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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The General and Me

The scattering of patrons was the first signal to us that something was amiss. Like that rustle of leaves you hear in the forest, when there is nobody else but you out for a stroll to enjoy the solitude and every step you take makes the little creatures scamper and run for cover.
Next it was Paola and her friend who had joined us at the table for a drink and in hearing the commotion, glanced back at the entrance door and, faster than you can even think to ask “What the hell's going on?” both got up, mumbled something unintelligible and headed to wherever exotic dancers go when they are not occupied trying to fleece you.
While we might have then qualified as good ol’ boys, the Club Safari was not one of our usual haunts. Fact is, we had not been there before and after that night, were never again to visit while it was still in business. Had it not been for the fact that my colleague and coworker had earlier made Paola's acquaintance —one of those chance encounters where you exchange pleasantries, find out what the other one does and let time and opportunity decide whether to pursue a second meeting— we might have very well stayed true to the usual after work routine: clock out, hail a cab, and head for the joint where the beer was cold, the appetizers tasty, the food plentiful, and everybody knew your name (that one is from Cheers, I know, so sue me!)
You talked shop, pondered immortality, ate enough to keep alive, and drank not to oblivion but enough to get a buzz and be grateful that you were riding cabs and not driving. That way, you didn't have to worry about the stalking national policemen out to extort anybody on the streets, whether you were young and dumb enough to be at the wheel after having a couple (or more than a couple) of drinks or just an anguished father rushing to the nearest drugstore on duty.
To this day my friend and I still wonder why we didn’t follow the scattering patrons.
As I recall, we got to the place around midnight. It had been one of those spur of the moment decisions you take after suddenly deciding that the night's still young and why head home just now. It’s early, we used to say, sun’s not up yet!
It was also a Friday, which by that time everybody had started calling L'il Saturday: Sábado Chiquito. A testament I think to the power of advertising, where the nickname originated at about the same time that Chepe Toño (the character that promoted the more popular alcoholic drink made out of sugarcane) set house in Salvadoran lore —once he did, you never again invited a friend to go out for a drink, you went to “get a Chepe Toño,” that is “a echarnos un Chepe Toño!”
How and why that type of stuff stays on we might talk about it some other day. However it happens, what's clear is that you just don't improve on such sayings just like that. Somebody tells you on a Thursday how grateful we need to be because it is "Almost Friday" (Cachi Viernes) and it sounds contrived, just won't stick.
In time, I came to realize that we were both (my friend and I) being watched over and protected more than we probably deserved. God, it is said, takes care of children, drunkards, and fools. We were certainly not drunk and way past the age of innocence but we certainly qualified at that precise moment as fools. Read on.
“Better you both take cover. It’s the general,” Paola told my friend, who got up to inquire about the ruckus while she was safely hidden behind a column. So were the waiters, the dancers, the bouncers, and all the other patrons. Except for the two of us still sitting and nursing our drinks, all other tables and chairs were empty.
By "the general" she meant José Alberto "El Chele" Medrano. It was the early 70s and while both my coworker and I knew well enough who "the general" was, neither had ever made the general's acquaintance.
You didn't have to work in a newspaper or even read the newspaper to know who "the general" was. Fame and notoriety surrounded him.
The pix here shows him leading a column of national guardsmen at the time of the war between El Salvador and Honduras, in 1969. I've always thought that it was staged. Were you to look at the original you might notice even more how Medrano's boots are rather shiny, odd if it's rainy weather in the countryside. Unseen is the .357 Magnum revolver he was usually photographed with, in a holster across his chest.
Back in the days when "death squad" had still not made its entry into the political lexicon in El Salvador, Medrano was reputed to be one of the earliest founders or sponsors of such groups. A “death squadder” was still someone you only associated with the sordid and clandestine campaign of annihilation of marxist urban guerrillas or common criminals in South American countries. As you can see from the reminiscence here by the veteran journalist Francisco Romero Cerna (Don Chico, to most everybody) there was a lot to be fearful of or at least apprehensive about were you ever to cross “El Chele” Medrano.
Fact is, as per Paola's rushed and hushed warning to her friend, my coworker, that night, you didn't even have to cross "the general". Most of the patrons that night at the night club were regulars, therefore familiar with his coming into the club, drunk as a skunk, and fire away his weapon. Was anybody ever injured during such a display? My guess is that all the scattering patrons would rather not stay put to find out.
“What do you think, shall we scamper away? She thinks, and so does her dancer friend, that we ought to,” said my friend.
“Too late now for that,” I replied, as “the general” made his entrance into the lounge, dutifully holding his .357 Magnum on his right hand and followed by his bodyguards, who promptly cased the joint to make sure that no one would dare confront or threaten the old soldier.
Even Salvadoran teetotalers can precisely distinguish the different stages of drunkenness. “Picado” is the equivalent of “a buzz”, and “zapatón” (roughly, flatfooted) defines the guy who’s actually well imbibed but lucid enough to realize that he is, at the same time trying to prevent his listing to either side by stomping rather than walking.
As soon as we saw him head to our table, we both realized that Medrano was neither “picado” nor “zapatón” or even “dead drunk”. He was actually as it is said “on autopilot”, the palimpsest stage of alcoholism evidenced not by the unsteady walk or the stench of alcohol, but rather by the nothingness behind the dark and bloodshot eyes.
“Good evening, general, sir," I greeted him, as Medrano pointed his revolver right up to my forehead (a rather difficult target to miss, if you really want to know.)
“How are you doing, sir? Good evening,” my coworker dutifully chimed in, as "the general" waved the revolver to his right.
There was of course no answer from "the general." He more or less waved the Magnum around, strolled for a few seconds by the empty tables, and left.

Neither my friend or me ever made much of the incident. We were at the time old enough to have surpassed the "age of invulnerability," that absurd feeling you have that nothing will ever harm you that characterizes your teen years. Perhaps naively we just thought, "why run, if we haven't done nothing."
Once when we reminisced about the story and younger friends listening inquired whether the general in fact pointed the gun at either one or both of us or just waved it around, and also whether it was the famed .357, my recollection is that we just exchanged a look —the one that says that when you are staring at the wrong end of the barrel of a gun, details like that are meaningless, you just thank God for shielding you from harm.

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