It is only now that I'm trying to recapture the details that I begin to notice the holes in this part of my story. There is much that is lost to the gossamer of time. Entire months in my life that were swallowed up by the routine of those days, no matter that we lived under the shadow of a dictator. In spite of everything awful that was going on around us, life still went on. That is the way it always unfolds doesn't it? Life in spite of everything...
So be it. It makes sense that I should tell it this way. After all, the me of this narrative was that other girl, the one I no longer am, and her memories have a distant hold in this future.
My parents stood there, dressed all in white. White sneakers, white t-shirts, white pants and white handkerchiefs held in their sun-burnt hands. Your mother and I have thought this over carefully. We have decided that we must go. It will be dangerous yes, but we cannot just stay here and sit safe in our home when we know that others are putting themselves out there. If everybody were to do that, then nobody would be protesting. No one would be marching. Nothing would change. Everyone must do their part and this, is the part that we can all do. You girls can stay here or, come with us. All in all it should be reasonably safe. There will be thousands of people no matter that they always make it out to be like we were only ten cats out on the streets...
I felt frightened and excited. I wanted so much to be a part of this march. I too wanted to be dressed in white. To stand next to my parents waving my otherwise ineffectual kerchief. I say otherwise because alone, it would have served no purpose in shielding me but in this instance, the symbolism of my own waving would be compounded by all the others who'd be waving theirs too. A multitude of Panamanians, more than 100,000 strong, holding in their hands the recognized standard of peaceful protesting. Noriega and his government would not be able to shut that up. They, would not be able to close us off from the world who watched from the relative distance of their living rooms televisions, being told of our unified stand via the foreign reporters in our midst.
There was a part of me that wished the scenario were different. That longed for a confrontation where I too could hold something with more substance in my hands. Something that could hurt and maim back those who would try and hurt us. That would frighten the men in Noriega's armies in the same way they were able to frighten us. Put them to the run like they were capable of putting us to the run. But we had no recourse to tangible weapons and I didn't have the strength to throw a rock effectually. Rocks were the weapons of choice for the students anyway. The daily bread of all the angry and fired up young men who lived then. A generation who missed many months of what should have been uninterrupted study time, to throw those rocks at great personal risk for the same reason that we waved our handkerchiefs, because they needed to make a stand.
Alexandra and I went. And my parents were right. There were so many of us. I could feel the power of the multitude more now because we were participants rather than spectators. It felt so invincible this marching together. There were moments when we held hands with utter strangers and that whole line about the brotherhood of the moment? Well it felt real. As we walked, we chanted mocking slogans about those who said they held power in our names, stating the truth for what it was: they were Noriega's puppets, scum and riffraff, and we wanted them all gone. Bold and drunk in the safety of our numbers and the roars of our refrains, the mood remained buoyant, the air festive despite knowledge of the murders, the jailings and the atrocities we kept track off in our heads.
Not the heat, the tiredness or our thirst, could diminish the enthusiasm. That is the peculiar dynamic of crowds. Sensations get magnified, the many feel as one. And in this case, we felt we presented a formidable challenge to the status quo. In that moment I, like so many others, believed that toppling Noriega and his cadre would be possible this way. We were showing the world how mighty we were even without the metal of guns in our hands. It really felt like that until the wave of whispered warnings made its way to us in our section of the crowd.
Behind us, where we couldn't see and from the side where we couldn't spy them, the military was preparing to fire into the marchers. Voices started yelling - Run! But I felt my mother and father trying to steady us as others with them attempted to countermand the incipient panic. Hold the line! Hold the line! People will get trampled unless we hold the line!
It was of no use. The press of that many bodies was already propelling us forward, shoving hard and there was nothing to do but run or be run over... In what felt like only seconds I lost track of my father and Alexandra. They were lost to my mother and I in the hysteria of the suddenly stampeding throngs. I was so dismayed, I never noticed how my mother moved us towards the edges of the column of runners. Many others were also trying to break away from the central mass, losing themselves into the side streets. Around us, we could hear shots and people screaming.
Sheer coincidence put us at this point a couple of blocks from where my father had his lawyer's office. An old 3 story building to which my mother had a key for the entrance lobby. A bit further back, we'd seen the young soldier begin to chase us. He caught up just as we shut the ornamental gate. Like us, he stood there heaving from the exertion. Garbed in the dreaded uniform of Noriega's paramilitary police, he was nothing more than a hunter who watched us while we watched him. I could tell he was stoned out of his head. Like many in the army were wont to do in those days, he'd taken drugs before being sent out to attack the protesters. The better to find the courage to hurt and kill.
My mother was so high on the adrenaline and outrage of the moment that I could tell she was working herself up to confront him. Probably berate him about what a disgrace to his country he was. As if he would have cared anything for her browbeating, standing there, wielding what power he thought he owned because he held a machine gun in his hands. Only the thought of what she might incite him to do to us, specifically me, kept her quiet in the end. This is perhaps the reason we finally made our way home that afternoon, frightened but unhurt. That and sheer luck. After another heartbeat of staring tensely at each other, someone else caught his attention and just like that, he was gone. Off to try and shoot some other protester before he called it a day.
Listen to an audio version of this post
For Jennifer, Melissa and Ron who challenged me to develop one of the stories in this post a little more.