If you were to ask, why are you writing this now, after so many years? My answer to you would be, sincerely, I do not know. I have never been one to keep a diary or a notebook. Perhaps I want my father to live forever in the minds of his countrymen, perhaps I would like to explain how I feel about being a policeman in the service of my country. Perhaps, this is what old men do when they stop working on their careers and begin to think on the old conundrums. But sincerely, I do not know.
My name is Juan Pablo Alfaro Mereía. In the Spanish manner, Mereía is my mother’s last name. I was born on September 15, 1948, a propitious date in this country. The day is the day of independence from España, and 1948 is the year my father, Juan Pablo Alfaro Salazar died in Cartago to birth the Second Republic. He was a policeman in the first republic; I normally do not capitalize it as it would have been the last but for misguided ambition. My father was of the family of the would be dictator, which is no doubt how he came to be a capitán while so young, but that did not stop him from following Don Pepe when the revolution came.
With his rank and training, and family, my father became the commander of a company of volunteers, mostly men without any of those qualifications. He had one sergeant, a Sergeant Mereía, who defected from the old Army to help with discipline and training. We have an old photo of the two of them. On the back was the note, “To my darling Miriam, I will love you forever.” It is dog-eared from the years of my holding it as a child.
When my mother would tell me stories about my father’s service, she usually mentioned Sergeant Mereía’s name, “But he is not family,” she would say. That meant something to her. Of course, at this age I cannot pretend not to know about such things but I think that she held Sergeant Mereía in genuine affection in spite of the differences. I know she had hoped he would keep my father safe in the war. In the photo, my father is taller and lighter than the sergeant, as it should be, I thought. And he looked to be older. It was a grave disappointment to me to discover in adolescence that I would not be as tall as my father.
I would ask my mother when Sergeant Mereía was coming to visit. After the Army was abolished and the Guardia Civil was formed, he was made a teniente, a lieutenant in the new service with big responsibilities in San Jose. Nonetheless, he came often. When he was coming my mother would tweak my nose, my narizon, she called it because of its size, and say, “Oh mi amor, guess who is coming to visit you?” When I was five I would ask him to tell me stories about my father.
“Sergeant, tell me what happened the day my father died?”
He would stretch out in the big chair on our terrace and fold his hands over his leather belt. “Well,” he would say, “that is quite a story.” Then he would say, “Go over and turn that fan up a bit.” And I would do it. “That is better.”
“This day is a lot like that day, a very hot day in March. We were camped temporarily in the hills south of Cartago to be available should the need arise for a stout group of muchachos such as ourselves. Of the Tico volunteers, we were the best. Most of the men had little or no training, but your father insisted that we train whenever we were not doing something more important. He was the reason we were considered the stoutest and most able of all the volunteer companies.”
“On that day we were training in fire and maneuver. It was tiring work, all that running and falling down and getting up and running again, but your father knew that the men had to learn to be good soldiers in the fight.”
“What did you do, Sergeant?” When we talked liked this I called him “Sergeant Mereía,” but otherwise my mother insisted that I call him Teniente or Tío, Uncle Mereía. He would always smile when I called him “Sergeant.”
“You even sound like your father,” he would say. “My job was to follow the orders of your father. Sometimes I would give advice on how things were done in the Army. That day we were tired from all that hopping around when a courier arrived with the order to proceed immediately to Cartago, ‘On the double,’ the order read.
We broke camp immediately taking only what we would need for the fight. After we formed up, your father gave a very brave speech and said that we would force-march to Cartago. He said that he knew we were tired, but he knew that we would not miss this fight for anything. The men cheered him. He was a very fine leader your father. Then he went to the front of the column, gave the order, ‘Forwaaard, MARCH!’”
The Sergeant’s voice always boomed and I always jumped. “Your father said this in a fine voice and set the pace, staying in front for the entire march without rest,” he said.
“What did you do then, Sergeant?”
“I stayed at the rear to keep the ranks closed up and to deal with stragglers. But when we reached the first houses of Cartago, most of the men were still in formation. Just think Chico, eight miles in two hours, now that is a march.”
“We were met on the outskirts by a courier from the local commander’s headquarters. He suggested to your father to remove his insignia as there was a sniper in the neighborhood.”
“What is a sniper?”
“That is a soldier who is a very good shot. He will hide and look for important people in the enemy and shoot them.”
“Were any of the enemy friends of yours Sergeant?”
“Oh, I suppose I might have known some of them. But life has a way of changing things, even friendships.”
His mouth twitched and I thought he might smile but he did not.
“But, back to my story. The men were resting, sitting or lying on the ground and waiting for the stragglers. Black smoke rose from a burning vehicle over near the Plaza. There was a lot of shooting. Your father gave the order to spread out around a small church. We would use its steeple for a lookout and wait for orders. The courier said he thought that we would be part of the force to attack the plaza and city hall where most of the Army and Vanguardia militia were located.”
Sergeant Mereía paused and looked away as if in thought. His hand went to his mouth as though wiping it down to his chin.
When he began again his voice rasped. “After the men were in position, your father and I went to the bell tower to look for the sniper. After awhile he handed me the glasses and said, ‘Look in the window of that gable.’ I looked and sure enough there seemed to be someone in there. At that moment,” he hesitated again, “at that very moment, I saw the puff of smoke and then heard the report of the rifle. ‘That’s him, I yelled,’ and I turned. Your father was lying on the floor.” The sergeant’s hand went to his mouth and chin like before. “I yelled for help and tried to stop the bleeding but the bullet had severed the big vein in his neck. Your father’s heart pumped enough blood to kill him in only a minute or so.”
The Sergeant looked at me and pulled me close. I sat in his lap and wept for several minutes. My mother must have heard the silence and came out to check. We both looked at her and the Sergeant waved his finger saying, “Not now, Querida,” and she backed inside the room still watching us. “Later that evening, that old bell from La Basilica rang out, signifying our victory, but with a peculiar tone this time. I have never heard it sound that way since.” His look was off, somewhere in the distance and I waited for him.
After a while I began to stir and the Sergeant said, “Just one thing more, Chico.” Again he hesitated, “As I bent down to help your father, he said, ’Take care of them,’ meaning, I have always thought, you and your mother.” I looked at the sergeant’s face then lay back against his chest. Finally I asked him,
‘What did you do then, Tio?’
“After a few minutes, I took a squad and attacked the house with the sniper. The fool had remained at his station and did not try to flee until he saw us coming. He fired at us from the door and wounded another man in our attack, but the squad did not falter; we wounded the sniper and he surrendered. Your father would have been proud of us. Even of the sniper, I think.”
I heard that story several more times as I grew into a teenager. On at least a couple of occasions my mother sat with us and she always had little tears on her cheeks. Once I asked him, ‘Were you mad at the sniper, Sergeant? Were the muchachos mad at him?’
“Some of them, yes. I was not. Men do their duty in these matters, Chico. It is best not to take it personally.” I remembered this instruction all my life and it has served me well on more than one occasion.
The Sergeant would always repeat my father’s last words and look at my mother if she was there and she would get up and leave the room.
One time, I must have been 12 or 13 at the time, I asked my mother, “How did the Sergeant and my father get to know each other?” I fully expected that the Sergeant had been assigned to my father’s unit by a higher commander, maybe Don Pepe himself. But she gave me a pointed look and said,
“Well, there is a little more to that story. The Sergeant was stationed at the barracks in San Jose, not far from here. In November or December of 1947, he came to the house to tell me that he was going to leave the Army if the fighting started and asked me to tell his parents if anything happened.”
I could not speak. She knew the Sergeant from before! She watched me, closely I think.
“Your father had already gone to San Isidro to wait for the Legion from Mexico. We had been married over five years by that time and we had never been apart. He came home once but it was dangerous because there were spies watching the house in those days.”
“You knew him! You knew the Sergeant from before!”
She sighed and smoothed the lap of her skirt. She sighed again, another long one. I got up and adjusted the fan and sat back down; her eyes followed me.
“Yes, Sergeant Mereía is from La Gloria. His father worked for my father.”
My voice squeaked in those days, “No! Why didn’t you tell me?” My anger boiled to the surface; I felt betrayed. My voice, at this moment was what it was. I was too angry to care.
“Well Juan Pablo, I guess, well, I guess I thought you needed to be older.”
She did not look away and something about the way she acknowledged my being old enough to understand things smoothed the anger; it flattened like dough under a rolling pin. It was replaced with a manly feeling, a little jangled but manly nonetheless, for the first time in my life.
“Tell me about La Gloria, Ma.”
She took her time, looking at me as though to make sure I really was old enough. “Hernán, that is the Sergeant’s name, and I grew up in the same village. His father worked for my father, the name Mereía is a coincidence.” She looked up at the ceiling. “He was more than a year older than me and the smartest boy in town. But he would have gone to work in the fields after sixth grade except that my father had great regard for his father, and for Hernán also, I think. When it came time for high school, my father made it possible for Hernán to attend. So, we attended high school for three years before I was sent to boarding school in San Jose. We were good friends.” She waited as though to see if that was enough.
It wasn’t. “Then what happened?” I wasn’t letting go until I got the whole story this time. I can still remember my determination, I deserve to know, I thought. It must have felt like an interrogation, but my mother was prepared.
“After my 16th birthday party, I visited the home of a friend from the academy. I met her older brother. He was a police lieutenant at the time, twenty-five, and very handsome, his name was Juan Pablo Alfaro Salazar. And three years later we married in the big church in Puriscal. My father was very happy that day.”
All of this was so new to me. I didn’t know what to ask next. Finally I said, “What happened to Tío?”
“In the year after I left La Gloria, he had almost finished high school but left for some reason and came to San Jose. After that, he joined the Army. It must have been 1938.”
I thought about this for a long time. My mother waited for me. Today, as I think about that conversation, I imagine she was watching my ‘wheels turning’ as people say.
I looked at her again and she smiled.
“Well,” I said from my new manliness, “I would love to hear the Sergeant’s version of all this.”
Her smile faded. “The Teniente Mereía cannot come by as much as he used to. He has been transferred to the delegación at another province. And, he has been promoted, and…” I thought it was difficult to for her to say it, “he has a new wife. I’m sorry, mi amor, it was so sudden, he did not have time to come by.” Then she said, “I’m sure he will, when he is back in San Jose.”
For the second time in the conversation I was lost. From the vantage point of all these years, I can still feel the shocks of her announcements that day. I imagine myself staring at her, mouth open.
He did come by, once or twice a year over the next six years. He was always pleasant and very warm to me. He kept hugging me until I got older and became obviously exasperated. After that he observed my preferred decorum. He wrote me letters to tell me how proud he knew my father would be of my various accomplishments. But the old Sergeant was gone, vanished into the ether of career and of a life having moved on.
Things changed after the Sergeant moved away. I thought that my love for my father was changing and I felt guilty. I could not put words to it early on but it felt like, without the Sergeant’s presence to remind us, we did not talk about him so much. I did not think about him so much. It was though he became just a photograph of someone I never knew. I felt guilty and the guilt became a conundrum; I knew that I should not feel that way. I would try to visualize him and remember him and to make him a polestar for my life. But try, as most surely I did try, it did not work and the guilt would not leave me.
At times I would sit on my bed and say, “He loves me,” over and over, trying to feel it. Once my mother put her head in the door and said, “What did you say, mi amor?” but her voice broke and her eyes were moist and I knew she had been listening.
“Nothing,” I told her. But she pressed me and it made me angry.
The Sergeant’s yearly visits did not serve. He tried to keep me connected to my father. I could sense his efforts, but his life had changed also and talking about my father did not make him live for me anymore. I came to think that I wanted the real flesh and blood presence of my father and I knew, in a flash one day, that the Sergeant had served that purpose—until he stopped coming. I tried once to talk to my mother about this after one of his visits but it only made her sad and I found her crying later so I never spoke to her about it again. I dealt with the guilt by putting my father into a category. I don’t know an exact word for it, perhaps, “someone to aspire to be like.”
Pride for him replaced longing and served in the place of his affection.
I graduated from university and earned a commission in the Guardia Civil in 1973. My mother was too sick with her final illness to come to my graduation from the academy, but Comandante Mereía gave the commencement address, reminding us of the sacrifices of an earlier generation and exhorting us to loyalty to a democratic government. He came up to me at the graduation party and asked me to have dinner with him afterwards. It was a polite request, but now that I was in the service, there was no refusing. (That sounds ungrateful of me, shameful for me to think that now that I re-read it. I gladly went to dinner with him).
We went to a modest restaurant in San Jose that had been a favorite of his from the Army days. It was in what would become the San Jose Chinatown in later years, lots of smoke and loud talk.
“How is your mother?”
“I am afraid this may be it, a few more months perhaps.” His head started a little bob, shaking in agreement or understanding as he watched me. He looked away for a moment or two, then back at me, his head still slowly bobbing. We had been drinking some and that may have accounted for the watery eyes, but maybe not.
“Mother would love to see you.”
“Yes,” he said, “yes, I will do that right away.”
“Mother told me a long time ago that you and she knew each other in La Gloria.”
“Yes, is that all she said?”
“Except that she came to boarding school in San Jose and that you joined the Army.”
“Yes.” He picked up the shot glass of guaro then thumped it back down. He half-turned in his chair and slung one arm over the back. “Did she tell you that my father worked for hers?” I nodded. “And that her father paid for me to go to the high school?”
“Well, I’m sure she did not tell you that when we were in high school we were sweet on each other.”
By 1973 I was, of course, more worldly than in 1959, but I riveted to his words.
“I loved your mother more than I can say, and I think, I’m sure, that she loved me. It certainly felt that way to a teenager. But I was naïve. I was 17 and she was 15 at the time. In defiance of my father, I asked your grandfather if I could court his daughter. My father tried to protect me. He ‘prohibited me’ but I was in love. It is pathetic, laughable to think about it now. But your grandfather did not think it was funny. He sent her away to boarding school in San Jose within the week. Took her himself.
He forbade me to see her, ‘Ever’ he said. But for some reason, he did not keep me from finishing high school. I did that myself. I was frantic. I took—stole is more honest—some money from my father, hitchhiked to Santiago and took a bus to San Jose. But the administration said she would not see me. They would not let me enter. It had taken two days to find the school and I had walked all over this damned city.”
His lips pursed into a gritty smile. “That school is only three blocks from where we sit.” He pointed east, then swung his arm north, “and the barracks are right over there. I had had it with walking. I had my first beer, spent my last centavo and joined the Army, one-two-three, a pretty sad story. Don’t you think?”
I did not know what to think. It was definitely sad but agreeing with him did not feel right. “I am sorry for bringing this up Tío, I wouldn’t have—.”
“Oh, it’s okay among brothers-in-arms. You are old enough to know, Chico.” He had not called me that since 1960. And there it was again, when is one old enough to know everything, I thought.
“Anyway, I did not see your mother again until just before the revolution of ’48. It had been ten years or so and for some reason I took a chance on calling to ask if I could come by. To tell her something important of course.”
I nodded, “Of course.”
“It was a few weeks before Christmas of 1947; she was then a married woman for several years. I came to tell her that I was going to leave the Army if Don Pepe started the fight. I thought it would be soon. I hadn’t spoken to my father since I left home and I asked her to let my parents know if all that came to pass.”
“’You should do that, now,’” she said, but I told her that I could not face him yet and we started to talk about the old times.”
“Did she say yes?”
He looked at me disoriented, reeling perhaps, as if not understanding my question. Then looked away. “Yes she did. There had been so much time, so much water over the dam, that we could be friends again. It was a little like old times, as much as those can be. We laughed at the memories, even my teenage audacity. It was funny, almost, by that time but I remember feeling like I had missed my life somehow.” He looked straight at me. “It was worth it, just to laugh with her again.”
“Is that when you met my father?”
“No,” he harrumphed, “your father was the real patriot. No waiting for him. He was already in San Isidro, spoiling to get on with it. But your mother asked me to find him and look out for him and that is what I did, in February, when I abandoned the Army.”
He told me he saw my mother a few times before leaving the Army, but that the police made it dangerous to be seen doing so. We became quiet, he studying the shot glass, me struggling with the question that had to be asked.
“Did you ever speak to her of love after he died?” I felt my heart pounding in my temples, in my ears. I was frightened, and to this day I cannot say why.
He looked at me squarely and every sense told me again, he was sizing up my maturity. Finally he said, “Yes. More than once…but she would not have me and I married another.”
We talked awhile longer. I filled him in on the things he did not know about my life; I had a girlfriend by then for example, and it made him smile. I told him that I was thinking about buying an automobile with my new wealth and he just shook his head, but he said nothing.
When it was time to go we stood and I put out my hand to shake his but he took my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks and told me that both he, and my father, were proud of me. It was awkward as our big noses got in the way of each other when we switched cheeks and we both chuckled.
By the time the Fuerza Publica was formed in 1996, and we all transferred over, he was gone.
My final assignment, at my request, was to command the delegación of Puriscal in Santiago. These days it is just over an hour or so from La Gloria and I found a farm here to retire to. I have cousins and their families still living here and the Sergeant has family left also. They all feel like family now. As I finish this I am staring at that picture of my father and the Sergeant for the thousandth time, which one of you wrote that? ‘To my darling Miriam.’
*Previously published. Photo courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica.