Melville Hodgson, 46, was an ambitious Nicaraguan colonel on the rise until General Anastasio Somoza cut short his career last December for allegedly plotting the dictator's overthrow. Now he spends his days backing in and out of tight spots behind the Madison Hotel in downtown Washington.
The former deputy commander of Leon, one of Nicaragua's largest cities, works as a $2.75 an hour parking attendant at Sarbov's 250-car lot at 1420 M Street NW.
A stocky, mustached man with salt and pepper curls, Hodgson speaks philosophically of his new command. "No work is degrading," says the colonel, who has been counting the days since Somoza resigned last month until he can return home to Nicaragua and his wife and 13-year-old daughter. "Besides, this isn't a permanent job. I'm just waiting to go home."
His new command post is a blue and white shack equipped with a time clock, calendar on the wall and a wobbly fan. His new uniform -- red parking attendant's shirt tucked snappily into blue polyester pants -- replaces starched khakis with epaulettes.
As for his regulation black, spit and polish shoes, the colonel now struts about Sarbov's lot in blue and white Adidas, punching tickets and driving mostly in reverse.
Washington is a city of exiles on the run from topsy-turvy governments. Upon arriving, they must eke out a new life as best they can. As for Hodgson, he spends these August days sweating on the lot, nights on a reclining lawn chair in the living room of a new-found friend and Sundays in Potomac Park cheering a softball team composed of fellow Nicaraguans.
Angry and bitter, Hodgson fled the country after his life was threatened, he says, by Somoza loyalists. "I was getting phone calls threatening to kill me if I didn't leave," he says. He'd been sent packing from the army without a trial, retirement pay -- "with nothing."
He's "flat broke," he says, having run through $2,000 in savings to keep his family afloat since he was fired last December 17 from General Headquarters in Managua. He left the country in February and found his way to Washington. From a briefcase, he pulls official documents that say he was dismissed for violating "the rules of the government and the discipline of the National Guard."
After a distinguished 25-year army career. Hodgson, the fourth of seven children of a sawmill worker, finds himself out in the cold.
A graduate of the Nicaragua Military Academy -- first in the class of 1957 -- Hodgson trained at several U.S. army schools Somoza required his National Guard officers to attend for advancement and, for 25 years, rose through the ranks.
He taught tactical weapons, geometry and trigonometry at the academy, instructed a tank batallion in small arms and demonstrated sufficient skill and loyalty to be selected as a Somoza bodyguard. He was earning 3,200 cordobas ( $450 a month at the previous exchange rate) as deputy commander of Leon when he was arrested for plotting a coup along with a group of 15 officers.
His odyssey of exile bagan on August 27, 1978, the same day that the Nicaraguan Chambers of Commerce voted to support a nationwide strike to run until Somoza resigned. The government's bloody seige of Leon with artillery and air bombardment -- and accusations of genocide -- would not begin for three weeks. Hodgson vilian demonstrators while he was in charge.
They came for him at 11:30 p.m., just as he was falling asleep. "Get up and put your clothes on," ordered Col. Rene Zelaya, Leon's commander.
"I thought it was just another demonstration," says Hodgson, who reached the strap on his pistol. Zelaya shoved him and ordered him handcuffed.
He was taken to Managua, the capital, interrogated, forced to do pushups all night. "I was so tired my legs were shaking," and left in his underwear ("to break my morale.") He said he knew nothing.
In fact, he was disgruntled with the way Somoza had been getting rich while muscling the people and paying the army peanuts, he says, but the so-called coup had gotten little beyond grousing over coffee with his friend, Bernardino Larios, the current defense minister. Larios was also arrested at the time.
"Larios was trying to organize other officers," said Hodgson. "He was telling them that I had influence with the enlisted men and that they could count on me if we had a coup."
Hodgson says he didn't know of the plan until later.
Guards threw Hodgson into the security prison with the other officers, who kept to themselves, fearing an informant in their midst. Several officers were released. Hodgson was sent to Campo de Mayo, the general headquarters, confined for 30 days, and after no charges were brought, transferred to Carazo to the south, where he was put in charge of personnel guarding coffee plantations.
After he was handed his walking papers in December, he found it impossible to get a job in the war-torn country and, after being threatened, decided to run for his life. He called a former schoolmate who works at the Army Navy Club in Washington, detailed his plight and got invited to the states.
Last month, as Hodgson was walking down M Street, down to his last dime, he saw the familiar face of Tamon Barberena, the commandant of the parking lot who once hawked alligator belts to tourists at Managua's airport, where the former officer once worked. Barberena offered him a job.
He's not sure if the Sandinista-backed junta would welcome an out-of-work colonel but he hopes that they will find a place for his military skills in the army or the police.
Last month, the junta said that the Sandinista rebels who forced Somoza into exile in Miami would be the foundation of Nicaragua's new army, but that they would welcome former members of the National Guard who demonstrated -- honest and patriotic conduct in the face of the guard's corruption, repression and selling out, or who deserted to fight against Somoza."
Hodgson figures that means him.