Warrior on the Road

Orders for Vietnam looked to some people like a death warrant, but I took it as permission to approach life with a different attitude. I was more open to things that could happen along the way, and I chose everything. The actual trip started, I guess, in New York City. I had received the orders in North Carolina, but in the Marines Corps rush to get me into combat they also rushed the shots I needed to set foot in Asia. The list of shots is like the World Health Organization’s list of the most deadly diseases, cholera, malaria, yellow fever…You have seen the list, but I needed to get those vaccines into my body in record time. So the various nurses lined up like a debutants reception line, each with an appropriate needle aiming for the appropriate spot.

The next day the yellow fever vaccine gave me Yellow Fever, like it was supposed to, but my body was too occupied fighting off the other vaccines to snuff Yellow Fever. The doctors caught what was happening and put me in the hospital immediately to sweat and barf for a few weeks. Maybe there were a couple of diseases at work; I do not remember even the daze I was in. Anyway, after about a month, they let me out, and re-cut my original orders to leave Travis Air Force Base in California in 14 days. A week of that was leave. Originally I was to join 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines in Khe Sahn right after the Tet offensive. However, while I was sleeping, 3/26 left Khe Sahn and encountered an extremely bloody battle in Hue.

So my yellow fever probably saved my life, or at least gave me much better odds. Of course, I did not know all that during the days I was driving across the US to California.

I decided to drive across the States from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and pocket the airline fare. First stop was New York City, where I had a girlfriend staying with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s boyfriend Monte. Monte was a brilliant prodigy who graduated from the University of Chicago at age 15, and then came back to be a super at his folk’s apartment building and moonlight driving a cab. He loved driving a cab because he loved talking with people of every variety, and often chatted up potential new girlfriends who were stewing alongside drunk beaus in his cab. (People live off the land in different ways.) I usually gave my car keys to Monte every time I was in New York City because he knew everywhere and almost everyone.

Monte offered to escort me as far as Cleveland so he could see his friend who was a leading brain surgeon at Case Western Reserve. We were invited to a brain operation for a motorcyclist who had hit the pavement headfirst with no helmet. We scrubbed up, and Monte’s friend introduced us to the operating room team as visiting doctors, here for observation. We stood on little stools above the surgery for about 5 hours, while the surgeons removed the top of the patient’s head and felt around with their fingers inside his brain. Nurses as a courtesy came by and showed us an assortment of scans or something, and we both nodded and said “Very significant” a lot. Finally Monte’s friend pulled out a huge pussball with his index finger from some lower level of the brain that had been putting some pressure somewhere, and now maybe the guy could probably walk straight again. Or even ride a motorcycle.

As a souvenir, Monte’s friend gave me something to stay awake after I left them both late in the day to drive through to Minneapolis and see my family on the way. It was Methedrine or some other speedy concoction that caused all the taillights ahead to dance and merge like tracers. Certainly an ominous vision at 70 miles per hour. It was 600 miles and after a couple of hours that night I pulled into a rest area and slept in the car. I awakened early the next morning and did the last 500 miles.  My days with the family were somewhat reserved, given that my mother had been through this before when my father went to war. I guess I was a little insensitive, and realized later when I had my own sons what a toll this must have taken. While I was there I called some friends in Seattle to whom I had willed my ski gear and stereo setup in case I did not return. We willed and left a lot of prized possessions when we were headed to Vietnam, and funny, I never saw most of those things again when I returned. They weren’t as important. Most of the friends were not either.

Next stop was California where I would leave my Volkswagen, and in those final days traded it, with some money, for a VW bus. My friend Dale kept my bus in his garage on blocks for the year I was away. Two years before, Dale had been a grad student at the University of Tulsa where I did some graduate work. He had been a philosophy major and a collegiate 125 pound wrestler. He and I marched in early March of 1965 for Martin Luther King in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 10,000 people marched down the streets of Tulsa on the Saturday shopping afternoon. King did not show up but we were all told by the organizers to say we had marched with Martin Luther King. (Symbolically I guess.) I had done some background material for a journalism class that I thought the Tulsa Tribune was going to use. Instead that whole march got one inch of copy on the back page of the Sunday paper. That pretty well convinced me not to be a journalist.

Later that month Dale wanted me to go to Selma for what was supposed to be a really big march, and I had a midterm the next Monday. I didn’t want to blow that test just to have something cancelled again – or so I said – so I skipped the weekend trip down to Selma. Also the image of the rednecks in overalls with baseball bats did stick with me, so I wonder to this day if a lack of courage kept me from going to Selma with Dale. (If some dates had worked out right, I could have been the only one most people knew who had been in both Khe Sanh and Selma. Could’ve been a major start on a bucket list, if one is into those.)

Cut to: two years hence. Now in Los Angeles, Dale had since been admitted to the UCLA film school from Oklahoma, and he wanted to involve me in his semester film project before I left. I was going to bus the next day to Travis Air Force base to fly to Camp Hanson in Okinawa for Vietnam staging, so the afternoon and evening were free. In Westwood, an L.A. sub-city, the UCLA film school students had a $1 double feature theater nearby, stocked with two of the more recent movies. We went in the afternoon and heard a constant buzz of movie critique that no sane audience could bear with. “Close up, now why did he do that there?” “This tilting and zooming and panning is endless, but what is it saying?” ”Hey watch for the soft focus in this next scene, I saw it yesterday.” Dale recruited extras from this crowd.

That night, the scene we were shooting was a narrow alley in Los Angeles. Dale had it well storyboarded. A car full of drunks was to roar up the alley at high speed, with a motorcycle hurtling at it head-on, but the rider dodging over the hood of the car at the last second, leaning over like some bullfighter but with no cape. As the cycle slipped through the slim gap between the hurtling car and the alley, the drunks in the car would throw out a basket of empty beers cans at the cyclist. The timing had to be perfect. Any collision would be at 80 miles per hour. But the storyboard looked great.

For some odd reason, Dale could find no one to play the motorcyclist, so I volunteered. I’d ridden a few bikes, so I thought I could handle it. In a somewhat surreal mood, I heard Dale shout action and I gunned the motorcycle and watched the car come at me very quickly and at the last second swerved my hips and leaned over the onrushing hood and slipped between the car and the concrete wall on the right side of the alley. Then the guys in the car threw the cans at me, a split-second too late.

“We’ll have to do another take.” Dale said, totally professionally and with no apologies whatsoever.

Once again, I sped toward the oncoming car, and dodged over the hood just as they threw the empty beer cans out. Too early this time. They fell in front of my wheels.

“Another take, everybody back in position.” He confided to me, “I’ll be out of film if we don’t get this one.”

I accelerated toward the oncoming car once again. In slowed-down motion somewhere in my head I thought what a wonderful, spectacular shot it would make if I kept going straight and hit the car splat. But I chickened out and dodged the car — and got a face full of empty beer cans.

“Perfect. Let’s wrap that.”

The big, full 747 from Travis to Kadena and the processing at Camp Hansen and the big, full 747 into Da Nang air base and the helicopter ride to Phu Bai, were a set of steps that disappear in the sand. I joined 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines at Phu Bai, when they were pulled back to a safe place to recover. It was a safe place except for Russian rockets brought down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia to catch us from that backside.

There were lots of jokes about the rockets arriving before the warning sirens, and I remember that being hilariously funny in the midst of daily rocket attacks. Incoming artillery and outgoing artillery sounded the same to me and everyone laughed when I grabbed my helmet after an outgoing round and when I laughed at an incoming round they grabbed me and pulled me into a bunker. It was 115 degrees and every bit of clothing was sticky on me — and finally it dawned on me.

I was in Vietnam.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

A Day in the Clutches of Communism

Why I thought of visiting Soviet Russia escapes me now. I’d read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy but there was no fascination left over from the 1800’s. In 1982, I tried for about a year to get a visa with application to their embassy through the mails and had quite a collection of the necessary documents I had sent with no answer. No one in Russia had asked me to visit, of course, though I did have some things they might have wanted to see.

As I was doing quite a number of tricks with the early videodiscs in the 1980s, including the CPR Learning System, the word got around and I found myself speaking at a computer show in Helsinki, Finland. I carried a videodisc to show the crowd — as most had never even imagined one, large and round and exceptionally mirror like. I also took the baby manikin and an Apple 3 computer along with the Sony Videodisc player, to give a small approximation of the program to audiences in Europe. I had a couple of blank videodiscs just to hold up and show. In a fit of good Karma, the audience of about 500 from all over Europe was treated to a pass-around of my blank videodisc, being carefully transferred like a collection plate from hand to hand. About two-thirds through the rows, one of the audience members took opposite edges of the videodisc in his two hands, and snapped it in two. He looked up with some wonderment, as if anything so shining and solid could have a brittle character as well.

The managers of the show were beside themselves, and hurried the troubled soul out of the room blubbering. I wasn’t too worried, as it was a blank videodisc provided by Sony to show people what a videodisc looked like, but my Finnish hosts apologized over and over and gave me his current troubled story. He’d been a respected professor but his wife left him and his mind crumbled. Even though he could not teach classes, his university considered him part of the family, and let him go to events such as mine.

   I finished my presentation , including showing the baby manikin demonstration. While the crowd was still intact, the show managers announced that their special Russia trip by train needed its registered participants to check in this afternoon for the trip tomorrow. On the stage, I expressed my regret I could not go with them for the two-day trip. The travel agent, who had been selling those trips from one of the vendor booths, said she was sorry as well. She mentioned that if I had kept the application papers with the proper notaries etc, which I had sent to the Russian Embassy, she could have done something. I quickly ran to my bag, and pulled out copies of all the documents had I had been instructed to send the past year. They were the ones which the Soviet Embassy had never acknowledged receipt of. The travel agent looked over my documents, surprised.

“I can work with these.” She said. “I know the right people.”

“You mean I can get on the train trip with everyone else?”

“Well, no, but I can get you a visa to fly to Leningrad for an overnight stay.”

“On a Soviet plane?”

“Right, and where would you like to stay?”

Ah, I had the answer. When things were going well for Hitler and he felt Russia was almost sewn up, he boldly sent out gold engraved invitations to all the world leaders, friend and foe, to meet him for breakfast on a day in June at the Astoria Hotel. “I want to stay at the Astoria.”

“Done. I will have the tickets and papers delivered to your hotel room tonight, and your flight will be at 10 am tomorrow.”

That night a wildly sodden Finnish bus driver drove our group of speakers in a Greyhound-sized bus at 50 miles per hour over narrow dirt roads that must have been used for logging trucks. Luckily we had a free cocktail hour before, so this dangerous excursion was actually entertaining. The bus bounded along weaving through ruts and knocking off branches which overhung each side of the road. Finally after about ten miles into the deep dark forest he stopped at a lake. There were sauna cabins with smoke pouring out. We were given towels and a little bag for our clothes and this true Finish sauna included a jump in the icy lake afterward. Unfortunately, the icy plunge left us stone sober for the harrowing trip back with the daredevil driver.

The next morning I boarded one of those Aeroflot twin-engine passenger planes that left from the sparkling English speaking airport at Helsinki, managed to squeeze in a black bread snack, and landed half an hour later at the drab, totally Russian speaking airport in Leningrad. I had left the Apple 3 computer and the the baby manikin in storage at the Helsinki hotel, and was glad of it. In the Leningrad terminal I was interviewed by one of those 6 foot 5 inch Russians whose milkman hat made him look taller, and his wool felt overcoat with epaulets made his shoulders look much wider. He squinted at my Astoria hotel reservation with cool, bland impatience. And said “Nyet.”

“But I’ve paid for the room.”


“You’re sending me back?”


“So did I do something wrong?” Geopolitical etiquette not being my forte, perhaps I did not burp appropriately after my little airplane meal. The Soviets, I had heard, were always out to get Americans.


And then with an officiously loud stamp on my Astoria reservation, he said, “You will stay at the tourist hotel,” and he pointed toward a line of similarly confused and dismayed travelers.

Our bus full of confused and dismayed travelers rolled out of the drab Leningrad Airport, rife with rumor and speculation. “They’re rounding up all foreigners…” “Where is this bus going…We’re headed outside the city, not into it.” “Why won’t they tell us anything?” The same words were likely being spoken in French, German, Chinese, and probably even Uzbek.

We crossed a drawbridge onto an island. These islands were not unusual. The Leningrad area is laced with rivers and canals leading to the ocean. And then, out of the mist, sitting on 1000 unkempt acres, rose a sort of futuristic marble palace. We gasped in 10 languages (Sacre Bleu, etc.). The uniformed drivers and monitors guided us into this ten-story palace. Inside were many reception desks that recalled the Hilton in New York. Apparently some modern Swedish architect made this creation for Soviet Russia’s latest tourism campaign.

“Welcome to the Lenigrad Intourist Hotel. Our concierges will assist you in your visit to Leningrad, and assure your every comfort.” This pleasant loudspeaker repeated itself in several languages. There were attractive young Russians in Hotel uniforms everywhere as we checked in, and we found we had clean modern rooms, in a brand new full-function hotel. But I wanted to go into the city, to see St. Peter’s Square and The Hermitage Art museum, where so many of the paintings of art history books are stored in reality. My flight back to Helsinki was at noon the next day, so I knew I would have to see something now. Luckily I had a little note pad, and the helpful concierge wrote down The Hermitage in Russian, and said they would have a Limosine for me outside, for which I would pay $40 here inside the hotel. Ah, capitalism smells the same everywhere.

“Hey, come with me. I go here before.” I guess he was Italian, but I went with him past the rows of Mercedes limos and a few blocks away into the surrounding village where most of the staff and their families lived. There were a few old Russian taxis languishing near the bus terminal. The taxi to The Hermitage cost me 75 cents. The Italian friend had changed a ten dollar bill into god knows how many rubles for me, and they seemed to spend just fine.
St. Peter’s Square was immense, and empty midday, but The Hermitage Museum was open. The lobby was a bit disheveled, the guides questioned to about 40 of us standing there as to who needed English. 10 of us did, and were herded up a stairway to a second floor. Herded is really what we were at the InTourist Hotel as well, though they were extremely organized and pleasant about it. Here less so. We were given a precise amount of time in each room and then moved on unceremoniously. The guides seem bothered by our questions as we stood in absolute awe looking at the walls.

The Hermitage was like a gigantic warehouse of impossibly great painting. They were up there with no extravagant frames and just the even, though adequate, room lighting. Most were hung edge to edge and corner to corner, almost  like a huge quilt hung on each wall. Each room of The Hermitage was jammed on all four walls with the most famous paintings from the most famous painters in the world. Apparently Peter the Great dipped deep into the national treasury of Russia and went on a buying sprees for art in Paris. (This while serfs were freezing and starving through all of his reign.) There were walls of Rembrandts and Gaugins and everyone back to the cave painters who had ever made an impact on Europe and the world with their paintings. The Hermitage was an overload at warp speed and we had finished in two hours, breathless, our eyesight assaulted with excellence.

And then there was getting back. I tried to ask the guide in English how to say InTourist Hotel in Russian, but she was off with another crowd at once. As people filed out to buses and cabs and limos I tried to find the way to say my hotel in Russian. I had not thought even to get a card there. It was as if I was in outer space. This Russian language dominated in a way I had not been exposed to before, because they allowed so few English or Americans into Russia, I suspect. Finally a kind Algerian offered to let me pay for the cab because he needed to go near the InTourist hotel himself. It was a bargain, assuming I would not be kidnapped.

Back to Helsinki, and off to other escapades around Europe with my baby manikin, but this was the last of Russia for a while. I was so shocked at the outer-space feeling of having no way to communicate, I swore that I would learn a bit of Russian if I ever came back. I did come back ten years later, and I did arm myself with a few months study that time.

That first time, in 1983 under the Soviets, we were warned not to take any rubles out of Russia. So I slipped a few bills in between pages a book. That way I could plausibly offer apologies if they searched that far.  (With inflation that hit a few years later, they would probably become virtually worthless.)  I gave those paper rubles to my two young sons, Liam and Galen,  saying I got them at great risk and could have been years in a Russian jail just for having them. Probably the boys showed them at their grade school. Probably for years I should have been watching around dark corners in case some communist-sympathizing elementary teacher in Dallas tipped them off, and — all that way — the Soviets came after me.

Probably I am safe now.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

One Finger, One Note

Elegance is one of the most poorly defined words in the language. Here’s a usual definition of elegance: ”the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner, the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness.” From this definition you get the impression of some French Renaissance fop daintily folding his gloves and looking down his nose at the goose liver pate’. We are ill-served by this definition, to the detriment of humankind, really. Because true elegance is the creation of a premise universal enough to work for a multitude of circumstances, and yet stay concise and simple.

Computer programmers call it elegant when the best of them can make 8 lines of code do the work of 2,000. In that world, and in most others, elegant is cool. And yet, it is more. That which is elegant opens possibilities in a simple way that was never conceived before.

Angioplasty is taking the body’s enemy, plaque in the artery, then inserting a balloon with a catheter and cracking the plaque back along the sides of the artery, where it sets again like a concrete pipe, protecting precious blood flow to and from the heart. Think people up from their deathbed running marathons. Angioplasty, when we saw it, was a medically elegant solution.

Salman Kahn in his Kahn Academy dissertation on Evolution, says – more or less — that Evolution is God’s elegant system of perpetuating life in its most complete forms. He explains that if you were God designing a system, it would be a self-correcting system that, once set in motion, did not require the hand of God again and yet would operate in full accordance with the original design through millennia of changes. God, if he were God, would surely design the most elegant systems for his world.

This applies as well to systems which are in essence, our tools built on interconnected rules. Needless to say, the object of cybernetic (or sustainable) systems is to maintain and replenish themselves without outside input. If there were a perpetual motion machine, it would be the most elegant of designs.

Naturally, this brings us to the subject of when Brenda and I bought an old upright piano. Brenda had advanced skills and I had thumped through a few years of music lessons beginning around the 5th grade. We thought it would be nice to have something to make music on. The unsuspecting piano was delivered one afternoon into our small house. Our two boys. Liam, 5, and Galen, 4, were 22 months apart.

Though normally rowdy, they were somewhat awed by this device, and hesitated at first even to touch it. That did not last long. We had barely gone into the other room when we heard the thunder of two little boys pounding with both hands to squeeze in as many keys at once as they could under their outstretched hands. The old upright piano was getting an initiation from which none of us could survive, and I ran into the room and stopped the cacophony dead.

“This is not going to work,” I told them. Then I realized that forbidding them to touch the piano at all was counter to our reason for having it, so that would not work either. I offered a compromise. “You can play with the piano,” I said, “ but you can only play one note at a time, with your one finger.”

They seemed satisfied for the moment, and actually for the next few days they experimented poking each of the different keys with their single fingers. Some of these notes were complementary, and some were not. But at least they were single notes and you could hear each one for its distinct character. It was a good rule, and kept us from going crazy with cacophony. It was also good because eventually the boys would repeat notes that sounded good one after the other. The had not arrived at melodies yet, but we were hopeful that would come. The main thing was to stand back and watch their discernment between notes, and where innate curiosity would take them. We did hear a few struggling melodies that petered out to nothing within a few notes, but we were not ready for the step function that a truly elegant rule brings forth. Let me explain:

Working at that time at Texas Instruments, I helped construct courses on Design to Cost. This phenomenon was first observed in the building of thousands of bombers in World War II. The cumulative volume of production seemed to magically create savings in materials, labor, and overhead, such that the cost of a bomber dropped immensely – six or seven times – during WWII. Surprised production engineers identified these massive savings as step functions in the manufacturing process, and in the heady days of semiconductors and integrated circuits and LSI (Large Scale Integration) chips that made electronics product cheaper and more durable at the same time, companies like Texas Instruments used to project, and bid on, projects with these step functions built in, without knowing exactly when and how these would occur. They called it “racing down the Learning Curve” and Motorola and Fairchild and Intel and Texas Instruments were in a breathtaking competition to see who could take market share most quickly and hold it. Design to Cost…The Texas Instruments engineers had a saying that “The Six Million Dollar Man Should Have Cost Five.”

All of which brings us back to the new piano, and the impetuous boys who tested it. Their little melodies were easy enough to listen to, though none were very complete. I was not ready for the step function, and that is the point: with a good rule step functions just happen as a result of cumulative volume.

They were waiting for me when I came home one day with a penetrating question. “Can we do two fingers two notes?” asked Liam, the oldest. It seemed like a reasonable request. We could always go back to one finger one note if it got (so to speak) out of hand.

Star Wars was just out, and the boys saw it a couple of times, as did many of the kids in that now distant universe of the mid-70s. One day when I came in, weary and ready for the national news,  I heard something else instead. It was not “one finger, one note”, or even two fingers, two notes. It was the Star Wars theme, played in two finger chords with both hands, bass and treble, and ever so majestic for a 5-year old. It was the rule that made itself over, the elegant solution that allowed maintenance and replenishment of the musical variety. The two finger cords were in perfect harmony and my weariness left me.

If we are honest, it is those perfect rules that we should all be trying to find. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a good try at social cohesion through the centuries. “One man, one vote.” was catchy, but somehow no more productive than our “One finger, one note.”

I’ve had a little experience with patents, and patents testify to what some feel is mankinds primary ability – being a toolmaker. The toolmaker empowers all others who find his or her way superior in getting a job done. Though there are various kinds of saws, the saw is one of those elegant tools that turned collections of hovels into tight-fitting cities.

Abraham Lincoln supported and improved the US Patent system, because it carried the potential improvements in civilization with it as surely as his political imperatives on federal government and no slavery.  I was having lunch with Jim Dixon, the attorney who wrote the US Patent on the Integrated Circuit with Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby — which won Kilby the Nobel Prize a few years ago. Patents, he related, were not to give power and exclusivity to individuals, but to show others how the tool is made, so that to compete these others must improve on that tool in a unique way. The idea, Jim said, is that ideas are continually improving and patents are a way to make those paths clear to others who will carry them forward. The advantage of protecting a patent and minting money with it, according to Jim (and Abraham) occurs only if practicioners have no further imagination to provide to the process. So the patent system is (or should be) a set of rules allowing an elegant process for renewal and replenishment of ideas of the toolmakers.

I guess I have always considered an elegant rule the most important tool we can discover. At the time of the piano incursion in our lives, I was supporting my small family and also I was fiddling with the notion of becoming a mediocre professional soccer player and trying to be a run-of-the-mill playwright. Those faded in importance (to my great good fortune).  My sons taught me that the most important things were rules that empower people. We went from “one finger, one note” to seeing parallels and perpendiculars throughout the house. While they were young, they went on to learn to read – and to calculate — before kindergarten by writing their own books instead of reading books of others (see The Haunted House Dictionary and The Astronaut’s Guide to Adding and Subtracting). In my profession, I went on to develop tools for learning by computer and I think I owe my reverence for rules and tools to their patient coaching from my weary lap in those evenings.

Tools, it would seem, are either physical or mental, and truly unique software programs are as important as apparatus in the Patent System (or should be). Rules are either mental or – in the case of a ruler (or a level bubble) – physical embodiments of a core process. Elegance in either Tools or Rules should be the main concern of parents and teachers and preachers and union bosses and politicians.  When things have failed, as the angel said, it is a failure of imagination.  We have failed to build elegant rules and tools with a unique resilience that will last.

That is what my boys taught me, and that is still my 2 cents worth.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Guayaquil in the Rear View Mirror

Some things look good on the map, and from everything we saw about Guayaquil — a large population, the only pacific port city for 1000 miles, a warm climate with Pacific Ocean breezes — this had to be a good next stop to make while we were in Ecuador. However, when we mentioned we might go there, people looked away, a bit shifty. Our Spanish was embryonic, but there was some message. Something we didn’t know.

Quito had been gorgeous, a tiny European replica in the Andes, almost on the equator but high enough to be like spring year round. A lot of ex-pats, banks, coffee shops, big hotels. Pretty much the real South America if you could afford it and didn’t have places to go on dirty buses. Dirty buses were the way to see that world though. Buses with banana stalks and stowaway kids on top. Buses with chickens and goats and dirty diapers you lived with for hours. Buses which stopped quickly at every town and the vendors stuck frozen juice popsicles up for tourists to buy through the open windows.

And if you were a Gringo, the buses stopped at every state boundary and made you spread you belongings out on the dirt road for the local policeman to inspect along with your passport. As I was obviously a Gringo I qualified for every inspection stop. Brenda, however, had an Irish passport and, though we were married, she jumped at the chance to disown me. “No Gringo!” She said as she flashed her Irish passport. “Irlando. Yo soy Irlando.” So much, I thought, for death do us part. (I probably deserved about anything because I had forgotten her birthday that year, not in a flush of activity, but as the two of us waited patiently for half the day at a bus stop.)

The word Gringo, if you haven’t heard, comes from when Texans and other cowboys went down through Mexico with cattle herds and sang the mournful songs to put the cattle to sleep at night. One of their favorites (and likely the cattle favorites as well) started out “Green grow the lilacs in Oregon.” They slurred “Green Grow” into Gringo, and thereafter every American who ventured south of the Mexican border was a Gringo. Its usage spread clear down to the chilly tip of the southern continent. Brenda, by the way, just became an official Gringo last year, perhaps a world record for holding onto a green card.

Guayaquil, which provoked sideways glances and few endorsements from people we queried about it, seemed a little foreboding — but it wasn’t our first forebodement in Ecuador. Upon crossing from Columbia into Equador, right at the border, I pulled out a map I had brought from the States, and started to look for a route to Quito. I was lifted under the shoulders by two stout gendarmes and deposited in a room with no windows. Brenda was allowed in, but they took my map, and I could hear them arguing outside the door. Vaguely it sounded like they might shoot me for carrying this map.

“We take this map.”

“Can I have it back?”

“No, it is a crime.”

We did not like the idea of being criminals in a place where the jails were the dark hole of any political universe. “But it is not a crime if I give it to you.”

This sort of question is a horrible mistake when you use it on non-native English speakers. (Yes, it is not – or, No, you are right that it is not?) Spanish speakers cannot really comprehend how to answer a question asked as a negative question. It does not translate. The mistake could send someone to jail.

“We take this, and you stay here now.”

They came back half an hour later and with no reason at all, the head gendarme flicked his hand in a signal we could go.

Go we most certainly did. The taxi driver got a huge tip to hurry us to what was the dirtiest, dustiest, hangdog bus station on the continent, I am sure. Later I learned the story. My father had received the map when he worked as a petroleum engineer for Standard Oil in the States before WWII (which, sadly, claimed him). The map was in his belongings and so I took it along on our trip in 1970. As often happens in South America, I learned what follows from a drunken history professor who probably later got his tongue cut out.

Apparently two dictators in Colombia and Equador struck a deal when the dictator of Equador amassed humoungous gambling debts. Colombia demanded about half of Equador’s land mass in repayment. Probably the real story is far more complicated. In any event the two dictators apparently staged a war, prenegotiating the eventual boundaries and even estimating the what would be an acceptable number of dead and wounded. It had to play with the populace, of course, with harangues and bands and young men marching off to war. One can imagine it being managed by a Madison Avenue advertising agency like the product rollout of a new potato chip.

Mindless as I am of the details, this little war did happen in the early 1940s when most of the world’s attention was elsewhere. It truly resulted in the decision by a world tribunal in the Conference of Rio de Janeiro to change boundaries between Colombia and Equador to give Colombia about 2/3 of the Equadorian land mass. My father’s map displayed a much larger Equador. That is why the border guards confiscated it, as their politicos needed no reminders of this skullduggery lingering about, even this far in the future.

All of this brought us with a detour in lovely little Cuenca, to the big bad port of Guayaquil. On the map it had a large zoo and a race track. One could imagine families on weekends buying cotton candy on one of the large parks. What could be that bad?

To this day I cannot tell you why we had the feeling, shared by most who I’ve talked with, that Guayaquil had some sort of evil seeping out of its pores. When we got off he bus people looked at us a bit askance, not a friendly sort of askance, like here are more stupid Gringos (though Brenda quickly apprised them of the difference). Instead it was sort of a strange askance, like they knew something bad might be about to happen. Where we ate sandwiches was oddly unhospitable even to our money which was clearly their money and it was not refused, but everything seemed dirtier, as if disease germs were riding on our money, but they had to take it, reluctantly.

Across South American, we often were befriended by the first taxi drivers we hailed, who we asked to show us where to eat with no amoebas and to sleep with no rats. Usually that was an opportunity for him to make points with his friends (– we never had a female driver) or relatives. The understanding was that if we would tip him, and perhaps exchange travelers cheques with him at a rate higher for us than the bank, he would not send us to die.

He dropped us at a large hotel near the government buildings. Maybe the day was just grey, but everything seemed bland and tasteless in Guayaquil, and as I said, always steeped with foreboding. Our hotel room was clean, with a double bed in the middle of the room under a light bulb that hung all the way from the ceiling from its cord and was turned on with the little beaded string such lights have.

There were no windows in the room. All the rooms seemed to be accessible from a long balcony with stairs at each end. It was not a friendly place, but not friendly to rats either, so we slept soundly – until early the next morning. Of course with no windows we had no way of sensing the time. And then we heard the commotion on the balconies outside. The room was pitch black and I realized the only way to see would be to reach up for the light cord above. I reached – and it was not there. Groping this way for the light must have seemed comical to some creature with night vision, but it was weird to the point of panic. Then my fingers brushed the cord. The cord and its light bulb were apparently swinging in large arcs above out bed. I caught the cord on the next swing and pulled it, stopping the pendulum. We quickly pulled on clothes and opened the door to the balcony.

Guests were all out of their rooms, some making their way to the stairways, others staring at the sky. We stood at the rail of the balcony and stared at the sky as well. Government buildings of that architectural period have a crest upon which sit half of the birds in the city. Right now they all chose to fly at once, like a huge black swarm of bees, clouding the sky which had tried to turn bright this morning. It was the flight of nature from itself. The blackened sun seemed to represent the evil of Guayaquil.

We took the first bus we could get to anywhere, just out of Guayaquil. Though the small earthquake had subsided, I guessed later that the whole city must rest on some gigantic geologic fault that quivers enough to bestow a constant tension on the air, and only occasionally jiggles enough to disturb the animals. The buildings which still stood had probably made it, some inadvertently, through several earthquakes.

We fled all the way to the border of Northern Peru, where we discovered the city of Tumbes and its graveyard. The hotel was horrible but the people all proudly told us to visit the cemetary. And they had reason to be proud. The majestic sculpted shrubs there, many of which were two stories high, represented Alice in Wonderland with huge rabbits and queens, and clubs and diamonds as they would be on playing cards. I could call it therapeutic.

In Tumbes, it seemed as if the sheer effort and creativity of the gardeners at this cemetary were somehow the antidote to Guayaquil. This was a place which – though a cemetary – had happiness and humor and a vigorous confirmation of life.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved