Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Battle of Laguna Trestle

Had Lee Christmas not been severely color blind, he would never have had a career as an infamous soldier of fortune and revolutionary mercenary in Central America.

Christmas was working as a locomotive engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad (ironically, he was hauling a refrigerated load of bananas) when the accident occurred that started him on the path to his new international career.  While the cause of the low-speed head-on train wreck was never officially stated, the fact that the engineer was unable to determine the color of the signal lamps—coupled with the fact that he was dead drunk at the time of the crash—certainly must have contributed to the accident.  The railroad promptly fired Christmas.

Blackballed from railroad work in the states, friends of Christmas arranged a job for him in Honduras, running a tiny wood-burning locomotive on a 56 mile-long narrow gauge Honduran railroad.  Correctly reading the signals wouldn’t be a problem there, since it was the only locomotive in the entire country of Honduras. 

Note.  Over time, the situation has actually gotten worse.  Today, this is the only working rail line between Mexico and Panama.  When I rode the train to the banana plantation in the early nineties, it carried about a dozen soldiers, several empty banana cars, and a couple of million spiders.  You would not believe how many spiders and snakes live on a banana plantation.

For years, Christmas made the 56-mile run between the banana plantation in the interior to the ice plant in San Pedro Sula, then on to the docks at Puerto Cortez three times a week, hauling 200-pound blocks of ice and loads of green bananas out of the interior.  It was Central American politics that eventually, quite literally, crossed his tracks and changed his destiny.

The three largest Central American countries are Guatemala to the North, Nicaragua to the South, and Honduras (trapped in the middle).  For a century before Lee Christmas arrived, the area had almost constant revolutions.  Most of these were centered in Honduras, since if either of the other two countries could successfully ally with the country in the center, the resulting union would be strong enough to control the rest of Central America.  If Guatemala could successfully arrange a revolution in Honduras, Nicaragua immediately would start a counterrevolution, setting off a new cycle of revolution and counterrevolution.  Both countries treated Honduras like a football in a no-rules scrimmage game.

Overthrowing the government of Honduras was much easier than you might think.  Since the only real source of government revenue was import and export taxes collected at the Gulf ports, all a would-be revolutionary army had to do was take and hold the major port at Puerto Cortez and wait for the central government in Tegucigalpa to starve to death.  The soldiers in the federal army had become highly experienced in abruptly changing sides to serve whomever could pay them, long since having learned that the secret to survival in Central America was to be politically flexible.

So, it was no surprise that, after the Honduran government of President Vasquez was overthrown by wanna-be President Policarpo Bonilla (supported by President Zelaya of Nicaragua), President Cabrera of Guatemala began supporting a counterrevolution.  Actually, it would have been astonishing if he hadn’t.

In April, 1897, the new revolution was led by General Jose Manuel Duron and thirten sub-generals (at least two of which were American mercenaries).  Most of these revolutions had more generals than soldiers, since anyone below the rank of captain was probably a cook.  General Duron was fronting for a new president-in-waiting, Enrique Soto.  Leaving Guatemala in a sailboat, Duron and his men slipped into the harbor of Puerto Cortez at night and easily captured the commandant of the small outpost guarding the customs house.  As expected, the soldiers quickly changed sides.

The next task for the revolutionaries was to take the larger town of San Pedro Sula, just 35 miles inland.  If the city could be taken and held, popular support for the revolution would inevitably, slowly shift in his favor and Soto would become the new president.  While General Duron was organizing his men, Lee Christmas and his toy train arrived and were quickly drafted into the fight. 

General Duron planned to use the train to transport his men to San Pedro Sula, and ordered Christmas to help.  The army offloaded the bananas and boarded the train cars, but as they started the journey inland, they discovered that the commander of the garrison in San Pedro Sula, Colonel Giron, had decided not to wait for the revolutionaries, and was moving on foot, down the railroad track to the coast.  Colonel Giron probably understood that if he allowed his men to sit and wait, they undoubtedly would either desert or change sides.

Lee Christmas was once again ordered at gunpoint to help.  Christmas moved the small train just outside of town to Laguna Trestle, the small bridge crossing the Chalmecon River, where he urged the soldiers to unload the train and begin building defensive fortifications, intending to ambush the enemy as they crossed the trestle. 

No—they did not fight from behind piles of bananas.  They did, however, fight from behind a fort made out of 200-pound blocks of ice—which makes it probably one of the strangest battles in human history.

What Colonel Giron should have done was just to wait a few hours, since an ice fort in tropical Honduras in April wouldn’t have lasted for more than a few hours.  If he had halted his men just out of range, they could have rested and laughed themselves silly as the fort melted.  Instead, however, Giron and his men foolishly attacked.

At some point in the battle, Lee Christmas stopped being a reluctant observer and started being a participant.  Perhaps a bullet narrowly missed him, or maybe, he just wanted to be on the winning side.  Maybe he was tired of hauling loads of spider-infested bananas.  Whatever the reason, Christmas picked up a rifle and joined the battle.  By the time, Giron was wounded and his men were driven off, Lee Christmas was no longer a railroad engineer, but an officer in the revolutionary army of President Soto.

Against logic and common sense, Captain Lee Christmas had successfully won the Battle of Laguna Trestle by ingeniously building a fortress of ice in the lush Honduran tropics. 

That would be a good place to stop the story, but historians never know when to stop talking.  Soto’s government lasted just over two weeks, cut short when President Zelaya of Nicaragua sent a gun boat up the coast and cut off supplies for the new revolutionary army while they were still waiting for the capital to collapse from lack of funds.  Christmas and the rest of the army scattered and ran to the hills, ultimately taking refuge in Guatemala.  Soldiers in the Honduran army simply changed sides.

He wouldn’t have to stay in Guatemala long, of course.  General Christmas spent the rest of his life fighting in revolutions, participating in three more wars in Honduras alone.  He eventually overthrew the country with the aid of just six men.  In between wars, he occasionally worked as a spy for the United States. 

But, those are stories for a different day.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Gone South….Almost!

(Or, Mark Twain's Cocaine Dream)

Just under fifty years ago, I was on my way to Brazil.  Well, actually, I was trying to save up enough money to go to a place I was profoundly ignorant about, knowing only that it was far away, therefore mysterious, and simply had to be different from Texas.

Then, I met The Doc.  (Technically, she was Pre-Doc at the time.)  Almost immediately, going on a date seemed vastly more important than going to Brazil. 

My still unfulfilled desire to travel to Brazil makes me a little sympathetic to a story Mark Twain shared in his autobiography.  Twain writes that when he was about the same age, he too, had plans to travel up the Amazon River.  And just like me, he thought he could accomplish this task with far less money that such a trip would actually cost. 

Both of us got the idea from reading books.  While working nights as a security guard at a hotel in Houston, I had read Theodore Roosevelt’s Through the Brazilian Wilderness, a stirring account that I now know is filled with large geographical errors.  Paddling a canoe up the Amazon River was far more enticing that sitting in a damp guard shack in the alley behind the hotel.

In 1857, Twain read William Herndon’s Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon: 1851–1852.  At the time, Twain was bored out of his mind, working as a typesetter at his brother’s printshop in Keokuk, Iowa.  The tedious job of setting type gave his brain a lot of opportunity to daydream about adventures in Brazil.

Commander William Herndon led the expedition for the US Navy, and had traveled up the Amazon making meticulous notes about the possible economic opportunities and natural resources available to exploit.  He was particularly interested in the Brazilian silver mines and gave detailed notes about the “Amalgamation Process” of using “quicksilver” to extract the precious metal from the raw ore. 

What Herndon did not record was that the process required the workers to mix mercury with the ore, physically stirring the toxic slurry with their legs and feet.  Herndon also didn’t record—perhaps from ignorance—that those workers probably died relatively quickly from mercury poisoning.

Note:  If Commander Willian Herndon’s name seems vaguely familiar, you probably know about his ship the SS Central America.  A few years later, while transporting fifteen tons of gold from California, the ship was caught in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras.  Herndon transferred women and children to a small ship offering aid, then elected to go down with his ship—a loss of over 400 lives, the largest loss of life for a commercial ship in US history.  The loss of so much gold created the financial panic of 1857.  The wreck was discovered in 1987, and roughly half of the gold has been recovered.   When the ship sunk, the gold was worth about eight million dollars, but today is easily worth more than thirty times that value.  A single gold ingot from the wreck recently sold for eight million dollars, making it the most expensive piece of currency sold at auction in history.

Herndon recorded that the “silent and patient” natives happily worked incredible hours without being fed, and that they seemed to have an unlimited amount of energy.  According to Herndon, this was because the natives chewed leaves from the Erythroxylon plant.  Herndon was undoubtedly correct, since today we know that the “coca” plant is the natural source of cocaine.

Twain immediately formed a partnership with two men to set up a business to import the plant into the United States.  Their plan was relatively simple, travel to Brazil, buy large quantities of the plant, crate it up and ship it back to New Orleans.  Since there were no laws against cocaine, or any other narcotic substance, the profitability of the enterprise was assured.

The idea is not as crazy as it sounds.  Cocaine did sell in America for decades before it became illegal.  It was available in popular medicines and for a while was an ingredient in Coca Cola.  By the turn of the century, black workers—especially those working along the Mississippi River—were encouraged to use the legal stimulant while working.  Today, even though the narcotic has been illegal for decades, the government admits it is used by twenty-million Americans.  Twain was just a little ahead of his time.

Even after Twain’s partners backed out, Twain was eager for his new business to start operations.  Twain was unsure whether it would be easier to book passage to Brazil from New Orleans or New York, but since Keokuk, Iowa was on the Mississippi River, he chose New Orleans.  His decision was probably influenced by the fact that the entire operating capital of the new enterprise was only $30, and passage down the river was far cheaper than an overland passage to New York.

Twain booked passage on a river boat bound for New Orleans.  Once there, he would book passage on the first ship leaving for Brazil.  Twain was fairly careful with his limited funds, so the cheapest fare down the river was on a very, very slow boat.  Somewhere along the long journey, Twain, too, fell in love.  But for Twain, it was the Mississippi River he fell for.

The short-lived romantic era of the riverboat was at its peak and Twain was traveling on one of more than a thousand steamboats carrying goods up and down the river.  He was one of the few passengers on the boat and soon sought out members of the crew for companionship.  As he listened to their stories of working the river, he soon grew envious of the life they led.

Arriving in New Orleans, Twain’s life as a future drug czar did not last for long.  Not only was the new enterprise about bankrupt, but he soon discovered that no ship was scheduled to depart for Brazil, nor was one likely to be scheduled for the next decade.  Twain had to find a new career, and he quite naturally chose the new love of his life, the river.  As he later wrote: 

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River.  That was, to be a steamboatman.  We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient.  (Life on the Mississippi)

Nearly penniless, Twain apprenticed to Horace Bixby as a cub river pilot, promising to pay Bixby $500 from future earnings in exchange for learning the lower Mississippi.  This was a fortuitous change in career that changed the future author forever.  Would Mark Twain have ever written anything if he had made his way to Brazil?  It is impossible to imagine Huck and Tom floating down the Amazon River.

A Small Postscript.  Like everyone else who has written about Twain, I have wrestled with the question of whether to refer to him as Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain.  There are lots of semi-established rules for writers concerning this, and I have elected to ignore all of them.  The source of this story is from Volume I of a work the author chose to title, The Autobiography of Mark Twain.