DEATH OF OTTO
The militias and fighters of Bay of Pigs celebrate their victory. Photo: Juventud Rebelde
Our group of excited teenagers soon found what we were looking for. Piled up on the ground of the inner patio of the station was an enormous amount of the hated parking-meters. Baseball bats appeared as if by magic and we used them to destroy the machines while shouting in glee.
Suddenly, at my side appeared an acquaintance named Otto. To my surprise, he held in his hand, not a bat, but a submachine gun. The gun was an imitation of the American M-3 but of far lower quality. It was manufactured in the factories of the Dominican Republic dictator, Leónidas Trujillo.
With Otto’s help, I attacked the machines, relishing the justice against the abuses of the past. My mind was blind and on fire, hurting from accumulated fears from the past and uncertainties lurking in the future. I totally concentrated on hitting parking meter after parking meter with all my might.
Then, an explosion that seemed to come from inside my left ear paralyzed me. In front of my eyes a black hole appeared where Otto’s skull had been. A scent of rotten meat hit my nostrils with the force of a mountain wind. The scent was disgustingly sweet. My stomach contracted in a knot. The skin of my face was humid and sticky and a white-red cloud covered my glasses.
A thousand hands raised me up and laid me down on the ground upon small pieces of something hard that felt like pea gravel. I later learned these were tiny pieces of Otto’s skull. In front of my eyes everything was a haze. I heard, in the echoes of the explosion that still resonated in my ears, distant voices, close to panic. I also heard other voices, full of fear, of those coming from distant rooms asking what happened.
“He is bleeding. Where is he wounded? I don’t see any wound. Take his pulse, damn it!”
Everybody climbed on top of each other trying to be useful. I felt burning in my left ear and put a hand on the side of my head. Blood ran down my hand.
I was lifted up and taken away from the patio toward the infirmary at the station. In that horizontal position I looked to my right, a couple of inches from my face. There was Otto’s face as he was also rushed to the infirmary. All I could see of him was a paper-white face. The peace on his face was contagious, and I was filled with an immense tranquility.
We arrived at the infirmary into chaos. After laying me down on a stretcher and washing the blood and tissue deposits off my face the nurses discovered my wound on the left ear.
One of the nurses, whom I knew only by the name “El Guajiro” (The Peasant), bandaged the wound with acceptable ability. He contemplated his work with satisfaction and staring into my eyes commented: “Flaco, you are so damn lucky.”
I always remember his words and the expression on his face, a mixture of envy and admiration. The same words have been repeated to me time and time again in the course of my life.
“Qué suerte tienes!” (What a luck you have!), he said, moving his head side to side. “One inch more to the right and you don’t live to tell the story,” he said and walked away toward the back of the infirmary still shaking his head.
While lying powerless on the uncomfortable stretcher, dizzy, nauseated, without hearing in my left ear and weak by the loss of blood, I finally understood the enormity of “damn lucky.” For the first time in my fifteen years of age, I thought consciously on what life is and how brief and unjust it can be. Otto had not had “luck.”
When striking the damn parking meters with the miserable imitation of M-3, the feed tray of the carbine ran backwards and dragged in its return a bullet into the firing chamber. The firing pin was freed. The bullet entered Otto by the throat. It also took a piece of my left ear. No, Otto had no luck that day.
In an instant moment, Otto, a seventeen-year-old boy filled with optimism and joy, with a carefree nature who dreamed of crazy adventures became a puppet without a soul, a piece of lifeless tissue.
Slowly, very slowly, the enormity of what had happened in front of my eyes hit my mind, which had been blocked out by the terror of the moment. Tears began to roll down my face. An enormous sadness tightened in my heart, but fear never touched it. All fear had disappeared like fog in the wind.
So, this was what it was to die, one second you are somebody, the next nothing. The apprehensive kid in me, who often felt fear for a number of reasons, ceased to exist forever as I lay on the uncomfortable stretcher at the old police station in Matanzas. I stopped being scared of the consequences of living because I stopped fearing death. It was like turning off a switch!
To this day, I have had many years of “being lucky.” It has become my way of life. Luckily, I have never been afraid to live, or to die, since that day. Whenever I have doubts, or cold fingers of fear begin to touch me, it is enough that I touch my ear, that I touch the track of the bullet that was so close, to recover my optimism and keep going with my life. It was not my moment that day and on the day that my moment comes, then, why worry? I am not going to have time to find out. As it happened with Otto, exactly the way that happened with Otto, I felt it would be with me one day.