Black, White, Gray & Goose GreenTuesday, February 19, 2008
It is impossible not to look at Robert Capa's 1936 Fallen Soldier or Eddie Adams's picture of South Vietnamese Police Chief shooting the Viet Cong suspect without feeling dread, fear, mystery and repulsion. For me there is a third one, fleeting (it was a BBC videocast) but seared in my brain. When I saw it in the evening of May 27, 1982. I was watching a what looked like a serene field of gray, green and blue. it was Goose Green in las Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands).
I saw a streak in the low clouds of an almost overcast sky. The streak was from right to left and it passed quickly but somewhere in the middle of the screen it became a white poof. It was an Argentine Airforce Skyhawk that had been shot down, probably by a missile. As in the Capa and Adams images it is the transition from existence to nonexistence that fascinates us in a macabre way. The transition between good to evil has equally fascinated me through the years.
While I have seen dead bodies in morgues and the reconstituted face of a Buenos Aires neighbour who had been run over by a train (in Argentina when I was a young boy I somehow wangled my way to go to neighbourhood wakes) I have never really been close with death except when my mother took her last breath in her bed in our home in my presence and my wife Rosemary's. I have always been fascinated with death, probably no more nor less than the average person. I purchased a coffin for my father and then for my mother but that was not quite death for me. I buried my father in a grave for only 7 years since I could not afford the perpetuity fee. Many years later a nephew of mine came back from searching for my father at the Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires. He came back and threw a little white stone at me. "Your father is long gone. There is a Mrs García where he was. This stone might have been close to his remains." He was disgusted that I had been so frugal. I was moved.
It was about the time that my father died in 1965 when my world was black or white. I argued with my friend John Sullivan. Sullivan's parents were American but he had been born in Buenos Aires so he was drafted and was serving in the Argentine army. I argued that evil was black and good was white. There was no in between. He asserted that the world was gray. It was a mixture. "There is no absolute good or absolute evil." I was sure he was wrong.
My sailor friend Felipe and I while serving in the Argentine Navy used to make fun of officers and non-commissioned officers who took their job as soldiers seriously. 'Juegan a los soldaditos.' They like to play toy soldiers.' But they seemed harmless enough and we did our best to stay out of their way. We went for errands to the Escuela De Mecánica de la Armada. This was the Navy Engineering School.
Years later it was difficult for me to reconcile that the school had become a centre of unspeakable torture and that our younger toy soldiers made people disappear. Worst of all was to find out that the hapless victims were thrown from helicopters over the River Plate and that some of these officers had first slit their victims' stomachs so that they would sink. Was the youngish Argentine Marine Corps corporal, Cabo Moraña whom we had some affection capable of such crimes? I wil never know.
The boundary between good and evil really blurred for me in 1989 when I visited my friend the Police Chief of the Judicial Police of Acapulco. I followed and photographed every thing he did for a week. He had warned me in a most civil manner that, "I will show you everything but you have to be careful what you write about me for that magazine of yours (Vancouver Magazine).
My job could be on the line." He was true to his word. I saw suspects being beaten, I saw drug busts and I was particularly moved by the entrance one day of a man called Rios. He was one of the Chief's most trusted cops. He stood at attention in front of the Chief. The Chief opened his drawer and gave him a .22 caliber revolver. Rios saluted and left.
"What's the problem?" I asked the Chief. "We have a cop killer on the loose,"he answered. The next day Rios came in and placed the gun on the Chief's desk. The Chief put the gun away and Rios saluted and left. "What happened?" I asked. The reply was concise, "We don't have a cop killer."
To me the Chief's men looked no less thugs than the thugs that the Chief questioned and his staff slapped around. Betancourt,the Chief's bodyguard, who probably snuggled with with his AK-47 at night, looked like a huge and dangerous punk.
One Wednesday in the week that I was there a pretty young girl who must have been 18 came to see the chief. She mentioned that she had been raped by a young man but he had sworn to love and marry her. He had convinced the judge of this so he had been set free. She told the Chief that the young man was getting married that Saturday to someone else.
"I want justice," she said. A couple of days later we patrolled Acapulco's red light district and I spied our girl outside one of the establishments. I told the Chief, "She is a whore!" "I don't care if she is a whore. I will see justice done. I don't care if he is getting married in a church. We will be waiting. That crap about not being able to arrest someone in church is Hollywood crap."
When Saturday afternoon came the Chief
beckoned me to follow him. We went to the nearby jail and I saw a man in black suit. "There is our man. We nailed the S.O.B. just before he got married." Three days later he was freed as his family paid a "special" bail.
I have read of further and more serious incidents involving my friend the chief and I have mixed feelings. I don't really know what I would have done in his place. By then my blacks and whites were all muddled and I have yet to experience the violence of a near death.
The Chief is now 70 and he lives abroad. I would have never bet a peso for him surviving his job. But he survived. We chatted with Skype. I remember him singing at our neighbourhood parties in Arboledas, Mexico around 1974. His favourite singer was Tom Jones, "I look like him," he would tell us and then he would sing Little Green Apples.
How did John Sullivan know at so early an age?