Thursday, June 15, 2006



Now I e-mail other Cuban-Americans to talk about old times.


Thanks for the information on the different numbers gambling systems in Cuba. I needed this, for I never gambled there. I never even played the numbers, not even to help Chita, Conchita Ramos, the Taína woman who did laundry for us at the Casa de los Generales, who also sold numbers to support her many children.

Robert do you remember the dream code of the numbers? Do you remember how the güajiros gambled by selecting their choice of a two digit number based on their dreams? They hoping their chosen number would be the same as the last two digits of the National lottery. They believed their dreams, if properly interpreted, could predict the future.

Do you remember how the numbers runners would interpret each dream? Every dream had a number. Fifteen was la niña bonita, the pretty young woman. Was it 45, or 64, that was Muerto Grande, the number played when one dreamed of the violent death of an important man. In Havana, Marina’s elegant bordello on Pajarito Street perhaps number 75 “El Pargo Muerto.” This literally means dead mutton fish (Lutjanus analis). However in reality “El Pargo Muerto.” is an ambiguous term which in Cuba can mean dead homosexual; and perhaps relates to the Latin American custom of a father “makes sure his son becomes manly” by taking him to a “clean” bordello at a very early age.

My mind takes me back:

In the late Spring of 1958, in the Sierra Maestra, we rebel escopeteros have set up a roadblock. We are waiting to arrest the local numbers runner.

There are not more than three of us, apprehensive in this in less familiar territory. We stand by that road, with our shotguns and .22 rifles and old revolvers, east of the Guisa River by another river; I think it was a western tributary of the Cautillo. I do not think it was the Contramaestre? It is so long ago, no matter now, for all rivers here are is surely gone beneath the choking waters of monster killer dams.

I do not remember clearly who was with me that day. I think one is Ramón:

Ramón is the darkest skinned of all of us; he carries a long-barreled, bolt-action, three-shot, 16 gauge shot gun. That gun is a stealth weapon of night and shadows; its barrel is deep blued to obscurity; its stock is deepest brown. Ramón is so dark that he is almost glossy black. He has curly black hair, hair of the kind in Cuba we called pasas or raisin hair, and the Plains Indians called buffalo hair. He is shorter than me, but very broad and strong. Ramón is brave, quite uneducated, and perhaps a little slow.

Ramón is also somewhat shy. He is especially so that morning after the night when his well-endowed sister had come to camp. I had never met her before nor would I see her after that. To her brother’s intense embarrassment, she decided to be enthusiastically generous to all twelve or so of us in the group.

That day at our camp, we rest. We wash off the grime of the day at the bottom of the slope in the Guisa River. At this place the river rushes out of a narrow high-walled, white-limestone rock canyon, and passes through a steep valley of pastures, shaded by many trees.

As usual we walk up the hill and eat good ground maize and poorly made meat stew that cooked in the well roofed, but unenclosed kitchen bohío of the family that looked after our food. Built snug into a little flat place cut into the slope, this bohío and the larger enclosed one where the family sleeps are well hidden and under trees. Here in relative safety, we drink thin, but sweet, hot coffee in mugs made from condensed milk or soup cans.

From the kitchen bohío, through open walls and between the knotty, but smoothed, posts that support the roof and through the spaces between the trees that surround us, we gaze out north. We watch over the open space before us, we see the now familiar round hills covered with short grass and sparse bushes. We take comfort in the well built barbwire living tree fence that runs to our west, the white cave-ridden cliffs and trees around us and, and the sheltering mountains up the canyon a little further south to our backs.

After a meal, we rest awhile, reclining our taburete chairs, against the thick posts that support the roof of the bohío. We talk among ourselves and engage in polite, but jocular and familiar, light conversation with the members of the family that supports us.

The sun sets and it is night. We give our thanks and say our goodnights to the family. We stand talking quietly a little more among ourselves. Then we quiet, and walk in the dark among the wild night sounds half way down the hill to another bohío concealed by screening trees.

This bohío is hidden and is always kept dark at night. Here we never use lamps. Mojena, our group’s leader, chooses the order of standing guard. Inside the hut we unroll and ready our hammocks, and prepare to sleep.

The place where we stood guard is under the thin spreading branches of low trees, by a row of protecting white rocks. It is my turn first. I take the wristwatch that will mark my two hours.

Ramón’s sister approaches me outside, as I stand first guard in the deep night tree shadows. I am surprised, for do not hear her arrive. I do not expect her and do not know where she comes from. She must have been waiting. Somebody must have showed her our camp. I, do not remember knowing she was there, yet I must have known somehow, since I am not alarmed.

One night, but not this night:

Ramón is sentry at this same place of white rocks. He alert and fearful, waits, and watches on his nightly two-hour-turn of guard duty.

I have stayed late with the family at the bohío. Or perhaps I have been working with Miguel Angel Calvo, the Spaniard, over the rounded hills to the south. We often work at his logging mechanics repair shop in El Sordo making pipe-bomb-grenades, or fixing a gun, or some such task.

On my return to camp, knowing I am late and needing to warn the sentry of my arrival, I begin to sing in English. Imitating Uncle Marcos, I distort, in my nonmusical way, the ballad of “Clementine.”

Ramón, of course, hears the words. As I said before, Ramón is a little slow. He does not realize it is me. He takes the words, to him incomprehensible: “She is lost and gone for ev-v-errrrrrrrrrrr!“ as some strange signal that the Batista soldiers are coming.

Ramón is not quick-witted, not dull, just mentally slow at processing information, but he is no coward. I hear the bolt on his shotgun click and snap. I know he is levering a round into the chamber of the gun and throw myself face down on the path.

From the ground I yell in Spanish,

“¡Ramón soy yo! ¡Yo, el Inglés!”

El Inglés is my resistance name.

“Ramón, it is I! I, the Englishman!”

It takes some talking. Frightened, Ramón is hard to convince. He now recognizes me. Yet, what if I had been captured and am being forced to lead the Batista soldiers here. I insist vociferously because I really object to being shot at.

Eventually, Ramón realizes all is well and that El Inglés is alone. He lets me into camp.

This is not the same night, tonight things are different. This is the night of Ramón’s sister.

I have first turn at guard duty. I stand at this place, a little uphill, east and north of the bohío where we sleep in our hammocks. After that sojourn at Lorente’s flea infested camp, none of us sleep on the ground.

This time I see a woman approaching me. She must have told me before that she is Ramón’s sister, for I do not recall being alarmed, nor remember asking her who she is.

She walks towards me. Her hips sway. Her thigh muscles move visibly even in the dimness of star-light, raising and lowering the folds of her thin dress. She moves as if she is naked.

We stand and look at each other, and at the woods and fields around us. Our eyes are used can see black outlines of branches against the starry night sky. The white rocks reflected the weak starlight. We do not talk.

Between the trees of the dry creek, to the north, we can watch the open pastures; we can see anybody coming that way. Nobody is coming. We are alone, standing close together for a while.

Ramón’s sister is short like most mountain women. She is strong; hard work has made her very fit. On her deep-chest, big round breast stay up without a bra. I note Ramón’s sister’s breasts are not as big as those of Niña, my sisters’ aya of a few years back, but then few women I have ever seen exceed Niña’s huge natural endowment.

Ramón’s sister’s belly is rounded but not fat; her hips flair wide. Like her brother, she is very dark and glossy-skinned. The pasas, the tight curls on her head, form a wooly black-helmet.

She smells clean and fresh beneath her thin, simple, faded dress. I noticed she is built with the beautiful, but heavy grace of a shire broodmare. Her strong legs are inserted in plain low shoes. Like most Cuban Güajira countrywomen, she uses few words, and those are voiced shyly, almost inaudibly.

She quietly mumbles something and signals her intent with body movements. My young body became alert and attentive, and my head buzzed disturbingly. Yet, I, a very devout Catholic and still a virgin at 22 hesitated. Lust drove me, yet deep religious faith forbade me.

A dread consideration surfaces in my befuddled mind. In the draconian Ley de la Sierra, the law by which we Rebels live and die, there is a death penalty for rape. “What if,” I thought, “she mistakes my bumbling first attempt for rape and calls for help?” “What if we are surprised by her brother, and she decides to play the innocent? What if I am being set up by those who hate my family?”

Then, if she so chooses, by her word and by her word alone, I will be tried under very loose laws of evidence. Her word would be given far more weight than mine, and I would be literally shot at dawn. Not only that, my deeply Irish Catholic conscience adds: “I will die in mortal sin.”

I tell her kindly that perhaps her full measure of support for the revolution is not quite necessary. I have, and would long have deep regrets, a deep sense of loss for rejecting her gift.

It was difficult to be a devout Catholic in such a primeval place. My frustrated desires burn, as I lay in the bohío in my hammock. Ramón’s sister is outside, waiting for each, in turn, to go out into the night to stand guard duty. Each sentry in turn accepts her gift of willing flesh.

Why she did this, I still do not know. Was it the lustful, call of primitive Amazonian goddess, cruel vengeful, Canaima of Zuania the jungle of the continent to the south from whence the Taíno had come? Is she as Canaima seeking satiation through lust and then the wicked delights of retribution?

Is she the driven by Yara of Yaracuy light of freedom, that more gentle, but no less lustful deity of freedom, forest and waters, who came to Cuba from there? Was she driven by some female instinct that in wartime drives the need to replace the dead with new life? Was it a time in her life when all was passionate desire and insatiable need, when men were mere tools to serve her lust?

Or was it, somehow, that we are considered heroes? Then her willing gift is the traditional hero’s tribute by the women of the free Cuban culture.

Perhaps this last explanation gives us, escopeteros, too much credit. Perhaps, for Ramón’s sister, it was merely the time when a Montuna woman feels the need, the drive of la Mancebía, the tradition of wild serial intercourse during the peak of womanhood’s desire. She is then Maria Leonza, as in the myth of Uyara; she then seeks satisfaction and the men she takes are mere instruments to this drive.

Her favors were willingly and enthusiastically given. Her gift was readily accepted by the others, who, as her were part of the Taíno based Güajiro heritage that allowed, and even encouraged, sexual freedom. In the Güajiro view, sex was just another part of life like eating or sleeping, a need to be fulfilled and enjoyed.

The lovemaking goes on all night as Ramón’s sister “pulls her train of joy.”

As time passed regrets, like this would eventually break my faith.

Back to the road block at the river:

Perhaps the other rebel there that day was the one whom my memory rejects, even the image of his face is gone. He is to be our group’s suicide. I know his name, but after over forty years, it just will not come to mind.

He carries a single shell 16 gauge shotgun and two revolvers. In the future, I will never forget one gun he carries. It is a five shot revolver caliber .38 short, hinged and spring-loaded as to “break open” at the top exposing the back of the cylinder, and ejecting the used shells.

This way a rider, while holding the reins of a running horse, can more easily reload. This is the gun with which he will kill himself.

The suicide-to-be is also not very tall. He, too, has broad shoulders. His skin is much lighter than Ramón’s, lighter than mine, perhaps even with some freckles. His hair is straight and black like most of us, or is it light brown.

My memory to avoid his face fades to present and then returns 1958:

For some reason, the future suicide likes to go barefoot and thus his feet are wide and the soles thickly callused. His feet look almost like two thick duck paddles. Mojena had a shoemaker make him specially-wide, soft, brown leather, half-boots. And he wears these boots now.

The suicide, not much more than a boy, looks and acts like a blunt, untactful, humble, “Gallego,” a person of Celtic or perhaps Visigoth descent, from northern Spain. He is from the hill town of Guisa and not a true Güajiro like most of us.

I have the most facial hair of the three. That is not saying much; it is mainly a drooping “Fu Manchu” mustache and a rather sparse, stupid-looking ruff around my neck and jaws.

We are nervous because of our vulnerable position on the road. Any sound spooks us. A lizard running through the crackling dry leaf litter under the coffee trees gets our immediate attention. We, even I by now, are thin. This leanness, plus our intense hyperactive attention to the sounds and sights around us, makes us looked scary-mean.

We wear simple-floppy, fatigue-style cloth caps with the insignia of the July 26 movement, or go bare headed, for brimmed hats fall off going through the bush. We dress mostly in tattered gray-green country clothes, and long-sleeved shirts. Since we are in the foothills where the rivers are warmer, we can bath each day. However our clothes, not laundered frequently, are not too clean. We smell not rankly but we are not “fresh.”

Dynamite bombs and knives hang from our belts. I carry my .410 bore bolt action shotgun. The accurate .22 semi automatic rifle with which for Uncle Calixto Leonel had taught me to shoot was not yet in our possession. Still the gaping .41 caliber bore of the shotgun is quite impressive.

We stand there, trying to be bold on the wide dirt road by the river. Our M-7-26 red and black bands on our right arms, our long hair and straggly beards, and especially our weapons give us all the authority we need.

We are in an area that is not steep or aggressively mountainous like Los Números, nor wide open and expansive like the Cauto plain. This area does not have the strangely broken terrain twisted into nooks and crannies, like the land around our camp at the north end of that high canyon on the Guisa River.

By the road a stream flows stronger and with more water than the Guisa River. The water runs in over pebbles, smoothed boulders, and rough edged stones as it flows between complexly formed karst white rocks and coffee plantation covered banks. The brightly colored blue and silver güajacones and tití mosquito fish dart here and there on the tiny gravel shoals at the edges of the stream.

The river flows clean and cold. A few leaves float in eddies under the shade of what must be algarrobos, the huge rain-trees (Samanea saman (Jacq.) Merr.) of Cuba and most tropics, said to be able to shade entire armies.

Where these trees grow in pastures, the fruit-pods drop to feed cattle. Here there is little grazing land, and there are no cattle nearby. The roots of these enormous tree legumes feed nitrogen to the coffee.

This place is unknown territory for us; we are here for the first time. Yet at first we feel less afraid, for these great trees have huge branches extending completely over the river. The trees protect us from the prying eyes of the avioneta, the machine gun mounted spotter planes we all fear.

It is a prosperous, bucolic and beautiful area in those limestone hills on the northern slopes of the Sierra Maestra. Coffee plants grow in gentle tidy rows beneath the high canopies of the rain-tree. Dark green and glossy, edges undulated, the coffee plant’s leaves sprout from thin almost white branches spreading horizontal from the main trunks.

Here among in these coffee gardens, birds abound. The algarrobo pods dropped into the deep coffee leaf litter, beneath the branches help support the bugs that these birds eat. The trees’ shade improves the coffee’s flavor, and thus its value, but not its prices.

The Batista government keeps a high standard price for coffee, but ignores quality. Much of the local coffee crop, is collected, shelled, and processed in Maffo, a place now deep in Batista territory.

We do not guess now, how close Batista is to defeat. The future keeps its secrets well.

That later at the end of the year we shall go to Maffo. We will go there to fight against scared Batista troops hiding behind sand bags inside that coffee processing factory.

That is in the future; now we, not our enemies, are the scared ones.

This is a place of established coffee plantations or coffee gardens as they are sometimes known. When well cared, these gardens for yield good rich coffee and lots of it. As the popular song of the times “El Cafetal” tells to have a coffee garden was to live a life of contentment and moderate prosperity. Neglect the coffee trees, and tropical lianas will grow over everything making it a bejucal, and under a bejucal there is little crop.

It is easy to see that the coffee, well weeded and cared for, grows well here. Prices are good, perhaps $40 a hundred-pound bag of shelled, cleaned, un-roasted coffee. That is over $250 dollars in today’s money. The growers prosper.

The coffee garden calms our fears somewhat, we feel good. We are rested and not walking, merely standing in the shade. Our orders are simple: Mojena, our group leader, had said: “Search all those going down the road towards Guisa for people carrying slips for the number game. Catch the numbers runners.” Mojena did not say why.

We do as we were ordered, trying to be as polite as possible. The people we stop are already apprehensive because of the way we look. They submit with deference and politeness to our search.

With all this politeness going back and forth one, would think we are in a country club. We search, and search. We stop all those who pass that way to town and let them go after finding nothing.

Time passes. We began to realize what we are doing is dangerous. It is clear that here, despite the shelter of the great trees, it is not safe. We are not near the good hiding places higher up in the hills. We do not know the terrain well here. We do not know where to hide. “What if one of those going towards Guisa tells the soldiers of garrison,” I think. We are too close to town.

The Batista Army could send out a patrol, which in quick quiet flanking moves through the surrounding coffee groves could surprise us. They could cut us down with their far superior weapons. This thought seeps into my mind; a little chill of fear follows, and soon I am much more alert.

After a few hours at our road block we become quite nervous. We are frustrated that we cannot catch the numbers runner, and our fears of enemy attack rise higher with each passing minute we spend here.

Then along comes a likely prospect. He is a little too prosperous and too confident to be one who earns his living in the fields. He walks boldly towards us down the broad dirt road.

We search him. He has nothing in his pockets. We are about to let him go. Then suddenly an idea hits me. I tell the others: “Wait.” He has a different hat. He does not wear the common Güajiro hat. “El no usa un sombrero de yarey!”

I look at the hat closely. It is not the standard country hat made of a long flat coil of braided yarey palm fronds held together by cotton thread. A sombrero de yarey is made on a hand-pedaled sewing machine. The flat sided braided coil is sewed side to side in concentric spiraling circles to make crown and brim. Such a hat costs perhaps twenty cents.

This man has a more expensive factory-made hat. It is woven as one piece with a hatband running round the bottom of the crown. Like a Panama hat, it is softer, lighter, and must cost a lot more.

“A hatband,” I think, “that's different!” and politely asked him for his hat. Sure enough there, not in the hatband outside the hat, but tucked inside in the sweatband under the crown is something white.

I take out that something. It is a small, carefully folded piece of paper with cryptic notations, and numbers. It is the tally sheet to record the gambling. We have our numbers runner.

Since then I have always thought of him as the “Man with the good hat.”

As terror replaces his confidence, the man with the good hat will do anything for us. At that point I get too ambitious. Perhaps because I am fearful of holding this roadblock any longer, I make a mistake.

“Perhaps,” I suggest to the man with the good hat, “you could take us to your boss?” This he most readily, fearfully, and quickly agrees to do.

We guerrillas and our prisoner walk up stream, on the path beside the river. We walk with rising spirits: not only are we going to be heroes, but we are glad to be getting further from the town.

The path narrows. We go up small and gentle hills. The karst rocks now larger and closer together stick up like giant dog’s teeth, white and clean in the shade of the coffee plantations.

We reach the top of one of the hills. Close to the path, in the middle of a coffee plantation, there is a tidy royal palm frond thatched bohío-country house. This house like the separate kitchen of our hosts’ house near our camp is different from most, because it lacks the yagua wall boards or even the network of thin cujes, horizontally placed poles that normally supported such walls.

This is a larger structure than our host’s kitchen, but in similar fashion instead of walls there are just the four solid rough wood posts, wide like stone columns, supporting the roof. Then I see the object that edifice contains “Strange! Very strange!” I think.

Inside that bohío is a full sized billiard table. I could not believe it “How” I think “could such a very heavy table be carried up the foot path of that steep hill?”

No matter, I push that thought aside, as we walk passed the strange sight. The man with the good hat leads us to another near by bohío. This bohío has the usual yagua walls. Here we meet the “Numbers King,” the chief bookie of the area.

The Numbers King is better dressed than most in that countryside, much better dressed even than his runner. He wears a good guayabera, the elaborate coat light shirt-jacket that tell us he does not do manual labor at least when dressed as he is today. He seems very agreeable, which is a wise attitude for we have guns.

“So!” I ask him very politely, “Would you like to come with us to see Mojena?” He does not say: “Who?” Instead he lies “Of course, it would be an honor!” Apparently he either knows who Mojena is, or he is too prudent to mention that he does not. When we look around next, our fearful informer, the man with the good hat, has disappeared.

The three of us leave, absurdly proud acting as if we were the puppet Punch in the English Punch and Judy shows, as light-hearted and vain as the triumphal procession in Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and The Wolf.” Our captured Numbers King is walking in front; we have placed him there so we all can see him if he tries to escape.

The Numbers King, makes courteous meaningless conversation, but surely he curses us beneath his breath every step of the way. We proudly yet cautiously wend our way down the hillside to the place of our former check-point on the road.

Mojena, our group leader, and by repute another former bandit, is waiting for us. His heavy beard, dark brown and broad-shouldered body is stiff, mirroring his angry thoughts. His hand by the revolver by his side tells us he is also uncertain and apprehensive. Until he saw us come so proudly down the road, he had worried why we had left our assigned post. He had not known what had happened to us. Had the soldiers come? Had a Batista patrol killed us?

Angry, Mojena tells us off, especially me, the ringleader of this yet another disobedience. “Why did you leave your post?” Mojena says sharply.

Not understanding his tone, we proudly display our captive Numbers King. We have broken the numbers racket we explain in hurt tones.

Mojena and the Numbers King looked at each other with familiarity. Then knowingly, they both look at us with expressions that obviously meant, “You are really dumb and do not know what you are doing.”

It takes some time for me to realize that our road-block was not part of a moral crusade against the numbers racket. This tactic is not intended as one little step in a campaign to rid Cuba of gambling. The whole thing, the road-block, our orders to search, is designed to get more money for the "Revolución" out of the Numbers King. We need real, effective weapons, and this is a way to get the money to buy them.

To get this money, Mojena needs to take control of the numbers game. He must take it away from the Batista Rural Guard Sergeant charged with the control of the Guisa area. Collecting this little piece of graft is normally a customary part of the sergeant’s job. This sergeant is charged with controlling the numbers racket in our area.

Mojena needs to tax the Numbers King. Now the Numbers King knows that Mojena can intercept his runners. Without those runners, there cannot be any numbers racket. Mojena has the upper hand.

We never saw money change hands. That is a private matter between Mojena and the Numbers King. However, it is not difficult to imagine.

Mojena must have said politely “Come have some coffee!” Casually, as they drink coffee together, our group leader must mention something about the “Revolución” needing financial support. The Numbers King would have lowered the cup he sips and says, perhaps with the finest hypocrisy “Fine coffee! Thank you! Hmm! Yes! This is indeed a worthy cause! I will see what I can do to help!”

A few days later, money must have reached Mojena. Most of that money must go to La Comandancía, Castro’s headquarters high in the Sierra.

It is doubtful, if Mojena can keep much more money than our group needs. In that harsh Ley de la Sierra, proclaimed by chief legal officer Sorí Marín, there is also a death penalty for stealing funds of the revolution. There is a death penalty for lots of things in the 26th of July Movement; those found “guilty” or inconvenient, be they rebels, civilians or spies they are shot; only our enemy soldiers are spared; we do not know that this chivalry will not extend beyond the victory of the revolution.

The money must have gone to buy guns and ammunition which were smuggled in cans of lard by land, or shipped most stealthily by phantom airplane flights to avoid the potent Batista Air Force. The gunrunning planes now more and more frequently drone unseen through the night, mabuya demons of the dark, above the high ridges of the Sierra Maestra. They drop weapons to the uneven ground by parachute or on rare occasion landing on rough air strips on lands adjacent to the mountains.

Castro in his rambling speeches minimizes these efforts because, by emphasizing the contributions of others, they diminish the political magic of his war with captured weaponry. As to us escopeteros and our efforts we, the “come vacas” are almost written out of official histories.

Footnote 1. Why Ramón’s sister did this I do not know. My best explanation is that it seems this was a hero’s traditional tribute. Bedding a hero can be some kind of trophy for some women.

In Havana in January 1959 after we won, I met a rather sensual woman. She merely talked to me for a perhaps a minute. Then she asked if I had been a rebel. When I answered yes, she pressed the key of her apartment into my hand. Such were the spoils of victory.

In Florida in late 1962 or early 1963, a woman I knew and cared for, but considered so beautiful that she was unattainable for a poor student like me. One day, in cruel boast or maybe she was telling me not to be a fool and to act more aggressively, she described to me how she had “met” with the just released new heroes of Cuban exile. She had told she had “seen” these Bay of Pigs veterans in their hotel suites where they were being lionized.

The woman is now dead of a cruel cancer that defied her Medical degree. Yet my thoughts often still turn to her. It was so difficult be a devout Catholic in those days of my burning youth. But then I was what the priests had made of me, and lived to regret it in my old age.

Perhaps what Ramón’s sister was doing was performing the Taíno Indian custom of serial intercourse. This seems to be a tradition in a celebration. The good priest Bartolomé de las Casas, called it by the common Spanish term “La Mancebía.” And his and other writings of the period record the Taína women proudly indulged in it when ever possible to celebrate almost any occasion, peace treaties, visits, marriages, areíto dances, etc.

My only consolation for my regretted denial was a remark by a Havana doctor, who after treating me for a vicious fever told me I was the only rebel he had examined who did not have a venereal disease. And I did not gamble at the “numbers game” either.

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


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