In 1969, when I was seven, we made a trip to El Salvador for the summer. My parents had plans: they considered moving to my mother’s home country, for financial reasons. Life was cheaper in Central America, even for a financially strapped gringo family. Mamá still had kin in the country. We could build a new life there.
We hopscotched toward El Salvador, landing first in Guatemala. After a short layover, we boarded the plane. It was just a thirty minute flight to San Salvador. But, ten minutes in, our plane turned around. We landed back in Guatemala. This was the afternoon of July 14. The pilot gave no reason. Back at the Guatemala airport, everyone was talking about it: while we were in the air, El Salvador had gone to war with Honduras.
It was called The Soccer War. Both countries were playing against each other in a qualifying game for the World Cup. At the same time, the Honduran army was running Salvadoran immigrants out of Honduras.
We hung out in Guatemala for a day. My mother filmed everything with her little windup sixteen millimeter camera. The film is scratchy now, with burn marks every few minutes. There I am, seven years old, running around a fountain in the town of Antigua. I’m smiling, laughing, looking all around the town. Then I turn to the camera. I look happy. Which now seems strange.
We made it to El Salvador. There were soldiers all over, just like there would be sixteen years later, when Michelle and I, newly married, flew into Nicaragua. I have no emotional recollection around my soldiers of childhood. They’re just soldiers.
Emotional memory. But, that’s what memory is, right? Emotional? I was a child and, though not knowing it at the time, I was beginning the long labor of putting bricks and mortar to the recent past. Seven, and already, I was learning to protect myself.
The horrors in my bedroom had ended six months earlier, when the predator decided raping a child was enough, and moved on. I know enough about survival to theorize: I was already closing off the chaos that had invaded my life at age five, and hadn’t let up until I turned six, going on seven.
And now we were in a country so different, so, interesting, and vaguely familiar. A place where my mother was at home, where she walked around like one who’s searching for old paths in the woods. Everyone spoke her language, the one my father had forbidden her to speak to me.
There was a war going on. And yet, when I recall that summer, I feel peace. For I had gone through my own war, a war that still rages up from time to time, as it did this past Christmas, when Michelle considered putting me in a seventy-two-hour hold.
Nicaragua in 1985 was not my first war. Nor was El Salvador in 1969. My war had begun in 1967, with the pillaging of my small body.
My life has been a war. I’m better off saying this. Because I can continue cultivating the metaphor: I am a soldier in the service of my damaged mind.
We went to El Salvador to consider a new life. We didn’t stay. But I latch onto that trip, my memories of it, as the turning point of survival. The place, and the time, when I started gathering weapons. Or better said, the weapon. One that was already in me. It just needed coaxing.