A Thousand Lives: ExcerptS

Tommy Hyacinth Stanley Edith


The journey up the coastline was choppy, the shrimp trawler too far out to get a good look at the shore. While other passengers rested fitfully in sleeping bags spread out on the deck or in the berths below, 15-year-old Tommy Bogue gripped the slick railing, bracing himself against the waves. He'd already puked twice, but was determined not to miss a beat of this adventure. The constellations soared overhead, clearer than he'd ever seen them. He wiped salt spray from his eyes with an impatient hand and squinted at the horizon. He was still boy enough to imagine a pirate galleon looming toward them, the Jolly Roger flapping in the Caribbean breeze.
    This was his first sea journey. His first trip outside the United States. He squinted at South America as it blurred by, vague and mysterious, imagining the creatures that roamed there. A few year's earlier, he'd devoured DC Comics' Bomba, The Jungle Boy, series, and now he imagined himself a hero of his own making.
    The very name of his destination—Guyana—was exotic. None of his school friends had heard of it, nor had he before his church established an agricultural mission there. After his pastor made the announcement, Tommy read and reread the Guyana entry the Encyclopedia Britannica until he could spout trivia about Guyanese fauna to anyone who showed the slightest interest in what the lanky, bushy-haired teen had to say. Aboard the Cudjoe, he ticked off this book knowledge to himself. Jaguars. Howler monkeys. The world's largest snake, the green anaconda, growing up to 20 feet long and 350 pounds. The country was home to several of the world's largest beasts: the giant anteater, the giant sea otter, the giant armadillo, the 15-foot black caiman. He knew a few things about the strangeness surrounding him, and those few things comforted him.
    The plane ride from San Francisco to Georgetown had been another first for Tommy. He sat next to another kid from church, Vince Lopez, and two boys took turns gaping out the small convex window as they soared over the Sierra Nevada, the Great Plains, the farm belt—the entire breadth of America. The cement mass of New York City astounded him; skyscrapers bristled in every direction. At JFK International Airport, Pastor Jones, who was paying a periodic visit to the mission, kept a tight hand on the boys as he herded them toward their connecting flight.
    Everything about Tommy Bogue was average—his height, his build, his grades—except for his penchant for trouble. His parents couldn't control him. Neither could the church elders. He hated the long meetings the congregation was required to attend, and was always sneaking off to smoke weed or wander the tough streets of the Fillmore District. Ditching church became a game, one he was severely punished for, but which proved irresistible.
    He'd only been told two days earlier that they were sending him to the mission field. His head was still spinning with the quickness of it all. The counselors told him he should feel honored to be chosen, but he was wise to them. He overheard people talking about manual labor, separation from negative peers, isolation, culture shock: All these things were supposed to be good for him. He knew he was being sent away, but at least he'd get out of the never-ending meetings, and more importantly, he'd see his father, for the first time in two years.   
    His dad left in 1974. He'd called home a few times over the mission's ham radio, and in brief, static-filled reports, he sounded proud of what the pioneers had accomplished: clearing the bush by hand, planting crops, building cottages. Tommy was eager to see it all for himself.  
    Finally, when as the sun blazed hot and high overhead, the Cudjoe shifted into low gear and swung toward land. The other church members crowded Tommy on the deck as the boat nosed up a muddy river, the wake lifting the skirts of the mangroves as it passed. In the soaring canopy, color flashed: parrots, orchids, bromeliads.
    The travelers slipped back in time, passing thatched huts stilted on the riverbanks and indigenous Guyanese, who eyed the Americans warily from dugout canoes. This was their territory. Late in the afternoon, the passengers arrived at a village named Port Kaituma and excitement rippled through them. The deck hands tied the Cudjoe to a pole in the water and Tommy helped unload cargo up the steep embankment. Pastor Jones, who'd spent most of the trip secluded in the deckhouse, welcomed them to the village as if he owned it. There wasn't much to it beyond a few stalls selling produce and second-hand clothes. As his pastor spoke, Tommy listened attentively along with the others; Guyana was a fresh start for him, and he planned to stay out of trouble. He'd make his dad proud. Rev. Jones told the group that the locals were grateful for the church's assistance – the mission's farm would put food on their tables.
    After a short delay, a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer motored up and the newcomers climbed aboard with their gear. The tractor slipped and lurched down the pitted road to the mission, and the passengers grabbed the high sides and joked as if they were on a hayride. All were in good spirits.
    At some point, Tommy noticed the squalor: the collapsing shanties, the naked brown kids with weird sores and swollen bellies, the dead dogs rotting where they fell. The trenches of scummy water. The stench. The mosquitoes whining in his ears. The landscape didn't jibe with the videos he'd seen at church, which all made Guyana look like a lush resort.    
    Tommy didn't point out these aberrations, but turned to listen to Pastor Jones, who raised his voice above the tractor's thrumming diesel engine. He was boasting, again, about how everything thrived at the mission. About the tree whose fruit tasted like vanilla ice cream.  About the protective aura surrounding the property: There was no sickness there, no malaria or typhoid, no snakes or jungle cats dared venture onto it. There'd not been one mishap whatsoever. The adults nodded and smiled as they listened. Tommy turned toward the jungle again. The bush was so dense he couldn't see but a yard in before it fell away into darkness.
    The tractor veered down a narrow road and passed through a tight stand of trees. The canopy rose two hundred feet above them. The light dimmed as they drove through this tree tunnel, as if they'd entered a candle-lit hallway and someone was blowing out the candles one by one behind them. The air was so still it bordered on stagnant. Tommy glanced behind the tractor at the receding brightness, then ahead, to where his father waited.
    They drove into a large clearing. Here were a few rustic buildings, and endless rows of plants. A dozen or so settlers stood along the road to receive them, and the two groups shouted joyfully to each other. Tommy didn't see his dad. He was disappointed, but unsurprised; his old man was probably nose to the grindstone, as always. He lifted his duffle bag onto his shoulder and jumped onto the red earth, happy to have arrived, at long last, in Jonestown.