“Never say the name, ‘Peron,’ even as a joke,” my father warned his four children. He had been assigned to the Consular office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1960, and this was the only instruction he gave us as we acclimated to our new schools in a new country. Saying the name of “Peron” was as forbidden as making a joke about hijacking a plane after 9/11.
Juan Peron had been overthrown in 1955 after nine years as president of Argentina. His wife, Eva, had been immensely popular with Argentines before her death in 1952, just eight years before we arrived in the country. Although Peron had been the victim of a coup d’etat, there were many who still supported him, as well as those who hated him.
We took our father’s warning seriously. For one thing, he was not the kind of man you disobeyed. For another thing, there was Billy Clark.
Billy was a junior and I was a sophomore at the International High School I was attending. The son of missionaries, he had blond hair and his youthful cheeks were still smooth and rosy, like the face of a cherub. He also had a wooden leg.
There were many rumors about Billy’s “accident.” You have to understand that all of us took the trains to school. It was as ordinary as riding the yellow school bus in the United States.
Some said Billy had made a derogatory remark about Peron while standing in the train doorway waiting for his next stop. Two Argentine men had pushed him off the train and he lost his leg. He had been 12 years old.
Others claimed that Billy had been standing on the train station platform and his blond curls gave him away as an American. An anti-American Argentine had pushed him off the platform and he lost his leg when he was just 13 years old.
It was also said that Billy was 11 when he had been minding his own business on a train platform. He was proudly wearing a belt that identified him as a member of the Safety Patrol at school. The belt had a big “P” on it, and someone thought that meant he was for Peron, so he got pushed off the platform and lost his leg.
The only thing everyone agreed upon was that he had missed a lot of school while he recovered from his injury and learned to walk with a prosthetic leg.
As fellow students, we looked wide-eyed at Billy, and knew that bad things could happen, even to kids. We took the news solemnly, but without shock or surprise. Adults had all the power, and he was evidence of power gone askew. You might think Billy would have been a bit of a celebrity among his peers. Actually, my memory is that the tragedy isolated him. I certainly didn’t want to ask him about it, even though I saw Billy frequently, as he dated a friend of mine for a few months. I never talked to him on a personal level. Perhaps no one did, and that’s why there were only whispers and rumors. In the early 60’s, so many things were left unspoken or swept under the rug.
I left Argentina to go to college, and I didn’t think about Billy again for fifty years.
In 2015, a fellow parishioner and I sat in a church parlor in Wausau, Wisconsin and exchanged growing up stories. Her dad had been a missionary and died in Peru. I told about going to an international school in Argentina. “Oh, which one?” she asked. Her cousins had gone to school there, too. Only one of the cousins was close to my age. “What was his name?” I asked.
“Billy Clark,” she replied. “Did you know him?”
I paused, sifting through the files in my brain for a face to go with this name that was so plain, yet resonated. “Yes, I certainly did know him. I knew him very well. He was in love with my friend, Patsy. And he was the one with….”
“The prosthetic leg,” she filled in for me. “Yes, he’s the one. He lost his leg in a train accident. I never knew the whole story.”
Now I thought about Billy, with fifty years of perspective, having had my own children and grandchildren. I saw Billy’s tragedy with new eyes. I felt outraged that any adult would cause injury like that to a child. And I felt shame that I had never expressed compassion toward Billy. It was a good example of the way we were then, not talking about anything uncomfortable. Even his cousin wasn’t really sure what had happened. She knew Billy had had a difficult life for many years, but reported he is doing well now in Georgia (as far as she knows) and is a nurse.
My friend was so excited about this amazing connection that she spent the night making phone calls to cousins she had not talked with in ages. It turns out Billy didn’t remember me, and has never been to any of our all school reunions which are held in the United States in various locations. But he declared he will “for sure” attend our next reunion coming up in Dallas. I hope he really will be there. Maybe I’ll finally have the courage to talk with him about what happened on that horrible day.