A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
My casual phone conversation with two reporters in the Dominican Republic ended abruptly after some alarming news.
We were talking in Santo Domingo, the capital city, and hung up right away because one of the journalists, Bernie Diederich, had just heard “there’s trouble at the Ozama Bridge” and warned: “We’d better get over there.”
That was the morning of Sept. 12, 1961, a few hours after I flew in from New York with hopes of finding work as a foreign correspondent there.
At the time, conditions in the Caribbean nation were unstable, to say the least. Only three months earlier, gunmen had killed the dictator Rafael Trujillo to stop his brutal, 31-year reign of terror in the country. His control had been so strong that he imposed his name on the capital, changing it to Ciudad Trujillo.
Now, in such a volatile environment, even relatively small signs of danger were enough to spark concerns.
So on that September morning, as soon as Bernie heard about a "problem at the bridge," he told me to follow him to his car and we headed that way right after the other reporter on the phone, Rob Berrellez, of the Associated Press, joined us.
Within minutes, we were facing a crowd of howling protesters in an open space on the banks of the Ozama River. It was next to the large bridge, the main entry point to the city, on the highway from the international airport.
When the protesters saw us and our cameras, they began to clap hands and cheer. They wanted us to be there. They counted on the foreign press to show the world what was happening in their country.
What we saw next was an awful scene. The bloodied corpses of two men were laid out, face up, on bare gravel only a few yards from the bridge.
Firefighters were trying to put the bodies into an ambulance. The crowd was fighting to keep them on display.
Large Dominican flags and signs were draped over the bodies. Lighted candles appeared beside them, creating an impromptu shrine.
What caused this?
Excited protesters blurted out their version. They said they had gathered there to wait for an international group of investigators to come across the bridge from the airport.
The investigators were sent by the Organization of American States with orders to find out if the Dominican Republic made a lot of progress toward democracy since Trujillo’s death.
The protesters wanted to send a signal that the answer was a resounding "no" because the Spanish-speaking country was still run by a ruthless regime led by Trujillo’s playboy son, Ramfis.
But while they waited, the protesters said a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz pulled up with a passenger they recognized -- Cesar Rodriguez “Cholo” Villeta, a notorious henchman of the dictatorship.
Curses and rocks flew. Rodriguez Villeta apparently got out of the car with a submachine gun and fired multiple bullets at the crowd. As people ducked and sought cover, a teacher named Víctor Estrella Liz stood up and shouted in disbelief.
“Pero, tú eres loco? Si somos dominicanos! No res!” (*Hey, are you crazy? We’re Dominicans! Don’t Shoot!”)
As he was yelling, he was cut down by bullets and the shooter jumped back into the car, which sped away.
The teacher's body was one of the two on the ground where the crowd was surging. Another half-dozen people were hurt, but apparently were taken to hospitals before we got there.
While the protesters were telling us all of this, the motorcade for the OAS investigators began to cross the bridge. In a flash, the crowd of demonstrators started shouting and waving signs in a frantic effort to get the attention of the visitors.
Seeing that, some uniformed police officers went into action. They were swinging clubs to disperse the crowd and block a rush of angry people into the city streets.
It all occurred so fast. There was no time to worry about risks. I’d never seen anything like this. I knew it was a hell of a story and I had to cover it with my Rolleiflex camera.
I began taking pictures of people with blood streaming from wounds inflicted by police, including a feisty young woman who had faced off defiantly against a club-swinging policeman.
But my camera held only a 12-shot roll of film, and I used it up quickly. Despite all the commotion, I managed to take a spare roll of film out of my pocket, put it into the camera and take 12 more shots.
When it was over, I felt sure that I had good photos.
But I instantly wondered if there was a news outlet ready and willing to use them. I still had no employer.
Should I have known better than to seek a job abroad without some professional journalism experience overseas? Maybe. My career at that point was limited to two years of working as a reporter-photographer at a small newspaper in California, with assignments ranging from school board meetings and crimes to a local beauty pageant.
But I knew what I wanted and decided to take the next steps after getting advice from various people including John Wilhelm, who was the editor of McGraw-Hill World News and president of the Overseas Press Club. He had connections with major news services such as AP, United Press International and Time-Life.
In his view, the Dominican Republic would be a good place to go because “things are really troubled after Trujillo’s assassination and news bureaus around New York tell me it’s hard to get good English-language stringers in Ciudad Trujillo.”
In addition, he noted, “Ramfis Trujillo claims to be opening up the country to democracy but there’s an active opposition movement and the situation is shaky. You know Spanish and maybe you could pick up two or three part-time opportunities and put together the start of a career.”
I contacted potential employers. The most encouraging reply was, “Get in touch after you're there and we’ll see what happens.”
But NBC Radio showed some interest in using me if I could be there in time to cover the visit of the OAS investigating team.
So I booked the first flight available to Santo Domingo, intent on gathering up-to-date information quickly, which is why I was talking to Bernie Diederich and Bob Berrellez on the morning of my arrival.
But I had no way of knowing how fast I'd be having my initial experience. My timing was perfect.
And I also was lucky in another respect.
As soon as the excitement at the bridge was done, Bernie helped me out again by shipping my undeveloped film to Time-Life, which decided to use one of the photos for the cover of the Spanish-language edition of Life Magazine.
A short time later, the publishing company sent Bernie a $50 check for the photos and he gave it to me -- my first payment as a foreign correspondent.
Marty McReynolds, a foreign correspondent and editor at the Miami Herald for many years, is retired in Buenos Aires.
Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic's ruthless and brutal dictator, was able to stay in power for three decades by maintaining command of the army, by placing members of his family in the government, and by having many of his political opponents murdered.