Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit
Author’s Note: A word of caution to the reader in that this story, based on facts as told by one I will herein refer to as Eva Long, contains some graphic descriptions of events that occurred during a time of revolution. Most names and geographic locations have been changed for obvious reasons. Written from memory, no formal interviews were conducted, nor permissions granted. It is my hope and prayer for the well being of all participants described herein.
-N.K. Easter, 2013
“Nancy, I do have to warn you, Eva is a bit, well, eccentric.” A woman friend of mine had accepted a very early invitation to Easter dinner on our behalf with an old high school friend whom she had wanted me to meet. I was told she had spent some time in El Salvador during the revolution, a subject of great interest to me both politically and as a Catholic so I had been rather anxious to spend some time with this woman whom I shall refer to as Eva Long, which is of course not her real name. As for our mutual friend Judy’s description of Eva as eccentric, I learned some time ago that ‘crazy’ is reserved for those who are of a certain economic status when describing a loosening, shall we say, of mental capacities and ‘eccentric’ is reserved for those of another certain economic status, often accompanied by excessively expensive academic credentials. Eva qualified on a wild card as eccentric being her IQ was in the stratosphere yet she was economically below the mean for the rural midwest, void of any notable pigskin yet rich in worldly experience. Our mutual friend Judy (not her real name either) was not political in any way and profoundly gracious yet rather socially reserved so I was prepared to arrange a time for Eva and I to speak privately of intense subjects real women freely discuss such as men, other men and revolution.
Easter day arrived to find us rumbling down a very long drive way in Judy’s monstrous diesel F-350 on the outskirts of a small town in mid-Ohio, a town defined by two types of vertical markers in the otherwise flat-lined landscape: a Godzilla vs. Rodan like grain elevator and a plethora of church spires. We pulled into the yard at the end of the two-track lined by ancient oaks and black walnut trees, each with recent dead fall, already cut to stove length. stacked neatly to dry at the base of each trunk. The field between the house and the road showed signs of being planted with winter wheat the previous fall by the farmer who had bought it during Eva’s last economic dry spell. Slowly over the years and the passport updates, she had sold off 40 acre chunks of her inheritance till all that remained was the stately old brick Federal-style house surrounded by the oaks; a massive gambrel-roofed dairy barn, painted dark green in homage to her Irish blood; a brick milk house and one tenant house across the way which was perpetually up for rent.
Eva’s vehicle and Eva were nowhere to be seen so we proceeded to give ourselves a self-guided tour of the barn. Pulling the lock and sliding the huge doors, inside we found a space swept clean, no signs of varmints nor livestock, hayloft bare. The stanchions for the dairy cows had been long ago pulled and sold as scrap. On the concrete floor, poured in the late 1920’s in a quest for modernity, stood several long folding tables, the type one would find in a convention hall, all empty and free of dust. A few boxes stood along the cut granite foundation, filled with both paper and plastic bags. Judy and I surveyed the scene, cast a glance at one another, shrugged our shoulders and walked back to the house, Eva’s 10 year old Crown Vic now tucked up tight to the side porch.
Eva emerged from the kitchen all smiles and hugs. She was a petite yet stout woman, not overweight but fit and filled out on the bone. She had wild auburn hair, shoulder length, and the strong facial structure of agrarian immigrants from the emerald isle. Her eyes were deep and wide, profoundly strong and intelligent with a glint of the trickster shining through. Her smile and her eyes worked perfectly as a team in putting me immediately at ease. This was a strong woman, comfortable in her body, with stories to tell.
Eva Long had been born in this town and was now the sole heir to the old family farmstead. Upon graduating from high school she had informed her parents that university was not for her, in spite of her daunting intellect. She had decided that she wanted to do two things with her life: travel and meet interesting people. To that end she packed up and went to Houston where she had a friend in the restaurant biz. Eva had opted for a career as a waitress, not the type that wear stock uniforms along the interstates but rather the elite servers found in the finest establishments in the world’s most glamorous cities. It was in Texas that Eva became a career waitress, earning well into six figures early on. She became a master of cuisine, a master of presentation and a master of putting VIP types at ease over a fine meal and good liquor. Over time she had become quite the chef herself, learning to prepare her favorite dishes from the menus of the various restaurants which employed her over the years. Eva knew well how to cultivate long term relationships with ‘the regulars’ and she slowly built a little black book filled with heavy hitting contacts whom she could rely on for patronly, even fatherly advice over the decades. In between her gigs as a waitress, she would travel the world, acquire notable language skills and a collection of friends with couches in various countries available on somewhat short notice from a weary traveller.
We received a tour of the house before dinner. Like many single people living alone in large farmhouses in the rural midwest, Eva opted to live in the core rooms of the house, closing off the remaining bedrooms, sitting rooms and bathrooms to save on utilities through the long Ohio winters. The house had two parlors, a mens and ladies, a dining room, kitchen and mud/wood room off the kitchen. Eva slept on a settee in the ladies parlor, entertained in the mens parlor and adjoining dining room but spent the vast majority of time in the big square kitchen, long stale from its mid-1960’s remodeling job.
The dining room table was exquisitely prepared for the three of us with heirloom china and silver perfectly set atop ironed linen, several crystal wine, water and aperitif glasses at the ready. Eva proceeded to lead us through several courses. As the various dishes came and went, the stories unraveled in a way that revealed more and more who Eva Long was, and wasn’t. This was a woman who actively sought out forks in life’s road for the sheer pleasure of turning left, every time.
He first story revealed the foundation of Eva’s tenacity in the face of those wanting to exclude a woman from the game. Over dandelion salad fresh from her yard, she told us of a group of high school boys, friends of her older brother, who would hold ‘boy only’ meetings in the stone milk house adjacent to the barn. Eva, just 14, had requested she be allowed to join them but had been rebuffed solely based on her gender. Eva was a regular participant in nearly all other activities with these boys, physically matching them in most of their endeavors from squirrel hunts to overhauling carburetors in one another’s hand-me-down pick up trucks. Eva was pissed, but she knew not to show it.
Early one morning, she placed a microphone in the rafters of the milk house, ran a wire through the hayloft to the tool shed off the opposite end of the barn and proceeded to accept being asked to ‘go away’ at the start of the boys next milk house meeting. Eva walked directly to the tool shed, flipped the switch and listened intently as the boys spoke of antics incriminating to say the least.
The following day at school she approached the group as they stood in the hall speaking of successfully reaching ‘first base’ with a girl. Eva calmly proceeded to deride one of them for ‘going to third base’ with one of the members of student council, a fact only known by the milk house club. She then turned and walked away. Eva discovered the power of information that day. She was invited into the milk house thereafter and retained the respect of those boys after they discovered her wiring system, respect that would span decades and garner political favors for years to come as both she and more than one of those boys became members of various city councils. Word was out and stayed out: do not mess with Eva Long.
As she served the venison stew, we learned of the hunting party that went out the morning she made the kill: four others, all men, all life-long hunters and expert marksmen. In the early morning hours, Eva had her buck in a clearing, three other hunters in view, all of whom knew it was her shot. She dropped it with one shot, straight through its heart from 40 yards out, leaving the remaining hunters in the silence of awe, the only sound being the disengaging of their rifles. All three had wrongfully assumed one of them would have to make the kill shot after what they thought would be Eva’s first attempt. The men looked at one another, then to Eva. They walked in respectful silence, dragging and loading the buck while Eva watched. Once again, Eva Long owned her ground, no matter who the company was she found herself in.
The venison stew was followed by turtle soup from a recipe Eva had picked up in Paris. I was about to ask where I might purchase such a thing as turtle meat in Ohio when Eva launched into a lengthy story of how one snags turtles from the pond out back. Though the pond was located on property Eva had long sold, the new owner continued to allow her hunting rights. Baiting, killing, cleaning and cooking a 9 lb. turtle was a far more complicated task then I had ever imagined. This explained why we had received our invitation 6 weeks prior to the holiday: Eva needed time to hunt, not just cook. Eva Long is everything Martha Stewart wishes she was but isn’t.
At this point in the meal, I realized something: everything we were eating and drinking was either caught, killed, grown or brewed by Eva’s own hand. From the dandelion salad plucked from the front yard to the mint tea from leaves grown behind the tool shed; from the turtle snagged in the pond to the venison stew from her one-shot buck, Eva had created the entire meal from the land that surrounded her. This was how Eva Long survived: by her own hand. She had made some money after retiring from being a waitress as a city council member in her small town, a position she had only won after declaring herself a Republican knowing damn well she would never get elected as a member of her own party. Her economic survival however now depended upon barter for the most part and to this end, she cultivated and maintained relationships with both enemies and friends.
I shifted the conversation to her barn, complimenting her on its cleanliness. Eva seamlessly launched into a story which gave me my first hint of how she now worked as a radical: One night each week she and several other women, under cover of night, fanned out across the strip malls and big box stores in the small towns orbiting one another across the barren Ohio fields. Each woman works alone so only one goes down at a time if caught. Into the dumpsters they dive, pulling discarded packaged foods bearing expired due dates of no more than one day past. Filling their pick-ups, mini-vans and station wagons, they make their way back to Eva’s barn where the food is laid out on her long conference room tables to be sorted, bagged and boxed, finishing up by three or four in the morning. By six a.m. the bags and boxes are at the food banks and by 9 a.m. it is distributed to individuals and families in need. Realizing I had only scratched the surface of Eva Long, at evenings end we agreed to meet in town for a drink in the near future.
Just how Eva Long, a savvy tomboy from rural Ohio, ended up in the jungles of El Salvador with a cyanide capsule in her cheek is a story I nor you will probably ever really know. I never learned of the bridge events that took Eva from serving 5-star meals to the rich and powerful into the middle of this hemispheres most bloody revolution but I venture to guess it is a twisted tale of justice, love, cunning and contacts, lots and lots of contacts. Eva had a web of fellow revolutionaries within which she operated. She did not elaborate on many of the details and it was clear that she would never reveal much of what happened in those years as she aided the Sandinista rebels in their quest to free themselves from the U.S.-backed contra death squads.
At times as I gently gauged the pace of the conversation in that dive bar in a dead-end town in Ohio, I sensed I was speaking to a veteran, a warrior from a different era who perhaps struggled with the guilt of having survived when so many she loved did not; a warrior now mute in ways, dumbed into numb by the memories, the dreams and the scars. I had presumed Eva went to El Salvador only once to satiate her own curiosity and sense of justice. Eva Long did not go to El Salvador once. She went into the jungles of El Salvador no less than eight successive trips, each time alone and each time prepared to suicide either by her last bullet, always in reserve, or by swallowing her ever-present cyanide capsule should she be apprehended by the contras and faced with certain torture, rape and more than likely death.
In conversation Eva was unique in that I have never had anyone glide straight past any and all segways I tried to provide into topics they refused to speak of as deftly as she. My instinct is to approach people I am conversing with who have a story that interests me as a surgeon would approach a patient. I cut cleanly but deeply and I do not stop until I have their guts laid out on the table ready to be re-composed into their story via my pen. Eva was the toughest and I could clearly see that it was this skill of deftly controlling the conversation, detached from body language, that more than likely allowed her to survive. Eva Long is a book open to no one. If she decides to share a portion of one or two chapters with you, consider yourself lucky. And don’t even think of trying to verify sources. In this case most of them are dead or disappeared.
She did share one story with me that haunts me to this day and reveals horrors only female revolutionaries can fathom let alone live with. She was in the states, having returned after one of her solo trips into the mountains to assist at one of the rebel camps. She received word, (she made it a point to never tell me exactly how she received word) that a good friend of hers was pregnant and about to give birth in the coming month. She wanted Eva to come down and perform the duties of mid-wife for the birth. Eva agreed and got on a plane.
As she went into the story, I noted her detachment from her own words as they formulated in her mind and crossed the threshold of her lips, never to return. There was something eery in her that I still cannot quite describe. There is something in Eva that allows her to separate within herself from her experiences that are now filed deep away in her expansive mind. She recalls them and pulls them out for the listener as a librarian of a private collection might pull a voluminous tomb from off the shelf and hand it to the reader. Detachment.
Eva spoke of that night in the jungle as her Salvadoran friend entered into labor. The light faded and the sounds of the jungle at night began. That night was different. You see, the makeshift hospital was just that and it was located in a war zone. Clandestine and dark, the drama of life and death creating itself all around them. The cots were set along side one another in the darkness, with just enough room for those assisting to maneuver as needed in between. As Eva’s friends labor bore on, her wails and moans set the rhythm of the night. It was to become however the darkest of nights for onto the cot next to them was brought another woman. She had injected herself with battery acid in an attempt to abort the results of a gang rape at the hands of the contra. She was twisted, contorted in pain and dying from the inside out. In the depths of the jungle in a time of revolution, there are few resources in situations such as this. Eva sat between the two through the night, comforting the wails of the one dying only to turn and comfort the wails of the one bringing life.
By morning, the victim of the rape was dead. In her arms, Eva cradled the sleeping infant, gazing at its translucent skin as the sun’s rays reached across the jungle canopy and down to offer its first caress. The mother woke and the two women sat in the silence of knowing as only women in a time of revolution can.
Eva returned to the states from El Salvador for the last time. In her final trip she had been separated from her lover, a rebel himself and a native of the country. They had parted in the midst of the mountains as traveling together was far to dangerous. Eva was forced to return to the states before learning of his whereabouts or his fate.
Several years passed. The war came to an end. Eva received a visitor one day, again she would not share with me how they communicated with one another but to her door a woman came. It was a Salvadoran woman who had travelled to visit one family member and Eva. She could not give Eva the news in any other way other than directly, face to face and in her own voice for she still feared for her life. She came to tell Eva of the fate of her Salvadoran lover. He had been captured by the contra and was later found with several bullet wounds and signs of torture. However, it was clear to those who found him that he had in fact died by his own hand, his own bullet entering from the front, the others from behind. A noble death. Eva spoke of this with the same detachment I had seen earlier, as if telling the story of another, not herself, not her lover, not her revolution.
It is once again Easter and each Easter now I think of Eva, her living friends and her lost lover and I say a prayer for them all. I have not kept in contact with Eva over these past few years but I do know one thing: no matter where she is or what she is doing, she owns her ground, completely.
© 2013 Nancy Kotting All Rights Reserved Reproduction by Permission Only