Cow's Head Revisited
After a few
days in Honduras, a moment of clarity seeped into my heat-soaked
that worried about my son’s moving to Honduras after college to
teach literature in a bilingual high school. When he was growing
up, I had taken him to some pretty challenging places around the
world while I was working on book projects: Tanzania to hang out
with some Black Panthers living there in exile from the U.S.;
Kosovo soon after the NATO bombing stopped; Macedonia during its
civil war; Yosemite to backpack for a week. On his own, he had
traveled to Venezuela, Suriname, Malawi, New York, Nashville and
elsewhere to work on movie projects. He had lived with families
in Uganda and Rwanda for a summer. He knew how to survive in
he told us recently via Skype that he had been mugged at 7 a.m.
on his way to school, and the man with the knife boldly asked,
“Do you want to die today?” my wife and I felt that it could
have happened anywhere. It was troubling, but not unprecedented.
in his Honduran neighborhood factor crime into their lives. Many
live with bars on their windows and doors. Most of the
businesses have armed guards and close up shop after dark. So do
many of the homes. The house in which he lives is provided by
his school, and comes with a round-the-clock guard carrying a
rifle. That guard’s predecessor was murdered right outside the
front door of the house, and the two-foot wide bloodstain is
still visible on the sidewalk.
similar to where I moved when I finished college – urban Detroit
– during the years it was called the murder capitol of the
world. In my neighborhood, the grocery store consisted of a maze
of narrow one-way aisles to minimize looting. At the cashier’s
window, you put your groceries on a rotating wheel and turned it
to the cashier who sat behind bulletproof glass. You put your
money in a steel drawer, and the cashier pulled the drawer in,
put change in it and pushed it back to you. She put the
groceries in a bag and spun the wheel back out where you could
office was even more difficult. The bank? Forget about it.
with crime and the threat of violence was not what triggered my
moment of clarity.
wife and I were visiting the school where my son teaches, and
enjoying chicken nachos in the eating area, a ninth-grade girl
came up to our table. “Meester Nelson, could I speak with you a
moment? My dad says you need to get that cow’s head out of our
neighborhood. He says it’s a health hazard.”
turned to face the girl. Who knew my name down here in Honduras?
What was she talking about? And what would I know about a cow’s
wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at my son. Oh yes: the
other Meester Nelson.
He had just
finished making a short film with his students. He has made
movies since elementary school: stop-action animation with a
self-destructing snail; a Godfather-type gangster movie
where actors responding to his casting call thought he was a
university film student when he was really still in high school.
His high school teachers in San Diego would let him make movies
instead of writing book reports. He did a movie version of the
short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," and of the classic A Tale
of Two Cities. In college, his movies made it into film
festivals and won awards.
graduated from college and took this teaching job in Honduras,
he instructed his students to read The Diary of Anne Frank.
It wasn’t such a reach for the students, as they were able to
relate to the slaughter of their own indigenous people over the
past centuries. He also taught them Fahrenheit 451 and
The Crucible. Burning books and people for having different
ways of thinking were easy topics for people who just
experienced a political/military coup.
there for just a few months before he started writing
screenplays again. He wrote one that involved a girl who wished
she could go back in time to undo a cruel act to a girl who had
just moved to Honduras from the U.S. He approached his principal
about using his literature class to make a short film. “It will
give them experience in another kind of storytelling,” he said.
The principal agreed.
from San Diego, who had worked on movies with him before, flew
down with all of their equipment, and production began. They
rehearsed with the students and members of the community. The
military assigned soldiers to guard them and the equipment; he
shot all the footage in a week. My wife and I arrived as the
filming ended. The movie involves a time machine that explodes,
sending a flaming cow’s head through the air. Someone called the
local news media to report that students were doing experiments
with cows. We offered to help clean it up while we were in town.
Apparently we needed to do this sooner than later.
of a cow’s head that had been set on fire a week ago, and had
been baking in the scorching sun and partially devoured by
vermin, is not as easy as it sounds.
wasn’t my moment of clarity, either.
satisfying the neighbors that the area was safe once again, my
wife and I spent the weekend with my son and his fiancé in a
mountain city filled with Mayan ruins. We wandered through the
grounds of a civilization that had flourished and then
floundered more than a thousand years before, and discussed
power, corruption, worship and philosophy. He and his fiancé
made all the arrangements for the three-hour bus ride, the
hotel, the taxi drivers, restaurants and this national park.
Neither my wife nor I speak Spanish. We were completely
dependent on them.
was my moment of clarity.
remembered that my parents visited my then-newlywed wife and me
after we had moved to Detroit. They were concerned about our
safety and wondered if we knew how dangerous the world really
was. Then they saw that we were living on our own, happy in our
jobs, loving each other, involved in our neighborhood and
connected to a faith community, without their having to tell us
to get to work on time, eat our vegetables, pay our taxes or
lock our doors. Both my wife and I had absorbed our parents’
advice and were living as responsible adults. We had grown up.
Saying goodbye to my son at the San Pedro Sula airport, I felt
as if I was channeling my own father when I told him goodbye at
the Detroit airport more than 30 years before. I sensed back
then that, once he had seen for himself, he was satisfied. He
knew that I was going to be fine. I grabbed the hair on the back
of my son’s head and pulled him to me, kissing him on the cheek
one last time. He had grown up. He was going to be fine.
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