A Thin Line. by Stuart Phillips
As the insurrection flowed up the steps of the Capitol, spilled into the chambers of our legislators, and wiped its shit on the walls of our democracy, it was easy to conjure images of Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Somalia. Instead, I saw Guatemala.
In the sixties, my uncle met a girl from Guatemala, scion of German emigres of the nineteenth century. He fell in love, got married, and relocated there to live the life of a gentleman farmer. My grandmother went every year at Christmas; at age eight, it was my turn to join her.
We spent a full day flying from Memphis to New Orleans, then boarded an Aviateca flight that did not inspire confidence, even in a child. We landed in Guatemala City as the dusk fell over the ring of volcanoes. We walked across the tarmac to immigration. Bienvenido a Guatemala was printed in large letters over the conveyor belts.
And that’s when I saw them. Soldiers. Dozens of them, slouching in their fatigues, M16s slung over their shoulders as their eyes darted among the debarking passengers.
I had grown up playing soldier, but this was…different. Soldiers were for war, not airports.
“Miss Ella, why are those soldiers here?” I was still young enough to ask anything.
She waved me into silence as her mouth closed in a tight line. She saw my uncle and the two of them grabbed our luggage and hustled us outside to his car. They carefully avoided eye contact with the soldiers.
More troops on the drive to my uncle’s house. Sentry posts set up at street corners. The outline of an armored personnel carrier against the twilight. But no one told me why.
The next day we went swimming at the American Club, a country club for expats located in Zona 15. Suddenly, people began grabbing towels and snapping their fingers at the valets.
“Gotta go,” my uncle waved me out of the pool.
We drove past Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way to his house. I saw a cloud of smoke billowing skyward near the Marriott. I couldn’t tell if it was tear gas or a fire.
That set the tone for the rest of the trip. Checkpoints when we drove to Lake Atitlan. An APC rumbling in front of my uncle’s tiny BMW as we drove to the mall for hamburgers at Wimpy’s.
Decades later, I found out that I had visited in the early years of a 36-year civil war. I learned that every village we had visited had likely been, or would be, the scene of an atrocity.
So, when I saw the National Guard turn Washington, D.C. into a garrison city, I thought of Guatemala, and how thin the line is between “them” and “us” — the states that fail and the states that survive. We look at our monuments and don’t see that it is only belief that protects them, and the ideas they represent, from the mob’s rope. I thought back to my time in another city with skyscrapers and universities that had been forced to learn to coexist with armed troops. And I wondered if January 6, 2021, was the last gasp of toothless adherents of white supremacy, or if, like Guatemala, we were only looking at the start.
Stuart Phillips is a graduate of Ole Miss and Pepperdine Law School, now living in San Francisco, where he tries to master the semicolon while writing the Great Southern Novel. You can follow his adventures at his site.
He served in the United States Army as both enlisted and as a commissioned Officer.