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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Bang! Another Revolution

By Miguel Vigil

The Magpie, May 1929, p 28.

Tramp, tramp, tramp; left, right, left, right . . . Hour after hour we marched on, and the burning sun beat on our backs with merciless fury. The dust of the road was in our nostrils and our tongues were parched and dry; our salbeques containing our provisions, the heavy rifles, and the cartridge belts were like so many pieces of lead, and the tepid, lukewarm water was nauseating. Still, with dragging feet we marched on—tramp, tramp, tramp . . .

It was February, 1925, when Nicaragua, after some thirteen years of peace, became once more involved in a civil war. The President proclaimed the country in a state of war and ordered every able bodied citizen, between twenty and forty years of age, to be drafted into the army.

We were living at Granada, the third largest city in Nicaragua, situated about thirty miles south of the national capital. My father in his capacity as colonel of the army reserves, offered his services to the President and was accepted. The expedition set out from Granada early in March, leaving only one hundred men to garrison the fort which overlooks the city.

In late April a band of about two hundred rebels captured the town of Nandaime, about twenty miles north of Granada. There was consternation in the city, for the poorly equipped garrison of one hundred men could offer but feeble resistance to the advancing rebels.

The Civil Guard was quickly organized of volunteers over sixteen years of age, and its purpose was to defend the city from attack. I was only fourteen at the time, but, being rather tall, I had no difficulty in being accepted, when, unknown to my mother, I volunteered. Moreover, my knowledge of firearms, and a little training in drill maneuvres which I had acquired at a military school in Mexico, made me particularly acceptable as an instructor. If I had been a few years older, I could easily have become a captain, or perhaps a general. As it was, I was detailed to a picked body of sharpshooters. We were supposed to harass the enemy from some point of vantage, picking off—if we could—those that resisted the efforts of the regular troops to dislodge them.

As the enemy refused to come out and fight, we decided to attack them in their own lair Accordingly, one fine morning we set out—one thousand strong. We were in high spirits. The people were cheering as we marched through the streets. And we strutted past them feeling like heroes faring forth to war in defense of the fatherland. By the time we reached the city limits, we were treading on air. I dare say no one gave a thought to the miles of dusty, sun baked road which stretched out before us, or to the almost certain death which awaited us at the end. We were thinking of the honor and glory which would meet us on our triumphant return.

But by the time we had traversed the first five miles, our spirits began to sink. We remembered those we had left be hind, and what would happen to them if we did not return. And ever present before us, each step we took bringing us nearer to it—lurked death.

By four o'clock we had travailed fifteen miles. The order was given to pitch camp, while a small body of men went forward to reconnoitre and to choose suitable places in which the snipers might be hidden from the enemy! At five o'clock we were given our rations, which we ate with great gusto, notwithstanding their bad quality. By seven o'clock we had all turned in for a night's rest, in preparation for the morrow's engagement. Only the sentries remained awake, and their cries of "All's well" broke the silence every half hour.

We were awakened at three in the morning. After drinking a cup of black, muddy water which passed for coffee, together with a couple of hard tack biscuits, which would have made short work of a dog's teeth, we set out. The snipers and scouts went in front mounted on mangy, flea bitten animals answering to the name of horses. The infantry followed and the cavalry brought up the rear of the body.

At five in the morning we arrived at a point about a thousand yards from the enemy's position. The darkness and a dense wood served to hide us from the foe. The snipers in groups of two, each led by a scout, immediately went to vantage points which had been assigned to them. My companion and I were given a post at the top of a tall tree about five hundred yards from the lines of the enemy. I climbed to one of the top branches and secured myself to the tree with a length of rope. Once there I paused and waited for the command to open fire. I received my orders at daybreak, and, with a thrill of excitement, looked about for a worthy victim. There, on top of a house, was a rebel with a machine gun, working havoc among our men. As I leveled my gun I realized that I was coolly preparing to kill a man in cold blood. Bang! I gazed with open mouth, and as I watched, he staggered and fell. I looked around—Napoleon seeking more worlds to conquer

By ten o'clock we had forced the enemy into town, where they scurried to cover like so many hares fleeing from the dogs. At noon we advanced to occupy the belfry of an abandoned church. Our new position was nearer and more exposed to the enemy, consequently placing us in greater danger.

But by this time we didn't care much whether we were hit or not. The excitement had aroused in us an almost unbelievable thirst for blood, and we fired almost without taking aim. By mid afternoon we had forced the enemy to take shelter behind the stone walls of the city prison. From my post on the belfry I had a good view of the interior of the prison, and I continued to annoy the enemy with my bullets. But not so our troops. The lofty walls of the prison placed them at a disadvantage, and it was clear that if we could not dislodge the enemy before night fall, the affair would last until hunger drove the enemy to open the gates and surrender.

The order was given to cease firing, and to retreat two hundred yards, until it should be determined what was to be done next. Some were for scaling the walls under cover of a brisk machine gun fire; others advised us to wait until we could obtain some pieces of artillery from the government, while still others wanted to give it up altogether, saying that it would be impossible to drive out the enemy without suffering heavy losses. But none of these suggestions were accepted. Our commander evolved a plan which would enable us to take the enemy by surprise, without great danger to our soldiers.

The prison had been built on the inside bank of a deep arroyo, at a place where it made a sharp bend; and on the only side which it could be approached on foot, it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Our commander's plan was to have a few volunteers climb the bank of the arroyo to a narrow ledge of masonry formed by the foundations of the walls. Once there, they were to find some means of scaling the wall, and by attaching a rope ladder to the battlements, a small detachment of troops could drop into the courtyard and open the gates for our troops to enter.

At eleven o'clock that night, under cover of darkness, three intrepid volunteers succeeded in climbing to the parapet of the wall. Three rope ladders were tied to the battlements and three more men followed, dragging up with them a machine gun. In this manner fifty of our men, and six machine guns had successfully entered the prison, before an accidental shot, fired by one of our men while going over his machine gun to see that it was in order, broke the slumbers of the enemy. A great confusion followed, but, under the able command of their leader, they soon rallied and grouped themselves in a semicircle against the walls, in such a manner that our men would have to cut through their lines to get at the gate. It was evident that they proposed to fight to the finish; no quarter was asked, and none was given. The silence of the night was broken by the staccato barking of the machine guns and of the Springfields, while now and then a hand grenade would add its roar to the infernal din.

The enemy fought with such fierceness that our men were driven back inch by inch, and it looked as though we might fail after all. But this was not to be. A young man I knew well, managed to crawl through the barbed wire fence on the outside of the prison. Digging a small hole in the ground under the heavy wooden gates, he placed in it a package of several sticks of dynamite which had been arranged to explode by a small electric battery. Through accident or confusion, the current was switched on before my friend had retreated, and he was killed instantly by the force of the explosion. The gate was ripped open by the blast and our troops poured in. The enemy, confused by the explosion behind them, and attacked from the rear as well as from the front, threw down their arms and surrendered incontinently.

A check up of the survivors the following morning showed that we had lost altogether about twenty nine men, while many had received wounds of more or less serious nature. Two days later we returned, leaving half of our men to guard the town until such time as the government troops arrived. News of our victory had long preceded us, and we marched into the city to the accompaniment of the music furnished by the municipal band. With beating hearts, and heads held high, we tramped to the central square of the city, where a grand-stand had been erected. The city officials had turned out in full force, and with long winded orations full of high sounding words, they lauded our efforts, and praised our victory, and declared us the "ne plus ultra" of soldierly strength and valor. Afterward, we sang the national anthem, and then marched back to our quarters, there to spend a last night together.

Although my father gave me a good old fashioned whipping when he came back, I knew that it was only for the edification of my younger brothers, so I forgave him. I could see that he was secretly pleased by my escapade for he was continually questioning me about it. I am somewhat secretly proud of my adventure, but I swear "Never again!" The scenes I saw during that campaign are fit only for the infernal regions. The scares I had, probably shortened my life by a few years; and I certainly have no further desire to leave this world before my allotted three score and ten.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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