Initial Installment of Africa Journal here. This installment is circa 1982, in front of the Executive Mansion, Monrovia, Liberia.
I had decided to go into the military. Probably the Army, because I wanted to be a Green Beret. I was friendly with most of the members of the Embassy’s Marine Security Guard Detachment, and they were eager to train (i.e., smoke the bejeezus out of) a young teen that wanted to go military. I worked out when they worked out. They coached and taught me about physical training. Maybe they showed off a little, too. Hey, they were Devil Dogs working with a wannabe. A Marine mentioned that I should take up running. It was a necessary capability.
So, I started running. No one bothered to tell me, “hey, bro, we’re in Africa, so run before the sun comes up, or after it goes down.” I used to run 3-4 miles starting at 3:00 in the afternoon. In Africa. I’d never heard the phrases heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat stroke. Probably why I didn’t die. My usual route was to run from the Embassy at Mamba Point to my best friend’s house on 10th Street, a little over three miles. We’d goof off, go to the beach, then I’d run back.
My route took me in front of Master Sergeant Doe’s Executive Mansion. I knew from experience one does not run in front of the Executive Mansion. One also does not walk on the same side of the street as the Executive Mansion. As I had a few dozen times before, I slowed to a walk, tried to catch my breath, and took my shirt off to wring it out and let it air out a little before I resumed my run on the far side of the mansion. All of a sudden (“aul ub a sudd-eh’ ” in Liberian English) there were whistles and a big bell ringing and a bunch of soldiers running and yelling and gesticulating.
Ruh-roh. Somebody is in trouble. I looked around for whatever rabble-rouser had set the soldiers off. You know that old saw about if you’re sitting at a poker table and you can’t spot the mark? Yeah, like that.
I was quickly surrounded and the ostensible leader (the soldiers were wearing a mish-mash of uniforms, and I don’t remember seeing any rank displayed by anyone) lit into me right away.
“Ai-yah, my man. You can do this in your country? You can be walking in front ub de White House neh-ked, an show such disrespe’t-O?”
“Yeah, that’s called freedom.”
Here’s a pro tip: When living in or traveling through an authoritarian, militaristic country run by a violent despot and his thuggish minions, do not mouth off to the guys with the guns.
The beat down commenced immediately.
I got pushed and shoved and punched every which way. I covered up, trying to protect my head and face. My bell got rung really well, despite covering, at the same time I took a wicked kick to the shin and I went down. Boots and butt-strokes replaced slaps and punches. I remember having the distant thought “I hope none of this damage is permanent.”
Pro tip: When forced to take a beat down from a group, the fetal position really is the best way to try to minimize the damage. Counter-instinctively, try to keep your palms facing out; less chance of bone bruising or breakage (I didn’t know about the palms at the time, I learned this in a SERE school class called “How to Take a Beat Down”).
A long “eventually” later, they stood me up and shackled–with literal shackles, not handcuffs–my hands behind my back. The leader told me they were going to take me to the jail (de jell) and that my young posterior was going to be violated by “aul de bad men dare”. Well, that statement certainly eliminated the wooziness from a couple of head shots. They began hustling me toward their little guard shack, and I began looking for an opportunity to bolt. I wanted to find another group of soldiers to run toward. Sure, I was going to get shot multiple times, but if there was a cross-fire, maybe some of these goons would get shot, too. Not a good plan, but not a good situation.
Once at the shack, they sent a runner to get the officer in charge who would, they gleefully explained “Tek you to de jell, where aul de bad men dare will be humbugging you wit’ everyt’ing, my man.” Awesome. A short time later, the officer in charge showed up, and I began to foster a faint glimmer of hope.
The night before, I had been carousing on Gurley Street, Monrovia’s red light/bar district. In one of the bars, the El Meson, I’d met a young Liberian army officer. I’d bought him more than a couple of beers and drunkenly strategerized with him on how to get to America to go to university. Honestly, I didn’t even remember his name. I remembered his face, though. He looked as young as I was. That’s the guy who walked through the door.
He grinned at me. “Ai-yah, my man. Wot hap-een?” Then the grin went away and he began dressing down the soldiers. They were sullen rather than abashed. I was definitely going to have to get a new run route. The shackles came off, he walked me outside, and waved a cab down for me. He also staked me the 40 cents fare to get back to the Embassy. I told him I’d pay him back in beers at the El Meson that night.
“Ai, my man, you not be going to bars tonight. You busted-O.”
I learned that day a lesson that I later heard best codified in SERE school: Respect costs you nothing.