It is 1980 when Tennessean Stan Hollins and his family arrive in Nicaragua, where the government has just been overthrown. Seeking to make amends for the 1854 destruction of a Nicaraguan town by his U.S. Navy captain ancestor, Stan founds Acción, an organization that provides medical services to poor rural communities. Proud of the good he is doing, Stan thinks that he has finally attained his life's ambition. Unfortunately he could not be more wrong.
Four years later, on a visit to one of Acción's health centers on the Río San Juan, Stan and his group are asleep when explosions suddenly rock the farm where they are staying. Stan is caught in the middle of a vicious surprise attack by Contra rebels and his life is changed forever. Wounded and hailed as a hero, Stan soon makes choices that lead to loss and humiliation. To escape his pain, he starts life anew in the tiny, isolated costal town once destroyed by his ancestor.
In this adventurous tale set in one of the wildest, most beautiful, and historic regions of Nicaragua, a man struggles to redeem himself and his family name as both he and his adopted country fight for their futures.
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THROUGH FIRE AND WATERA NOVEL SET IN THE RÍO SAN JUAN REGION OF NICARAGUA
By Tom Frist
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Tom Frist
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLike a child's stick thrown into a muddy stream, a long, narrow passenger boat slowly made its way down Nicaragua's Río San Juan, oblivious to the upcoming rapids. A sudden burst of rain had broken the heavy heat and humidity of this April midafternoon, but now the sun reappeared from behind the clouds above the giant Guanacaste trees that bordered the river.
The boat carried six passengers—two Americans and four Nicaraguans—all heading to the Roberto Romero State Farm to spend the night before devoting two days to treating patients at the small medical clinic in the nearby river town of La Esperanza. In the middle of the boat, beneath the craft's wooden canopy, dozens of cardboard boxes of medical supplies were stacked. Clear plastic sheeting protected them from the downpour and from the spray of water from the river.
From the back of the boat, Nicaraguan music blared from a shortwave radio hanging by a frayed chord from a support beam. The radio belonged to the boat's owner and pilot—a burly, unshaven man in his late thirties nicknamed Chino. Gripping the control handle of the two-stroke outboard motor, Chino guided the boat around fallen branches and other hazards floating downstream to the Atlantic. Sitting right in front of him, a young Sandinista soldier in uniform named Benito cradled an AK-47 assault rifle on his lap and stared at the far riverbank looking for signs of Contra rebels.
When the music stopped and a familiar drumroll announced the Sandinista anthem and afternoon newscast, the older of the two Americans perked up and emerged from his long silence. With an ironic grin and a flourish of his hand, Stan Hollins took off his red and black baseball cap, put it over his heart, and sang in an off-key voice his favorite verse of the anthem, "Luchamos contra el Yankee, enemigo de la humanidad—We are fighting against the Yankee, the enemy of humanity."
"Good thing they're no Yankees on this boat," Stan said, "just us good old Southern boys!" Stan, a six feet tall, athletic, handsome man in his mid-forties with thick brown hair, directed his joke to his new son-in-law, Clay Danforth, who sat on the bench beside him and was also from Nashville. Clay, who was a little shorter than Stan and wore a floppy L.L. Bean hat to cover his small bald spot and to shade his pale, scholarly face, smiled back politely, although he didn't seem to understand the joke.
On the bench behind them, Stan's friend Luis Romero, now a high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry of Nicaragua's new revolutionary government, however, laughed out loud. His own great-grandfather had Southern roots, and Luis could easily be confused for a white Southerner because of his light skin, sandy hair, and European facial features. Only his slightly accented English and his guayabera shirts gave him away as a Nicaraguan.
Stan and Luis had been friends now for eleven years, since January of 1973 when Stan drove to Nicaragua a twenty-six foot truck packed with relief supplies that he had personally collected from Nashville for the victims of the disastrous Christmas Eve earthquake in Managua. For the three weeks that he was in Nicaragua to distribute the supplies, Stan had stayed with Luis's family in their Granada home, and Luis had served as Stan's translator. In the following years, their friendship had deepened as Stan returned often to Nicaragua to help in some of Luis's community development projects. Usually when Stan came, he brought with him small groups of volunteers from his church and from the elite boy's preparatory school in Nashville where he taught history.
In 1980, after the overthrow of Somoza and his government, Luis invited Stan to move to Nicaragua permanently to help him and his political party, the Sandinistas, create in the country what he called "a model society of equality and justice." Fascinated with this new challenge and bored with his life in Nashville, Stan quickly accepted the invitation despite the strong protests of his daughter Laura who didn't want to miss her senior year of high school with her friends. Within six months, Stan quit his job, sold their house, raised some support from his church and friends, and moved with his wife Elizabeth and Laura to Managua. That same year, with Luis's help, Stan founded Acción para la Paz, the small international relief and development organization based in Managua that sponsored the health clinic on the Río San Juan to which they were now heading.
"How much farther is it?" Clay asked. Stan noticed that his usually cheerful son-in-law had a new weary tone in his voice. This was Clay's first time outside of the U.S. and Canada, and his initial enthusiasm for the adventure had been deflated by the long trip and the heat and humidity of the day.
"Not more than ten minutes," Luis answered. "We pass by an island on the left, and then you'll see the farm on the right bank. Actually, you can see its radio antenna now." Luis leaned out from under the boat's blue wooden canopy and pointed to what looked like a silver pin sticking up from a hill in the far distance.
Clay let out a sigh of relief, took a sip from his canteen, and put it back into his leather knapsack. He then zipped open another pocket and pulled out an expensive Nikon camera. With one hand grasping its strap, he clumsily moved forward to the bow. There he positioned himself so that he could get a full picture of the boat, its passengers and supplies, as well as the wake in the river behind them.
Stan figured that, during the last hour of their boat ride from San Carlos, Clay had already used his zoom lens to shoot some three rolls of pictures of river shacks on stilts, women washing clothes in the river, dugout canoes, majestic jungle trees, white egrets, a snoozing alligator, and several turtles sunbathing on limbs sticking out of the water. Everything on the river was new and exotic to him, and he wanted to share his adventure with his parents, his medical intern friends at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville where he worked, and most of all with his new wife, Laura.
Laura, who was now a junior at Vanderbilt, had stayed in Managua with her mother, Elizabeth. Her original plan had been to come with Clay and her father to help out in the Acción clinic, but when she found out she was pregnant, she changed that plan on her doctor's advice.
As Clay returned to his seat, Stan noticed a barge in the distance filled with people leaving the right bank of the river and heading downstream. He pointed it out to Luis and asked who they were.
"Day laborers at the state farm heading home to La Esperanza about five kilometers downstream," Luis explained. "They come each morning and leave each evening." Luis then turned to the young Nicaraguan woman sitting beside him. "If you look up at the top of the hill behind the barge, you can see the house where we will stay tonight."
Sandra Espinoza, the sixth person and the only woman in the boat, shaded her eyes with her hand and looked. Her face and eyes reflected the intensity of her strong personality. Thirty-two years old and a reporter and photographer for La Barricada, the official newspaper of the Sandinistas, she was known in Nicaragua for her dark beauty, her combative feminism, her bravery, and her guile. Now dressed in loose-fitting khaki pants and shirt that hid her shapely body, she had once used her feminine charms to entice a high-ranking Somoza official into a trap where he was kidnapped for ransom.
Luis had invited her to come along on the trip so that she could write an article for the newspaper on "Good Yankees"—international volunteers like Stan Hollins who came to Nicaragua to help the Revolution instead of to oppose it. At first, Sandra was reluctant to do such a story because she had no love for the U.S. Government and didn't want to portray any Americans in a positive light. She finally relented on the condition that Luis would come along with them on the trip so she could use their time together to gather material not only for the "Good Yankee" story but for two other articles—one on Luis and his family and the other on the Roberto Romero State Farm. Stan was happy that Luis had finally agreed to Sandra's conditions despite his natural modesty. Stan had no such modesty himself, and he knew that a favorable article in La Barricada would be a considerable help for raising support for himself and his work.
Stan looked at his watch. It was 4:00 p.m., and they had been traveling since 4:30 a.m. It had been a tiring trip, starting with a nine-hour ride in Stan's battered, blue Toyota Land Cruiser on the torturous dirt highway from Managua to San Carlos. An army pickup truck, which Luis had arranged, followed behind carrying donated medical supplies from the U.S. that Stan had gathered. Much of the distance, they swerved like drunks, trying to avoid the thousands of gaping ruts and potholes in the road. When they were unsuccessful, their bodies jolted and crashed into each other and into the roof of the car.
After finally arriving in the sleepy river capital of San Carlos, they had spent an hour in courtesy visits with the mayor and with the regional military commander, while the supplies they had brought were reloaded from the army truck onto the boat. Even though the military commander reported that there had not been any recent Contra activity in the upper region of the river, he still insisted on sending with them one of his soldiers—at least until they got to La Esperanza, where a small army contingent was stationed. He then radioed the state farm administrator, Cesar Rodrigues, advising him that Luis and the American medical team would be arriving within two hours.
Those two hours had just passed when Chino cut off the motor and glided their boat the last ten meters towards the farm visitor's dock, bouncing softly off the white tires that protected the heavy wooden planks of the wharf. Benito, in the stern of the boat, stood up, grabbed one of the pier posts, and pulled himself out of the craft onto the dock. At the same time, Stan reached for the rope hooked to the bow and slung it up to him. The soldier grabbed it and tied it to one of the pilings. When the boat was secure, he held out his free hand to help Clay, Sandra, Stan, and finally Luis climb onto the pier.
Stan was glad to be out of the boat. He stretched his cramped legs and then glanced up the muddy hill towards the rambling wooden house overlooking the river. A soldier who was sitting on the porch watching them got up, opened the front door, and yelled to someone inside. A minute later, a heavyset man appeared at the door and stared down at them.
When Luis saw him, he waved and shouted in Spanish, "It's us—Luis Romero and the medical team from Managua."
The man waved back in acknowledgement and immediately started down the porch stairs to the stone-and-dirt path that led to the river dock.
Meanwhile, Chino handed up to Stan and Luis their personal gear from the boat.
"What about the medical supplies?" Stan asked Luis. "Are we going to unload them, too?"
Luis shook his head. "No, we'll leave them in the panga. That way we can get an early start in the morning for La Esperanza."
"Do you think it's safe?" Stan asked. He had spent a full day at customs in Managua filling out forms for the release of the supplies, and he did not want anything to happen to them.
"Sure. Chino and Benito both have hammocks and will sleep in the boat with them."
By then, the heavyset man had made it down the hill to the dock. "Bienvenidos, compas—welcome, brothers," he said, greeting them enthusiastically, his smile revealing his bad teeth. He looked to Stan to be in his late forties and had a disheveled appearance with uncombed hair, a stubbly beard, and a pocked face. His rumpled, olive green uniform bulged at his waist.
"Cesar Rodriguez, the director of the Roberto Romero State Farm," Luis said as he introduced him in English to Stan and to Clay.
Stan noticed that in contrast to his welcome, Cesar shook hands only perfunctorily and avoided eye contact. Cesar then turned to Luis and said in Spanish, "We got the message about your coming. Your rooms are ready, and after you clean up and rest a little, we'll have dinner waiting for you." He added, "Mi casa es su casa—my house is your house."
And indeed, the house literally was Luis's house, just as Cesar said. Stan knew the story well, and he had heard most of it again in Spanish earlier in the day on the road trip from Managua to San Carlos as Sandra interviewed Luis about his family for her articles. This was the house in which Luis had been raised—the former headquarters of his family's cattle ranch, Las Palmas, inherited through three generations from James Landers, Luis's American great-grandfather on his mother's side. In response to Sandra's questions, Luis had told her the histories of both the ranch and of his own family.
"In 1852, James Landers, my maternal great-grandfather, left Mobile, Alabama, to seek his fortune in the California gold rush," Luis began. "He booked passage on one of Cornelius Vanderbilt's steamers in New Orleans, but instead of continuing all the way to San Francisco, he decided to stay in Nicaragua."
"What made him change his mind?" Sandra asked.
"Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company offered him a good job, and he liked the area," Luis replied. "What happened was that the steam engine on the riverboat taking him and the other passengers up the river to El Castillo broke down. Since James was a mechanic and had worked on boats in Mobile, he volunteered to help fix it. One of the local directors of Vanderbilt's company, who happened to be traveling on the same boat, was so impressed with James's ability that he offered to hire him on the spot with a generous salary if James would agree to stay in Nicaragua and work for them. James accepted. He eventually married a girl from El Castillo and later became a river pilot for the Accessory Transit Company at a much higher salary. With his savings, he purchased two large jungle properties—one near San Juan del Norte at the bottom of the river that our family never developed but still owns, and one above El Castillo, called "Las Palmas," that the government confiscated and turned into the Roberto Romero State Farm."
"Tell me a little more about how that happened," Sandra said in Spanish. She was sitting beside Luis in the back seat taking notes as best she was able with all of the bouncing and swerving. While Stan listened as he maneuvered the ruts and holes of the dirt highway, Clay just stared out the front passenger window at the forests and farms they passed. He knew little Spanish and didn't talk much anyway.
"It's a long story," Luis replied.
"That doesn't matter," Sandra said. "We've got a lot of time until we get to San Carlos."
Through the rearview mirror, Stan saw Luis nod his head in agreement.
"I guess then that I should begin in 1968," Luis began. "That's when my father, Arturo Romero, decided to sell our family house and most of our ranch near El Castillo to Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Somoza had long pressured him because he wanted to have a place on the Río San Juan where he could fish river tarpon with his friends and raise more cattle. Anyway, both my father and my mother felt that it was time to move back from the river to Father's childhood home in Granada so that Elena, Jorge, Roberto, and I could continue our education. With the proceeds from the sale, Father was able to fix up his Granada house, pay for our schooling, open a G.M. dealership in Managua, and later build a new house on the 1,000 hectares of Las Palmas that we kept for our family next to the property that we had sold to Somoza."
"So your family was actually friends with the Somoza family?!" Sandra asked, astonished.
"My father and mother were," Luis answered.
"How did you ever decide to become a Sandinista then?"
"It happened gradually. I wanted to become a priest, but when I was in my last year of seminary training, the earthquake occurred in Managua. I dropped out of seminary to help, but then I became so involved in relief programs that I never went back. The truth is that the more I got into the aid effort, the more disgusted I became with what I saw. Much of the foreign assistance money for the earthquake victims ended up in the pockets of Somoza and his friends instead of helping those who needed it most. When I saw that protests did no good, I finally decided to join the Sandinistas. To me, there was no other viable alternative at the time. I then convinced my younger brother, Roberto, to drop out of school and join the Sandinistas as well."
"Did the rest of your family know that you had joined the Sandinistas?" Sandra asked.
Excerpted from THROUGH FIRE AND WATER by Tom Frist Copyright © 2012 by Tom Frist. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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