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

EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House (Caracas, 1958)

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

Read the Preface: EMBASSY KID: Preface

Part I: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

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 back home in Minnesota, a very long way from Venezuela. She reached for her robe and hurried to join my father as he spoke into the receiver.

“Bob Amerson here.”

My mother’s eyes widened as she waited. 

“Roger that.” My father hung up. “That was Harry.” Harry Casler, Dad’s boss, was covering the Embassy lines this week. 

Mom exhaled in relief as she plopped down on the sofa. It wasn’t a death in the family. Dad continued. “It’s happening — PJ is finally out.” 

“Oh,” Mom said, her voice tight. 

President Pérez Jiménez — PJ, as they called him at the Embassy — was the ruthless Venezuelan dictator who’d wielded power since before we’d arrived in Caracas.  Clandestine political movements and dissident elements within the military had risen up against the Pérez Jiménez regime, because of corruption, restrictions on civil rights, downright torture. Everybody knew of something that they could blame the Pérez Jiménez regime for. Finally, on January 23, the pressure had forced the dictator out.

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

“Harry said he’s flying into exile, just took off from La Carlota near the palace.” Dad spoke over his shoulder as he went to retrieve his slippers and bathrobe. “So we should hear him overhead in a couple of minutes.” 

“The girls,” my mother said, trying to keep her voice low but insistent. He was going to wake up my baby sister and three-year-old me. 

Dad rejoined her in the living room. “Okay,” he said. “We knew things were about to break loose. The Junta Patriótica strike got all that rioting going on downtown, and they’ve finally succeeded in ousting PJ.”

Dad’s network of contacts within the underground resistance had kept the Embassy abreast of what was a highly combustible situation. 

“But who’s going to stop the rioters now?” Mom said. If Pérez Jiménez was out, so was his security police. 

“That’s what makes this moment so interesting,” Dad said. 

Mom’s nostrils flared. This was not an academic exercise. Her family’s safety came first. “With Janie and Susie down the hall?” 

Dad gave her a quick hug. “The bad guy is out. The good guys are in,” he said. “There might even be a chance for democracy. And what a front-row seat. Just think, this might have happened while we were on home leave last year back in the States.”

“Yes, that would have been…” Mom’s words trailed off.  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. 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 and swung open the door. Susie was soundly asleep, curled around her baby blanket. And if the telephone had awakened me, I had dropped back into toddler dreams.

“¿Señora?”

My mother jumped. Josefina’s unshod feet hadn’t given her away as the maid approached from her room behind the kitchen. Like us, Fina, as we called her, was one of the many European migrants that had flooded oil-rich Venezuela seeking work. Maybe because we were all foreigners, maybe because we needed each other, or maybe because Fina simply adored us girls, she’d become part of our little family. 

Me, Fina, Susie

My mother closed the bedroom door and assumed the authoritative role that she’d grown into over the past three years. La señora de la casa, the lady of the house, couldn’t betray her nerves, even though it still felt pretty unreal to this modest Midwesterner to have a maid.

“Josefina,” Mom said quietly. “Pérez Jiménez se va.” 

The long-awaited news of the dictator’s departure alarmed the maid. “¡Ay Dios mio!” 

Cálmese,” my mother said. She put a steadying hand on Fina’s sturdy shoulder. 

Las niñas.” Fina made a move toward the bedroom door.

Mom tightened her grip. The last thing they needed right now was two kids worrying about why they were awake in the middle of the night. 

My mother looked Fina in the eye. “Cálmese,” 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 down the hall and into the living room, where Dad had settled into the soft, pheasant-print sofa, a wedding gift from his parents back on the farm in South Dakota. The contrast between the Midwestern prairie images and the bright colors and fruity smells of Caracas normally coaxed a smile, but tonight the distance felt much farther than 3,000 miles. Sitting and waiting didn’t help.

“How about some coffee?” Mom said.

My father opened his mouth to respond, then looked up to the ceiling, and he raised an index finger. “Harry said we’d hear the plane. And here it comes.”

The two women followed his gaze. A palmetto bug scurried across the ceiling toward the corner over the bookcase. The faint rumble of a propeller airplane sounded in the distance, growing louder as it approached. It built to a roar. As the airplane thundered overhead, the bug dropped to the linoleum, and the glass ashtray on the coffee table trembled. The sound slowly diminished into nothing.  

Dad half-raised a hand. “Adios, el presidente.”

Next Tuesday: Chapter One, Part II: The mob comes roving.

Venezuelan Diplomacy, Part II

Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium all said on Saturday they would recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido​, left, as interim president unless President Nicolas Maduro called fresh elections within eight days. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday’s opposition rally against Venezuelan President Maduro (and pro American-supported activist Guaidó) marked the 61st anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuelan president Perez Jimenez.

I have recreated the events of that day in the title story of my draft memoir, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES, from which this excerpt is taken. For more insight into the American Embassy’s delicate diplomatic position, I will post portions of Dad’s 1994 historic first-person account of that day, the attack on Vice President Nixon some months later, and the rest of his 1955-59 first post: HOW DEMOCRACY TRIUMPHED OVER DICTATORSHIP.  https://www.amazon.com/How-Democracy-Triumphed-Over-Dictatorship/dp/1879383330

PART II. [Perez Jimenez has fled Venezuela. The American Embassy team is watching and listening through the night.]

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

Supporters of the Venezuelan opposition marching in Caracas on Wednesday, the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew the military dictatorship.CreditCreditAdriana Loureiro/Reuters

He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs the last time Venezuelans threw out a tyrant. The Canadian Embassy had approached the office several months ago about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility. Maybe not anymore. The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. Time to touch base with one of those colleagues. 

“Let me give Russ a call.” He lifted the receiver and dialed. He spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee, her face noticeably more relaxed. 

Algo mas?” Anything else?

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

The maid nodded.“Pues, buenas noches.”

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

Riot police clashing with opposition demonstrators (2019) .CreditYuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up. Better to know what’s coming. He sat back. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,” 

My mother was instantly back on 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 they headed down the block before Russ pulled out his gun.”

“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Do we?”

“No. And, no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

The radio crackled as an enthusiastic voice broke in.

Periodistas!” he said. Newspaper editors! 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?”

Senator Marco Rubio, center, Republican of Florida, has become a chief policy architect and de facto spokesman in a campaign to involve the United States in the unrest that is now gripping Venezuela.CreditMandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 hurried back to the kitchen and returned with the blue tub. Dad dipped 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? But nothing closer. 

My mother huddled by the doorway as Dad crept across the little yard to the Oldsmobile, dropping down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. He hurried back inside and my mother shut the door, securing the lock. Dad turned off the radio. They both took a breath.

“Let’s try to get some sleep,” he said.

The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Perez Jimenez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds camouflage work? They didn’t have the firepower Russ had used to intimidate the crowd at his door. 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 by. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. I think it’s going to be a long day.”

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 keeping to a normal 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 OK?” Dad said.

“So far.”

They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned by. In the distance, the bleating of car horns sounded. And gunfire. The night wore on. 

As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispered sound 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, a parade of men and women shuffled by, 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 the Easter processionals, 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.”

This was way more than my mother had signed up for.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/world/americas/marco-rubio-venezuela.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/world/americas/venezuela-protests-guaido-maduro.html?module=inline
https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/venezuela-un-session-juan-guaido-pompeo-1.4994285