Idi Amin in Brazil

March 13, 2015

239006It took us most of the day
to climb Morro Dois Irmaos:
It was me and Steven Cherry,
and Cheri Gumm who was related
not-too-distantly to Judy Garland
(and had Joots’ pleading smile)
and a ginger Brazilian
with a German name like Kaspar
who had been on Everest,
just a cook but even so
he was our leader, feeding out the lines
and wedging his nut tough body
into the rocky shallow hollows
that appeared like cheap contrivance
in a dull pulp mystery novel
whenever he required them.

I was not yet nineteen
but already I had sloughed off
most of my aspirations.
(They had moved me off of shortstop,
my arm wasn’t strong enough.)
I reached up for a handhold,
one knuckle deep into a crevice,
and I strained and bucked and sweated,
with no technique to speak of,
yet I could pull myself higher,
if I looked only skyward
into the cool blue bitch of heaven.

I was twenty feet above Kaspar
(my anchor, giving safety)
when my tricep tore and I slipped,
scraping against the mountain,
tugged by gravity and hubris
into cold shock thoughtlessness
interrupted by the tautsnap
recoil of the climbing rope.

Kaspar held my shame dangling.
He said something easy, quiet,
and I put my hands on the rope
and climbed back up Batman-style.
I was wearing canvas Nikes,
early ones, designed for tennis,
not heavy boots like Kaspar’s,
that could “kick holes in the mountain,”
and by the time I made the summit
their soft tread was nearly bald
and they smelled of burnt rubber.

There was a road down the mountain
that wound past gated estates
and skirted a favelo
with kids beautiful and lithe —
gold fashion magazine urchins,
who stole ketchup from beachside cafes —
who hooted and laughed and hated
the American boys and girl
with their ropes and knifeblade pitons.

What I thought was a mosquito
turned out to be a wad of gum
chewed and rolled in crushed glass dust
shot (Kaspar said) from a blow gun.
It only stung a little bit
when it hit me in the neck.

When we got back to Kaspar’s car
the radio was saying that
Idi Amin had been shot deadidi-amin
on the streets of Kampala.
This was the recurrent rumor,
common as Sinatra music,
in the summer of ’77
in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil was obsessed with Amin.
The year before, in February,
Pelé had gone to Africa
to promote youth football (soccer).
They hadn’t planned an Uganda stop
but the schedule opened up
so they flew into Entebbe,
then went on to the capitol.

Pelé was a New York Cosmo,
sponsored by Pepsi-Cola
but it was a Santos jersey
(the playmaker’s No. 10)
he gave his Excellency,
the field marshall al hadji,
and President for Life Amin.

Uganda had some good soccer
and the school teams made Pelé smile
and applaud for their crisp crosses.
“Uganda is on the right track,”
he told the hovering reporters,
“we must encourage young players,
they are the future of futbol.”

In Nakivubo stadium
they arranged a game between
topflight yet oddly plodding sides:
Coffee and Uganda Prisons.
Pelé’s limo left at half-time,
embarrassing Idi Amin.
The crowd jeered the government box,
the game crept to a goalless draw
and Amin swore voodoo vengeance
on Dico, and the Canarinho, and
Antônio Carlos Jobim.

So it was just wishfulness
on the part of Cariocas
that had the bad man slaughtered,
dragged through the streets and strung up
(like they did to Mussolini
in Giulino di Mezzegra).
Amin lived to be an old man,
an exile in the Novotel,
on Palestine Road in Jeddah,
protected by a Saudi prince.
He never understood his evil.

Now Pelé is an astronaut,
or a cartoon magician.
and I do not know what happened
to Cheri or to Kaspar though
I think Steve was a math teacher
in Southern California.
He might be near retirement now.

I flew over the rain forest
and then over the equator,
with cotton twisted on my wrist
and a figa ’round my neck.

There’s a Botafogo jersey
that they gave me when I went home,
packed up somewhere in a closet
in my mother’s house in Georgia
unless she gave it to her church
to send to kids in Africa,
who receive with calcium smiles
charity and genocide
or whatever is on offer.


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