Planes, Ships, and People

Eclipse (1966)

Hugo Luis Stanchi

The thunder outside kept making its muffled rumbling noise as I tossed in bed. I kept thinking it would eventually die out and I could keep on sleeping. But it did not die out . . . it became stronger, finally developing a sensuous rhythm which repeated itself time after time. I got tired of listening to the noise and looked out from my window.

Throughout the night the wind had pushed the clouds toward the sea. The sun, for the first time in weeks, was now allowed to shine against the deep blue background. It did not make any sense, for I was sure I had heard thunder. The white-washed walls and windows of the rooms encircling the vine-roofed patio reflected the sunlight which had bypassed the bare arms of the vines. I blinked my eyes, looked at the sky, and looked down again. I noticed then that my brother, my aunt, and my younger brother Juanito were standing on the middle of the patio looking up at the sky.

"What's going on?" I said

My brother yelled, "It's a revolution!"

I jumped out of bed, put my pants on, looked around the room for my shoes and finally found them under the bed. I forced my feet into them and tried to find my jacket. It was under the bed too. At last I was dressed enough to go outside and find out what was happening. My stomach was already churning with excitement. "Mother, is it true?" But before she had a chance to answer, a plane flew past our house flying at almost treetop level, a smaller plane followed in pursuit. The thunder's muffled rhythm droned over the southeastern part of the city. "Something is going on at the harbor!" I said. My stomach and lower parts of my body felt very warm and my head felt dizzy.

"Pablo . . . donde piensas a ir?" my mother said.

"Out," I answered.

"Come here!" But it was too late. I had already mounted my bicycle and was almost through the side door when she yelled, "You have not had your breakfast!"

"Luego!"

"Tu padre te va a dar una paliza!" she yelled after me.

I knew my father would spank me, but my stomach kept making funny noises, and my mouth felt so wet that the saliva made lumps in my throat as it went down.

A slight breeze ran through the streets making dead leaves drunk with joy as they staggered and crawled toward the curb in their newly-found freedom. It was Tuesday, but the stores were closed and their windows were protected by heavy metal curtains. The heavy wood doors of Our Church of St. Francis were also closed. It seemed that everybody was on the street clustered in small groups, talking with excited loud voices and puncturing the brisk air with their gestures. I walked toward one of the groups. "It started about six o'clock this morning," someone said.

"And I thought it was a storm at first."

"I thought it was a bomb, like the one somebody threw at the bakery about three years ago."

"At least we'll have a couple of days off."

"Do you think we'll get to hear the soccer next Sunday?"

"Sure. This will only last a couple of days."

"Are you sure of that, Fernando?" Carlitos' mother asked her husband. Carlitos detached himself from his mother and came over to where I was.

"Where are they fighting?" I said.

"Down by the harbor."

"Want to look at it?"

"My mother won't let me," he said.

"She's not looking at you now . . . I've never seen a big ship," I said. "C'mon, let's go."

"Carlitos? . . . Come here," his mother said.

"I told you," he said.

"She turned around. It's going to be fun," I said.

An open army truck, its green paint faded by a thick coat of dust, rambled down the street in the direction of the harbor. The crowd became somewhat silent as the truck went by. I counted twenty soldiers inside the truck. They sat very erect and unsmiling. They did not talk with one another. I felt kind of funny then.

I thought I would not have a chance to get close to the harbor, and I rode toward a portion of the coastline which drove deeply into the sea. Hundreds of people were already there. I rode to the edge of the cape, and after pushing my way through the spectators, I saw the cause of the thunder.

The sea was calm that day and the ships' bows sliced the water like razor blades cutting paper. They slashed toward the harbor and turned to present their bodies while the thunder-makers went into action. The man next to me yelled "Bueno! Give them another round!"

Another man from further down the line said, "Listen to those burps!" Everybody laughed. He took a bottle of cheap wine from his pocket, uncorked it, wiped the edge of the bottle with the palm of his hand, and bent his back to take a long drink of wine. Then he passed it to the man next to him.

The ships came closer and closer to the port as the resistance to their advance decreased. Finally I was able to see small figures in blue uniforms running around the deck and the recoil of the guns immediately after they had been fired.

One of the destroyers changed course and came toward the beach where part of the crowd was; it slowed and fired one round which hit the beach about five-hundred meters from where I stood. I jumped on my bicycle and tried to get away, but the man who had made the comment about the burps pushed me off against the ground in his hurry to get away. There was a flurry of legs dashing for safety. A couple of people trampled me and my bicycle. They cursed and one of them said, "Damn you, kid! Why don't you stay home!" When I got up, I saw that the rear wheel of my bicycle had about ten bent spokes and was unfit to be ridden. I pushed it, mentally calculating how much it would cost to have the wheel fixed. About halfway down the cape, I stopped and looked back at the harbor.

Fires were everywhere. It was as if that part of the city was enveloped by a solid, sooty-black wall with a myriad of red and yellow blotches. Nearby, a petroleum tower stood watch over the holocaust. The ships fired once more. A lazy thunderbolt crept up toward the sky and finally fell in a dense fiery mist. Two jet planes flew over the harbor and disappeared into the distance. The crowd was silent.

The shelling lasted for about three hours. It was now nine o'clock in the morning. I straightened the bent spokes on the rear wheel of my bicycle as best I could and started for home. The crowd broke up into small groups and walked toward the city.

When I arrived home, my mother rushed out of the kitchen and yelled, "You come here and eat something! Just because your father is out of town, don't get any ideas you can do what you'd like, young man!"

"Yes, Mother," I said. I ate a couple of biscuits and drank a cup of hot chocolate.

"Eat some more!"

"I am not hungry, Mother!" I said.

"Don't you answer me in that tone of voice!" she snapped.

"Yes, Mother," I said and got up from the table.

"Where do you think you are going?"

"I'm only going to the door, Mother," I answered.

My brother, who was playing in the living room, yelled, "Wait for me!"

We went outside. The day had changed . . . the sky had become gray and the sun hid behind dark, ugly clouds which allowed only an occasional finger of light to show through. A sharp and bitter wind bit the streets stopping only to angrily slap the blackened and dead leaves against houses and the skeletons of trees. Most of the people from the neighborhood were inside their homes and the street was the property of strange people who walked away from the harbor looking straight ahead seriously, stopping only to rest momentarily before going on.

Don Carlos, our next door neighbor, was talking to the pharmacist and to another man in front of the drugstore. "Looks like it's going to rain again," Don Carlos said.

"The weather is crazy. It's so unpredictable," the pharmacist said.

"I hope it doesn't rain too hard. During the last storm my basement flooded," the other man said. A large group of people went by and the three men stopped talking.

"Imagine, they have been walking like that since the bombardment began," Don Carlos said to no one in particular.

"I had no idea that the harbor contained so many people!" the pharmacist said.

"And the things they are carrying! One woman was carrying a picture of Christ, and the man next to her had a radio and a pair of pants in a wheelbarrow," the other man said smiling. I didn't say anything. I looked at my brother and he was grinning. I kicked him and he ran home crying.

The pharmacist said, "One of them had the gall to ask me for some gauze!"

"Did you give it to him?" Don Carlos asked.

"I had to. I didn't like the way he looked at me; but I'll never again open the pharmacy early in the morning! I have to pay for the gauze . . . it is not free nowadays!" Don Carlos and the other man nodded in agreement. Another group of people walked by and Don Carlos and the two others were silent.

Mrs. Garcia, an old widow who dressed in black and had a permanent scowl on her face when she talked to us kids, came outside carrying a folded card table with one hand and a few cups in the other. She placed the cups in the hallway of her house and assembled the table on the sidewalk. After placing the cups on the table, she went back inside the house and returned with a huge copper pot which she placed on the table. A small group of people gathered round her. "Here is some hot chocolate, if you want something to drink," she said.

Don Carlos said to his friends, "Let's go and get something to drink. It's starting to get chilly. Mrs. Garcia," he called. "Do you have something for us?"

Mrs. Garcia looked at him and answered in mock amazement, "Yo no sabia que gusanos toman chocolate. Worms drinking chocolate?" She smiled and continued, "My chocolate is for people."

I laughed out loud. Don Carlos got very red in the face and neck; the pharmacist walked away; and the other man glared, first at her and then at me. Some people helped themselves to the hot dark drink saying, "Gracias."

After that day, I got to like Mrs. Garcia.


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