Joe Gaetjens – Excerpts A Summer with My Father

1950 World Cup

Joe Gaetjens was my uncle.

…He held onto a fool’s hope that his brother Joe was still alive. No one wanted to face the rumors that he was dead, not yet. Joe had refused to flee Haiti even though their brother Jean was openly plotting against Duvalier in the Dominican Republic. When their youngest brother, Fred, returned from prison swollen, broken, and covered in blood, and immediately left Haiti to join Jean, Joe still refused to go, saying his brothers’ plans had nothing to do with him. He refused Gérard’s desperate pleas to flee for his safety, believing that being a national hero dressed him in armor impermeable to politics.

Many people warned Joe he would be arrested because his brothers were a threat to the regime. He told the family that Daniel Beauvoir, a Tonton Makout chief of police, would protect him. Beauvoir had been his good friend since childhood. He and Joe grew up five houses from each other and played together for Étoile, the Haitian soccer team.

….Joe was in New York in 1950, studying accounting at Columbia University as my father had done, when he was chosen for the U.S. World Cup team. He was able to play on the condition that he submit preliminary paperwork for U.S. citizenship. In a game in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Joe scored the goal that led to the U.S. World Cup victory over Great Britain.

….As of 2017, the game is still considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup. Joe’s winning goal is number three in the history of the World Cup’s top ten best goals.

Joe never completed his petition for citizenship. After his triumph in Brazil, he went to France and played for Troyes AC. He returned to Haiti in 1953. He left as a celebrated soccer star and returned a hero. A parade of people greeted Joe, waving flags. People still chanted his name in the streets when he walked by. He coached Étoile Haïtienne, a team he had played for since the age of 14. He married and had three children.

…Beauvoir…. Gérard’s mouth felt acidic just thinking his name. Every cell in his being seethed. Beauvoir was no doubt trying to work his way further up the ladder into Duvalier’s inner circle. His mind continued its weary passage through the treacheries and sorrows of the past.

Edouard Guillot, Joe’s cousin by his sister Medjine’s marriage to Jean Claude Flambert, and a Makout, went to Gérard’s mother’s house at 6 a.m. on July 8, 1964, and told her that the Makout had been ordered to arrest her son. She and her daughter Mahalia were at Joe’s house within minutes. Joe refused to flee.

At 10 a.m., Guillot went to Joe’s dry-cleaning shop with two other Makout, but he couldn’t speak freely in their presence. Joe’s mother-in-law had opened the shop and was the only one there. Guillot made an effort to act strangely, even satirically angry, hoping she would understand his veiled warning and his intention to keep Joe away from work. Guillot left the sign of the Tonton Makout on the door, hoping Joe would see it and not stop. As an additional warning he was unnecessarily loud as he instructed the other two Makout to wait inside and arrest Joe when he arrived. He meant for Joe’s mother-in-law to distract the Makout with food and drink, so if Joe passed by he would see the sign and keep driving.

Joe’s mother-in-law misunderstood Guillot’s attempt to save him. She knew he would be driving by, and between customers she stepped outside, hoping to see him and wave him on. When Joe drove by, he saw his mother-in-law waving madly, but not the sign on the door. When he stopped to see what she wanted, the Makout came outside and forced him out of his car. Ironically, if his mother-in-law hadn’t tried to wave him on, he wouldn’t have stopped.

…My real question was about my Oncle Joe’s imprisonment, about his death. I blurted it out in some way I couldn’t recall later, and my aunt continued.

“On New Year’s Day the President of Haiti held audience for his people. They stood all night waiting or arrived before sunrise and stayed late into the evening.” I imagined them, chilled in the dark predawn dew, sun fainting hot all day. Then sun down in stale forgotten air, bodies aching, they held each other up to keep from falling down. Many of them went home with questions unanswered, most of them about the fate of loved ones who were disappeared by the regime.

“My mother and I were fifth in line from Duvalier when he announced he was finished for the day.” My aunt shook her head and exhaled wearily. Her hands were clasped as she readied herself to continue.

I had heard that my grandmother, Ti Toto, a typically undaunted Haitian woman, who had the regal warrior blood of a Dahomey African and the careful equanimity of a Dutch trader, let beads of sweat go unpowdered on drawn skin, and crumbled, her knees to the ground, her arms desperately pleading for the life of her son. Duvalier turned to look at her. She met his gaze. She didn’t want to hurt her chances by showing her hatred of the murderous liar.

“Duvalier said he would look into it. He said, ‘Tomorrow you will have your son.’ Then he waved her away, a black hand slicing a mulatto sky.
“You know, Toto, that’s when I knew it was already too late, that Joe must already be dead. Duvalier wouldn’t have agreed so easily to my mother’s request.”

I imagined that she put on a mask of hope for her mother’s sake, that she didn’t give Duvalier the satisfaction of seeing her in pain, that she hardened, pulled her mother to her feet and walked away with the same noble grace her mother always displayed.
Water sparkled in eyes and fell down cheeks, strength’s shawl fell around shoulders, mirrors of illusion threw glitter on hollow breasts, and swallowed rocks landed in stomachs.

Papa Doc did not keep his promise.

“Someone at the flour mill where Dadi worked told him that if he brought him four thousand dollars he would give it to a guard he knew at the prison in exchange for Joe. Dadi gave him the money.
“We disguised ourselves wearing large-brimmed hats and sunglasses, and then waited as instructed outside the gates of Fort Dimanche. Our legs trembled so hard we could barely stand. We barely breathed or moved a muscle. If we had been found out, we would have been beaten, perhaps arrested and killed.”
As my aunt spoke, a picture of the past formed in my mind, a memory that wasn’t mine. Love is the fear blocker. Love was Mahalia and Dadi’s protector as they stood waiting for my uncle from 5 pm to 8 pm, and then went home without him. And then, fear leached dark seeping corporal shivers that fire couldn’t warm. As Tante Mahalia continued the story, I felt a heaviness in my gut, attached by a fishhook to the meat of my heart. I heard Nietzsche’s well-known phrase whispered like splintered wind: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I wondered what my aunt thought of his philosophy.

For me, grievous loss had been a seed that set a vine growing, puncturing my heart with its thorns. Over the years I’d learned to surrender my pain. I’d learned to offer it freely to the light and be given gratitude in return, to affirm that the light accepted the weight of the pain and I’d stopped carrying it. I’d learned to love through a hemorrhaged heart; the vine had grown a rose or two, over time, a profusion of roses.

Merely surviving pain didn’t suffice. I found that we do not grow from survival alone; we grow because of what we choose to do afterward. If we’re lucky, we grow because of wisdom and inner strength we are supported and guided to develop.
“The man at the flour mill returned the four thousand dollars to Dadi. He said, ‘Here’s your money back. Joe Gaetjens is dead.’” A glass heart shattered, splashing thickly into blood pooled on a dirt floor. Tante Mahalia clasped her trembling hands together hard.
“I heard that Duvalier had passed by Ti Joe’s cell, and Ti Joe asked him, ‘Why am I here? I have done nothing wrong.’ And in that moment Duvalier shot him.”

….We sat very near the showers, something we wouldn’t normally have done, but the showers here as well as the water at her house were turned off. After seven months of severe drought, one of the worst in the country’s history, water shortages were extreme and municipal water was supplied only every three days. On the days Tante Mahalia had water she filled three fifty-gallon garbage cans to get through the off days.

She began. “Joe heard that Duvalier sometimes slept at a house on a certain street, on the way to Kenscoff. Beauvoir asked Joe to accompany him there and drive him away after he shot Duvalier. Each night Beauvoir and Ti Joe drove to the house and waited in the car. Finally one night, after about a month, Duvalier arrived with his bodyguards. Beauvoir and Ti Joe acted as if the encounter was a coincidence, and Beauvoir got out of the car to salute Duvalier. He was Duvalier’s “man of confidence” and he would be expected to see if Duvalier needed anything. According to the agreement between Ti Joe and Beauvoir, that was the moment that Beauvoir would kill Duvalier. But there was no gunshot. Beauvoir returned to the car. When Ti Joe asked him what happened, Beauvoir said he was trembling, he lost his nerve and could not pull the trigger. He was probably afraid that if he shot Duvalier he’d be killed by one of the guards.

“Two weeks later Makout arrested Ti Joe. It seems that Beauvoir told Duvalier that Ti Joe had been planning to kill him. Even if Beauvoir did not directly betray Ti Joe, he knowingly put Joe’s life in danger. The stakeout was the only move that could have marked him. The question is, why? Did Beauvoir trade Joe’s life to advance in Duvalier’s graces? It’s possible.”
“I heard that my father’s brothers Jean and Freddy were in the Dominican Republic planning a coup at the time and that Joe was arrested because of that.”

“It could be, but I believe the story I just told you because Claude Lebrun told it to me, and he knew Ti Joe and Daniel very well. He knew that they went together on the day that Beauvoir was supposed to kill Duvalier. And he told me that when Ti Joe was arrested, Ti Joe’s wife called Daniel and asked him to do something, because he was Duvalier’s man of confidence, and Daniel said there was nothing he could do. If you were a man of confidence with Duvalier, how is it possible you could do nothing?”
Other family members appealed to Beauvoir to help get his long-term friend out of prison. Again Beauvoir said he couldn’t do anything, that Duvalier was already looking for an excuse to kill him.
“Was my father in the Dominican Republic at that time?”
“No, he was hiding with us. We were hiding at my tante’s house in Carrefour, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Why do you want to know?” She never liked the idea that I was writing a book that was primarily about Vodou and associating parts of it with my family. She was very against Vodou. Perhaps she’d just realized that’s why I was asking her to tell the story. She eyed me suspiciously….

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