On the first envelope, the cancellation date was 1937, with a number of smudged cancellation postmarks. I’d need a magnifying glass to read them. There were three different-colored stamps. The return address was simply “Sig Johnson, Retalhuleu, Guat.” I wondered what that even meant.
Opening the flap on the pale blue envelope I saw Dad’s perfect penmanship on thin blue vellum paper labelled ‘correo aereo’ in red and indigo. I closed my eyes remembering how he sat, hunched over his desk, writing in his journals and punching the keys on that old black Monarch typewriter. I never questioned what he was writing and I wondered where his papers were now.
Cool night/ hot days March 19, 1937
How are you my good friend? As you can see from my postmark I am not in Chicago or Boston. My ship anchored a few days ago, off Champerico, Guatemala and I took a boat to the docks. Today I thought I’d write to you. In case you had not heard, I am embarking on a rough journey eastward across Guatemala to try to find a friend, Edward Weeks, who disappeared somewhere in central Guatemala. He came here on his own to do research but now the Institute wants me to find him. He was looking for an archaeological site but it has been nearly a year since he set off to hunt for those Mayan ruins. The government officers here said they know nothing and so I might be wasting my time but the Institute supplied me with steamer tickets, some rather poor maps and a new Indian motorcycle! I have a generous amount of “pesos” in my pocket too.
Today I unloaded my motorcycle and I am looking for a guide who can take me through the mountains. I have to find my contact in Chichicastenango which lies to the north and east hundred miles ahead of me in the mountains. I can see smoke coming from volcanoes here, Meryl! I hope I will find gasoline when I need it. I have a tank for extra fuel but it makes the trip rather hazardous. My Spanish will be tested sorely as I try to find my way. My map I have is not the greatest so I have to rely on directions from my contacts and the natives.
Before I left, I wrote to my parents so they’d know where I am headed. Please keep an eye on them for me until I return. Sometimes I am jealous of your quiet life back home and regret leaving you all behind, but Ed was a good friend and he has a family back home who wonders what happened to him. It might get a little hairy here. Please be sure to hang on to those papers I gave you. I will see you as soon as I can get back.
The port here is very hot and at night the mosquitos are terrible. My little room is no more than a cot and a small desk. There are no screens so you have to put up with the bugs or suffer the heat! I spent all day yesterday walking around this ‘pueblo’. It is primitive compared to Madison or Chicago, but the fruit and vegetables in their market are wonderfully flavorful. I especially like the aguacate. It’s a green fruit with a big seed inside. The greenish meat has the smooth texture of soft cheese. They have a delightfully different flavor. The pineapples here are as sweet as candy. They fry a banana-like fruit called ‘plantanos fritos’. I have also developed a particular liking for their little yellow corn tortillas made everywhere over open fires. They are served with every meal and are very good rolled up with thick black-bean paste. Everything here is very cheap except for meat. They eat fish cooked on the beach, right out of the Pacific. I bought several white shirts of the native style and some pantaloons that I can stuff into knee-high leather boots because I have heard there’s venomous snakes here. I’ve been warned about scorpions and spiders too.
They say that it is cold in the mountains so I picked up two ‘serapes’, hand woven wool vests with deep pockets. I bought a leather jacket and hat for riding on the Indian. They can double for blankets. My American suit jackets I gave to a young guy who was returning north. I will have to travel light.
A strange thing happened on board coming down from San Francisco. Apparently, the crew discovered a stowaway, a Chinaboy. He was a skinny little demon, quite a scrapper. After a scuffle with several of the crewmen, he went overboard into the ocean near the port. I don’t know if he jumped or they threw him overboard. I kept an eye out for him and one time I thought I spotted him in the waves, but the crew didn’t show concern or even put out a boat.
Meryl, you can imagine that I felt so bad for the poor kid. The captain said it happens all the time; young boys trying to run away to look for adventure. Usually they put them to work on board and return them to the port they came from… apparently hard work is not what they plan for and they are glad to leave when they get back to port. I suppose the boy could have made it to shore but I think it was over a mile away! I prayed for him and then checked with the local constabulary when I got to shore to find out if a body washed up, but there were no reports. Sadly, I’d suppose the sharks got him.
I guess I had better get this letter over to the postal agent. I don’t trust the postal service here but they said it would go out today by airmail believe it or not!
Don’t forget to pray for your old friend, Sig. I hope to return within six months. I will write again if I find a post office in up north.
Yours sincerely, Sigurd Johnson
林 (lín) meaning “forest” or 琳 (lín) meaning “fine jade, gem”