Updated: August 11, 2013 6:33AM
He was not a big man, but he was barrel-chested and walked with a bit of a swagger, leaving you to remember him as bigger than he was.
He was dressed as if he was on his way to a regatta: white pants, deck shoes with no socks and an oiled, wool sweater with a rolled collar. That latter item is almost surely wrong, though, a trick of my memory. We were in Barbados, and it was 90 degrees. Nobody would have worn such a sweater. Still, I remember him that way, though I realize I am confusing him with Ernest Hemingway.
He walked into the bar and surveyed its inhabitants: Me, a dozen other reporters and a bartender reading a newspaper. It was 10 a.m.
“So,” he said smacking his hands together with a crack that brought every head in the room snapping up with attention. “We go to war, no?”
The more experienced reporters went back to their drinks. “Another Swede,” one sighed.
It was late October 1983, and the United States had just invaded the small island nation of Grenada in the southeastern Caribbean. In what we called “Operation Urgent Fury,” the U.S. Army’s Rapid Deployment Force, the U.S. Marines, the U.S. Army Delta Force, the U.S. Navy SEALs and other forces totaling about 7,000 men blasted their way on shore to confront about 1,500 members of the Grenadian Army and about 700 Cubans, most of whom were engineers helping Grenada expand its airport.
The United States was invading either to restore order after a military coup, to keep Cubans from building an airstrip that could serve as a military outpost, to protect American students attending a medical school in Grenada or to make the American public forget that just two days before, the Marine barracks in Beirut had been blown up, killing 241 American servicemen. Take your pick.
The world press had gathered, but nobody could get to Grenada because the U.S. military had cordoned off the island with jets and ships. The legality of such a blockade was an open question, and an American TV network rented a plane and headed for Grenada.
But a U.S. jet appeared off its wingtip, warned the small plane away and then “bounced” it. This meant the jet flew close enough to the small plane to catch it in the turbulence from its jet wash. The pilot of the network plane lost control and spiraled toward the sea, before pulling up at the last second and turning back safely.
After that, the media lost its taste for challenging U.S. airpower, and the world press was happy to congregate on the island of Barbados, about 160 miles away from Grenada. The U.S. military promised it would ferry us over by transport plane as soon as things were pacified.
I was very happy to hang out in Barbados. It was a lovely resort island, with restaurants and beaches and bars. But the barrel-chested guy with the swagger had other ideas.
“We go to Grenada!” he said, slapping down a business card from a Swedish newspaper in front of me. “And we go by sea!”
After a few beers, I learned that Swedish reporters were ferocious competitors, they knew all about oceans, and if oceans couldn’t stop the Vikings, they couldn’t stop the press. We would rent a boat and sail to Grenada. He and I got into a cab and went down to the harbor to look at the vessel that would take us across 160 miles of open ocean while evading the U.S. Navy.
The tub made the “African Queen” look like an ocean liner. It was a tiny, paint-peeling thing, with no mast or any other visible means of propulsion. There was also another problem. The water seems very, very close to the top of the boat, I said.
“Gunwales,” my Swedish friend corrected me. “The water is close to the gunwales. But it will be OK. We will scoop everyone! We will scoop the world!”
The owner of the vessel saved me. He wanted $1,000 in cash from each of us to rent his floating bathtub, and I explained my newspaper would not spend that kind of money to purchase an island, let alone to rent a boat to get to one.
I thought the Swede would be dejected, but nothing could dent his spirit. “So,” he said, “back to the bar!”
The next day we flew to Grenada via U.S. military transport plane, and I linked up with a military video team there to record things for history. We careened around the island in a Jeep, driving on the right side of the road even though Grenadians drive on the left side. Conquerors make their own rules.
Last week, I was in Sweden to talk about U.S. politics, as a guest of Aftonbladet, the largest media outfit in Scandinavia. On a whim, I tried to find the reporter I had met in Barbados, hampered only by the fact I could remember neither his name nor his newspaper.
He was friendly, I told people. Charming. He liked the sea. And reminded one of Hemingway. Which narrowed it down to a good portion of all the men in Sweden, I was told.
I still have hope, though. It’s been only 30 years. And the next time we invade somebody, I’m looking for him.