Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions and you are a conqueror. Kill everyone and you are a god.
No sooner had my team begun to set up our aid station and sleep tent than the children and teenagers of the nearby town arrived to stare at us. It was the first time they had ever seen American soldiers and airmen and as word of our presence spread, the number of curious onlookers multiplied. The ethnic breakdown of Guyana is mainly blacks, East Asians, mostly from India, and Amerindians who are indigenous to the country.
The group of locals watching us was made up mostly of blacks and Amerindians. All were female and all were teenagers. Girls seemed much more curious and bolder than the boys and we did not see any male teens until their sisters returned later in the day.
Two delightful almond-colored young ladies drew closer to me as I sat on a larger rock and began opening my C-ration meal. This particular box contained turkey loaf, canned peaches, peanut butter and a small tin that contained crackers and two candy discs, euphemistically called “John Wayne Bars.” The candy got its name during the Vietnam War. It was an ironic honor for the macho super patriotic actor who had never served a day in the service, but killed a lot of Japanese and Germans on the silver screen.
As I used the P-38 that always hung around my neck to open my main course, the two curious girls looked on intently. Although very hungry myself, out of courtesy, it seemed appropriate to share my meal with them. I handed a John Wayne Bar to each cutie.
The girl sitting to my right introduced herself as Pauline when I told her my name and asked for hers’. She studied the aluminum foil wrapper that encased the round disc of chocolate imbedded with tiny bits of almonds and crunchy nougat.
“What is this?” Pauline inquired in a crisp British accent.
“Why it’s candy,” I replied.
“What form of candy?” she asked, still studying the wrapper.
“It’s a chocolate bar,” I answered. Almost before I finished my sentence, Pauline eagerly peeled the foil wrapper from her John Wayne Bar and literally stuffed the entire disc into her mouth., ravishing it in a single bite. Her silent little friend did likewise.
“What’s the matter with you girls?” I asked as they greedily licked tiny slivers of candy from around their lips, “You act as if you’ve never eaten chocolate before.”
“I have not,” came Pauline’s response in that accent I found so enchanting when emitted from the mouths of these pretty Amerindian girls.
“Oh come on! Doesn’t your mother allow you to eat sweets?” I asked suspiciously.
Pauline simply looked at me and said, “We don’t have chocolate in this country.” That simple explanation sounded unbelievable to this American who took chocolate and many other things for granted. A Guyanese Defense Force soldier standing nearby talking with Fielder, overheard my conversation with Pauline and confirmed her statement.
“It’s a luxury,” he said. “Guyana has a problem with its balance of trade so we don’t import luxuries if we can help it.”
Word quickly spread around Matthews Ridge that the American soldiers staying at the airfield had chocolate candy. Soon every female teenager in the region was visiting us, hoping to be lucky enough to cadge a John Wayne Bar or one of the less desirable treats found in C-rations.
It nearly got out of hand. The girls were becoming more daring in their attempts to befriend an American service man who would be willing to give them chocolate bars. Fielder, a young, virile and not unattractive African-American soldier had more than his share of young ebony beauties willing to bestow favors on him for candy. I have talked to GIs who, from other times and during wars experienced the same thing.
Captain Skinner and Major Burgos remained with us at Matthews Ridge during that first day, but as night fell, both returned to Timheri Airport where the command structure of the task force was located. During the first few hours we were at the airstrip, they flew into Jonestown for a brief tour.
With the two officers gone, it was up to me to maintain order. Sam Bernal was not a problem. Like me, he was an old married guy with kids. Fielder and Sanborn were another matter altogether. Not yet 21 years of age, neither had complete control over his hormones.
But they were well-disciplined and knew they would endure my immediate wrath and perhaps be disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if they were anything but discreet. So for these two soldiers, discretion definitely became the better part of valor.
Two aviation fuel specialists from the Canal Zone were located at the airstrip with us. They had three huge hard rubber bladders of jet fuel used to refill aircraft shuttling supplies into and bodies out of Jonestown.
The fuel specialists were a Sergeant E5 and a Specialist Fourth Class. As a Specialist Sixth Class, I was the ranking noncom at the site and that, in effect, made me their supervisor. The sergeant was an older more stable guy. His assistant was very interested in the local social scene.
Rounding out the personnel at our little outpost were two Air Force Communications specialists that provided us with a communications relay link that allowed Jonestown, thru us, to talk anywhere in the world. It was staffed by a young NCO and his airman assistant and once we were operational, these two were the busiest men at the airstrip.
They had to insure the radios were monitored 24 hours a day. During daylight hours, when recovery operations were being conducted, an hourly body count was transmitted to Timheri Airport from Jonestown via our relay. At night, there was very little radio traffic and we could make radio calls anywhere in the world.
On Thanksgiving, we all made brief calls to our families. That was one of the few pleasant memories I remember from those traumatic days.
The natives were very friendly, especially the teenaged girls with their craving for chocolate. Our young studs began bragging about their romantic conquests to air crews that arrived for refueling. Although these guys were far from trolls, they attributed their success with the ladies to John Wayne Bars. It wasn’t long before word got out to the command center at the airport that Brailey’s guys were getting laid for chocolate bars.
It was no secret that some of the men at Matthews Ridge were having sexual trysts with some of the local girls. Beside my standing order to use discretion, I also advised them to use condoms. I had no idea that word of their extracurricular activities had reached the hallowed halls of Joint Task Force Command.
One day, an Army U-21, an aircraft similar to a Lear jet, landed at the airstrip. This was not unusual. Curious officers often made the trip from Georgetown, just to see the sights. Most of the time they would board a helicopter at Matthews Ridge and fly into Jonestown, or they would make a cursory inspection of our aid station, have a cup of Gator Ade with us and then leave as quickly as they came. These officers rarely announced their itineraries, so we never knew when they might visit.
On this particular morning, I believe it was the day before Thanksgiving, the 193rd Infantry Brigade’s Transportation Officer arrived. She was a willowy first lieutenant with long legs who actually looked great in Army fatigues. LT Thomas was a free spirit who enjoyed joking with the troops. This day proved to be no exception.
As I saw the cute lieutenant descending the stairs of the aircraft, I recognized her and decided to trot down the hill to greet her. As we approached one another, I saluted smartly, “Good morning Lieutenant,” I offered.
Returning my salute just as crisply, she replied, “Good morning Specialist Brailey,” and tossed me the large brown distribution envelope she was carrying.
As I caught the bulky package, 1LT Thomas smiled at me coyly and said, “Tell your guys to have a good time on me.” The envelope was chock full of John Wayne Bars.
Before I could think of a snappy comeback, the playful officer marched back up the steps of the waiting U-21. A few seconds later, she looked down at me from one of the aircraft’s round windows. Several Guyanese children were playing nearby, among them Pauline and her friend. I opened the envelope of C-ration candy and began distributing them among the kids, much to their delight.
I turned toward the aircraft which had yet to begin its taxi for take-off. As I dispensed the last of the John Wayne Bars to a couple of the smaller children, I saluted toward the lieutenant and walked back up the small hill to my aid station.
It was no exaggeration that a few of our soldiers at Matthews Ridge were fraternizing with some of the local girls and were giving them John Wayne Bars. However, I do feel to say they were receiving sexual favors for the candy is a little far fetched. These guys were red blooded American soldiers in their late teens and early twenties. They would be doing horizontal coed exercises with or without the chocolates.
One reason the sexual mores of that region of Guyana were so liberal is because of the sparseness of the population there. Matthews Ridge was close to the border with Venezuela, one GDF sergeant told me. The women of the town, be they single or married, were encouraged to be fruitful and multiply in order to lend legitimacy to some border disputes between Guyana and its neighbor.
And these young women who were between adolescence and adulthood were beautiful and flirtatious. Take Pauline for example. She was a lovely 15-year-old Amerindian girl with a body that would make any 21-year-old swimsuit model in the USA envious. Maybe it was the diet or the fact that they had to walk virtually everywhere they went, while Americans have more than they need to eat and would sooner ride in a car to the corner convenience store than walk to it, but the girls of Guyana seemed to grow up faster.
The children who visited our site day after day were made up of mainly Amerindians. I asked Pauline if she and her friend went to school.
“I don’t anymore. The other children were mean to me and my mother and father said I don’t have to go back,” she replied.
“Mean to you. How?” I inquired. Pauline explained that some of the bad boys would dip her pigtails in ink or cut them with scissors. She also said they would cut her dresses and she didn’t have all that many dresses.
Fifty-one percent of the population of Guyana were descended from immigrants who came from India. People of African or partial-African descent made up 42 percent and only four percent of Guyanese descended from the indigenous or native population. The remaining three percent of the Guyanese people came from Europe or China.
The Amerindians in Guyana were broadly grouped into coastal and interior tribes. The coastal Amerindians are Carib, Arawak and Warao, whose names come from the three language families of the Guyanese Amerindians. Interior Amerindians consisted of seven tribes: Akawaio, Arekuna, Barama River Carib, Macusi, Patamona, Waiwai, and Wapisiana. The tribes living near Jonestown included the Barama River Carib, Akawaio, Arekuna and Patamona. They all shared the Carib language.
It turns out there was a great deal of racial bigotry and prejudice against the Amerindians by the two predominant ethnic groups. This, alas, seemed to be the case in every country I traveled and visited in during my 20 years in the Army. Indigenous peoples around the world were usually considered inferior to the larger ethnic groups.
Sergeant Harper, a gregarious Guyana Defense Force supply sergeant whom I befriended popped into our sleep tent the second evening we were in country.
“Would any of ya like ta go ta town an’ slot some puss?” he asked with a big grin on his face.
“What’s that you say?” I responded, thinking his thick and unfamiliar accent kept me from properly understanding his question.
“Do ya wanna go ta town an’ slot some puss,” the exasperated Sergeant Harper asked slowly. He saw by the look on my face that what he was asking still really did not register.
As we all looked on, he made a circle with his left thumb and index finger and pushed his right index finger in and out of the hole made by the first and second digits of his left hand, repeatedly saying, “Slot some puss, slot some puss, slot some puss.”
Embarrassed that Harper had to use familiar, but vulgar international sign language to make me understand his question, I stupidly asked, “Are there any bars in Matthews Ridge?”
Slapping me on the back, he shouted, “Ya Mat-ewes Ridge got plenny bahs, mon, plenny wimmin too!”
So that night I made the command decision to leave Fielder at the aid station with one of the communications men and the aviation fuel NCO. The rest of us piled into Harper’s nine passenger Land Rover. As we sped away from the GDP outpost for our first off duty mixer with the local population, Sergeant Harper gave us strict instructions to meet at the vehicle at 11 PM. He said that was around the time the town’s generator ran out of fuel, effectively cutting off all electric power until the next morning.
Sergeant Harper took us to Mrs. Pool’s Bar. She was a large, funny black lady with a wonderful personality that fit right in with the perpetual smile on her face. After introductions were made all around, I put a 20 dollar bill on the bar and told Mrs. Pool to let me know when I ran out of money so I could replenish the drinking fund. Since a bottle of Banks Beer, the national brew of Guyana was $1.20 with the dollar returned when you returned the precious bottle, (there were no bottle factories in the country at this time) we managed to drink all night on 20 dollars.
As I was seated at the bar, sipping on an ice cold beer while Sergeant Harper and my new friend, Mrs. Pool explained the culture of Guyana to me, my little friend Pauline stuck her head through the doorway. There were other children in the bar younger than she, so I motioned for Pauline to come and join us. She simply shook her head and said, “I cannot,” and kept watching us.
I tried to verbally coax Pauline into the establishment, saying, “Come on in, I’ll buy you a cold drink.” She replied simply, “I cannot.”
Seeing I was getting nowhere fast, I excused myself and went out on the porch. “What would you like to drink?” I asked, thinking she’d say ‘orange’ or ‘root beer’ or some other soft drink. I was wrong.
“I’ll have a Banks please, and one for my brother Frank,” was her reply.
“You are too young to drink beer,” I said emphatically to this 15-year-old Amerindian girl.
“I am not!” was her equally firm and defiant response. I looked to Mrs. Pool and Sergeant Harper for guidance and they both indicated it was no problem for Frank, Pauline’s 17-year-old brother or Pauline to have a beer. So the proprietor of the little bar opened three frosty bottles of Banks and I carried them to the porch where Pauline, her brother and I spent about an hour in conversation.
They told me Mrs. Pool wouldn’t allow Amerindians into her bar. It was then I realized all the children and local patrons of the establishment were black. I learned that Frank was the eldest sibling of 13. His father worked for the government, and as usual, was away, but his mother, grandfather, brothers and sisters all were at home.
“You must come meet my family,” suggested Pauline.
“Another time, perhaps,” I said.
“No, now,” she said impetuously.
“I don’t want to impose.”
“No, my mother was excited to earn Americans were in Matthews Ridge. She has never met an American,” Frank explained.
“How far away from here is your house?”
“Just up the ridge a bit,” said Pauline as she jumped from her seat and grabbed my arm to pull me up.
As I told Sergeant Harper of my plan to meet Pauline’s family, Frank begged off, saying he had somewhere else to go. As I left, the GDF supply sergeant reminded me of the 11 PM deadline for the return trip to the airstrip, some three miles away.
“We won’ be waitin’ mon,” he said with a laugh.
“I’ll make it back by 11, I replied.
Pauline took my hand and led me to a trail that took us exactly where she said it would – up the ridge – straight up. I was getting a practical lesson in the main geological feature that gave the town its name. Although Pauline and her family lived less than a mile from Mrs. Pool’s bar, it as if I was climbing Mount Everest. By the time we reached her house, my legs ached fiercely and my uniform was drenched in sweat. Young Pauline looked as fresh as she did before we began our trek.
Her mother was very nice, a much older version of her daughter. She probably was only half dozen or so years older than me, yet she seemed tired or shy, perhaps both, all at once. Her hair was a beautiful black color without any streaks of gray. Her hands were much more calloused and worn than mine, but then again, she probably lived a harder life than I. It can’t be easy trying to raise 13 children who were born during a 17 year period.
While her mother made tea, Pauline and I played with the other children. While we were getting to know each other, their grandfather silently strode into the room. He was a quiet and dignified gentleman with more white hair on his head that black. The old man had a professorial look to him and he literally spoke the King’s English.
I noticed the home was a simple but clean structure made mostly of plywood and two by fours. The roof, like every other one in Matthews Ridge, was fashioned from tin. Furniture was sparse and utilitarian. Although I was not given a tour of the residence, it seemed to consist of a great room where the kitchen, dining and socializing area was, surrounded by rooms that apparently were bedrooms.
The entire family and some inquisitive neighbors who dropped by, seemed happy and honored to have met their first American. I certainly enjoyed their sincere and friendly hospitality. I met all the children, one by one. The British accent they all had seemed so incongruous coming from people dressed simply in Amerindian garb.
The one topic we did not discuss was the event that brought me to their town in the first place: the mass murder/suicides in nearby Jonestown. Perhaps Pauline’s mother and grandfather thought the subject would embarrass me.
I checked my pocket-watch and saw it was nearly 10:20 PM. It was time for me to start down the ridge to meet up with rest of the guys. I always wore a pocket-watch in tropical countries because the wrist variety invariably gave me a rash within a day or so due to the heat and humidity.
“That’s a fine timepiece,” said Pauline’s father. It was a silver colored Timex that cost me less than 10 dollars at the Post Exchange in Panama.
“Would you like it, sir?” I asked the old man, hoping the watch could serve as a small token of gratitude for the wonderful visit I had with Pauline and her family.
“Oh no, I could not possibly take such a fine gift,” he said. I told Pauline’s grandfather I had another just like it at home and would not miss this one.
He then asked me if there was anything I wanted from Guyana. Recalling how colorful and intricate the nation’s postage stamps were, I told the old fellow my daughter collected postage stamps and would love to receive a packet of cancelled ones from his country. That Christmas and for the next few years after, Suzanne, my oldest daughter, would receive an envelope full of cancelled Guyanese stamps around Christmas.
My engaging conversation with Pauline’s grandfather and Sergeant Harper’s parting words that the Land Rover would leave for the airstrip when the generator ran out of fuel weighed on my mind. I was anxious to catch up with my soldiers and Harper because my aching legs were not looking forward to a three mile hike home, not after climbing a mile up Matthews Ridge and a mile back down.
As Pauline and I left her home for the less strenuous trek down the ridge, the power suddenly went off, cloaking the entire town in instant darkness. The constant whirr of the faraway generator was replaced with silence and the chorus of sounds from the insects and animals in the Jungle was more obvious. Kerosene lanterns began to appear in some windows, causing eerie shadows to appear on the moonless night.
“I though the power went off at 11 PM,” I said to Pauline.
“It stops when the petrol runs dry,” she answered.
We continued down the ridge and to my distress, the next mechanical sound I heard was the Land Rover starting up. I could see its headlights off in the distance, but was not close enough to hail Sergeant Harper without disturbing anyone who went to sleep earlier. I knew I was in for a long walk back to the airfield, in pitch black conditions, on an unfamiliar dirt road surrounded by jungle, in a strange country.
As we passed one of the only two story buildings in the town, its windows lit by flickering lanterns, I said to Pauline, “I’m not looking forward to my walk back to the airstrip.”
“Do you want to go in here?” she asked, pointing to the two story building.
“What is that building?” I asked.
“It’s the hotel,” was Pauline’s short reply. I learned later that the hotel in Matthews Ridge boasted less than 10 rooms for visitors to the town.
“I can’t stay here tonight. I am the boss man at my camp and I have responsibilities back there, so I must trek to the airstrip,” I explained.
Taking my hand in hers and stroking it intimately, she said in a very provocative voice, “I don’t mean for the whole night.”
I was flabbergasted. “Pauline,” I almost shouted as I retrieved my hand from hers, “You are only 15-years-old.”
“I may be 15, but in Guyana I am a woman!” was her hurt and sharp reply that I would never forget.
As we stood together in the darkness, outside the only hotel in Matthews Ridge, I tried to explain to Pauline that in America 30-year-old men do not make love with children half their ages. This woman-child, with a body as sexually appealing as any I’d ever seen, was extremely offended. She turned in a huff, and before I knew it, disappeared into the dark tropical night.
I found my way back to the airstrip with the help of a friendly Guyanese man who offered to accompany me on my walk in the dark. When he offered to help me, I thanked him and told him I could get back there myself.
“There are snakes that come out at night that will kill you before you can take two steps,” the Good Samaritan replied.
Thinking I may be getting set up for a mugging, or worse, I said, “I’ve got a powerful .45 caliber handgun to protect me from animals,” pointing to the holstered sidearm on my belt.
“You won’t have an opportunity to use your gun,” he told me, “these snakes are practically invisible in the dark.”
I decided to take my chance getting mugged by this affable little Amerindian man, rather than running into a deadly serpent while alone on this frontier track. We reached the aid station in a little over an hour, after listening to big cats screaming in the not-so-distant jungle. Except for some small nocturnal rat-looking large rodents, we didn’t see any other animals.
I thanked my new friend and guide profusely offering him some Gator Ade, the only drink we had that was palatable. He declined saying he must get back home. I then gave him four C-ration meals to repay him for his trouble. When he looked at the contents of just one meal, he shook my hand vigorously in thanks saying, “This one box will feed my wife and two children for one meal,” he said solemnly as he repacked the tins and packets back into the box.
The next morning, I related my experience with Pauline to Sergeant Harper. He gave me a hearty laugh and said, “She right ‘mon. Dat gal ain’ no virgin. Ya shudda bed her down now. Dat gal like a wildcat, ya know.”
Harper also told me that the government actually encourages the girls and women of the region to be fruitful and multiply, just as my troops had been told by the young girls they were having sex with.
The United States military had journeyed to a strange country on an unreal mission. It’s a place where girls, barely out of adolescence were encouraged to make babies, beer bottles cost five times what their contents did, and the children never ate chocolate. Yet compared to some of the other events I was to experience in Guyana over the next week, these things didn’t seem so strange after all.