My Chilean Pen Pal
Monkey Fist from Tia Tooth


When I was five, I said my first Spanish word — Tia.  It means aunt.  My Aunt Ruth worked for the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile.  I couldn’t say my R’s yet, so she became Tia Tooth.

Tia Tooth was a lifer at the embassy — a diligent note-taking US government bureaucrat, dodging earthquakes and occasionally posting souvenir special-occasion copper platters in the mail to her nephews. When I was 17, she wrote to me asking if I’d like to pen-pal-up with a friend of hers. The plan was to help teach a promising young man English as a second language.  I relented.

Dear Nathan,
Thank you for being my pen pal.  How are you?  My name is Hugo.  I am 16 years.  With my family Santiago is where I live.  I am happy that you write.

Dear Hugo,
I’m a spoiled middle-class American teen.  I’m writing letters and sending photos to you because either I’m upstanding or have a subconscious desire to feel put-upon. Enclosed is a photo of me in front of my ‘57 Chevrolet holding my Gordon and Smith surfboard.  The other picture is a shot of my dog Mac in a Beatle wig playing a slide guitar.

And so on.

It was a murky correspondence in more ways than I’ll ever know.

Meanwhile in Chile, inflation was at 30 per cent, unemployment for males was at 21 per cent and malnourishment for children under 15 was at 50 per cent.  (Half the kids were sick: Los hijos medianos estaban enfermos).   And guess what?  The people of Tia Tooth’s adopted nation elected Salvador Allende — the Socialist Party candidate — to the presidency.  Under Allende, wealth was redistributed from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.  The copper industry and the banks were nationalized.  Diplomatic relations were re-established with communist Cuba, communist China and the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic.  In-other-words, workers of the world, unite — Tia Tooth and the US Embassy, beware.

Back in Southern California, the surf was up.  I was following the bands at the Whiskey, not politics in Chile.  As far as my family knew, Allende was spelled with a “Y”.  And my pen pal?  Hugo didn’t seem to care about politics, either. As my Secretary of State Henry Kissinger plotted a military coup against Hugo’s President Allende, Hugo and I innocently bounced “How’s the family?” letters up and down the Pacific Coast of the Americas.

Something unexpected happened in the third year of our pen pal exchange. I received a different and curiously urgent letter from Hugo.

Dear Nathan,
Please pick me up this Saturday, April 4 from Los Angeles International Airport in the morning at 11:45. 

That’s it.  That’s all it said.  Stupefied, my family tried to contact Tia Tooth.  Nada.  Tia Tooth was only available by post.  No tweet.  No news feed. No cell.  It was 1970.  Saturday came.  My family, bless them all, did the right thing.  On April 4 at 11:45 am, out of a sense of do-what’s-right duty, the Callahans were waiting at LAX to meet my pen pal Hugo.

Hugo arrived griping a rope wrapped around his cardboard box of clothes in one hand and cradling a one-gallon basket-covered glass jug in the other.  He was happy, smiling, radiant to be in the USA.  “Ruth put me on the plane,” he said.  “Everything taken care of.”

That night, I sat with Hugo and opened the jug of homemade hard liquor he brought as a gift.  “Monkey Fist,” he said.  I drank a shot.  It was solvent — a kind of fusel.  

A monkey fist is a knot.  Tied at the end of a three-foot length of rope, monkey fists were sometimes used as weapons — like makeshift bolas — by military men and other gangs.  A quick shot to the head and there would be blood.

A few glasses of Monkey Fist later, Hugo and I found ourselves at the Edwards Theater in Costa Mesa watching Robert Altman’s MASH.  I certainly wasn’t going to let the arrival of a Chilean pen pal disrupt my calendar.  He could join in my SoCal fun; plus, if Hugo wanted to learn contemporary English, Altman was a great place to start.  And so, on his first Saturday night in the USA, Hugo watched Donald Southerland as Hawkeye Pierce doctoring casualties in a Korean War Conflict FUBAR classic that was really about the lousy war my country was in the middle of that April day in 1970 — Vietnam.

Hugo camped out in our family room.  One night, our dog Tina shit by his head.  Another night, we discovered what looked like a violin spider crawling around in Hugo’s basket.  Animal Control was alerted.  During Hugo’s stay, Monkey Fist was consumed, beaches were explored, evening dinners were planned and executed, friends were introduced, but very little was discovered as to the whys of Hugo’s presence.  “Everything taken care of.   I will call.”  After Hugo made his telephone call, two smiling Chilean men from Los Angeles visited our Turtle Rock home and took Hugo with them. Tia Tooth was never heard from.  But we did hear about Salvador Allende. 

Three years later, Allende's presidency and life were ended in a violent US-sponsored military coup d'état.  He was someone my country couldn’t do business with.  Allende was replaced with a Chilean army career officer by the name of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte — someone my country could do business with.  Pinochet had changed the pronunciation of his last name to Pino-shay because, as he put it, it sounded more “continental.” After the coup, Pinochet’s government killed 3,197 Chileans and tortured about 29,000 more — very continental.

Around the time Pinochet took office, I received another letter from Hugo.  He wrote that he had enlisted in the US Army to gain his US citizenship by serving in Vietnam.  “Serving” as in "to render habitual obedience to," or perhaps from an Etruscan word meaning "to attend to a customer."  Either way, we stopped being pen pals.  For all I knew, Hugo could have been blown apart in the Mekong Delta… but he wasn’t.

Hello Mr. Callahan,
I hope you are the person that I was looking for and match the picture with the Chevrolet and surfboard.  It has been almost 42 years and life has taken me through many journeys and successful life.  However, I have never forgotten you and your family.  My appreciation for their kindness, patience and guidance, I have never forgotten.
Best regards,

Dear Hugo,
It’s a crazy life — a sad and beautiful world. Do you remember MASH?  Do you still drink Monkey Fist?  How about that Salvador Allende?  I’ve never left Southern California, but here, the world comes to you. Thank you for broadening my family’s perspective and for being my pen pal.
And so on,

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast March 15, 2013

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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