Bob Bookman (Dominican Republic 1967–69)

Monday, November 21
7:33 pm

A SUGAR TRAIN STRAINS through the campo. Its dim light fading in the night. The drone from its engines drowns out the common sounds of old ladies spitting up flem, babies coughing, and fourteen-year-old men coming home from work. It is the time of the harvest. There is no sleep.

A black boy comes into the general store. There is no light in his face. His skin reflects this absence of light, for it is not the type of black skin that smiles. His face is dirty, his hands are ripped, and his soul is bare. He must have seen the future for he walks with his eyes closed. He is one of 16 children his grandmother must feed. No one cares for him except the ticks licking the sores of his feet. No star shines for him for he is coarse black.

Old lady, young boy, good friends asking me for gifts from Puerto Rico. I didn’t bring enough. They keep asking without shame. I forgive them for treating me as a stick figure instead of returning my sincere friendship. I forgive, for I know the world treats them as figures that cast no shadow.

Cutting cane, it use to be baseball. Baseball was played 14 hours a day for there was nothing else to do. Now the boys cut cane. They wake up at 2 a.m. and come home at 5 p.m. with hands blistered and heads dead. What for? For 2 pesos a day. Their fathers make 3. You get paid by the ton, and in the dry year you have to cut your soul out to make a ton. Another 4 months of harvest and then 8 months more of baseball. The baseball season is the toughest, for then you starve.

A scare, a finger, a thumb, a foot. The company pays up to a 100 pesos for each finger you slice off. 300 for a foot. It’s a bargain. A Dominican bargain.

The teacher begs his community to help him fix the school house roof. The people say, “No hay pesos.” So the kids get rained on for another year, only nothing grows.

“Dominicans are bad when there isn’t any rain.” That’s what the people say when they hear the screams of their children begging to be fed. But I find them good. They love their children, and help their neighbor. What more could Christ want. “No,” I shout, “Dominican’s are good.”

The Dominicand Melody is a steady, monotonous rhythm that was born in the sugar fields and will die there many years from now. It’s reflected in the “Merengus,” the music that has eaten into the campasino’s marrow. American’s usually dislike their melody for it lacks creativity, imagination and freedom. It’s for these reasons that the Dominicans love the “Merengus” melody. It doesn’t challenge his frame of reference. It’s like a sugar train straining in the night. The monotonous melody drowns out the old ladies spitting, and the hungry young crying. It’s a melody that leaves the mind blank. And that’s the best state of mind for a man waiting for death.

John F. Kennedy wanted to stop that sugar train from straining and the hungry young from crying. For a few precious moments, he succeeded. And his success and hopes have become a living part of us. Thank you, Mr. President, for allowing us to become a part of you.

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