Excerpt from Times to Try The Soul of a Man, By Kenneth Weene
Is it Safe?
We had left the jeeps in a clearing and were taking a hike. There had been a few of these “side hikes” as Matt called them. “Practice for the Inca Trail,” had been Bernie’s way of justifying them.
I was feeling physically overwhelmed and wanted to head back to Lima and then to that suddenly attractive pension in Santiago. If I had been on my own. But, I wasn’t. The steep narrow pathways that exhausted and terrified me didn’t daunt my Israeli friends. In the ever-thinning air of the Andes, they talked and sang while I gasped and panted to keep up.
From time to time, they would stop. The breaks were clearly for me. They seemed to keep careful watch over my increasingly labored breathing. And they didn’t mind reminding me that I was younger, that I should be able to keep up. It seemed like I was the recipient of a well-planned training program with periodic pep talks.
“How do you guys do this?” I gasped when, at one point, I knew that either they would stop or I would fall to the ground.
“We’ve done some mountain climbing,” David – appreciating my desperation – gestured a stop.
I dropped my day-pack to the ground. “But that’s not a national obsession,” I tried to joke.
“No, just a personal one,” Abe answered.
“You guys live an energetic lifestyle.” My lungs were burning with protest.
“Yeah. When war is always moments away, you learn to savor life.”
avid laughed. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Offense showed on my face.
“Look, I’m sorry,” David said. “I didn’t mean to insult you, but haven’t you gotten the message here in South America?”
“Most of the world hates the U.S.”
“Yes, way. The States get more than your share of everything. You push other countries around. And, worst of all in the Middle East, you usually support us.”
“Israel. The Arabs hate us for existing and you for supporting our right to exist. They call you ‘The Great Satan.’”
“The Great Satan? I like that. It has a ring.” I was half laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Mo had come up behind me.
“Calling The States ‘The Great Satan.’ Who the hell believes in Satan?”
His response was quick. “The Muslim world, and you Americans better not forget it.”
“You guys aren’t fooling around, are you?”
I felt a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remembered it from being a kid. It was the feeling I’d had when my parents would go at it and my mother would start shrieking that Dad was a bastard, a whoremonger, and a few dozen other shitty things.
Then, she’d start throwing crap. My brother, if he was home, would slam out the front door; and I’d head for my room, turn up my music, and try to bury my head under the pillows.
It never helped. She’d always end up storming through my door and insisting that we had to leave. She’d start grabbing stuff out of my drawers and throwing it into a suitcase – all the while screaming and crying great bursts of choking sobs.
Eventually, the cops would arrive. Dad would have called them as soon as she had started. They’d take her away. A couple of weeks later, she’d come back –chemically relaxed. We’d have peace for a while, maybe even a year or more; but there had always been another round, at least until the divorce. There were plenty of other kids in school whose parents were divorced. I was the only one whose father had custody.
Around the campfire, beneath the glistening southern sky, I continued the discussion. I was sure my companions were wrong. Even if the people at the pension were snots, I was positive that the world loved America.
“It’s your money,” Abe explained in exasperation. “People like your money so they act like they’re your friends.”
David picked up the thread. “And your government thinks that by offering them money they’ll love you.”
“Don’t be silly,” I countered. “Our government doesn’t try to buy …”
They all laughed at once. “What do you think your C.I.A. does?”
“The Central Intelligence Agency?” I asked as if I were still in high school.
“Yeah,” Bernie sneered, “Your Central Intelligence Agency, what do you think they do?”
“Collect information – you know spying,” I answered lamely.
“That’s a part of it,” David agreed. “But mostly they spread around money and try to buy friends.”
“I can’t believe that nobody notices. That they can do shit like that without our knowing. I mean they have a budget. Doesn’t anybody …”