EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving (Caracas, 1958)

[This is a condensed version of my memoir about my childhood in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training]

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

EMBASSY KID: Preface

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

My father lifted an arm and waved at the corner of the living room ceiling as the sound of the Venezuelan president’sairplane faded away. ”Adios, el president.”

Ernest Hamlin Baker, TIME magazine cover 2/28/55
Ernest Hamlin Baker, TIME magazine cover 2/28/55

Our maid Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot Dad a look. Wit had its time and place, and the early hours flight into exile of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was neither. “¿Fina, café?” She said. 

The maid headed 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 next to Dad, her 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 when we’d arrived in Venezuela.

“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. Tonight, Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing, eternally springtime city she and Dad had fallen in love with.  

Caracas cityscape 1950s
Caracas cityscape 1950s

My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of Venezuelan folk tunes on the nightly program, Música Criolla. Each announcement reflected 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. 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?”

Dad turned down the radio and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than to get caught up by a crowd in the street.”

He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs in the coup d’état that had brought PJ to power in 1952.  The folks at the Canadian Embassy had approached their American counterparts several months before about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility, but maybe not anymore. 

Caracas neighborhood 1950s
Caracas neighborhood 1950s

The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from Zucatarate, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. It was time to touch base with one of those colleagues. 

“Let me give Russ a call.” Dad spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee. 

“¿Algo mas?” the maid said. 

My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.” 

The maid nodded. “Pues, buenas noches.” Fina returned to her room. 

My mother nodded and took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here. There was so much they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa. 

Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up a bit. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,” 

My mother snapped to high alert.

“We may want to hide the car,” he said.

“Hide the car?”

“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them, the men headed down the block before Russ shot his gun.”

“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Dad’s hunting gun.” Her father had given his duck-hunting rifle to Dad.

“Well, yes, we have your father’s gun, but no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

The radio crackled as an enthusiastic announcer broke in. “¡Periodistas!” Newspaper editors! He continued in Spanish. “You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!”

“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”

“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”

My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”

My mother retrieved the blue tub from the refrigerator. Dad scooped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop-pop-pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire? 

My mother huddled in the doorway as Dad took three long strides across the little yard to the Oldsmobile and crouched down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. Satisfied, he hurried back inside. My mother shut the door and secured the lock. 

Dad turned off the radio. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Pérez Jiménez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds’ camouflage work? Would my grandfather’s shotgun be necessary? But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.

“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly past. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. It’s going to be a long day.”

Caracas photo image late 1950s
Caracas photo image late 1950s

Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of creating a routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed, so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina. Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.

She climbed back into bed.

“Everyone okay?” Dad said.

“So far.”

They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned past. In the distance, car horns bleated off-key against the staccato rhythms of gunfire. The night wore on. 

As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispering from the street, like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night emerged a parade of men and women, their passage marked by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like an Easter processional, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair or a television or a file cabinet.

“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”

Next time from EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR: How this young Midwestern family — a farm boy and a small town girl, and their two daughters — found themselves in Venezuela

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