Photographs convey an immediacy that compels us to respond. A photo can transport us back to a precise moment more rapidly than words. But words — journal entries, letters, hurried notes — take us beyond simple visual memory. Words have the power to replay history, stirring recollections of who and what we were along the timeline of our lives.
I was reminded of that recently when I uncovered a snapshot stuffed in a file of my old news clips from Central America. The picture, a casually composed Polaroid, gives little away. The only clue to where or when the picture was taken is scrawled across the bottom: 1986, El Pueblo. How the group knew each other and what brought us together in that particular bar is left to the viewer’s imagination. I knew the photo was taken in San Jose, and could still identify the group. But it was the scrap of a story clipped to the photo — a grad school assignment written years after I left Costa Rica — that brought those years tumbling back.
… Seated around a wooden bar table, leaning against each other and across a stained plastic mat, the six of us look happy. We were friends of a sort, brought together in a strange and difficult place where we lived and worked for a brief time and then moved on. When I look at the photo all these years later, I am almost fooled into thinking we were the best of friends. In truth, I was never a part of their group, a select few bonded by one overriding memory that forever defined their friendship.
It was death that brought them together. The bombing made news around the world not so much for who died, but for who didn’t. The narrow escape of Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan revolutionary turned rebel fighter, filled the column inches. The brutal death of an American reporter, wife and mother of an eight-year-old boy, was judged less newsworthy. But in San Jose, Linda Frazier’s murder left a long shadow; not just over her grieving family, but over the Costa Rican paper she was a part of — the paper where the six of us first met.
My mother would often recount the story of how I took a job on that paper, stepping in after a woman reporter was killed. She saw my decision as rash and a testament to my daredevil temperament. She was partly right, as mothers often are. But what she didn’t understand was why I wanted to work there.
The paper was run out of a ramshackle colonial house in central San Jose. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink and housed an assortment of stray cats, a family of rabbits and a crew of underpaid, young journalists. We loved it, knowing we were at the heart of a big story — a guerrilla war bankrolled by Washington and fought along Costa Rica’s northern border. Journalists from media outlets around the world would drift in to write about the Contra insurgency, hiring us to book interviews, translate or take notes at press conferences. “Fixers,” they called us.
It was one of those fixer jobs that first brought me to the Nicaraguan border. We travelled up river along the San Juan for hours, passing near the rebel camp where two years earlier, a bomb exploded at a news conference killing seven people, including three journalists, one of them Linda. Night had fallen by the time the reporters assembled, packed into a wooded shack on stilts above the muddy river. Pastora had just begun answering questions when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel in all directions.
Despite the trip, despite coming so close to that reality, for me the tragedy remained a distant event. And when the others would recount the long night waiting for news of friends that lived or died in that ill-fated press conference, when they would mull over every detail and obsess about the identity of the still-unknown bomber, I would only listen…
When I saw Pastora’s obituary last month in The New York Times I thought of my time in Central America, and my writing of events there. Not long after the snapshot was taken, I interviewed Pastora. By then he’d abandoned his war against the Sandinistas, but still reveled in telling tales of his adventures — the dangerous, wild life he led as a revolutionary hero, Contra guerilla and finally, shark fisherman. It’s the back story to a photo that truly resonates, the complicated stuff that we can’t see. And it’s those stories that cause a ripple effect, evoking in us wave after wave of deepening memories.