Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Chapter 00 THE CONVOY

My mother family’s ancestral lands, lost in these mountains of Eastern Cuba, are a favorite land of war.

When I arrived in Cuba in 1948, memories clashed with the then surprising present. My recall of the countryside of England and Wales, hills soft and rounded, pastures close cropped by sheep, lands tamed by man for centuries did not prepare me for the wilds of eastern Cuba. Here in Cuba the majesty of Wale’s Snowdon and the peak of Scotland’s Ben Nevis were dwarfed by greater heights. In Liverpool, parks were landscaped to give illusions of wide spaces; in wildest Cuba this space was real. Here, great trees grow tall and shade wide, rivers run fast, clean and free, tangled vegetation iss everywhere growing at fantastic rates. Left alone a lot I wandered far in excited wonder.

Before Batista came to power, in 1952 and before Castro attacked the Barracks at Moncada in 1953, “MJ” Norman, my cousin, two years old than I had joyously climbed the Sierra Maestra’s highest peak Turquino. We younger cousins were very proud of him and waited our turn to do the same. I would have to wait until nearly the end of the decade to do the same, and my circumstances then would be far less joyfull.

The arcane geological mysteries that drove this mix of ancient lava flows and karst so high had once made me puzzled and wonder. During the school year, in boarding school in the Escolapios of Guanabacoa, always lonely for these mountains, I had learned geography and geology from books. Finding joy in my studies sketching three dimensional figures of layers rocks of beneath the verdant surface, I imagining being there on holidays; I day-dream of looking with some kind of comic book style X-ray vision peering through these rocks to their very innards marveling at the complexity revealed.

Now I know that these mountains started to rise from wrinkled plains when Cuba floating on its own slab passed between the still unjoined North and South America to crash into the Bahama Platform near what would be Florida. Then there was the collision with Chicxulub that famous comet of extinction over sixty million years before, spraying iridium over the planet. The pressure of the Caribbean Plate, pressing upward, northward against the small Cuban plate, presses the island’s bedrock against the North American plate.

The power of the Caribbean plate projects northward, buckling, forcing subduction, convergence and shear across the incredible sea trench of the Deep of Bartlett. These tectonic forces have raised the steep mountains of the Caribbean plate in Jamaica, Haiti and Santo Domingo on one side and across the Deep in Cuba on other. There is now a height difference of at least twenty six thousand feet between the bottom of that Deep and the closeby Sierra Maestra in Cuba.

These processes continue. Spanish chronicles record periodic earthquakes causing the collapse of churches in Bayamo and Santiago. British logs record sea deaths of cruel pirates and their women of pleasure when in Jamaica, the wild city of Port Royal returned to the sea. As a child, just arrived from England I have felt the earth tremble here, holding on to table in the veranda of the great kitchen of La Casa de los Generales where we lived while my elders merely smiled. Since then these quakes go on, and landslides kill.

Now, in Cuba the torrent cut ravines of the Sierra are clogged by Castro’s Pharaonic Dams. These dams shiver when the earth trembles; the water behind them ripples ominously in unnoticed warnings. With their minds are filled with propaganda of faux US invasion the Cauto Plains’ people remain ignorant of these far more real, but unheeded, terrors. Nature is still far mightier than humanity. Some day these dams will fail.

The resulting mountains were coated thick with limestone, the kind pitted with sink holes and caves that is known as karst. Rivers submerged devoured by the karst, and then, further down their courses reappeared pouring out of fissures in the ground. After lights out in that school in Guanabacoa birth trauma dreams came. Asleep in sweltering heat, tossing in night sweats, beneath and within bleached walls of my mosquito net, my mind takes me squeezing breathless through the narrow passages within the almost transparent white of karst caves; etherial versions of the guano- sullied bat infested caverns that I know from life.

The Sierra Maestra although not the highest mountain range (maximum height a little less than 7,000 feet) in the Caribbean, has the steepness and complexity, with a mix of heavy tropical forest and cropland almost ideally suited to guerrilla war. These mountains arose in a series of wrinkles of huge sliced, tilted, fractured, slabs, to make ridges running east to west. The northern slab is oldest and thus worn lowest; here the rounded hills and the plains themselves are made from the eroded detritus of these first ridges.

This limestone, the mineral rich thanatocoenosis death assemblage, came from endless billion sea water creatures. On these, then under sea lava slopes the animals’ calcareous remains accumulated for eons; then rose with these mountains from the warm seas. Tropical rains came poured down on this emerging massif for millions of years, carving notched sierras, cutting channels, torrents, streams and rivers. Residual karst now makes more defenses, as cockpits and caves form at lower elevations. The endless great caves of Santa Barbara were just on the edge of our family land and had once sheltered ground sloth, great majá boa, the ancestral Tainos, Cimarón, and the Mambí.

At the seas edge to the south and east, crashing Comet Chicxulub brings kilometers high tsunami to cut the great steps, giant walls at Baracoa to the east and the south and west edges of the Sierra. Wall of immense volcano craters of far Canary Islands had collapsed to make more tsunamis. Strange wild beasts replaced the bolid and flood killed ancientreptiles. Birds came and, evolve to hugeness, and then died. The tsunamis carved the edge of the mountains into stepped tiers of cliffs at sea’s edge. Trees grew and evolved into dense forests.

Ancient peoples came here too, through rivers carved breaches in the cliffs and up the rivers that flowed through forested plains of debri. It seems the Jigües were here first for their names are everywhere. Jigües are said to be magical, dark short longed haired peoples, perhaps such as the San but their hair is straight; but although there are legends of such in Cuba and tropical South America the only known remains of such people are in Brazil. Next came the Guanacabibes, and then the Siboney, replaced the ghosts of maybe Atlanteans. Then the Taíno came in their huge canoes. They arrive to name rivers, and breed joyously with these other ancient peoples. The Taínos had fished in these river’s pools, and the lagoon, that lay below the cliff at our feet.

The highest, last of these ridges in the Sierra Maestra is the one nearest the sea. This is a highway for defenders, a path across this great natural rampart going east and west.

The Taíno, here sheltered from the sea raiding Caribs by the mountains and plains, had lived. Their vast knowledge of nature allowed naked, prosperous, sensual peace until the Spanish came to kill and conquer. The conquistadors took Taínas as brides or common law wives, or, more commonly, had casual sexual congress with these island women since few Spanish women crossed the Atlantic in those days of conquest. The rebel Taíno Caciques: Brizuela of Baitiquirí, Guamá, his jealous brother Oliguama, Oliguama’s unfaithful warrior wife Casiguaya, and their war-women ran swift and naked along these ridges fighting the Spanish to the death.

The Spanish brought and bought slaves from Africa to replace those Taíno they had killed. Some slaves fled and joined fugitive Taínos in Cimarron settlements the mountains. Later escaped slave hunters chased the Cimarones along these same routes, finding that the lower elevations are hemmed in by steep north south valleys. Thus aggressive mixed culture of the Güajiro mountain squires arose; these mountains with their heights, walls and caves were their fortresses.

Slowly, nervously, 1957 flows towards 1958. At Entre Rios, in our foothill lands, on the eastern back of the Bayamo River, in the Sierra Maestra, southern Oriente Province, Cuba I do not keep a calendar. I try to ignore the war and do normal things; uncounted days pass in worry and trepidation. Events happen and in their passing are burned into memory, to be seen vividly like mileposts along in the strange continuum of recall’s pseudo-time.

Memory replays “milepost 1”:

It is night. I am here alone standing on sloping rock at the edge of the deepest pool of Las Lajas the place of the ancient lava flows. We are using swamp eels, quimbolos as bait. Quimbolos are not true eels, and not closely related to their “normal” eels, they are slimy perhaps a little less than a foot long; and they breathe through a hole in their throats. They hide in the mud below the weeds at water’s edge for they are a much sought meal for other fish and are the premium bait for the great large mouth bass in daytime and the true eels at night.

Eels take the quimbolo slowly, so I wait, aside and above those dark, waters. I ready to land this eel with the spinning rod that my father had given me. The rod is an antenna connecting to the dark water world, amplifying the movements of my prey. The rod’s tip begins to move. I wait. Feeling the eel take the bait firmly, I lift the rod to hook it. The eel moves, not fast and thrashing as if a bass, but resisting with slow power as a fearful underwater demon. It seems the great eel is catching me as much as I am catching it.

Black against the black of the deep water, the eel is at first invisible, a strong force pulling at my line from those darkest depths. The shore of the other bank of the river is just a shadow, out lines of bushes, dull gleaming wet sand. I fight the eel for a long time and eventually get it close to the surface. It appears in the low and eerie starlight that trembles in reflection on the ripples of disturbed water. The eel is long; it thrashes, finned fluke tail stroking power menacing sinuous it moves much like the much smaller nasty aquatic miso snake. The eel is aggressive as an aquatic version of the aggressive rearfanged colubroid jubo. It is thick, almost as if a majá boa. .

Without a net, I cannot land it by hand; I must lift it out on the line, for eels bite. It is too strong. Large and heavy, it turns spinning as if a Cuban river caiman, a mean little jumping crocodile, thrashing to rip flesh. It is inevitable that the eel will get away, for the monofilament line I am using is too weak, yet I keep on trying to land it.

The fishing line turns and turns to become tightly twisted and weak, then slowly stretches, rubbing on submerged slabs of rock. The line stretches until it ruptures. The eel gets away, slowly sliding wiggling, moving in changing S-shapes down the sloping underwater ledges. The eel swims down to the deepest crevices, where even in daytime we thrill with fear when we dive.

In the lowest depths of the pool is where cold underground rock-filtered water coming from the highest mountains seeps in. The mountain water layers chill below the warmer river surface the sun has kissed in hot day light. Then by day, for we do not dive at night, I can only reach bottom with difficulty. Now at night, the escaped eel’s black body is hidden in blackness far beneath the broken strands of streaming lino river weed resting on soft sulfide foul-mud the eel digests its stolen químbolo. It recoups strength enough to go on living.

Perhaps, from there this eel will swim the long trip downstream on the Bayamo and then Cauto Rivers to the western salt water of the Guacanayabo Gulf, and from there to the blue Caribe.

Then it will go, eel-instinct driven, around most of Cuba flowing with the Gulf Stream. First west, then north, then eastm its fluke-finned body will drive in sinuous snaking speed through immense submerged canyons. Going on to reproduce others of its eel-kind, this eel will swim to that unknown deep beneath the immense tangle of swirling gyres of seaweed that is the fearful Sargasso Sea.

Time is passing swiftly in the pseudo timeline of my memory -- the next milepost comes to mind:

The day’s chores have ended. Some of the workers and I are fishing again at the same pool at Lajas.

The sun sets; it turns dark. The very distant lights of Bayamo and Guisa are completely blocked by hills. We are least a mile from la Casa de Los Generales, where we no longer use the farm’s generators. Even the weak soft light of kerosene lamps we use in the house now cannot be seen. The cliffs and trees and distance hide their shine. The velvet curtains of the tropical night have dropped, but the eels are taking the químbolo bait, so we stay hoping to catch more eels.

Enrobed in obscurity all is different when night fishing; we live, not at merely different times of day, but as if in a different place a different world. The river’s pools turn to jet wells; the air dankens slowly gathering humidity for the heavy dew of Cuban daybreak. Light only comes from the steel stare of stars; chill breezes alter reality to its most primitive condition.

This is the dark time of the world of the mabuya, the witching hours in which the great hawk moths, owl moths, black and white witches, ghost moths fly. Here even the greatest of these lepidoptera insects, huge grey witches with two hands span wings, flit.

These are the hours when our souls are most weak and our life force most tenuous. This is the time when bats pour from their deep caverns to hunt. This is the obscurity of the coming of the evil Taíno night spirits and the hupía ghosts wander. We worry and ready ourselves to fight fear.

First it is quiet, very quiet. All sounds are amplified; the river is noisy in its running, washing around boulders and above pebbles. From the grasses and bushes on the river’s banks we hear insects chirping. Then we hear a sound, a sound that is faint, low, but throaty deep. In the grassy cliff behind us, crickets stop chirping.

The sound is coming from far to the north from the Cauto Plains, from the direction of that old city of warriors named from the Bayamo River. Minutes pass. We stop moving and sit still reclining on the gritty, smoothly sloping laja rock.

The ancient lava rocks still hold some of the sun’s warmth. We wait feeling these rocks slowly chill. The sound throbs, vibrating through the rocks. It is coming from the Royal Road, El Camino Real, and getting louder. The noise is north, then northwest of us; it comes to us filtered through roadside trees, stores and houses in the Corojo hamlet, and the guásima trees and the guava bushes of pastures.

It is the sound of trucks, many trucks, moving smoothly on the sandy surface of that part of the road. In this dark night, we cannot see anything of what is going on. The noise changes tone. The trucks are moving over pebbles.

The truck wheels splash as they enter the river at the ford. We know where that sound comes from, it is only hundreds of yards away. The trucks are crossing at the ford of the little black Taíno demon, the lair of the crafty seducer of women, “El Paso del Jigüe.” Below this ford the river flows east over gentle rapids to turn north again at the southern pools of Lajas where we like to swim. Then the river flows on into the dark pool where we are fishing.

Strange, so many trucks moving at night, yet there are no headlights. Suddenly we realize, perhaps 400 yards away to our southwest, is a Batista army convoy that is crossing the river at the Jigüe Ford. Horrified, we realized we are within rifle and machine gun range. It is long range true, but still we are in range.

We feel the Batista army’s confidence; they know that the rebels have far fewer weapons to challenge their own overwhelming fire power. Batista soldiers care little about civilians. These soldiers often do “reconnaissance by fire,” shooting at potential ambush sites seeking to locate pockets of resistance. Thus they try to make any lurking rebel so fearful, that without thought he will pull his trigger returning fire to reveal presence and location. We worry about these probing shots. We fear that, thus testing for rebels in ambush, the soldiers will fire in our direction, and hit us instead.

We lay down still and quiet on the sloping rocks of Lajas, fearful and glad that it is dark. Finally sound quiets to the south. Today we will live. The rocks we lay on have turned cold; we shiver.

Now and for certain, our days of peace are ended. War has come to its old playground in the valleys of the Bayamo and the Guamá Rivers.

In later days, we take our nude daily river baths earlier in a nearer safer place than Las Lajas. We bathe as always, as had the ancient Taínos unashamed, but sexually segregated. In the river we lather with chips of harsh white Osa laundry soap, then swim beneath Zoila’s abandoned house perched where the eastern cliff begins; nearby a little to the north the bank is lower. This is the place where Conchita Ramos washes laundry by day.

Smooth wires for drying clothes stretch taut from around the young still smooth bark of an ateje sapling to twist tie around the rough trunk of an older bastard-elm guásima. The traditional three stones, speckled granite, head-sized, round, smooth and grey make a simple open air hearth. Here Conchita boils water with yuca starch in a five gallon square can sitting on the stones over an open fire. She stirs with a wooden paddle, pressing in and lifting up the steaming clothes

The extinguished fire wood pulled from the center of the fire to let it go out was tipped with jet black slit and diced charcoal. Chita’s busy bare feet had smoothed the ground as she worked. Then she would put on her shoes, lift the laundry onto her head and carry it up on the road along side the rising cliff to the batey of la Casa de los Generales. There plying her old fashioned flat irons, she would tell ancient tales. Conchita’s, all called her Chita, finished laundry was always immaculate, board-like stiff faded denims and brilliant crispy whites. She earned five cents apiece for washing clothes, getting more than a man in a day. She needed the money for she had about seven children, and was a good mother.

This was the 1950s, not earlier centuries. No longer is there lurid display of naked and well bronzed flesh as processions of Taína beauties hip sway going to the river to bathe. We are civilized, we are “christianos,” who wear clothing, so men and women now dress after bathing before they walk back home. One day a group of the local montunos working nearby had laughed when Chita, “unashamed,” had lifted her dress high to cross a nearby ford of the river. They had not mocked her nudity, but her fallen breasts and old sinewed nut-brown body; for secretly they feared for themselves because she reminded them of the ravages time would work on their own bodies.

In times before the “War Against Batista” proper city folk were shocked by river nudity. One time our main vehicle the WWII surplus for wheel drive truck, we called it La Sapa because it jumped like a toad, was bringing in some city guests. Suddenly one of the city slickers, a woman, shrieked: “There are naked men by the river.” Movie actress Aunt Rosita who knew these lands and rivers from her childhood, her more than part Taína inheritance surfacing from beneath a thick layer of education, merely joked: “Where! Where!”

We put our clothes; they cling to our still damp skins. We slide into our shoes standing on laja rocks so as not to make our feet muddy. Hair still wet under out hats, we climbed up the road at the side of the cliff. After eating supper we sit, as has become the recent custom facing the river at a safe distance, sitting spaced like birds along telephone wires on a great log. The road is far from here to the west beyond the river. Someone, perhaps Eliodoro, plays the tres guitar and sings songs of love and dueling challenges. Some women come to sit close beside their chosen partners for the night. Nicea cuddles under the great arms of our foreman.

Here we are almost at the lip of the cliff on which the grounds, the batey, of the Casa de los Generales stands, as if suspended in space. Deep below, almost at our feet is the laguna; further to the west the Bayamo River runs noisy in its power. We watch to the west-northwest admiring the brief but great show of sunset between the gaps of the foothills. To the north, shadows extend and run east across the plains of El Cauto. The still sunlit sea at the far unseen Bay of Guanacayabo, the Bight of Bayamo, near and beyond Manzanillo and the swampy delta of the Cauto River, reflects in blue green glints on the western part of the dome of sky, prolonging for instants the short sudden end of the tropical day.

Memories continue at milepost three:

After dark, we watch as el relamapageo, the amazingly intense play of lightning, seeing the sheet lightning make meshes of flickering light across the southern night sky. Bolts strike ground far up the gorges of the headwaters of the Bayamo River. Lightning hits the solid wall of far mountains, between the saw teeth of the upper crenulations of that immense castle wall, way beyond the riverside hamlets of El Platano and Las Mantecas.

Earth trembling thunder rolls powerful and noisy in delayed explosions. Sometimes when the strikes are too frequent, I cannot estimate the distance to the lightning bolt strike by counting out the delay between lightning and thunder. We feel safe from lightning because it is not even raining here at La Casa de los Generales in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra.

This relampageo is beyond the streams and fledging rivers that form the head waters of the Bayamo. We try to guess the place. It is above where the river’s first torrents gather. It is above the misnamed little Bayamo torrent; it is behind El Oro del Bayamo, it is far above El Diablo, the devil’s stream, the La Plata stream at the high places from which the river rises. It is striking at some place where escaped slaves once ran to live in freedom, where wild dogs still howl. It is lawless wilderness where bandits roam, and Castro forces lurk ambush and skirmish.

Slashing light is striking hard and fast on the main north south watershed divide, hitting the highest ridges of the Sierra Maestra. With the terror of thunder noise dimmed by distance and the fast river’s noise, we calmly see that lightning often strikes on a single mountain, some deposit of iron ore, over and over again making that unnamed place a demon’s playground.

The peak of that unknown mountain is lit in trembling flickers of pale silver-blue light. Our retinas are etched by silver flashes.

Another memory starts. Milepost four is February 16 or 17th 1958:

At la Casa de los Generales, this day is different. That time it is not evening, and it is not the lightning. The sun is shining, flashing on flying silvered birds. B-26 bombers, fly in lazy circles over high ridges, near Pino del Agua. Bomb explosions resound, echoing far louder than distant thunder through our valley.

Although we did know it was the Castro brothers fighting the Batista army, we did not know details. We did not know that Ernesto “El Che” Guevara was there. We did not know that El Che was a murderer, that he was alien to this land a ruthless, pitiless, Argentine Marxist, with the innocent look of a saint, and a fire of hate in his cruel heart. We did not know that hero Camilo Cienfuegos was wounded there either. We did not know that Captain Sierra was leading the Batista ground forces on a fool’s errand of relief, up to be trapped in ambush along that deadly road.

We did not learn until later that some innocents also died that day further up this same valley. As the Che narrates this horrible event, they were massacred by Batista soldiers. Yet the Che blames the wrong Batista officer, for he, who the Che names and later had executed, could not have been there at that time. During the initial action at Pino del Agua, the Che did not descend far down into the more dangerous ravine side road of El Banqueo del Oro, where he would have been exposed to the B-26 Fighter bombers. Preserving himself for his evil future plans, Guevara left actions here to his subordinates and Escopeteros, who managed to take weapons from a truck fallen into the ravine; rebels leaping long hair bobbing amid bullets and death. The Che’s writings take credit for the actions of unnamed others, escopeteros like sons of Crecescio Perez. Unknown to me then, René Cuervo was not there, he had already executed by the Che. Others I would know were probably there, such as Miguel Mojena, El Mejicano, and almost certainly Desiderio Alarcón. The Che arrived after the fact and inspected the dead, careful to gain deceptive credit by sparing the lives of wounded Batista soldiers.

Aunt Manuela Jiménez’s house was some miles upriver, where the Bayamo Valley narrowed and mountainsides were steeper than from where we had watched the strafing planes. She once told me, a few years before she died, that the rebels fired across the river from her house near the low end of the Banqueo del Oro at the edge of the Bayamo River that day. She inferred that is why the Batista soldiers killed those innocent güajiros. In his prudence still high in the mountains the Che had slipped away eel like, but as he slithered to safety he half choked with his asthma, and sought relief in hate and the anticipation of the cruel thrills of performing executions. In later years Guevara will cross far seas, south of the Sargaso to Africa, above the sharks, and sea creatures, and eventually returning to the Americas to die, not in the heat of battle but as he deserved at the hands of a Bolivian executioner.

Through thought and memory, reading, correspondence and conversation much of this was to be revealed to me slowly over the years. What I did know then, was that the war was here and now, and it would somehow change our lives.

Within two months after the action at Pino del Agua I was forced by circumstance to turn rebel and would meet Francisco Tamayo Rodriguez ( aka, the Mexican, “El Mejicano”). He had been an escopetero, a shot-gunner, a poorly armed irregular, was also in this fight killing effectively with a one shot .22 caliber rifle. Before Pino del Agua, about the of the action at El Hombrito, the Mexican had survived on of the Che’s first purges, René Cuervo my friend had not. Here the Che fired a BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle. The weapon is too heavy for the Che’s thin body, even at very short range, the BAR trembles in his unsteady hands and he misses.

The one dead enemy at El Hombrito was probably killed by El Mejicano with his .22. More on the Mexican and René Cuervo will follow. When I met him, the Mexican was already a lieutenant and was armed with a prized Garand, M-1 semi-automatic 30-06 caliber rifle.

Larry Daley Copyright@2000 revised 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006


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