The Columbian Wall
A childhood story from Bogota, Colombia circa 1964.
Smoke puffed out into crowded living room. My father in his three piece suit jimmied the fireplace flue. It took me a few minutes to realize why the smoke was filling the room where my father’s business associates, mostly accountants, lawyers, and their wives mingled before dinner.
I quietly went out to the backyard, maneuvered the heavy wood plank from where it sat balanced on a stone on a little bump in the grass. The plank was left over from a construction project then fashioned into a titter-toter by my father. I was proud of how strong I was for an eight-year-old, but in that moment as I hosted the plank into the darkness of the night and felt the high-side smack against the top of the wall surrounding our back yard, I was scared. Afraid that my parents would be angry and embarrassed by the smoke in the livingroom, that was my fault. And I knew I wasn’t supposed to be up on the wall or the roof where I was headed now.
Quickly, I shimmed up the plank onto the top of the 10 foot brick wall surrounding our backyard. I glanced over at the Columbian Coronel’s house, knowing that my parents were happy to have a military presence right next door, making the neighborhood seem safer. A few houses over I could see the light streaming out of the bedroom window where a German woman lived. I was glad I wasn’t headed that way, because she would always yell at kids playing on the walls. Once a child had fallen into her yard and broken his arm. Glad it hadn’t been me, I walked along the walls, avoiding the bits that had broken glass, sharp and pointing towards the sky, meant to prevent anyone from coming over the wall into our house.
I climbed higher up onto our roof, from where I could see the barrio on the hill dark in the night. Here and there moonlight or the city lights of Bogota, Columbia glinting off the tin shacks. No time to think of the times children had shouted Gringo at me. I had learned that Gringo was a bad word before I even really knew what it was to be an American, to have access to as much education as I wanted, to have opportunities to study, travel, learn and become whatever I wanted. No time to think about monsoon season when water flooded down the hill into my street carrying cardboard walls, socks, dirt, washing down in a torrent of water any number of personal items, ripped away from people who have nothing. Ripped away from children, who so gladly took the bags of candy, food and clothing, I offered them last Christmas with my father.
My family had moved to Bogota, Colombia when I was six. Very quickly I learned three things. If you want to avoid jet lag, never, never sleep when it is light outside. Two, when my mother made me hold her hand as we walked outside of our walled home, it was because she didn’t want me to be kidnaped or ransomed or worse.
The third thing, I learned by example from my father. There are too many people in need to just give out money on the street, we can never fill that need. The way to really help is to choose a few people and pay for education. Like paying for books and school uniforms for Hector and Maria in the house down the street. Without school supplies, they couldn’t go to school. Like paying for sewing school for Teresa, our live in maid. I have never forgotten the value of education in lifting people out of poverty and I have never forgotten the sadness in not being able to help everyone, in having to choose.
It would be years later that I would contribute to Cynthia Kersey’s Unstoppable Foundation and hear her say, “believe in yourself and there will come a day when others will have no choice but to believe with you.” The focus of her non-profit foundation is to ensure that every child on the planet has access to the life-long gift of education.
But in this moment I didn’t have time to think about those things. I was headed across the roof, to the chimney, where earlier in the day, I had been playing and found a lightweight piece of metal that had blown up onto the roof and without thinking of the consequences I had set it on top of the chimney resulting in the smoking living room below.
Removing it, I quietly ran across the roof, along the wall and the narrow edge of our neighbor’s greenhouse, careful not to lean too hard on the glass, along our wall and down the plank, before reconstructing the titter-toter and sneaking back into the house where, much the my father’s relief the smoke was going up the chimney and out into the night.