Matchhead

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

"He commit suicide by hanging himself in the basement. His father, when he returned from work, he look here and saw his son hanging. He was looking down at the ground, he see his son there, he don't even go in the basement again."

When Carlos makes speeches, he tells people that the war is a mistake, but mostly he talks about Alex. A few days before the parade, he spoke at a house party a few blocks from Harvard University. A rock band called Disaster Strikes invited him to join them on the floor before a show. About a hundred young people listened respectfully as he talked about his experiences. "People here remember that," says the band's singer, who goes by J.R. "They see him and they say, 'That was that guy? Holy shit. '"

Sometimes after these talks, people tell Carlos he is their hero, though as a wartime immolator, he is perhaps best admired without being emulated. At least four Americans burned themselves to death in protest of the Vietnam War; the most famous among them was Norman Morrison, a Quaker who torched himself outside Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's Pentagon office window in 1965. In 1991, a college student named Greg Levey burned himself up in the Amherst, Mass., town square in protest of the first Gulf War. Carlos' burning, unintentional though it was, still carries part of that resonance. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News story on the Marines who notify families of casualties mentioned Arredondo's as a worst-case scenario.

"If someone shoves Carlos," Melida says one night, "he'll shove 'em back harder. That's the truth of the matter. And I see it. But I actually think he is a pacifist, because he wouldn't want to be shoved to begin with."

Carlos adds, in his imperfect English: "I didn't born violent. I born happy. Always in happy."

"The way it's been depicted," Melida says another time, "is that Carlos got the news and went off, burned the van. But the whole protocol was questionable. He was told on the front lawn. It's a hot, summer day in Florida; he's painting a fence. He asked them to leave many, many times after they gave him the news. They didn't want to leave, and he got pissed off, on top of being really, really hurt."

"No, not pissed off," Carlos adds gently. "I wasn't pissed off."

"You were frustrated."

"No," he replies. "No, it was a... " Carlos says, and pauses to consider.

"Yeah, it could be frustrated, but all the mixture I was feeling, you know?"

Nearly two years after the accident, that's about as well as he can explain it. Carlos Arredondo remains a volatile guy, and trouble yet stalks him even when he least expects it.


The day of the parade is cool, overcast, and dry, blessings all. The line of dancers, marching bands, and antique cars stretches back ad infinitum, it seems. Somewhere toward the back, lining up on a side street, is Carlos, clad in a houndstooth jacket, a black shirt with a black bow tie, slacks, stout shoes. A bagpipe corps warms up on the corner beside him as chubby-thighed majorettes file past, and nearby, an antique fire truck carries the New Liberty Jazz Band. He and Melida have brought their two rat terriers, who sit in a little high-walled wagon.

He's harried. The posters of Alex he brought can't be carried on sticks — some parade regulation — but a Vietnam vet ex-Marine named Winston offers to help. As Carlos begins to introduce himself, Winston says, "I knew your story before anyone. We have a grapevine."

The Dorchester People for Peace group lines up in front of Carlos with a broad banner; except for Carlos and another man, everyone has at least some gray hairs. Slowly, the line begins to lurch.

"How long is the parade?" Carlos asks the older veteran.

"About four, four-and-a-half miles," he replies.

"Oh," Carlos says, "what about your injuries?"

"I don't have any injuries," Winston says. "Just — up here."

"We all do," Carlos says. He tows the coffin with one hand, and with the other, he holds a double-sided poster with photos of Alex — one with his brother, one of Alex in uniform, and a third of him lying in state.

The head of the parade drags up a hill. The snare drums of a bagpipe corps and the cheering are cacophonous. At the top, a man recognizes Carlos.

"I'm sorry for your loss," the man says. Tears pool in his eyes but do not fall. "I can't imagine."

"This is a letter my son wrote," Carlos says as he pulls an envelope from his jacket pocket. "His first letter on the way to war. I want to share it with you."

"Thank you," the man says. "Thank you for being here."

As Carlos turns the corner onto Dorchester Street, the main drag through the village, the Dixie Land Jazz Band strikes up like a warped New Orleans funeral march following a Scottish dirge, with Carlos between. He trudges with his head down, with the poster of his sons' faces smiling out at the crowd and the image of his boy in the coffin facing back at him. He doesn't see the swath he cuts, but it is stark. Men and women clap, wince, salute, gasp "Oh my God..." One woman in a lawn chair grabs her small daughter and begins crying. Kids who have been wiggling to the jazz stop, tug their parents' sleeves, and point. Once, when the parade stops for some reason or another, a child on the sidewalk drops a small ball, which rolls into the gutter. Carlos leaves the coffin, walks over, and jumps at the ball. He lands with his feet on either side and tosses it straight back to the little boy, soccer-style, then wordlessly walks back to the coffin.

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