Saturday afternoon, my sister-in-law, Carolina, called from Bogotá.  She asked me how we were doing—repeatedly, the way her mother does—then she asked to speak to my wife.  My wife wasn’t home, so Carolina asked me to have her call, since “we have a little problem.”

Carolina sounded fine, so I didn’t understand why my wife looked worried when I gave her the message.  “You don’t know Carolina.  She’s always relaxed.  If she says there’s a little problem, it’s serious.”

My wife didn’t reach Carolina until after church on Sunday.  I was in and out of the room while she talked, so I didn’t realize something was wrong.  I saw her shake her hand, fingers together and palm down, but even that is ambiguous: She does it when she says she’s embarrassed, too.  I stopped what I was doing when I saw tears in her eyes.

My wife’s older brother Oscar was supposed to go to my mother-in-law’s house Tuesday night, but he hadn’t shown up.  The family could not locate him or his fiancée, that night or the next day.  On Wednesday, my mother-in-law got an anonymous call: Oscar had been kidnapped.  The family would receive instructions about a ransom, and, if they ever wanted to see him again, they would follow the instructions exactly.  Over the next two days, they got more calls; twice, my mother-in-law talked to Oscar.  He pleaded with her to follow the kidnappers’ instructions.  The family decided to keep my wife and me in the dark until that Saturday phone call—don’t ask me why.  When they finally called, they asked us to contribute to the ransom.

All of us thought, Why Oscar?  He was the smartest, the best educated, the handsome one, the devout evangelical.  He held the respect and affection of everyone in my wife’s huge extended family.

Monday night, I hugged my wife as she prayed for Oscar.  I whispered that she should pray for Oscar’s fiancée as well.  She did, briefly, then she started and jumped away from me, screaming.  She said she had seen the face of Oscar’s fiancée—it was white and bloated, like the face of a corpse.

Later that night, Carolina told us that the kidnappers had described a spot on the river where the police could find the body of Oscar’s fiancée.  Within 24 hours, the police found her body and that of another woman in plastic bags.  Oscar’s fiancée had two bullets in her head.  My wife’s vision had been correct.  With what I thought great cruelty, the police said that Oscar’s fiancée had been killed because my mother-in-law had contacted them.  I told the family that wasn’t true, that Oscar’s fiancée was killed as a business move—to show that their threats were serious.

In order to raise the ransom, my father-in-law tried to sell a car and a house he rented out.  We cabled the family more money than we could afford.  My father-in-law instructed everyone not to talk to the police anymore and made the arrangements with the kidnappers himself.  Then he drove into the mountains of Colombia at night with the equivalent of $40,000 in cash.

He was to meet the kidnappers at nine in an isolated spot.  He told the family he would call by midnight.  We didn’t hear from him that night, or by seven o’clock the next morning when my wife talked to her sister.  I didn’t tell my wife, but I was sure he and Oscar were both dead.

After 18 hours of silence, Oscar and his father came home.  The kidnappers had taken the ransom and my father-in-law’s SUV, then held him for several hours to make sure the police hadn’t followed him.  After dawn, the kidnappers reunited Oscar and his father, and the two men walked out of the mountains—Oscar with a broken arm and bruises from a beating, my father-in-law puffing from emphysema in the thin air of the Andes.  They walked for hours before they could hitch a ride.

Six months before the kidnapping, Oscar’s factory and that of my father-in-law had been fire-bombed.  A former employee that Oscar had fired for embezzling had nursed a grudge and persuaded his brother to help him commit arson.  The police caught the former employee, but his brother was still free when Oscar disappeared.  I had thought the same men were behind the kidnapping, but Oscar hadn’t recognized them.

The problem with figuring out who kidnapped Oscar and killed his fiancée is that there are too many suspects.  Bogotá averages six kidnappings per day.  The culprits grabbed Oscar and his fiancée coming out of the movie theater, so they must have studied him for some time.  FARC, one of Colombia’s two communist guerilla movements, raises a lot of money through kidnappings, but they have a reputation for not harming their victims if the family cooperates.

After Oscar was released, he spent a night in the hospital, then, for ten days, he mostly stayed in his room, telling the same stories over and over whenever he ventured out.  He said that his life was over and that he was going to sell his factory and go to work for someone so he wouldn’t be the target of another kidnapping.  A month after he got home, he started worrying about his employees and went back to work.  It was a good sign that he cared, but he wasn’t back to normal.  He had lost his confidence—temporarily, we hoped.

The kidnapping took place in September.  On Halloween night, Oscar was beaten, stripped, and left naked on an isolated back-country road.  He had a depressed skull fracture, probably from a blow with the butt of a pistol.  People passed him on the road, thinking him a drunk who had passed out on the wayside, while he bled and the swelling that came from his crushed skull began to compress his brainstem.  He was within minutes of death when he finally arrived at a hospital.

With emergency surgery, Oscar survived.  In the subsequent five months, he has moved from coma to an irritated confusion and a failure to recognize anyone, and on to a partial return of his memory.  It is still early; we don’t know how far back he will come.  Before the injury, he ran his own, very successful business.  Now we are waiting to see if he can even return to work.  One neurosurgeon glibly reassured us that, because Oscar came out of the coma within 36 hours, “He’ll get it all back.”  Maybe, but if that neurosurgeon is wrong, I plan to rub his nose in his smug prediction for the rest of his life.

While this was going on, I was negotiating over a possible job in the South.  My prospective employers offered to pay for my wife’s ticket and hotel on my second visit.  My wife would spend a day looking at houses in the area and grilling the realtor about schools and neighborhoods, so picking the right realtor mattered.

Online, I found a woman who seemed to be a good candidate: a lifelong resident of the town, a recent Realtor of the Year.  What I really liked, though, was a line about her community activities: former cochair of the United Way Campaign, member of the Symphony Society, former president of the YWCA—and former president of the Junior League.

The Junior League was a source of hilarity for my circle when I was a stupid teenager.  I thought of them as overly proper Southern ladies with an interest in makeup, money, their fine family histories, and feeling superior to everyone else.  To me, they were superficial ex-debutantes with kids and fading figures.  I was wrong, as I was about most things then.  The Junior League is a charitable organization, its members trying to improve their hometowns and alleviate suffering.

My wife and the realtor, separated by culture, language, and decades of age, hit it off.  My wife is a charmer who has captivated people on three continents, but the realtor was also warm and genuine.  My wife and stepdaughter were amazed by the woman’s accent—it sounds like home to me—but they had a wonderful time with her.  If we move there, she is likely to be one of my wife’s good friends, as well as one of my stepdaughter’s.

We will probably never know who kidnapped Oscar, killed his fiancée, or left him with his head injury.  My view is, Colombia did it.  Colombia has the last significant communist insurgency in South America because of the drug trade: There is so much money available that an otherwise irrelevant group of thugs can finance an army.  In Colombia, kidnapping is good business, and the freelancers have learned their trade from the guerillas.  Indirectly, then, drugs financed Oscar’s kidnapping.

But now I think about Colombia’s problems in a different way: There’s not enough Junior League.  In Colombia, the women are raising the third generation involved in FARC’s war.  In the United States, we still have a little of the Junior League.  The League, the United Way, symphony societies, and other groups consisting largely of women who want to help other people are an immunization against FARC and all it represents.  The Junior League is civilization.

Our rulers are doing their best to destroy the League, the Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club, and all the other remnants of civil society.  Such organizations are pressured to become bastions of affirmative action; the churches, to become temples of secular humanism.  The problem is that the voluntary nature of these groups is what makes them work.  This destruction of our civilization makes FARC or some similar tragedy inevitable.  Our government is breaking the bricks in the wall that keeps out the barbarians.

If we move to that other city, my wife, with her brown skin and accent, would be welcomed in the Junior League.  She understands such women, and they understand and enjoy her.  They think the same way.  They all want to have men around who are like Oscar, and not like the animals in FARC.  They want to be left alone, so they can civilize the little savages who are their children and turn them into decent men and women.  They want to save the rest of us from the demons that torment Colombia.