20A LEAVING EL SORDO
20A LEAVING EL SORDO
LEAVING THE CAMP ABOVE EL SORDO
We are in late summer of 1958; the Batista Offensive in the mountains is defeated. Now we rebels had far more first class weapons, although there were still too few for the many volunteers. Our group, the Escopeteros of Mojena, had just been chosen to be trained for main force units. It is an honor that we are thrilled to accept.
We first learn of this with the appearance of Captain Reinaldo Mora, one of the legendary heroic Mora brothers veterans of the attack on Uvero. He is bearded, tall and lean; and says little; he does not have to speak, for his record speaks for him.
We think about what Mora has done. We think of a legendary deed he did when he, and two others armed only with knives and single-shot shotguns, surprised two Batista army sentries who were armed with
Now almost fifty years later, I know more. My mind dances through assorted thoughts of past times as one thing connects to another place or another time.
The presence of these carbines, which were bought in 1958 from the dictator of the
Bueycito is a place of more ancient mines where in the 16th century enslaved Taínos died digging gold for the Spanish. That time is not as remotely old as the pre-Colombian Zemí idol, human head on frog-body, the Taíno Zemí of Bayamo, found here in 1848.
Here at El Relave are at the Minas de Bueycito. These are the mines, that produced manganese, the metal used to harden the steel of the great rifled cannon of the naval dreadnoughts of WWI. Serried ranks of war ships once used this metal to help fight larger scale deadly combat in far and chill seas north and east of
In those long gone days of early 20th century Tío Carlos, then Cuban Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, had by stealthy and subterfuge run critically needed Cuban sugar through the German WWI submarine blockade to
Manganese is a war material, that is found associated with the glistening fools’ gold of the dazzling white cave ridden, mineral rich karst of this area of Cuba, manganese was of strategic importance in WWII. This is because manganese is used for jet engines, gun barrels, ammunition, armor plate, and petroleum refineries. Even in 2005 when work precautions avoid most new harm, manganese takes toll on old miners and retired ship welders, adding to this lethal metal’s toll of sailors, and soldiers in WWI and II, and African Wars of the last half of the 20th Century, and other seemingly endless conflicts.
Then in my youth in
The sentries now have San Cristóbals which are dangerous deadly weapons at close or even medium range. These sentries between them can release, if I recall correctly, 80 rounds of fast automatic fire without reloading. It is dark but across open ground, if the sentries see these rebels before they get near, before the rebels have the sentries within the short range of their shotguns, these rebels are as good as dead.
Then Mora and his companions move quietly across the open, ground and to within shot gun range. So far so good! However, then action turns bad very quickly; when, asked to surrender, the sentries refuse. The rebels fire their shotguns. One sentry leaps forward, head over heels weapon tucked in, and as the shot guns miss him, he leaps to his feet and fires a blast of automatic fire killing one of the Mora’s friends perhaps Rebel Lieutenant Ricardo Medina.
Now with their shotguns’ single shells expended the surviving rebels’ are now essentially unarmed. These rebels do not know how to operate dead sentry’s
Unaware of the circumstances or simply driven by fear, the other sentry races away to warn the Batista forces. He runs to tell his army friends, come to help him kill these rebels; there are only two rebels left now and they are not well armed.
The rebels know that this sentry cannot be allowed to escape; or the rebels will die in a quick chase shot to death in an even more withering hail of bullets from a squad worth of San Cristóbals.
Mora, desperate with this knowledge and this fear, races after the escaping sentry. He catches up with the sentry; stabbing in his terror and desperation Mora knifes the sentry; the Batista soldier dies as he runs. The rebels flee with both precious San Cristóbals.
And this was only one of Mora’s heroics. In awe of the hero, we do what Mora says as he comes to our camp above El Sordo by the high canyon on the Guisa.
I had met Mora before when he had passed through our camp on some mission or other. That time I had been his guide taking him from the
Always careful, I avoid the easier path across the Cacaíto ridge. We go a little further south crossing the ridge by the fence line that separates the Grand Aunt Aurora Ros’s pastures from the forest. It is a more difficult route and, even though I explain the reason for my caution, Mora rebukes me for increasing his effort.
Glumly, smarting under the rebuke from one of our heroes, I take him to the edge of the “Royal” but un-surfaced road “El Camino Real.” This road runs roughly north south, from Bayamo on the Cauto Plains over the
From here I point out the tree-covered entry of the hidden path to Las Peñas Rebel Headquarters. I watch him as he, armed only with a pistol, crosses that dangerous Batista army frequented road alone. He fords the
Now on his second visit, Mora is back here at our camp. He begins to examine and inventory our poor store of weapons. We are ashamed, for having tried so hard in so many different ways to get weapons we had little success. Even our two captured Garand rifles have been taken from us and sent to headquarters.
The first Garand rifle, as mentioned before, had cost the life of the Batista soldier who carried it; and given the mark of Cain to one of us escopeteros, William, that 15-year old boy, who was the nephew (or son) of Edesio the bandit.
The capture of the second Garand is easier. We are told that a casquito wants to surrender with his weapon. We walk about a day east, along hidden paths among the Sierra’s northern foothills. We go fording two rivers and several streams. My mind wanders as I find myself mesmerized by some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. We cross bucolic and verdant parkland-pastures. Birds fly between copses of large, elegant trees. Tree tops spread wide to shade crystal clear streams.
We arrive late in the afternoon, at a dusty, road smooth and flat as a layer of powdered sugar on a cake. All is lonely, silent except for bird cries and lizards running through the grass. I find this place, eerie, for here, we see no humans and that is not a good sign. There are not even noticeable tracks, for less than a few have passed this way recently. There are few trees now. We are alert even trembling slightly with the adrenalized discomfort of an open unfamiliar place; our eyes scan all.
There is nothing that indicates danger. Between verges of low thin stands of drying yellowing grasses, wild millet wave their thin sparse chicken foot seed heads in the soft breeze. There are aromatic malva forbs, a favorite graze of tethered swine, knee-high at road’s edge.
I remember malva’s slightly spicy fragrance in the hot sun. Malva is a plant known as mauve in English; its Latin name is Melochia nodiflora. John K. Francis, of the US Forest Service, stationed in
…and childhood memories intrude
Through my red-green color blind eyes of childhood, Malva’s tiny five petal simple flowers are white. As I write my far older mind knows that they can be pink, dark pink or white. I remember well from cherished childhood puzzling over its clusters of tidy angular seed capsules. The Malva’s capsule shapes, precise and regular, but odd shaped, seemed so unusually and rare. Now, for I did not know such from my childhood, I might say they resembled living dreidels or pirinolas, the angular tops, spun by Jewish children at Hanukkah, or Mexican children at play. My English tops had been pear-shaped.
At Entre Ríos, Grandfather had always loved the malva far more than grass. He called his men, his Taíno Montunos, who would do anything for him because he was “El Babo,” the chief, and because he had been a Mambí general. He ordered them to prepare and maintain chapeado, to keep a machete-cut swath of malva, instead of grass lawn, at the North and West side of La Casa de los Generales.
The men would walk to work with their machetes in leather scabbards at their left sides. Pointing down, swaying stiffly almost verticals, as their thighs moved. The machete usually a Collins® was still -as in the 19th century- a much feared weapon. I still remember the new Collins machetes hanging in the country stores with a paper rectangular label white on black, on the dull black steel blade near the hilt, with, I think, a crown trademark on it.
In memory the men bent to work chapeando in practiced, graceful strokes across the slightly sloping ground. One is “Tano”, Útiliano Ramos,
Their work is so practiced as to seem effortless. The men’s right hands hold the machetes; they slash making looping cuts. Their relaxed motions seem lazy, but their cuts are strong and precise. I hear the sounds “Chunk! Chunk! Chunk!” The workers left hands hold the short gnarled wooden garabato hooks, the garabatos move inward to gather and set aside in the forb cuttings. The sound is a dragging rasp. “Chunk! Rasp! Chunk! Rasp!... Chunk! Rasp!” The cuttings fall to lay in tidy windrows. The aromatic smell of the malva is everywhere. Once the grandfathers of these men had obeyed my grandfather in war and with similar ease had cut through the uniforms, the flesh, and sometimes even the rifle barrels of Spanish army soldiers.
Diligent work prunes the malva to uniform and low height. The small elm like serrated edge leaves of the forbs, their leaf sap veins far more precisely marked than the blood veins of the men who cut them, attach in alternating positions on the twisted pruning-gnarled branches. The branches spread to form tough little umbrella canopies supported by red-brown limbs and trunks. Each pruned malva forb is formed into miniature arboreal shape.
Grandfather’s great grey mustache would move as he spoke. He had once rebuked me when I still new to
I remember Zoila, the woman who lived with her family in a tidy bohío on a small rocky rise of ancient laja lava by the
Zoila’s large, ugly, criolla sow, dark, sparse hair, pot belly with its double rows of teats hanging beneath, was tied to browse. It was busy; its great head bent, heavy-jowled jaws chomping, on leaves and the tiny dreidel-like seed pods of this malva plant. The ungainly hungry beast ate continually ignoring those who passed by, on a large patch of the forb the top of the cliff above the great guásima tree by the lagoon’s outlet, by the entrance road to La Casa de los Generales.
History intrudes. War is not new to this place and echoes of history vibrate forever through these mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Ghosts of ancestors gossip from their graves telling tales of desperate carnal love and heroic deeds
We wait in 1958, on the exposed vega-meadows of the
This beautiful place is also an ancient garden of war and death. To the south, on crests above at the headwaters of these clear streams is the
Céspedes had died shooting, his black powder revolver barking defiance against all odds. Our enemies in 1958 are as numerous as Céspedes’ were in 1874; we escopeteros are not much better armed than he, while our foes have the most modern infantry weapons of the 1950s.
Céspedes, descendent of persecuted Marrano Jews and the liberator of Cuban slaves, was a good man. However, he was not a good general, nor could he select those who could lead men well. Initial victories had evaporated, as the Spanish amassed troops, and defeated the Mambí in bloody battle on the plains at the high banks of the
In desperation at his armies defeats, Céspedes had chosen an ex-confederate General Thomas Jordan. It is rarely wise to hire the defeated. General Jordan concentrated the Cuban Mambí, and wasted their bodies and lives in futile assaults on strong places manned by coffee grower sharpshooters, descendents from French slave owners exiled from
General Jordan had to be dismissed. Never blaming his own tactics and actions he resigned and departed from
Grandfather Calixto Enamorado was especially critical of the concentration this tactics of General Jordan, for this had left the Mambí families unprotected. And this had led to grandfather’s capture as an infant in his mother’s arms. In those day’s the evil Spanish Count of Valmaceda, in the rising flood of his cruel power had hunted down the undefended Mambí wives and families, killing even boys and imprisoning, and often raping the women.
The Mambí desperate for better military command needed to sacrifice Céspedes leadership. Thus Céspedes had to endure the pain of demotion. For this he hated Don Benjamín Ramírez who has served as a judge at his humiliation, and Franciso Maceo Osorio, for making it happen. Great Grandfather Calixto García let his armies stand by doing nothing to support Céspedes, for it seemed there was no other option.
Céspedes fled east from the land between the Guisa, Guamá and
In his remaining days he held court with some of the ex-slaves he had liberated. Céspedes, a gymnast in his youth, enjoyed riding horses well. In those days it was traditional and accepted that a man of his standing would have mistresses. Thus it is said in my family’s oral histories that Céspedes he rode women with equal gusto, for with death all around him and knowing he is doomed, he is driven desperately to procreate before he too dies.
Céspedes in this state of erotic doom writes in uncharacteristic meanness in his last diary entries. His mind seems to be falling away from his aristocratic heritage; while his gonads demand expression, envy and lust. He calls Don Benjamín crude, and includes ungenerous gossip about Great Grandmother Leonela Enamorado and her love for Great Grandfather, Calixto Ramón García Iñiguez.
Yet perhaps this is not all lust but also pain from a family feud since Céspedes and Don Benjamín were apparently distantly related. Somehow part of this may come from the disputed declared end of line of the Marquis of Guisa, from whom, Don Benjamín is descended.
Yet, in these diaries there is not a bad word about great grandmother Manuela Enamorado, Doña “Lica,” the wife of Don Benjamín. Far too often in these diaries, Céspedes refers in a kindly way to a mysterious Manuelita, which just happens to be what Doña “Lica,” was often called in her younger days. Thus, I like to think that Céspedes had certain consolation and revenge, in this matter.
Local gossip, family oral history, and recently by some historians infer that Céspedes died almost in coitus interruptus soon after. Thus, Don Benjamin also had revenge on his hated rival. The Spanish light infantry battalion of the Cazadores de San Quintín had landed by torpedo launch south of the Sierra. Crossing the highest mountains they attack from the rear. Ahead of the main group the Spanish send out patrols.
Other more formal histories state Céspedes was alerted too late by an aide, for the wind blew away their noise. What ever he learned too late that that a Spanish patrol was coming, Less formal histories confirm that Céspedes had climbed out of the window of “Panchita” Rodríguez.
Most histories agree that Céspedes ran the ridge firing his revolver until he was shot through the heart and in dying he fell down a ravine. His last shot that he had reserved for himself was still in his weapon. Céspedes was betrayed it is also said, by one of his old slaves.
Céspedes is buried formally in the city of
Historically it seems that
Francisco Maceo Osorio’s was considered white and his remains share these wild mountain spaces with those of many other Cuban heroes. Great Grandfather Don Benjamín, died many decades later in a free
However, it would seem that Céspedes also left his mark near the
Returning to the 1950s:
On the west site of the upper gorge that the river has carved from the mountains, there is a part of the
The Banqueo was a site of much action, during the first action near Pino del Agua on
Rebel leaders Víctor Mora (brother of Reinaldo) was there. So were Fernando Virreyes (Mirelles?) Iñiguez survivor of the betrayed Corynthia expedition, Joel Iglesias, Raúl Castro Mercader, Ciro Redondo, Efigenio Ameijeiras and Dermidio Escalona, Lalo Sardiñas and machine gunner Arquímedes Fonseca.
Soon after the attacks came the Batista B-26 Bombers, if you remember from earlier chapters I mentioned seeing these planes at a distance from La Casa de Los Generales. Later that year when I was in the rebel army I heard of such ambushes on el Banqueo, tales of rebels, long haired veterans, ignoring the Batista troops fire looting the weapons from a truck that had fallen down the ravine towards the
Güajiros, escopeteros and ranks mentioned by the Che were Benjamín Pardo Guerra and his brother (either
Perhaps these forces also included friends of René Cuervo, since according to the Che, rebel Lieutenant Antonio López who was a principal in this action became upset over the Che’s executions, and left with much of his squad. These “deserters” according to the Che included “Curro,” and Pardo Jiménez. The three Cañizaro brothers, who later came in the
This blood purge was very minor compared to the enormous crimes of Stalin in the
Cuervo was executed two months later (I estimate it to be October 1957), according to the Che, at a place “near” Pino del Agua, where the Che had a “way” station called La Botella. This may well be “La Hortaliza” where the Che buried many of his victims.
There was a reprisal of angry Batista soldiers “attrited” by the rebels along the Banqueo in numerous ambushes. The list of Montunos and Güajiros victims murdered at what official sources in
It is said by family, that then in 1957 the Castro rebels fired from the ruins of Grand Aunt Manuela Jiménez house. Manuela Jiménez house was on the east bank of the upper part of the
Apparently during the second action at Pino del Agua roughly February 17, 1958, some rebel forces, they may have been under the command of Francisco “Paco” Cabrera, for the Che had retreated, shot from Manuela Jiménez’s house. These rebels fired from across the river towards the Camino Real where Batista forces perhaps those of Batista Captain C. Sierra, were driving past.
Paco Cabrera would die soon after victory in
Then I knew little of that.
At the time of my narration in this account, in late summer of 1958, we were apprehensive being on the “flat lands,” east of El Sordo, and our base on the
Then, since it was safe, a small crowd of Lorente’s rag tag people showed up and began to demand the weapon. They yelled and screamed and said it was their weapon, because they claimed it was their territory. Now that was a cock and bull story, for they were further away than we from their camp.
So we ignored them, but Lorente’s people took the soldier prisoner and made a nuisance telling their superiors and saying we had to give up the weapon. I found these communist guerrillas really creepy.
Caught in unequal combat, east of us and in other places escopeteros of other groups had died for lack of better weapons. Knowing this Mojena got mad; he got angry; and that night, when we got back to our camp above El Sordo, he got drunk, hid in the bush screaming and shouting, and firing off all the ammunition.
Next morning Mojena was calm, and in obedience to the rebel higher command sent the weapon up to the main Castro forces. We were back to making do with what we had for weapons.
When in months before after the Batista soldiers had raided our camp at Arroyón and dispersed us we had gathered, almost prisoners, at Lorente's camp. Then Lorente’s armorer had showed me how to convert these Krags to the common ammunition of the time. These rifles left over from the
WARNING. The following paragraphs describe how this was done DO NOT DO THIS IS, IT IS FAR TOO DANGEROUS, AND CAN BLOW THESE VALUABLE ANCIENT RIFLES UP IN YOUR FACE.
Mojena somehow had found an old Krag. Miguel Angel Calvo the machinist from El Sordo was doing most of the work and I helping to converted one of these Krags. Calvo was a good machinist, once I had watched as he turned, using seemingly only a file, a piece of metal into a machine-screw. I helped placed a crow bar in the metal ammunition chamber and very carefully expanded the "iron box" magazine designed for the shorter and skinnier .30-40 cartridge.
We took the Krag ejector designed for rimmed cartridges, and filed down the little notch that raised it above the cartridge. Now using unexpended rounds some of the time at least the ejector gripped the grove of the 30.06 cartridge tumble it up through the open breach and ejected it. We filed down the tips of the 30.06 cartridges to a little less than 3.09 inches so that they were short enough to fit into the iron magazine that held the cartridges in the gun. As we filed them down, the dark lead of the bullet tips came through the bright, once full copper bullet jacket.
We used a ream to refit the chamber to the new round. A kind reader tells me this apparently where we made the mistake, for while the rim of the .30-40 was bigger that diameter of the 30.06 cartridge, the body of the .30-40 was .457 vs .473 of the 30.06 round. We should have made a round notch only deep enough for the rim, instead of reaming it.
When we tried it out the modified Krag, Armelio Mojena our leader knowing how desperately our group needed a rifle to hit the casquitos of Batista’s army at a distance insisted on trying it himself. Mojena lived. I give credit to the good steel used by Springfield Armory, for the rifle although designed for 30-40 ammunition, still fired accurately and did not blow up with the more powerful 30.06 cartridge. A friend tells me we were lucky because this is beyond the weapon’s usual strength.
The round hit dead center, in the gray-white of the Royal Palm tree trunk Mojena used as a target. The shot going right through the palm trunk left gaping exit holes because the projectile now was what is commonly called a "dum-dum" or more technically an expanding bullet. However, after firing we could never get the rifle to “feed” properly or even eject spent cartridges reliably, so this rifle was left to defend the camp. Mojena was not pleased with me, or the rifle.
Now I know we should have reamed out the chamber a differently and perhaps a little more smoothly. Still Lorente’s people had used Krags in their unique and almost bloodless battle. There was one rebel killed because he stayed for a second shot on family land at the heights of los Números. One Guardia Rural Tomas Cejas who had warned us they were coming, he was taking point, and had asked us not to shoot at him, was wounded, apparently by the rebel who was killed. More of these events will be described in later chapter.
No matter that now, we have orders; we must give all these weapons to Mora. This loss caused us pain. And so after so much effort we give the Krag to Mora. Then we offer our other weapons.
Capitan Mora takes each weapon and examines it carefully. I, one of the first proudly hand him my .22 semiautomatic, Uncle Calixto Lionel’s fine target rifle. The rifle has a glossy sheen of oil which I so carefully have applied. At first Mora is impressed, the gun looks good and well kept. Then as I still remember the horror, I felt as Mora begins to try to test fire the rifle. All bullets fail, all bullets are duds; the excess oil penetrated the cartridges and deactivated the powder.
I fume then just stare dully into space. I see the
I felt anger at the others in the group, especially Machado who was becoming a good shot at expense of my ammunition. He kept stealing my bullets at night to practice next day shooting at little birds as I slept. He killed those little birds useless for food with no thought as to their beauty or their bright life. I knew he had been stealing my ammunition, but I could not stay awake all the time.
Now, I found that I had no other ammunition, since the box that had held them was empty. Now almost all of the 500 rounds had disappeared. What was left was the gun that never left me yet that ammunition was oil drenched and useless. These five hundred rounds had been so important to us that Che el Grande, that scared giant of a man, had fearing death for hiding them and had called me to negotiate surrender of the weapons to our group. Now these rounds were gone. And it was all stupid arrogant Machado’s fault.
Of my fellow Escopeteros, Machado was the tallest of us. He was vain youth who fancied himself and his dark glossy black hair more handsome than his dark good looks deserved. He, that idiot, unthinkingly, had exposed me to a defenseless death. I was so angry I sat down and continued my stare into space.
The others, now I did not want to talk to them at all, went through their inspection and surrendered their shotguns and pistols. Mora --in some way I do not know how because I don’t think he could read, or perhaps it was his brother Victor who could not,- made an inventory. We readied our mochila jolongo jute sack packs in the morning. We each packed hammock, blanket and rubberized table cloth or nylon sheet to keep out the rain, perhaps with a change of clothes and all the cans of condensed milk we could find.
Machado had retired that night of leave takings to the top of the hill and its protecting bushes. He went to say long good byes and make final passionate love to the young woman daughter of our Güajiro host. She I remember was pretty, short, dark haired, with slim waist and flat belly. Her hips, beneath her usual dress which I remember as blue, flared in fruitful promise.
My memories of her are tinged with old jealousy. Her eyes were gray for her father carried Canary Islander blood. She, small and slim as she was, could carry 80 pounds of water up, in two five gallon cans hanging from a pole yoke across her neck and shoulders from the river far below. She still walks in my memory, her thin blue dress swaying up the steep path among the trees. Her hips swing, and she is not out of breath. I know she was strong those water cans were heavy and the path steep.
Machado was her first lover and she would never forget him. They with the joy of the young vigorously celebrated their young love, in the wild bushy country, above the camp near the grave of the suicide. She did not know that Machado was leaving her forever. The wind above the hills blessed me by taking away the sounds of their passion.
Machado, not six months later, would boastfully tell me, that he had found finer women as he rested with the revolution won between shifts guarding Castro’s mansion in Cojimar. He had by then joined with Havana women, with their rolling swaying walk, fine dresses, fine talk, full voluptuous pampered bodies, silken shaved limbs and intimate areas, and their skilled, lovemaking.
Machado told me of this at Cojímar in the frank thoughtless way of the Montunos in love. He said without remorse, with pride and happy lust, that he had found a “better” woman and had no need for the Montuna girl. He had discarded that beautiful young Montuna girl for the sophisticated, worldly women of
Machado impatiently brushed aside my remonstrations that the girl from the camp above El Sordo was a great prize and a true love. She, that little bird of a Montuna, I told him, was truly the “better” woman, he did not believe me.
I had liked that pretty Montuna girl and she, I think, had liked me. I, then a virgin and a devout Catholic knowing how physical Montuno love was and I so complete inexperienced, had not let it go beyond a shy smile. Machado had picked up the slack; he had taken her generous first offering. She took him as her first man.
Up there in El Sordo while demonstrating a Judo crushing leg hold I had cracked Machado’s ribs. Machado, that stubborn idiot, would not admit the hold hurt- had gotten what he deserved. So, he did not want to look bad in front of the girl, and received weeks of pain. Even then, before the journey to the Minas del Frió, that was just fine. In Cojímar just after the war, my regrets had almost completely faded. Now almost fifty years later this just makes me smile at the vanities of youth.
I would never see the rolling hills above El Sordo, nor would I see the grave of the suicide again. His grave was there behind me in the white and green of the park like bush and pasture covered worn karst cockpits of the top of the hill.
It all remains in my mind as it was then, for I have never return. Thus, the remembered scene does not change in season and the trees grow no older. As we left I notice that the palm tree at the top of the hill still had that gaping hole.
Larry Daley copyright@1997, revised 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006