Excerpt from my memoirs 8/4/2020
My parents separated in 1954 when I was ten years old. The split was very contentious, and my three siblings and I suffered as a result. Originally, we all lived with my father, but at one point my mother took us to live with her, violating the original agreement. She wanted to use us as leverage in getting more money in the agreement.
When my father fell ill and had to undergo surgery, I told my mother I wanted to go back to him, and she agreed. I made this decision as an eleven-year-old child when I felt uncomfortable with my mother’s way of life. She had no concept of money and had squandered several properties that my dad had given her at the time of the separation. Eventually three of us left her. Her oldest daughter from a prior marriage remained with my mother.
Unknown to me at the time, she was a very troubled person. She had lost three families, and with them the support needed as a child and later as a teenager and as a mother. Her father had been assassinated early on when he was the mayor of a small city in northern Colombia. After being taken in by an uncle that intended to adopt her, her new family died in an accident, in which she miraculously survived. Now she had also lost the family that included two of my siblings and me.
Soon after that my father decided to enroll me in a military school. It was a boarding school that served mostly the sons of military officers. So, in 1955 I was sent off to the “Colegio Militar Cooperativo”. It was located just north of Bogotá in the military reserve known as the “Zona Militar”.
Years later while reading “La Ciudad y los Perros” (The Time of the Hero) by Mario Vargas Llosa I recognized some of my own experiences in some horrendous passages of the novel.
I speculate that my father was not able to deal with a preteen boy. I was timid, in contrast to him. He believed I needed to “toughen up”. He was also having business problems that kept him away from home most of the time. Whatever time he had free he spent with his mistress.
We had to wear uniforms, could not have any cash, and were forbidden from leaving the campus during the week. After noon on Saturday students were picked up by parents and spent the rest of the day and Sunday at home. We had to be back at school before 5:00 PM.
I detested everything about the school. For students in the lower grades, there was little military training. We had formation according to our grade and size and once a day we would drill around the main space in front of the buildings for about thirty minutes. As students progressed, they were given more training, including the firing of 22 caliber rifles in the basement of the main building, and more drilling.
The second floor of the main building was dedicated to classrooms. Dormitories were located on the floors above. My recollection after more than sixty years is that there were around six hundred students in the school. A large mess hall located in the western part of the building/complex served us three meals a day. I did not eat much then and do not remember being hungry often, so I guess feeding was adequate for such a dehumanizing place.
Bogotá is located about 500 miles north of the Equator, but at 2,600 meters or almost 9,000 feet above sea level. The average high temperature is 66 degrees Fahrenheit and the lowest around 43. Outside the city it is not uncommon to find frost on the fields at dawn.
We were woken up at 5:00 AM and made to take a cold shower. This is one of the most vivid recollections I have of my stay there.
I soon realized that even at my young age I had to belong to one of the many cliques in the school. We would seek out our own at each recess and would act like a besieged group. We had sticks hidden in spaces in the old building and we would act defensively if outsiders approached us. Hierarchy was determined by fist fights between members of the group or between groups. There was no supervision by adults during recesses. I had my first fist fight early in the year, and to my surprise I was able to inflict several punches on my adversary, who was also a member of my clique. This was kind of a rite of passage.
My mother, bless her soul, would bribe the guard at the main gate and bring me candy and home-made goodies a couple of times a week. These were probably the only good moments I had during the week at this hellhole.
While it is true that people tend to forget particularly bad moments, I still remember some. I guess they were so horrid and unusual enough to stay with me.
Under the wide staircase that went to the second floor from the main space, there was a brig. Students that had committed particularly “heinous” rule violations, most of them minor discipline mishaps, had to spend one or more nights in it. There was no place to sleep or bathroom, so the place stank. I guess it would be cleaned periodically, but I do not remember seeing that. The punished student did not have a blanket or a coat and had to withstand the cold temperature.
The worst part was that if a student had to be there with a larger, older, or nasty upper-class student, he might be raped. One student confided to several of us that he had suffered this fate.
Another thing that stayed with me about this place is gruesome. One of the members of our clique related to us that he had sex with his dogs. He would regale us with detail of the experiences.
After several months of this ordeal, four of us in the clique started talking in secret about running away from home to avoid returning to school. The plan was that on a Saturday we would tell our parents that we were going to the movies with friends, take a bus to Pedro Palo lake and live there.
There is an ecological reserve on one side of the lake where the original Andean forest has been preserved. The reserve includes wetlands and, we believed, plenty of game to hunt. This area is full of legends and tales of mystical occurrences. We were to save all the money that we got during weekends at home, pilfer some canned food and try to make it. One in the group had a couple of pup tents that we would use. We did not include the dog fucker but did include the guy that had been raped and the guy I had beaten up. We were all lost souls with too much baggage to bear.
With only a couple of weekends to go before our escape, someone snitched. My father had a talk with me and told me he knew of the plan. He asked me why I was doing such an irrational thing and I told him. He listened but did not apologize or offer any words of encouragement. We never talked about it again, in typical Latin male fashion.
However, he did withdraw me from the school, and I went to regular school until August of 1957 when he packed my brother and me off to another military school in Bristow, Virginia, Linton Hall Military School. [To be continued]