others in the crowd – some still wearing masks and holding sticks – were yelling.
“OK, we’re going to leave. You understand. YOU UNDERSTAND? COMPRENDA? Don’t fuck with us anymore. We’re leaving.” And then I yelled again, as loud as I could. “DON’T FUCK WITH US.” Bubba said, “Quit yelling, let’s get the hell out of here.” I started moving toward the door but the crowd did not move. Rudy started yelling in Spanish, which got the people in front of us even more angry. They pushed in. Someone hit me in the back of the head. I turned around as Lamar put his head down and charged into the crowd, toward the door. I grabbed at Rudy and followed. Someone grabbed at Bubba’s shirt, ripping it. Someone threw a drink on us. Then another drink.
Once through the knot of men, we made it to the door. As we were going out Rudy turned and yelled out at the crowd. Several men rushed toward us and we raced out into the street, Bubba and I pulling Rudy behind us. Some of the men from the club were still in pursuit. As we continued to move away up the street, they shouted, “Policia, Policia.”
Over their heads down the street we could see a trio of National Guardsmen looking our way. One of our pursuers saw the National Guard soldiers and yelled, waving his arm for them to come.
Lamar was still in the lead, running as much as he could in the dancing, festive crowd. Bubba and I followed, dragging Rudy. Lamar reached the jeep first. By the time we got there he had unlocked his door and was getting in behind the wheel. The engine turned over as Bubba and I yelled for him to open our doors.
One of the men from the club was close. We got inside just as he reached us. He slammed his fist against the roof. Rudy yelled at him in Spanish.
Lamar tried to pull away down the street but he had to move slowly because of the crowd, most of whom had stopped dancing and were gawking at us… plus more men were still coming at us from the club. Lamar, like he was driving a get-away car, started blowing the horn and yelling, “Get out of my way, God-damnit, move, move.”
One of the pursuers ran into a cantina and came out with a beer bottle. He ran up close to the jeep and threw it at the back window. The glass shattered, pelting everyone inside. Another young man came up beside us and started to hit the windows with a large board. One of the side windows finally cracked. With another blow it also shattered, sending more glass slivers inside.
It was pretty damn frightful. Surreal with the festival- dressed locals, in their bright colors and masks, clogging the street, gawking… And the men outside the Jeep were trotting along, yelling, throwing things at us. It was an inter-active, violent Mardi Gras. Nightmarish.
Lamar maneuvered the jeep through the crowd and, taking a route along the side of the street, began to pick up speed. A street opened to our right and we turned down it, leaving our Festival of San Jeronimo tormentors behind.
We pulled off the road a short distance out of town to assess the damage to the jeep and ourselves. Windows were broken all around, and there was dents where people had thrown rocks and bottles.
I asked Rudy what the hell had happened. He set his jaw and did not answer.
“Listen here you little shit, we could have gotten stomped to death back there. You were in the middle of it. What happened?”
“I told this one guy, rich fat ugly son of a bitch,” Rudy words were slightly slurred, he was slightly drunk, but he also had a busted lip.
“I told him Somoza was a pig and my American friends thought so too. And some of his fat ugly friends came over … and I told them we supported Sandinista and I said we were going to take over soon. Castro was our man. This was going to be our club after the revolution. A club for the people. Rich shits, assholes.”
“Now, god-damn-it, we were having a good time.” Bubba had taken off his torn shirt and was using it to wipe the blood off his face. “We weren’t bothering anyone. We don’t support nobody here. No one. You had no reason to get us in trouble like that. Rudy. You almost got us killed.”
Rudy did not apologize. He sat solemn most of the trip back, sipping occasionally from a bottle of Flor de Cana.
The landlady and her friend returned on a bus. They said the whole town was talking about some communist agitators, some foreigners, trying to make trouble and getting run out of town. They figured it was us when they saw a troop of National Guardsmen near where we had parked the jeep.
The news the next morning was about the U.S. blockade of Cuba. President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s premier, were staring each other in the eye over missiles in Cuba. The world was focused on the Caribbean. Anti-U.S. posters appeared in most of the plazas around the boarding house. A crowd gathered late in the afternoon in the nearest plaza. Between visits by the National Guard, young men and women stepped forward and made pro-Castro and anti-U.S. speeches. Rudy ventured out periodically and reported back on the turmoil in the streets. We did not leave the house.
We went to our room after supper that night, trying to decide what we were going to do. I felt personal guilt for the lack of support we had gotten from Rener, but I said we had no idea about the political problems here when we left the states. We talked about going on to Hawaii, but our money was low. We had spent more than we expected getting to Managua.
As we lay talking, the noise from the crowd in the plaza near us increased. Lamar opened the doors out to the small balcony overlooking the street and glanced toward the plaza. He quickly shut the doors, saying the mob looked like they were coming our way.
Whether they knew Americans lived in the boarding house or not, our Jeep still had South Carolina license plates. And it was parked out front.
The license we figured attracted the crowd and it became an easy target. We did not move as we heard the crowd break one window and then a louder crash as they broke another.
“Lamar, you want to tell them to knock that off?” I asked.
“You know we can’t win in this country. Yesterday we were getting hit on by Somoza people. Today the other side is wrecking our Jeep. And we ain’t done nothing,” Lamar said, as he lay on his bed looking up at the ceiling.
“I got it figured that we are not in harmony with our surroundings here. We do not belong in Nicaragua, friends. That appears clear to me,” Bubba said.
The landlady went outside and we could hear her yelling at the demonstrators. Some yelled back but we heard no more noise around the jeep. After a few minutes we cracked the doors to the balcony and peered out. The jeep’s passenger side windows were all smashed and only the front window remained intact… our beautiful Jeep looked like a piece of junk on the side of the street.
We sold the Jeep to a local grave robber the next day and two days later flew out of the country… lucky, we told people, to be alive. Revolutions are best viewed from a distance. Caught in the middle, revolutions are powerfully frightful… scare you like you ain’t ever been scared before.
We landed at the same airport near Miami Beach that I had transited several years before when I visited Cuba.
Bubba and Lamar thumbed home to the Carolinas and I stayed, because one of my sisters told me, when I called home, that Daddy was still a little pissed. Actually she said he was very pissed. Timing wasn’t right to come home now, she thought. So I got a job as a swimming and diving instructor at one of the large hotels on Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue. Mostly I laid out towels and pads for guest when they came to the pool, then stood to the side smiling, waiting for a tip. The money was good but it was demeaning, shit work. I left before Christmas and thumbed home.
Years later in the CIA, many of my friends who had worked in Laos were called on to go to Central America in support of the US backed Contras… who I knew from personal experience did not have the support of the people. And the opposition, the Sandinistas, were Castro loving communist.
I didn’t figure the US had a dog in this fight, so I stayed away. Left it up to Oliver North to do what he thought was in our country’s best interest.
Sometime you just don’t know…
But listen, you ever go to Nicaragua in late September or early October, take time to attend the Festival of San Jeronimo in Masaya. There’s a men’s club there on the north side of town. Go in and have a shot of Flor de Cana, and dance … like we did 50 years ago … when we were young and didn’t have a clue.
Wonder what happened to Joe?