Every once in a while in my travels, I hear a tale so astounding it simply must be told. Last November in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I heard such a story from my interpreter and good friend, Tim Johnson. Tim is the International President of the Rotary Club of Cochabamba-Tunari, a businessman, and a respected pillar of his community but it wasn't always so. Here is the first half of his true-life story of trauma and transcendence, as emailed to me last week. Loren
Child of the Wind
by Tim Johnson
The wind was blowing, and how it blew! The year was 1949. The suraso, a freezing winter wind that blows up from Antarctica, had come over the tropical jungle. Palm trees are bending, rain is falling...
Howling, with the roaring wind and rain. Listen closely is that the cry of a baby? Yes, there it is again! It seems to happen every time the suraso sweeps in. A baby, only three months old, cries and cries.
As the suraso wind roars, a cry of a woman can also be heard. "Oh," she laments, "How can I care for this baby? I am so poor, I have no food, no money, no husband. When the suraso comes up I will place him in a basin of cold water and lay him out on the edge of the jungle. This time, this time surely he will sicken and die."
But the baby did not die.
The town's people gradually realized what was going on, and they started talking about this "child of the wind" who had survived months of repeated exposures to the suraso. But what could they do? Their town was so very isolated, out in the middle of the Bolivian tropics Baures, known as "the last corner of the world." In this era sickness and desperate poverty lived side by side, inseparable partners in a lonely jungle outpost.
Around this time an American chiropractic doctor and his wife arrived in town. They had come to establish a health program, and to help the local church. What a hard journey of many days for them, traveling by slow, lumbering, back-breaking, ox-drawn cart. Crossing swamps, the oxcarts going down, down, down into rushing rivers, then the oxen swimming, with the brave lady and her husband holding on to the cart for dear life.
Wild animals all around, every type of bug and snake, these were their companions. Even more amazing was the doctor's wife. She was crippled, walked with crutches and braces. When herself a baby, she was stricken with polio, yet she was willing, even though crippled, to endure what was to be a huge challenge, to her, in this forsaken area of Bolivia.
Arriving in town, the story of the crying child came to the ears of the good doctor and his wife. The town's people called him their Child of the Wind. The couple sought out the baby's mother, and...
"Yes what the town's people are saying it is true!"
The good couple then said to the mother, "We can take this baby into our home. We will raise it and love it as if it is our own. We cannot have children of our own; this is God's present to us."
It caused quite a stir around town, that two gringos were willing to take this baby into their home. Things started to happen; powdered milk was brought in, and a local carpenter made a highchair, using a picture from a Sears catalog as a guide. This carpenter, so proud of his highchair, carried it down the main street, right through the middle of town, so that everyone could see what he had made.
The town ladies told the new mother, "Do not cut the baby's hair until it is one year old." Why? Because if you do the baby will never talk or walk. But cut the new mother did she could not stand the length of his hair anymore. True to their word, the baby would not talk or walk. The baby always walked in silence beside his new mother, clinging to one of her crutches. One day the baby simply let go and has walked and talked ever since.
The baby also loved to drive with his Daddy in a jeep, which had just arrived. The custom of the ladies of this area was to carry everything on their heads washing, food, etc. One of these ladies was walking with a load on her head, heard a strange noise, looked around Wow, what was that? Off came the load from her head, and into the jungle she fled, screaming. The jeep became known as the "tin oxcart." Many adventures happened with that jeep carrying sick people in need of help, exploring in the jungle with friends from the village. Daddy drove so fast, people would almost fall out as they were used to their slow oxcarts. They would laugh or cry. Some would refuse to get back into the jeep.
One day the new mother became very sick with beriberi, a vitamin deficiency. It was suggested that they move out of the tropics to a more pleasant climate or move back to the United States. The American family loved Bolivia very much how could they leave their baby? Since for legal reasons they could not take the baby back to USA, they decided to settle in a city with an excellent climate and good food, in a beautiful valley called Cochabamba in the central part of Bolivia, high up in the Andes Mountains. By this time, the baby was about two years old.
Years passed, the baby grew. The city of Cochabamba became like his own. His mother was to be his first teacher, as she taught him kindergarten. But one day the mother/teacher became desperate. The baby, now a small boy, could not write the number 5. She spanked him, but he still could not write the number 5.
His parents had to take home leave, and the small boy had to be left behind. He cried, how he cried. Seeing his Mommy and Daddy take off in a train, he thought he would never see them again. Once more he could not be taken to USA. His parents also cried.
He finally got to visit the USA when he was eight years old. He saw a television for the first time, and vacuum cleaners, and supermarkets. Saw snow for the first time, tasted pretzels for the first time. He went to a local public grade school, and became a cub scout. Then the whole family returned to Cochabamba.
City folk remember this little boy walking around with suspenders, and on Sundays with a red bow tie. As he grew older, he was sent off to mission boarding school. He really did not enjoy this school very much, especially grade school. He missed his neighborhood friends and his parents. The missionary teacher would stand the boy up and ask, "What is two plus two?" The boy would say five, and she would say, "You are stupid because you are Bolivian," and all the kids would laugh at him.
Rebellion started when he became a teen, or maybe younger. Many people could not understand his actions, but he knew why he acted this way. He was considered different from the rest of the children; he was told this and was treated differently. He remembers being told by other missionary children, "You are dark, so why should we play with you?"
When eleventh and twelfth grades came around, he begged to go to a local American school, the Cochabamba Cooperative School. This was a school created for the English-speaking community of Cochabamba. His now legally-adopted parents said yes. It was to be the two best years of his teenage life. He graduated as president of his graduating class, and vice president of the student council. He ran the show, with the other big shots of this school. He even received his diploma directly from the hands of the American Ambassador to Bolivia.
Deep down inside, though, he knew that somehow he had to make it up to his parents, and especially to the missionary community. They were now commenting on how "wild and unruly" this teenager was. Maybe he was wild and unruly, but he enjoyed life that way; all the local teens of the town did. He decided to go to a Bible Institute in the USA, to try to mend his reputation. Unfortunately this also did not go so well, and he was expelled from the institute.
He began studying at a university in Kentucky. During the summer months he also worked as a translator and messenger for the Bolivian Consulate, and for Bolivia's Mission to the United Nations in New York City. He started enjoying life in the USA, but he was ready to return to Bolivia. By this time his mother became quite sick, so it was decided that this now young man should return to Cochabamba.
The year was 1973. The Christian Chiropractic Association (CCA) had purchased a new car for his parents, so the young man was asked to bring this car into Bolivia. It was quite an adventure. When the car arrived in Cochabamba, it became the talk of the town, for it was the only one of its kind. Of course, everyone wanted a ride and the young man was only too happy to accommodate them, especially his friends, who were still considered the wild ones of this town.
His parents had to return to the USA, since his mother was so sick. They thought they would return to Bolivia. A nurse was needed to care for his mother on the airplane, and this was how the young man came to meet a wonderful nurse from Australia. Off went his parents, with the nurse. Little did they know that later in life they would become husband and wife.
The year was now 1978. His adopted parents left Bolivia, and both passed away in the early 80's. The man stayed behind in Bolivia, by his own choice. Unfortunately, he did not know how to face real life alone. He still had a lot of hang-ups with identity, financial problems, and now no Mommy and Daddy to lean on. He felt he could turn to no one for advice, at least not within the missionary community, so he drew closer to his local friends again still the wild ones.
One day a letter arrived from the home church of his parents in the USA, telling him to vacate the house in which he lived. But why? It was his house, this had been made very clear to him by his parents. "If anything should ever happen to us," they said, the house would be his. A mission leader from Cochabamba had written a letter to the church, saying that his behavior was "poor testimony." Unfortunately, the man had no legal papers to show, as nothing had been put in writing, nor were his parents there to put things right. He lost the house.
The man starting doing things that were against the law, in desperation. One day the police came looking for him, hauled him off to the police station and then to city jail. As the jail door shut behind him, the man knew that all was lost. The first night frightened, lonely, and dark, tears running down his cheeks he thought, "Was I rescued from death, so many years ago, to end up in jail, maybe for the rest of my life? Is this to be my life from now on?" He tossed and turned on the hard floor.
The suraso winds blew that night, and how they blew! The old jail shook all over. What could the future hold for this Child of the Wind?
Soon: Return to Baures.
Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Johnson. All rights reserved, worldwide.
Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer!
(to be inserted as they arrive)
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, by Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.