When John's old man got tired of teaching sixth grade in California, he decided to become a missionary and move the entire family to Uganda, which is an absolutely beautiful country in East Africa.
John's family left for Africa just after the despot Idi Amin was sent packing, and so there was still plenty of evidence of the mad dictator's reign. The most obvious was that the local soldiery (to use the term loosely) liked to earn a side living by setting up roadblocks and extorting money from anyone driving past. The thuggish soldiers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted to the natives, but because the replacement government was still attempting to suck up to the United States, a soldier who took liberties with a white person was about two hours away from a shallow grave.
Sadly, the soldiers in Uganda were not exactly America's Finest. They tended to drink a lot, carry filthy weapons that would never have worked if they were not AK-47s, and were about as sloppy a bunch as ever wore a uniform. So from time to time, John would hear about a soldier who detained a carload of missionaries for an hour or two, until a ranking officer showed up and the soldier disappeared, probably to be found in a ditch with his hands cut off and a bullet in his forehead.
John lived in the capital city of Kampala in ninth grade, but he had a good friend whose father was a foreign investor. John's friend lived in a small town about two hours from the capital. John went one weekend to spend a few days at his friend's house, and to get back, he bummed a ride with a couple Peace Corps guys in one of those horrible miniature pickup trucks that had no shocks and barely enough room for two people in the cab. The Peace Corps boys were in the front. John wound up sharing the bed of the truck with two Luganda women who claimed the spot right behind the cab, leaving John to have mosquitoes the size of grapes bounce off his teeth for two bumpy hours.
Before they had gone far, the truck was stopped at one of those ubiquitous roadblocks that seemed to crop up anywhere a soldier could find enough room to put up a sawhorse and a lawn chair. The standard operating procedure for missionaries, when the soldier leaned in and stuck out his hand, was to give him a pamphlet and smile. Unfortunately, nobody told the Peace Corps guys. They were a couple college grads working off their student loans, and they weren't religious, anyway. So they didn't know to bribe the soldier with crappy brochures about Jesus.
To set the scene, the roadblock had been erected in the absolute middle of nowhere. Uganda is a small country - you could fit the whole thing inside Texas - but for being that small, there sure was a lot of no place at all. This wasn't even remote farmland. There was an open, grassy field, and just as with nearly any location in Uganda, you could see jungle somewhere. They were on a two-lane road with more potholes than finished surface, transporting two Luganda women, and stopped by one soldier who had pulled over his jeep and slapped up a barricade to spend a day supplementing his income. It was just the five people in the truck, the soldier, and a water buffalo. And the water buffalo was sleepy.
The soldier leaned into the cab, and in the sort of pidgin English that you see in movies but are never really sure if it's real (it is, by the way), asked the driver for something. John didn't hear what the soldier said - he was in the very back of the truck, as far from the cab as he could be without sitting on the bumper. The driver and passenger pulled out passports, which would usually have been more than enough, but the soldier wasn't particularly happy to let the truck drive off without a bribe, and the two kids in the front of the truck did a sorry job of reminding him they were white people. So the soldier, unhappy with his luck, came back to the bed of the truck.
Since the two women were closest to the cab, he started with them.
'Let me see your ID,' he said, vaguely threatening with his AK and smoldering marijuana roll-up. His eyes were completely bloodshot, and he smelled like reefer madness on a tequila bender. The two ladies complied, conjuring paperwork that the soldier examined (though John was not entirely convinced the man could read).
Before the story continues, we should take note that John was 14 years old and traveling with complete strangers. He did not have a driver's license. He didn't even carry a wallet, because he didn't need one, because he was 14 years old. So he had absolutely no Earthly idea what he was going to show this drunken, stoned highway bandit when the soldier asked for identification. John's heart was racing as the ludicrously inebriated soldier turned to question him.
If you asked him today, John could not tell you if it was sheer panic or a burst of inspiration, but he somehow managed to maintain the kind of calm you usually only see in James Bond movies or nuclear safety films from the 1950s. Before the uniformed thug could say anything, John beat him to the punch, and asked:
'Can I see your ID?'
John must have looked like he had some right to ask for identification. It might have been his white skin, his completely false arrogance, or the obviously altered state of mind the soldier was currently enjoying. Whatever the case, the soldier took his AK-47 and shoved it into John's hands, saying, 'This is my ID.'
Still pretending to be some kind of roadblock specialist, John took the gun and looked it over, then handed it back with a nod. But the soldier had one more piece of identification, so he took the assault rifle from John, took the joint out of his mouth, and handed that to John, saying, 'And this.'
John just kept nodding like a UN inspector. He took the hand-rolled smoke, looked it over, and handed it back.
'That's good,' he said. 'You can go.'
And just like that, the soldier stepped away from the truck, turned around and walked back to his lawn chair. Not needing to be told twice, the Peace Corps kid behind the wheel took off.
John never talked to either of the Peace Corps guys again, and so he never found out what went through their minds when, while stopped at a remote roadblock in the middle of terrain perfectly suited to hiding bodies, the high-school freshman in the back of the truck took the assault rifle away from an African soldier, and then examined his drugs. John likes to think they were impressed.