Nobody dreams as a kid that they're going to grow up and live in the Central West of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, maybe, or the rainforests of the Amazon. But not the hot, flat grasslands that stretch between the Tocantins and Araguaia Rivers, lands of huge cattle ranches, half hungry dirt farmers, and dusty, dirty little towns. Then one morning you're about forty-five years old and standing out in the vegetable garden behind one of the decaying white parish houses in one of those dusty towns, and it occurs to you that you've spent the best part of your adult life out here and, in all likelihood, will spend the rest of it here too. That's obvious, of course, and you've known it all along—but suddenly, standing there in the garden, it hits you like a two-ton truck. So you either say a prayer, laugh, and get back to work—or you go crazy.
Not that we're not all a little crazy anyway. You get that way after awhile, and it comes out in crazy little ways: a twitching of the left eye, a conviction that somebody's stealing spoons from the kitchen, an obsession with baseball scores heard over the Voice of America. Harmless insanities that allow men to function normally—even magnificently—in the middle of nowhere, year after year after year.
At first I thought Jack Hogan had something like that. I'd taken a few days off and was visiting him down at the mission in Santa Maria das Dores—one of our dusty little towns. Jack and I had been classmates at the seminary, friends from way back. He had a couple of young Brazilian priests working with him—good men, both of them—and the four of us were sitting around the rectory, sharing a bottle of beer and having fun talking about nothing in particular, when a message came that the bishop wanted to talk to Jack on the phone. The only phone in town was at the telephone post down on the main street. So Jack and I walked down there.
There are times like that—coming out of the good fellowship in the parish house—that those towns really hit you—slap you across the face with their ugliness, their pain and poverty and injustice—so little beauty or caring or love. That's why we're here, of course; that's why we stay. But it hits you anyway, knocks the breath out of you: the hopelessness of the place, the guilt you feel at your own privilege—being able to eat three meals a day—and the whole damn unfairness of it: a handful of rich men running one of the richest countries in the world for their own benefit, while two thirds of the people go hungry.
That afternoon, as we walked out, there was a thin, weedy black woman hugging a baby to her. I didn't know her—Santa Maria is one of the few towns of ours I've never worked in, which is maybe why I like to visit there: don't know the people and the stories that haunt and twist their lives. Anyway, Jack stopped to talk to her. We spent about fifteen minutes—you know how country people are: you could tell she wanted to say something, but she talked about everything else first, until it finally came out that her husband had taken off the week before and she had no food for her kids. So we spent a few more minutes; Jack cared about her—you could see that, she could see that —and part of caring is that you try not to just give people hand-outs—that can cripple them more— but try to help them help each other. But, of course, none of that's simple—you have to know each person, and what will help them and what won't, and you make mistakes all the time. In the end she walked with us a little way to where Jack took her into the house of a couple who are organizing a church food cooperative.
I waited for Jack outside. As I was waiting, an old man I knew came up to me—Seu Zé Touro. He was a dirt farmer from Barro Branco, about a hundred miles north of Santa Maria, and I'd worked closely with him and his neighbors, helping them organize to stay on the land when a big rancher wanted them off. They'd struggled and they'd stayed. But recently I'd heard that his nephew had been killed by another landowner's gunmen in another area. I didn't know what to say to him—he was close to the nephew, had raised him from a boy—but I told him that I'd heard and that I was sorry.
He looked at me. He was a thin, blond man with a craggy, sunburned face and pale, watery eyes. Nothing about him—just looking at him, I mean—showed you how tough he was, but I knew him and he was steel strong inside, able to hold out day after day, year after year, under all kinds of pressure. But he was a quiet, gentle man, and he looked down at the ground, then up again before saying anything.
"Padre, I figure that when a person's hour comes, it comes, and there isn't much we can do about it, one way or another. Wherever he is, it'll happen."
It wasn't a new thought—I'd heard it a hundred times before from the people. My North American mind always rebels against it, and I don't know what I think of it theologically, but if it helps these people face life and death, and maybe stand up and fight for their land...? Who knows, maybe they're right. Maybe the only freedom we have isn't when we die, but how—if it's not a bullet while resisting a rich landowner, it could be a truck hitting us on the streets of New York or São Paulo, or a heart attack in our back yard. Maybe our only choice in the matter is whether we die with courage or like cowards or like some nothing in between. How the hell should I know?
About then, Jack came out of the house. We shook hands with Seu Zé and started along the street. The sun was intensely hot—making the street a kind of blank, blinding hell: you could almost hear the heat singing off the plastered walls, smell it rising out of the dust. The futility of it all hit me again—how for every woman you help find food, every farmer you help stay on the land, there are a hundred, two hundred, five hundred more you can never help.
All the way to the telephone post, of course, it was the same—people stopping Jack with things they wanted: an old man demanding that Jack baptize his grandson next Saturday, a small farmer asking for help with his land title, a woman angrily wanting to know why the mayor had given her neighbor a free blanket and not given her one—something Jack had nothing to do with. It took another half hour to walk four blocks—it's always like that when you walk through the town where you're stationed. That's why some of the guys always go by jeep, even for a few blocks. Of course there are other ways: Frank Davis rides a bicycle—says it allows him to get by with a wave and a friendly word, and whiz off before anyone corners him; Billy Martin has been pretending for years that he's half deaf.
In any case, we got to the telephone post and waited another forty minutes for the call to go through—there's only one line into town—and the operator telling Jack about her problems with her husband. When we got through the bishop wasn't there, but Brother Pedro was, and he said that the bishop asked if Jack could go up to Miracema next day and talk to the bishop. Jack wasn't real pleased about it, but he said he would and I told him I'd go along for the ride.
It was on the way up that it first happened. Not that I thought much about it then.
We had driven the jeep ninety kilometers over the dirt road to the Belém-Brasilia, the only paved highway linking southern Brazil to the north. Recently it's started breaking into pot holes and sinking back into the earth, but at that time it was still a good road: two lanes, smooth paved with clear markings and reasonably wide shoulders. It looked just like a small American highway and you could pretend you were riding along through Iowa or Nebraska someplace, except when a small mountain made you think of Pennsylvania, or a jagged butte—a monster rising out of nowhere—took you to Wyoming or Montana.
It was like an American highway except for the bridges. There are maybe twenty or thirty of them along the stretch we were traveling—not big bridges, but the kind that cross creeks and small streams. You don't even notice them, really: the road stays flat and you wouldn't see the bridges if it weren't for the cement railings and the signs. Oh, yes—they have signs, even in Brazil, marking the names of the creeks you're passing over: big green road signs, easily visible even at night, just like in the United States. They may not have hospitals or schools or food for the people, but they have beautiful big road signs giving information nobody needs or wants. They wouldn't want you to think they were a backward nation.
The cement railings are another matter. Square cement posts whited like tombstones stand frighteningly close to the road, leaving very little shoulder, thin cement railings running between them. There's really plenty of room, of course, but when you're headed onto one of those bridges with, say, a giant Scania truck roaring down at you from the other side, you're kind of inclined to miss a heart beat, hold your breath, and hope like hell you'll get through. You always do—at least I always have. Then again, on about half the bridges part of the railings are smashed out where somebody hit them and, maybe, went over.
Anyhow, we were approaching one of the bridges—the big green sign read "Corrego Vermelho" – when I noticed that Jack slowed down the jeep a bit and then accelerated, as if suddenly in a hurry. We were alone on the highway—nothing coming the other way—so I didn't think much of it until we were on the bridge and I glanced at Jack.
He was shuddering and deathly pale; beads of sweat stood on his forehead and his fingers clutched the wheel so hard his knuckles were white. He was watching the road intently, as though he had to guide the jeep through some deadly, narrow spot, so I waited until we were off the bridge before I spoke.
"You okay?" I asked.
He didn't answer for a moment. When he did, it was with a deep, scratchy voice, as though he had to drag the words out of his throat.
"Sure," he said.
We rode for another kilometer or so before I said, "It's the bridge, isn't it? I know—I have the same feeling. You get onto one of those bridges and you start to imagine what it would be like to smash into one side or the other—how easy it would be to do it—the crashing sound of metal, the shock of impact, the cement posts breaking, the jeep going over the edge...."
I turned toward him and was startled to find he was looking at me—looking at me with wide eyes, a strange naked expression on his face as though I'd uncovered some dark hidden sin. I suppose it was only a moment's glance, but it seemed like minutes that he sat there, his eyes on me as we sped along the highway. I broke my eyes away and looked out the windshield.
"Watch out!" I shouted, and he recovered and swerved around a Mercedes truck that had pulled out ahead of us onto the road.
There were plenty of other bridges on the way, but we passed over them without even noticing. By the time we reached Miracema, the incident was behind us—we hadn't mentioned it, and were talking and laughing like our normal selves.
The meeting with the bishop was important. I don't know what sixth sense it is you get down here—maybe it's the Holy Spirit guiding you; God knows, by all earthly standards the Church and the poor it works for should have been defeated years ago. But sometimes these warnings come, and the bishop had woken up the morning before with the feeling that another spurt of violence by landowners was going to start. So he called together eighteen or twenty of the people most active in land issues—a handful of priests, five or six sisters, the lawyer for the land commission, several union leaders. In the end, that meeting saved a lot of small landholdings and probably several lives. But Jack wasn't really part of it by then.
Next day after lunch we started back toward Santa Maria. About mid-afternoon I was lost in thought, looking out the window, when the jeep started to slow and Jack brought it to a halt on the shoulder. I looked at him. He was pale and sweating—it flashed across my mind that he might have malaria—his hands clenched the wheel, the motor still running with the hard thumping heartbeat of an idling jeep.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
He didn't answer but nodded his head forward. I looked and saw, about a hundred yards ahead, the sign: "Corrego Vermelho."
I recognized the place, but I was absolutely baffled.
"What is it?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"I don't know," he said, almost whispering. He had calmed down some now and started the car forward again, but as soon as he did so he began to sweat and shake, breathing with short urgent panting. He pulled to a stop again. A car swept by us, tooting its horn.
"You want me to drive?"
He nodded, switched off the motor, and slumped back in his seat. I got out, walked around the jeep and, opening his door, put my hand on his shoulder.
"Come on," I said.
He turned and slid down from his seat until he was standing on the ground. He was looking down at his feet.
"Sorry," he said. "I don't know...."
His voice trailed off. His breathing was regular now, but he was still sweating.
That's okay," I said. "We all push ourselves too hard sometimes,"—which, God knows, is true enough. "Get in. I'll drive back."
It took a few minutes. He stood still, husbanding his strength, then started lumbering around the front of the jeep, holding onto it, as though for support. His movements were, I knew, a pure act of will. I waited; I didn't want to hurry him and it wasn't right to help him: sometimes there are things a man has to do on his own.
Finally he got in on the other side, sitting hard on the seat, leaning back and closing his eyes.
"Okay?" I asked.
"Go ahead," he answered after a moment. I sensed again that he had to drag the words from somewhere deep down inside.
I started the jeep, waited for a couple of trucks to pass, then pulled out slowly toward the bridge. We were about thirty feet from it, moving slowly, when Jack suddenly shot upright in the seat beside me.
"Stop!" he yelled in pure terror. He opened the door and bolted out. I slammed on the brake and pulled over, killed the motor and jumped out of the jeep.
Jack was standing by the road and I ran back toward him. As I got close I realized he was in a panic. He was shivering and sweating, and his eyes, big and almost glazed, were fastened on the bridge.
"Hey, Jack," I said gently. "What is it?"
He seemed to hear me, but it took a few seconds for him to answer.
"The bridge," he said at last.
"What about the bridge?" I looked over at it, putting an arm around his shoulders. "Is it going to fall?" How did I know? Maybe it was his sixth sense warning us of danger. But he shook his head.
"Let's walk over and take a look at it," I said. I was praying silently: "Dear God, let me know what to do." You can't be in our work as long as I have without seeing people break, but it still doesn't help you know what to do: each person is different. Just be gentle and firm, pray a lot, and listen.
We walked slowly over to the bridge and I reached out and touched the first cement post. They're about three feet high, maybe a foot and a half wide on each side, square—but slightly rounded at the top, painted white. I thought again of tombstones. After a moment Jack reached out and touched it too, like a school kid touching a strange animal—fascinated yet afraid, as though the post might bite. He held his hand there for half a minute, stroking the cement, then drew it back.
"Do you want to walk across, and I'll bring the car?"
He looked at the bridge. "No."
I glanced around me and thought. We could have turned back to Miracema, but that seemed pointless. I wanted to get Jack home to Santa Maria, but he wouldn't drive across the bridge, and he wouldn't walk across.
There was another way—there always is. I looked toward the creek. The land sloped down to it about thirty feet on this side, then up on the other. It was fairly steep and covered with thick grass, but we could make it. The creek itself was only about ten feet across, probably two or three deep.
"Would the creek bother you?" I asked.
He looked at me blankly.
"Could you wade across the creek?"
He looked down at it. "Sure."
"Then let's go."
I started down the slope, half sliding, half walking, hoping there wouldn't be any snakes in the undergrowth. After a moment I heard him climbing down behind me. I reached the bank and began to stamp down the grass around a boulder that was there, making a place to sit down. Jack finished clambering down and I sat down and started to take off my shoes and socks. "Take off your shoes," I said. He stared for a moment, then sat down. He had sandals on and he unbuckled them, painfully, slowly, but he was doing it and I knew again that every movement was an act of will, demanding tremendous effort and courage.
He paused and looked out at the water, then spoke, the words again dragged up from deep underneath—deep underneath layers of mind and nerves that told him what he said or did was meaningless, didn't matter, made no difference.
"You don't have to wade across," he said.
The bravery of it made me stop in awe. I smiled at him, wanting to show I appreciated it.
"Hey," I said. "We're in this together." He was still staring at the water. "Besides," I said, "I could stand to be rebaptized."
He actually smiled at that—a thin smile, but then it was pretty thin humor. I picked up my shoes and socks and started across the stream, shuffling my feet in case there were sting rays along the muddy bottom. He followed me, holding his sandals high and balancing against the small current as though he were a tight-rope walker. It was deeper than I'd thought—four, almost four and a half feet in the middle—but we made it through. There were some flat rocks on the other side and we sat on them, letting the sun dry us a little, looking at the stream.
"Well, we did it," I said lightly. "Yes," he answered, and I suddenly knew that what, for me, had been a short climb and wade, had been for him a journey—a day's trek, maybe—or a lifetime's. He was staring out over the stream with a look on his face, in his eyes, that a mountain climber might wear when he was resting at the summit of a difficult climb.
"Do you think we could head back up to the road?" I asked. It was like asking the mountain climber if we could go back down the mountain: of course we could. I pulled on my socks and shoes; he buckled his sandals—slowly, determinedly. Then we turned and started up, side by side.
Jack was exhausted by the time we reached the highway—pale and drained, but not shaking.
"Why don't you sit and rest for a couple of minutes and I'll go get the jeep." It was easy enough; I would just have to walk back across the bridge.
He sat down on the gravel beside the road, and I was just about to start back when I heard him sob. I squatted down beside him.
"I'm sorry," he sobbed. "I'm sorry."
I put an arm around his shoulders and just let him cry and cry and cry.
Every one was very understanding. They flew Jack back to the States, where he went to one of those places for people who work too hard and care too much, where you can rest and pray and there's someone who will listen. I got two or three letters from him while he was there. I remember that in one of them he wrote, "I feel like I've faced fear and won."
When he was released he was sent out to work in a parish in the Western states. He was very happy there, and apparently made quite an impact. Once when I was in New York I met a young woman from Jack's parish. She was attractive, clean-cut and strong limbed; she later entered a missionary order of sisters. As we were talking about Jack, she said, "He was so fearless about looking straight into things—into life...." She was groping for words, and I think she felt she hadn't articulated herself very well. But I knew what she meant.
Jack didn't write often once he got back to work. When you're in a parish, you think a lot about writing but almost never have time to do so. I did get one letter from him, though. He told all the news about his work, mutual friends, life in the States. He went on to write:
Whatever it was on that bridge, it wasn't just nerves. Oh, I know it was the nerves—the stress, the exhaustion—that made me panic, that made me go to pieces. But there was something there, something dangerous. Whatever it is—wherever it is (I don't think it's in Brazil anymore), I'll meet it again sometime. But this time I'll meet it with courage.
Six months later we received a telegram. Jack had been killed in Idaho when his car crashed crossing the Vermillion Creek bridge.