My First Look Down the Barrel

Dear Reader: I’ve been writing about my life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista-Contra war. This is from the archives. It’s one essay of a four-part series on guns, which can be found on The Writing Bull.

The man was drunk. He had reason to be. The enemy had come through his small town in northern Nicaragua just a few weeks before Michelle and I walked into his house. It was a small house with a tin roof, no running water, a dirt floor and a wood burning stove made out of cement. Bullets had pockmarked the outside of his adobe walls, as they had most every house in the town. They had killed his father, not by bullet, but knife, a gash through his neck. His father hadn’t been a soldier, but a farmer of a measly patch of corn.

This was no surprise. The enemy, the “Contra,” were known to ravage villages and kill civilians—their own people. They set fire to homes, shot through windows into kitchens, mowed down children. They had come in from the north, from Honduras; but their funding had come from Washington, D.C. And their weapon was the M16-A2.

But the young man who pointed the rifle at us wasn’t a Contra. Sergio was a die-hard Sandinista, the party that now ran Nicaragua, after forty years of a sadistic dictatorship. Sergio had just won a scholarship to attend a university in Europe. Local boy does good—that’s who Sergio was. Then his father was murdered. Someone else in the family had fought alongside the Sandinistas, and had taken the M16 off a dead Contra and—against orders—had given it to Sergio.

Sergio’s mother Marta, a sweet lady in her forties, had poured coffee for us and was talking about the attack. Sergio was in the back, drinking. He heard us. He pushed aside the torn-open fertilizer sack that was the door between the two rooms and looked at us—two gringos sitting in the front room.

We began the un-fun conversation between the sober and the inebriated. It didn’t take long. Once he knew we were from the U.S., something lifted in him, some sobering thought that rose through the alcohol. He went back through the cloth door.

“He’s been so upset, since his father passed.” She worried about his drinking, which had gotten worse .

Sergio walked out with the M16, sat on a chair in front of Michelle and me, and pointed it at us. Michelle was sitting down. I stood next to her. Through the whiskey, he spoke analytically; he connected the dots, as every single Nicaraguan who had lost loved ones to the Contra connected the dots. It wasn’t “The Contra,” but “Your Contra. The ones your president pays to murder us.” He said that the rifle, taken off a dead mercenary soldier, had been paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Our entire nation was complicit in the murders of his fellow Nicaraguans.

His facts slipped and bubbled in the alcohol. He wrapped his hand around the pistol grip, hooked his index finger around the trigger and pointed it at Michelle, at me, back and forth, and talked. His mother rocked from one foot to the other, whispering for him to calm down. He was calm, he said. She pleaded for us, said that we were good people, not like other gringos, but ones who cared. Sergio stared at Michelle—her blonde hair, blue eyes, her light skin tanned by a year of Nicaraguan sun. He shifted in his chair, talked about how this very rifle had killed so many Nicaraguans but that wasn’t going to happen anymore.

I spoke. I rattled with fear. Couldn’t breathe well, couldn’t swallow. I had my hand on Michelle’s shoulder. She didn’t move, didn’t twitch. He tipped the muzzle toward her. I didn’t plead for our lives; I didn’t fall to my knees and beg forgiveness for the sins of my own government. I talked about how this very situation, the killing of two gringos, could bring the entire force of the U.S. military down upon him. This was not a threat. Reagan was in D.C., muttering every few minutes, Just give me one good reason. Our deaths by the hands of a Sandinista supporter would suffice.

As he talked, Marta snapped the thirty-round magazine from the base and shoved it into an apron pocket. I knew, there was a good chance that a round was still in the chamber. But his mother’s sudden move made him lurch slightly, look around, and slip into another realm of the drunk. His arms slumped, the M16 lay slack in his hands. He stood and walked back to the back.

We stumbled out, with a mother behind us, apologizing, asking forgiveness. We hitchhiked to Ocotal, the nearest city, ducked into a hostel and stayed there for three days.

I could say a lot of things here, about U.S. policies in third world countries, poverty, desperation, a people living under the constant threat of a military invasion. But right now, I’m thinking only of that M16-A2, with its flash-suppresser clipped to the muzzle, aimed at my wife’s chest, then mine, then hers.

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