"I'm sorry," the airline ticket clerk said, "but it seems I miscounted. We are one passenger over, and the authorities won't let you go."

I should have tried to bribe him just on principle. Maybe some late arrival had slipped him a wad of negotiable incentive to erase one name from the government-regulated departure manifest and pencil in another. Maybe he was telling the truth.

Either way, it was too late for self-criticism, even in Marxist Nicaragua.

The year was 1986, and it was fall. Eugene Hasenfus, the American flier caught dropping guns to Oliver North's contras, was on trial for terrorism, which was what had brought me back to Nicaragua.

Across the departure lounge, Interior Minister Tomas Borge, pistol on hip, was strolling about, waiting for some incoming VIP delegation. Armed guards traipsed after him.

With the Hasenfus flap, it was now more evident than ever that this was a country at war -- not a good time for an American to ask for mercy from the Sandinistas.

But mercy was what I needed, in the form of the airline ticket the clerk was just about to retrieve from me.

I was as sick as the proverbial dog. Several days earlier, I had been turned out of my Managua hotel -- along with virtually every other paying guest -- to make room for VIPs.

A colleague and I had found rooms in the house of a Sandinista official for $15 -- cash, in U.S. dollars, please -- per day, each.

But the low-grade fever I had been running daily for almost a year had worsened. My bowels were in an uproar, my brain and my eyes cloaked in some gauzy, myopic veil.

The trial notwithstanding, I decided to leave the country. That proved easier said than done.

The Sandinistas had imposed passenger quotas on northbound flights in some spat with some airline or some government for some offense. Only a few passengers, about 30 I think it was, were allowed to fly out of Managua for points north on the one or two flights daily that passed through.

Consequently, it could take days to get a reservation. Still, there often were no-shows, and if you got to the airport by 4 a.m. you could get your name atop the standby list and have a shot at a ride out.

This I did.

I spent a tense couple of hours watching passengers troop up to the counter and check in, but finally the clerk summoned me and told me I had made the cut. Elated, I picked up my bags and worked my way through the various security and immigration checkpoints.

Finally, I dropped exhausted into a chair in the departure lounge to wait some more and to watch the white smoke pour from the volcano across the runway, to watch my airliner taxi up on the tarmac outside, to watch Borge pace, to listen to my flight being called for departure.

Which is what had just happened when the clerk found me, plucked the boarding pass from me and headed for the door that led back to the terminal. My pleas of illness got me nowhere.

What had begun as a bad dream now became a nightmare.

The immigration official refused to return my visa, which he had earlier removed from my passport and had duly logged in as that of one American departed this date. He did, however, cross out the exit stamp in my passport. He indicated he was doing me a favor; in truth, it only made things worse.

I headed back through the security checkpoints. These guys -- Nicaragua's soldier-bureaucrats -- are not accustomed to seeing Yanquis in time of war walking back from the departure lounge with no visa, their exit permiso crossed-out and THE INTERIOR MINISTER HIMSELF just around the corner.

What to do?

Arrest him!

In an instant, I had been transformed from aggrieved traveler to suspected enemy of the state. My passport was taken, as were my bags, wallet and other belongings. I was ushered aside and told to wait.

And wait.

I protested. I explained. I told them to find the airline clerk, you know, the guy who just went through here? He'll tell you. I spewed names of Sandinista big shots I knew. And some I didn't. Call them, I demanded, they'll vouch for me.

Just wait. Wait.

After what seemed an eternity -- but was probably no more than an hour or so of staring at a wall -- a comandante appeared. A couple of perfunctory questions, and I was handed my papers and effects and, with a brusque "Pase!" found myself back in the terminal.

I discovered I had a considerable reserve of energy as I bounded up the stairs from the lobby, found the clerk's office and shared with him some of my innermost feelings about him, his country, his airline and his ancestral heritage.

To his credit, he took it all with grace and, with but the slightest urging on my part, offered to help me get out of Nicaragua the long way -- by going south, for which there were no exit quotas.

In short order, he announced there was a Panamanian flight leaving soon for Costa Rica and he had gotten me a ticket.

But I was wary. I insisted he take me down the hall to his counterpart at COPA, from whom I demanded a personal escort all the way back through security and immigration lest I, now visa-less and with that suspect "X" in my passport, participate in an encore performance of "Who Do You Trust?"

Fortunately, none of the shifts had changed, and the immigration official actually smiled as I went through his little booth again and he merrily thumped another exit stamp in my passport.

This time, Borge and his guards were gone, something I took to be a good omen, and in due time I was walking out onto the tarmac and winging past the volcano.

That afternoon, I crawled into bed in central San Jose and slept through to morning, when I caught a blessedly uneventful flight back to Florida.

Several doctors and tests later, I learned I had intestinal parasites, which I had figured, and a bacterial cattle disease called brucellosis, which I had not.

But that's another story.

Mark J. Prendergast was Latin America correspondent for the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel from 1985 to 1987.