The Death of Betty Boop
Reagan's beloved Contras used southern Honduras for safe haven. We had a monitoring operation embedded in a ten-kilowatt AM community radio station near the town of Puerto Lempira, on the Atlantic coast of Honduras—the Moskitia—twenty miles north of the Rio Coco, the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. Our work consisted of transcribing and translating material and sending it to the Embassy in Tegucigalpa. There was a DEA office in the Embassy and we passed stuff along to those people too. Drugs and commies. The year was 1986, the year of the Iran-Contra scandal, the Year of Ollie North, the year the Contra war rose to its grubby climax. That year I made the acquaintance of two particularly odd people. One was an agency field person. The other was a woman assigned to my unit in early June, at the start of the dry season, who said her name was Betty Boop.
Puerto Lempira is a vermin and mosquito intensive pole village a foot underwater half the year. I love the place. I hasten to add that the surrounding landscape has more to recommend it than the town itself. Gracias a Dios, the easternmost quarter of Honduras, is quite beautiful, actually—undulating savannah, lowland rainforest, mangrove swamp. The area right around Puerto Lempira is pine savannah with watery stretches of grass and sedge. Tropical pine has a spindly trunk and tufts of needles toward the top, sort of a cross between a conifer and a Dr. Seuss umbrella tree.
The Rio Coco watershed is the Mískitu heartland. The Mískitu are small, wiry, self-reliant fisherfolk. They live in extended-family clusters along shallow, sinuous waterways and subsist on fish, fruit, greens, and plantains. The Mískitu are contemptuous of governments generally, had always responded dismissively to Managua's distant attempts to govern them, and didn't get along at all well with the Sandinistas. When the Contra buildup started, the resentful Sandinista army torched the Mískitu communities along the banks of the lower Rio Coco and tried to herd the Mískitus south, away from the river.
Big mistake. Outsiders easily become disoriented in the convoluted semi-saline channels of the Caribbean littoral. Mískitus in large numbers escaped the Sandinistas by simply shaking them in the swamps, turning back north, and crossing the Rio Coco into the welcoming arms of the Contras and their U.S. advisors. The Contras consisted mainly of retired thugs from Anastasio Somoza's Guardia Nacional until the Sandinistas burned down the Mískitus' houses and brutalized their grandmothers, after which many thousands of displaced young Mískitu men and women became enthusiastic Contra fighters and the Mískitu refugee population turned Puerto Lempira from a dank village to an orderly but squalid slum for the duration of the conflict.
While the Sandinistas were burning Mískitu villages, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was carving an enormous landing strip across a stretch of floodplain on the inland side of Puerto Lempira. As soon as the airstrip was finished, C130's from the Alabama Air National Guard started showing up and doing daylong touch-and-go landings. USAID in its wisdom put our radio station within sight and earshot of the landing strip. The studio had good acoustic tile but it didn't help much when the C130's were coming in. Great flocks of raucous birds—gulls, pelicans, clouds of shrieking parakeets, trees full of hooting, yelling toucans and macaws—added grandly to the noise and competed with the military traffic for airspace. Shortly after I arrived at Sani Radio a flock of turkey vultures took out a Cobra gunship.
Saniradio is a Mískitu adverb that means something about like "through the grapevine". Sani Radio and our workspace were housed in a double-wide container module on a concrete slab. The station was on the side facing the road. Our operation was around in back. Our work was nominally clandestine but our presence was hardly a secret—everyone in Puerto Lempira knew there was a CIA monitoring operation attached to Sani Radio. Sani Radio was a Contra propaganda organ but it was also a true community radio station. People would stop by and knock on the container door and stick their heads in and ask the announcer to broadcast personal messages—family greetings, debt disclaimers, news of births and deaths and illnesses, messages to loved ones fighting in the south.
Our broadcast tower was the tallest structure in Departamento Gracias a Dios. The tower transmitted the Sani Radio signal and sustained a spiky thicket of marine and aviation antennas. Behind the tower there was a shed with a pod of diesel fuel and a generator.
* * * * *
Her file said Elizabeth somethingorother "Boupe". She said her surname was pronounced "Boop".
Okay, someone tells you her name is Betty Boop? You look for a twinkle, a lop-sided smile, a cocked eyebrow. Anything. Nope. Nothing. She's not kidding. Betty. Betty Boop. My name is Betty Boop.
Betty Boop was an interpreter. She was short-ish and pale-eyed with straight shoulder-length light brown hair. I didn't think of her as overweight, but she apparently did. During the brief time she was with us she was on some kind of diet program involving carrots. She carried around a container of raw carrots. She'd walk, stand, sit in meetings, sit at her workstation, resonantly eating carrots.
Her headset was picking up the carrot-crunching noises and garbling and obscuring her delivery so I had to say something to her. She came after me with a hatchet—complaint board, mediation board, the works. Took a week off to work on her complaint against me. Flew back to Tegu and up to Washington for a couple of days. She said I was implicitly and inappropriately remarking on her physique and threw in for good measure that I was making fun of her name.
I missed her sorely, or more precisely I missed her contribution to our work, over the week she was away. Betty Boop was a language genius—absolute multilingual in English, Russian, and Spanish, and near-native fluency in Mískitu, Sumu, Garifuna, and the innumerable registers of English- and Spanish-based Creole that prevail along the Atlantic coast of the Central American isthmus. How could a person like this, a mind furnished with this much metacognitive equipment, be deaf to the irony of her own name? And could she really not see that the carrot thing was a bit weird? A severely humorless person who says her name is Betty Boop and goes around eating carrots, real loud? Is there a problem here?
When she first complained about me the Agency said this can't be serious, just talk to her.
I tried. First time I mentioned the carrots I thought the thing might just sort of dissipate. Boy. Wrong. She starts going, "I'm concerned, Larry." That was pretty much all she'd say. "I'm concerned, Larry." It was like talking to a robot. At one point I played back for her some work she'd just recorded, a simultaneous translation of a transmission coming from a drug boat out on the Atlantic. You could hear non-obscuring background noise—the dim thrum of the generator, a helicopter thubbing overhead and fading—but what garbled the recording was the racket that her carrot crunching made.
I said, "Betty, you hear the local background noise?"
"And do you hear the sound that, like, your...um...carrots..."
"Larry, why are you laughing?"
"Betty, look, it's not a big deal, it's just..."
"Larry, I'm concerrrned."
When it reached the Complaint Board stage they said how valuable is she and I said indispensable. I told them we couldn't do the work without her, or someone like her. I didn't hear anything for a while and then they told me there was somebody in Puerto Lempira they thought could help.
The guy showed up a day or two later. Turned out I knew him slightly. His cover was the Moravian church mission. Fooled me. I had thought of him as another of the earnest, courteous, simple-hearted North Carolina Moravian missionaries who live in and around Puerto Lempira. Moravians have had a lock on proselytism and social services in the Moskitia for over a century. Moravian missionaries run the region's only schools and clinics, including "Angel Flight"—doctors, nurses, and midwives who pilot single-engine Pipers and Cessnas up and down the coast. I greatly admire the Angel Flight people, though I confess I find most Southerners impenetrably foreign—outré accents, odd body language—and was inclined to dismiss as bumpkins the missionaries I encountered around Puerto Lempira.
The Agency gave me a sign-countersign and told me their guy would make the contact.
I was walking to the station from my little rooming house on stilts. It was early, just past dawn. The street was of the same consistency as the landing strip, hard-packed red clay strewn with ocean-polished pebbles and bits of seashell. Even in its swollen Contra-war years, the town consisted of a single main street, with paths leading off through the thickets to subsidiary clumps of shacks. The street was lined with pine-board, tin-roof tiendas and dwellings mounted on head-high poles, with wooden steps rising along one side. The bare earth under the houses was populated with chickens, pigs, and scrawny, timid cats and dogs.
The town was stirring. Behind the houses and tiendas, half concealed among the leaves of the plantains, bananas, and coconut palms, families were moving about, tending cooking fires, panning up fresh water from wooden troughs, washing and dressing in the dappled shade. Blue-gray wood smoke drifted above the fires, filling the morning air with smoky savors of fish, beans, yucca, and plátanos frying in bacon grease.
My contact came down a rickety flight of steps and fell in beside me.
He was wearing Dockers, rubber boots, and a t-shirt with the World Council of Churches cross and peace dove, and under that, in block letters, "CONFERENCE ON WORLD MISSION AND EVANGELISM, KINGSTON, JAMAICA, JUNE 1984". He was eating strips of fried plátano out of a paper bag.
He gave me the keying phrase in a profoundly Southern drawl: "Do you know if the mail plane ever got here?"
I said, "Sometimes it doesn't ever show up."
He extended the greasy bag. "You wont some?"
I took a chunk of fried plátano and we continued on together.
We passed a boy wheeling a bicycle, a woman and a girl hanging out laundry, a man carrying folds of fishing net draped over his shoulder. The boy looked up and smiled and the woman and the man both greeted the guy, addressing him as "Pastor Marty". He responded with pastoral smiles and nods. I recalled that another missionary had introduced him to me at some point, as "Revernt" Martin somethingorother.
The guy looked tough, in spite of the pastor business and the pious t-shirt. One of his ears was slightly cauliflowered. I figured him for a former middleweight boxer or collegiate wrestler. I was gratified that the Agency had arranged the contact, but I was skeptical about what kind of help he'd be able to give me. What was he going to do, break her arm?
We arrived at a railed plank bridge spanning a dry arroyo that marked the limit of the town. On the other side, the road branched. A single-lane track led to the station. The track to the left led to the airstrip, a hundred meters beyond the bridge.
A line of caoba and pine marked the end of the airstrip. Under the trees was the Puerto Lempira Airport terminal, a one-room tin-roofed concrete block shed. The Aerolínea Isleña logo, a wavy v-shaped fan of stylized feathers intended to suggest quetzal plumage, was stenciled on the whitewashed wall of the shed, together with a stenciled flag of Honduras and a sign that said "Aeropuerto de Puerto Lempira." A Cessna 210 was parked nearby. Aside from the Cessna, the airstrip was deserted.
A gleaming white Jeep Cherokee pulled up beside us and stopped.
The driver was Lester Cox. Don Lester was one of Puerto Lempira's numerous Mískitu Moravian ministers.
He lowered his window and leaned out and said, "Hey, Pastor Marty." The open window emitted a billow of chilly air from the Jeep's air conditioning.
Lester was a compact man in his mid-40's. He was wearing a blue guayabera, neat brown trousers, and knee-high gum boots with the trouser legs tucked in.
The Agency guy—"Pastor Marty"—said, "Hey, Lester. Where'd you get your Cherokee?"
"Colonel North gave it to the church." Lester spoke Carolina English with a very slight Hispanic accent.
"Well now, the Colonel heps us right smart, dunney, Lester?"
"He surely does."
"Wonderful lil ole Moravian boy. Bless his heart."
Lester Cox laughed hard, caught his breath, exclaimed, "Hoo, law," raised his window back up, and drove on toward the airstrip.
I walked across the bridge with the Agency guy and we headed for the station, eating plátanos.
"You've got a little problem with your interpreter?"
The cornpone accent was gone. He was wearing a slight smile, strolling and looking up the road toward the broadcast tower.
I was still uncertain and the linguistic shape-shifting didn't help.
I rehearsed the situation for him briefly—that she was a brilliant but extremely odd person who insisted with touchy solemnity that her name was Betty Boop, insisted that it was her right to eat carrots while she was recording, had construed that was I ridiculing her because I asked her not to crunch the carrots, and was wasting Agency time and effort in the middle of a war zone with an off-the-wall grievance.
The guy listened, chuckling and smiling, strolling along, polishing off the plátanos. The station was up ahead. He wadded up the greasy plátano bag and stuck it in the back pocket of his Dockers.
"Tell you what, Larry." No Southern accent. "If you've got something else to do for a while, how about I just spend some one-on-one time with her."
I spent the morning back by the tower helping our engineer fool with some wiring. Toward noon I opened the door and glanced in. The sound tech had his feet up on the console. He was reading a paperback copy of Pet Sematary. Betty Boop and the Agency guy were inside the glassed-in monitoring chamber, sitting together, side by side, soundlessly chatting, both smiling. The sound tech glanced at me, glanced at them, shrugged, and went back to his reading.
I walked to town and had a bowl of gallo pinto and a beer at the Gato Negro. The Gato Negro was Puerto Lempira's only nightclub. During the day it was the town's only sit-down restaurant.
When I got back to the station, Betty and the Agency guy both had headphones on.
The tech lifted his headphones when I came in.
I said, "What's going on in there?"
The tech said, "Listen," and hit the audit switch.
They were working together, doing simultaneous translations of a communication in Bluefields Creole. During pauses they were talking to each other in Bluefields Creole.
"How long have they been doing this?"
"About half an hour."
The engineer pointed at the steady red "record" light.
I adjourned to my office—a closet next to the sound booth—and caught up on some correspondence.
* * * * *
Much of Puerto Lempira's expat crew would hit the Gato Negro of an evening—pilots, contractors, DEA guys, food aid people, Peace Corps volunteers, plus a few Honduran Army officers and their girlfriends. It was a pretty sedate scene, generally: muted drunkenness, disco at moderate volume on an eight-track, two or three couples bopping to the Bee Gees, a glitter ball suspended from the ceiling on a pole. The moist, warped plywood walls were painted black and bore some half-hearted efforts to render tomcats with top hats and girl cats in miniskirts. Puerto Lempira's single town generator started up every evening at dusk and shut down at midnight, with an effect as conclusive as a curfew. Gato Negro patrons all carried flashlights. At midnight we'd come shambling out of the abruptly silenced and darkened club and head off down the dark street behind our wobbling flashlight beams.
I was at the station till late, catching up on work, having been effectively banished from the station for a good part of the day. I got to the Gato Negro around ten. For a minute I thought the place was closed. The street was quiet—no music or chatter emanating from the club. As I opened the door, I heard applause.
"Pastor Marty" was sitting at a table at the far edge of the dance floor. Betty was standing beside him.
When the applause died, she began to sing.
Her voice was as pure and clear as spring water, a perfect pop voice—sharp inflection, steady, confident vibrato, polished tone and timing. She sang "Blue Bayou" in the style of Linda Ronstadt's Orbison cover. She was singing with no accompaniment and no amplification, but her voice was so good she didn't need accessories. She sang for the rest of the evening. She did some Toni Tennille, some Cass Elliot, some more Ronstadt, a few show tunes. She didn't say anything. She just stood there and sang. The barman and the waiter were in club-show mode, padding among the patrons, taking whispered drink orders. Toward midnight she sang Piaf's Rien de Rien, which should have been corny but was so perfectly beautiful she had several people blubbering, including a couple of U.S. Army officers, a Political Section guy, and—I admit it—myself. The whole while this guy sat there beside her, gazing into the middle distance, smiling. At one point she reached toward him and they held hands while she sang.
At midnight the generator shut down and the place was suddenly a dank cave. A collective sigh passed through the crowd. Then flashlights came on in the blank dark and there was the sound of chairs scraping as people got up to leave and the hoops of light from their flashlights arced and swiveled in the gloom.
* * * * *
Next morning we got orders to lock the station and go out to Campamento Libertad, a Contra facility five kilometers south of Puerto Lempira. Betty hadn't shown up. I drove myself and the station staff—six of us, minus Betty—out there in the battered Sani Radio Cherokee.
Campamento Libertad was more substantial than the town, with barracks and tents arrayed in rows on wooden platforms. The place was headquarters for the equivalent of a battalion of well-equipped Mískitu guerrilla fighters. Most were very young, teenage boys, a few girls, all heavily armed, wearing camouflage fatigues and soft-brimmed hats, milling around on the training field at the center of the camp. Most carried AK-47s, ammunition, and grenades. Some had Soviet RPG-7s. A few had M60s and ammunition belts.
I spotted Lester Cox in a knot of local people, talking with the Agency guy. Betty was standing beside him.
Don Lester was saying, "There's Brooklyn over yonder." He nodded toward some fighters clustered around a tall, lean guy in front of the HQ barracks.
I said, "That's Brooklyn Rivera?"
The Agency guy glanced at me and nodded.
There was a distinctly un-military tent set up at the edge of the parade ground, a big rectangular manila-colored affair with sides rolled up, exposing rows of folding chairs facing a speaker's table with four desk mikes.
Don Lester cocked an eyebrow and looked at the tent.
The Agency guy said, "Edén Pastora."
"What you reckn he's gon do, Marty?"
"What he always does, Lester. Make a speech. Get his picture taken."
Brooklyn Rivera had come forward and was listening to this conversation. Rivera was dressed in Caribbean cowboy mufti—sunglasses, ball cap, plaid shirt, jeans, rubber boots, an old U.S. Army issue .45 in an open holster.
Rivera shook the Agency guy's hand. "Qué tal, hermano."
"Bien, Comandante, cómo le va."
Don Lester said, "Y el Comandante Steadman?"
Rivera said, "Allinomasito, ve," and lip-pointed in the direction of a cluster of fighters beyond the tent. I couldn't see who he was indicating, but he had to be talking about Steadman Fagoth. Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth led the two main guerilla factions fighting in the north.
The Agency guy, Don Lester, and Brooklyn Rivera proceeded to code-switch, conversing in a mixture of Spanish, English, and Mískitu. From what they were saying I gathered that Rivera and Fagoth had agreed to meet here with Edén Pastora and that Pastora had decided to turn the meeting into a media circus, setting up a press conference and bringing out a planeload of reporters from Tegucigalpa.
Edén Pastora ran ARDE, "Alianca Revoucionaria Democrática", a campesino guerrilla group operating out of Costa Rica. Pastora was famous for an attack he'd led on the National Palace during the last days of Somoza. His people called him "Comandante Cero". Pastora was a shameless opportunist, a publicity hound, and mainly interested in women and money. When the Sandinistas took over, he switched sides—he was a Contra now and the Agency was paying him. Fagoth and Rivera didn't like each other much, but they liked Pastora even less.
A yellow school bus appeared on the road from town and turned and entered the camp. It had a string of Aerolínea Isleña bumper stickers pasted along the sides, above and below the words "MONTGOMERY COUNTY ALABAMA COMMUNITY SCHOOL CORPORATION". The bus came to a stop in the space between the HQ barracks and the tent, in the midst of a growing cluster of guerillas.
First out was a short-skirted Nicaraguan beauty brandishing a clipboard. The young woman started monologuing and gesticulating in the manner of a tour-group leader as American and European journalists and some regional television and print reporters came ducking and bumping and clanking out of the school bus with their cameras and tripods and field recorders and coils of wire and boxes of equipment, stepping down one by one, anxious and serious and laden, onto the hard red ground.
Some headed for the tent and began setting up equipment. Others started looking around for people to interview. A woman carrying a Marantz open-reel on a shoulder strap and wielding a hand mike collared Don Lester and started interviewing him.
Don Lester had on a WCC t-shirt.
"You're a missionary?"
"No ma'am. I'm a minister."
"With the World Council of Churches?"
"No ma'am. The Moravian Mission."
"Aha." The woman obviously had never heard of the Moravians.
Don Lester was saved from more of this by the arrival of a vintage Jeep, followed by a Land Rover. By now the open area between the barracks and the tent was packed with milling reporters, guerillas, and the entourages of Rivera and Fagoth.
The jeep skidded and came to a stop just short of the crowd.
Edén Pastora, "Comandante Cero", rose from the back seat of the open-top jeep and gripped the roll bar.
Pastora was a physical type common to gymnasts and movie actors, a shortish man with a big head and imposing upper body perched atop vestigial legs. He was wearing a blue beret and fresh-pressed fatigues. His wavy chestnut hair descended to his shoulders. He removed his sunglasses and began to pose, squinting into the middle distance and presenting chiseled profiles with quarter turns left and right. Reporters began dutifully clicking and filming. The driver tried to nudge forward, but the cluster of men in front of the jeep—battle-hardened young Mískitu guerillas carrying assault rifles—simply stood their ground and stared at Pastora.
The woman with the Marantz turned to Don Lester. "Why won't they move for him? They act like they don't know who he is."
"I don't expect they do, ma'am."
Someone shouted, "Bajáte, pendejo."
Don Lester smiled and said, "Well, I reckn some of 'em do."
Armed men emerged from the Land Rover. Several of the Mískitu fighters near the jeep unshouldered their rifles. Fighters were approaching from across the field. Steadman Fagoth and his men were still gathered by the steps of the HQ barracks. Brooklyn Rivera was nowhere in view, but he had to be near. People started shoving and jostling. There were curses and exclamations. A woman screamed.
I edged away from the jostling, over to the edge of the tent, where a skinny young dude was squatting beside a stack of speakers. His t-shirt read, "Bob Seger TOURING AGAINST THE WIND 1983 International Concert Staff".
Someone bumped me, hard. It was "Pastor Marty", the Agency guy, gesturing urgently at the Bob Seger roadie. "Give me a live mike." The kid looked up at him with stoned unresponsiveness. Pastor Marty shouted: "A live mike!"
The kid lurched slightly, reached around the front of the speakers, touched a button, pointed to the speaker's table, and said, "Pick up any mike and hit the slide switch."
Pastor Marty seized a microphone.
In Mískitu, then in Spanish, then in North Carolina English, he said, "Let us pray."
With each repetition, the speakers boomed: "LET US PRAY."
Silence descended over the crowd in front of the HQ and out across the parade ground.
The Bob Seger roadie was now standing upright and looking fixedly at Pastor Marty.
Pastor Marty said, "Let us pray...quítense sus gorras y sombreros, por favor... Heavenly Father..."
First in front of the HQ, then rippling across the parade ground, weapons were lowered and caps and hats removed and clapped reverently to chests.
"Heavenly Father, we come to you this morning in the name of Jesus to thank you for this opportunity to be here with our indigenous brothers in arms, los Comandantes Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth, and our ladino brother in arms Edén Pastora, Comandante Cero, hero of the great victory over the Somocista dictatorship, who is, uh, heping to lead in battle our brothers in arms of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces in southern Nicaragua. Father, we ask you to bless these our brothers and sisters in arms today. Lord, we ask you to hep us remember that we're all in this struggle together, we ask that you bless all the brave young men and women here with us today, Lord, fighting for freedom, Lord, we ask these thangs today in the name of Christ Jesus, a-men."
There was a chorus of "a-men's" and some churchy rustling.
The clipboard-wielding young woman from the bus appeared beside Pastor Marty, picked up another mike, turned it on with a practiced flick, and began summoning the press.
"Damas y caballeros de la prensa, pasen, por favor...sírvanse tomar asientos aquí bajo el tolde, por favor..."
The dangerous edginess seemed to have dissipated. There was still some milling, but the general movement was back toward the field. Riviera's and Fagoth's entourages began moving away from the HQ. Journalists were filing into the tent. The Bob Seger roadie was crawling along in front of the table with a bunch of plastic cord ties in his mouth.
Edén Pastora was approaching, his blue-uniformed ARDE entourage making way for him. Don Lester was with him.
I backed away through the crowd in the direction of the road, where I'd parked the Cherokee.
Pastora was at the table now, talking with Pastor Marty. Betty was beside him, gazing at him.
The Agency guy appeared to be introducing Betty to Pastora.
A bomb went off, some kind of IED, either under or just in front of the speakers' table.
You might possibly remember the episode if you remember anything about that worthless, pointless little war. Eight people were killed, twenty-five or thirty injured. Pastora survived, with a lot messy shrapnel in his legs. The Agency guy, "Pastor Marty", had a head wound and a mild concussion, I later learned. Don Lester and Betty were both killed.
Anyone who's been through something like this will tell you that such recollections often consist of photographically exact but isolated fragments, like memories of early childhood—a tree, a tricycle, your mother's foot as she steps out of a car, the old-fashioned shoe touching the antique sidewalk. Memories of disasters have that same sort of stop-time fragmentation.
I was all the way back to the road, beside our vehicle.
Then I'm against the side of the Cherokee and my ears are killing me and the shouts and cries are big lolloping waves of sound, like a short-wave broadcast fading in and out. Then I'm in the middle of a small pond of blood, sliding in it, falling. Then I'm on my knees beside the Agency guy. He's on his knees too, covered with blood. Betty is beside him, on the ground. She's conscious, looking up at him. He's saying the viaticum, extreme unction...omniumque in tua miseratione defunctorum et eos in lumen vultus tui admite....
Betty's file said she grew up Roman Catholic. How did this guy know the viaticum? I know that's what he was saying. I looked it up. His voice and that phrase have been with me all these years. And Betty's perfect voice, singing "Blue Bayou" at the Gato Negro.