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Post One More Lost-in-the-Jungle Tale (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 08/30/19 3:13 AM

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One More Lost-in-the-Jungle Tale (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 08/30/19 3:13 am)

Gary Moore writes:

Many congrats to JE on his 13th anniversary of doing a fantastic job! To mark the moment, it strikes me that WAIS might be called a unique literary form: aimed between the completely anonymous public and completely personal correspondence: a monument to an adroit manager.

And now, trying to squeeze into that form, my only excuse here for telling one more lost-in-the-jungle tale (as on Aug 12) is that Timothy Brown (Aug 18) has reminded how the 1980s "Contra" guerrilla war in Nicaragua went off-site, with its staging area in next-door Honduras.

The "Contra" soldiers--oft-maligned, oft-idealized, and oft-erring--used Honduran border jungles to launch secretive raids into revolutionary Nicaragua, amid a maze of Cold War riddles.

The near-mythical main Contra base was said to be somewhere just over on the Honduran side, a fabled El Dorado among forbidden cliffs, on no public map, never glimpsed by journalists except on a couple of blind helicopter swoops. To certain kinds of nosy blunderers, such mysteries can have a tendency to cry out.

My wilderness curiosity in that era's Nicaragua, as told August 12, would eventually put me in prison. But that was capture by the other side, when I was imprisoned not by the Contras but by the confusingly loved-or-hated revolutionary state the Contras were fighting against. This was particularly ironic because the Contras, too, developed a pattern of holding me prisoner--more than once--and for pretty much the same sin: probing into embarrassing secret conflict zones. So I was an equal opportunity blunderer, sort of a one-man Laurel and Hardy, always able to rebuke myself lamely: "Well, here's another nice mess I've gotten myself into."

In seeking the fabled Contra base, it seemed important to go without blinders, minders, show tours, or any kind of advance warning. On the world stage, a near-religious difference of opinion shrouded the shadowy Contras. Glorious freedom fighters? Ghoulish bourgeois spoilers out to ruin Nicaragua's new anti-capitalist utopia? Who were these mystery men?

Winding jungle lanes narrowed into muddy foot paths. As I hiked I had only the name of the big Contra base. "Can you tell me the way," I kept repeating at the last few palm-thatch huts, "to the place called Las Vegas?"

Well, It was a neutral geographical term in local Spanish. No intentions of Cold War gambler puns.

Add to this the seductiveness of jungle hiking. If one does enough of it, the impossible seems to reduce to simplicity: one foot, then the other. Slow motion reveals openings. I overtook another muddy hiker--a rural dentist, of all things, going to solve the tooth woes of the hundreds of combatants camped at Las Vegas. A wooden gate loomed, with armed guards---and: "Oh, of course, sir, you're the dentist? Come right in." No one added, "and your assistant...?" as I strode in with him chatting self-importantly, as if about root canals. Once inside the Las Vegas perimeter, however, my dental Virgil affably said goodbye, leaving me a long way inside the fence, but still a long way from anything looking populated. It was at this point, as I stood alone on very sensitive real estate, that night fell.

In no time: suffocating blackness. I was a quizzical statue, paralyzed by total disorientation. The moment caught me in a patch of oozing swamp. Any splashing stumbles could rouse some adolescent sentry out in the blackness, causing him to fire. The spongy little hummock supporting my feet precluded even lying down to wait out the night. I had really done it this time.

But the blackness, if obsessively scrutinized, turned out to have a tiny leak. Floating in it was a distant glint of light, faint as a star. I wondered how imperceptibly I could inch toward it--imperceptible to any shoot-first sentries. A yard an hour? At some point the worst swamp was past. Then after seeming lifetimes, the inching intruder reached the lantern in the cabin window. Inside were civilian refugees, wonderfully welcoming, with even a spare hammock for sleep. Next day I turned up at the flabbergasted base command, and they said I was under arrest.

Dawn showed the incredible scope: hill after steep jungle hill cleared of trees and staked with tents, a rolling sea of tents. Most of the occupants (confirming Timothy Brown) seemed to be farm kids fighting against revolutionary collectivization. I met them as my confinement eased, and a radio credential check confirmed I was the bona fide idiot I seemed. The middle-aged former Somoza National Guard sergeant investigating me seemed not quite the monster of revolutionary lore. There was the familiar Contra paradox: the friendly faces, and yet I knew of civilians killed by Contra ambushes, suggesting a self-righteous (or moronic) disdain. You raid into some Nicaraguan mountaineer canton, dig in at the roadside, blow away a passing farmer's pickup with an RPG-7 or claymore mine, and then go back to base and report successful combat. Thus was the banal ant heap of the Cold War--on many fronts, and many sides.

I had always wondered about the notorious guerrilla fighter's disease called "jungle leprosy" (leishmaniasis). Now the kid by the cot was obligingly rolling up his pants leg to reveal an egg-sized hole, the red-edged flesh voraciously eaten away, laying bare pale shinbone beneath. The look on his face was half stoic shrug, half wondering horror.

Ages later in the US illegal immigration surge of 2019, a people-smuggler's load from that same Central America was said by breathless media to contain a case of "flesh-eating bacteria." It can be hard to translate the jungle realities of the place called Las Vegas.

JE comments: I've just asked myself this hypothetical:  would I rather spend the night in a jungle combat zone, or outside in a Michigan winter?  Glad I've never had to answer the question in practice.

Gary, brilliantly written. Leaving that Las Vegas must have been a relief.  This vignette is the perfect anniversary gift for this editor.  I am flattered and grateful.

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  • Gary Moore Asks: Is There a WAISly "Literary Form"? (John Eipper, USA 08/31/19 11:09 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    My "lost-in-the-jungle" post (30 August) was consciously written
    with the idea of fitting into WAIS as a distinct literary form,
    halfway between a conversation with known friends and
    the blind magic of trying to reach a completely unknown public,
    each with its own rapport requirements. What an adventure
    to explore this landscape of writing challenges!

    And as to the
    devil's choice raised by John E, either a night outside in a Michigan winter or in a
    jungle war zone: once even longer ago, the pratfall machine
    found me sleeping in a car one night in an Ontario November.
    I think I'll opt for the jungle.

    JE comments:  I've always argued that the most successful WAIS posts are scholarly and anecdotal at the same time.  Gary Moore points out another "hybrid" property of WAIS at its best--both intimate and universal.  Well said, Gary.

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