The Maduro standoff recalls a similar time 61 years ago this month when my parents, Robert and Nancy Amerson, listened as then-dictator Perez Jimenez, fled Venezuela. The flight path went directly over our head. This is from my draft memoir, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES. My father wrote a wonderful accounting of what happened during our time in Caracas, https://www.amazon.com/How-Democracy-Triumphed-Over-Dictatorship/dp/1879383330 .
They were awakened by the telephone. My father was on his feet and halfway to the living room as my mother glanced at the clock: 3AM. It must be family, and Minnesota was a long way from Venezuela. She reached for her robe and hurried out of the bedroom as my father spoke into the receiver.
“Bob Amerson here.”
It was a familiar voice: his boss, Harry Casler, the Public Affairs Officer, was covering the Embassy lines this week. It had been my father’s turn earlier in the month. “Listen overhead. You’ll hear the plane: PJ’s leaving.”
“Roger that.” My father hung up.“That was Harry. It’s happening: Perez Jimenez is finally out.” He smiled, spotting an irresistible opportunity for word play.“In fact, el presidente is on his way over, and out. He’s just taken off from La Carlota. We should be hearing the plane in a few minutes.”
Mom did not return his smile. “So,” my mother said. “Here we go.”
Perez Jimenez’ grip on the presidency had been unraveling since we’d arrived three years before, but the revolutionary pressure had now spiked. A general strike had been called the previous noon; mobs roved the downtown areas to express their anger. People had been injured; there’d been some deaths. It was all happening away from our quiet barrio, and the 6PM to 5AM curfew in place since the prior week had actually created a quieter evening. Mom tried to sound matter-of-fact in her letter to her parents, closing with “Anyway….we are fine!”
Dad spoke over his shoulder as he went back to the bedroom to retrieve his slippers and bathrobe. “We’re in good shape,” he said. “We’ve been expecting it.” He returned to the living room and sank into the easy chair next to the telephone, turning on the table lamp.“And what a front row seat. Just think, this might have happened while we were on Home Leave back in the States.”
“Yes, that would have been…” Mom began.
The words trailed off. Better? Yes, it would have been so much better to be safely in the Midwest while this crazy country figured itself out. But that wasn’t the deal they’d signed up for with Washington almost four years ago. The deal was adventure, and this was sure it.
“I’ll go see to the girls.”
Mom walked down the short hallway to the second bedroom. She swung open the door. My sister, Susie, was soundly asleep, curled around the baby blanket the two year-old refused to let go. And if the telephone had awakened me, I had dropped back into four year-old dreams in my bed against the far wall.
My mother jumped. Our maid’s black-stockinged feet hadn’t given her away as she’d approached from the her room behind the kitchen. My mother gave us one more look and silently shut the bedroom door. She took a breath and assumed the authoritative role that she’d grown into over the past four years.
“Josefina,” she said quietly. “Todo esta bien.” Everything is all right. La señora de la casa, the lady of the house couldn’t betray nerves. “Perez Jimenez se va.” President Perez Jimenez is leaving.
“Ay Dios mio!”
“Calmase,” my mother said, putting a calming hand on Fina’s sturdy shoulder.
“Pero las niñas.” But the girls. Fina made a move toward the bedroom door.
Mom held Fina firmly. The last thing they needed right now was two kids worrying about why they were awake in the middle of the night. Containing Fina was work enough.
The Spanish woman’s hands flew to her face. “Que nos va a pasar?” What will happen to us? Fina had hard evidence from the Spanish Civil War that government transitions were chaotic, brutal and bloody. She had been barely 30 when she arrived in Caracas, but she was already wearing the dark mourning clothes of luto.
My mother gripped Fina’s shoulder and looked her in the eye. “Calmase,” she repeated, as if she were telling one of us girls to settle down. She could do more with a quiet tone and a look than an excitable mother could do with a yell.
Mom steered Fina ahead of her down the short hall and into the living room, where my father had settled into the soft pheasant-print sofa that had been a wedding gift from his parents back on the farm. The contrast between the Midwestern prairie image and the warm fruity breeze wafting in the cantilevered windows from the mango normally coaxed a smile: tonight, the distance between Minnesota and Caracas felt much further than 3,000 miles. Sitting and waiting didn’t help.
“How about some coffee?” Mom said.
My father opened his mouth with a half smile but quickly looked towards the ceiling instead. He dropped his gaze and raised an index finger. “Here he comes.”
The two women gazed up. A palmetto bug scurried across the ceiling toward the corner over the bookcase. The faint rumble of a propeller airplane sounded in the distance, slowly growing louder as it approached, building to a roar. The bug dropped to the linoleum and the glass ashtray on the coffee table trembled as the airplane thundered by. The sound slowly diminished into nothing.
Dad half-raised a hand. “Adios, el presidente.” Good-bye, Mr. President.
Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot my father a look. Wit had its time and place. “Fina, café?” Her direction was masked as a question.
The maid scurried off to the kitchen, mumbling rosary incantations under her breath. My mother followed to check on Susie and me. We were still curled into our sheets. The resiliency of kids. She walked back into the living room and dropped onto the edge of the couch, hands on her knees as if awaiting instructions.
“The telephone investment seems healthier now, eh?” Dad said. The $250 purchase and $24 a month had been prohibitive for the first two years.
“Yes,” Mom said. “Do you think we should call Mother and Dad?”
“Well, no need to alarm your folks, I think. Let them keep the Caracas of their visit.”
“I suppose.” Mom sighed. She was grateful that her parents had avoided this mess when they visited two years before. Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing flowered city they had fallen in love with.
My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of the usual overnight Música Criolla, each announcement reflecting a still-evolving scenario: that the completely united army had overthrown the regime; that some army rebels, along with other armed forces and civilians, were taking the credit; that there was violence downtown. Through the early hours of the morning, excited voices urged citizens to stay at home, to remain calm, to refrain from harming foreigners.
“So, should we be doing something?” my mother said. “What’s the plan?”
TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR PART II