Matchhead

Carlos Arredondo did the unthinkable with gasoline, a Marine van, and a propane torch. Two years later, he still burns.

Two summers ago in Hollywood, helicopter cameras broadcast a snapshot of hell: a van in flames, vomiting smoke into the sky like a burning oil well as paramedics nearby loaded a man into an ambulance. Naked but for his shorts, he was strapped to a stretcher, immobilized except for his arms — they shivered, making the man look like a lunatic mime with an invisible squeezebox. That image was carried around the world, and it's why people in California, in Massachusetts, in Japan, in Costa Rica all remember the man who burned himself in Hollywood, Florida, even if they don't remember that the man was named Carlos Arredondo.

Print and broadcast media were all over him for a time — the attention helped pump his wife's cell phone bill to around $5,000 in the aftermath of the accident — but after Arredondo left South Florida to receive treatment in Boston, he practically disappeared from local media. He blew town without ever really answering the question of why a man, even one stricken with grief, would do what he did — namely, damn near kill himself in a government van with five gallons of gasoline and a propane torch.

When a New Times reporter sought an answer to that question of why, part of the answer became apparent as Arredondo drove around the Boston suburb of Roslindale speaking about his son Alex. "The day he born, you know, like any other baby, he cry," says Carlos, a Costa Rican national whose English syntax often follows its own rules. "But it was laughing since then. There's no picture where he's not laughing." Five-foot-eleven and athletic, Alex talked about becoming an electrician until, at 17, he enlisted in the Marines, a move he barely discussed with his worried father.

"My son approached me and said, 'Dad, I'm a U.S. Marine. '" Carlos was stunned. "I said: 'Listen, son, I love you very much, I will support you, but you be very careful, because I don't want you to come back in a body bag.' He said, 'Dad, that's not going to happen. '"

Even as the young man shipped off to Iraq in 2003, he managed to find ways of delighting his family. Early in the war, Carlos and his second wife, Melida, pulled their truck to the side of the road in astonishment when they heard him interviewed from an Iraqi tobacco factory on public radio; he lay in wait for his mother and grandmother to astound them on a visit home in 2004; he summoned his mother, Victoria Foley, to a military annex in Maine during a brief stopover there.

Carlos could have used a good surprise on August 25, 2004, a hot day in a trying summer. His semi-estranged father, an absentee alcoholic who had been suffering liver problems, had died a couple of months earlier, his body found on a roadside in Costa Rica. For the second time in ten years, he and Melida had moved from Boston to Hollywood to be near her elderly mother and had maintained a home on Tyler Street, two miles west of I-95.

The stress of Alex's being gone for almost two years, with so little contact and so much carnage, was rubbing Carlos' heart raw. At the time, the 17-month-old war still seemed to be happening at a great distance, five months after four contractors were maimed and burned in Fallujah and shortly after news broke of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Flag-shrouded coffins were being brought home under cover of night and photographic blackout, as though grief ignored was grief contained. American forces seemed to be fighting bad news abroad so we wouldn't have to face it here, but Carlos clung to every bit of news from the war, good and bad. "I would talk to the ladies in my office," Melida says today. "They'd ask, 'How are you doing?' I'd be honest. I'd say, 'God forbid something happens to Alex. Carlos will just go off the deep end. He could end up hurting himself or other people or trying to kill himself. '"

But on that day — Carlos' 44th birthday — the father was sure he would hear from his son. So it was that Carlos was painting the white picket fence in the yard with a phone in his pocket, hoping for a call, when the green Chevy van arrived full of Marines.

Carlos' first thought was that Alex had topped himself: He had come to visit!

The van stopped, and three uniformed Marines from the Hialeah base came onto the lawn. Marine Sgt. Timothy Shipman, Gunnery Sgt. Syril Melvin, and Staff Sgt. Abraham Negron told him there in front of the house that they regretted to inform him that his first-born son, Alex, had been killed in Iraq.

Carlos was staggered. He ran to look for his mother, Luz Marina Redondo, the only other person at home. He tried calling a friend in Boston; she didn't pick up. Then he called Alex's mother in Maine and reached Carlos' only other son, the younger Brian. A van was in Bangor too. The Marines there didn't tell Brian; he knew when he saw them that Alex had died. "I said, 'Oh, my God, how ignorant I was,'" Carlos says. He called Melida and over a terrible connection implored her to come home from work.

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