I had a run-in with the death squads and still wonder how I made it through alive and am now able to tell the tale. We lived in the mountain highlands of Guatemala, which was a three-hour drive from Guatemala City. The City was the technological center of Guatemala where you had to go if you wanted “parts” or supplies for stuff like water systems and soy dairies. So one of my main jobs was to drive our truck to Guat City to pick up supplies for the projects. On one run, I agreed to pick up some acetylene tanks for a local welder friend of ours. We drove into Guat City and returned at the end of a long day with our supplies. The road to and from Guat City was the Pan-American Highway built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers during the 1940s. It was the main highway in Guatemala but it was only a two-lane road with long winding mountain curves. It was a scary road to drive because drivers in Guatemala had the habit of passing other cars on blind curves. Some buses during the night would shut off their lights when passing someone else so they could see the lights of a car or truck bearing down on them from the other direction. When I would get back from a “Guat City run” I would be exhausted and would stumble into bed.
This night, on my return I stopped in the local town of Sololá to drop off the acetylene tanks at my friend Rolando (pronounced “Shrolando”) the welder’s place. Sololá has such narrow streets only one car can get through at a time. Our big truck was blocking all lanes as I grabbed a tank and started to unload it from the flatbed to the ground. While I was unloading, a jeep pulled up behind us and started to honk its horn demanding that we move. I wondered what was up with the driver because it was obvious that we were in the process of unloading a tank of gas, which would take a few minutes and could not be halted in midstream. We continued to struggle with the tank and the honking became incessant and downright rude. My impatience was reaching astronomical proportions. I motioned to the fellow in the jeep to drive up on the sidewalk so he could get around us. In Guatemala, nobody cares if you drive on the sidewalk. They aren’t that stiff about the rules down there. Well the guy ignored me and kept honking and honking and I made the BIG MISTAKE of losing it. I don’t know what got into me, but suddenly I turned around and gave the guy the Full Bird (kind of like the full Monty, but with slightly different intent). The honking suddenly stopped and the fellow in the jeep jumped out, pulled up a Big Pistol and aimed it right at my head. I thought, “holy shit,” and yelled to Clifford Figallo, who was in the driver’s seat and was almost asleep, to “start the truck and move it! — This guy’s got a gun.”
The engine roared to life, my pal Alan Praskin dived spread eagle into the bed of the truck as it took off down the road leaving me there with the guy and the gun. Oh yeah.
There was nothing between me and him except about ten feet of air. Yep, he was pointing that gun right at my head looking really pissed. Let me tell you, the emotion “pissed” is universal. He didn’t have to say anything; I knew he did not like me at that point. I looked at him. He looked at me. Yeah, we connected eye to eye. And I had one of those end of life flashes. Did you ever hear that expression, “his life flashed before his eyes?” That is exactly what happened to me. I remembered stuff that had happened to me as a little kid, teenager, bar mitzvah (dancing with my mother), first acid trip, you name it, I remembered it and flashed on all these scenes from my life like turning the pages of a big book really fast. Then I got to the present and there he was again and suddenly he was pulling the trigger. I felt wind, and then some more wind and I realized he was shooting at me, but missing by a few inches. The wind was caused by bullets whizzing by. He was trying to teach me a lesson. I think I learned it. After that incident I thought about amputating my middle finger so I wouldn’t ever, ever, ever be even tempted to stick it up in the air without the accompaniment of the others.
He finished with his lesson, waived the gun at me one more time, got into his jeep and drove away. The next morning I told my pal Rolando about the incident and he confirmed that I had met a member of the elite forces of the military, more affectionately known as the death squads. So glad to be able to tell this tale, alive. No mo’ fingers dudes.