Volunteers of America
By Jim Graham (Nicaragua 1970-71)
They crossed the Rio Coco at its lowest point. At this time of year, the river was shallow. Their horse’s hooves threw up muddy water as the bandits splashed toward the other shore, into another country.
Northeast Nicaragua, the Mosquito Coast on the Gulf of Mexico, didn’t seem different from Honduras. Both were poor and oppressively hot at midday, siesta time. The bandits liked to move during siesta, when all of Latin America is sleeping. This strategy had succeeded many times before.
Once across the river, the five horsemen crashed through a thin opening in the dense underbrush which led to a narrow trail. As in most regions of this part of the world every route included many paths winding through thick green vegetation, black fermenting water and hard red clay crosscuts. It was a hostile environment which nearly everyone traveled on foot. Most people being too poor to afford food let alone a horse. The group stuck together in single file on one of the red clay byways. Ramondo was in the lead. Behind him Jaime, the youngest at 21, was a blond haired and blue eyed man of Castilian ancestry, a rarity on a continent of dark Spanish complexions. Then Luis, the best rider of the group with the fastest, finely gated horse. After that Nestor, the wild one, with ever-present guns strapped to each side. Finally, came Chacho, constantly ready to leave, yet the most reliable when the going got rough.
The week before Ramondo had scouted this location on foot. Lately pickings were slim in Honduras and the crew had decided to branch out. Romando had spent two days walking the isolated trails of Northeast Nicaragua looking for convenient targets. This poor district was dominated by Mesquito Indians with only an occasional Spanish speaking settlement. It was these pueblos Ramondo was looking for. They would speak the same language and have some money, but being poor there would be no police. He had finally found a small, out of the way village with a tienda that actually carried some merchandise for sale, with commerce came cash.
The men bantered up and down the line as Ramondo lead them toward the tienda. The noon sun assured they would encounter virtually no one on the trail; so they laughed and joked as they rode along. Their horses were fresh and sure footed. Rolando had assured them there would be no guns, no sheriff, no resistance in this place. No reason for concern. They had done this many times before in their two years together. These outlaws were good at their work and comfortable with each other.
They were not greedy men. They had modeled themselves after the Wild West desperados, the Norte Americanos who robbing from the rich to give to the poor. However, there never seemed to be .much left over for the poor. In time they had managed to become fairly well equipped considering the poverty in their area of Honduras. Each had some form of hand gun, a fairly good horse, with two aging Winchester carbines among the lot. They had clothes on their backs with an extra set in each saddle bag. They fished the local ponds and kept themselves fed. They’d even gained a following of admirers among the wayward youths nearby. Unfortunately, they were also being pursued more and more by the local federales, the Honduran police, who were not their admirers. And so, it was time to branch out this is why they had come to Nicaragua.
The horsemen rounded a small curve in the road. Suddenly the path opened up exposing the entrance to their target. Romando blinked in the bright sunlight, happy he had brought them here without incident. The pueblo was just a few dozen houses that lined a single dusty street. The only thoroughfare was just wide enough to accommodate five horses if they rode nice and tight. As the procession moved towards the tienda at the end, a couple of scrawny dogs gave bark never bothering to get up off the ground.
The gang dismounted in front of the tienda. Rolando held the reins. He had been in the shop the week before dressed as a campasino. He’d spent a few cordobas there and talked very little, so as not to draw attention to his foreign accent. If he was recognized now the shopkeeper would know something was up. Besides, tying the horses would slow a getaway. Luis entered first with Nestor.
Don Pablo Espinal’s tienda was the closest thing to a general store on the whole mountain. He was a shop keeper, the son of a shop keeper’s son. He sold dry goods, tobacco, seed, sweets, shoes, dry goods and anything else he could get his hands on. The farmers on all sides of the mountain looked forward to getting to Don Pablo’s store whenever they had a few cordobas to spend. The coffee harvest was coming in with corn and bananas to follow. This was the time Don Pablo looked forward to. It made his year, better than Christmas. When local farmers were able to scratch a little extra produce from their small plots they had money in their pockets and Don Pablo was here to help them spend it.
The minute Don Pablo saw the two strangers in the doorway, he had a sinking feeling. Men with such hardware were seldom seen around El Perdido. When he heard their accents he suspected he was in grave danger. Don Pablo stood at the far end of the long shop counter. He calculated his reach to the shotgun he kept for protection propped behind the wall that bordered the far side. An amiable man, Don Pablo hoped he would not need it.
Luis finally spoke “What kind of cigarettes you have?”
“Three brands, senior.”
The cigarettes were on a shelf behind the counter, Don Pablo turned to get them. He had no excuse to move toward the shotgun. He placed the cigarettes on the counter. Luis selected a pack and opened it.
“You got any boots” Nestor inquired.
“Over there.” Don Pablo motioned toward the front of the store. He did not want to go there and leave the counter vacant or restrict his access to the shotgun.
Juan Carlos Dearmis his new son-in-law appeared from around the wall where the cigarettes were kept. He had been awakened from his siesta by the sound of multiple voices. The two sets of men faced each other. Juan Carlos was a big man with a commanding presence Don Pablo felt better now that he had company, at the same time, he was now afraid for them both.
Don Pablo came out from the counter and led Nestor over to the boots. This got Nestor away from the wall where the shotgun rested and also allowed Juan Carlos to slowly walk in that direction as he talked to Luis. Just about the time Don Pablo was feeling a little better about the odds, Jaime and Chacho entered the store. Don Pablo thought about his wife and daughter sleeping in the house next door.
“Where are you men from?” Sensing Luis was the leader, Don Pablo moved to the center isle of the store and addressed him directly.
“Just over the border.” Luis knew there was no reason to lie, it was clear that he and his men were not Nicaraguan.
“What are you looking for here?” Juan Carlos asked.
The bandits knew this was more an observation than a question. There was no love lost between the people of Nicaragua and Honduras, especially in the out areas. Although there was virtually no border between the countries, people rarely encroached on each other’s property. When they did it usually ended badly.
“How can I help you?” Don Pablo’s question was direct.
Luis finally spoke. “We need some supplies” Don Pablo nodded indicating he could do that “and money!” The banditos pulled their guns in unison.
Don Pablo slowly reached under the counter and pulled out a metal box. He opened it and handed over all the bills. Luis counted them slowly, forty-two cordobas about 6 dollars American exchange. He grabbed the box and dumped out the coins in the bottom, they settled unevenly on the counter, maybe two more cordoba.
“You must have more here.” He spat at Don Pedro. “You have the biggest store on this mountain. You can’t do business with this trash!”
Don Pablo looked up from the table top and raised both hands with palms upward indicating nothing.
Luis slashed the barrel of his gun across Don Pablo’s cheek lightly, a gesture not meant to hurt, just get his attention. The shopkeeper blinked in acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation and Juan Carlos stiffened. Nestor, a pistol in each hand aimed one squarely at Juan Carlos’s chest.
Luis pressed Don Pablo.
“What have you got in the back? Trust me it’s not worth your life!”
Juan Carlos was impetuous and a fighter. Quickly, sizing up the situation, he felt certain he could grab Luis’ gun, using him as a shield at the same time. Luis was concentrating on Don Pablo and seemed to have forgotten Juan Carlos was in the room. The men near the front door had not moved forward although their guns were out. Juan Carlos knew the middle isle of the store was so narrow those two could not quickly join the fight. He felt he must grab Luis’s gun and start shooting, now. If done rapidly, this would give Juan Carlos enough time to take out the boss and “two gun”. Hopefully Don Pablo would grab the shotgun at the same time. Juan carlos felt it was their only chance. He glanced at Don Pablo, hoping he would understand.
Juan Carlos ducked behind Luis, grabbing for his gun at the same time.
He yanked the gun from Luis’ hand, knocking them both to the floor behind the counter. He emerged a moments later with the Luis’s gun ready to fire and Nestor put a bullet right between his eyes.
Don Pablo lunged for the shotgun. He was almost around the wall when Nestor wheeled and shot him twice in the back. It was over in less than 10 seconds.
Luis was up from the behind counter instantly.
“You son of a whore”, he shouted at Nestor, “we didn’t need to kill them.”
“He was too dumb to live”, retorted Nestor. “What was he trying to do anyway?”
Luis cooled his anger quickly. He motioned for Jaime and Chacho to come forward and they all began to search the single walled in room behind the counter.
Flora Dearmis was awakened from her siesta by the sound of pistol shots. She knew the sound well. She had spent many hours shooting on a small target range her father had built for them against the mountain outside of town. Don Pablo had never had a son so he insisted that his daughters learn how to shoot any kind of weapon he happened to get in his store. Flora had always excelled. She that loved the sound of the different munitions. She delightfully examined each target and every record of her success on the range. In time, her father had nicknamed her “La Florita de la Pistola” or his “Little Flower with a gun.” Maya and Milagros, her older sisters, had married and left El Perdido earlier. Flora and Juan Carlos had married in June and were looking forward to starting this new life, too.
Currently they were living in her parents’ house just south of the tienda. Flora immediately headed for her fatherrs shop. She walked around the back of the building so she could enter through the door where the office was located. For this reason she did not see Ramondo waiting at the front of the tienda with the five horses.
Flora hopped up the back steps and into the office. It was a complete mess.
Desk drawers were on the floor, books from the one bookcase were on top of the drawers, papers from her father’s single file cabinet lay strewn among the confusion and his large cash box lay among them empty. She paused terrified.
Ramondo was nervous. People were beginning to come out of their houses. The shots had woken the sleeping town and though no one looked threatening, you never know. From other outlaw groups in the area, he heard that every town had it own member of the Guardia National. Though mostly a joke, they all had some kind of rifle and it was their responsibility to keep order. Romando whistled the others to leave.
Back in the store front Luis was pleased; they had found a couple more hundred cordobas in the box in Don Pablo’s office. He considered that a success and motioned for them to leave.
The scream was blood curdling. As the gang headed for the front door single file down the aisle grabbing goods as they went, a small pretty girl appeared out of the office behind them and let out the yell. They didn’t realize it but she was looking at her father and husband lying dead behind the shop counter. Jaime’s gun came out immediately. He looked past Chacho and saw a beautiful lady in extreme distress. Under other circumstances his tall blond headed good looks would have certainly been able to sooth her but this was obviously not the time or the place. The gang paused, realizing this girl was no threat to them. Ramondo’s second whistle snapped them around and they started back out the front door.
The first shotgun blast hit Chacho squarely between the shoulder blades. His body lurched forward almost knocking Jaime down before it crumpled to the floor.
The main aisle of the tienda was so narrow that it made a perfect shooting gallery. An old double barrel 12 gauge could hardly be ineffective in such a space. In the hands of Flora Dearmis, it was deadly. Jaime still had his pistol in his hand as he spun around. Flora’s second blast caught him above the chin spreading pieces of blond hair up to the ceiling. The concussion of the blast urged Luis and Nestor through the door and into the sunlight. There Ramondo exhorted them to get on their horses and ride. Commotion was starting up and their remaining time here needed to be short.
“What the hell’s going on in there?” yelled Ramondo.
“I don’t know”, Luis shouted.
“I’m going to find out”, bellowed Nestor as he headed back through the tienda’s entryway. Once in view, he caught a bullet in the chest, his body falling backward and sliding over the one step front porch, landing at the feet of his horse. Both guns flew out of his hands and lay in the dust beside his body.
Flora had discarded the shotgun knowing that its two barrels were now useless, as she had no other shells nearby. Spying Jaime’s pistol lying on the floor, she rushed to it. Kneeling she picked up the gun just as a man with two guns appeared in the doorway. He blinked at the interior darkness. Crouching in the isle Flora aimed at the dark silhouette surrounded by sunlight and squeezed off a shot just as her father had taught her. The figure disappeared immediately.
Flora heard horses whinnying from fright and men’s voices outside in the street. The familiar kick of the pistol in her hand had made her feel strangely calm. She stepped over Jaime’s body and peered out into the light, winceing at the bright sunshine. Flora saw two riderless horses already heading out of town. A third was bucking nervously. Then she saw two other men. They were mounted with their guns drawn. They both pointed at her and fired simultaneously. One bullet slammed into the door frame and the other grazed her cheek. Then their horses began to rear, enhanced by the noise, making it impossible for them to aim accurately again.
Don Pedro had taught Flora how to lead moving targets. He had slid them along a string and thrown objects in the air as she plinked away with pistols and rifles. He had asked her to go hunting with him but she had no interest in killing innocent defenseless animals. From the scene inside the tienda, she knew these horsemen were not innocent or defenseless.
Luis could not believe what was happening. This nice easy Nicaraguan trip had gone wrong so quickly. Now he sat on a bucking horse trying to stop a little girl who had just apparently killed three of his men. His mount was so spooked that he was not coming close to hitting this little puta. Meanwhile, he watched her taking steady aim at him from the firm landing in front of the tienda. Her first shot sailed just over his head
as his horse was coming down. The second tore a chunk out of his hat and he worried she was quickly getting the hang of it. The last thing he saw was a pretty little senorita aiming a pistol at him with the black hole of the barrel looking as wide as a dinner plate.
Ramondo saw Luis go down and gave up all hope of salvaging any dignity by stopping this woman who was shooting his friends. His horse banged into Luis’ empty mount as they wheeled and headed out of the town. He rode low in the saddle with both hands around his horse’s neck. Unfortunately for him, though smaller this way, he was a much steadier target then the one Flora had just shot. She took two steps to the right to get a better angle on the fleeing bandit. Grabbing her wrist with her left hand, she fixed Jaime’s gun in her right, as her father had taught her. The first bullet hit Ramondo’s left shoulder. He grunted as his arm fell from the horse’s neck limp. The second shot entered just below the nape of his neck; he was dead before his body hit the hard red clay street.
The petite pretty girl took one step down from the porch. She was still holding Jaime’s gun but both hands were now at her sides. Stepping over Luis she saw he was not moving. Ramondo lay one block away, she pulled the pistol up in her right hand and sighted it at his fallen form. For a few seconds she watched him over the barrel, then, certain he was not moving, her shoulders slumped and her body lost all rigidity except for her right arm which still held the pistol straight out. There in El Perdido, “La Florita de la Pistola” stood in the middle of the dusty street, sobbing softly.
The three trucks splashed across the shallow expanse. Here, in the remote northwest corner of Nicaragua the Rio Coco cascaded down to the Pacific Ocean. Tires threw up rocks and water across the 80 meter stretch. Each truck bed was filled with heavy reinforced concrete pieces, called pilas. These thick rectangles with a hole in the middle were the base for a rural outhouse. Add a seat, enclose with a wooden frame, situate over a hole in the ground filled with lye and you have a sanitary facility.
This was the creative way John Browne and Skip Resnick, two members of the United States Peace Corps, had devised for helping the people in this region of their host country. One day Jon had been talking with a Nicaraguan health official who mentioned that there were a whole bunch of pilas at their ministry with no way of delivering them out to the countryside. A little later, Jon ran into an organization called Los Amigos de Las Americas. This was a group of high school teenagers, from Texas, who organized each school offseason to visit and help in Central America, wherever they could be used. The Amigos were in Managua, the capitol of Nicaragua, they had trucks and a couple of free days. It was a natural. Within 24 hours, the trucks were loaded and on the way to Cinco Pinos where the pilas were to be distributed. Skip had come to Managua to help with loading of the trucks while Jon returned to Cinco Pinos, his home base, to organize digging parties at the principal towns on the mountain.
The truck procession was now across the river and back on the road to Cinco Pinos, with Skip in the lead truck. This town was half way up an isolation mountain that Skip had only visited one time before. Howevevr he had no trouble finding Cinco Pinos, one narrow red dirt road spiraled the entire mountain with just three small villages spaced out along that route. The trucks pulled into the little pueblo just as the light began to fade over the horizon. Jon had arranged for the Amigos to bunk in the one avaliable community building in Cinco Pinos. It served as a post office, telephone station, National Guard post and parish center as well as guest quarters for visitors.
The young Amigos found spots for their bed rolls and spread out over the main auditorium. The center, one of the only buildings in Cinco Pinos with running water, was more comfortable than many of the accommodations the Amigos had encountered on their current trip to Central America. The routine was getting familiar to this volunteer army of young people and they were quickly washed up and set the evening.
Tonight there was a party planned for these Amigos. Night life, as most people know it, was virtually nonexistent here. The pueblo had a main street seven blocks long with four short side lanes all heading up the mountain side. Dozens of houses were scattered irregularly up the hillside above this pattern, that was Cinco Pinos.
If you lived close to the mayor’s house at the center of town and paid him seven cordobas a month (1 dollar American), you got an electric light bulb, powered by a huge British diesel generator. This power plant came on at sunset and went out promptly at 10:00 p.m. Add to this, water that fed centrifugally from a large rain catch basin higher up the mountain with streams exiting at four spigots on the main street with branches to the mayor’s house and the community center. This was the extent of modern convenience available in this part of the country.
Don Ramon, the Alcalde (mayor) had reserved the one cantina in town. Not difficult as he owned the place. Music struck up as the lights came on and the celebration was immediately in full swing. Although or maybe because, they are poor Nicaraguans in el campo (the country) are always looking for an excuse to celebrate, especially when someone else is buying. Tonight was Don Ramon’s pleasure. The Amigos, along with five chaperones were happy to be so well accepted and joined in with gusto. Jon and Skip danced with every girl in the place aware that when they took one of the Texas coeds in their arms, the chaperones got very nervous.
Half way through the party, Don Ramon gave a speech expressing gratitude for the Amigos and their assistance to his little community. He also thanked the Peace Corps volunteers for putting this expedition together. After the town’s only politician spoke, things picked up again until a little before midnight, Don Ramon had allowed the lights to stay on ’til then for this special occasion. Skip and Jon had managed to slip away for a little while and share a joint with a couple of guys from the Amigos. At that time, they were assured the high school girls would not in any way be interested in this kind of activity, not surprising, but it never hurt to ask. They all managed to get back to the party before they were missed. The tired Amigos packed it in early.
The Peace Corps volunteers were used to long days and stayed around until the last dog was hung. The lights went out at the stroke of midnight just as the clean up was ending. Jon and Skip said a quick goodbye to those remaining and they all dispersed, the volunteers heading back to Jon’s quarters. He had rented a small warehouse from Don Ramon, once they were both certain he would be staying awhile.
The two friends were headed there now; Skip was staying with Jon until the latrine project was completed. With no electricity on this moonless night the volunteers walked slowly through the inky streets. They turned off the main artery and headed up the hill, Jon’s place was the next building on the left. Suddenly there came a voice from across the narrow the way.
The volunteers were used to being called this. It wasn’t necessarily a pejorative in fact to foreigners who were fluent in the language it could be an endearment. The way it was said here, Jon didn’t feel this was the case. Both turned to face the voice.
Skip spoke first,” What’s going on, man?”
“I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to that other Gringo.”
“What’s the problem?” Jon answered.
“What you doing in this pueblo?”
Jon could barely make out the shadowy form. He was fairly certain he had seen this guy at the party. Jon had lived in Cinco Pinos for over a year and didn’t recognize the man but hadn’t thought anything of it. The mountain was quite large and there being only three centers of commerce new people passed through all the time.
“I am here to help” Jon gestured to Skip, “were both here to help. You heard what the Alcalde said at the party.”
“Hey, we don’t need your help,” the reply was terse.
“Anyway that Alcalde is a pig man, what does he know?”
“I been working here more than a year doing lots of things. He’s been down in Somotillo working there.” Jon came to their defense.
“What you been doing, smoking marijuana, drinking cerveza, trying to fuck our women!” He paused, “Maybe doing some spying, huh?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Skip was easily provoked and experience had taught him that you had to stand up for yourself in these situations.
“I told you, I’m not talking to you, what the fuck you doing in Somotillo anyway? Or you fucking Norte Americanos in Chinandaga, or Matagalpa, or Jinotega or any fucking where.” Latin Americans always stressed North Americans; they hated it when U.S. citizens call themselves Americans like they were the only ones in the hemisphere.
“Hey, maybe you spying for the CIA!”
For a Peace Corps volunteer those were fighting words. The idea that they were an extension of the U.S. defense department totally undermined anything President Kennedy had envisioned for the United States Peace Corps and had to be addressed immediately. Jon was not sure Skip was the guy to do it.
“We have jobs here, we work with health, electrification, literacy, farming, all kinds of things, no spying.”
“What, you teach us English, fuck, you?” “You think you know how to farm better then Nicaraguans, fuck you.”
“Go home gringos, we don’t need your fucking help!”
“Wait a minute” Jon could feel Skip’s anger rising.
“Hey you know the Sandinistas?” It was a rhetorical question, everyone living in Nicaragua knew who the Sandinistas were.
“We’re here, on this mountain, over every mountain we are going to throw that son of a bitch Somoza out of this country and we don’t need your spying help!”
“Ho, what’s that?”
The volunteers turned and looked to the bottom of the street. There stood Rigaberto Espinal with his ever present M-1 rifle over his shoulder. Berto, was Cinco Pino’s member of the Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional. Every village, pueblo and city in Nicaragua had at least one member of the Guardia looking after things. Actually with Presidente Anastasio Somoza Debayle owning most of the country as well as being permanent head of the military and police, the Guardia National was looking after his things. This was in really, all they were put in place to do.
Berto took the rifle off his shoulder as he walked up the dark street. As he came, he peered into the night on both sides, trying to make out anything between the buildings. At the same time, Jon and Skip realized the man confronting them had disappeared.
“What’s going on?” Berto seemed a little more than curious.
“Don’t know, just talking to some guy.” Jon said.
“Sounded like he was mad,” prompted the guardsmen.
“Naw, just a drunk, you know, the party.” Skip hesitated for a second.
“He wasn’t giving you a hard time was he? You know we really appreciate what you guys are doing for our little town. Everybody loves it, you saw the party.”
“No, we could hardly understand what he was saying,” Jon lied. “He’s probably gone home to sleep it off.”
Burto wasn’t completely convinced.
“Well you know if somebody gives you a hard time, I can take care of ’em.”
He half joked patting his rifle as he strapped it back onto his shoulder.
“Thanks man, we always knows who to call.” Jon finalized the exchange.
“That was a real good party,” Rigoberto headed back towards the main street to continue his rounds while the volunteers continued on to Jon’s warehouse nest.
Although one of the best accommodations in the town; Jon’s warehouse was sparse by any normal standard. He had divided it into halves which gave him sleeping quarters with an accompanying kitchen / living room combination. Skip sat back as Jon lighted the oil lamp in the living room and pulled a couple of late night beers out of the small battered propane refrigerator he had acquired.
“All the convenience of home.” Jon commented. “Whew, that was kind of close,”
“I don’t know I felt like turning that idiot in”, Skip took his first swig from the cold brew. He stretched his burley frame further out into the room and raked his fingers over his curley red hair.
“Naw, everybody around here wants to think they are a Sandinista, the real
guys are hard core man. Burto starts fucking with one of them he’s in trouble”.
Jon and Skip had been in Nicaragua for over a year. On their first meeting at the Peace Corps center in California they had taken an immediate liking to each other. At the Escondido center the 26 volunteers went through indoctrination, medical checkups and an introduction to their assignment. There the two had starred in after hours touch football games, both being all state athletes, that had cemented their bond.
The now 24 volunteers were then moved on to Taos, New Mexico to study that area’s rural electric cooperative. Their assignment would be to promote rural electric cooperatives in the Nicaraguan countryside. Interestingly enough they caught a late season snow storm in Taos, the first snow Jon had ever seen being a native of Florida. Skip, a Pennsylvania boy, showed Jon all kinds of things that could be done with snow.
It was a match made in heaven.
On the next leg, the volunteers flew to Puerto Rica to begin training in the Spanish language. The weeding process had already reduced the group to 21. After a week at the Ponce Center, the volunteers were sent into the surrounding community to secure lodging. In a week they all found rooms in different neighborhoods, called barrios in Spanish, as designated by the center. Only five volunteers had much knowledge of the language, so this was the first real test of the self sufficiency which would be needed to do the job of a Peace Corps volunteer.
While in Ponce, Jon and Skip lived in barrios next to each other and become even closer, Charles “Skip” Resnick was a big friendly sort from a small town outside of Pittsburgh, PA named Slickville. Jon Browne was from Tallahassee, Florida’s capitol. He was a little more introspective than Skip and this seemed to work for both of them. Skip had a fair knowledge of Spanish and was able to help Jon who knew nothing about languages and hated studying. Jon’s barrio home was over a bar owned by his host, a man named Thomas Arce.
The advantages to living over a bar were obvious. Jon spent most nights learning Spanish while helping Thomas tend the place. Many nights Skip joined them and the two volunteers learned a very different Spanish then what was being taught at the Ponce center. A Spanish better suited for their coming jobs.
The Peace Corps center in Ponce, Puerto Rica was an interesting place, language learning being only one aspect of its mission. The volunteers also received classes on the culture and customs of Nicaragua as well as education on the positive effect electrification would have on its vast open Nicaraguan countryside.
Along with this education came the advanced screening meant to weed out those who were not really suited for this kind of experience. This process included a couple of psychiatric examinations which Jon, a naturally rebellious individual, had problems with. At one point, the psychiatrist had recommended that Jon not be sent in country but was overruled by the center’s director, Mario Noriega, a man from Nicaragua, who stated that he felt Jon would have no trouble making Nicaraguan his home. Not even Mr. Noriega knew how right he was to be.
By the end of training, two other individuals had exited the program realizing this was not what they had expected. So in July of 1976 the nineteen remaining Peace Corps volunteers flew into Managua, Nicaragua to begin their service in Latin America.
Now, Skip and Jon lounged in a make shift living room after working for a three days on a project which had nothing to do with electrifying Nicaragua.
“Hey man, look at this!” Skip pulled a newspaper he had been carrying around the whole night out of his pocket.
It was Las Novidades the daily edition from Managua.
Jon glanced at the paper then blinked in disbelief; the masthead read Novidades
Saturday, November 3, 1977; under that was a large picture of Flora Dearmis standing in the middle of the main street in El Perdido. She was aiming a pistol straight ahead. . The picture had obviously been staged as the camera was in front of her, just to her right, out of the line of fire. The caption under the picture read in large bold print “The Annie Oakley of Nicaragua”.
“Some shit” Skip commented. “Talk about hard corps where does a girl get the stones to pull something like that off.
“Wow,” Jon exhaled after reading the story. “El Perdido, the lost, looks like those guys didn’t realize just how lost they really were.”
“You know, you pay your money and you take your chances!”
Jon dropped the paper onto the packing crate that served a coffee table.
All the Peace Corps volunteers had immediately been taken with Nicaragua. Disembarking off their Lanica flight, it was like they had stepped into two different worlds at the same time. First they rode directly through Managua, the capitol, a city that had been devastated by a major earthquake four years earlier. Passing through street after street it was readily apparent little had been cleaned up since the Christmas tremor. It seemed as if for every building standing, some old and some new, at least five were merely one or the other form of rubble. This was in keeping with the estimates that 75% of the city had been destroyed by the quake. However, many people lived among the ruins in whatever temporary shelter they were able to improvise. After awhile those temporary dwellings had become permanent. The volunteers wondered what had gone on over the last four years. What had really gone on here?
On the top of a hill, overlooking the capitol stood the Intercontinental Hotel. It had been shaken during the earthquake but obviously put back to its earlier grandeur. The president’s palace, some office buildings, restaurants and even an occasional neighborhood seemed to have been restored. There was even some new construction in evidence but, for the most part, the people, who had no choice but to remain in the city proper, lived in squalor.
Managua lay between the two biggest lakes in the country; Lake Managua on the north and Lake Nicaragua to the south. Lake Nicaragua the largest in Central America is the only lake in the world with fresh water sharks. The other two major cities, Granada and Leon were situated in this same area near the lakes. Once past this urbanized part Nicaragua quickly changed into campo or countryside.
Except for the earthquake’s devastation the area encompassing these three cities seemed relatively urban. However, as the Peace Corp volunteers were driven out into the campo to their duty stations, the picture changed dramatically.
Jon and Skip were placed fairly close to each other in the far Northwest region near the border with Honduras. At that time, this territory was similar to the wild west of the United States in the late 1800’s. Many men still rode around with guns on their hips and you were more likely to see a wagon pulled by a horse or mule then an internal combustion engine. In fact, in the 1970’s, Nicaragua held the distinction of recording more homicides per capita than any other nation on the planet.
It was into this most primitive northeast area of Nicaragua, those wayward outlaws had ridden that fateful day in late 1977. Their friends and relatives in Honduras
may never found out what had happened to them. It was that kind of place.
“Hey, you ever imagine when we signed up for this stuff we’d wind up in a place that could happen?’
“Well I never thought about that, I’m just a poor innocent Florida boy.”
“Here we are man. You know, like The Airplane sings ‘Volunteers of America, Volunteers of America.”
Jon looked over the newspaper article one more time and handed it back to Skip, imagining the same thing might happen in Cinco Pinos. This mountain was on the very northern top of Nicaragua. If you climbed all the way up, it was a short way down to flatter ground on the far side. There you saw the Rio Coco at the border and across that Honduras.
Skip took another long pull on his beer. He glanced over the reading material on Jon’s table. Among Hemingway, Kerouac and Tolkien, lay Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevera.
“Hey what’s this man?” He held it up in exclamation.
“A really good read. That guy sure had plans. It’s the text book for every kind of resistance fighting; he’s got it all in there.”
“You need to watch yourself man.” Skip interjected. “I wouldn’t carry that around.” Berto finds you with it he just might have to shoot you!”
“That Berto is really funny.” he added.
“I like him all right,” Jon said. “He takes being a Guardia so serious. I don’t think he realizes everyone is just laughing at him.”
“People can laugh all they want, I’ve seen Somoza’s National Guard get real mean, real fast. With their old U. S. army fatigues and surplus M-1s. And all that pretend authority, they can act like king shit and people take it.”
“Well it comes from the top you know,” Jon paused “around here a lot a’ people are just plain scared.”