Thursday, June 01, 2006



I recall that time well:

The April Strike of 1958 had just failed miserably. I had run and walked far deeper into the Arroyón Valley that I had ever run before. Going southward beyond the zigzagging road up to los Números, I had passed a collection of palm huts used by imported Haitian workers, astride the beautiful stream. I recoiled with proper Cuban disgust at the vile stink of old sweat, urine, dung and vomit coming from these bohíos. It reminded me, except it was worse, of my childhood reaction to the vile odors of abandoned air raid shelters in Liverpool.

Then for the path led to a temporary widening, a broader cleaner section of the valley, here as if in a dream the Arroyón stream widened and meandered. Among the mists to the south I saw the dark perfectly symmetrical erection of a slim volcanic cone. Then the mists closed again and the cone was gone from sight. Moving forward the valley narrowed to a choke point, almost blocked by immense boulders covered with bushes and past this point the stony path on the east side of the stream that lead to the rebel camp.

I do not remember meeting the rebel sentries but I did know they were there. I crossed the stream, stepping easily from rock to rock, and walked towards and up and then on to a moderate sized buff on the west side. Here I found myself, beneath the palm thatch of the local rebel headquarters in the coffee plantations that Joaquin Bueno or his brother operated for one of the family, one the Ramírez, probably Ronaldo the brother of Levarbo.

Our group of rebels had withdrawn from tiny footholds on edges of the Cauto plains of eastern Cuba. We huddled in the protection of the northern foothills of the Sierra Maestra in the narrow valley of the Arroyón.

To the north, beyond our refuge the enemy attacks and destroys bands of escopetero-guerrillas on the plains. The 26th of July militia bury their dead and hide in the cities. In the foothills, guerrilla clashes now occur sporadically as the enemy drives at us and we foothill escopeteros too weak to offer much resistance dodge their advances. Castro’s main forces retire to their usual refuges way to the south and west in the highest mountains.

The old woman stands on the dirt path among the tall, tree-shaded coffee plants of Joaquin Bueno’s plantings in Arroyón. To the old woman's back is the top of the low ridge with its tall hackle of old rainforest trees. She is too terrified to turn to face the rapidly advancing soldiers who are coming across the top of the ridge.

This will be the place of my first encounter with the enemy. In my fright scenes are static against a backdrop of beauty. Actions take place against a backdrop of florid vegetation and majestic steep slopes like a series of freeze frame stills:

Among the coffee bushes and coffee shading trees, we are at the foot of the east arm of that cleft volcanic crater. Two ridges, east and west, two arms encircle us under high skies. From the south like a pile of rumpled clothes are highland heads and the west shoulder of Los Números. Its arm reaches around and down sloping towards where we are.

Going on to the north of us the “arm” ridge goes on for miles becoming progressively lower and until it disappears at the union of the Guamá and the Bayamo Rivers, at Las Bocas where the Taíno Ramos live on grandfather’s land. There to the west are the plains the homelands of the enemy Batista forces, while to the east other foothills continue to Guisa and then beyond.

That old woman is alone with her fear on the buff below the upper east slopes of the “arm.” She faces east, looking downhill and towards the high banks of the stream, at the place where our headquarters had been near the boulder strewn stream-bed. She is in this beautiful valley of the Arroyón, the valley of the big stream. Arroyón cascades down from La Escondida, dropping from in the southern headlands. The stream runs north over the bottom gravel and bed rock in the depths of the ancient crater gathering waters to exit through the cleft of that crater’s lost north rim into the Guamá River.

Here at the bottom of the crater, the stream’s clear waters meander over and among varicolored pebbles and around boulders. In the few patches of sun-flecked waters, among the mostly shaded stream little silver and blue, fat-bellied guajacón Gambusia, mosquito-eating fish, and perhaps the Tití minnows, dart around in schools like quick-moving slivers of light.

In earlier times in the warmer Bayamo River’s pebbled shallows a younger me would gather these little fish as bait by scaring them with my shadow, and when they hid under the rounded stones fiercely drop a another stone on top. Then, after rolling over the stones, I would gather the stunned minnows as live bait for bass. However, here in the Arroyón the guajacón are safe for these waters are too cold and too shallow for bass. I see none of the larger slab-sided bíajaca fish.

Nearby to the south and upstream is the walled in canyon of the Arroyón, and further up the highest waterfall in Cuba, the Chorrerón de Guamá. Narrow silver ribbons are falling from the high west ridge of Los Números. These ribbons of water are dropping from the cold jaiba crab filled stream in Uncle Marcus’ hidden Escondida Valley. Silvered by bubbles of air, whitened by froth, the rushing water is leaping through open space, sliding down among crevices and cracks, slipping down verija crevices between the yellow-green mosses and liana bestrewn, bromeliad adorned, rainforest trees.

Enter the ancient goddess who once ruled this place

We are within the embrace of Taína Mother-goddess Atabei-Atabeira-Atabeina’s mountain arms. The sky gathered waters pour out from the crevices of her loins. Her inner fluids rush out between the mosses growing on her great thighs of dark gray, ancient laja. From here we look up. The goddess’s upper body is lost in clouds; her lengthy lower limbs are fused with the lava rock cliff of the south wall of that very ancient extinct and cloven volcano that is our family’s upper lands.

The Chorrerón de Guamá is sometimes visible from many miles to the north. In the wet season, the falls disappear from view until the weeks-long rainstorms, we called temporal, cease, and the heavy, dark-gray clouds turn white, fluffy, and lift far higher into the pure blue sun lit sky. Then the falls shine from the distant mountains, and can be seen from as far away as the Central Highway on the plains of the Cauto River. From that far highway the falls are is a mere line of silver against a distant wall of blue mountains; here its presence looms almost over head. These waters are falling from the great wet xoxa of la verijua, Atabei-Atabeira-Atabeina herself.

Years past, Grandfather would entertain a certain American confidence man, Nick Carter I think he called him, I know he amused him. Mr. Carter had a larcenous scheme for investing in the area using these falls for a hydroelectric plant, and he and his guests would stay at “La Casa de los Generales.” Nothing, luckily, ever came of that.

Beyond, far above, Arroyón, arising, almost vertically, is the east ridge of Los Números. Los Números, the place of the numbered lots, it is named thus because grandmother divided her land between her eight children and her husband’s first son, her adopted first born. Thus, there are nine numbered lots.

Lots one, two and three, are the largest. These lots are up to about 2,000 acres each, but because they contained large areas of cave- ridden white karst outcroppings they are less useful for agriculture. The higher numbered lots are smaller about 500 to 600 acres each. These lots are mostly above the karst and because they are rest on old volcanic soils mixed with the humus from millennia of great-forests, they are excellent for growing coffee.

It would appear that once this volcano was an island, surrounded by necklace of coral, and a crashing sea. The coral and the sea creatures died, and left it with white ring of karst rock. Yet why is there more karst lining some of the lower eastern walls inside the broken caldera? The volcano must have been submerged in the sea for quite some times.

From where we are in Arroyón, deep in the bottom of the caldera, this part of Los Números, the eastern wall of the extinct volcano is vast. It fills our whole eastern horizon. It is not raining and the sky is a narrow slot of blue, a band running to the north.

On the lower western slope of this eastern ridge there are rectangular patches of coffee, they disappear from view as they rise into the heights. Some coffee gardens are, older well grown, and tree shaded. In newer plantings, small, intensely green and glossy-leaved coffee plants grow, under sparse crop cover of corn and yuca, almost unseen between dog teeth of shiny white karst rock.

There are other little patches, conucos, of food crops. Here the coffee is merely inches high and thus unseen, lost among the food crops. There are little conuco gardens of corn and beans. There are little plots of root crops. Some tiny parcels are covered with ivy-like leaves, growing from tangles of creaping stems running along the ground, these are boniato vines. Boniato, the sweet potato, has been grown in Cuba well before Columbus arrived, as have the corn and the beans.

The coffee plants are late comers to Cuba, gifts of far Yemen the violent land called Arabia Felix in Asia Minor. However, today in the world perhaps 60% of crop species used were domesticated and developed by the Taínos, related Arawak cultures and other peoples of the Americas. These crops are their living monuments.

Each crop has its own story, usually ancient, mostly lubricious. Wild bee hives, rich in honey were once a major product of these forests and now European bee hives were common. I remember when I was fresh out of England and perhaps 13 and visiting the house of a distant cousin but because of her age she was considered an aunt. I told her my gift was a jar of honey. She teasingly questioned was the “¿comprao or regalao?” bought or given. After puzzling a while, for my command of Spanish was still weak, I was shocked to realize she was implying, clearly in jest, that my gift of honey might be a proposition for oral sex.

On the mountain side there are patches of ground planted with skinny stems, leaf scar-notched and leaf-less on their lower parts. These toxic milky-sapped stems support spreading umbrellas of many fingered leaves. This is yuca, a crop that also comes from mainland jungles and even more ancient times. I still like yuca especially fried, but now as is described later in the book I know it is not something to eaten raw.

At least 10,000 years ago, somewhere in Mesoamerica or Brazil this deadly poisoned jungle plant, was converted by culture and elegantly simple technology into a staff of life. Yuca is tremendously productive, exceptionally easy to replant and resistant to pests. In our times in Cuba as in much of Latin America and even in Africa, yuca is a very important crop.

The raiding cannibal Caribs preyed on those peoples who achieved ancient yuca technology; they considered them subhuman. The Carib war cry screamed “Ana cariná rota” “Only we are men!” Thus Carib called these people Arahuacos, mere eaters of yuca meal and thus Arawaks in English, for they were not, as were the Caribs, eaters of human flesh. After the flights of deadly arrows took their toll, the Caribs gathered the bodies of men for food, and selected those women they would keep for their pleasure. As they roasted their prey over a barbacoa, the manzanilla poison of their arrows, would arise in the smoke and become in its dilute form an aphrodisiac.

The Arawaks of the jungles of main land of Zuania, called the Caribs the children of the rotten Anaconda, and took terrible slow revenge through the cult of Canaima.

The Caribbean Island Arawaks, the Taínos had as a principal the deity, the god of this plant culture, Yúkahu. Or perhaps Yúkahu was the discoverer of its uses who became mythologized into a god. The Zemí of Yúkahu is represented as a sitting idol, with well endowed and ready phallus; a platter sits on his head. These crops are said gifts of the Taíno supreme divinity through centuries of transliteration Yúkahu is also Yoca baya-guama-quina. The root Guam means great and Yúkahu is son of Atabei-Atabeira-Atabeina, the she god of the great cleft. This is the land of towns of This is the land of lost indigenous towns of Guamayabón one north one south on the Guamá Rivers, Guamá and Guamá del Sur.

Some other plantings are wide leafed, almost rhubarb like, malanga plants; these were once the staple crop of hard times in Cuba. I remember disliking malanga, for its some sharp taste and lack of other more pleasant flavors. Then the saying “a comer malanga” meant that times were going to be hard. This crop is called taro on Pacific islands. These plants are believed to have come to Cuba only centuries ago. There are other pre-Colombian crops such as peppers, and cherry tomatoes, the kind that I recall as tasting odd and “hairy.” We also ate boiled pumpkins and squash which we called calabazas; these were said to be symbols of a lover’s rejection, or deceit, as in the remark “Ella le dio calabazas. There were many other kinds of indigenous crops, too numerous name them all here.

Some say the groves of tall, frond-shaded, palm-like banana and plantain plants came to here after Columbus; a few say that they were here in the Americas even before the Spanish came.

The land of los Números is recently cut from the rain forest is very fertile and these crops grow very well. This is a place of abundance. Between the coffee patches and the conucos are jungle remnants. Residual islands of rainforest, called the cayos de monte, look much darker in their pools of deep shade. Within all this, forest trees line the banks of the rivulets, and streams fall in gathering veined patterns towards the Arroyón stream running clear at the base of the east wall on the floor of the old caldera.

Upward from here the Arroyón stream arises in these the falls, the valley is a canyon cut by eons of rains into the volcanic rock. Downstream, north of the choke point, the canyon widens a little to turn into a narrow twisting valley full of trees and coffee plantations, large boulders and great rock outcroppings. The edges of the stream are forest and the coffee plantings shaded by tall trees.

This jumbled, sheltering, when then completely forested land, had when I was young been called “La Mambisa.” It was cut only recently, before that, for five centuries, this area had been a refugium, a place of hiding for Taínos fleeing the Spanish, the escaped slaves of the Cimarrón, the Mambí independence fighters, patriots and bandits. In this area, it was very difficulty for those who hunted them, to find anybody who sought refuge here, for to fight uphill, upstream, in this steep complex terrain was most difficult.

This memory is particularly vivid:

To the old woman’s left is a hut, a bohío. The hut walls are made of enormous flat, board-like stem-petioles of royal palm fronds. They are called yaguas. These yaguas are held in place by rusting bailing wire tied to long, thin, crooked, horizontal cuje poles.

Each detail is still static and clear:

The walls of cuje and yaguas are firmly tied, fixed to four thick, vertical corner posts jaitinals that hold up the roof. The roof is built over a lattice work of cuje poles and jaitinals rafters to form a barbacoa. This barbacoa is covered with penca thatch. Pencas are the six foot or more long thick fronds of royal palms. These are the same fronds that have provided the yaguas. The edges of the thatch hang shaggy, like a sheep skin’s wool, over the huts walls. A row of yaguas covers the roof ridge, sealing out all rain. It is a big bohío, forty or more feet long.

Used to store coffee and shelter workers from the tropical rains, the bohío is old. Once emerald, its thatch had long since turned drab shaggy gray. Once paler green, its walls of yaguas have long since bleached to straw colors. The yaguas themselves are now splitting along their lengths in the hot tropical sun. All the materials once damp with living sap are tinder dry with age.

She, the Güajira woman, stands in the path, her legs apart. Old, gray and wrinkled, her wide palm leaf yarey hat shades her face, and her long, dark, almost black dress long, droops and is uneven at its bottom hem. Somehow she too is an ancient symbol; somehow she is Atabei-Atabeira-Atabeina. Somehow she is that woman, part mother, part Virgin Mary, part Taína mother goddess, to whom battle wounded young Cubans cry “!Ay mi Madre!” as they die,

The Batista air forces “avioneta,” the light machine gun armed spotting plane comes nearer, low and very fast; the high pitched growling drone of the plane’s engine grows louder. The plane’s crew is observing, scanning for any ambushes we rebels might set for the Batista soldiers.

The soldados are coming. We do not call them casquitos, helmet-heads, when we fear them. The Batista forces were not going to attack up the narrow forested Arroyón valley. They are approaching, they are over the nearest western ridge, and we are afraid. Standing a little apart from all those who surround her, the emblematic old woman is made alone by her paralyzing fear.

I looked at my feet to steady my path down the hill. The ground was dark and littered with little twigs and fallen coffee leaves. These leaves still have crenulated edges but now are dried and browned. With all this unaccustomed noise, the little black and brown ants that usually ran about had long since fled to their holes. The lizards held still, their colors darkening, clinging lengthwise to the sides of trunks and branches of the coffee-shading trees.

First I hear it. Then I smell its sharp odor. It too smells like codfish, of sex, death and fear. I look. The terrified old woman is urinating. The urine is pouring down vertically between her thin, bony, barely muscled legs. It wets her and runs in pale yellow torrents on the old wrinkled mahogany skin of her lower limbs.

The urine is pooling, stinking like the waters of an old mare, it gathers between her old, scuffed and black, low topped shoes. Then her waste waters begin to run downhill. The urine pools; then spreads. The pool gets wider and flows on; its rounded, lobed leading edge rolls over the ground and becomes coated with floating specks of dust. Pieces of dead leaves and tiny twigs are carried along flowing down along the dirt path.

What had gotten me here needs explanation:

It had been two days now since I have joined the Castro rebels in April 1958, and all the time I have been very worried. What is troubling me most now, are the actions of the rebel leader. Despite photographs that show him clean shaven I remember him differently. Biblically spade-bearded, his head crowned with curly black hair, his body lank and skinny, Captain Universo Sánchez, one of the original “twelve apostles of the revolution” has left us. He, our leader, is gone when we needed him most.

We know that Universo is a terrible shot for in a demonstration he fired several shots from his semi-automatic shot gun at a propped yagua almost the size of man at a distance of perhaps 50 feet making a terrible noise, but missing the target. What we do not know is that Universo, of all those who landed with Castro after surviving on very little food and “vitamin pills” for almost a week and then pursued by the Batista air-force, has become shell shocked. He is almost useless in combat.

Universo’s lieutenant is called “El Mejicano,” the Mexican. His real name is Francisco Rodríguez Tamayo. He always wore a brown park ranger style hat perhaps captured from some member of the Guardia Rural. Perhaps that his hat was once Vejerano’s, the Guardia Rural captured and executed at the Banqueo del Oro. The Mexican, my memory is unclear, is Cuban and is also somehow from, or had lived somewhere in, the Spanish speaking US Southwest. He is of moderate height with light brown skin, jet black hair; his vaguely Indian features make him look a bit Mexican-American. His mild look belies his ruthless battle-hardened reputation.

The Mexican’s reputation for courage was earned in his first combat, at a place called “El Hombrito” the little man. That was the battle we had seen at the far distance before. There the Mexican only had a one-shot .22 rifle.

The Mexican’s willingness to kill to survive had been forged in a unique classroom of guerrilla war. In a cruel lesson, Che Guevara had ordered the death of his former leader, my friend, René Cuervo. Then, as I was to understand, the Che made the proud “Mexican” beg for his life. I think, for some vague memory tells me so without detail, but I really do not know for certain, that the Che as test of loyalty made the Mexican execute René.

But the Mexican had gone, too. They both, the Mexican and Universo, had gone somewhere together, perhaps to get orders from the Che at El Jardín the Che’s camp. El Jardín or was it La Hortaliza, is said to be in the furthest highest lot, Aunt Rosie’s Lot Nine.

South of here, far beyond the falls and the ridges, thus invisible to us from here, is Lot Nine. The back of Lot Nine slides down south to a stream; and then it rises to touch the skirts of the highest mountain ridge that runs, lengthwise east and west across the Sierra. Here the sources of both the Guamá Rivers overlap and embrace. Here in the 1500s Cacique Guamá ran, raided and killed for women and freedom with his brother Fernando (Ogi-guama), and his brother’s woman some call Marica and perhaps was Casiguaya. Here Brizuela of Baitiquirí fought on until 1540. Here the Cimarrón fled slavery and hid.

This was once was in the 1500s lands of Francisco de Agüero’s (the twin Encomiendas of Guamayabón) and his widow Ana de Bazán held protection over their Taíno slaves. Most of the land was abandoned and turned back to forest. There in the 1870s, in these thick forests, great-grandfather Calixto met and loved Leonela Enamorado; here my maternal grandfather was most probably conceived.

At the main time of these narrations in 1957-1958, this ridge is a rapid route, a jungle pathway for swift passage of the rebel forces. Lot Nine is a way station on this rebel route.

Universo and the Mexican had taken with them not only their leadership, but our best two weapons: Universo's Browning semiautomatic shotgun (the trench sweeper of WWI) and the Mexican's prized Garand, his deadly accurate M-1 rifle. We do not know where our two leaders are.

We, the rebels who are left, are woefully under-armed. All of us are escopeteros, lightly armed skirmishers, our weapons mainly single-round shotguns, revolvers, and little rim-fire .22 caliber rifles. Guerrilla tactics are essential now, but we are untrained, new to war and so are uncertain what do.

Although some here at this rebel camp presume I know many details of the histories of my family’s famous guerrilla warriors, this is not quite true. Entre Ríos had a good library in La Casa de los Generales. In the rainy season there was little else to do, and I read almost everything there. But I only know of guerrilla war tactics from reading Uncle Calixto Lionel’s books on the Kachin and Karen tribesmen fighting the Japanese in Burma.

My brother, Lionel, was living in those heights then, tells me now, that he saw Universo and the Mexican. They were running across El Rosario, Lot 7, which was our mother’s land. He saw them from his house on the bent ridge, below the massive crag of Peña Prieta. They were returning having learned about the soldiers’ arrival, but Universo and the Mexican would not get there in time. They were much too far away.

Later when they got closer, Lionel tells me, the Mexican and Universo, would see that we had fled because our camp was on fire. They would then also flee.

Our remaining group leader, perhaps he was Lorente the communist. I could not recognize Lorente then, orders me and a few others to set up an ambush. The first place he chooses is that rocky chokepoint in a narrow, tree-shaded place, slightly further downstream on the Arroyón. Our leader shows prudence, an alternative he does not allow us; with a few words of command he leaves. We wait there in ambush.

Soon we learn, through our informants who arrive running, that the soldiers were not coming that way. They are swinging around as if to come in from the west rather than the north. So we abandoned that ambush site; if the soldiers come from behind that spot could be a deadly trap.

The next valley within the caldera is west, it is the valley of the Tío Mingo stream. This valley has little tree cover. This open valley must be the route the Batista soldiers are planning to take now.

The Tío Mingo valley is between the low ridge where we were camped and another more western higher ridge. This higher ridge is the west wall of the ruined volcanic caldera. This is western ridge is just east of the Bayamo River Valley which runs south to north from the heights of the Números.

This western ridge the east wall of the Bayamo River Valley descends through Pinalito. Pinalito is the place of the little pines, and is where once Uncle Rafael would send Guillermo Ramos to cut a Christmas tree. It is also the place where Bandit Edesio Hernández once successfully fought the Guardia Rural. The ridge goes down from Pinalito, past Cacaíto, a coffee plantation of sober, solemn and reserved grand dame, Tía Aurora, sister of Grandmother.

Cacaíto, the place of the little chocolate tree, is where Uncle Joe Hatswell and Aunt Betina had run a country store hidden between shade trees and coffee. Before this war against Batista, when he was a bandit, Desiderio Alarcón used to stop drink and talk with Uncle Joe

From Cacaíto, the ridge descends further, through forest and pastures of Grand-aunt Aurora, going past and above the rocky pools of Las Lajas. Then the ridge becomes the lower farm of Entre Rios that Grandfather Calixto Garcia-Iñiguez Enamorado bought from Great Grandfather Don Benjamin.

Don Benjamín was father of Tía Aurora and Grandmother Rafaela Petronila Ramírez, and some others I will introduce later. The ridge ends in Las Bocas at the junction of the Bayamo and Guamá Rivers. The Taíno Ramos family and its patriarch Juan Ramos once grandfather’s cattle mayoral, lived there at this time. Juan Ramos had fathered of many sons including Guillermo.

This western rim of the crater is the most important ridge, militarily, since its heights dominate the narrows in the strategic Bayamo River Valley. Thus these heights allow attacks on a necessary re-supply route for the Batista positions higher in the mountains.

Back here in the Caldera, most of the Tío Mingo valley is pasture. This is a pasture of low growing grass, perhaps paraná or pángola, which, unlike much higher guinea grass, offered little cover. Thus, in the Tío Mingo valley, unlike our previous ambush site in the Arroyón valley, the Batista soldiers with their much longer-range real war weapons, especially the accurate semi-auto M-1 Garand will be able to completely dominate that open area. If we are caught here, we will die, for we are unable to fight effectively in the open.

Our lookouts and scouts have told us that the soldiers are certainly coming up westward Tío Mingo stream, ready to swing east, up the open side of our low ridge to attack us. We are on the east side of that same ridge in the Arroyón Valley under the shade of trees and high coffee bushes. We are perhaps three, William, I and a third whose face and name is lost to time and memory.

William Garcia, was the nephew or son of Edesio Hernández Time Magazine’s “Tennis Shoe Bandit’s.” Like most of us, William had light olive skin with black hair and dark brown eyes, and he was little and skinny. He still had the delicate features of childhood for he was about 15 and did not look as dangerous as he really was. Although very brave, William was not yet aware of all dangers.

William carries his black Savage tube-fed semiautomatic .22 rifle in one hand. I think the third of us carried a single shot 16 gage shot gun. I hold my absurd bolt action .410 birding shotgun in my right hand and carry Aunt Rosita’s long-barreled Police Special .38 Colt revolver, in its polished black leather holster at my right hip.

A cloth ammunition belt with extra .410 shells crosses my chest, from upper left to lower right, in Mexican bandit fashion. The shells are dark green, vertically ridged, waxed cardboard with shiny brass caps at the bottom to hold the percussion caps and to allow ready reliable ejection.

Ejection is important. Shotguns that cannot readily eject the spent shell’s cartridges are never used by us rebels. For such, after one shot, leave their possessor disarmed until he can manually extract the often swollen cartridge from the gun, and reload. The .410 shells blunt flat upper ends are crimped, and sealed with waxed cardboard disks to hold in the pellets. Not well waterproofed, these shells are useless if they fall into a river. I am very aware that this belt must not get wet.

The weight of the cloth ammunition belt across my back provides some reassuring mental comfort but not much. These are thin, weak, shotgun shells, normally used only to kill smaller game birds and rodents. The weapon I carry is really not effective beyond 50 yards. Beyond that distance, I will be helpless. Knowing far too much, I worry. However, at close distances this gun can kill a man, more readily, and with far greater knockdown shock than a .22 rifle.

The need for close action contact with this weapon and all its fearsome uncertainties is a constant concern in my mind. The effective range of a shotgun depends on pellet size. The larger and thus unfortunately the fewer the pellets, the further it will reach. The .410 is the smallest shotgun caliber and thus carries the fewest pellets.

The reach of the .22 rifle that William carries is much further, but it most frequently wounds rather than kills. Even if a .22 bullet wound is mortal, it will not kill fast, unless the hit is to the head or heart. A wounded opponent, especially if he is dying, is sure to fire back in rage, and angry revenge. I worry more.

We did try to set an ambush there in Tío Mingo Valley. Some rebel in charge took us to what seemed the only possible site. It was a rain eroded hole in the path. The ambush was set on the sunken dirt path that went up the hill among the low pasture grass.

It is not a cow path, for it did not meander up the hill. It is a foot trail for people. The trail rises steeply, jogging only occasionally to the left or right. At each turn, tufts of low grass shade the path a little.

The sun has dried the earth and formed little hard ball of dirt. These little round pieces of dirt are like ball bearings and make us slip as we walk. This is the only path towards our camp. The soldiers have to come this way if they are to move fast enough to surprise us.

The site chosen for the ambush is under a skinny, twisted little tree, perhaps a guásima bastard elm or a sparse leafed, knotted stemmed, badland peralejo. The bastard elm is very close to the barbwire fence which runs uphill, east west, roughly parallel to the path. There is some brush to the north on the other side of the fence.

These bushes gives sparse and unsubstantial cover and are, because of the fence, really too far away. To get the necessary short range, our weapons and hit and run tactics require we be close to the enemy. Thus, we have to crouch in the thin shade of the little tree on the unprotected south side of the fence.

As we wait, deep in the apprehension of what seem to be our first experience of action we examine closely the steep, open, escape route upwards. Fear clogs my mind. I take too long to realize that this ambush site is a textbook example of errors in guerrilla tactics. From my reading of Uncle Calixto Leonel’s books, I know that those skilled Burmese tribesmen would never have picked such a spot. The other two of us think similar but less book-learned thoughts.

While we are thinking, we notice that the rebel in charge who took us here, has, very prudently, disappeared. We realize that he has just kind of abandoned us there. We mull a little longer on his leaving, we think slowly because none of us has combat experience. Our thoughts are made torpid by our increasing fright.

My reading has told me an escaping guerrilla runs slower, and he is much more easily, much more readily, shot by his pursuers when running uphill. Almost in the open and with little cover behind us, we all gradually realize that here we have no chance of survival.

If we stay, we will be killed at the point of ambush. We will be pinned, entrapped by enemy fire, against the barbwire fence and shot down like rabid dogs as we desperately struggled to cross the fence or run uphill.

Now it seems clear that we are to be sacrificed so that the others can get away. This is personal. We do not like this idea.

We are too green to know to dig in on the other side of the fence. That would have improved our situation immensely and given us the protection of the barbwire fence. Yet, even if this had occurred to us, in the hard, sun-baked earth of this place, we would have had little to dig with and little time to do it. All we have to dig with are knives.

We need to get out of the open valley of the Tío Mingo stream. We must get back to the cover of the Arroyón Valley. And we need to do it fast.

As sense and sanity prevailed, I take the lead, and we three abandon this ambush and running more than walking go back up to camp. We cross to the eastside of the low ridge into the Arroyón Valley. Yet now, even these trees seem insufficient shelter.

Confirming that we had been a sacrifice, we find that here over the hill the rest of the rebels are gone. Most of them, like me had just joined up a few days ago. Without any real leadership, they have already run away. We are the last rebels here.

William, still a little kid in many ways, distracts me by arguing about swapping his .22 for my shotgun. I tell him firmly “No!” I try to explain from the maturity of my 21 1/2 years that he will be killed if he waits to get close enough use the .410 with only me and that little .22 rifle as support. Finally, William realizes that his revenge on the soldiers for shooting down his legendary, and now very dead bandit father, will have to wait.

I look away from William up to the ridge. Fear has compressed time. I catch a still image, frozen in time, of women fleeing north along the eastside of the ridge just below the crest. They go towards the far Batista-held plains. Women prisoners that I had not known were in camp are escaping.

The women run, in my still image their legs spread in giant steps both feet off the ground. Their skirts are flying as they leaping. It is a ballet. Ballerinas are dance-running against a backdrop of a row of giant trees, standing remnants of felled-rainforest. The great trees, erect on the ridgeline, poke skywards like hackles bristling on an angry dog’s back.

A hapless rebel guarding the prisoners, has one extended hand holding the almost bullet-less, lever action .44 caliber Winchester. He runs along the ridge northward after the women. He is slower than they are. The women are getting away.

I turn around; William is gone. In the beginning of his own guerrilla wisdom, William has run towards Arroyón. I follow desperately.

The avioneta spotter plane drones overhead. I move down towards the stream of Arroyón. Then, as I pass her, outside that bohío hut, that old woman begins to urinate.

I look in the bohío. The hut is filled, crowded with civilians. Panicked I enter. The civilians scream at me. In Spanish naturally enough for this is Cuba “If you hide here; they will kill us all.” I run out of that bohío.

The poor old woman, in the dark dress, is still wetting herself on the dirt path. I start to run past her, downhill towards the streambed.

I, the last of the rebels - the position of honor in retreat, an honor that I do not want-- flee towards the stream-bed of Arroyón. At the stream I look back there on the little stream side buff, above the coffee bushes, not fifty yards away, I can see the bohíos’s roofs are on fire. The Batista soldiers are already torching them.

I go south following a trail of splashed water. I run towards the safety of the darkness of shade. I go towards the upper end of that steep-walled narrow, boulder-strewn, deep canyon. The soldiers, still torching all rebel shelter are really close.

I run upstream along the crooked stony path. The streambed meanders from side to side in the bottom of the canyon. The stream crosses, and crisscrosses the path again, and again.

At each stream crossing, I see the streaks of water on the upstream side south of the path where the other rebels have run through Arroyón. Anybody can follow that path.

I know the other rebels are running fast; seeing only their splashed trail, I desperately follow. We flee towards the base of the high waterfall of the Chorrerón de Guamá. The canyon chokes the stream at increasing intervals, with increasingly large boulders. Then the canyon walls close in tight. At places, the spaces between the great boulders are only as wide as a man’s shoulders.

I am no longer on the path. There is no path this far upstream. I run, leaping over boulders. The canyon’s high steep walls are close, very close, almost arm’s length, on either side. I can catch my breath, for I have survived my first contact with Batista troops. There are other rebels here.

Now we have plenty of cover. The soldiers will never dare follow us up here. The soldiers’ orders give no quarter to rebels. No prisoners are to be taken alive by them, and we rebels know it. This stupid order made us too dangerous. We have nothing to lose.

Lionel observes the events from his house high up in Lot Seven:

Universo and El Mejicano and about ten more rebels came running out of the woods of Lot Eight. They run past Peña Prieta, down the spine of Marcus’s Lot Three towards Arroyón. They are probably coming from Lot Nine, maybe from the Che’s camp near Facundo’s place.

Seeing smoke rise up from burning bohíos from his camp in valley of Arroyón, Universo and his companions turn and go back. Then Majín Peña, apparently in a fit of pique, loots and burns down Uncle Norman’s house in Lot Six, Mami-bon.

Uncle Norman’s house was built of wood from Lionel who never got paid for it. Aunt Manuel, well more than forty years later, still maintains that the lumber was worthless and green. The bill for the lumber is as yet unpaid.

Back to my own memories:

At that time, we rebels are trapped far up the canyon, but in a strong position. That narrow canyon is full of great boulders. If they dared follow, the soldiers would lose their lead man, their point man, as they tried to squeeze past each one of the great boulders each of which nearly blocked the canyon.

If they dare advance, the point man will have to be replaced at each few steps. If the Batista troops pressed on, the lead soldier, each in his turn, would be hit at point blank range with shotgun fire. We are desperate, rebels trapped like rats in a pit, and much more dangerous.

There is no way to outflank us. The terrain forbids the use of heavy cannon and artillery. Bombers and even the avionetas cannot thread their way to the twisting canyon to attack between the more than 3,000-foot high mountains without crashing up. For planes flying above the mountains, the canyon was too narrow to bomb effectively.

There were no smart bombs in those days.

We could not surrender. The soldiers could not advance, and at night, other rebels would come. So, in that strange balance of fear, as night falls the soldiers withdraw. We are secure hidden in crevices, in the verijas, between these enormous rock thighs of goddess verijua Atabei-Atabeira-Atabeina.

The women prisoners claimed the soldiers rescued them, which was true. After a while, the Batista forces proclaimed a great victory, which was false.

Everybody got something, and there were no dead. Why Universo and the Mexican had been holding the women prisoners, and why they abandoned us before the attack, I still do not know.

Soon after the April strike defeated, Fidel Castro gained dominance over the 26th of July urban underground leaders, during the Mompié meeting on May 3, 1958. At this meeting Daniel, formerly head of Llanos militia was stripped of his command on the plains and folded into the Sierra Maestra mountain forces. Thus from hence on Castro’s quest for absolute power was greatly facilitated.

Larry Daley copyright@1996, revised 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006.


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