January 12, 2023

Tales from the attic: My first murder

 Sam Smith - My father had started an export-import business and had an interest in a lumbering operation high in the mountains halfway between Puerto Barrios and Guatemala City. His partner was an ex-Marine named Ward Stevens who wore an Australian bush hat and claimed to have killed Somoza's brother and was, for me, a soldier of fortune who had walked straight out of a radio mystery and into my parent's library.

In 1951 we commenced a joint tour-inspection trip via train to Miami, a ship to Cuba and a United Fruit freighter to Puerto Barrios, the east coast port of Guatemala.

Guatemala was, at that time, a wholly owned subsidiary of the United Fruit Company. Puerto Barrios reflected this fact and little else. The only practical way to get to Guatemala City, other than by air, was by train. Nothing that could be called a highway existed between the two towns.

Halfway up the climb to Guatemala City, my father and I left the rest of the family in Zacapa, a small town at the foot of the mountains that nested the lumber mill. The guide book fifty years later would describe Zacapa as a town of little interest in an area that had become desert-like due to deforestation.

Ward Stevens met my father and I in a jeep and drove to the mill, a trip rough enough to require one stop for major repairs and a second to remove the fan belt so we could safely ford a stream that sent water above the floor boards. We then drove a narrow hair-pinned road that barely clung to the side of the mountain. The turn-backs were so pronounced that to rise one kilometer up the mountain it took seven kilometers of driving.

I was only vaguely aware of what my father was actually doing in this place. It had something to do with prefab housing and it sounded important as almost everything he ever did when he described it. He imbued his every action with geo-political or macro-economic significance. For me, it was more a matter of simple wonder, especially at night in the firelight, with strange men walking around speaking a strange language and waving machetes like fans.

We stayed a few days and then descended the mountain again, this time by flatbed truck. My father sat with Ward Stevens in the cab; I sat on the bed with several Guatemalans exuberantly applying their machetes to sugar cane for a morning snack. They, like my father and Stevens, were oblivious to what seemed of paramount importance to me: the outer of the double rear wheels of the truck would periodically extend over the side of the mountain, with only an axle holding it -- and us -- from a drop of several thousand feet.

When we reached the Reando River, we left the truck and crossed in a dugout canoe. From there it was only a few hundred yards to the railroad station at Pepesca where we took the train to the relative urbanity of Guatemala City.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the murder.

The murder occurred on the United Fruit freighter en route from Puerto Barrios to New Orleans. Carrying only about fifty passengers, the vessel was not large enough to absorb a homicide in comfort, especially when the body had been dragged through the dining salon to be dispatched through one of its large portholes. The blood-stained path was roped off for the rest of the voyage.

The first indication that something was amiss was a man overboard drill that required everyone to stand on the deck for an interminable period, while the vessel was searched. There was no hiding the mishap from the children. We ate the rest of our meals with a mixture of thrill and fear in the midst of the crime scene. And I arose before dawn so I could watch the Coast Guard cutters and police boats shine their lights on our ship as it wound its way up the river to New Orleans, they and I making sure the murderer did not jump off.

It was hours before the FBI let us leave the vessel. Everyone, including my baby sister had to be interviewed. At the hotel I asked my father about something that was bothering me. I had been part of my first big news story,  but had no way of finding out how it all would come out. He gave me a dollar and suggested I tip the elevator operator and ask him to send me clippings if anything developed. He warned me, however, not to expect this to work.

A month or so later, a package arrived from New Orleans filled with clippings that told the story of a crew member murdering another on the ship over a gambling debt. Checkbook journalism had worked.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A wonderful tale. Thank you, Sam.