Sixto Martinez completed his military service at a Seville garrison.
In the middle of the patio was a bench. Next to the bench, a soldier stood guard. No one knew why the bench needed guarding. They guarded it because they guarded it. Day and night, all nights and all days. And generation after generation of officers transmitted the order and the soldiers obeyed. No one doubted, no one questioned. If as such it is done, and as such always have been done, a reason there had to be.
And like this it continued until one person, I don’t know which general or colonel, wanted to see the original order. He had to forage the archives. And after much digging, he knew. Thirty-one years, two months and four days ago, an official ordered a guard to be placed by the bench that had recently been painted so that no one happened to sit on the fresh paint.
–Eduardo Galeano, El Libro de los Abrazos, Trans. Nathalie Alyon
As a little girl, I loved listening to my father tell stories about his days of youth: how he and his classmates ditched school to roam Istanbul like vagabonds; how he misbehaved and drove his parents crazy; how he spent his summer days jumping to the Marmara sea from rowboats…
When he couldn’t think of anything, he would make up stories just to shut me up. I could tell which stories were real and which ones weren’t but I didn’t care. I would listen just the same.
“I have no stories,” he would say when he wanted to read the newspaper in peace. But I was a persistent child. And I wouldn’t accept recycled stories.
“Tell me a story from your military days,” I asked him one evening.
Like every Turkish male, my father served in the Turkish military for nearly 18 months before he was released early for an infected pimple on his behind. (Funny story that one!).
“Nothing interesting happened. I shot a total of seven bullets during training. We did nothing.” He tried to brush me off and continued to stare at the loud news anchor on TV.
“You surely didn’t sit around for almost two years. You must have done something!”
“We really did do nothing,” he said.
“I guarded the public water fountain in the courtyard.”
“Why did you guard the water fountain?” I asked, excited for the prospect of uncovering a potential gem of a tale.
“So that no one steals it,” my father said with a grin.
I asked him to describe the fountain, the courtyard, and the barracks. There must have been something special about the fountain, something secret or hidden. But my father insisted that it was just an ordinary fountain in a dilapidated courtyard with nothing of value and no one of importance ever visiting.
Every which way I tried, I simply couldn’t imagine how anyone could dismantle a stationary fountain from the middle of a military compound laden with soldiers. Besides, who would even want to steal a water fountain?
My father tried to ease my confusion. He told me to not look for logic in the ways of the national army.
“They had to keep us occupied in the absence of any real objective of our existence as soldiers. The fountain wasn’t even functional. It was broken,” he said remembering the months of his life wasted away in mandatory army service.
After telling me the account of the famous fountain in Isparta’s military compound, my father started remembering more stories from his months there. He told me about the captain who hated him, the colonel who saved him from the captain’s vicious commands by stationing him as his son’s English teacher, how his illiterate bunkmates from Turkey’s far flung corners learned how to read and write, how he pretended to be an officer to get those uneducated villagers to do his bidding, and much more.
When I read Eduardo Galeano’s short text translated above, I recalled my father’s fountain. Galeano’s story takes places in the fictional world of a South American writer. In my father’s story a Turkish man follows a military order because in our reality there are countries with armies and those armies need soldiers who must man fountains that no longer serve their purpose.
Galeano titled his piece “Bureaucracy.” I title mine “Time Thieves.”
If you enjoyed reading Galeano’s story, check out my previous translation of “The Land of Dreams.” El Libro de los Abrazos (The Book of Embraces) has been my Spanish teacher of late, filled with whimsical stories that take the reader from the streets of Cuba to Uruguayan prisons.