‘Cuba on the Brink: 1957-1958’ by Clark Zlotchew

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Clark Zlotchew playing guitar in Havana, 1958

After years of guerrilla warfare, with their base in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range of Oriente Province, Castro’s victorious troops triumphantly marched into Havana on January 8, 1959.  On the eve of this historical event –during 1957 and 1958– I had been in Cuba on four different occasions, twice as a civilian on vacation and on two other visits as a crewman on a destroyer-escort for training with the U.S. Naval Reserves.  The experiences as a civilian were not the same as those with the Navy.

I had joined the Reserves in my senior year of high school. A friend and I had joined at the age of seventeen purely to experience adventure and to see something of the world outside Hudson County, New Jersey and the City of New York.  As a member of the U.S. Naval Reserves, I was obliged, and privileged, to take part in one two-week training cruise annually, as well as to attend weekly meetings at the Naval Reserves Station in Jersey City for instruction. I loved the training cruises because it was exciting to be on board a naval vessel on the high seas. Even better, I had the opportunity to visit places I had no possibility of seeing through my own financial resources in my youth.

Every training cruise brought me out of what was then a humdrum existence.  Learning more and more of seamanship aboard a naval vessel provided a side of the work world I never would have experienced otherwise.  Participating in the daily routine on board a naval vessel was a combination of drudgery (for example, chipping paint from the decks) and exciting activities. In the early years of my training, I was given the lookout duty as my watch.  Whether day or night, this involved scanning the horizon with binoculars from an outdoor position on the bridge. We needed to report anything we saw and report our findings to the Officer of the Deck.  In addition, we had General Quarters drills, practice for battle, at any time of the day or night, in which each man rushed to the specific position assigned to him.  My first training cruise, in 1950, was to a naval base on the fogbound coast of Newfoundland and to St. John, a city in the Canadian Province of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. On that voyage, my General Quarters station was in the handling room of one of the six-inch guns.

Detectives, Ten-Cent Rum and the Den of Sin:

One of my experiences ashore was entirely outside of my comfort zone. It also provided me with excitement, with the risk of danger, the possibility of violent action, as well as a series of learning episodes.  Our port of call was Havana, Capital of Cuba. For one hot day in January of 1958, I was assigned duty as Shore Patrol, which is Naval Police duty, in a combination bar/brothel. That day is memorable.  Four pairs of sailors with SP duty were under the supervision of one Chief Petty Officer.  We used local taxis, at the expense of the U.S. Navy, to arrive at our first destination:  Havana Central Police Headquarters, where the American Navy had been assigned a desk. The U.S. Government had an agreement with the Cuban Government in which the U.S. Navy would police our own men. This arrangement freed the Cuban police from attending to any unlawful behavior on the part of our sailors and avoided having our men arrested and placed in local jails or being subjected to appearances before Cuban judges. Some of our men could become involved in mayhem, especially when under the influence of alcohol.  It was at our desk within the Havana Police Headquarters that we received our orders and instructions for the day.

Seeing the mustached Cuban detectives in their double-breasted suits reminded me of movies I had seen that took place in Latin America.  Especially the film, We Were Strangers (1949), in which Pedro Armendáriz played the Havana police chief.  In those days just about all American men, especially in the military, were clean-shaven, so that these Cubans with dark moustaches seemed somewhat sinister to me.  This gave me a real charge, and provided me with the feeling of truly being in an “exotic” locale.  This was adventure, something I had craved since high school!

We were given the phone number of the American desk at Police Headquarters and told to call in every hour on the hour, using the wall phone behind the bar, so they would know that all was well.  Of course, if there were some kind of emergency requiring backup, we would call them too.  Our Chief Petty Officer had the addresses of four different bars only a block or two apart.  He would place two of us at each location and check on each place once every hour.  We went to the taxis awaiting us and got in.  When I had been in Havana previously I noticed that Cuban taxi drivers bought only a little bit of gasoline at a time.  Just about the amount they calculated was needed to arrive at the destination.  They were pretty much working hand to mouth.  So it didn’t really surprise me when our taxi ran out of gas in the middle of a crowded street in route to our destination.  The driver had miscalculated.

There we were: four American sailors in sparkling white uniforms, beige military leggings made of canvas hugging our calves, navy blue armbands proclaiming SP (Shore Patrol) in yellow letters on our right arm, billy club hanging from our canvass belts on one side, canteen of water (definitely not needed in Havana!) attached to the other side, pushing the taxi, with the seated Cuban driver steering, about a block and a half to the nearest gas station.  It was quite a sight!  Knots of Cubans on the sidewalks stopped to witness this ludicrous spectacle, obviously finding it highly amusing. It was somewhat embarrassing for us. After all, we were military men representing the most powerful, most influential, most affluent country in the world, reduced to pushing a taxi through the streets of the capital city of a third-world island nation. Curiously, my discomfort was blended with the desire to laugh. It must have looked as bizarre to the onlookers as would a man in white tie and tails sweeping refuse from the streets.

Americans, especially U.S. members of the military, are not well liked in many countries. In some countries we are frankly hated. But the Cubans who were entertained by our incongruous performance were not malicious. No one jeered. No one even laughed out loud. They were smiling with obvious good humor. Why not? It was an unusual sight. And I believe the Cubans realized we Americans, members of the richest, mightiest nation on earth, were perfectly willing to pitch in physically to share the cabdriver’s task of bringing us to our destination.  When I came to know Cubans better, I found a host of very positive traits in their character: in general they had a wonderful, spontaneous sense of humor, they were open and welcoming to strangers, and were extremely gregarious.  And the bonus:  they liked Americans. This is not something one can count on all over the world.

I was paired with a regular Navy man who had a great deal of prior experience on Shore Patrol.  I considered him an elderly man and therefore very wise; he was a year or two over forty. We were assigned to the Bar Victoria.[1]  The bar proper was in a narrow space at the front of the establishment, close to the swinging green doors. But we were led through another door beyond the bar that opened into a large room in which there were chairs and tables with black formica tops, a juke box and attractive young women in evening gowns.  The walls were glossy black tile from the floor to the halfway point, and from there to the ceiling were plaster painted dark red.   The gaudy juke box that stood against one wall was heavy, solid, brightly lighted, beaming forth warm light through glass panels of several colors: red, orange, yellow, green…  It was the focus of social activities.  It occurred to me that this jukebox in many ways was like the hearth, with its light and warmth, around which families gathered in old Christmas cards.  But different. Very different.  This establishment, on the corner of Pajarito and Peñalver streets, is what provided much of the material for my short story, “The Smell of Land.” [2]

We arrived at noon and our Chief reminded us to call in to our desk at Havana Central Police Station every hour on the hour to say all was well. Naturally, we were instructed to partake of no alcoholic beverages while on duty.  Alcohol was strictly off limits to us.  Understandably so.  My Shore Patrol partner and I went into the back room and sat at a table. A waiter from the bar approached us and very courteously asked us what we’d like to drink, on the house, of course.  The reason the owners wanted to provide us with anything we might want from the bar was that they understood we were there to prevent damage to the premises. Ironically, any damage to this enterprise would most likely be caused by our Navy men who might have had too much of what the bar offered. From the management’s standpoint, we were insurance. Or protection. And that was true.

We dutifully told the waiter we could not have any alcoholic drink, and we each ordered a Coca Cola.  After about five minutes the waiter returned with two frosty bottles of Coke, the caps already removed. We thanked him and took a couple of slugs of the refreshing drink.  My fellow SP and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

I said to my partner, “Am I crazy or am I tasting rum?”

He chuckled and said, “Hell, yes.” He paused and added, “It’s what they call a Cuba Libre, a  rum and coke.”

In Spanish I told the waiter, who was still standing at our table, “Okay, we appreciate the drinks and we’ll drink this one. So, thank the management for us. But after this, when we say Coca Cola, make it a straight Coke, no rum or alcohol of any kind in it. Really. Understand?”

He nodded and went back to the bar.  This was not a strange event when I considered that rum was a plentiful Cuban product, and that the price of a shot of rum in this establishment was only ten cents, but a bottle of Coke cost twelve cents.  As I write this, sixty years after the fact, it occurs to me that perhaps we should have given the waiter a tip.  How much, I wonder, might have been a reasonable tip for the man who brought us two mixed drinks worth a total of forty-four cents, but was supplied to us free of charge?  What would ten percent of zero add up to?

Our supervising Chief Petty Officer would make the rounds every hour at the different venues where pairs of Shore Patrol were stationed, and would show up at the Bar Victoria once every hour. I worried that he might smell the alcohol on our breaths. It became obvious, extremely obvious, however, that there was no need to worry about that.  Each time the Chief came to check on us he was increasingly inebriated.  He reeked of alcohol, his attitude became more and more mellow, his speech more slurred, and his smile wider. He, no doubt, drank at each of the four bars for which he was responsible. Naturally, the drinks had the added advantage of being on the house. He was the grizzly bear guarding the honey pot.

A few of the girls were present from about 1:00 P.M. onward, but there was no business for them at that hour. If they arrived that early, it would probably mean they had nothing else they needed to do, and came to socialize with any of the other girls who were there.  The busy time would be hours later in the evening.  I unhooked my canteen (superfluous in Havana) from my belt and placed it on the table. Once in a while, I danced to the music on the juke box with one of the girls, my baton annoyingly swinging at my side.

Several hours later I started a conversation in Spanish with a couple of young Cubans seated at a table.  They were surprised at my speaking Spanish as well as my willingness to talk with them. They were having a beer and invited me to sit with them, offering to treat me to a beer. I sat down, thanked them for the beer invitation and explained that I had to avoid alcohol while on duty. We had a very lively chat.  At one point they confessed that I had destroyed one of their negative stereotypes. They had harbored the belief that everyone who wore glasses (as I did) was a pendejo (a jerk).

I said, “Well, I’m glad you don’t feel that way anymore. I added, “But, I’ll bet you have another prejudice that’s even stronger than that one.”

They looked at me, eyebrows raised, anticipation etched on their faces.

I said, “Prejudice against Jews. I’m a Jew.”

They declined to affirm this prejudice in words, but smiled sheepishly and nodded in recognition of that traditional prejudice. Then one of them said, “Well, if you’re Jewish, you could marry the daughter of one of the Jewish storekeepers in Havana. They’re very rich. Then you wouldn’t have to be a sailor anymore.”

I immediately shot back, “Hey, why don’t you introduce me to them?”

I was only joking, of course, but they, not sure whether they should take my question seriously, apologetically said that they were in no position to do that.  I was aware of that, of course. The conversation continued in the most enthusiastic and cordial manner.  They were good-natured young men and had a lively curiosity about me, the United States, the world. And I learned a great deal about Cuba from them. I genuinely enjoyed chatting with them.

Altogether it was a great day for practicing my Spanish, with these two men and with the girls, many of whom took the opportunity to tell me their life stories. There was a common theme running through those narratives: A young country woman, father deceased, sent by her mother to find a decent job in the big city, and not end up like her mother, a guajira, a peasant, living in a bohío, a hut,  sweating in the fields, eking out a living cutting sugar cane, while cooking and cleaning for herself and her children. The unskilled girl finds a job as a nanny or a maid for a rich man and his family, and finds that sleeping with the master of the house when his wife is away is part of the job description.  She figures if she has to give her body to a man she doesn’t love, and who doesn’t love her, while slaving all day for the family, someone else’s family, she might as well get better pay for her body without having to do physical labor all day as well.

Toward evening the number of customers started to increase and all the girls were present. We wanted to avoid dealing with violence and taking anyone into custody. Consequently, we concentrated on keeping our eyes open for signs of impending trouble, and stopping it before it started. Otherwise, we not only would have had to get physical, but would also have had to escort the offender to his ship and fill out all kinds of paperwork.

In one case, a burly boatswain’s mate, obviously inebriated, or more accurately, stoned to the gills, stood in the barroom and repeatedly punched the wall.  No doubt he was acting out his aggressive tendencies. Who knew if he would direct those massive fists against other bar patrons or, worse yet from the proprietor’s point of view, against property. We were diplomatic with him, enthusiastically praising the merits of the bar down the street, on the next corner. We put our hands on his shoulders and I said, “Hey, buddy, you want to go to a really great bar?”

He stared at me with the blankest look in his eyes, his jaw slack.  He seemed unable to speak, to concentrate, to even utter a single word.  I thought we were going to have our hands full with this guy; he was built like a linebacker.

I continued, “There’s a bar on the next corner that serves the greatest drinks. The rum tastes better than here.”

A ridiculous statement, of course. But I had heard several Navy men talk about going ashore in various ports, and finding the “greatest bar” around. The greatness seemed to hinge on making the best martinis. How good can a martini be? I always wondered about this.  Perhaps all gin except that the bartender took a tiny sip of vermouth and exhaled on the glass of gin?  The only martini dryer than that would be concocted by filling the glass with gin, completely dispense with vermouth altogether, perhaps serving the olives on a separate plate in order to leave more room in the glass for the gin. Or maybe it has something to do with James Bond’s demand for a dry martini that is stirred not shaken.  Of course, Agent 007 had not yet made his appearance on the silver screen. The mysteries of the perfect martini have always eluded me. Still, I was aware of some men believing in the superiority of the mixed drinks in one watering hole over those of other ones. I used that knowledge in trying to convince this disaster looming on the horizon to shove off and drift down the street to another port of call.  The words of the old sea chantey came to mind: “What shall we do with a drunken sailor…?”  Good question.

The object of our sales campaign for the bar down the block continued staring. I was wondering if he understood me.  I continued my sales pitch, “And, believe it or not, the drinks cost less there even though they’re better.”

It suddenly occurred to me that none of these sailors ordered mixed drinks; beer was the default beverage. No matter. I took a new tack, a much more powerful one. “Besides,” I added, “The girls are even better looking than the ones here. They’re gorgeous.”

As I said this, my partner and I gently removed him from the wall, turned him to face the swinging green doors and held his bodybuilder arms to lead him stumbling toward the exit.  We pushed the doors open and pointed out the other bar’s location. Later, I wondered how the SPs in that bar down the street would handle him. But now, as I set this down on paper, I’m assailed by a feeling of guilt. Perhaps it would have been much better –for the welfare of the profoundly intoxicated sailor—to call for transportation and take him into custody.  He would have been returned to his ship and could have slept it off. Or received medical treatment, if needed. Back then, in my twenties, I had no idea that an alcohol overdose could actually kill. Now, at age 85, this suddenly occurred to me. This thought would never have struck me if I hadn’t decided to write this memoir.

About two hours later a sailor who looked like a high school kid, put his fist through one of the colored glass panels in the jukebox. We grabbed him and were reluctantly ready to take him into custody and go through all the paper work, but he put up no resistance and said, “Hey, I’m sorry, guys. It was an accident. I stumbled and crashed into it.”  He quickly added, “Ask them how much it’ll cost to fix, and I’ll pay for it right now.”  It turned out the cost would be two pesos. He paid the bartender right on the spot, so we let him go back into the big room to enjoy himself. He seemed like a nice kid who had just gotten a bit rambunctious. And he was truly repentant.

POST SCRIPT:  A couple of hours later, as he was leaving the bar, he stopped and confessed to us, or maybe bragged, “You know, I didn’t really smash up that panel by accident. Truth is, that’s just something I’ve felt like doing for a long time, and I finally did it.”  We thought it strange that he was willing to pay two dollars for the privilege of smashing a glass panel in a jukebox. Especially when you consider that he could have treated himself and nineteen others to a ten-cent shot of rum with that amount.

The day spent as Shore Patrol at the Bar Victoria was not without its absurdities. In the evening, when business was in full swing, I happened to pass a table at which three U.S. sailors were seated. These young Navy men had called me over to ask for a favor, actually what they considered to be part of my duty. Their shipmate had gone upstairs with one of the girls and had remained there for what these youngsters considered a suspiciously long time. They thought something untoward had happened to their buddy. They wondered if he had been struck on the head and rendered unconscious so his wallet could be taken. Or maybe drugged for the same purpose. Or stabbed…

I said, “Come on, what could happen to him here? This place does a brisk business and they’re not going to allow any harm to come to a client on the premises.” I added, “Look, they especially wouldn’t want to have any American Navy man hurt here. For all kinds of reasons. This isn’t some dark alley with no witnesses present. Right now, the place is crowded with American sailors, plus some groups of middle-aged American tourists and convention types, as well as a few local guys. The management wouldn’t allow any bad stuff to happen here. It’d be bad for business.”

“You never know,” one of them said. “He’s just been up there too damn long.”

“How long,” I asked.

“About a half hour or more.”

“C’mon,” I said, “Give the guy a break. He’s probably just having a great time.”

But they kept insisting, urging me to go up there and check on him. The one who looked the most worried said, “You’re on Shore Patrol, so if you don’t go check on him, you’ll be responsible if anything happens to him.”

I saw his buddies were really upset about their shipmate’s long absence, so I reluctantly agreed to go and check. There were half a dozen rooms on the second floor. Three of them had their doors closed.  The name his buddies gave me is thankfully lost forever in my memory bank, but for purposes of this narration, let’s say it was John Smith. On one hand I was certain that this would be a wild goose chase and that I would terribly embarrassed by consenting to go on this ludicrous mission. On the other hand, if he was away from his friends for a longer than normal time, and they were seriously concerned, and had pleaded with me to investigate, I guessed I had better check up on the man. Just in case.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor, knocked on one of the closed doors and yelled, “Is John Smith in there?”

“No!”

I knocked on a second door, asked the same question, and received a similar answer. The third closed door yielded up the true John Smith.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah. Go ‘way.” came back the response, in a weak voice.

I went back down to the main room feeling like a complete idiot. Or someone’s overly cautious great-aunt.  I returned to the table at which his worrywart shipmates were awaiting the world-shaking news, and delivered it to them. My manner of providing the information that all was well was not polite and implied they should have some testosterone shots administered without delay.

#     #     #

My SP partner and I were getting sleepy around midnight, but the car didn’t come to pick us up until about 2:00 A.M. It had been a long day, and we were ready to hit the rack.

Things were not going to be that simple. As soon as we entered the car, we were ordered to go to the Florida Bar.  We were told there was a riot in progress, and that if a crowd was blocking the entrance, we should not hesitate to use our batons. Here we were tired and sleepy, ready to hit the rack, and instead heading to a riot! Our driver sped to the scene of the commotion. As soon as we arrived, we exited the auto, burst into the bar and started to push our way through the narrow aisle between the bar on our left and the single row of tables against the wall to our right. There was no resistance; just a crowded space.  It was necessary to push all the way through this passageway to arrive at the door to the spacious hall behind it, the center of festivities, now the scene of the ongoing violence. There were so many people ahead of us on this constricted path that the going was slow, not glacier slow or even sloth slow, but slow. And we expected to have to quell a barroom brawl. Some of the girls were standing between tables, no doubt having escaped the main room. One of them placed her fingers on my armband, telling me in Spanish that my armband had twisted and she would straighten it. I saw a masculine hand grab her wrist and pull it away from my arm. In Spanish he told her not to touch me. I turned around to see an officer of the Cuban military, 45-caliber sidearm in its holster.

I told him, “Why are you getting here so late?” I was indignant at having to deal with this as we were ready to go off to dreamland. I continued, “We’re already taking care of this and now you get here and start giving orders. We’re handling this.”

He very reasonably, although with an edge of anger in his voice, answered, “You ought to be taking care of it. You brought the trouble here.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

We pushed our way into the back room and found two overweight, out-of-shape Chiefs who stood there, fists clenched, red-faced, glaring at each other, panting and puffing with exhaustion. They looked as though they could have had a stroke if we hadn’t intervened. I’m positive they were thankful we had arrived to break it up. Neither one of these middle-aged CPOs could claim victory or admit defeat. They put up no resistance and gladly –and thankfully, it seemed to me– came with us.   The proprietors of the Florida Bar were grateful as well. No property had been destroyed.

Spending that long day on Shore Patrol allowed me to become familiar with Cuban pronunciation and specifically Cuban vocabulary and idioms. It made me more fluent in Spanish. Yet, even more than that, it was also an opportunity to become acquainted with Cubans, not as the denizens of some exotic land, but as human beings.

#     #     #

 

Tourist in the Big City

Frontiers don’t have to stretch across land; the sea forms the boundaries of islands. They don’t even have to be physical; language and culture can also form a definite barrier. I crossed the maritime border and, more importantly, the barrier formed by culture and language on a vacation trip to Cuba in July 1957, six months after my visit with the Navy.  I saw a different face of Cuba. What I find to be strange –or at least unexpected—is the impact an incident that lasted only two or three hours would have on my soul. I don’t think saying the brief encounter had an effect on my soul is exaggerated. It still resonates so many years later.

In 1957 I wanted some kind of adventure during my two-week vacation from an office job in Manhattan. I decided to revisit Cuba, this time as a civilian. It would be an escapade without the restrictions of military duty.   I knew that Fidel Castro and his guerrillas were based in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the other end of the island from the Capital, close to Guantánamo Bay and the city of Santiago.  And I knew they would stage raids on army bases from there.  This made it even more exciting for me.

#     #     #     #

In Havana I noticed machine guns, pup tents and soldiers on the roof of the Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista.  From time to time I would hear a distant explosion.  People said they were bombs placed by Castro’s agents.  Occasionally, I would be stopped by men in civilian clothing who showed me their identification as Cuban Secret Service agents, and asked to see my identification. This added to my enjoyment because I felt I was really in a different world, a more exciting world.

In this Cuban capital city I enjoyed strolling lazily along the streets of the older part of town, listening to, actually feeling, the rhythmic music issuing from every doorway, the stimulating beat of rumba, guaguancó,. son montuno….  There were also the more soothing, relaxing strains of bolero, the slow dance of the tropics, and an occasional old-fashioned danzón.  I felt as though I were in a technicolor film with a musical soundtrack.  I used my Spanish to speak to store clerks and patrons of bars and lunch counters, waitresses, shoeshine boys, anyone who was willing to talk with me. Cubans were very open and engaging, and had a great sense of humor.  They seemed to like Americans.  That contrasted with attitudes in some other countries.

Like the Cubans, I would stop for an occasional jugo de caña (sugarcane drink) or bottle of  beer: either Cristal or its rival, Hatuey.  Sometimes I would have a small cup of rich Cuban coffee preceded, as was customary, by a large glass of water. This was a wise custom in a tropical climate. The water resupplied hydration while the caffeine provided energy. Drinking the coffee last left a good taste in the mouth. I would stop to converse with street musicians and sometimes one of them would allow me to use his guitar and join them in making music.  Evenings I would enjoy the pleasures and vices of the lively Havana nightlife.  Finally, I decided that ten days in the Cuban capital was long enough for me.  I was curious about Cuban life outside the metropolis, and determined to see rural Cuba for myself.

#     #     #     #

A Postmaster in Rural Cuba:

The next morning I boarded the intercity bus for the eighty-mile trip westward to Pinar del Río, capital of the Province of the same name. This was tobacco country. I observed the tropical scenery along the road and the towns and hamlets through which the bus passed  –Guanajay, Artemisa, Candelaria, San Cristóbal, Los Palacios, Consolación del Sur—the smaller ones composed of from ten to twenty single-story stucco structures with tile roofs originally red, but now the color of earth. These were the houses and stores strung along both sides of the road.  I began to feel as though I were traveling backward in time.  These communities must have looked the same a hundred years earlier, except for the occasional car and the bus on which I was traveling.

#     #     #     #

Most tourists arriving in Pinar del Río took taxis or limousines to a luxurious hotel in Viñales Valley, location of the famous geological wonder: the mogotes of Viñales. These mogotes are tall, rounded hills or plateaus that rise straight out of the valley, with no foothills or gradual ascent.  They were excrescences that seemed to have been thrust up by a giant subterranean hand.  But I wanted to absorb more of the local color and checked in to the Hotel Comercio, a decaying old hotel in the heart of this small city, where the bus dropped the passengers.  I paid two pesos (equivalent then to two U.S. dollars) for one night, and took a local bus to the Valley. Farmers and other country folk crowded onto the bus, loaded down with baskets of food and with live chickens in wooden cages.  The floor of this ancient vehicle was constructed of wooden planks well-seasoned with years of tobacco juice from those who chewed their leaves.

As the bus climbed hills and descended into valleys, the vegetation changed from tropical palms to deciduous trees and pines and back again.  I looked out the window and saw a mountain chain, light blue in the hazy distance, with a trail of white clouds streaming through them like smoke.  The bus stopped at a small roadside stand that sold coffee, soft drinks and magazines.  The Cuban soldier who had been sitting behind me had piercing dark eyes and a black moustache. Because Americans in that era were clean-shaven, the moustache combined with the intense brown, almost black eyes, seemed sinister to me, even malevolent.  The fact that the man belonged to the armed forces of a dictator, Fulgencio Batista, added to this impression.  As I drank my Coke from the bottle, the soldier, who was sipping a small cup of strong Cuban coffee, struck up a conversation with me, after ascertaining that I spoke Spanish.  We had a really congenial chat. The soldier opened his wallet and proudly showed me photos of his wife and two children.  He was a loving husband and father. This time, I found my own naïve stereotypes shattered.

#     #     #     #

I alighted from the bus at the luxury hotel (at which I was not staying) where there was a viewing platform to see the mogotes.  These geological phenomena were surrounded by patches of tobacco fields which, from that distance were mere tracts of flat green and brown fields, occasional royal palms, and tropical forest. The mountain chain in the distance was a hazy blue. After half an hour of observing the outcroppings and the scenery all around it from this lookout point, I drifted into the bar of this very modern, air-conditioned tourist hotel.  Two leisurely martinis later, I wandered out to the dirt road and walked.  Thick tropical foliage and scattered palm trees closely bordered the dirt road, forming a dark green wall on either side, with vividly-colored flowers here and there protruding from tree tops.  The humid air carried the heavy scent of tropical flowers and thick vegetation.  From the concealment of this jungle, birds raucously shrieked to each other.  I had never heard these sounds before “in person,” only in motion pictures that took place in tropical forests. In my mildly inebriated state I felt exhilarated in this alien atmosphere. Paraphrasing Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, I thought, Yup, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New Jersey anymore. It was an adventure.

After half an hour of rambling along the road, I noticed the foliage cleared to reveal wide and deep expanses of tobacco fields, with a royal palm here and there in the distance. These trees had tall slender trunks with broad-bladed leaves on their crowns.  I smelled the mildly acrid, yet pleasant aroma of raw tobacco in the humid air.  A long, white-painted wooden structure stood very close to the road.  Something about it seemed less alien to me, probably because it wasn’t an average house.  It struck me that wooden houses, common back home, were rare in Cuba.  Almost all the structures I ever saw in that tropical country, outside of multi-story dwellings and office buildings in the business section of Havana –definitely not made of wood either– were made of stucco or adobe.

This building had a porch on which were high-backed chairs with wicker seats and a couple of rocking chairs. It looked, I thought, like two houses joined together lengthwise. The large sign read: CORREO (Post Office).  Since this was a public building, and it was late afternoon, certainly past the post office’s work hours, I decided the building would be deserted. I traipsed up the three wooden steps and took a seat on one of the rockers.  My legs comfortably stretched out, I serenely rocked in my chair, and sang, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog…” at the top of my lungs. The alcohol combined with the feeling of being entirely alone removed all my usual inhibitions.

After about ten minutes, I was surprised to see a man emerge from a door further down the porch and walk toward me.  He wore wide white trousers and a guayabera, a long shirt with four pockets, worn outside the trousers,.  I jumped up and, feeling like an interloper, said in Spanish, something like, “Oh, I beg your pardon, I had no idea anyone was here.”

The Cuban, who was probably in his early fifties, smiled and in pleasant tones said, “The fact is, I live here.”

“But the sign says this is a post office.”

The man’s black moustache crinkled in a wider smile, a kindly look in his eyes.  “Yes, it is a post office.  I’m the postmaster, and my wife and I live in the attached house.” He said this very gently, with obvious good will.

“Oh, I’m very sorry.  I’ll be going now.”

“No, no, please sit down.  I don’t get many opportunities to talk to Americans. In fact I have never spoken to one.  They all go straight to the luxury hotel and never stop here.  Probably most of them don’t speak Spanish, and I, unfortunately, don’t speak English, except for yes, no, hello, goo’bye and sank you.”  He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. He gestured to the rocking chair I had just abandoned, saying, “So, please sit and let’s talk.”

“Are you sure I won’t be disturbing you?”

“I’m sure.  Please, have a seat and make yourself comfortable.”

I hesitated for a moment and then sat.  A cordial, relaxed conversation in Spanish ensued about ordinary matters.  We spoke about our lives, our families, our jobs…  The shadows grew longer and spread across the road.  A little girl, eight years old, greeted the postmaster and came up to the porch.  She wore a long blue gown and a cardboard crown covered in tinfoil.  The postmaster introduced her to me who, he informed her, “came from New York, very far away.”

The girl, Margarita, smiled broadly at me, and said, “You know, there’s a frog that lives behind that box.”  She pointed to a mailbox affixed to the wall with a small space between the box and the wall, then deposited an envelope into the receptacle.

I said, “Really? Behind the box?”

She took my hand and tugged. I had no choice but to stand up and let her lead me to the mailbox on the wall.

“Look,” she said.  She pointed to the space between the wall and the box.

“I’m afraid I don’t see him.”

Margarita looked into the space.  “Ah, yes.  He must be somewhere else right now.”

I had to smile.  I sat down again.  “That’s a very pretty dress you’re wearing, Margarita, and you’re wearing a crown.  You look like a princess.”

She said, “No, no; I’m a queen.  We’re rehearsing a play we’re going to have at the school about Christopher Columbus, and I’m Queen Isabella!”  She beamed broadly, and chattered enthusiastically about the play, giving all the details, gesturing dramatically. Then she curtsied and said goodbye to the postmaster, turned to me, curtsied and politely said it was nice to have met me.

After a few minutes a farm boy about fifteen years old greeted the Postmaster and clambered up to the porch.  He wore white field-hand clothing, a machete hanging from his belt.  After he deposited a letter in the box, the Postmaster introduced him to me.  The boy asked me some questions about the United States, chatted very briefly with the Postmaster and courteously took his leave of us.

The postmaster and I continued our amiable chat, when it hit me that it had grown dark.  Looking at my watch, I saw it was almost nine o’clock.  I stood and said, “I’ve been taking too much of your time, sir.  I should be taking the bus back to Pinar del Río.”

At that moment, a woman came out of the house door and briskly walked toward us, a tray in her hands and a smile on her lips.  The rich aroma of food frying in a pan drifted from the house and clung to her.  The postmaster introduced me to his wife, who shyly smiled.  The postmaster said, “Stay and join us for supper.  The last bus comes by at ten o’clock”

“Oh, thank you so much, but I couldn’t.  Here I am, a perfect stranger.  I invited myself to your home, when you come right down to it, which is not exactly the best of manners.  I couldn’t possibly take advantage and eat your food too.  It just wouldn’t be right.” I added, “I’ll start heading down the road and take the next bus when it comes.”

I was about to shake the man’s hand and thank him for his hospitality, when his wife set the tray on the small table around which the three of us were clustered.  She pointed to the three plates and said, “But you must stay.  Look, I’ve prepared supper for three people.  Wasting food is a sin.”  With a warm smile, she added, “Please, sit and share the meal with us.”

I saw three plates, each with two slices of French toast.  There was a container of syrup on the side, with knives and forks. French toast with syrup!  So un-Cuban, it seemed to me.  So back home.  Anyway, I realized I actually was hungry.  I felt I would really be imposing on them if I accepted their kind offer.  But then I worried that if I didn’t accept their invitation they would feel offended.  So, I thanked them for their hospitality to a perfect stranger, a foreigner to boot, and sat down to join them in their evening repast. I still felt some sense of guilt at having invaded their private space, and now eating their food.  These were not wealthy people, to say the least. Certainly they would be deeply insulted if I attempted to pay them. These humble, generous people inspired a feeling of love in me, a love I didn’t know how to express.  I wished I had a gift to present to them.  Something. A token to show my appreciation. But, naturally, never expecting to have such an intense experience with anyone in Cuba, I had brought nothing.

#     #     #     #

Now, in my old age, I recall this event at a post office in rural Cuba with affection.  There was something about that evening so long ago that I could not explain in words, in human language, something ineffable that remains with me. I can still visualize the kindly faces of the Cuban rural postmaster and his wife.  I once again see and vividly “taste” the French toast soaked in syrup. I once more see the little girl dressed as the Queen of Spain, who knew of a frog that lived behind the mail box.  I can picture the adolescent farm boy with the machete who asked me intelligent questions about the U.S.  How can I possibly explain the feeling of warmth that now invades my consciousness?  A feeling of warmth accompanied by a sense of loss. Loss of a world that no longer exists. There are events in life that cannot be communicated to others by mere words.  One has to have exactly the same experience to understand it.  Yet that is impossible, because no two people can ever have exactly the same experience. Not really.


[1] This bar is described in full in my short story, “The Smell of Land,” in the collection Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties.

[2] In Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties.

Clark Zlotchew is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish and Latin-American
literatures (Emeritus) at SUNY Fredonia, and author of 17 books, fiction as well as non-fiction. His experience on the high seas and in various ports with the Naval Reserves has made a lasting impression and is often reflected in his writing.

His fluent Spanish and his travels across the globe, and especially his four visits to Cuba during the twilight years of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, just before the equally dictatorial regime of Fidel Castro provides him with the knowledge and personal experience that informs his essay, “Cuba on the Brink: 1957-1958.”

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