MUTUM OPERATION – July 7, 1975 – The Damista

(Episode 29)

Monday dawned with overcast skies and heavy rain. Another strong tropical storm was announced for the region. I knew from experience from the times I lived in Mutum that this would be a day to stay at home.
In Mutum, when it rains hard, the day gets very ugly. The best thing to do was not to leave because no umbrella would hold that storm that was about to fall. From the living room window I was looking at the empty square. I was absorbed, focused on my own thoughts, when, when I heard footsteps in the corridor, I turned to see who was coming over to where I was and saw my grandfather who turned and went up the stairs to the townhouse. It was when I turned to face the corridor that I noticed, in a corner of the room, the table with the chess and checkerboard. It was there that I learned to play with my uncle Levy. I stood there, looking at the table, the board and the memories of my childhood took over my thoughts.
At that time I was twelve years old and spent most of my time in Zequita’s barber salon, right next to my grandparents’ house, in the square. There, I shined customers’ shoes at the barbershop. The hall had a complete, tall, metal shoeshine chair, two large drawers where all the material needed for a good shine in any type of shoe was kept.
I earned a percentage for the number of shined pairs of shoes, which represented a sufficient amount of money for my expenses with nonsense. And the guarantee of admission on Sundays to watch the Sport games.
When he didn’t have shoes to shine, he played checkers with Zequita or with anyone who showed up and wanted a party. There were good players, and I, although at a young age, did not look bad with any of them. In addition to the Zequita lounge, there were chess boards and checkers in other places, such as the Clube Recreativo and Tringolingo, a club that belonged to Independente, a football club that rivaled Sport.
The best games took place on Saturdays, when the hall was full, with all the barber chairs occupied, and on Sunday mornings, after masses and services, as in the afternoons everyone was committed to Sport, with his red shirt as of America from Rio de Janeiro or with Tringolingo, with their yellow shirt like the Brazilian National team shirt. The room always closed at two in the afternoon, on Sunday, to allow Zequita time to go watch football.

One morning, I was in the salon when a man arrived to cut his hair and shine his shoes. While I was shining, he was watching the checkers closely. He was a black man, in his fifties, smiling and friendly.
He finished shining and stood there by the board, sapping. Frog was what we used to call those who stand by the side watching the games when we played, cheering for one or the other player and, sometimes, laughing at a wrong move or even making guesses when he thought there was a move that the player had not noticed. Many times the player adopted a procedure known as deceiving the frog, which was to see a clear and logical move and make another one, completely unexpected, just to see the frog squeak and then the player to enjoy his frustration for not having done it. the move the frog hoped he would make. It was always a dangerous procedure because, in the game of checkers, there are not many possibilities for variation for some moves without us getting complicated. But it was always worth it to provoke the frog.
I remember that the man whose shoes I had just greased did not prove to be a flat frog. He was watching the game all the time with a watchful eye, without even shaking his head when one move or another caused the frogs to shake.
When the board was free, he sat down and asked who could play a game with. Soon Zequita looked at the shoeshine chair and seeing that I was not shining, he said I knew how to play well and gave me a sign to accept the game.
The frogs were gone and we started playing with the empty room. Our first matches were play by play, being always decided in the final plays. Then, I started to lose always, more and more easily. As much as I tried to resist, I could not harden the game any more. So I said there was no way, that I couldn’t face it anymore. Then you started to speak, praising my way of playing and trying to stimulate me. And introduced himself.
He was called Messias, he was a postal and telegraph employee in Juiz de Fora, he had gone to Mutum for a special line checking service and he was always competing for the Brazilian Checkers Championship. He praised my game once again and, opening a leather briefcase he carried with him, showed us some clippings from newspapers with reports of lathes and championships in which he had already participated in several places in Brazil, always with great prominence. She was, by far, much better than all of us, who played in Zequita’s salon. So he became interested in knowing where and how I learned to play checkers. I told him that I had learned from my uncle Levy, with whom I played checkers and chess when he came to Mutum, to visit us.

The Lord Messiah chuckled and said that was not what he was asking. When I showed offense, he explained that, at the beginning of our matches, I had really played in a bold and so safe way that he was surprised and had to work hard to beat me. But after that, he started to study my game little by little and soon, soon, he had no more difficulty in mastering me. Then he asked me if I read the Correio da Manhã. I said yes and he asked me if I knew Damista and I confirmed that I did.
Damista was a section of the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Correio da Manhã that featured the design of a checkerboard, with plays to be studied and decorated, always prepared by some of the best players in Brazil. I had gotten used to cutting and collecting these plays and then using them against my opponents when playing in the hall. The Lord Messiah asked me if I had kept any of those clippings and asked me to see them. I promptly ran to pick them up at my house, which was right there, next to the hall.
He then gave me the explanations that I did not have for my performance so irregular, strong at the beginning of the games and so weak at the end.
Among my clippings there were games of matches that I had used and that had been, to my amazement, prepared and sent by someone who signed M something, that is to say Messiah, the one who was there and who had played with me. And that started to give me an incredible wash in the checkerboard as soon as he identified, in my plays, his tips given in Damista. That I studied, cut, saved and used in my games against everyone who played with me.
So that I wouldn’t get discouraged because of the walk he had taken in the hall, Senhor Messias gave me a portable checkerboard as a gift, one of which the pieces are attached to the board by a magnet and a piece of advice: “you are an intelligent boy . Keep playing. And don’t stop reading Damista ”.
Lightning streaked across the sky and a deafening thunder shook the house, bringing me back to the reality of that rainy morning.
From where I was, in the living room of my grandparents’ house, I could see when the military convoy passed through the square and headed for the exit of the city, in the direction of Lajinha. “They’ll start searching again with all this rain,” I said quietly. “The craziest people”, I completed.
(To be continued next week)

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