Friday, November 13, 2009

The Strange Case of Antonio Tovar

Did you ever meet someone whose real age was impossible to guess? A number of years ago, working for a construction outfit in Central America, I met a man who was, to say the least, of indeterminate age. If I remember correctly, his appearance was such that he ranged somewhere between a hard-bitten thirty and a nimble seventy.

He was short by American standards, slightly built, with an air of self-assurance about him that was out of the ordinary. He spoke easy-to-understand Spanish, and wore an expression on his face that can only be described as a cross between saintly humility and extreme amusement. His clothes were simple. He might have been any one of the many refugees from the wars in El Salvador of Guatemala who were growing corn and beans on small patches of land they had cleared in the woods around the job site.

“My name is Antonio Tovar. I’m here to see about the chain link fence,” he said. Part of the building under construction was going to get a chain link fence around it, but I hadn’t seen any details about it. Most of the previous crew had been cashiered for going “wild west” on the job. There’s a certain type of American who, when taken out of the country, feels that he’s beyond the law and goes bonkers. A lower level on Kohlberg’s moral chart, perhaps, or as someone said, “Travel makes a wise man wiser, but a fool worse.” For the first couple of months we were finding out indirectly about deals and arrangements that the ancien regime had made with various locals, some of which were legitimate and some of which were not.I referred him to one of the engineers on the job who would know something about the fence. That weekend I saw Antonio Tovar and a group of similar-looking men working behind the building, and shortly thereafter a chain link fence appeared. At the end of the week Antonio came back into the office with a bill. It seemed completely reasonable, so low that I was able to pay him out of our petty cash fund without bothering the boss with it. Off he went with the same inscrutable smile on his face.

About two months later I heard a radio broadcast about a missing person. Friends and neighbors were concerned about the disappearance of one Antonio Tovar. “If anyone has any information on the whereabouts of Antonio Tovar, please contact your local police or this radio station. His friends are very anxious to find him.”
That spring I made the acquaintance of some of the refugees who were living out in the woods. I asked if they knew him. They told the following story. He appeared one day on foot out of nowhere. No one knew exactly where he was from, except that the spoke a Spanish they could understand but not recognize as coming from any particular place. He wouldn’t tell them his age, except to say that he was very old.

When he arrived, he was carrying many seeds in a leather bag. He worked among the people clearing land and planting beans, corn, and vegetables. When the people spoke of lacking certain things, he found work that paid them money. He took very little for himself, but spread most of what they earned around where it was needed most. Then one day, saying he was going to a city, he simply disappeared. When he didn’t return, they made inquiries, first to the police and then later to the radio station. He’d been a big hit with all the people in their community. He brought money in. The women, the children, even the men all loved him. They were worried about what happened to him. He’d now been gone a long time.

So I asked them who they thought he was. The answers ranged from a Communist organizer, a Lakota “road man,” a guerilla agent, one of the Three Nephites of Mormon legend, a Cuban spy, a devilishly clever man from Scotland Yard, a brujo, a saint, to just a nice guy who disappeared in the jungle. A snakebite victim, perhaps.

I asked the engineer who he said had hired him, and he told me, “I thought you did.” Nope.

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