Free Radicals


South of Granada, NICARAGUA, February, 1978.

The house rested on stilts akimbo, all of them sunken in a marshy island in the middle of the lake–in the middle of a temporarily notorious country, and at least for this news cycle, at the center of the world. At the foot of the outside stairs, an utterly ruined 1972 Chevrolet Malibu rusted silently away in the tropical moisture. No one really knew how it got there. There was no bridge. Splintered and fading dinghies, the more conventional transport here, rocked placidly to and fro at the end of their tethers down by the dock. No one seemed to be around. It was mid- day.

Inside and upstairs, though, the guerrillas sat at a crude wooden table, planning a campaign and waiting for the compañera to bring them food. They could not have been more intent because they needed to eat and they needed to win. First one thing, then the other. One man wore rumpled fatigues and a baseball hat pushed back to expose the tan line across his forehead. The others were in t-shirts and jeans, the uniform of the insurgency. All of them wore some kind of boot, though, because both getting here and getting away again later this afternoon entailed walking in water.

On the table in front of them lay a detailed topographical map of the surrounding islands and the shores of the lake, disfigured by multicolored plastic pushpins and untalented sketches. They knew it was accurate for maybe ten years ago; they stole it from the CIA, which did not, they thought, update its geographic information regularly. Certainly not here in Nicaragua, where until about two years ago, all was quiet.

Tacho Somoza ruled–son of a bitch, son of the gringos’ son of a bitch. Tacho and his father and his uncle and his sons. But no, actually. Not his sons. This little group here knew that much. They knew all about the sons, who went to school in Washington and had parties on yachts where they pissed on their rented yanqui girlfriends. Anything but the sons.

A crackle and spit erupted from the radio on the table. “Gustavo for Jairo…over.”

“Jairo here…over,” responded the man with the half tan face.

“Our troop will meet you tonight. You know where? Over.”

“We’ll be there.”

“You have instructions?”

“We’re working on it now. Over.”


Jairo ran a hand through his hair, anxious, weary. “This is it.”

Across the table from him, another man grinned openly. He had been on the planning committee that plotted tonight’s operation. “This is it. Just like before. But this time, we’ll get them with the radio.”

Jairo was unconvinced. He moved a couple of push pins arbitrarily, then put them back. “How can you be so sure?”

“The people in Managua say Aztray is obsessed with it–broadcasting Sandinismo right into the capital. We embarrass him in front of the other colonels and his embassy friends.”

Jairo nodded, said nothing.

The other man, Peche, spoke a little too loudly. “If we get this right, they’ll do just like they did when they got Gustavo’s workshop. Once they think they’ve captured the transmitter, they’ll call for Aztray. He’ll come to have his picture taken with the booty and fly it back to Managua, the way he does. We might even leave a couple of old rifles and a dud grenade.”

“How can we be sure it will be Aztray to come?” asked Jairo. He rubbed his eyes.

“Our intelligence,” said Peche, pointing to his brain. “And the little prick likes to hold a press conference with everything he captures. He wants to be the one to bring it in.”

Jairo fixed his gaze on Peche. “Can we be ready by dark?”

“Sí, señor.” Peche saluted smartly and facetiously, like in the John Wayne movies that they knew the army showed the Guardsmen. “We’re almost ready now, but I have to wire it up. Then I only need the outside pieces. For that we’ll have to wait. We need to have the real one for a few minutes, so the dummy will be close enough.”

“After we have it, how long will it take you to finish?”

“Not long; a few minutes. We won’t copy the stuff. I’ll take it off the real one. A couple of the knobs, I’ve got a dial on there already, maybe the logo. Enough to fool Aztray…”

The compañera brought the food: platefuls of small fried fish from the lake and potatoes and rice with onions. Two guerrillas stood and helped her distribute it to the others, but of course, they were women also. Girls really. Not much more than fifteen. Only a few years older than Jairo’s own daughter, Mariana, who would be eleven — no, twelve now. For one second, he pictured her here with him, just like these kids, headed out there for the line of fire. The thought shut itself down. He couldn’t bear it. Mariana, growing up without him. Living in hiding because of him, moving with her mother from house to house, one night after another, reared in the underground.

He had seen her last three months ago, when he snuck into Trinidad to spend one night on his way to Matagalpa. But he still pictured her most intensely as a newborn, his first child, a tiny baby human he held over his heart. She wriggled hard, used her head to arch her back and push herself off the crook of his arm: a fierce little captive trying to get loose. If he let her go at all, though, her new neck buckled and her whole head swayed. Her eyes focused, unfocused, focused again, asking him in no known language, more directly than anyone ever had, “Who are you? Why do you have me?”

Jairo, who had fought many years from the mountains, noticed lately that the recruits were getting younger, and he couldn’t stand that either. He watched them, his troops, half-starved teenagers, the boys with pimples and wispy beards, the girls just shedding baby fat. Used to be the guerrillas were at least eighteen, but now they came to him still growing. Only yesterday, he’d had to find new boots for two of them because their old ones turned too small overnight. During the last few months, he had managed an informal system of hand-me-down fatigues, like some sort of Grandma Guevara.

Girls and boys alike fell on the food. They had not eaten since before dawn, and not much even then. After sunrise, they had walked nearly ten kilometers. Not one of their smarter clips, but the terrain had been rugged and they had slept only a few hours after striking the garrison at Estelí. All of them scooted swiftly away from that all right, fueled by adrenaline and pure uncut uproar. They had slithered off into the woods just as the floodlights blazed on in all directions from the top of the fort. The stupid bastards on watch had mostly lit the sky, as if the stealthy raid had come from heaven or some other nonexistent place.

At dark, they waded to the dinghies and loaded Peche’s replica. They banged it a bit here and there on purpose. It would have to look damaged to explain why it wouldn’t work. Otherwise Aztray would turn it on right there in the chosen clearing and expect to announce his triumph nation-wide. Carefully, they climbed in after, so calculated and counterweighted that the boats barely rocked. They shoved off silently just before the moon rose so that watching them from far away, they could have been mistaken for a couple of cows come to the lake for water.

They did not speak at all, and Jairo hissed when one of the smaller rowers grunted. Sound carried across water, amplified better than by boom box. He knew things like that, and they obeyed instantly. They trusted him to keep them alive, and he’d done well so far. From the bellies of the boats they watched him like they would have watched their bandleader, he supposed, if they’d had time to go to high school.

It was flat dark, but they rowed forty-five degrees left of a cluster of lights and the village dock, where a hump of muddy shoreline let them land. Each second Jairo felt the boat lurch gently forward as the oars pulled against the water. They progressed about a meter a stroke. Fast. He was glad the kids had had the food and time to eat again. They would need the fuel to burrow through the mountain brush almost all night long tonight.

His boat lurched aground on shore just a second or two before the other one did, both of them caught fast but rocking slightly fore and aft. Four kids jumped out and heaved against the weight to secure them in the weeds. They all moved swiftly, coordinated, trained, shouldering packs and rigging a sling with two poles and a blanket. There, with tenderness, they placed their dummy radio, in the same way that they placed their dead. Hands and faces blackened, barely visible even to each other, they departed single-file through the swampy grasses to the culvert by the gravel road to town. They changed direction at the road, following a marshy ditch, heading uphill. By Jairo’s watch and his best guess about the moon, they had no more than an hour and a half to meet the others, coming down the gully from the ridge. He made them move. He pushed them hard. Tomorrow, they could rest and re-live tonight, whatever happened, whoever remained alive.

They shot across the road, into the forest cover on the other side. One by one they disappeared there, swallowed silently and whole; the forest made few sounds of its own. All the birds slept, although one or two started up and shrieked. Nature had its sentries, too. To them it must have seemed that some articulated creature snaked threateningly through the trees. But they would see that the animal was earthbound and passed quickly, intent on something else.

The band climbed now, one behind the other, all of them behind Jairo. Gradually at first and then more steeply. He pushed a button to illuminate his watch. It was nearly eight. They would reach the gully soon, where Gustavo and the radio team would meet them, where the narrow trail ended, and widened then to a clearing they had used before. Jairo knew the way Gustavo would come. Up an angled trail from pastureland, still dangerous to cross because the Sandinistas couldn’t secure it. They had fought the Guard back and forth across the bloody fields for months. The flat lands were hard to hold. Somoza’s men rolled over them in tanks, turrets at the ready, spinning like roulette. In the mountains, though, the tanks were useless, and the Sandinista forces picked off army men one-by-one as their patrols poked their way haltingly through the hills.

Jairo had a feeling that the end was near. The army was demoralized. Unsafe. No one wanted to die for Tacho Somoza, or even suffer much. He wasn’t worth it. He was a dragon of unrestricted public appetites. Tacho, he thought, time is nearly up for you, and he stopped suddenly, turned to signal at the edge of the clearing.

The kids knew what to do now, and deployed themselves in the trees and brush that framed the clearing. Jairo feared their coordination might be shaken by the dark, and hoped that they remembered they were revolutionaries, not teenagers on some weird armed campout. He held his breath while stillness gathered and strained to hear Gustavo’s signal from the south side of the clearing. It would be a grackle’s single cry. Shrill and loud like a panicked bird, not the soft, timid coo of a creeping soldier making like a dove.

They could not wait long because the moon would rise and light the clearing. Somoza’s patrols could be nearby. Not probable but possible. The army didn’t like to move at night, but they came through here regularly now. You could no longer count on them to be bunked in and sleeping tight. Routinely these last months, they sallied forth after dark, seeking Sandinistas. Gustavo’s kids kept track with inside information. They knew a small troop would be by tonight. Probably passing muster right now, never ever imagining that they would be the lucky and congratulated few to grab the Sandinista transmitter.

Time passed. Twenty minutes, twenty-five, and then they heard a deliberate sound. A high-pitched outraged screech from the south end of the clearing. Jairo had almost felt them near, although he could see nothing. He gave the answering call, the short and irritated gargle of a startled monkey, and then inched into the clearing, pulling Peche with him. They crept together as if by radar, but the moon rose minute by minute. The starlit sky showed no clouds.

“Jairo?” Gustavo’s voice and a hand on his shoulder.

“We’re here.”

“Quickly then.” Two figures scuffled from the bushes holding something. Peche pushed the radio replica forward, but when he felt the real one, he tried to lift it for a second.

“Jesus, Jairo, it’s much heavier.”

Jairo heard his heavy breathing.

Fuck. Of course. The real internal works weighed more than a blob of exploding jelly. “Take off the front. Set the sensor. Is there room for a rock in there?” Jairo hissed.

“Sure, there’s room. Can we find one in the dark?”

“We’ll have to use a flashlight,” Jairo answered. He scrambled off to do it himself.

Peche used a flashlight too, but he had planned it. He pried the front off, swiftly chiseled the plastic logo from the real transmitter and glued it to the fake one. He pulled off knobs and shoved them onto twigs protruding from the dummy. This was cruder than he would have liked, but it would pass in the dark if the weight felt right. A light blinked in the bushes as Jairo and the others searched for stones.

Gustavo whispered, “We should have thought of this.”

“How could we know until we had them both together?” Peche asked.

“We could have weighed the thing.”

“But we didn’t have a scale on our end. Unless we broke into the grocery in town. And then someone would talk.”

Jairo stepped into the clearing bearing two rocks. He had chosen smallish ones and hoped they were enough. Peche shoved them; secured them. Tacked the front back down again. He had set the sensor so that rough vibrations would make it blow. A helicopter lifting off would definitely do it.

Two of Gustavo’s kids lit a fire, which took off fast because they had brought the dry twigs and wood with them. Then they stomped it and dropped used up cigarette butts and coffee dregs. They hustled like stage hands changing scenes in the dark, and for this to work, the soldiers would have to be a willing audience, wanting to believe they cornered the transmitter–that it fell into their hands.

Gustavo clapped Jairo on the back. The moon had risen high, and they knelt there in plain view. “Okay, ” he said. “Thanks, everybody. Let’s get them out here.” Both bands withdrew into the bush again leaving the bait. Backstage, two guerrillas piled the real radio into the sling and took off down the mountain in the direction they had come.

Gustavo fired, then fired again repeatedly, as if he were frightened, shooting wildly. Across the clearing, Peche whooped. One sharp holler. Then another cry. Both troops drew back speedily; Gustavo and his people completely gone in less than a minute. Jairo ordered all his kids away, including Peche. He meant to stay alone and watch, but he saw Peche hesitate, torn between obeying and protesting.

“I’d like to stay, ” he said.

“You should go. I’ll need you to lead them, if I’m overtaken here.”

“I want to see it blow.”

Jairo balked at first, but then nodded his agreement. He could not recall Peche ever asking for something just because he wanted it. Not for two years in the mountains.

Peche grinned widely, as if he were a child who could stay up after dark. But only for an instant. They drew back again, further up the hill to the north, into the brush, consolidating themselves into a minimal presence looking down on their scene. The soldiers would come from the south, but they might surround the clearing in the darkness, planning to capture anyone who tried to run. The two men needed to perch beyond the cordon.

It was nearly ten when they heard the racket of fifteen men crashing through the woods. Since they so infrequently engaged the Guard directl
, they were always
surprised by its clumsiness. Its lack of stealth. Because the bastards thought they owned the country, they refused to believe that they could be attacked, even in the mountains in the middle of the night. In five years they had not learned. The mountains belonged to the guerrillas. From up the hill, burrowed into underbrush, the two saw the blundering patrol enter the clearing one-by-one and recognize the transmitter.

At first, they approached it cautiously. Then they huddled heedlessly. Anyone could have shot them all in the back. They squatted there like cavemen baffled by an artifact of human culture. They even grunted. One whistled in amazement.

Peche held his breath. He had to hope they did not pull the knobs off. Stupid as they were, they might do almost anything. He scarcely breathed. They seemed to consult each other. He wondered if in this case two or more heads were better than one. He despised them, but he relaxed when he realized they were afraid to touch this magic box they had. Clearly, they knew what it was supposed to be. They held consultations; three of them whispering together away from the other twelve. About a plan, maybe, or who would get the credit from Aztray.

“Radio him, you fucking idiots,” Jairo swore at them inaudibly.

They circulated and appeared to think. Should they move somewhere more accessible, or should they stay here with it? What if they broke it? Who cares? It’s already banged up. One of them went for the large round pseudo-power knob, but another slapped his hand away, hissing at him, like you would treat a dog in a dinner plate.

One of them asked quite clearly, “What if it’s a set up? What if they’re out there watching us?” He was nervous standing up straight in the mountains, in the moonlight.

Another answered, “Oh shut up. If they were watching us, they would have shot us all by now.” The first was not consoled; he slouched doubtfully.

More milling around, wondering, oddly at ease. Apparently, they never asked themselves why the radio team had run away without the transmitter; they figured they had spooked it with their bold approach. The fire still smoldered, but the butts were definitely dead. From where Jairo hid with Peche, only the one guy seemed mildly puzzled. The others wanted to believe.

Finally, finally, they radioed their own commander back in Estelí for orders. The one who seemed to be in charge here told the duty officer to wake their commander. They had good news. Static and voices drifted up the hill to the two guerrillas, who quietly, deliberately, constantly flexed their knees to keep from going numb. They needed to be ready to run. Right now, Peche would have traded his mother for a cigarette. He loved his mother, but he craved a smoke. He thought of both with longing. Curious where you mind went when you were bored and terrified, intrigued, impatient and hopeful all at once.

They heard the name Aztray. Both of them heard. They saw the sergeant or whatever he was assess the dimensions of the clearing. Could a helicopter land?

“Of course it can, imbéciles,” whispered Jairo, “That’s why we chose this place.” Jairo willed the sergeant to give the right answer. More yes and no. Endless indecision. Pointless back and forth. But when the communication sputtered out, the sergeant ordered the others to settle down and wait, back, beyond the rim of the clearing out of sight. Some of the lower rankers slumped. They didn’t understand, or recognize their coming glory, but they knew that they would lose a lot of sleep before this got over with.

The moon set and blackness came again. Incredibly, Peche found himself fighting sleep. Right here, right now, on the brink of triumph, looking down. Long day, he thought, packed with hiking, tinkering and hoping. It was the hoping that wore you out fastest. Hoping was for him a constant. Unlike Jairo, he hoped in real time for things that might come years from now. Like a brand-new Nicaragua with no Somozas. For him, one feature of the new world always amazed: no terror. He imagined that there would be fear–of accidents, inconvenience, ugliness, death. But not of other people–not like now.

Both of them must have dozed because the beat of an approaching helicopter woke them. This would be Aztray arriving grandly. God from the machine. The lower, more limber trees bowed to him and the great huge breathing locust set itself down in a swirl of leaves and brush. The forest seemed in shock. Leaning away from the spinning blades. Jairo and Peche too, with the suddenness of it. They held their common breath. Jairo saw the U.S. markings on the long, protruding tail, and his stomach knotted. Loss of a weapon could provoke everlasting yanqui vengeance.

Aztray himself appeared in the lit up cut out of the cockpit. He jumped and ducked, running beyond the perimeter of the sucking wind to the sergeant and the dummy transmitter. The sergeant saluted, but Aztray clapped him happily on the back. This was it, he seemed to say, pleased, delighted to be brought out in the middle of the night. He peered at the box, lit it with a flashlight. Here on the ground lay the voice of the Sandinistas. He gave the order to two gawking soldiers. Load it.

Jairo felt Peche tense and flex. If it blew now, they would need to run. But it didn’t. The soldiers treated it gingerly and only turned it once to fit through the cut out and back behind the seat. Aztray was only a silhouette, taller than the others. Upper class. He ran for the helicopter and climbed in. The blades whirled faster then and the tail tipped up. The pontoons left the ground. Neither Jairo nor Peche could really see much. For the most part, they only felt the gathering speed of the blades, the more intense vibration.

But then they saw and heard. First a small flash that lit the cockpit. Aztray had turned. Then a deep dropping roar like a furnace when it caught. The blast blew up the sky, and soldiers fell flat to the ground, as if in worship. From that moment on, Jairo ran with Peche. They paused and turned only once to see the blooming fireball– the monster bug engulfed.

Beatrice Edwards is a research analyst for PSI, the international labor federation for public sector trade unions.