Friday, April 19, 2013

The Revolution from the Balcony

Toward the end of October 1945 we had been in our Caracas third-floor apartment for four months. My father got in every weekend from the little village of Macarao and the dam-in-progress job and I had somehow snared a typing job with an American construction firm hired to build a military school. Summertime friends had either gone back to the states to school or were working or were having private lessons at home.

We had no telephone, but my phonograph records had arrived – the record player taped to play at local electrical speed and my mother and I had found a British bookstore and lending library which had something new to us: a great variety of small books with paper covers, much cheaper than hard cover. They were called Penguin. Other books circulated from hand to hand, family to family. We had just finished reading Forever Amber and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as well as Gomez, Tyrant of the Andes, about the longstanding Venezuelan dictator who had died in 1935. We were really settling in.

I came home from work on a Thursday and found my mother in some excitement. She and a Texas friend, Leah Brenneke, had been shopping and sightseeing in downtown Caracas and were intrigued in seeing groups of soldiers mulling about, guns at the ready. Many stores were closed, their grilles down and firmly locked. Suddenly, machine gun fire sent people running for cover, and mother and her friend, along with many other people, were pushed into the church of San Francisco, an old cathedral on the square. After about an hour of sporadic shooting and periods of quiet, a side door was opened and they left. Everything seemed quiet and they went to the next block for a soda. Business as usual!

They went on to Mr. Breunehe’s office building and discovered that it was indeed a revolution which had started. President Medina, only the second elected president after the death of Gomez, was being challenged by a military junta headed by Romulo Betancourt. They were the last people to leave the building that day, as serious shooting started and the rest of the people spent the night at the office.

We heard no noise in our neighborhood that evening and went out to eat at Las Cecadias, our favorite local restaurant. There was calm but much speculation and the next day, like a movie, we could see planes overhead headed downtown to bomb police barracks. Sounds of gunfire and an occasional bomb were heard. We ran to our little grocery across the street for emergency supplies; the owner was mobbed and was letting people help themselves on trust. Every American family in Caracas had a shortwave radio in order to hear the real news and music from home on great stations such as KOKA Pittsburg.

The news about Caracas that was picked up seemed unreal. We would hear great battles and bombing being described, when we were really experiencing absolute quiet or, conversely, we were told that everything was settled: the revolution was over and we could still hear fighting, gunfire and confusion. So much for accuracy…

On Friday the military barracks was broken into and 15,000 guns were stolen. Our balcony, that wonderful vantage point, showed us local poor equipped with some of those guns, marching to homes of ex- government officials and later marching back with doors, plumbing, paintings, clothing, furniture, even toilet seats draped around necks. Those same houses were completely looted and burned. On Saturday my father drove in from the country – his car and all coming in and out of the city were searched for weapons. Only 6,000 guns were ever found. That afternoon there was intensified shooting in the center of the city. We found out later that all of the police had been killed – it was sad, really – country boys or city poor, mostly, but they were the identifiable target for the insurgency. Later in their place for awhile, directing traffic, unimpressed, were boy scouts.

Things gradually quieted down, until the following Wednesday. Our maid, who had gone out, rushed back into the apartment and said she was told not to go out, they’d be shooting. We ran to our ever-dependable balcony and could see a truckload of soldiers going up the street parallel to ours. We could hear gunfire for several hours while people milled back and forth on our corner. We learned later that the ex-President had had a mistress installed in a home there and the new regime hoped to catch him. He was not there. Three days later we paid our grocery bill (one of the few families who did) .

I had cabin fever and got a taxi to visit one of my friends further out of the city in the country club section. I found a spent bullet on the floor of the cab and that was my revolution souvenir.

We moved to a house two blocks away that weekend which had no glorious balcony or maid, but did have a telephone and a bathtub. The revolution was over.

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