At seventeen, Javier was kind of young to be operating our front-end loader. But he had already been cutting the grass at the Guanaja airport with a fairly large tractor. He impressed us with his intelligence and maturity, so we put him to work. He handled the huge Caterpillar with deft ease, speed and proficiency. In fact, he drove all of our Cats: the loader, the track-hoe and the bulldozer (which the locals pronounce with the accent on the second syllable). Day after day, he moved tons of earth for us, non-stop, back and forth without complaint or even stopping to take a break. Dark-skinned with sharp, angular features, he always seemed to be grinning at some inside joke. It was like he knew he was special, at least compared to most of the other workers who, while older than he, spent their days shoveling sand and mixing cement. As soon as Javier saw me each morning, the sly grin would break into a wide smile and greeting.
At seventeen, Javier was already a ladies’ man. I’d recently spent a Friday evening in town on the cay carousing. Slim and strikingly handsome, the women flocked around him. Unabashedly, he flirted with them all despite the fact that he reportedly had a serious girlfriend who was conveniently off the island for a while. Something told me that he’d be just as flirtatious even if she were not. Later that same night, when I’d finally made it home to our island, it was Javier who followed us in another boat so that he and Kenny could continue partying after this old-timer had called it quits. So young and energetic, these kids here, so full of restless energy and life, doing everything at a million miles per hour, living like there was no tomorrow. And for Javier it finally came true.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2006
Around ten p.m. there came a terrible banging on my door. It was our cook, clearly distraught. “There’s been a bad accident, Javier is dead?” he blurted all at once, making it sound like a question. More words spilled out frantically and I processed them as best I could to get an idea of what happened. Javier, three other boys and two young girls were out partying on the north side of the island. Somehow, they collided with another boat.
First reports (which are almost always wrong) had only four in Javier’s boat and all of them dead. At the same time it was not known how many people were involved or if all of them had been found. The head of the local power company arrived to ask if the helicopter was available should it be necessary to transport any injured. Unfortunately, nights are just too dark down here to risk flying in an unstable aircraft like a helicopter without the necessary instrumentation. Feeling like the biggest heel in the world, I said I’d have to wait until sunrise.
Tragically, it turned out that Javier’s parents, unable to contact their son by cell phone had sent another young boy out to look for them in another boat. A much bigger, more powerful boat. Inexplicably, both boats collided.
The impact from the collision had sufficient force to kill three of the boys instantaneously and seriously injure the two girls. Sadly, Javier was one of those who died. The driver of the second boat and two of the other boys in Javier’s boat escaped with only a scratch or less. The girls were taken by boat to the mainland during the night. They’re going to be okay.
How does such a thing happen? After being around here for a while, my question is why such things don’t happen more often? Theories abound about this one, as they always do. Everyone has an authoritative opinion. But I know from my knowledge of aircraft accidents that no one really knows – sometimes not even the people involved. And when you consider the elements associated with this one: young boys, alcohol, young girls, fast boats and a dark night…maybe even the people involved won’t say exactly what happened even if they do know. Right now it’s best that everyone just keep their mouths shut until things have had a chance to settle. But they don’t do that. Everyone speculates. It doesn’t help.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2006
Needless to say, the island of Guanaja is dealing with a tragedy of a magnitude not seen here in a long time. Hell, the previous-worst thing to ever happen here, which pretty much destroyed the whole island but only killed two people. That was Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Today, the weather is lousy, matching our mood. This is the first day since I’ve gotten here where it’s been overcast, rainy and dismal all day long. It’s like God Himself is crying.
I had wanted to get a candid photograph of my skinny, smiling front-end loader driver in his element, in command of that big Cat with a bucket-full of black dirt. But every time Javier drove it he wore sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes. Now it’s too late. As usual. (Why do we put off stuff “until later”? I know better. Still…)
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2006
After such a dreary Friday, today could not be more beautiful. The water inside of the reef is like a lake. It’s one of those picture-perfect Caribbean days you only see in travel brochures. We’re burying Javier this afternoon. Quick, yeah but maybe it’s better this way. No autopsy, no coroner’s inquest, no big police investigation. Life is uncomplicated for these people. There are no multiple layers of bureaucracy and government as we’re used to in the States.
And as bad as we all feel, life must go on. Javier’s father will have to keep fishing. Monday, it will be back to the business of building a marina for us. I’ll have to hire or train someone to drive the front-end loader. Replacing Javier will not be easy; he did a lot of stuff for us, both at the job site and at the airport. But I’ll worry about that on Monday.