News & Politics

That Time Congressman Mark Pocan Did Magic Tricks for Uzi-Toting Guerrillas

“The guerrillas were great—they enjoyed it.”

“I started doing magic when I was eight. I used to check out magic books from the library in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A librarian noticed and asked me to put on a show—I think I got paid two 50-cent McDonald’s gift certificates.

“In Milwaukee, they had a magic club, and I was one of the few younger folks. I won a junior-magician contest when I was 14 and used to do a lot of shows. One year, I had 21 in the month of December. In high school, I had a van painted with the jack of hearts pulling a rabbit out of a hat. My license plate was ‘MAG1C.’

“Later, when I was in local government, I went on a backpacking trip to the Darién Gap, between Colombia and Panama—very remote, lots of poisonous snakes. There were nine of us. We woke up the first morning to gunfire and hand grenades, because the guerrillas were on land and the paramilitaries were on the river and we were in between. To make a long story short, we were detained for five days by the guerrillas. So I started doing magic.

“I’m in the jungle with gear for backpacking, not for performing. But luckily, you can do some tricks with a coin, and I had a deck of cards, obviously, because I always have a deck of cards. The guerrillas were great—they enjoyed it. They kept bringing people by to see. But they always had Uzis and grenades—you didn’t really know what was happening moment to moment.

“After five days, some authorities came and we were able to take boats back, but we decided we still wanted to do the trip. Eventually, we got to a very remote village and they were having some celebration where they would set a big termite nest on fire. They hadn’t had visitors for a year. I remember doing magic, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you did a trick—nice.’ It was like, ‘Oh, my God—what did you just do?’ I realized quickly that I had to show them how to do whatever I just did, because I didn’t want them to think I was, like, someone with powers.

“So magic had a lot of impact on that vacation. It certainly was helpful during that rather difficult time [with the guerrillas]. Magic is something that allows you to connect with people. Of course, that’s helpful in politics, too.”

This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Washingtonian.