Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Deadly Streets

Okay, one more try at writing this darned thing… Perhaps I keep avoiding it because it’s such a difficult thing to recount, even though hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about it; especially when I’m afoot on busy streets with my kids.

A couple of posts ago I wrote of
an encounter I had with an infuriated Liberian during my time as an embassy guard. The man’s fury over a denied visa was matched only by his gargantuan size. If you read it, then you might remember that our very own Ambassador Carter well handled that situation—he gentled the menacing giant, thankfully preventing us from having to resort to force.

It could be said that the initiator of that unpleasant incident was the counselor officer. A nice man with a tough job, in many ways he was THE most important fellow in the embassy, since he was the one to approve or disapprove applications to enter the United States. I can’t imagine having that sort of power over people’s lives.

But, aside from stamping “yes” or “no” on passports, the soft-spoken bespectacled counselor had other duties as well. I was on duty at the main desk one evening when the mustachioed low-key fellow returned from one of his grimmer tasks. After unlocking the door and letting him enter I noticed he looked shaken, physically ill even; and no wonder, since he had just come from putting his seal on a young American boy’s travel coffin.

Just days before, the dead little boy sealed up in that under sized aluminum casket had been a healthy rambunctious 8-year-old. I knew this first hand from having coached him along with his little league baseball teammates. Once, at a dinner party, I had played Ping-Pong with him at the home of a mutual friend.

It was during the evening of that same dinner that I’d met the rest of the boy’s family. I wish I could say that it went well, but alas... The kid was one of four brothers, and being normal healthy boys they made for a pretty wild assemblage. In jest, during dinner, I flipped a comment about their clamorousness. Unexpectedly, what I considered a harmless little remark turned out to be a major faux pas, when their father, a career US AID employee, took exception to it.

Not much more than a kid myself, I learned a lesson—“Watch what you say about a man’s kids, especially when he’s there to hear it!” He made quite a scene; actually standing up at the table and announcing angrily that if he was going to be insulted that he and his family would just leave.

I continued eating, saying nothing in response, and just stared at him. Truth be known, I was irked at his outburst and didn’t feel like offering an apology for an innocuous joking comment. The host intervened, putting words in my mouth to the effect that he was sure that I hadn’t meant to be insulting. Looking directly at me with cocked eyebrow he prompted me with, “Isn’t that so Phil?”

I shrugged, figuring an apology seemed now expected of me. So, I offered one, of sorts. “Yeah . . . , that’s true. I really didn’t mean to make you mad. I THOUGHT I was being humorous. Anyway, I like your boys . . . they’re good kids.”

I took a swig of wine to wash away the bad taste; just the same, it WAS true; I DID like them. The boys had a lot of noisy energy, but THEY were all right. Too bad their dad was an oversensitive self-righteous ass.

Not long after that bit of “fun” President Carter came to town. We knew about it for quite a while in advance. A week before he arrived, a team of Secret Service agents showed up to prepare for the president’s 6 or 7 hours on the ground. One of them was an ex-marine and hung out with us quite a bit at the Marine House.

On the big day, hundreds from the American community excitedly gathered along Monrovia’s main drag into the city to see and to be seen by the president as his motorcade passed by. I chose not to go, having already learned the hard way years before
how hectic it can be trying to catch a glimpse of a visiting president. Besides, I had duty that evening and didn’t want to risk not making it back in time for watch. I knew the roads would be jammed with traffic and screwed up with security barricades.

Speaking of traffic, Americans are always amazed when first exposed to how much of the rest of the world drives. For the most part, we are trained to follow traffic laws until it becomes instinct; not to mention that the prevalence of so many cops scares us into compliance. On the other hand, rules enforcement in most non-first world nations is spotty at best—in Liberia it was nonexistent. Consequently, Liberian driving was as bad as any. When I lived there the basic rule was: “Go fast until something in your way FORCES you to brake.” Come to think of it, that’s how they drive here in the Philippines as well…

Along with scores of others, the hothead dad described above took his family out to see “the boss” that fateful day. They found a spot along the boulevard leading past the presidential palace and eagerly waited along with the rest of the throng. The 8-year-old, being second youngest, was led about by his protective father who tightly held the lad’s hand to keep him safe, just like any loving father would. The youngest was in his mom’s arms.

As the crowd grew and individuals sought the best vantage points, those closest to the street were pushed forward. The father held his son’s little hand even tighter. In the crush they found themselves standing in front of a parked car, and the boy being a short little fellow was unable to see over its hood. Hearing someone call out, “I think he’s coming!” the doomed lad leaned forward, craning his head out to peer around the corner of the vehicle.

At that exact moment, a van taxi flashed past the car at nearly 50 mph, barely missing it by mere fractions. That sort of reckless speed was typical of Monrovia traffic. The split second that the ill-fated boy moved his head forward is the same split second that the van passed through that same bit of space.

Suddenly, the horrified dad found his boy snatched from his grip by the hammer blow of the van against his son’s head. In shock, the father looked down to where his boy had stood a split second earlier, but now, all that marked the spot where his son should have been was his two little tennis shoes, still neatly tied. Instantaneously, his tiny body had been violently jerked out of them. His body was literally smashed through the air, exactly as a croquet ball is launched by a hard swung mallet. Now a lifeless rag doll, the boy’s body ended up more than15 yards away from his now hysterical father.

From that awful moment none of the Liberian Americans cared a fig about Carter’s visit. For weeks the entire community was gripped with the boy’s untimely end. To this day, when I think of Jimmy Carter I associate him with that little boy’s tragic death.

Before sealing the coffin up for the trip back home, the counselor was required to inspect the body. The sight of the young lad’s disintegrated head and torso deeply affected him. Directly afterwards, when he came in that night to finish processing the paperwork, I asked him about it. He willingly told me, I think because he needed to share it with someone. It took quite a while before he returned to a semblance of his previous normality; and after he described what he’d seen to me, I wished I hadn’t asked. Some things are better left unknown.

Out of the blue, the memory of that dead young boy came crashing back into my consciousness some five years later. My wife at the time and I were traveling one evening through Metro-Manila. We got off a jeepney and walked along the edge of one of the boulevards towards a friend’s house as the last of evening faded to night. Approaching a group of 20 or 30 milling Filipinos, I spotted in their midst on the ground what looked to be a mound of greasy trash. I remember them chatting and laughing. A couple vendors had stopped opportunistically to sell popcorn and drinks. But soon, the festive air seemed utterly incongruous and disturbing.

My wife asked what the commotion was all about. Turns out it wasn’t trash lying there at all, but three freshly dead bodies strategically covered with old newspaper. An hour or so before in the failing light, a squatter mother with her two children, a baby and a toddler, had tried unsuccessfully to cross at that spot on the wide busy boulevard. In an instant, a fast-moving semi had crushed them into gory oblivion.

Feeling sick, I approached the pathetic sight. The newspaper covering their heads and upper bodies was soaked through with dark red dampness, although in the evening gloom it no longer showed as red. Syrupy blood, looking like thick dark motor oil in the limited light, had drained from the mangled corpses forming a ghastly blood puddle in the trash strewn gutter.

With head bowed, I stood there for a time praying for the wretched little squatter family. They were so still. Arranged side-by-side next to the curb, their bodies were tightly positioned against the other. It struck me that that’s probably how they had slept each night before that, their final night. The blood-soaked newsprint sagged so that I could see the shape of their upturned faces. I could see that the mother’s mouth was wide open as if locked in a final scream.

Sadness and doubt—it was a moment where if one was ever going to question God’s plan then that was the time it was going to happen. Standing there, I resisted the urge to rush immediately back home. I wanted to clutch all three of my kids in a fierce embrace, and NEVER let them go. In my mind it was my children lying there under those gruesome newspapers.

To this day I cannot walk with my children along any street that has even a modicum of passing vehicles without thinking back to that lost boy and that shattered family. Panic wells up in my chest, and I feel compelled to pick them up. Usually, that’s exactly what I do.


Amadeo said...

Poignant story.

What is it about having your own kids?

All the other kids in the world become your own - in terms of care, concern, and emotional attachment.

My attachments maybe transcend normalcy - since I still feel the same ways about my kids and they are all grown up.

hemmingway33 said...

Phil....I love your writing and your blog. Keep up the good work. Look forward to the day I can buy you a beer at the VFW and talk about Mango Tree Spiders.

PhilippinesPhil said...

No Amadeo, the attachment stays with you forever. I worry about all my kids all the time, even the grown ones.

Thanks Hemm3. When your in town, or if your already here, drop me an email and we'll hook up.

Anonymous said...

well you did it again, my friend, I had to read it twice.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hope, I give you a lot of credit for reading something that long twice! I've been told I don't post, I novelize. Sorry 'bout that... It's the same way when I talk, sometimes I don't know when to shut up...

Tom said...

Hey Phil,

I appreciate our dialogue over on Mr. Roach's site. I wanted to invite you to continue the discussion over email rather than to keep hijacking that thread over there. Feel free to contact me via my email (thoberg at gmail dot com). Sorry for being off-topic over here.

Happy Easter,
Tom Ryberg

PhilippinesPhil said...

Tom, hope your Easter was a good one.

How about i post on "the subject" and we discuss it in the commentary?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Tom, hope your Easter was a good one.

How about i post on "the subject" and we discuss it in the commentary?

Consul-At-Arms said...

That's definitely not the fun part of the consular officer's job. I'll never forget my first death case either.