What An Evening In A Guatemalan Jail Taught Me
Have you ever spent an evening in a Guatemalan jail? I have. I was rescued by a German entrepreneur who previously moonlighted doing black ops for the US government and was a former member of the Hitler Youth. He then taught me the power of a sincere plea for help. Yes, this is a true story, although it has been edited for the sake of brevity. Plus, if I gave you all the details, it would only make the story that much more unbelievable.
Ok, I have embellished the story a bit. I only spent a few hours in the lobby of the Guatemalan jail and was never personally under the threat of being thrown in a cell, although my father was. And the man who got us out of the situation may have been an amazing liar or insane. Regardless, the lesson he taught me about the power of asking for help was as true then as it is today. But back to our story.
In 1991 my father took me, then a teenager, along with my brother-in-law and pregnant sister on a trip to Mexico and Guatemala to visit archeological sites. On this particular day, we had rented a car and driven to a rural area where we spent the day looking at ruins. On the way back to town that evening, my father was driving the car while I rode in the passenger seat. My brother-in-law was in the back seat with my pregnant sister laying across his lap, as she was not feeling too well. As our car entered an intersection coming into town, a car coming the opposite direction turned left in front of us. With no time to react, our car slammed head-on into the other vehicle.
We escaped with minor injuries. The other driver didn’t fare so well. We don’t know what happened to him, but we know he was knocked unconscious and was bleeding. We suspect he was intoxicated. I haven’t kept up with the Guatemalan legal system since then, but at the time the law regarding auto accidents was that if there was any blood, both parties go to jail until a judge can decide the matter. I, along with my father, sister, and brother in law, were all put in police cars and hauled off.
At the police station we were informed that since the other driver was seriously injured, my father, as the drive of our vehicle, could not leave the jail until a judge reviewed the case. It was Friday. The judge wouldn’t be in until Monday. And this jail didn’t look like the kind of place that welcomed foreigners. Where the cement walls weren’t chipping away, they were painted a bright pastel green. If someone were to make a movie and use this real-life prison as a set, people would say it was stereotypical to the point of lacking all credibility.
Even in Guatemala we were allowed our one phone call, so we called some friends with whom we were staying, and they told us “We know someone, hang tight.” For the next two hours we sat there waiting, watching camouflage-wearing guards with M-16s walk back and forth as a portly Guatemalan jail guard sat at an old wooden desk by the front door and pecked away on an antique typewriter.
Suddenly in walked the president of the country. At least that’s what he looked like. This man was in his late 50’s or early 60’s, tall, fit, wearing a three-piece suit, and acted as though he owned the jail, if not the country. He approached the guard at the front desk who directed him to us. He came over and introduced himself, acting like some sort of James Bond. “Hello, I’m Gurt Kynichnik, and I’m going to get you out of here.”
At that moment this evidently deranged man’s statement could not have been more unbelievable. Was he going to single-handedly take on all the guards? Did he have a special operations team waiting outside? We had no idea what he intended to do, so we sat back and watched. Gurt spoke with some of the guards, but at first was only able to figure out what we already knew–my father wasn’t going to be released until Monday after he could see a judge. But he was also able to figure out one more thing, which was that the chief of police was in his office, and the chief had the authority to let us go. Unfortunately, the guards would not allow Gurt to speak to the chief of police.
To understand what happened next, you’ll need to understand the layout of the jail. We were sitting on a bench with our backs against an inner wall of the jail. To our right was the front desk, several guards, and the front door. To our immediate left was the opening to a hallway lined with jail cells. Down the corridor we were sitting in and past that hallway, I could see several doors to what were apparently administrative offices. It was in one of these offices that the chief of police sat. And it was into that office Gurt intended to go. But before one could get into the office, he would have to pass by a guard with an M-16 who stood in the corridor, guarding the administrative section.
Gurt took on the manner of one who is patiently waiting for something to happen. He spoke casually with us, and would stroll around the lobby where we sat. As he paced back and forth, he would move closer and closer to the guard and the offices behind him. Each time Gurt came close to the guard, the guard would stiffen, and as Gurt would turn around and go the other way, the guard would relax. Eventually Gurt was walking right up to the part of the corridor where the guard stood, and then he started walking past him on each turn. First a foot, then another, then three feet, then five feet. The guard began to ignore Gurt, who appeared to merely be stretching his legs.
After several return trips past the guard and back, Gurt made his move. He was a few feet from an office, and he suddenly ducked inside it. The guard yelled and ran down the corridor with his rifle, followed by other guards with their automatic weapons lowered and ready. We sat on our bench, stunned, having no idea what was going on, but expecting to see flashes of gunfire and then Gurt’s dead body being dragged out.
But to our amazement what we saw next was the guards backing out of the office saluting. Then out came Gurt with the police chief. Gurt had his arm around the chief’s shoulders and they were both laughing. They spoke for a few moments as Gurt gestured to us, and a few minutes later we were told we could go, as long as my father came back on Monday to talk to the judge.
Since we had no car, Gurt offered to give us a ride in his. It turned out to be a dilapidated Toyota that was completely empty except for the driver’s seat and two large dogs. We crowded in and sat on the floor of the car amongst the excited dogs, and Gurt took us to our friends’ home.
Now, about that lesson on the power of asking for help. It was over the next few days as we visited with Gurt and he told us stories about his younger days helping the US government catch drug kingpins, amongst other tales we’re still not sure about, that he told us a story about catching a ride on a private jet with some rich folks and politicians in order to be where he had to be for some secret mission. When we asked him how he was able to get on the plane, he told me I should never underestimate the power of asking for help. He said that when he needed to do something that he couldn’t do, he would find the person who could make it happen and say, “Hello, I’m Gurt Kynichnik, and I need your help.” He said when he sincerely asked people for help, it made them realize the power they had, and they would fall all over themselves to assist him.
It’s been over 20 years since that experience with Gurt. Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to test what he told me about asking for help. I’ve used Gurt’s advice in school, business, and other areas of my life, and it works. But I’ve found there are a few keys to keep in mind.
- You must be sincere. If you aren’t sincere, then asking for help is just an attempt at emotional manipulation to get what you want. Part of being sincere is exhausting your other options. If it turns out you have the full power to help yourself with a minimal amount of work, then you just look lazy.
- Using the words “I need your help” makes all the difference. It’s not as effective to say “I need your assistance,” or “Can you do me a favor?” What you’re trying to communicate is that you are in true need, and the only person you know of who can help you is the person you’re speaking to. This makes that person feel powerful, and when they help you they prove to themselves that they have the power you believe they have. To refuse to help you is to say “I’m sorry, I don’t have as much power as you think I have.” And nobody wants to say that.
- Don’t overdo it. I don’t ask people for help this way very often. I do it when I have an important and perhaps urgent need, and there truly isn’t anyone else I can turn to. I rarely ask the same person for help this way more than once.
- Be grateful. Nobody likes to be used. Asking for help isn’t a capitalistic transaction amongst equals. It is showing another human being that they have power you do not have, and asking them to use their power to assist you. If, once helped, you act as though you were entitled to such assistance, then return to tip #1 above. Show gratitude, even to the point of being effusive.
- Be prepared to help others. If I’m not the kind of person who is good at giving assistance when it’s requested, I’m not going to come across as sincere when I ask for help.
I don’t know where Gurt is today. A year or two after our escapade in Guatemala he called my father one day and asked him for help. He needed my father to wire $1,000 to a bank account. My father did so, and never heard from Gurt again. Maybe Gurt went out in a blaze of glory on one last black ops mission. Or maybe he was just a con-man. If he was, he’s the most amazing con-man I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Regardless, he did get my father out of a Guatemalan jail, and he did teach me an important life lesson, and I think combined those things are easily worth a thousand dollars.