PROLOGUE: THE JUDO DOJO OF SENSEI GERARDO CHIU
Plunged into the excitement of the big city of
Grandfather’s house, close to the always troubled
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
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
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
Just east, of this stop, across the street is the even broader
The low hollow of the Quinta houses the
However, the southern reaches of
The address of
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
Here blocks away, at
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,
In those same later times these same
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
That horrible future is unknown, as I wait to catch the number 14 bus at that intersection on
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 $
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
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
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
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
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.
Things calm down a little down town in old
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
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
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
One day it must have been before October 1956 Sensei Chiu’s takes us to from the dojo to a high rooftop in old
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
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
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
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
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