Editor’s note: The IDEAS page is our place for public opinion, a place where a person can express what concerns them about present-day Wheeling or the world. However, there is one major caveat. The author must propose a resolution to the problem. The essay below by one of our regular contributors tells a story and presents a suggestion.
It was in November of 2003 that we arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, then, a city of approximately 800,000 people. It is the second largest city with Tegucigalpa (ta-goo-see-gal-pa), a city of nearly a million and the capital of the country.
Clem Hahn was a very gutsy, irascible old man who lived a devil-may-care life.
He and Kenny Kline of Wheeling were friends, sort of. They came out of World War II as veterans of the Air Force — Kenny a USAF pilot and Clem a Navy pilot, both with disguised war records. I believe they met at dental school where they both became oral surgeons. I think that Clem became a doctor to support his adventurous flair. He flew his own plane and impressed me as a free spirit.
I first met Clem at the shore when we had a young family and would vacation for two weeks on the beaches of Delaware and New Jersey. Clem was visiting the Railing family — the mom, Trudy, whom I had known from the Howard Hill pool days as a kid, and her three boys, Chip, Bil and Andy. I believe Clem played a father figure to the boys when they really needed one.
It seems that in senior years, Clem had established a dental clinic in the mountains of Honduras at the Buena Fe Mission near the town of Siguatepeque (say-quata-peck-ee-kay). He raised money for a bus outfitted as a dental clinic and for operations during his summer travels in the states. He drove to the remote towns and villages to provide dental care for the peasants who appeared to me to be Indian.
Somewhere along the line, Clem developed a serious infection in his spine and ended up back in his home in Maine where his spine was exposed and treated from top to bottom. Clem wanted to get back to Honduras and his mission. I was talking with the Railing boys, and they told me of Clem’s plight. He couldn’t drive and was on crutches. It sounded like an interesting trip, so I decided to get him back to the mission.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
I picked Clem up at his daughter’s home in Maine where his old motor home was parked with tires almost flat from just sitting. I suggested we get it checked out before we took off for some small town in Alabama. He had the tires inflated, and we were ready to go. Clem was still on crutches and weak in his recovery when we took off. When we got to Wheeling, he traded his crutches for a pair of canes.
We had a nice visit in Wheeling where my wife Susan prepared a lovely dinner for Clem and me and the Railing boys.
The trip to Alabama was uneventful after I convinced Clem he would heal faster if he rested on the bed in the back. This eliminated his driving instructions such as “Get it out of those lower gears (it was a stick shift), you’re burning too much gas!” and “You are going too fast and wasting gas!”
We arrived in some little town in Alabama where Clem got his medical supplies and other equipment and where he stored his motor home. I have forgotten the name, but it was about an hour from a large airport. I believe we were there two nights in a very lovely home, and that stay marked the end of Clem using canes.
About San Pedro Sula, I don’t remember much about it, as we were only there a day or two. Clem wanted me to get a cup of coffee the first thing; he said it was the best in the world.
I don’t drink coffee, but I had one with Clem, and it was truly delicious. We walked around the city a bit with our one objective to change money at a bank. We came across a McDonald’s, which had two guards with automatic weapons. They looked like a couple of skinny kids dressed up in ill-fitting khakis that were a couple of sizes too big. Their appearance made me nervous, and the impression I got was that they were untrained and undisciplined. There were people sleeping everywhere with the litter.
We found Clem’s bank and, as he spoke workable Spanish, I followed his lead, and our exchange of money went smoothly. I was in a sweat at the bank because there were a dozen to 15 of the boy soldiers with automatic weapons. Those things go off so easily, and it was very disconcerting.
The next day, we were driven to the mission by a young man from Buena Fe. There were several single-story houses in a rough circle around an open area about the size of a football field. They were not in any particular arrangement. Clem’s place was small with a big living-dining room, a small kitchen, and two small bedrooms and a bath. It was made of adobe bricks, pleasant enough but sparsely furnished and totally without a woman’s touch. I was curious about his live-in housekeeper (in a mission in a Catholic country with little or no divorce), which seemed scandalous, and asked Clem about his wife who had come with him before. Clem told me he had to put her in a nursing home because she couldn’t drive at night anymore. Clem didn’t seem to be popular in the mission. We were never invited to anyone’s home, and the Canadian missionary seemed to be Clem’s sole friend.
I stayed longer than I had planned because I became ill with a flu-like sickness. This worked out because I got to know Al Weigand, the Canadian who looked in on me occasionally.
Herewith, is the account of the trip on which Al took me to see the new house.
—————————————————————————————————— 19 November 2003, La Buena Fe Mission, Honduras, Central America
Al Weigand, a Canadian volunteer in a development program, builds simple houses here, but back in Canada, he had built schools and other large municipal buildings. He took me with him in his Toyota Land Cruiser, equipped with a front bumper steel cable wench, up into the mountains around the mission. The closest city on the map to the mission is Sequatepeque.
His project is called Program for Rural Reconstruction or PRR. Al has organized teams of 12 volunteers from Canada who pay their own transportation costs and also contribute $800 to the project. They come here as a team and build a house in three weeks.
These houses replace the mud and thatch dwellings in the remote and sparsely populated mountains up a one-lane mud/dirt road that is a glorified goat path ascending 6,000 feet to the last house on the top of the mountain.
The views are absolutely spectacular and unimpeded from the road, which is a cut up the side of the mountain with craggy peaks, deep valleys with steep sides, green mountains of blue and purple sculptures with white clouds drifting and changing the color intensity with the traveling shadows. We actually drove “up through” the clouds this morning.
The new houses are well built of concrete block on footers with concrete pillars rising from the footers about every eight feet and attached into the footers with rebar. Much rebar is used in the construction. The houses are approximately 20 feet by 40 feet with cement floors. The roof is hipped with silvery sheets of galvanized steel. I asked Al if the houses weren’t hot with those tin roofs. He said heat is not the problem — cold is.
The stove, which is the showpiece of the house, is of block construction, four-foot by three-foot and four feet high. The firebox is elevated on tamped dirt to about two and a half feet. The top of the firebox is covered with a heavy ¼-inch sheet of steel, which is the cooking surface for the tortillas and the pots and pans. The smoke is ventilated through the roof by stovepipe. This stove is the pride of the family!
There is no ceiling. The windows are horizontal glass shudders, which are opened and closed by a knob in the lower left corner of the window.
Lunch was prepared in the old house and served in the uncompleted new one. It was a truly delicious, stew-like dish of squash, peppers and onion with pieces of chicken and potatoes sliced in lengths. This was an all-out-effort by this family to show and give their best in appreciation for their new house. It is important to note that the meal was served to us on glass plates.
The new house is being built directly in front of the old adobe one on the side of the road. The old one will be pushed over when the new house is finished, if it doesn’t cave in first.
The old kitchen where the meal was prepared was a small room with two crude wooden tables, polished to a sheen from use, and the built-in unvented stove. Dried bunches of corn hung from the roof supports. Attached to one table was a hand-cranked grinder much like the one with which my mother made ham salad.
The corn is husked and soaked in limewater, which softens the hard outer shell. It is then ground on a very worn, flat stone with a smaller oblong stone moved back and forth by hand. The stone sits on the joint of a thick, three-pronged tree branch, table high, set in the middle of the floor. It is very dark, with the only light coming from the doorway. The air is heavy with the smell of wood smoke, which is vented out the eves of the roof. Four women were working in the kitchen, and four or five men and boys working in the new house.
The area around both houses is typical of third-world existence. The houses are perched on the steep slope of the mountain next to the mud road. There are little children with beautiful faces and big brown eyes in old clothes that the Salvation Army would throw out. These kids are happy without the realization of their not-very-promising futures, and secure in the loving care of their devoted mother.
Chickens are everywhere. Pigs are in an enclosure made of tree branches with a slop trough made of a hollowed out log, all next to the house. Orange peels, cornhusks, bits of paper and plastic are all matted together in the mud. Downhill from the house is a pathetic corn patch. I was told that nearby one would probably find cocoa plants, illegal but a small source of cash for the family.
How these dear people exist, I don’t know.
When we reached the last house on top of the mountain, I was shocked to see the young mother with light brown, wavy hair, beautiful and with a fair complexion. She could have passed for the sister of a friend of my daughter. How did those genes get up here?
During the drive back down the mountain, the men in the back would yell, and Al would stop the truck, and the men and boys would clamber up through the thick foliage and throw oranges and the fruit from the cirela tree down to us. The cirela fruit are yellow balls; grape-size in bunches of four or five on a thick stem. One peels the skin off with the fingernail and enjoys a fruit that is very sweet with one or two black seeds in the center.
We were in the buffer zone of the Miemibar Parque National, a 70-square-mile preserve of virgin forest. The Parque National is what the country looked like before foreign interests stripped it of its timber, leaving the denuded mountainsides subject to mud and rock slides.
An interesting day was spent navigating a road that was a muddy goat path. Al did not use the wench that day as we always had enough men in the back to push us out. The men are happy to do so; it is sort of their fare for the ride. The views rival the Himalayas; one moment enthralled by the spectacular vistas, the next moment hoping a wheel doesn’t slip over the edge.
I doubt that much has improved in the 15 years since I was there, as Honduras now has the highest murder rate in the world.
The United Fruit Company had its beginnings in 1898 with the merger of the Tropical Trading and Transport Company and the Boston Fruit Company. This was no little shoestring operation being incorporated at $11,230,000 or $330 million in today’s money. Major financiers and stockholders were the Dulles family and the Cabots, one of the Brahmin families of old Boston. By 1930, it became the largest employer in Central America, controlling 3.5 million acres in the Caribbean, Central America (the largest landowner in Guatemala where they ran the postal service) and Colombia. United Fruit controlled not only most of the banana production of the world but 80 percent of the importers in the United States. The company owned and operated the International Railways of Central America throughout their holdings as well as the White Steamship Lines. Bananas rank fourth in world food consumption.
United Fruit was at its zenith during the Eisenhower presidency. John Foster Dulles was his Secretary of State. His former law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, represented the United Fruit Company. Allen Dulles, John Foster’s brother, was head of the CIA and held a seat on the board of United Fruit. The United Fruit Company is the only private corporation that had (has) a CIA cryptonym or code name. The Dulles family never divested itself of their holdings in the United Fruit Company during their 38 years of service in Washington. Eisenhower’s personal secretary was Ann Whitman, whose husband Ed Whitman was the lobbyist and PR man for United Fruit. Another famous family name that had ownership in United Fruit was John Cabot Lodge of the “… the Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God” fame, who became our ambassador to the U.N.
Should you want to see the litany of crimes against international laws and justice and humanity in general, google United Fruit and you will see how this “private corporation” with the aid in the form of military, political and monetary intervention from the United States of America raped, plundered and pillaged the peasant/Indian populations of Central America.
The United Fruit Company was known as El Pulpo by the indigenous people or “The Octopus.”
United Fruit paid nothing for the land, set up tin horn dictatorships called “Banana Republics” in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras and employed the helpless, displaced people as little more than slaves. We were told we were fighting Communism. The “Communists” were the peasants trying to get their land back. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by the U.S.-supported United Fruit Company over the past century. We as a country left these people impoverished without their land or compensation; their forests stripped; their biodiversity-rich lands ruined; health care, medical care, education and even their culture stolen or denied. I have lived in subtropical Africa and traveled “on the cheap” halfway around the world by way of Southeast Asia, and I have never seen such destitution as in Honduras. I saw no culture even, no song, dance or stories.
Our southern border has desperate, impoverished people from the former “Banana Republics” crying at our southern borders for a chance to live. It is an extremely serious problem that is being used as a political football with no sense, empathy, compassion or even common sense being brought to bear on the problem — especially the cause. Everyone is screaming about the horrible symptoms, but any long-term solutions should address that cause, i.e., the desperate plight of these people caused by the United Fruit Company of the USA.
After World War II, we came out of that slaughter the most powerful country in the world. The United States came up with the famous Marshall Plan. The cities and towns that were pulverized by warfare in Europe, as well as the German cities we bombed to rubble, were rebuilt by the USA, and we were the darling of the world. We spent over $12 billion ($100 billion in today’s dollars) in reconstructing Western Europe, including the country of our former enemy Germany that cost us, as a country, more than 275,000 of our young men to defeat.
Having done such a noble deed for our former enemy, should we not seriously consider a Marshall Plan for the people we vanquished in our commercial colonialism of our Southern Neighbors? So why not a Marshall Plan for the former Banana Republics instead of a wall; isn’t it a better idea to build good neighbors rather than a wall? It seems to me to be the “right thing” to do and, incidentally, a long-term solution to our nation’s longest and most intractable problems.
• Bill Hogan, born and raised in Wheeling, W.Va., is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and worked in the worlds of finance, real estate and alcoholism rehabilitation. Bill has six children and three grandchildren. He and his second wife, Susan Hogan, served in the U.S. Peace Corps from 1987-90 in Benin, West Africa. Now retired, he is a trustee of the Schenk Foundation, an artist, a writer and self-proclaimed “highly skilled dispenser of bull.”