UNITED STATES—Like the banana king, Sam Delaney, Joe Holly was fond of Central America. This land had offered Joe a second chance, and it is true that second chances are more often denied than offered in American lives. When Joe was barely out of his teens he helped build a railroad that joined Memphis and New Orleans, by way of Vicksburg and Baton Rouge.
Joe Holly was promoted from fireman to engineer and was racing steam locomotives at the age of 22 from Memphis to the New Orleans. He was on top of the world, the equal of a riverboat pilot, but a modern one that breathed smoke and steam—an iron dragon—and then in the time a firefly sparks Joe hit rock bottom. Joe was terminated by the railroad. On the way from Memphis to New Orleans he fell asleep at the control after a being on duty nonstop for more than two days and ran into an oncoming train. If you haven’t been in one there in nothing else quite like a trainwreck. Objects fly, time is in suspended animation, sounds are sucked by a ravening silence until a deafening, longed-for collision pounds, and in a time delay people wait and scream long after the brakes screech. Joe Holly did odd jobs for the next couple of years, and stubbornly demanded an investigation of the train wreck.
When the investigation revealed that Joe Holly had been running a locomotive for 55 hours Joe Holly was vindicated. The justice Holly dreamed of wasn’t to be, however. A newly instituted test for color blindness prevented him from being rehired for the job he loved going downhill roaring at full, throttle, feeling the steam mingle with the sweat mopped up with his red bandanna and feel the orange glow of where the coal burned in the locomotive. Joe Holly reeled, the hard crust of the planet sank underneath his trembling feet.
Abandoned by his family and unable to find work, Joe Holly set out for Spanish Honduras. Puerto Cortes (formerly Puerto de Caballos) north of San Pedro Sula and east of Omoa. There Hernan Cortés had unloaded the horses from his ships and two horses drowned, then it was renamed after the syphilitic Conquistador a few centuries later. There in the succulent parcel of Bananaland on the Costa Norte, Joe Holly found employment with a smaller fruit company and was soon running the iron dragon again –it was a dream come true– back in the catbird seat, donning the red bandanna brought from the States to remind him of the railroading he still was passionate about, behind the boiler of that black beast spewing steam and soot down the narrow-gauge tracks between banana plantations San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortés, then Joe Holly’s train was captured by rebels.
He faced a choice: join the revolution or death by firing squad. He showed his captors to put to use the scrap iron left along the tracks so it armored the flatcars. In less than a week they were about to gain control of the whole Costa Norte. Joe Holly joined the Rebels’ cause, distinguishing himself for valor in the Battle of La Ceiba, waged in a hot lush green valley, gateway to the English-speaking island of Útila and barrier coral reefs teem with sharks and whales, to the south wildlife of jaguars and luminous tricolor toucans, and to the west mangrove swamps and lagoons where manatees dwell. Scuba divers still come in search of sunken gold from Captain Morgan’s raid on Panama and British waged a losing 200-year battle to colonize the Bay Islands.
They occupied Útila and the other Bay Islands on and off for two centuries where the Spanish had plundered the native population for the slave trade to the point where the Paya people do not exist, but are immortalized on a brand of cigarettes along with Captain Morgan’s rum. Here Joe Holly in his first battle displayed dashing bravery and earned the epithet “The incredible Yanqui,” at the biblical age of 33. Accolades came from the Revolution’s Leader Miguel Padilla Ortiz after seeing Joe Holly run out of ammunition for his Colt .45 and continue to run up and occupy the hill occupied by government forces. Joe Holly was immediately promoted to officer by the rebel Miguel Padilla, who became Holly’s bosom friend and ally.
Holly’s heart warmed him, as the moist warm embrace of the Costa Norte fooled him into feeling beyond all pain, invincible. Pain was a form of light, and when that light got to be unbearable, he would be spirited away. He returned to New Orleans, given a large quantity of money by the rebels to buy guns and ammunition for their righteous cause, and Joe spent it on drinking and enjoying the kisses of sweeties from the finest bordellos.
To be continued. . .
Graydon Miller is the Wizard of Fiction.