February 19
Dateline: Una Mesa de Billar Delapidated en un Hotel Ruso

Tonight it was another example of the Cuban concept we were learning all too well: plan one thing, be forced  to substitute another. We were scheduled to spend time talking to members of a local Communist Committee. Instead, plans were switched. We would now be viewing a performance by youngsters from a community collective.

At first, I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to serious discussions about serious Cuban issues. But as soon as I saw how excited the youngsters were to see Americans and perform for us, my disappointment faded.

Now, as the grandfather of a 4-year-old, I was used to child performances. But I couldn’t help but be amazed by the professionalism of these young entertainers. It was hard to believe that some were as young as my granddaughter, Audrey. This must be what happens when the people of a country value art and music and dance more than money.

As a finale, we joined the young performers, their parents, and their teachers for a person-to-person outreach through dance. I was pleased to have a chance to show off my salsa skills and even more pleased to report that no children, mothers, or animals were harmed by that performance.

Back at the hotel, Judy, our adopted-for-this-trip daughter Traci, Hilary, and I decided to keep our people-to-people mission going. Since there is no private business property as such in Cuba, local residents can avail themselves of services offered at local hotels. We found a group of residents engaged in some friendly games of pool as their wives, girlfriends, and other family members watched appreciatively.

Hilary and I, both willing to show off some of the skills we had picked up from our misspent youth, challenged the locals to 8-ball doubles. Hilary, in flawless Spanish, joked that we would be playing for the International Pool Doubles Championship of Cienfuegos. The Cuban pool players and their family members smiled.

Now some words about the pool table we would be playing on. Nowhere on the island had I found an item that  better captured what happens when a country suffers a 50-year trade embargo. The table was warped. The felt cushions were as dead as the bodies in Colon Cemetario. The cue ball had a huge chunk missing, which made it roll crazily around the table. The sticks had no tips. The nearest cue chalk was 90 miles away in Miami.

The local residents selected the 2 players who would represent them. As I chalked my broken-tipped cue with imaginary chalk, the older player told Hilary that we could have the break. I broke (if that is what you call it when a damaged cue ball is struck by a tipless cue stick) and the game was on. We complimented each other on good shots. “Bueno, muy bueno,” our Spanish opponents and their supporters would shout whenever Hilary or I sunk a ball.  At one point, one of our Cuban opponents sunk 2 balls in a row. “Usted debe ser un jintero de bolas,” I said, trying to impress the locals with my command of their language. Hilary looked horrified. 

“What did you say?” she asked, her voice rising an accusatory octave.

“I said he must be a pool hustler,” I replied.

“No you didn’t. You said what would translate here as ‘you are a pimp of the balls,'” she responded. “How about if you just drop the Spanish before you insult the entire country? OK?”

So I continued to play, albeit much more quietly. After our opponents missed, I found myself with an easy shot on the 8 ball. Of course, with the condition of the cue ball, anything could happen. What happened was that the ball dropped right into the corner pocket. We had won.

“Uno mas, uno mas,” our opponents both chimed in. This time they broke. First they were ahead. Then we came back. Finally, once again, it was just me and the 8 ball. And, once again, it somehow found its wobbly way to the corner pocket. Our opponents held out their hands for congratulations. They agreed to pose for pictures. They introduced us to their wives and family members. Just as I was preparing to break my vow to Hilary and offer these charming people some pool tips in Spanish, my teammate, apparently sensing the potential for disaster, tugged at my arm and said in perfect Spanish: “Thank you for your hospitality. Thank you for letting us play. We love your country and its people, but we must go now. Adios.”

On the way to elevators, Hilary turned to me. “It’s a good thing you play pool better than you speak Spanish. Of course, considering how badly you speak Spanish, I guess you could basically do anything better. Tomorrow we are going to the site of the Bay of Pigs. There has already been one big battle there. Promise me you won’t speak any of your Spanish there and start another one,” she said.

I nodded my head in agreement. But I could always change my mind. After all, I was the new pool king of Cienfuegos. 

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order