Winged Wonders on “Solid Stance” Street

One day last August, I drove down Avenida Hincapié in Guatemala City with my sons Ike (almost 12 by then) and JayJay (8). This odd street—you may know it—begins as soon as you pass under an aqueduct arch that seems to date from the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It is one of the few structures in town surviving from the colonial period. The word used to name this street, hincapié, means something like “solid stance” or “a digging-in with the foot” or “strenuous effort.”

I would describe Hincapié (pronounced een-kop-YAY) as the city’s most eclectic street in terms of what you see from it. You never drive down it without spotting something new. This being the case, I always tell my sons to keep their eyes peeled. They never fail me in this. But this day in August would be different.

Zone 13 is already my sons’ favorite neighborhood in the capital. There are many reasons; one is that, as toddlers, they got to ride the goat-drawn carts on the boulevard park enclosed by Avenida Las Américas on Sundays and eat cotton candy. Another reason is that there are, in that area, several old military aircraft that had been mounted on pedestals. Among them are a gunship from the Vietnam era and a Mustang fighter from World War II.

My sons are obsessed with aviation, and military aviation in particular. It does not matter how many times they have seen these relics, we still have to stop the car, get out and gawk. They collect model airplanes and hoard them in spots where their younger brother, Bear, is unlikely to find them. And when anyone visits from the old country, the best present they can bring the boys are books or videos on military aircraft or battles.

I remember being interested in all this, too, as a kid. But not to the same degree. When I asked the boys about this disparity, they answered that, nowadays, there is “way more to be interested in.” JayJay reminded me that when I was a kid, “they only had World War I stuff.”

“Oh,” I said, comforted. “And I suppose that I was already grown up by the time Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis?”

JayJay cocked his head and replied, in all sincerity, “I dunno. Were you?”

So then I had to ask him if I looked over 100 years old. He told me no—not quite. With answers like that, I wonder why I succor their craving for collectors’ model airplanes, which they call “Maistos” (after brand name), each time we come to the city. Maistos have become among the essentials in life, along with education, food, clothing, vitamins, playdates and such. Don’t ask me how I made it though my own childhood without them.

Well, anyway, on this particular cruise down Hincapie, they spotted something that made them go kinetic. I realized I would either have to stop for what they saw, or to restrain them with gags, bungies and one of those tranquilizer guns that Marlin Perkins used to take down charging rhinoceri in Wild Kingdom. We had driven past an opening in the long wall that runs along the avenida’s west shoulder. Inside, Ike had glanced a World War II bomber. (PS: This plane was, in fact, even older than Dad.)

So, dutifully, I turned around and pulled into the opening. It took considerable explaining to the female guard at the garita, but eventually I conveyed that, unless and until we were allowed to enter, the boys were going to keep me miserable. And just where were we? At the Guatemalan Air Force barracks.

Well, the young lady, who looked like a Breck Girl in fatigues, looked us over and concluded that we were probably not a threat to national security. She promised to explain my plight to the teniente (lieutenant) who was not on base at the moment. Could we come back in an hour? I asked her what choice I had. Now, during this whole exchange, Ike and JayJay were eyeing the bomber, some 30 meters away, with the reverent solemnity that Captain Ahab might have shown if presented with the carcass of a freshly slain Moby Dick. Not a word escaped them.

But they were hardly silent afterward. Has any parent ever been asked more than 100 times, within a single hour, to fulfill a promise? I have.

So return we did, after some errands. The Breck Girl directed us to park inside. Nearby, some airmen (and airwomen) were milling around. But then a young guy in a flight suit appeared, and all the others snapped to attention with admirable precision and saluted. “Just like in the movies or something,” JayJay remarked on the spot.

Lt. Lucero was very nice. He gave us a tour of the base’s own relics (or, as he called them, adornos) which included a second World War II plane. A hangar sheltered some fossilized engines and a mobile servicing unit; the boys were allowed to touch everything. We thanked the teniente, apparently the ranking officer on base, and also said goodbye to the assembly of—so what should I call them?—airpeople. JayJay saluted the Breck Girl on the way out. She only smiled back.

My sons, being Guatemalan citizens, know that someday they will be eligible for service in the local military.

On the drive home to Panajachel that day, there was a friendly argument over who would eventually command the Guatemalan Air Force. By the time we reached Chimal, it was all settled: Ike would command the Air Force, and JayJay, the Navy—provided that Guatemala, by that time, had an aircraft carrier. I told them that if they kept getting A’s in math, I would take up the matter with President Colom and his next 10 successors. I’d even make an hincapié of it.

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