We pulled our pickup over at the Sebaco junction of the Pan American Highway. Hundreds of people swarmed the little truck. This was routine. It was Nicaragua, 1986, and the country had been knocked on its ass by a US blockade and the insidious slow drip terrorist assault that came to be known as the contra war. It was a cruel formula – the contras ambushed and blew up buses and trucks; economic sanctions kept the vehicles from being fixed or replaced. A proud and happy people turned mendicant.
Standing beneath monster billboards challenging the children of Sandino to defend the people’s revolution, dozens of men and women, along with their kids, were reduced to begging for a ride south toward Managua. If you haven’t watched a war up close it is easy to think of it as a battle, of wounded and killed, casualties and terrain. But it is also about food, and medicine, and radios, and automobiles. Reagan’s war was, as much as anything, a war on buses. It wasn’t unusual to see buses going down the highway packed full with double the approved passenger load, dozens more riding on the roof, and someone hanging from every window. It was dangerous, undignified, and normal. Just a few months earlier a friend of mine had been thrown from his perch on the front of a bus speeding down this same highway, and died on impact with the road.
On this day the driver whose benevolence they solicited came from the country causing their agony. I was driving my parents back to the capital after five days spent in the Nicaraguan countryside. Two Brooklyn-born working-class Americans who had barely ventured outside their home state were out getting to know dangerous parts of rural Central America, seeing for themselves the place my wife and I lived and worked.
We were headed south, toward safety. People heading north faced a series of excruciating choices. Many of the vehicles going north were IFAs, the East German trucks that shuttled army and militia troops to places like Pantasma, Bocay, and Matiguas – rural places the contras slipped into from the mountains and assaulted, then disappeared.
If you needed to get your family back to Rio Blanco or Jinotega after, say, a doctor’s appointment in Esteli, or a wedding in Managua, and it had been hours or even days waiting for a bus or the rare civilian truck to stop, you just might decide to take the risk, say a prayer and load your kids into an IFA for the ride north. I had, as part of my normal work day, interviewed parents who had rolled the dice in this desperate game and lost. Bad luck meant that a contra landmine or ambush might take an arm, a leg, an eyeball, or the life a loved one.
When this crowd charged toward our truck, I stepped out and did what I always did in this situation; I shouted. Twelve. Only twelve. I wanted to be of help, but I knew how many bodies the axle could take without breaking. We had the privilege of driving a relatively new pickup truck, and yet it wouldn’t help anyone if we drove it into the ground. At least 20 people had climbed in the truck bed, and more kept mounting. I’m sorry, only 12. I repeated that a hundred times until enough people had climbed off. Then I got in and slowly pulled toward the highway, stopping to eject a couple of sneaky last-second hitchhikers. I knew the drill.
My mother had different eyes. In the darkness, through the truck window, she had made contact with a young mother holding an infant child. She signaled the woman to climb in the back seat between her and my father. I hadn’t even noticed her.
My mother saw the mother’s distress and invited her in. This pickup had a second row of seats. “Drive fast, Edward,” my mother said, calling me by the name she used when things turned serious. “This baby is sick.” On the PanAmerican the posted speed limit was 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, per hour. The asphalt was pockmarked with potholes. Farm animals crossed freely and regularly. In daylight I might dare to drive about 120; in darkness, a lot slower.
But there was an urgency to my mother’s request. I realized that the child was silent. The young mother was weeping. The little blanketed bundle wasn’t moving. The baby was burning up. Looking in the rear view mirror I could see my mother reaching into her bag. She pulled out a packet of sanitary wipes, swabs marinated in alcohol that she used to prepare my father’s arm for his insulin shots. The mother held her little girl, my mother wiped her forehead with the swabs. A team brought together by chance encounter, an army of two waging a war for a life, bonded in a mission only motherhood could forge in the back seat of a pickup truck hurtling through a war zone in the dark. Over the road noise the only sounds were the voice of the young mother praying and the tearing sound of each packet opening as my mother ripped open another swab and wiped the child’s fevered face.
I looked down at the speedometer. We were running at 150 kilometers per hour, and we were about 90 k outside of Managua. The children’s hospital was on the western edge of the city. The two women continued their tandem efforts for the rest of the journey. The 12 travelers in the back of the truck were all but forgotten. As we approached the capital we zigged and we zagged through traffic, ran a number of red traffic lights, until we pulled up to a dock outside the emergency room of the Huembes Hospital for children. My mother held the baby while the child’s mother opened the door and hopped out. She seemed tiny in the darkness. My mother kissed the baby’s forehead and passed her through the open door. Gracias, said the mother, whose name we never learned. She raced toward the doors, and as we backed out we could see the nurses coming toward her and lifting the baby on to a cart.
It was time to deliver the rest of our passengers.