Wednesday, September 13, 2017

EXCERPT 11 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — COPING WITH FEAR


The following is a new excerpt from the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled “Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir”, about my early days working for a newspaper in Buenos Aires. It is taken from a chapter called “Cops on My Door”.

1979: Robert Cox with son Peter and daughter 
Victoria at the international airport on their way to 
the United States. Overnight, the entire family 
had become political refugees.
Obviously, having an objective press reporting on the country’s current situation was not something to which the hardliners were partial. Only a couple of months before Cox left, there had been an incident that made it clear just how serious the hardliners’ threat was: namely, the release of newspaper editor/publisher Jacobo Timerman from prison and the hardline reaction that it sparked.
The military had arrested Timerman on trumped-up charges in 1977 and the hardliners considered his head a real trophy. Timerman’s center-left daily, La Opinión (a publication the editor modeled after the famed Paris newspaper, Le Monde) was the only Spanish-language paper at the time that was reporting on the Proceso’s “dirty war” much in the same way that the Herald was, with professionalism and without self-censorship. But while the government might have been willing to reluctantly overlook the Herald’s ‘indiscretion’ in this regard, La Opinión, as a local Spanish-language paper, was another matter entirely. The hardliners wanted it silenced by any means necessary. And the illicit activities of one of Timerman’s associates gave the military ‘moderates’ a way to shut Timerman up and take him out of circulation, without simply letting the hardliners gun the publisher down and close his paper.
La Opinión editor Jacobo Timerman
The Timerman associate in question was financier David Graiver, suspected of laundering money for the Montoneros terrorist organization, as well as of defrauding important banking institutions abroad—provoking, in the United States, for instance, what was, at the time, one of the largest bank failures in that country’s history. Despite the fact that Graiver’s association with Timerman was clearly a legitimate one, the newspaper editor was publicly framed in a major media show put on by the Army at its High Command headquarters, following the journalist-businessman’s detention.
I was present for that press event in the Army HQ, for which reporters from all of the local press and foreign correspondents of every description showed up. Lieutenant General Videla himself was the main speaker. I recall noticing that his back was stiff with tension and apparent anger as he made his way to the front of the large hall where we were all seated, that his ferret-like face looked sweaty and that his hands and knees shook as he made his presentation of the alleged ‘facts’ surrounding the Timerman-Graiver connection. And I remember too that, as I watched him and listened, what came to my mind was the phrase so often repeated by ranking military officers during those days, who said that “their hands would not tremble” in taking the lives of “the enemies of the fatherland”. His, I figured, certainly would if the way they were shaking right now was anything to go by.
The front page of the mass circulation paper La Nación headlines
the press conference about the Graiver Affair. The picture shows
the de facto president, General Videla, addressing the press. 
 
By then, Timerman had already been snatched and arrested, and his newspaper shut down and confiscated. While in jail, at the mercy of hardliner General Ramón Camps, who was acting as chief of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police,  the fifty-four-year-old publisher was held in solitary confinement and was repeatedly beaten and subjected to electric shock torture. In the intervening two years before Timerman’s release, it was Cox, who almost single-handedly mounted a desperate international campaign against his colleague’s arrest, his detention without trial, the violation of his rights, and the direct threat to the press that this represented.
Videla: The 'disappeared' aren't here, either dead
or alive.They're 'disappeared'.
It was largely thanks to the enormous world coverage that Cox managed to mount that Timerman was “whitewashed” and didn’t end up forming part of the list of ‘disappeared’, who died at the hands of the Armed Forces government. Almost anything was better than that destiny, described in such sinister terms by General Videla himself, in that fateful year of 1979, when Timerman was released and forcibly exiled and when Cox too chose self-exile, in fear for his and his family’s lives. Asked in December of that year by a reporter for the mass circulation daily Clarín about the fate of the ‘disappeared’, the general said, “What is a ‘disappeared’ person? As long as he is such, the ‘disappeared’ person is an unknown factor. If he reappears, he’ll have X treatment, and if the disappearance ends up proving to be the certainty of his death, he’ll have Z treatment. But as long as he is ‘disappeared’ he can have no treatment in particular. He’s an unknown, ‘disappeared’. He has no entity. He’s not here, either dead or alive. He’s ‘disappeared’.”
A La Opinión banner head from 1976 says 
the government was investigating the 
disappearance of journalists. 
But the article suggests the probe is a ruse.
Thanks to Cox, to the Herald’s coverage, and to the major international media that repeated our express concerns throughout the West, Jacobo Timerman didn’t go missing. Eventually, the Argentine Supreme Court, which had managed to maintain a certain degree of independence from the dictatorial regime, reviewed Timerman’s case, ruled out any links between him and the neo-Peronist Montoneros terrorist organization, and ordered his immediate release. Army hardliners, however, put pressure on the Junta to disobey the Supreme Court, letting it be known that they wouldn’t stand by and watch Timerman walk.
But the international campaign that Cox led for the editor/publisher’s release was having a powerful impact. And such were the petitions, editorial coverage and worldwide outcry for Timerman to be freed that now, in September 1979, the Proceso had finally bowed to worldwide pressure, and, in the face of the damage it was doing to its own international reputation, decided to let Timerman go.
The ‘triumph’ was clearly a bittersweet one: Timerman’s newspaper and personal property had been confiscated, and despite the fact that his family had emigrated from the Ukraine to South America when he was only five, he was stripped of his naturalized Argentine citizenship. He thus accepted the refuge offered to him by Israel, before later moving to Spain and finally to the United States.  
Major General Luciano B. Menéndez
None of these injustices was enough, however, to quell the anger of the hardliners, who considered the release of Timerman an act of cowardice and surrender on the part of the Junta and the president, General Videla. But the hardliner who decided to act on these feelings was Major General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, perhaps the regime’s bloodiest enforcer.
Less than a week before Timerman’s September 25 release and exile, Menéndez, together with a small group of other hardliners, mounted a countercoup attempt at the General Paz Military Academy in Córdoba Province, against the central Armed Forces government in Buenos Aires. He claimed that his threat of armed military action was to back his demand for the resignation of General Roberto Viola—another ‘moderate’ appointed by Videla, in his role as president, to command the Army, which automatically made Viola a member of the ruling three-man Junta and, as commander of the largest force, probable successor to Videla as president. Clearly, Menéndez wanted Viola’s head, charging, as he did, that Viola had reneged on a vow to completely annihilate leftwing subversion. As an extreme rightwing advocate of a “blood and fire dictatorship” like the one General Augusto Pinochet had led in Chile three years prior to the Argentine coup, Menéndez accused both Viola and Videla of being “soft” and had always maintained a strained relationship with his superiors. But it was clearer still to those of us covering Timerman’s impending release that this was quite probably the culminating event that sparked Menéndez’s revolt, considering that Viola had already been Army commander since his appointment by Videla the previous year. With the upcoming release of Timerman, hardliners were obviously sensing a trend toward greater moderation and a more prudent international image, following three years of witch-hunts, mass murder and institutionalized torture.
Menéndez revolted against Army 
Commander Lt. Gen. Roberto Viola, 
who, he said, was soft on terrorism. 
Menéndez was not about to stand for it. He was calling for a resurgence of the original fervor of the 1976 coup. He wanted heads to keep rolling (very likely ours among them). If he could pull off a countercoup, the obvious plan would be for a new hardline government to take power, and what had already been a terrifying wave of repression and government-sponsored violence since the coup three years before, would then become an unbridled bloodbath, washing over anyone even vaguely opposing the Proceso.
 Menéndez’s record spoke for itself. He had been Third Army Corps commander since 1975, when Provisional Senate President Italo Luder, temporarily exercising the presidency in the absence of a supposedly ailing Isabel Perón, had declared a state of siege and given the Armed Forces free reign to “annihilate subversion.”  And although his command was headquartered in Córdoba, its influence in the “dirty war” extended to nine other Argentine provinces, where Menéndez had set up no fewer than sixty clandestine detention and interrogation centers. The most infamous was La Perla, from which at least two thousand detainees ‘disappeared’ and where the torture techniques were among the most brutal of the entire military era. He was an unrepentant ultra-rightwing authoritarian, who would have none of Videla’s qualms about being referred to as a dictator.
Fortunately, Videla and Viola were able to maintain discipline within the Army and the other forces followed suit. Menéndez was forced to back down in the face of overwhelming military superiority and was placed under arrest. He served ninety days in the prison at Curuzú Cuatiá, Corrientes Province, and was retired from active duty. But there was speculation that the harsh terms of Timerman’s release—exile, loss of citizenship, confiscation of his property, etc.—were a concession to the hardliners, of whom Videla was very obviously terrified. 
Little of this was speculation on our part. We had it right from the horse’s mouth.  Time and again, General Llamas had “invited” Cox to “have a cup of coffee” with him at his office in Government House. These “invitations” were always a form of reprimand at which the general would state the Junta’s displeasure over the terms of the editorials we were publishing.
More recently, however, Bob had sensed the sharper tone of these complaints. Videla’s government was seeking to refloat the economy through foreign investment while fighting for its political life against the Army hardliners. And the thousands upon thousands of skeletons in its closet, gathered over the past three years of repression and murder, weren’t helping matters at all—particularly not in Jimmy Carter’s rights-conscious Washington. At the latest meetings he’d had with Llamas, Bob had been told in no uncertain terms that the military government was not willing to accept the Herald’s continuing publication of editorials about human rights abuses in Argentina. And in one such meeting, Llamas claimed he himself was being blamed for Cox’s disobedience and then he stormed out of the room, purposely leaving an open folder in plain sight on his desk, the contents of which were clippings of Bob’s by-lined articles on human rights abuses and disappearances published in major international news media, accompanied by formal complaints from military chiefs. This, Bob took as a final and serious warning, something more definitive than other threats he had received. But it wasn’t until his ten-year-old son, Peter, was threatened that his own personal decision to leave the country also became final.
Oddly enough, when Cox made public his decision to leave, General Videla scheduled a meeting with him. To Bob’s surprise, Videla asked him to stay. He said that he knew Bob thought the threats were coming from the Armed Forces—clearly there was no denying this despite the puerile attempts of Army Intelligence to cover their tracks by blaming the Montoneros, something they had done throughout their most high-profile counterterror operations—but said that it would be bad for the country’s reputation if the Coxes were run off. Everyone would blame the government, Videla said (the implication being that it wasn’t the Proceso itself, but the hardliners in the Army that were doing these things).
By now, however, there was no turning back. Cox and his family were leaving. Bob told Videla that he didn’t feel the government could guarantee his family’s safety. Videla tangentially agreed, saying he could no longer even guarantee his own.
So now it was my turn to go see General Llamas. But I went with the strange freedom of a condemned man. I had no doubts or false expectations. If my predecessor as news editor, Andrew Graham-Yooll, had taken his threats seriously enough to leave three years before, and if Bob, who had undoubtedly been the country’s most courageous newspaper editor, was now, three years later, calling it quits because he no longer had any illusions about these threats just being scare tactics, I realized full well that if I stayed, it was at my own risk. So why stay? I might justify the decision now by saying it was a career move, or that I liked living on the edge, or that it was an exciting time for a writer in Argentina or any number of other hollow excuses. But the truth is that it was out of stubbornness.
As a boy, I was once bullied for well over a year by three older boys who ganged up on me and beat me up every time they saw me on the street. It was a terrible, humiliating, traumatic experience that had me buffaloed and that kept me from going anywhere for fear of meeting up with them. More than a year along, when I had grown several inches and put on some poundage, I dealt with them one at a time and, suddenly, I was free. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders and those cowards never bothered me again. In fact, years later, when I was home on leave from basic combat training after joining the Army, one of the three walked into a bar in our town where I was shooting pool with friends, took one look at me, turned pale and left. I promised myself, once I got those guys off my back, that I would never, ever, allow anyone to bully me again.
Clearly, I was now really scared, and more frightened still for my wife’s safety. Threats from the regime were so very obviously worthy of fear, since thousands of people had already been ground up in its gnashing teeth. But even my wife wouldn’t give me the excuse I needed to leave. The night before my meeting with Llamas, I talked it over with Virginia.
“We could go,” I said. “I could get a job in the States with a paper in Miami or New York, maybe, or someplace else for that matter. I don’t know. But if I stay here, I won’t let up. In fact, I’ll be doing more writing than ever, a lot more, as Neilson’s second, and I won’t knuckle under. I’ll do my best to uphold Cox’s editorial policy. What I’m afraid of is that they might eventually go after you to get to me, like they did with Bob’s family.”
“Do whatever you want,” Virginia said. “But I’m Argentine, and I won’t let anybody run me out of my own country.”
So as far as I was concerned, the die was cast. We were staying, and from that time on, I promised myself that I would do my best not to flinch from the hardline liberal stance on rule of law and human rights that Cox had set or from my own ethical views. Even if they also managed to run Neilson out, I was staying. I had no children, no one but Virginia to worry about. And if she was as adamant about staying as I was, then—to paraphrase a line from my favorite Western, The Magnificent Seven, nobody was tossing me my own typewriter and telling me to run. Nobody.
When I went to my appointment with General Antonio Llamas, I did so without having totally thought out what I wanted to say. The truth was that I felt like a complete idiot going to the Army to ask for protection from the Army. It seemed like a page out of Orwell or Kafka. There might be different bands within the same force, vying for control of the dictatorship’s policies and power, but among themselves, they would never side with a civilian—and less still with a journalist. Our going to Llamas for protection from the hardliners was a little like Jews going to Goebbels for protection from the Brownshirts.
As I approached Government House, I started getting really angry. I detested being in this kind of position where I would always come out a loser, where I was ever at a disadvantage. Llamas would know precisely where the threats were coming from, yet would act as if he didn’t, just as he and Videla had done with Cox. It was a game. And we were the pawns they were playing it with. So my only choice was not to play it, not to politely pretend there wasn’t an elephant in the room with us when there definitely was, and when it was my foot that it was standing on with all of its weight. I couldn’t help but wonder how dangerous that would be, calling the bluff of the man responsible for “Operation Clarity”, a detailed propaganda policy designed by the Proceso as a means of seeking to infiltrate the media, in addition to controlling it via brute force. But as I entered Government House wearing my best suit as if it were a suit of armor against anyone who tried to see me as anything but a man to be taken seriously, I decided that I probably couldn’t be in any more danger than I already was. They knew who I was, where I worked and where I lived. They could kill me or take me any time they wanted. So why beat around the bush?
When I was ushered into the general’s office, I was surprised at how huge it was. Llamas was not a big man and the high ceiling, tall windows and enormous desk, behind which he was seated when I came in, dwarfed him. It was the first time I had ever seen him. Despite his rank, he was very much a behind-the-scenes figure in the Proceso, of whom one would have been hard-pressed to find a picture in the photo archives. Now, as I came into the stark, rather austerely furnished office, the general got up from his seat and hurried over to greet me. He was in full regular dress uniform, complete with olive drab jacket, khaki-color trousers, khaki shirt and slightly darker tie. I half-expected to find him in shirtsleeves since he was ‘at home’ and working in his office, but he appeared to have dressed for the interview, just as I had.
Señor Newland,” he said shaking my hand and smiling, then leading me toward an armchair in front of his desk. In a voice of rehearsed concern, he went on. “So sorry to hear about the trouble you’ve been having, these terrorist threats…”
“I’m glad to hear you call them that, General,” I said, “considering where they’re coming from.”
“Yes, the Montoneros, I heard.”
“But of course you know that’s not true.”
The infamous 601st Army Intelligence Battalion in downtown 
Buenos Aires
He flushed, with irritation, I felt, more than embarrassment, but continued to wear a diplomatic smile.
“And do you suspect some service?” he asked feigning innocence.
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said. “Yours.”
“And what makes you suspect this?” he asked.
“Because they’re coming from the same place Cox’s threats came from. I’m thinking maybe First Army Corps. Perhaps, the 601st Intelligence Battalion.”
The general pretended shock and started to say that he couldn't believe that this could be true but added that he would “certainly look further into the matter.” However, I held up a hand to stop him. I was glad to be sitting down because had I been standing he surely would have noticed that I was trembling and my knocking knees would certainly have given me away. As it was, I realized that I was sweating profusely.
But getting control of my voice, I said, “General, I'm not asking you to do anything, except make sure there's police protection on the door of my building to ensure that no one else gets hurt.”
I told him of my visit to Precinct Captain Ricciardi and of the comisario’s refusal to give me protection despite the judge’s orders. I said, “I don’t want them blowing up the entire building to kill me. I want protection for my neighbors and my wife. If they want me, they’ll take me no matter what.”
I noticed that Llamas was no longer disagreeing with my theories. That didn’t come as a relief to me. He said, “Señor Newland, I want you to know that when you get home, there will be Federal Police protection on your door. We’ll also have a policeman assigned to protect you personally.”
“You mean a bodyguard?”
He nodded.
“No thanks. I’m a newsman. I can’t work with a guy following me around all day, and like the comisario says, if they’re set on killing me, they’ll do it whether I have a bodyguard or not.”
Then I played a card that I had been mulling over all day before coming to this meeting. I tried to keep my voice from trembling when I said it. “One thing though,” I said. “I do indeed want a license to carry a weapon.”  
The general was taken aback. “I see,” he said. “Well, I, for instance, don’t carry one.”
“You don’t have to, General,” I said. “You have people to carry them for you. But I do, and if they come to get me, I have a message for them. They’ll be facing an ex-NCO of the United States Army and an expert marksman. I still have the medal to prove it. If they come, they’ll only take me dead, and I’m taking some of them with me. I’ll carry a weapon whether I get a license or not, but I’m asking you, please, to get me one.”
To my surprise, Llamas said, “Yes, yes, of course. Give me a day or so, then call this number.” He wrote the number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Ask to talk to Señor Trentadue.”
When I recounted this part of the conversation to Cox later on, I saw him laugh genuinely and heartily for the first time in days. “Mr. Thirty-Two!” he exploded in mirth, “They’re sending you to Mr. Thirty-Two! Trentadue! It’s Italian for thirty-two. It’s a code name!”
But before I went in to work, I returned home. I found that when I came out of Government House, after my conversation with General Llamas, I was shaking like a leaf. What if that conversation were a sort of test, to see how far I’d bend? And what if my hardline stance was my own death warrant? What if Llamas was testing the waters to see if I’d leave the country, go peacefully and be no more trouble to the military? What if right now, while they knew exactly where I was, they just snatched me off the street? It wouldn’t be the first time someone was taken in broad daylight. Nor would it be the first time someone disappeared right after leaving a police station or a government office.
Feeling tense and nervous, I walked quickly across Plaza de Mayo in front of Government House, crossed the street and hailed a cab heading up Avenida de Mayo toward midtown. But after about ten blocks, I left the cab and took the subway. Then I left the subway two stations before my stop and walked the rest of the way home. These diversionary tactics that I spontaneously applied as a precaution were to become a habit for a long time after that. As would things like sitting with my back to the wall and facing the entrance—near a side exit if one existed—when I was in a bar or restaurant, walking on past my apartment building instead of going in if I saw suspicious cars or people in front of it, glancing up and down the block from the doorway before stepping off the stoop of my building onto the sidewalk, and carrying a knife in the outside pocket of my jacket where I could get at it quickly. Sometimes these precautions seemed silly, paranoid or plain futile to me. But then again, doing everything you could to foil an attempt on your life was the only insurance you had, and once you were in the midst of a situation it would be too late to wish you had been more precautious.
For many weeks to follow, Federal 
Policemen like this one would
stand guard at my apartment building.

When I arrived at my building, to my surprise, I saw that the general had kept his word. Two cops were standing on the stoop talking to the portera, Silvia. Previously, Silvia’s husband, Luis, had been our porter, but he had recently died of cancer and apartment owners had decided to keep her on. She and her two young daughters lived in the cramped portería on the ground floor.
“Here he is now!” she said, excited by the prospect of our proletarian building’s being important enough to merit a police detail. “Hola,” she said as I made my way up the two steps from the street, and leaned forward to brush my cheek with hers. “Los señores are here for you,” she said.   
Both of the cops were dark, very clean-cut and looked to be in good shape. They had politely removed their caps to talk to the portera and had them high up under their arms, like cadets. One was a sergeant, whose carefully trimmed black hair was graying a little at the temples. The other one was younger, a corporal.
Señor Newland?” the older one queried, holding out his hand to shake mine.
“Yes, mucho gusto,” I said.
“We’ve been assigned to protect you.”
“Thank you for coming,” I said, then added, “Actually, as I explained to the comisario and to General Llamas, you’re here to protect the building. In reality, I’m going to have to take care of myself.”
The sergeant explained that there would be two or three pairs of policemen guarding the building in shifts twenty-four/seven until it was decided that their presence was no longer warranted. Whenever possible they would always be the same sets of policemen. We discussed details of where they would mount guard and how their presence would affect the other residents of the building.
Very soon, the cops on my door had become a regular feature of the building. We made sure they got coffee and sandwiches and snacks and the portera frequently plied them with refreshments of her own accord. On my way in or out, I would sometimes stop to chat with them for a while.
They had been assigned to me for about a week, when the sergeant with whom I had originally spoken took me aside one morning to talk to me. This was the first confirmation I had ever personally had of the rumor that the editorial pages of the Herald were frequently translated into Spanish by the government and disseminated among the country’s military and security forces, since now the policeman said, “Señor, we know what you think of the police.”
I looked puzzled and said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, “that if a corporal from the Army comes along and tells us to beat it, we will.”
I started to protest, but he held up his hand to stop me.
“All I want you to know, is that if anybody comes here and tries to harm you or your wife, they’ll first have to go over two from the ‘Federica’,” he said, using the nickname cops gave to the Federal Police.
I felt my face flush and said, “Thank you, Sergeant, I really appreciate that.”
Ustedes lo merecen,” he answered, which means, “You folks deserve it.”
It was many weeks before the cops were taken off my door, as quickly as they had been put on. But for a very long time afterward, it wasn’t unusual when I was walking the streets of the Almagro district for a passing squad car to give its siren a little rev and for the occupants, one of whom, at some point, had stood watch at my home, to wave or touch the bills of their caps in an informal salute.
Never again after that did I think of all cops as being the same or of all of them as kowtowing to the military regime. It was the institution that was flawed, not necessarily the individuals.             
             


Sunday, August 27, 2017

EXCERPT 10 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — DEATH THREATS


The following is a new excerpt from the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled “Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir”, about my early days working for a newspaper in Buenos Aires. It is taken from a chapter called “Cops on My Door”.  
The first personal threats I got started coming even before the Herald’s editor-in-chief Bob Cox had time to leave the country. His ten-year-old son Peter had already received a threatening letter, warning him to “tell Daddy to leave”, but Bob and his family were still tying up loose ends and preparing for what they thought would be “temporary exile”. It wasn’t like these were the first threats Bob had received, nor was it the first time he and his wife had had a scare. But now the anonymous cowards in the military’s undercover operations were going for the throat and attacking the Coxes’ children—and, ironically, blaming it on the by this time disjointed Montoneros guerrilla organization. Bob finally decided enough was enough. It was one thing to risk his own life, but it was quite another to risk his family’s, especially when he was a father of five.

The first telephone threat that I got came a few days after Bob had called Jim Neilson and me in to tell us of his decision to leave. Jim had already received a personalized phone threat and a couple of bomb scares had been called into the editorial department. The Proceso was apparently turning up the heat in hopes of getting rid of all editorial page by-lines at once. Now it was my turn. It was almost as if they had overheard Neilson’s conversation with me when he told me that Bob had asked him to take over as editor and that he wanted me to second him.
This first call came in early that evening, before the women on the reception and classified ads desk downstairs had gone home. Evidently, the caller had asked for me by name and whoever took the call passed it through directly to my extension.
Señor Dan Newland?” the official-sounding male voice at the other end asked.
“Yes.”
“Am I speaking to señor Dan Newland?” the voice asked again, as if to definitely confirm my identity.
“Yes, this is Dan Newland,” I said in Spanish. “What can I do for you?”
Then the voice changed and in a clipped, vicious tone, the man said, “We’re giving you seventy-two hours to get out of the country. Otherwise, you will be executed on your way to or from work. Do you understand the message?” But before I could say anything, he cut off.
I immediately went to Bob and Jim and told them about the call. Neilson, who seemed a little rattled by the ones he had already received, appeared as concerned as I was. This was obviously a pressure campaign, but who knew how sincere the perpetrators were in their intentions? It wasn’t like threats of this sort never had material consequences. By this time, some eighty newspeople were among the thousands of “missing” or murdered in Argentina, spanning the entire range of journalists from simple reporters to well-known political writers like Haroldo Conti and Rodolfo Walsh. Still others, like Osvaldo Soriano, our own Stuart Stirling (who was also the London Times correspondent), Andrew Graham-Yooll (whose job as news editor I had taken over), and now, Cox himself, had all opted for exile. And countless others had been the victims of intimidation tactics, temporary detentions and torture.
Then too, there were the ones like ‘El Gordo’ Blasco, a friend of a friend and an excellent photo journalist and musician, who was murdered in a parking lot after an altercation with a drunk who picked a fight with him in a jazz club and who, according to my friend, later turned out to be a government agent. Obviously, that crime went unsolved like all the others.
But Cox sought to reassure us. “This is about me,” Bob said. “They’re trying to put on more pressure. They’re not after you.”
“They were pretty specific. Even the nice touch about when and where they would kill me,” I said dubiously.
“It’s me they want out of here,” Bob repeated shaking his head. “They’re just trying to scare you.”
“And doing a pretty good job,” I muttered. “I mean, killing me would let you know they meant business, wouldn’t it?”
Bob looked doubtful and shook his head again. “No, they just want to frighten you.”
The threats to Cox and his family had been reported to the police and to a federal judge. This was pretty much Herald SOP: If somebody was threatened, attacked, kidnapped, detained or otherwise placed at risk, the idea was to 'officialize' the occurrence as quickly as possible, so that if things escalated there would be a record, no matter how tenuous, with the police and the courts. The hope was that, if they grabbed you, they would be more likely to hold you legally and openly—even if at the disposal of the Executive Branch—if there were a record of previous threats or other intimidation. You wouldn’t enjoy many more rights in such cases, but at least you wouldn’t just become an N.N. (no name or ‘Natalia-Natalia’ in police jargon) snatched off the street by a paramilitary hit squad and dumped from a helicopter into the River Plate estuary. Your name figured on a list of detainees somewhere. Secondly, if they actually killed you, the fact that the threats were on record made it clearer who had done it. In the end, of course, it was all a rather sterile exercise since you would be just as screwed or just as dead either way, but it was what passed for sanity in the demented and dangerous game in which we were players.
So I asked Bob if he thought I should report it. He shrugged and said I could if I wanted to, or if I thought it would do any good. He was ‘short’, as we used to say when I was in the Army when someone was close to shipping out, and his impending exit seemed to be making him wax more philosophical.
I decided I would, and took the trouble of going to the Federal Police Twenty-Second Precinct a few blocks away from the paper, on Avenida Huergo, next to the old port. There, I went through the formality of filling out a police report with the duty officer. I got the feeling that the only reason they were taking my complaint was because the Herald had off-duty cops from that precinct as its security crew (an irony to be sure). But the report quickly found its way to the judge handling Cox’s case. That same week, before leaving the country, Bob told me that the judge had been in touch and suggested that “the other journalist” (moi) go to the local precinct for his home neighborhood and formally ask for police protection. The judge’s secretary was supposedly going to contact the Federal Police captain in my neighborhood to give them a heads-up.
I lost no time, going the next day to see the precinct captain in my midtown neighborhood of Almagro. I lived three blocks from the park, Parque Centenario, which is sometimes cited as the geographic center of Buenos Aires. It was also a place where the bodies of more than one ‘Natalia-Natalia’ had been dumped into the carcass of one of the abandoned cars that littered the park’s side streets, before being doused with gasoline and burned. This seemed a rather too strange coincidence considering the location of the police station. The Eleventh Precinct was right in front of the park at Avenida Díaz Velez 5152. When I arrived, I stated my business and was told to wait, that the comisario was busy. When he finally deigned to see me, the precinct captain, a cynical, sarcastic, poker-stiff, storm trooper type by the name of Ricciardi, gave me a perfunctory handshake and didn’t ask me to take a seat, attending me in the hallway instead. With barely veiled impatience, he listened to my story of the threat and of what was going on in the newspaper. He wore a kind of half smirk on his lips, eyes squinted, head cocked to one side, in a pose not unlike that of a bird of prey. When I told him that the federal judge handling the case had suggested I come to the police for protection, he shook his head.
“Look,” he said, “you’re getting threats for the same reason your boss is—for what you write. Maybe you should have thought of that before you wrote what you wrote? You’ve made somebody angry.”
His condescending attitude was beginning to irritate me, so, despite knowing all too well that police precincts tended to be places from which people disappeared, I said, “Comisario, I didn’t come here for a lesson in ethics or on journalism. I came for protection because this is what the judge told me to do. Didn’t his office get in touch with you?”
“No,” he said, “and it wouldn’t matter if they did. I decide what happens in my jurisdiction. Listen, señor, if they decide to kill you, it won’t make any difference if I put a guard on your door. If they have to go over my men to get to you, they will. Then you will be dead and so will my men. And what fault is it of theirs?”
“Well, I thought it was their job to protect and serve, and I know that I can be killed if they set out to kill me, but I want my building protected so that they don’t kill anybody else in the process. Let them gun me down on the street, not at my house!” I said, beginning to lose my temper.
“Their job’s whatever I say it is,” he countered, “and I won’t risk it.” Then he held out his hand, gave mine another perfunctory shake and said, “Good day, señor,” turning on his heel and marching off up the hallway.
When I got back to the paper that evening, I reported the experience to Cox while we were having a cup of coffee together around the corner on Avenida Belgrano at El Nido. I told him that what worried me was that if the comisario could simply choose to ignore a federal judge, perhaps my apartment building had already been declared a “liberated zone” by the military, so that a hit squad could take me out at any time. Cox tried to reassure me, hinting that I maybe shouldn’t take myself so seriously, that they probably had better things to do than kill me, but I was unconvinced.
So Bob suggested I go see General Antonio Llamas, who, at the time, was Public Information Secretary for the military Junta. In fact, Bob got me an appointment to see the general.
Llamas was about the closest thing to a public relations manager that the Junta had. But his day job was more like being the head of an Orwellian ‘ministry of truth’, with its own brand of ‘thought police’ that amassed studies on the press and on individual newsmen, and crafted policies to twist cultural expression to fit the Junta’s needs, while finding ways to suppress whoever didn’t want to play ball. The real public relations work was done by the nefarious, dictator-friendly, devil’s-advocate New York PR agency, Burson-Marstellar. Ranked among the world’s largest PR and marketing groups, one of their specialties was defending the indefensible and the Park Avenue agency was already notorious by that time for making big bucks pampering other clearly deplorable regimes around the globe.
General Jorge Rafael Videla
The hype that the Junta was trying to push internationally was that the National Reorganization Process was the last frontier in the fight against communism, a true defender of Western and Christian ideals, and that, instead of criticizing it, countries like the United States and those of Western Europe would do well to thank the military government of Argentina and support it in its struggle to stamp out godless Marxist terrorism in America’s own backyard. Burson-Marstellar’s job was apparently to help the government articulate this friend-of-Western democracy trompe l'oeil on an international scale, in order to provide Argentina with a palatable enough image to permit the country’s civilian Economy Minister José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz to attract foreign investment and shore up the sagging economy.
There was little doubt among us that Llamas had sought to ostensibly ‘protect’ the Herald to the extent that this served the purposes of his boss, Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla. For the moment, Videla headed the administration and represented the so-called ‘moderate’ line that was working with Burson-Marstellar on projecting an image of a reluctant caretaker Junta that was “fighting a dirty war” to protect Argentina’s Constitution and democratic way of life—paradoxically, it’s worth noting, suspending democracy in order to ‘save it’.  In ‘saving’ Argentina, the National Reorganization Process had clearly ignored the words of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Argentine journalist, politician and revolutionary patriot Mariano Moreno who said he would “prefer dangerous liberty to tranquil servitude”. Had the Proceso been in charge back then, Moreno would very likely have been among its first victims.
Early on, the Junta—or at least Videla—had been under the mistaken impression that the Herald, as a small English-language daily, was no threat to the dictatorship at a local level, and that by not killing the editor or shutting it down, the government might use it as a showcase to attain an international image as being “tolerant of free expression”. Indeed, on more than one occasion government officials had countered international accusations of censorship and strong-arm tactics by pointing to the Herald and saying, “Censorship, what censorship? Look at the criticism the Herald’s publishing!”
By this time, however, it was becoming clear that the Herald’s burgeoning local and international influence in reporting and denouncing gross human rights abuses was turning into a major thorn in the Junta’s side. Informal data tended to suggest that the Herald’s ten thousand-copy press run swelled to a hundred-thousand-strong readership even locally, since it was a paper that was quoted by other publications, as well as being passed hand to hand among people for whom English was a second language. Then too, there were those who knew no English, but sought out the paper simply to read the unsigned editorial, which was the only item in the Herald that was published in both English and Spanish. Since no few of the Herald’s staffers were also stringers for international newspapers and magazines, many of the stories it carried gained access to worldwide coverage. Its influence was also bolstered by the fact that it was the lingua franca publication that got passed around the offices of multinational firms and foreign embassies of every origin in Buenos Aires.
General Ibérico Saint Jean
Such influence meant that military moderates feared the international consequences of taking decisive action against us. But they also feared the increasingly infuriated Army hardliners for whom this was not the case, and who would long ago have gladly shut us up, one way or another, with no compunction whatsoever about what the rest of the world thought. By now, these more radical generals like Third Army Corps Commander Luciano Benjamín Menéndez and First Army Corps Commander Guillermo Suárez Mason, among others, were making their presence felt, accusing the central government of being “soft on subversion”. These were mad dog war lords whose attitudes and desires were best summed up by their colleague, General Ibérico Saint Jean, who served as military governor of Buenos Aires Province and who, two years earlier, had openly stated, “First we’ll kill all of the subversives, and then, their sympathizers, and then, all of those who remain indifferent, and, finally, we’ll kill the faint of heart.” 


Monday, August 14, 2017

TWENTIETH CENTURY KIND OF GUYS: EPILOGUE


Whitie was dying. That was clear by now. The Big C. I tried to comfort myself by saying, “Yeah, well, aren’t we all?” Dying, I mean. You never really knew who’d go first. Maybe I’d go before my dad did. You just didn’t know.
But it was clearly a self-deluding ruse. Whitie was on his way out. They’d originally guessed six months, after he first started complaining about excruciating, cramping type pains up under his ribs, and the tests they ran—hundreds of them, it seemed—showed the problem to be rapidly advancing lung cancer. But he’d already defied them on that count and lived a couple of years. Survival was getting tough, however, an uphill battle, wearing on his resolve, badgering him with severe pain and the adverse effects of the dope they were giving him to make it more bearable. He was a tough old bird, but everybody had a limit, even Whitie.
Whitie
Up to now, I had put on a positive face, avoided talking about the obvious, tried to keep the patter upbeat. It helped that my brother Jim was there. He’d left his life in Saint Louis and moved back home to Ohio, moved to Wapakoneta, our home town, and in with our parents to help take care of Whitie and give moral support to our mother, Reba Mae. I was so indescribably grateful to him, even though every time I tried to tell him so, he’d shrug it off and say, “Forget it, bro, I’ve got it. No sweat.” But I could tell it was eating him up. And our sister Darla got down from her life in Cleveland as often as should could as well, despite the obvious pressures of her job and family. She was there often to take up the slack for Jim and our mother.
They’d been there during the tests, during the exploratory surgery. That was when the surgeon had told Whitie that if he woke up and saw a lot of tubes coming out of him everywhere, it would be because they’d been able to take out a lung and stop the cancer’s advance. If not, it would be because, surgically, there was nothing they could do. When he woke up there were no tubes. The news was not good. But his family, minus me, was there. And he lightened the mood for them, I was told, by croaking out a few of the nonsense songs he’d sung to us to make us laugh when we were kids.
Way up in the mountains
Where all the snakes have legs,
The bullfrogs speak in English
And the roosters lay square eggs,
I shaved my beard and mustache
The morning I was born.
That night I beat up my ol’ man
And drank his rye and corn... 
I felt bad. Helpless, guilty, and alien, since my life had for years been unfolding thousands of miles away in South America.  But I was trying to get back as often as possible, which wasn’t very often within the timeframe of a dying man.
Right now, I was on one of those recently more frequent trips back home. I’d already been around for a few weeks. In another week, I’d be going back to Argentina, back to Patagonia. It got harder every time—harder to face coming back, harder to face leaving when it was time to go. A few nights earlier, he'd grabbed hold of my arm when we were alone for a minute and said, "If I promise to hang on a while, will you promise to come back again before I die?" It was a tough question to answer and I didn't trust my voice to answer it, but I managed to say I would, that I'd be back real soon. "Good," he said, "cause this ain't gettin' any easier."

All my life, there had been issues between Whitie and me. When I was young, the hostility between us had been manifest. Back then I’d thought we were nothing alike. And truth be told, from politics, to religion, to lifestyle, there was little we agreed on. But now that I was fifty, I had begun to realize that there were a lot of ways in which we were exactly alike—stubborn, married to our convictions, combative, unwilling to give an inch when confronted, only giving up ground when it was taken from us by force and, even then, bent on taking it back, no matter how futile the battle.
Nevertheless, we’d reached a sort of truce, an understanding, an agreement that there was no longer anything pending between us. In fact, we’d reached it on this particular visit, in unusually quiet talks we’d shared whenever we were alone together.
Clearly the tacit mediator in those “peace negotiations” was impending death. Not the theoretical death that each person lives with daily as an idea, as an inescapable reality, as a “someday” event, a bridge to be crossed when we come to it, but as an “announced death”, in the words of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, one that was definitely coming sooner than later. It was the great equalizer, the factor that rendered all other points moot.
Far from clarifying and alleviating what I was feeling, however, this new common ground between my father and me only served to complicate still more the whirlwind raging in my head and heart and it appeared as if I were seeing everything unfold from behind a kind of barrier, a place from which I couldn’t seem to get in touch with myself. It was hard to explain, harder still to resolve. A sort of numbness, like a blow so hard that, for an instant, it obliterates pain, but infinitely less easy to withstand.
That answered, to a certain extent, the question of why I felt a need to get out for a few hours during the day, when Whitie was resting, and visit old haunts—roads, streets, stores, bars, parks and other points of interest that held youthful memories for me. In that vein, on a golden autumn afternoon, near sunset, with nostalgia sitting on my chest like an anvil, I drove out around Horseshoe Bend. This was a set of hairpin curves where then still picturesque Glynwood Road followed the sharp twists and turns of the Auglaize River, which, here, in its meanderings from south to west, through and around Wapakoneta, was still trying to decide to finally break north and flow to the clear destiny of its distant confluence with the Maumee and Lake Erie.
This was “the long way” to high school that my best friend Mark and I would often take in the morning after I bought my first car. I lived on the treeless outer edge of the “Oakwood Hills addition” and he among the exquisite hardwoods of “Kelley’s Woods”, from which those more modest hills took their name. I would pick him up in my rusted out ’57 Dodge and we would make a quick dash out of the woods, onto Glynwood, out away from town into the country, smoking as many pre-class cigarettes as we could fit in along the way—through the sharp curves of Horseshoe Bend, to a piece of country pike that split cornfields on either side, backtracking on old Infirmary Road to Route 198 and on into town and to the high school, where we would arrive on the heels of the first bell, our clothes reeking like we’d just put out a grass fire. Our daily rebellion before surrendering to the obligation of education.
Three and a half decades later, I take that route again, in a shiny new rented car and in no particular hurry. This is emotional reconnaissance, an attempt to rediscover myself, to remember that rebellious teen, to feel something other than stunned. I couldn’t be more alone on the road. Almost Twilight Zone alone, as if everybody else has been placed in a state of suspended animation while I live this moment. It’s eerie and I’m suddenly in a cautious state.
It’s as I’m coming out of the last curve of Horseshoe Bend and taking the narrow country road that forks off of Glynwood and separates harvested cornfields on either side that I catch a glimpse of movement out the corner of my right eye and turn to see a large whitetail stag galloping up on my vehicle with sure-footed agility through the corn stubble and broken stalks of the harvested land. He’s making a run for it, to vault the road in front of me before I come even with him. He won’t make it if I keep going, an encounter we’ll both regret. So I pull to the berm and stop cold. A few short yards in front of me, he vaults the seven-strand fence in an easy leap, his hooves skittering and clattering on the blacktop, and then he neatly vaults the ditch and fence on the opposite side of the road, and continues his spirited flight across the other open field toward a nearby woodlot and cover.
Stopped here alone by the road, seeing him in the sharp-slanted golden light of a late autumn afternoon, is almost dream-like. And he is a splendid specimen, tall, muscular, fully grown with a rack of wide-branching antlers and the greying coat of a well-matured buck, wise enough to have avoided getting shot or hit by a car up to now. The scene is so extraordinary that I sit there in the driver’s seat by the road for a few moments, only the soft clicking of my flashers breaking the silence. The encounter suddenly seems to have unleashed all the pent up feelings inside me, and, awash in this powerful moment, I find myself recalling the advice of Ernest Hemingway, something like, “Whatever you had to do, men had always done. If they had done it, then you could do it too.”
Like much of what Hemingway wrote, it wasn’t meant to be a comfort, just a fact, a truth, stripped of all the bromides we availed ourselves of to make things seem less dramatic. Life was indeed dramatic, however, and what Hemingway had said was applicable to us all, to Whitie and me, to fathers and sons like us everywhere.
The news wasn’t any better than it had been, but now I was better prepared to deal with it. This was a new stage.
The next day, I drove to nearby Lima, Ohio, to pick up some prescription refills for Whitie and to do some shopping. Again I took some time to revisit old haunts. Most of the nightclubs I’d played as a young musician were long gone, victims of steel belt turned rust belt. One, where I was part of the house band for over a year, was abandoned, the doors boarded up, a weathered, fading "for sale" sign hanging above the door. Another, which had once been the swankest place in town, and where I’d played my first New Year’s jazz gig, was now a parking lot. The music store a half-block from the Square, where I’d been a musical instrument salesman and percussion teacher while still in my teens had, at some point, gone belly up and now was a vacant lot. These, I thought, were the things that happened if you lived long enough. Places and people who had been part of a reality that, when you were young, seemed permanent, as if it would last forever, eventually only existed in your memories and the yearning for them became something personal that you couldn’t share with anyone but your fellow survivors, for as long as you all stayed alive.
I remembered Bruce Sims, the man who had given me that job in the music store and who had given me lots of lessons as well, about music, about instruments, but also about people and about life. I remembered that he had opened an instrument repair shop on East Kibby Street on the south side of town, where he and Whitie and my uncles had grown up in the same tough block. I figured he would surely be retired by now. He had to be close to eighty. But I swung by anyway.
The shop still had a faded sign reading LIMA INTRUMENT REPAIR, but the lights were out and there was a bar across the inside of the glass and wood front door. But the place didn’t look abandoned—the sidewalks swept, the windows clean. I decided to do my shopping and make another pass later.
When I came back, the bar was off the door. I parked along the side of the building and went inside. Despite his age and the passing of at least thirty years since the last time I’d seen him, I recognized Bruce right away. He was sitting in a chair behind the counter, arms folded over his chest, eyes closed, having a nap. My closing the heavy old door made him start awake, but he merely snapped open his still piercing eyes and gruffly barked, “Can I help you, sir?”
Remembering an old joke that the regulars at the old music store always shared, I said, “Yeah, maybe. I’ve got this bull-kazoo I’d like to get re-plated.”
Standing and facing me then, he said, “Well, you’re outa luck, pal. I guess you’ll just have to take it back to South America with you!” Then we both laughed and shook hands and he told me how good I looked.
“Fat, you mean,” I said. “You look just like always!” I added.
But he waved the compliment off frowning and shaking his head. And then he said, “Here, pull up a chair.” And we sat there for the better part of an hour talking about all the crazy musicians we’d known back in the day, and the places we’d played and the club-owners who had once been famous locally and who now were no more. We shared old jokes and stories, and laughed at them the same way we had back then.
And as we talked, I realized, suddenly, what all of this—the barrier I’d felt, the threshold I’d been trying to step over—was about. I was on the verge of becoming part of “the older generation” as this one took its leave.
When I finally got up to go, Bruce said, “Jack’s still around. He’s down in Florida. We still take turns calling each other. Wednesday’s my turn to call him. Stop by about noon and I’ll let you talk to him.” I thanked Bruce and said I’d try, but I knew that wasn’t happening. When I walked out that door it would be for the last time.
When we shook hands at the door, Bruce smiled that wry smile of his and said, “We sure had fun back then, didn’t we?”
“We sure did, Bruce,” I said, “we sure as hell did.”