Guatemala or Bust, chapter 1: An Unlikely Beginning

On February 4 1976 a devastating 7.5Mw earthquake struck Guatemala in the wee hours of the morning. Nearly 23,000 died in their sleep as adobe walls collapsed under the weight of heavy tile roofs. One million people – about one sixth of Guatemala’s population – were left homeless.

A few months later, my friend The Very Reverend Markus Labbertonius invited me to volunteer with him at World Concern, a relief and development agency based here in Seattle. Our job for that day: clean up the interior and exterior of a 1967 Cadillac ambulance that had been donated for ongoing relief work in Guatemala. On a ridiculous impulse after we had completed our task, I stuck my head into an office and offered to drive the ambulance to Guatemala. Of course arrangements already had been made to deliver the vehicle, but I left my name and phone number and thought nothing further of it.

Until I got a phone call the next day. A sudden change of plans had left the agency without a driver. Was I available? You must be kidding. Let me call you back tomorrow.

God, give me an idea of how to think about this. Okay – I’ll ask my parents (I was early 20s). They are somewhat reasonable, and if you want me to go I’ll trust you to give me a green light I can recognize.

At breakfast the next morning with my parents, I explained what little I knew about driving an ambulance to Guatemala. My Dad, a Boeing engineer not overly prone to risk, was quiet for a moment and then said, “I think you’d be crazy not to do it.” This was the last thing I expected from him, so I took it as God’s big, bright-green light flashing right in my face.

* * * * * * * *

Eight days later I had a passport, a visa, shots, maps, and a return plane ticket. And the ambulance. When I first brought it home from the agency in Seattle, driving through a tunnel gave me a chance to see if the high beams were working. Just as I pushed the floor switch, I heard a siren and immediately moved over to the right to let the emergency vehicle get by. I was distracted by the newness of driving the old ambulance, was coming to the end of the tunnel, and didn’t give another thought to the headlights.

When I got home, I noticed that there were two floor switches side by side. One was for the brights, and the other explained why that emergency vehicle in the tunnel had sounded so close.

The revolving red lights on top of the rig worked, too, at just the flick of a switch on the dashboard. Soooo tempting. The only time I used them was pulling out of my parents’ driveway about 4 AM on the way out of town. They might have come in handy getting through city traffic in Mexico. But at those moments I was concentrating and gripping the wheel so hard that it didn’t even occur to me to flip them on.

We’d arranged for a mom and her kids to ride with me from Seattle to Portland, then another woman from Portland accompanied me as far as Dallas. We took turns sleeping on the gurney in the back while the other drove. Pretty much drove around the clock except for meals, gas, and potty stops. Can’t recall if I strapped myself onto the bed so as not to roll off.

We were driving near Raton Pass on the Colorado-New Mexico border late at night. Didn’t look foggy, but I was struggling to see the road clearly. Was I that tired already? Turned out that our alternator had died, and the headlights were slowly but surely draining the battery. By the time I pulled over the lights were barely glowing.

Trinidad, Colorado seemed like a pretty sleepy town as the ambulance rolled to a roadside stop. Let’s just grab us some shuteye until we can find a garage to get us going. You’d think that a big old bench seat up front would be a comfortable place to sleep. You’d be wrong. A 6’3″ frame, immovable steering wheel, and dead car sloping the wrong way was a bad combination.

Trinidad was also pretty sleepy on a Sunday morning, and we couldn’t find any automotive services other than gas. Eventually some kind soul called one of the local mechanics and explained our plight, and a few hours later we were back on the road.


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