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THE DISAPPEARANCE OF JACK SHELTON : The Search for Their Son Brought Kathryn and Curtis Shelton Face to Face With Gautemala's Everyday Horrors

September 08, 1991|KEVIN McKIERNAN | Kevin McKiernan is a photojournalist based in Santa Barbara; he is writing a screenplay about this story.

"WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOUR CHILD disappears in a foreign country?" Kathryn Shelton asks.

The question has consumed her for a decade, the 10 years since she last saw her eldest son, Jack. Jack was brilliant and introspective, a man who'd graduated from college with honors in philosophy only to join the Marines when jobs were hard to come by. He may have realized quickly after he enlisted that this was his father's path, not his own, and after three uncomfortable years in the military and a few months in Europe as a tourist, he moved to San Francisco from his parents' quiet Knoxville, Tenn., neighborhood and began preparing for a trip to Mexico. He hoped that travel would help offset the "degrading" military experience--"You know," Kathryn says, "the group living and the fact his intelligence wasn't used to the fullest."

She glances around Jack's bedroom, apparently much as he had left it in the spring of 1981. In a closet, his classical guitar sits next to a 3-foot-high stack of National Geographics. A bookshelf is filled with reminders of his studies--the collected works of Rabelais, the 16th-Century French satirist, a volume entitled "The Wisdom of China and India" and another called "The Wisdom of Israel."

Kathryn stands at the desk, rearranging some Cub Scout derby cars. She's been calmly and steadily describing her son to me--his love of classical music, his track competitions, the way he didn't smoke or drink--but when her eyes light on a bundle of letters, she falls silent. * Jack, at 28 a seasoned traveler, had been a systematic, faithful correspondent: His final letter, dated July 9, 1981, was one of three he'd written to Kathryn and his father, Curtis, in only two weeks. "I've picked up a few scraps of Spanish," he had printed in his all-capital-letters writing. "Enough for survival." He had been in southern Mexico touring Mayan Indian ruins, Jack wrote, and although he was running short of money, he hoped to visit one more ancient site in the Yucatan before returning to the States to look for work.

Three days later, according to immigration logs, he crossed into Guatemala. His timing could hardly have been worse. Under the military regime of Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia--"the Saddam Hussein of Central America," in the words of a local missionary--Guatemala was in the midst of another violent purge. It was the latest bloodletting in 25 years of civil strife that Americas Watch estimates have left 100,000 dead and 40,000 missing.

Jack's parents never heard from him again. * During the next eight years, the search for a son became a search for a body. By early this year, it was simply a search for comfort. "You try to accept that it is over," says Kathryn, 60, a small woman with short, close-cropped hair and large glasses. "Then you see his handwriting, and it just melts you. You'll find out, if you ever lose someone. The most personal part of someone is their handwriting."

THE END OF JACK'S STEADY STREAM OF LETTERS WAS THE SHELTONS' FIRST clue that something was wrong. In August, 1981, when there had been no word from Jack in several weeks, Kathryn and Curtis were worried, but they had no idea where to turn. Four calls to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico proved unproductive. "They told us that when people get down in that climate, they tend to forget about time," Kathryn remembers. So Curtis, now 67, decided to go to Mexico to search for his son himself.

Although he does not speak Spanish and hadn't traveled outside the United States since he was a Marine on Okinawa nearly 40 years before, Curtis took leave from his post as an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Tennessee and made his way to San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, the town where Jack's last letter had been postmarked. A bus station on the last leg of his trip was full of cargo, bustling with passengers and noisy with the rapid speech patterns of the unfamiliar culture. Curtis, dressed in the same brown wool military shirt he'd worn as a young Marine, was relieved when a longhaired stranger emerged, speaking English, offering assistance. But as quickly as the man appeared, he was gone. Curtis checked for his wallet and passport. They were gone, too.

Curtis went home for new funds and credentials, returning two weeks later. When no one at the library or museum where Jack said he had studied in San Cristobal recognized his photograph, Curtis set off on a 10-hour bus ride to the Yucatan, to the Mayan ruins Jack had visited at Palenque. There, he searched out Americans, because they speak English and because he believed they would remember another American better. "I was beginning to see that to Mexicans, we all looked the same," Curtis says. But none of the Americans he met in Palenque remembered Jack. Curtis moved on.

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