Wednesday, May 03, 2006


March 13, 1957 was a difficult day in Havana. Trouble had been stirring for some years, our childhood and early adolescence and since Batista’s coup in 1952, and Castro’s failed attack on the Santiago and Bayamo Barracks in 1953. Father Pastor Gonzalez, once deeply involved in violent Cuban politics of the 1930s, had preached the doctrine of permissible “Just War” in our classrooms of Escolapios of Guanabacoa. We students trembled with the adrenaline of fear and excitement of coming war, and our studies suffered. We could not concentrate well, anything set us off in anger and worry. Soon after that had I had been thrown out of that cloistered boarding school in that still provincial town of Guanabacoa for the last and most insufferable of my innumerable misdeeds.

Plunged into the excitement of the big city of Havana, I now had to go to day school in another Escolapios de La Víbora. That school was in the far suburb of Santos Suarez. It took a long bus trip to get there from where I lived in my father’s apartment, on the third and upper story of Grandfather’s house on Concordia Street.

Grandfather’s house, close to the always troubled University of Havana, was almost across the way from one of my father’s favorite restaurants. On weekends father and I would go there. The restaurant was completely open on its south side when its steel shutters were open and rolled up into a bundle almost up to the ceiling, the shutter chains dangled, clanking slightly down the sides. This open side faced quiet Concordia Street’s narrow way, parked 1950s cars and sidewalks. It was a little west, and almost directly across the street from Grandfather’s house. It was a shaded place of ceramic tiled floors laid in geometric designs, that when mopped down evaporated water to cool the air.

One sat around small square tables in simple comfortable chairs. Salt and pepper shakers held the center of the tables, dwarfed by a large stainless-steel covered fluted-glass brown sugar dispenser. The sugar was to sweeten the demitasse of Cuban coffee from the mountains of Oriente or middle provinces ranges of the Escambray that in ritual fashion ended each meal. Sometimes when times were hard, those with less resources would quietly sweeten the chilled glass of water that was brought when one sat down and declare to companions that they had already eaten. The discrete waiters would serve good traditional Cuban food tastefully seasoned. I remember best the baskets of French style loaves, fluffy piles of white or saffron yellowed rice, black beans, ripe or green fried plantains, and thin pounded Cuban steak served on oval ceramic platters. Guava shells with cream cheese would often follow.

This is the restaurant where I once met my cousin the stunningly beautiful ballet dancer, Leonela Gonzalez. We, my cousin and I, are family both of us great grandchildren of Leonela Enamorado, that brave and graceful Taína woman, who was lover of the great general Calixto Garcia at the time of the fullest power of his fiery warrior strength. Grandfather was child of Leonela Enamorado’s passionate war time love match; Leonela Gonzalez is fruit of the descendents of a later formal marriage.

Leonela is six years older than I, Professor of Ballet, first line student and then first ballerina in Alicia Alonzo world famous school and showgirl in La Tropicana; she sings professionally. She is all curves, raven black hair, smooth skin, full lips, high cheek bones, jet eyes. She is 5 foot four and less than 120 pounds, but towers over me in her high heels. She extends her hand, I stutter but cannot speak, so drunk on her presence I cannot take her hand and instead give a judo bow.

Week days were school days. I had to rise early since the trip took well over an hour on the public buses. This gave me less time to study than in Guanabacoa, and I missed the loss of times spent in ascetic joy of abstruse study. Now some of that lost time is spent observing the streets of the then beautiful vibrant City of Havana, where the most sacred mingles with the deeply profane.

On my way to school at La Víbora, I go below the concrete floors and the wrought iron bellies of balconies, east and down hill on Concordia for half a block. Turning right onto Infanta Street I pass a place a gang-killed-student had died a few years before, for this is a tribal place, university students must prove manhood by daring death. I go south, and see across the way from the solemn religiosity of the wide porticos and great doors of the Church of Our Lady of Carmen or I take the number 10 bus going south on that same route.

No more walking beneath balconies, I go now for long blocks by the stone columns that supported the overhanging store fronts of broad busy Infanta. Under the store overhangs I go past lottery vendors on each block especially at each street intersection. The arcane magic of specific numbers is displayed in bold black on white on tall signs of poster-board. Vendors cry in ragged chorus the cabalistic virtues of particular numbers. The air is full of the odors of greasy offerings of food stands, the effluvia of bus exhaust, musk and floral scents of women’s perfume and faint whiffs of incense from the church. I reach or the bus leaves me, at the most northerly number 14 bus stop on this west side of Infanta Street.

Just east, of this stop, across the street is the even broader Zanja Street. Zanja Street runs east west, west of Infanta, Zanja narrows and transforms into Zapata Street and then heads on in a wide curve turning southward to nestle the Quinta de los Molinos, the gardens and ancient summer-residence of the once Spanish Governors of the Island, where the Zanja Aqueduct’s waters once drove little mills to grind grain. Here the victorious Cuban Mambí leader General Máximo Gómez once camped, his mind tired of too many war, his wizen body wasted by the work of war and the passage of time is gaunt and small. Gómez now kept his short well bloodied machete finally sheathed.

The low hollow of the Quinta houses the School of Agricultural Engineering. The Chemistry building was nearby across Zapata Street and on somewhat higher ground. Now all this and the rest of the university is still an autonomous academe, a University island free from direct rule of law. Yet the days when the Quinta was den and armory of the trigger happy student gangs have barely ended; but these upper class duelers have fled the tougher lower class rule of Batista’s second dictatorship. The terror of these gangs, action groups they called themselves and the hundreds of dead they left is not forgotten.

However, the southern reaches of Zanja Street were far more famous. Perhaps a dozen blocks to the east was the land of venery and lust. This was the street of notorious Shanghai Theater, forbidden to me by my devoted Irish Catholic upbringing. Even greater corruption was available in Havana in the Ministry of Health inspected bordellos in the Colon District and Pajarito, forbidden to me by my childhood training and recent schooling.

The address of Marina’s house was number 75 Trocadero Street. In the numerology so common here in Cuba, the number 75 is “El Pargo Muerto,” the “dead snapper fish.” Marina’s is the “place,” the “house” of greatest reputation. It plays on my adolescent imagination. A legendary building, famous world wide, Marina’ brothel is said to be a designed as a Roman fornicaria, a palace of marble, staffed with beautiful available women who would do almost anything sexual in return for the coins of the god Mammon.

Here, at Marina’s it is said the show “Superman,” was held as an private appetizer and aphrodisiac for known clients and guests. In this show, called “hace un cuadro” or making a painting, caped as Superman, a priaptic thin, and dark, displayed his gift, his “fish,” an un-exhaustible and enormous erection. He would then publicly and dramatically demonstrate his skills, his great “fish” diving and swimming in and out of the delightfully responsive bodies of the beautiful women of that place. Delivered “services” were also provided to small groups of selected clients free of charge, for this was not considered part of the business, in Hotels like the Copacabana and St. Johns. Bacchanals were also provided in the homes of some of the very wealthy in which specially “trained” Güajiras, whose ancestral Taína customs made such a mere matter of tradition, were made available to these rich clients.

Waiting I could see to the east, across the wide open way, down Zanja Street, buses from different routes all lined up against the north curb. These were not the huge white clumsy flat sided Leyland buses that ran up San Lázaro Street turning north at the foot of the great and the famed deadly steps of the University of Havana, near our Concordia house.

Here blocks away, at Zanja Street the buses are more utilitarian Omnibus Aliados, “guaguas”, bug shaped shorter vehicles, built on truck chassis. The guagua’s bodies are more rounded and painted maybe, for I do not know I am color-blind, in two tones of light orange or green. For a while the green one’s were better painted and the company tried to charge two cents more to ride in them, until some University of Havana students took the buses up to the sacred inviolable hill of that Academe, and held them there until the Omnibus Aliado Company lowered the fare to the previous price.

Then one by one the little round buses started up going west then curving to the south to crossed Zanja to enter Infanta. They puff and belch clouds of foul sooty diesel smoke. These foul odors offend my country raised sense of smell. The guaguas make the cumbersome turn to reach my bus stop, and stop.

Those other greater, more angular, Leyland buses would one day become important to me. In the future in April 1961 in the castles across Havana Bay prior, during, and after the battle of Bay of Pigs invasion terrible things would happen. Standing against the wall, just before execution, devoted Catholics will cry “! VIVA CRISTO REY !” then their flesh will flinch as bullets pierced their bodies. They will fall, bodies thrashing or still, amid spurting blood.

In those same later times these same Leyland buses will be strafed and set afire by the invading B-26 fighter bombers. Trapped inside, Castro’s ill trained atheist militia will die horribly. They will scream their last words to their mothers and to a denied G-d, as they burning by the thousands on swamp lined causeways. The sweet smell of their roasted flesh will blow in the sea wind, for death is often the reward for blind loyalty to ambitious leaders.

That loyal human flesh will be found cheap to their leader, and he simply will pour on endless reinforcements; however, later he knows he will need to negotiate with the British to replace those Leyland buses. That need would get me and my sister Leonor, both of us English subjects and thus bargaining chips, out of those vast crowded shift prisons. Twenty four of those replacement Leyland buses, were wrecked at sea, in apparent sabotage, and although they were dried out apparently never reached Cuba.

That horrible future is unknown, as I wait to catch the number 14 bus at that intersection on Infanta Street. My forced change of schools did place me in a position to observe closely the beautiful Habaneras, so different from the Güajira and Montuna women of the Mountains.

The Habaneras dress to the nines, they sway and roll their hips as they walk, high heels clicking, leaving trailing clouds of perfume. The city women’s curves are rounder, their thighs fuller, and their breasts generously supported and displayed. The Habaneras’ backs were seemingly always bent, flexed and arched proudly to raise the twin profiles of their buttocks against their tight dresses to proclaim their readiness for the right man.

The bus drivers acknowledge each woman; the bus with a screech of brakes and in a cloud of diesel fumes makes a complete stop. The back door may be open or closed; however, the front door is open in constant seduction. When an attractive woman steps onto the bus and enters from the front the driver, who gives her his full attention as if she is the whole center of his world, she moves in and waits for the conductor to pay her fare.

The bus fare is 8 cents and 2 cents more for a transfer. Except for a while on the General Motors, which were painted green and which for a while offered a ten cent ride. This gave rise to the protests of University students who recited bastardized versions of the Carlos Ocano song about a prostitute “La bien pagá” which included the words “I owe you nothing, forget me, for I paid in gold for your bronzed flesh” except in the students version the word for “bronzed” has now become “painted.” I am told the actual professional women then charged perhaps $ US 2 to-$5 at Marina’s. Then Cuban minimum wage in Cuba was $60 a month.

Often, the buses do not even stop for younger men like me, the bus just slows and we leap aboard. The conductor respectfully urges the passengers to move to make room by filling the empty parts of the center aisle, saying “pasito a’lanty.” Men make way for the women and if sitting often jump to offered them their seat. We men just pay our fares, and admonished in this standard polite rejoinder, move to make way for the next passengers.

Women of our same age and class were almost never on the public buses, and certainly not alone. A high school boy like me, in the blue striped shirt, knit black tie and chino pants, of the school uniform was not an attractive prize for the somewhat older women who did ride. For these bus-riding women, we were too young, too poor to take them out, even too inexperienced to make good lovers. Usually the most we could hope for on the bus was generous brushing touch of hip, as the bus swayed, or a glimpsing vision of full breasts as the women shifted. At best if one was lucky to sit by one of these mobile objects of desire was a few minutes of electric thigh to thigh contact and perhaps a kind, understanding, smile to reward our lecherous thoughts.

Route 14 route subdivided in two in La Víbora district. It either stopped at the corner of Escolapios on Juan Bruno Zayas or let me off at General Lee and Los Angeles Street, a few blocks to the West. After the bus drops me off, I would often see Chemistry Professor Ledon’s untidy old car, full of odd heavy dark experimental apparatus, facing up hill across the street from the school.

Thus each school day, I leave the world where women walk in wanton delight, to enter through an impressive front door that all boy school. The high school is a thoroughly modern four-story building with It is constructed in the Frank Lloyd Wright style of cantilevered overhangs, spaces of glass brick in the walls, verandas with metal rails over looking the courtyard. The school is new, and the courtyard is only surrounded on two sides by the building, the other two sides are intended to be built later.

It is a normal day, we line up in ranks in the courtyard, and to the physical education instructors cadences go through our rigorous calisthenics exercises. It is not yet hot; we try not to sweat too much, for we will wear the same clothes all day.

We worry and yet feel the excitement of the times. Batista struggles to hold his unelected power and is hated for it. The rumors of war and revolution are never far from our minds now. We cannot really study. The newspapers and the illustrated magazines Bohemia and Carteles, show us the pictures of the bullet riddled dead bodies of men only a few years older than us, lying open eyed in vast pools of blood.

That year in April of 1956 we see pictures of the dead, young freedom fighters lying in their sandbagged cement trucks riddled with .50 caliber bullets in the failed assault on Goicuría barracks in Matanzas not 100 miles to the east. In far Oriente province Castro has landed; in late 1956 his forces almost destroyed, he wanders in fleeing through the hills to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, to the vast Hacienda Sevilla, south but not far from my family’s land. Bombs explode in the cities.

The resistance to the dictatorship is now general. In our chemistry class, our teacher Dr. Ernesto Ledón, he of the untidy car, is also an instructor at the University of Havana, teaches us how to make potassium perchlorate incendiaries. We do not know quite what to do with the information, but the signals from our teachers are clear we must try to fight for freedom.

Some days before, as we start to stir in resistance, in a really stupid prank product of an unthinking youth, I take a black wooden box. To the box I attached two large cylindrical batteries from one of the labs and leave it, high on a shelf in one of the bathroom. It is soon discovered. A brave teacher, fearful of calling the police who then would search and probably kill some students as a warning, the teacher’s hands trembling cuts the wires and defuses the hoax. Such is the tenor of the times that all students find this amusing.

We high school boys are running on adrenaline and our blood is pumping hormones, we fight among ourselves like young bulls preparing to rut. I remember the strength running in my veins. I can lift an opponent over my head in a Judo throw, and in my young madness laugh at his screams as he sees the hard concrete surface court yard far below. Sanity prevails I gently place him down safely.

Rumors fly that day, at two thirty in the afternoon of March 13, 1957 there is an assault on the great Presidential Palace in downtown old Havana, there are many dead, …is Batista dead? The noise of traffic, the buildings and the distance deadens even the loud booming of the .50 caliber machineguns. We go home from high school with care and somberness, the assault has failed, Batista lives and we know he will exact a price of blood.

That day an important University Student leader is shot, on the hill just above the western end of Concordia Street where I live, He is stout, five foot seven inches tall; apple cheeked, and has black straight Taíno hair, with light colored skin. He is caught, trapped with no escape by a police patrol car, as he leaves the Radio Reloj radio station, after falsely announcing Batista’s death.

He takes out his .32 Beretta pistol and in a tragic mistake for one of the police was rebel agent, exchanges fire with the all too well-armed police to let his friends get away. He is hit. He bleeds profusely.

Soon José Antonio Echeverría lies dead in a pool of blood. On the great steps of Havana University the wide spread arms of the Alma Mater statue are empty, nearby Echeverría’s blood flows down hill north towards the sea, but does not reach it. He was 25.

That night Havana is full of silence; there are no passersby only fugitives scurrying hiding with friends or with the generous women of the bordellos. There is no traffic except tanks and army trucks with soldiers.

Things calm down a little down town in old Havana in a few days. I can return to train in the Centro Judo Club, the Dojo of Sensei Gerardo Chiu 4th Dan.

I remember the Dojo of Sensei Chen clearly. It was on a second story, the mezzanine, of a small, three story, building in downtown old Havana. The building is in the modern style and does not have a balcony.

The dojo was on the south side of one of the narrow pirate-trapping streets of the old city. One entered on the west side and went up some stairs and there was a plain wooden door. When one went into the Dojo, the gray canvas covered tatami mat was placed against the east wall, and there was a large picture window facing the street on the north side. There were bathrooms and changing rooms at the back.

The dojo’s windows were kept closed in the heat of the day to reduce the diesel fumes from the buses, and the dojo was always kept clean. However, in the evening when we worked out, the dojo still smelled of burnt diesel and men’s sweat. Now our sweat smells sharper and more acrid, it is the smell of fear.

Sensei Chiu is small and wiry, perhaps 5 foot 3 inches and 125 lbs, and so immensely fast he seems to become invisible as he attacks. Chiu teaches well, we learn to use a gentle sensitive grip, we are a good dojo. We compete in National Sports Palace. Sensei Chiu is sub-champion of Cuba quite an accomplishment since in Cuba there are no weight classes and the champion is a 240 pound giant. My family watches proudly; my sisters encourage us.

As we leave the Sports Palace two professional boxers one black one white approach and talk to me. They are gentle and kind and obviously have enjoyed the Judo competition. I see their famous faces close up. Their faces are much more damaged than it appears in their publicity shots. The black one will be killed in the ring.

Sensei Chiu follows the Belgian system of Sensei Kolishkini, until he brings in massive, tree trunk legged, Sensei Masayuki Takahama from Japan. Sensei Chiu converts to the Japanese style, and we start to learn the Japanese words for each throw. Sensei Chiu shows us how to disappear from the opponents view. Here on that second floor building I go through the exhausting repetitions of the Judo throws. Repeating throws a hundred times at a time until they are burned into my nerves and muscles for life. The mat we work out on, the tatami is too firm, we slap hard as we fall, I am too heavy, the falls hurt. We work at the judo moves and sweat, yet we cannot forget the world of death outside.

One day it must have been before October 1956 Sensei Chiu’s takes us to from the dojo to a high rooftop in old Havana. Here high up on the roof, by the air conditioning exhausts and the sky lights a very fat, and weapon bestrewn, high level Batista police officer talks to us. The officer’s bodyguards stand around looking at us with professional concern and observe the potentially and very lethal fall to the ground.

The officer, his blue uniform absurdly and grotesquely covering his enormously obese body, boasts of his strength and his power. He is giving us a strong but indirect warning. He must owe somebody in our group a favor to even tell us what he does. I know I can throw him from the roof, but I know I will die for it and push the thought aside for there must be at least one on Batista’s side in our dojo.

There is an American among us at the dojo, gray faced, cropped, dark hair, tall, wiry and strong. He, I did not know his name, was one of Batista’s palace guards or the anonymous telephone operator. He tells us that he was fighting in the palace defending Batista. He tells us of the desperate assault, the taking of the first and second floors of the palace, the failed critical battle on the marble stairs to break through the third floor wrought iron screen, the last defense of Batista.

The American describes the dying on the stairs as the battle turns. He tells of the fleeing attackers dying as they step out from the bullet shade of buildings walls into machine gun fire from the upper levels of the palace or adjacent buildings for Batista knew they would come two days before. About 30 attackers and 5 defenders died there on March 13, 1957.

I hear later, it must have been from my Step-Father Enrique Sanz that distant Cousin Calixto Sánchez is unable to bring the assault’s second wave backup in time through the narrow streets of Havana. In Bohemia magazine I see photographs of the window where the unwise American tourist tried to peer out from behind a US flag and observe the battle. A .50 caliber machinegun firing from the palace has cut a hole through the brick under his window and killed the tourist.

Almost fifty years later I realize that the American Judoka must have been William Alexander Morgan, a known martial arts expert. Morgan would become a comandante fighting against Batista in the Second front in the Escambray and still later executed fighting against Castro’s dictatorship.

The dojo is now quiet; its soul has gone we work out mechanically. We go through our paces and our exercises in distraction.

The Escolapios of the Víbora high school will close down at the end of the term; I will fail my chemistry exam and have to take it again at the Public High School Institute. Batista will kill many students like myself, his police and army search and find informers from among the communist party that supports tyrant. Batista’s killers armed with this information will even murder some hiding after the palace attack in the very building where my mother lives. Desperate parents of young students try to send their offspring abroad for these times of crisis after crisis are a deadly whirlpool that inexorably draws in the young.

As the electricity goes out in Havana, that distant cousin Calixto Sanchez will atone for his delay during the Palace attack to die in late May 1957 in a betrayed and failed landing in the Sierra Cristal of Northern Oriente. That is far north of our land in the vastness of Oriente Province. Lieutenant-Colonel Fermin Cowley Gallegos Colonel operates out of the Holguín Barracks, named after Great Grandfather Calixto Garcia. These are far less gentle times than when cousin MJ was held there during Castro’s Moncada and Bayamo attacks of four years before. In the pouring rain the Batista Army, led by Colonel Cowley is busy chasing, deceiving the rebels into surrender with talk of the Masonic code. An older wiser member of the group knows better and hides up a tree. The seventeen deceived prisoners are bound up with jarcia sail-ship ropes, moved and brutally shot with Thompson machine gun fire.

A day or so later reinforced by men from Frank País’ urban guerrillas and the one other escapee from the northern landing, Castro forces attack. These rebels strike successfully at the small poorly-protected Úbero Batista army base. Úbero, the place of the leathery leaved sea-grape, is south of our land, it would be far closer but for the wall like Sierra Maestra, that reaching to the sky, even cuts off the rain to that arid southern coast.

I am still in Havana, I cannot study well and since I have flunked my chemistry final and must retake it early that summer for it is the only thing between me and the University. I will return to the Casa de los Generales in far Oriente province that summer where the war will start to catch up with me. While I am there, to the north Colonel Cowley kills many that Christmas, and in turn is killed himself.

In the then unknowable future, at the time of the Bay of Pigs (April 1961) my sister Leonor and I will visit to the Sports Palace again; this time it is not judo meet, we are to be held there as prisoners. The fellow student I had lifted above my head will live through the revolution, the Castro’s communist coup from power repression and the Vietnam War, yet he will always remember that day’s fear and hate me a little for it.

Larry Daley, copyright 1998, revised 2000, 2005, 2006


Blogger Lucidiocy said...

fascinating read!

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:13 AM  

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