Cuban Ties, Cuban Dreams

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing vacation world travel to a virtual halt, the only way currently for most Americans to visit foreign lands is to watch travel destination videos, surf the internet, or derive vicarious pleasure from the travel writings of others. Here, over the next few days, I will be posting journal entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2011. I hope you enjoy and I’m looking to going back to Cuba someday.

Tomorrow I will begin a trip to Havana and the island of Cuba, a 10-day excursion that has been more than 50 years in the making.

My fascination with Cuba has always been centered around a now fading, sepia picture taken in 1957. That photo features my Father and Mother, surrounded by 18 other travelers, all posed outside Morro Castle, a massive fortress that has guarded the Havana Harbor since 1589.

If you were to have asked my father (he is in the front row with the hat above while my mother is to his left) his profession, he would have said dry cleaning plant builder and operator. But if you were to have asked him his passions, he would have said my mother and gambling. In the the 50s, he was able to combine both by taking my mother with him on short flights from Florida to Cuba, where the American Mafia was running an extremely lucrative gambling empire.

However, that was all to change on Jan. 1, 1959, when a band of guerrillas led by a young Fidel Castro swept down from the mountains, deposed then-president Fulgencia Batista, forced American interests from the island, and established a Communist/Socialist regime a mere 90 miles from Miami’s beaches.

By the time I first came upon the photo, say 1960 or so, the island was off limits to Americans. I had to content myself with the picture, a travel book of my Mother’s entitled Around the World in 1,000 Pictures (which I still have) that included 6 pages of black-and-white travel shots of Cuba, and the headlines from Havana.

Once in power, Castro aligned himself and his small country with America’s enemy Russia. It was the time of the Cold War and no spot, with the possible exception of Berlin, was hotter than Havana.  

In 1962, America, Cuba, and its partner Russia, gave me my first glimpse of the possibility of a real-world Apocalypse – 13 days in October now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but then thought to be the imminent end of all days. Many believed the standoff between the world’s two superpowers over Russia’s installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba would end in fiery flashes of destruction and towering mushroom clouds.

Like the later assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who, for Americans, was to play the hero’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, most everyone who lived through those harrowing 13 days has vivid memories. I was 10 years old. I was in the 4th grade at Bridgeton Christian School. My father and mother worked about 12 miles away in Salem, New Jersey. As I recall, I wasn’t  really scared of dying. But I didn’t want to perish without seeing my mom and dad one last time. So I came up with a plan. Mrs. Robinson was my teacher. She drove a large Oldsmobile. She kept her car keys in her purse. She kept her purse in her desk. My plan, even though I had never driven a car before, was, at the first sound of an air-raid siren, to grab Mrs. Robinson’s keys, jump in her car, and drive to Salem. Fortunately, however, Russian leader Nikita Kruschev blinked first and I never had to test my pre-teenage driving skills.

But there was another Cuban threat consequence on my formative years – the mandatory Civil Defense drill. We practiced two types. In the first, we hid under our desks. In the second, we lined up in front of the hall lockers, placed our arms on the wall, and then put our heads on our arms. A fellow reporter once told me that he thought the drills had left him with severe psychological hangups. They simply left me convinced that those in authority didn’t always have the best of ideas.

My next brush with Fidel and Cuba came in my sophomore year at Villanova University. In the early evening of the last day of our 1st semester, we were taking my roommate Steve Ferrera to the Philly airport to catch a flight back to his Boston home. Somehow, during the party-filled day, we had acquired a Mexican sombrero. At the airport, our friend Rich Nocella, with the festive hat perched on his head, began hollering “Cuba … Cuba … Viva la Cuba.” Unfortunately, this was during the time when planes were being hijacked to that island. The next thing we knew, we were besieged by airport security, who whisked us into separate rooms and mentioned the threat of 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine before letting us go.

After college, Cuba continued to be off limits. Presidents came and went. Nixon. Ford. Carter.  Reagan. George Bush, the 1st. Clinton. George Bush, the 2nd. But the Cuban embargo, begun under Kennedy and extended by Lyndon Johnson, continued.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2008, some of the travel restrictions to Cuba began to ease. Some organizations were being allowed to offer cultural exchange excursions to Cuba. In 2011, we discovered that National Geographic was offering 10-day people-to-people trips to Cuba. We had traveled to Kenya once before with National Geographic and had a exhilarating, informative experience, so Judy immediately notified the organization that we wanted to join one of their upcoming Cuban excursions. Representatives there got back to us and said all their tours were filled, but they would put us on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we were notified that more trips were being offered and we immediately decided to join the Feb. 10th trip.

So that background brings us to today – the day before I can finally follow the traveling path of my mom and dad and spend time in Cuba. 

Langston Hughes, the noted African-American author who both spent time in Cuba and wrote about his experiences there, once asked – what happens to a dream deferred? Now, I was about to find out what happens when a dream deferred becomes a dream realized. Cuba here we come.

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