Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Dirty Wars and Polished Silver

Lynda Schuster left her Detroit home to find “life.” She did—on a kibbutz in Israel—but she also found death, while covering chaos in Central America, Mexico, Lebanon and losing her journalist husband 10 months into their marriage. She later found life again, as wife to a US ambassador, but violence and war are hard things to avoid abroad. Here is her memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, published earlier this year by Melville House Publishing. You can buy it online at the Melville House site, and at booksellers. 

I SLIDE ONTO a barstool, next to a television correspondent for one of the major networks whom I barely know. She’s older than I am, maybe mid-thirties, tall and somewhat voluptuous. Turning to me, hands gripping a half-drunk beer, she says: “I miss my son.”

Why is she telling me this?  “I’m sorry. Where is he?”

“New York.”

“Who’s looking after him?”

“My husband.”

“What does he do?”

“Works for a news agency.”

“So at least your son’s with one of his parents.”

“That isn’t the point.” She’s almost hostile in her intensity. “He’s only six years old. I just got done talking to him, before he went to bed.”

We’re interrupted by John, the United Press International bureau chief and SPCA head, who’s  handing out tee shirts to everyone.  They’re white with ‘Periodista-No Dispare!’ (Journalist—Don’t Shoot!) in blue lettering on the back, and on the front: ‘I Survided (sic) The Salvadoran Elections’.

“No wonder UPI is going broke,” I say, “they can’t spell.”

The television correspondent doesn’t even crack a smile.

That went over well. “How often do you talk to your son?”

“Every night. But I really, really miss him. I don’t want to be here.” Looking around to see if anyone’s listening, she lowers her voice to a whisper. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want even to have to think about the possibility of dying. But I can’t let my producer hear this.” She waves away the bartender. “Do you have any kids?”

“Nope,” I say glibly, grabbing a handful of fried plantain chips. “And I don’t intend to.”

“You have no idea what it’s like once you have a child,” she says, shaking her head. “There is nothing, and I mean nothing, better in the entire world.”

How could having a child possibly be better than this? I wonder, returning to my room and piles

Author Lynda Schuster. / Photo by Heidi L. Lewis.

of discarded story drafts. To be covering the hottest story around and waking up every day for a month with your lover! Just this morning, before we got out of bed, Dial was saying what luxury it is to know I’ll be beside him when he awakens so he can tell me his dreams. “Like the one I had last night,” he recalled. “I dreamt I was covering a press conference where the Pope announced he was quitting to marry a nun.”

“Yes,” I said, giggling and snuggling next to him, “go on.”

“As usual, I showed up without a notebook and the only thing I had to write on was a slab of frozen fish.”

“Fish! You’re such a carnivore, you’d think it would be a side of beef.”

“I know. Anyway, I was taking notes carefully on this piece of fish, but the TV lights were very hot and it began to thaw and bits were flaking off and then it began to smell. People around me were saying, ‘He’s writing on a fish!’ and finally made me leave.”

“This is an anxiety dream if ever there were one,” I said. “I can’t believe that you, of all people, would have anxiety about performing your job.”

“I just hide it well. I don’t think you ever quite lose it completely, no matter how experienced you are. Anyway, I remember reaching down and picking up a scale on my chair that had a few words written on it and fitting it carefully back into my fish. Then, carrying it very gingerly with two hands, I went to look for a telephone so I could dictate the story.”

We still had to race off to interviews once we’d finished dissecting his dream, but knowing that we’d see one another again in the evening—and in the morning and evening after that. His ties hanging in our closet, his scrap of hotel notepaper with Spanish vocabulary words (cabida=capacity; cumplir=to achieve) taped to the mirror: it’s the closest approximation we’ve had of living together—albeit in about 200 square feet of space. I love the almost-domestic rhythm to our existence. There’s the usual nine-to-five routine that includes, say, nearly getting kidnapped by guerrillas or being followed by right-wing goons brandishing rifles out the tinted windows of armored station wagons, after which we’ll go to a nearby stadium to run around the track. I tried jogging on the road once with Swedish Television, she in tiny shorts and tight tee shirt, but all that expanse of majestic Nordic flesh was too much for the Salvadorans; there were three near-collisions before we completed even half a mile. Besides, the gunfire that’s often heard on the streets is scary. From our hotel window I’ve seen local runners, an obviously adaptive species, come to a dead stop at the sound of nearby shooting—and simply turn and start jogging up the thoroughfare in the opposite direction.

The stadium’s small and run down, nothing fancy. Outside, a few peasant women sell refreshments: sodas, papayas, coconuts that they hack open with machetes, the region’s universal bottle opener, and stick a straw in the hole. There aren’t many people on the track at our usual hour. It’s mostly paunchy, middle-aged men encased, despite the heat and humidity, in velour running suits, resolutely making their way around the cratered blacktop; once, on the innermost lanes, members of a high-school hurdles team were doing practice drills, shouting “puta” (whore) at each other for encouragement. Dial and I will run a dozen or so laps, and while I’m stretching afterwards, he’ll sprint one last time around, knees and elbows pumping high.

“They make that same distance longer every year!” he invariably gasps, his tee shirt plastered to his chest with sweat. We’ll return to the room to shower and make love, then order tea and apple pie to eat while watching the sky and distant volcanoes at dusk turn astonishing shades of indigo and purple. It’s all sublimely romantic.

Although we’re circumspect, Dial’s reporters, who come and go from the office next door, must be at least vaguely aware of us in our snug little love nest. Out of the blue one evening, Dial warns me against hubris. I don’t know whom he’s worried about appeasing: the gods for our stunning good fortune or some of his snarkier colleagues. Before I can ask, though, he says, “I told one of the guys that we’re in love and planning on getting married.”

“We are?” I say. “Getting married, I mean. The being in love part I already knew about.”

And then, oddly, I don’t run from the room shrieking. I don’t even flinch. Most uncharacteristically, I let it—almost Zen-like—wash over me. Living with Dial in this fashion has sparked a major epiphany, one that occurs to most women by, say, age fifteen: maybe I don’t have to be my mother!  Maybe I can be in a relationship, married even, and still have my brilliant career covering horrifying events. Especially as those two things together have made me happier than I ever imagined possible.

That’s because the paper is running my stories as fast I can finish them, even the leders. No more waiting around forever in the front-page queue and hoping that none of the people I quoted have expired in the interim; war, as the grizzled old-timers like to say, is the quickest way to get fronted. And here’s the astonishing thing: the stories are apparently good. At least, the Big Boys in New York think so. I’ll come in from a day of reporting, covered in three layers of dust, to find the little light illuminated above my room mailbox: a herogram from the managing editor, page one editor, foreign editor. Even my bureau chief! On top of that, Warren, the New York Times correspondent whose editors finally tired of waiting for the Marines to invade Nicaragua and moved him here, says in passing: “Nice piece in the paper today.” And for one full minute, sixty sweet seconds, I don’t feel inadequate. I feel like I belong. It’s an exhilarating sensation, especially to be doing work that seems so vital. The eyes of the world are upon us, I think self-importantly on the way out to cover another election rally, then catch a glimpse of myself in the lobby mirror: hair like a beaver’s lodge, sweat-stained shirt, pants streaked with grime.

Too bad this is what they see.

—Lynda Schuster

From Dirty Wars and Polished SilverUsed with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2017 by Lynda Schuster.

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