Thursday, May 31, 2007

Let's relocate the Iraqis to Wyoming

A few random thoughts for a Thursday.

1. I think I've figured out how to solve the dilemma in Iraq. This actually came to me last spring, when I was driving across Wyomng en route to visit my son in Colorado.

Since we've totally trashed their country, let's make the following offer to the Iraqi people:

"If you're tired of worrying about frequent electrical blackouts and water shortages, drive-by shootings and suicide bombers in your marketplaces, we'd like to offer anyone who is willing to relocate a home in Wyoming, USA. It's safe, it's arid, they have oil there, there's plenty of room and it's Dick Cheney's state. What could be more fitting?

"Sorry, no terrorists. But for those of you who have become fond of blowing things up and shooting each other, you can stay in Iraq and have the time of your lives."

2. In the meantime, here's a way to solve the inner city gang problem and help in Iraq simultaneously -- put through special legislation allowing the government to draft all the gang members and send them over there as a unit. After all, what's happening in Iraq is essentially the same thing, just with Shiites and Sunnis instead of Crips and Bloods. Tell the gangstas that the Shiites and Sunnis are actually Middle Eastern "sets" of stateside gangs, and that they've disrespected them (for one thing, they don't allow hip hop). The U.S. gangs would probably be better armed.

3. Did you ever think about how criminal law rewards incompetence? If you shoot at someone and kill them, you're looking at the possibility of life in prison -- or death in prison. But if you're a bad shot and only wing them, the charge drops to malicious wounding, and a lesser penalty.

4. Instead of shoving drunks out the door of bars at a 1 or 2 a.m. closing time, why not keep them there until, say, 4? That way, the only other people on the road as they made their way home would be other drunks and cops.

Another possibility would be to have a back room with a mattress on the floor where the inebriated could sleep it off (for a fee, of course). Then they'd still have their car handy the next morning.

5. Two of my favorite TV news expressions:

When a vehicle skids off the highway, slides 200 feet on its top and crashes through the front of a convenience store, the anchorperson always intones: "The driver apparently lost control of the vehicle." Isn't that obvious?

Whenever a crime is committed, they always add the comment: "Police are investigating." As if the police would say: "You know, we're really swamped right now, so we've decided not to investigate this murder. I mean, nobody liked the guy, anyway."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

For me, Falwell was hard to dislike

How did I disagree with the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

Let me count the ways.

I don't think God knocked down the World Trade Center towers because the nation is too lenient about abortion.

I don't think all Muslims wake up in the morning thinking of ways to massacre Christians.

I don't believe homosexuality is catching, and I don't believe that being gay is a choice -- at least, not for the overwhelming majority of that national 10 percent that is.

I don't believe there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark. In fact, I don't believe there were two of every kind of animal in the world on Noah's Ark. I'm open to the possibility that there was an ark.

I don't believe that Christians are discriminated against in the U.S. Christians are, in fact, the upperdogs, not the underdogs.

I don't believe that Jesus would have applauded the current war in Iraq -- or, for that matter, any war at any time.

I don't believe that people who indulge in premarital sex will go to hell.

I don't believe that consuming alcohol is evil, as long as it's done responsibly.

I don't believe that God is a Republican. Nor do I think he's a Democrat.

I don't believe, necessarily, that God is a "he." Why would God need a gender?

Given all that disagreement with Rev. Falwell, people have asked me: "Then how can you say you liked the guy? Isn't that hypocritical?"

Wasn't he stubborn, egotistical, opinionated and unbending? Didn't he give aid and comfort to some of the more prejudiced and paranoid elements among us? Didn't he use the Bible selectively, for his own purposes? Didn't he bend the truth at times to advance his causes?

Yes, to all of that. At the same time, no one ever accused Jerry Falwell of cheating on his wife, stealing from his church members or failing to fulfill his more mundane responsibilities as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and chancellor of his college.

He may have said mean things, but I never saw him as mean-spirited. His congregation seemed to love him, and he beamed like an indulgent grandfather when his students pelted him with silly string every graduation day.

To me, Jerry was almost like a relative. We all have them -- the uncle you can't keep from arguing politics with, the great aunt who thinks everyone under the age of 70 is going to hell. Yet we understand these people, and we like them for who they are, not what they espouse.

The venom that spewed across the Internet after Falwell's death was predictable. But Soulforce founder Mel White, a gay man who could have hated Falwell, called him one of his closest friends.

Jerry Falwell was a very complicated character, a person who reflected both his rowdy roots and his Christian values, his "old time religion" leavened by a natural curiosity about the world around him. Whatever else he may have been, he wasn't stupid.

I didn't agree with Jerry on a lot of things, although I did agree with him on some. Either way, I couldn't help but like him.

I even hope he liked me.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Playing games for the troops

Motorcycles and gambling. You've got to love that combination.

And that's what the Lynchburg Center for Independent Living (LACIL) will be offering on the night of May 19th (5-9 p.m.) -- a casino event to benefit local disabled veterans, prefaced by a motorcycle parade from Rolling Thunder.

Of course, it's not a real casino. That would be illegal. Rather, winners will get their pick of prizes offered by everyone from Bed, Bath & Beyond to the local Harley-Davidson dealer.

The event will take place at the Marine Corps League building on Lakeside Drive. This, coupled with a benefit golf tournament sponsored by the League on May 16 for the amusement of veterans back from Iraq, is another indication that we learned a valuable lesson from the Vietnam War.

No matter how we may feel about the conflicts in which our soldiers fight, we have to honor and appreciate their willingness to do so. I couldn't disagree more with someone who wrote a letter to our newspaper last year insisting: "You can't support the troops and not support the war." Accepting that premise in 2007 would lead to the same discrimination and rejection that soldiers and sailors encountered when they returned from Vietnam -- even the ones who were drafted.

As for the Marine Corps League, this might be the first time in history that a group of Marines was forced to leave a beachhead without a shot being fired. The current headquarters building has been deemed to be in the way of the approaching mercantile juggernaut known as the Lakeside Centre -- but according to Steve Bozeman, the Marines have already fallen back a few blocks to a new site across from Daddy Bim's Barbecue on the "old" Old Forest Road.

We can't have peace without the warriors

From beauty pageant contestants to high school essay writers to Sunday morning preachers, almost everyone says they want "world peace."

And that's certainly a worthy goal, but it always seems to me that the people who decry war are missing an important part of the current equation -- the warriors themselves.

The fact that we are reluctant to admit is this: War is hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, but it can also be exhilerating and addictive -- especially when the bullets stop flying and those involved contemplate the experience later.

Very quickly in a combat situation, I've been told, broad and vague ideas of fighting for a "cause" are replaced by the more urgent need to aid and protect the fellow warriors to whom you've grown closer than brothers or sisters.

I was reminded of that recently when I talked with Col. Wesley Fox, a 43-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who will be participating in a charity golf tournament for returnees from Iraq on May 16.

Fox, a very pleasant and polite gentleman, fought in Korea and in Vietnam (where he received the Medal of honor for valor) and regretted missing the first Gulf War because he was teaching an officer's candidate class and the conflict was over so quickly he didn't get the chance to jump in. He's not crazy about the current unpleasantness in Iraq, probably because it is less a traditional "us vs. them" confrontation than an "us vs. somebody" game of hide-and-seek.

So is this a bad thing, that people like Wesley Fox seem to crave combat? Not at all, at least not in the turbulent world of the early 21st century. We should be, and are, thankful that we have Wesley Foxes who are willing to travel to far-off lands and risk their lives in our interests -- or, at least, what is perceived as our interests.

Nevertheless, it is simplistic and naive to depict everyone who enlists in the military in wartime as being politically or morally motivated. Some are, certainly -- but for many others, I'm convinced, it's nothing more than a chance to escape their mundane surroundings, travel to exotic places, and engage in an experience that will mark them for the rest of their lives. The fact that you might get killed or maimed isn't always relevant when you're 18 or 19.

Indeed, while U.S. casualties have been high in Iraq, it's still a relatively small percentage of those who are over there, especially compared to such bloodbaths as the Civil War or World War II.

And if you consider how many thrill-seekers leap into wars from the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world per capita, imagine those for whom the choice is going to battle (with its possible consequences) or continuing to exist in some squalid refugee camp with no indoor plumbing and no future. It's almost a no-brainer, and the reservoir of warriors in those countries is virtually unlimited.

Wars fulfill an important human need, or else we wouldn't have them. They may be conceived by national leaders for economic, political, religious or moral reasons, but they couldn't be carried out without young men (and, increasingly, young women) eager to fight in them.

We see the same mentality in our inner cities, where gang leaders find plenty of converts willing to go to war in their own neighborhoods. As hundreds of gangsta rappers have told us, life on the mean streets may be scary, but it's never boring.

If we really want "peace" (whatever that means), we need to try and understand that restless spirit that has fueled every war since ancient Greece and try to channel it into something that doesn't kill people and blow up things.

But what could that be? If I knew, I'd be on the best seller list. Athletics works for some people, political activism for others. Yet it's an uphill fight, because we continue to cherish and glorify war as a culture because it provides the peak moments of heroism that filmmakers and writers love.

When we stop needing war, if that ever happens, we can finally start talking about peace.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Painting for pygmies

I received an e-mail recently from Lynchburg artist and community activist Ann van de Graaf that I wanted to pass along.

Remember Ota Benga, the tragic Congolese pygmy who was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900's before being released and sent to Lynchburg, where he ultimately committed suicide? Ann writes:

"Thought you might like an update on the planning for the International Conference 'Ota Benga, Lynchburg and the Empowerment of the Pygmies' scheduled for October 25-27, 2007. It has been selected as a signature event for Jamestown 400.

"We have lined up some great speakers and have invited the ambassadors from several African countries. We have had a definite acceptance from the Ambassador from the Cameroons!

But, she continued ...

"We had to abandon the original idea of bringing over a troup of Pygmy dancers, the Molimo Dancers, because of the cost and the difficulty of obtaining visas for young males since 9-11. We are however planning to bring three members of the African Congress of Pygmies from Kinshasa to speak at the conference.

"One problem is paying for their airfare, since our funding agencies do not fund foreign travel. So I am trying to raise $5,000. Several individuals have contributed and I have an exhibit of my paintings up at Montana Plains Bakery (in the Boonsboro Shopping Center). All proceeds from the sale will go towards the Pygmy air travel fund administered by Lynchburg College."

This could put Lynchburg on the map -- the map of Africa. And the conference is already on the radar of the national media.

Mary, quite contrary

Any journalist will tell you the same thing -- it's always the stories you don't think twice about that come back to bite you.

A couple of weeks ago, a Christian writer named Frederica Mathewes-Green was scheduled to speak at Givens Books on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon. Two of her old friends live in Lynchburg, and they informed me of her appearance and asked me to write something in advance. Which I was glad to do.

Unfortunately, although Ms. Mathewes-Green proved a pleasant and interesting subject for a telephone interview, there were a couple of problems. One, I was delving into matters of denominational hairsplitting that were beyond my comprehension or education. Two, either because of her softly modulated voice or a subpar cell phone connection, I had a great deal of trouble hearing and understandsing what she was saying.

Anyway, when the article came out, I received a letter and two e-mails pointing out a list of errors in it and asking for a correction. Interestingly, none of this correspondence came from Frederica Mathewes-Green herself.

As it turned out, most of the errors were of the sort that harmed no one and would be obvious only to people who would already know they were wrong. The one thing that did concern me, though, was that I quoted Ms. Mathewes-Green as saying many in the early church didn't believe that the Virgin Mary was really a virgin -- and that, in fact, "no one expected that of her."

Actually, she was referring to the question of whether or not Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. So at the risk of causing more confusion, I'll just let Ms. Mathewes-Green, recent author of "The Lost Gospels of Mary" explain it:

"Though the Gospel of Mary shows her virgin before and after the birth of Christ, it does not comment on whether she remained a virgin all her life. That was the consensus of the early church, however, and it was universally believed until recent centuries. Even some Reformation leaders, including Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, upheld it. Though many Christians today assume Mary and Joseph entered normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth, that belief was not accepted by any orthodox Christian writer for over 1500 years.

"In the fourth century, a rare attempt to advance this view was made by a writer named Helvidius. He offered as evidence Matthew 1:25: “[Joseph] knew her not until she had borne a son.” Surely that meant Joseph “knew” Mary after the birth of Jesus, Helvidius said.

"We know of Helvidius only through St. Jerome’s indignant rebuttal. Jerome fired back that, if we say, 'Helvidius did not repent until his death,' it doesn’t mean he repented afterwards. What’s more (waxing sarcastic, which Jerome could certainly do), if 'until' means normal marital relations began after the birth of Christ, on what grounds could Helvidius allow even a moment’s delay? Midwives would have to bustle the child out of the room 'while the husband clasps his exhausted wife.'

"This 'until' did not trouble early Christians, who understood it to mean 'before.' Matthew consistently tells the story of Mary’s pregnancy from Joseph’s point of view, and is here restating that Joseph had no part in Jesus’ conception. Likewise, Luke’s reference to “her first-born son” (in Luke 2) is a formula indicating inheritance status, and requires no subsequent sons. 'Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.'

"The strongest evidence that Mary had no other sons is that the crucified Jesus consigned her to John’s care (John 19:26-27). This makes sense if Jesus’ death was going to leave her unprotected, but not if it meant wresting her from the home of biological sons.

"Apart from Helvidius, only Tertullian (who was less than fully orthodox; Jerome dismisses him as “not of the Church”) proposed that Mary entered an ordinary married life with Joseph. Tertullian saw in this a blessing of both the virgin and the married state. But the remainder of the early Christian writers are united in upholding her life-long virginity—an assertion, similar to the virgin birth above, that would be unnecessary, and awkward to defend, and thus unlikely to be invented, if it were not believed true."

There, my conscience is clear. We move on.

Joe D. jumps on the 'bands wagon'

Joe DeLamielleure has had a variety of jobs in his working life -- pro football lineman, owner of a waste disposal company, college coach. So what's the former Lynchburg resident and Liberty University coach doing now? If you've asked yourself that question, you might be interested in this recent piece from the Charlotte Observer:

"Joe DeLamielleure is an NFL Hall of Famer with Popeye forearms, a bulging upper body and tree trunks for legs.

"Part of the Buffalo Bills' offensive line that paved lanes for O.J. Simpson to rush for a then-record 2,003 yards in 1973, he looks like he could still knock linemen for a loop.

"The 56-year-old Charlotte resident said he maintains a weightlifter's build by working out with gigantic, stretchy green, blue and red rubber bands known as resistance bands.

"While bands have been around for decades, they've long been considered the apparatus of choice for elderly people and physical rehab patients, not hard-nosed, muscle-bound types.

"'I'd like to challenge anybody who doesn't think bands are tough,' said DeLamielleure. 'These things will kick your butt.'

"Today, he's training people in resistance band workouts at his YogaFlex studio in Ballantyne, which teaches yoga as well.

"DeLamielleure (pronounced De-LA-ma-LEAR) and other proponents say the bands help improve cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and strength, yet they're easier on the body's joints compared to free weights. The bands are color-coded for various resistance levels. Some fitness authorities say that while bands may have a place in workout regimens, they also have limitations.

"DeLamielleure insists he's not riding a workout trend of the moment. The six-time Pro Bowl participant was first turned on to flexibility exercises while playing football in the fifth grade. The coach had the team use towels and jump-ropes to stretch and do other exercises.

"Although he lifted some weights during his NFL days, he took grief from coaches for staying away from squats and dead lifts he felt could cause injuries.

"In 1992, when he was coaching football at Liberty University in Virginia, he discovered the heavy gauge rubber bands. He says they've helped him stay fit and injury free while many of his fellow NFL players are now suffering. DeLamielleure was shocked by how stiff and out-of-shape many of his peers looked during his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. It's what inspired him to develop the 'Joe D Bands' exercise program."

Friday, May 4, 2007

Primarily, the system is screwed up

I always thought the primary system was silly. Now, it's crossed the borderline into ridiculous.

The way states are leapfrogging each other to stage the first primary of the presidential year, I wouldn't be surprised to wake up tomorrow and learn that someone is holding one next week.

It was bad enough when it all started with New Hampshire and Iowa.

Let's think about this a minute. New Hampshire? We're talking about a place that is almost exclusively white and rural. No offense to the Granite State, but does it really reflect the mainstream of America?

Did you ever wonder why the Democrats have had so many presidential candidates from New England in the post-World War II years? Maybe it's because New Englanders are playing at home, so to speak, in New Hampshire, and usually win. That gives them the slight push downhill that they need to gain momentum (and money).

We've already ruthlessly extracted all the fun from presidential elections, anyway. The conventions, which used to be grand spectacles, have become meaningless -- the candidates are already anointed ahead of time. What little suspense remains is then washed away by the polls.

Why, then, don't the two main national parties get together and decree that all the primaries be held on the same day, maybe sometime in late spring? Each state could have its own little celebration, the candidates would save a lot of time and effort, and no state could claim an early advantage.

But if that were the case, goes the argument, candidates would ignore states like North Dakota and Vermont (not to mention New Hampshire and Iowa) in favor of the big-delegate hunting grounds like New York, Texas ands California.

Like they don't ignore them already?

Besides, who wants to go to New Hampshire in February?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

But where's the best place to grill a Blue Rhino?

These lists of "Top 100 Cities for .... " are getting a little ridiculous. Here's the latest to mention Lynchburg, courtesy of Business Wire out of Winston-Salem:

"Blue Rhino, innovators of the Drop, Swap & Go propane tank exchange program, identifies the top 100 Ideal Cities to Grill In for Summer 2007.

"Although grilling is always good, ideal grilling days are defined as days May-August that are sunny, under 90 degrees and rain-free. A final total of ideal summer grilling days were calculated by using the average sunshine rate, the estimated total number of rain days and the estimated total number of days above 90 degrees using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Blue Rhino's Top 100 Ideal Cities to Grill In: 1. Sacramento, CA 2. Reno, NV 3. Flagstaff, AZ 4. Fresno, CA 5. Los Angeles, CA 6. Boise, ID 7. San Francisco, CA 8. Honolulu, HI 9. Salt Lake City, UT 10. Grand Junction, CO 11. Fort Wayne, IN 12. Spokane, WA 13. Las Vegas, NV 14. Galveston, TX 15. San Diego, CA 16. El Paso, TX 17. Albuquerque, NM 18. Milford, UT 19. Phoenix, AZ 20. Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN 21. Evansville, IN 22. Oklahoma City, OK 23. Fargo, ND 24. Portland, OR 25. Tucson, AZ 26. Detroit, MI 27. Milwaukee, WI 28. Denver, CO 29. Indianapolis, IN 30. Memphis, TN 31. Lincoln, NE 32. Omaha, NE Springfield, IL Rapid City, SD 35. Des Moines, IA 36. Green Bay, WI 37. Richmond, VA 38. New York, NY 39. Chicago, IL Cleveland, OH Madison, WI 42. Topeka, KS 43. Buffalo, NY Toledo, OH 45. Little Rock, AR 46. Springfield, MO 47. Boston, MA 48. Wichita, KS 49. Atlanta, GA Charlotte, NC Kansas City, MO 52. Miami, FL 53. Harrisburg, PA 54. Rochester, NY 55. Louisville, KY 56. Grand Rapids, MI 57. St. Louis, MO 58. Atlantic City, NJ 59. Dayton, OH 60. Albany, NY Burlington, VT 62. Knoxville, TN 63. Tulsa, OK 64. Moline, IL Lynchburg, VA 66. Portland, ME 67. Norfolk, VA 68. Asheville, NC 69. Nashville, TN 70. Columbus, OH Syracuse, NY 72. Corpus Christi, TX 73. Greensboro/High Point/Winston-Salem, NC 74. Charleston, SC 75. Seattle, WA 76. Dallas, TX Shreveport, LA 78. Washington, DC 79. Greenville/Spartanburg, SC 80. Baltimore, MD Providence, RI 82. Philadelphia, PA 83. Hartford, CT 84. Austin, TX 85. Chattanooga, TN 86. Birmingham, AL 87. San Antonio, TX 88. Raleigh, NC 89. Pittsburgh, PA 90. Columbia, SC Houston, TX 92. Allentown, PA 93. Jackson, MS Tampa, FL 95. Jacksonville, FL 96. Savannah, GA 97. Montgomery, AL 98. New Orleans, LA 99. Elkins, WV 100. Anchorage, AK.

What tells me that this research is flawed in the ranking of Syracuse, NY, at No. 72. I grew up there, and it rains all summer. In fact, Syracuse has become known as a place where people with sun allergies are sent to live out their days.

And why do we rank higher than Greensboro and nearly 30 points lower than Richmond when we all have basically the same weather?

At least in Anchorage, you can grill in daylight around the clock.

Pop culture violence: Why do we crave it?

In an editorial in today's New York Times, screenwriter Mike White ("School of Rock," "Year of the Dog") put an interesting insider spin on an old debate. He wrote:

"Hollywood and defenders of violent films dismiss Virginia Tech as a 'unique' event, arguing that Mr. Cho was profoundly alienated from our culture, not at all a product of it. They assert that there are law-abiding, sane American moviegoers who love the thrill of a visual bloodletting, and then there are mentally disturbed people like Mr. Cho, constitutionally wired to do damage — and never the twain shall meet.

"These commentators insist there’s no point debating which came first, the violent chicken or her violent representational egg, since no causal link has ever been proven between egg and chicken anyway. Besides, violent images can be found everywhere — on the news, in great art and literature, even Shakespeare!

"For those who believe that violence in cinema consists of either harmless action spectacles or Martin Scorsese masterpieces, I might suggest heading down to the local multiplex and taking a look at some of the grotesque, morbid creations being projected on the walls. To defend mindless exercises in sadism like 'The Hills Have Eyes II' by citing 'Macbeth' is almost like using 'Romeo and Juliet' to justify child pornography."

Maybe what we need to figure out as a society is not whether we have too many guns (we do, but it's a little late to do much about it) or violent movies (the First Amendment), but why we are drawn to them.

It's always been my theory that the creators of most teen slasher movies are people who were picked on or marginalized in high school. After all, the victims are always the hunky jocks and the gorgeous cheerleaders, dispatched in grisly fashion.

And you can go from there to video games. When you think about it, Seung-Hui Cho's recent rampage at Virginia Tech wasn't really the act of a sadistic, psychotic killer -- that would be Dennis Rader, the notorious BTK strangler, who reveled in killing his victims slowly. Cho's killing spree was more akin to a video game come to life, rounds fired off so quickly that it was if a clock was ticking down somewhere in the computer of his brain. These weren't human victims as much as they were simply targets, which made the carnage even more horrifying.

It extends further. The next time you're in a drug store or grocery store, check out the paperback book rack. I did, the other day, and found that literally eight out of 10 of the books on display involved murder of some sort, either a mystery or a serial killer shocker. And the CSI shows still rule network TV.

Everybody enjoys a scary read, and movie-goers will always revel at seeing stuck-up people get their comeuppance. When you're a teenager, it's great fun to shoot things on a video screen. But what is there in our makeup that seems to require dramatic bursts of blood to make the experience complete?

It seems to me that we need to find out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Remembering May Day in Guatemala

It's hard to believe it's been 14 years ago.

To most Americans in 2007, May Day is just another flip of the calendar, the first day of another month. There will, no doubt, be a few demonstrations in the U.S. and elsewhere in support of organized labor and against inhumane corporate practices, but May Day as a alternative social institution seems to have largely unraveled.

That wasn't the case in Guatemala in 1993. The Cold War was over, but the Marxist guerillas doing battle with a heavy-handed government hadn't gotten the memo. A camouflage-clad soldier with an Uzi stood on nearly every street corner in downtown Guatemala City, some of them not even old enough to shave. The overall vibe was menacing.

I had gone down there with a Lynchburg nurse named Betty Gorman, a remarkable woman with enough courage for three people. The story I was tracking was about how she collected donated medical supplies from doctors' offices and hospitals in Central Virginia, shipped them down to Guatemala, and distributed them to remote villages. She did this despite having survived three different types of cancer (a fourth eventually killed her a few years later).

We had known each other for years, and I was always intrigued by her missions of mercy. Then, one day in the early spring of 1993, she called me up and announced: "Someone just gave me a free airline ticket to Guatemala City that I don't need. Would you like to come along the next time?"

The thought both scared and excited me. But after talking to my wife and my editor, both of whom gave their reluctant blessing, I told her "Sure."

It was Betty who taught me that it's possible to have a warm personal relationship with someone despite clashing politics. As a conservative Catholic Republican, she would have made Rush Limbaugh seem liberal. Her contacts in Guatemala were all with the Guatemalan Army, which was depicted in some segments of the American press as a Latino version of the SS. She talked about Oliver North as if he was a rock star, and the people who first turned her on to Guatemala were soldier-of-fortune friends of her ex-husband.

All this was cancelled out, in my mind, by her basic generosity. We kidded each other about our differences and agreed to disagree.

When our plane landed in Guatemala City, we were met by a group of soldiers who threw all the medical supplies into the back of a half-ton olive drab truck and took us to a walled citadel in the middle of the city. When the gates swung open to admit it us, there were three guys with guns waving us through.

As it turned out, though, any friend of Betty's was a friend of theirs, and the military treated me like an honored guest (once they found out I didn’t write for the Washington Post, which they despised). We got rooms at the Hotel Sentenario at one edge of the city's main central square, right across from the National Palace -- Guatemala's White House. As I recall, the rooms were $15 a night.

Still recovering from recent chemo treatments, Betty would be worn out from the daily trips into the hinterlands and would go to bed early. Consumed by the adrenaline rush of being in a new country, I would go out and walk the streets of the city by myself, stopping to eat strange foods and jotting down impressions of this exotic place.

This, I learned later, was sheer stupidity, because foreigners were routinely kidnapped there in those days. Maybe I just looked like someone no one would bother paying a ransom for.

At any rate, I was headed out the door of the hotel on the early evening of April 30, 1993, when one of the desk clerks waved me over.

"Senor, are you going out tonight?" he asked in a conversational tone.

"I thought I would," I said.

"I would not advise it, senor. Tomorrow is May Day, and there are a lot of people in town tonight who do not like Americans.”

"Thanks,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

Betty and I took most of our meals in a small cafe attached to the hotel. I strolled in there alone after my exchange with the clerk, and found it filled with hard-eyed young men I hadn't seen before.

The average Guatemalan is around 5-foot-6 in height and dark skinned. I was a sunburned Caucasian well over six feet. Almost immediately, I became aware of a swelling murmer of angry conversation and felt disapproving eyes fixed on me.

I got my food, went back to my room, and watched a baseball game on TV.

The next day, the central square was the scene of a massive anti-government May Day demonstration. Betty wanted no part of it, but I grabbed my notebook and went out to see what was going on. The square was seething with people, many of whom had been bussed in from outlying areas. I remember seeing one barefoot demonstrator who wore ragged shorts and a T-shirt that proclaimed: "I Survived General Electric’s Management Training, 1986." (A hand-me-down from up north, no doubt).

The crowd rocked, and it rolled. The more flamboyant and charismatic members took turns mounting a flatbed truck parked right in front of the National Palace and screaming invectives at whoever was inside. The president, Jose Serrano, was burned in effigy.

Oddly enough, there was not a single soldier or police officer visible between the flatbed and the palace. They were all inside, armed to the teeth, just in case things got out of hand.

And with no one to confront directly, the crowd soon lost its fire. After a couple of hours, they climbed off the flatbed truck, reloaded the buses, and left. Amazingly, they picked up all their trash during their exodus.

"Nothing but Communists," Betty spat when I met her later.

Maybe so. Yet in a strange way, that May Day rally in a divided and violent country gave me a glimpse into true democracy.

As for Betty, she was interred in a Guatemala City mausoleum reserved for military heroes. Now that things have quieted down there a bit, I’d like to visit her sometime.