Matchhead

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

The clear-eyed letter from January 2003 reads, in part: "I am not afraid of dying. I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me. Soon enough I will be in the desert, outside the City of Bagdad [sic], in full combat gear, ready to carry out my mission, wondering how this all happened so fast..."

Tomorrow's parade will mark the first time he's had the coffin off the trailer. With help, he lifts the casket and turns it crossways on the edge of the trailer, to clear workspace. He saws wood to build a rectangle he will fit with large wheels, to drag the coffin like a wagon. He would like to build it with bolts — which he considers precious enough to collect from the ground, just as he scrounges scrap wood from trash bins — but with only a handful of good bolts, he must resort to inferior drywall screws. With his work days few, he watches every expense. "There is a Home Depot nearby," he says, "but it doesn't do me any good."


Carlos Arredondo with his mother, Luz Maria Redondo.
Tom Ervin
Carlos Arredondo with his mother, Luz Maria Redondo.

In 1963, Carlos went to see John F. Kennedy in San José, when the president was in Costa Rica for a summit, his penultimate international trip. Although he was actually too young to remember the experience, his mother would remind him of the visit. He absorbed the lofty rhetoric of 1960s icons like Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., watched Spanish-language Three Stooges on television, and dreamed of traveling to the United States.

In 1980, at age 20, with just a year of high school under his belt, he talked a truck driver into stowing him and two friends through Nicaragua, then torn by civil war. A few miles from the border, Anastasio Somoza's government soldiers stopped the truck. He and his fellow travelers were held in a mansion serving as a prison until the Sandinistas claimed the place. Eventually, he made it to Long Beach, California, where he worked at a beach restaurant near the Queen Mary, and then to Boston, where his first introduction to the city's racial realities came courtesy of some toughs who chased him out of South Boston when he asked how to get to the John F. Kennedy Library.

At 23, he became a father, and an indulgent one at that. In the backyard of the family home, he would build ridiculous bouncy swings out of the giant springs used in garage door openers. On hot days, he would load the back of a pickup truck with a small pool, fill it with water, plop the boys in, and drive to get ice cream. He drove through the most godforsaken stretch of potholes in town. "You hear the laughing, you hear the screaming, and there they go," he recalls. "They try to hold on. They love it. They got bruises, and they got something to show the other kids. They want to bring other kids to the ride, but I only allow two or three kids onto the ride, because I did not want them to get hurt. 'Can we go to the bumpy road, can we go to the bumpy road?' Why not?"

His divorce from the boys' mother was no smoother. They first separated in 1988, when Alex was about 4, with the divorce becoming final in 1996. Out of impulsiveness and sheer stupidity, Carlos was twice arrested for trying to contact or visit the kids when the court dictated they were to be with their mother. Finally, he said to hell with it, packed his clothes, gave away most of his possessions, and told his landlord he was moving with Melida to South Florida.

Since Alex's death, Carlos has become one of the more visible figures in a culture he never wanted to be a part of. He spent time at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey last Easter, where the reception was warm except for some hecklers on horseback. ("My dream was always to see American cowboys," Carlos says. "So they made my American dream come true, even if they were yelling at us.") Carlos and Melida have returned to South Florida for Broward Anti-War Coalition gatherings; they plan to spend the weeks before the mid-term elections this year in Broward, speaking and campaigning.

On an antiwar bus tour this spring to Washington, D.C., Carlos met one of the cheerleaders of the Iraq War, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. Perle told him he hoped he would one day be proud of the job Alex and others did in Iraq. Carlos told him he was already proud of Alex and gave Perle a copy of Alex's letter. Perle later sent a personal check for $1,000 to the scholarship fund Carlos established in his son's name. Though grateful, Carlos plans to write him a letter thanking him and telling him where to get off.

"On Memorial Day, I went to visit this family, the Lucey family," Carlos says one afternoon, referring to Jeffrey Lucey, a young Marine from a nearby town. "Kevin and Joyce, they are the parents. He went to Iraq; he was a U.S. Marine. He come back with posttraumatic stress disorder. He was trying to be a normal citizen. Was very hard for him. One of the things that happened there was he shot and killed two Iraqi soldiers. That was the biggest torment that he had. He took orders from someone who said, 'Shoot.'

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