Thursday, June 29, 2006



It is December of 1958; I am with Company Six of Column One. Company Six is lead by Orlando Rodriguez Puerta and Column One is Castro's own column. We are winning on the plains of the Cauto River watershed; the forces of Cuban Dictator Batista are hiding out in their strong places fearing our attacks.

We are in a large pasture by the Central highway, just west Contramaestre, the place that rests against the mountains; and Jiguaní, the place of little black water sprite. Both enemy-held towns are close; both are near.

Enemies are there in strong places inside these towns, resting, awaiting us, behind their concrete walls and sandbags. In the distance, but unseen, the two rivers that name these places run clear and sweet across the savanna plains, towards the greater Cauto stream.

We are slightly west of where a road overpass makes a dogleg to the north. The road is about 150 yards away a two-lane ribbon of black asphalt going east west. A deep ditch, a grassy space and then a barbwire cattle fence, separates the highway from the field. The low bush and short grass of an overgrazed pasture is spread below, in front of us, between the road’s fence and us.

Beyond the road to the north is a mixed savanna of tall trees, saw- grass swamps and pasture extending further northward to the horizon line. To our right the road curves north, goes above the over pass, over the railroad, and then returns running to the east. The height of the overpass, sitting on skinny steel reinforced concrete pillars, blocks most of our view to the east-northeast.

On a slight rise about 150 yards south of the highway, we wait. The rise is covered with five foot, six or seven foot high bushy, leafy, saplings among higher trees. The saplings have three or four-inch long well lobed leaflets; the leaflets are set in drooping pairs opposite each other hanging down from yellow green petioles to make long frond-like compound leaves. The saplings are not thorny for this is fertile ground; I do not recognize the species, but they are all the same, from a burst of seed from an unknown mother tree. ….

We stop to set up an ambush.

I fear the planes the B-26 light bombers and the F-47D Republic Thunderbolts, like cousin Rafaelito flies, with their .50 caliber machine guns and their bombs. I fear most the stealthy avioneta, the light plane, the Piper PA-22-160. These avioneta with the right hand side door and the rear seat removed and replaced with a belt fed 30.06 caliber machine gun, could fly for hours drifting above like hawks seeking prey.

We know that if they spot us from far above, the avioneta can hide their motor noise behind a hill and sneak in above us. They sometimes glide in with motor cut, to catch us unaware. These little planes are also known to drop hand grenades inside glasses, so the grenades could explode after the glasses break on contact with the ground below.

I am terrified, of Sherman tanks and Staghound armored cars, only Batista forces have them. Were the tanks to come down the highway, there is nothing we can do.

We have no weapon, no tactics except mines; and we have none of those, that can stop them. If the armored vehicles come towards us firing, spitting bullets from machine guns secure in invulnerable weapon slots, cannon thundering, crews brave behind inches of steel, we are lost. We have thin shirts over bare flesh and hand weapons, they tons of heavy metal. Worse, we are on the flat lands and there is nowhere to run.

Only the trees are our friends. These are our tree friends, dryads of Taíno gods that hide and protect us on these savannas.

I take up one of the shovels we have brought with us and begin to dig a short narrow slot trench parallel to the road. The soil is deep without stones, dark red and friable, aromatic in its rampant fertility; digging is easy. Our salvation is in the ground.

First, the other less imaginative rebels laugh at me, and make unkind remarks, but I keep on digging. Then, the others begin to look around and think. They look at my slit trench beginnings; and quiet furrowing brows as they ponder. Then one of them trying to appear casual, so not to lose his feigned bravado, tells me, in Spanish naturally:

“!Dame la pala! !Es mi turno! “It's my turn with the shovel, give it to me.”

The others busy themselves so much I do not get a chance with any of the shovels for the rest of that day. After a while, the rise is covered with foxholes and short trenches.

Still unhappy about my safety, I cut the droopy leafed saplings and place them in the lose dug dirt around my trench. The idea caught on. That is fine that day our position looked green, part of the world of vegetation around us.

Next day the leaves have wilted in the hot sun. I am walking a patrol east on the road, the Central Highway. Walking alone along the empty, empty road, scouting, looking for something, anything, any trace of enemy. It is so still, so quiet except for flight of small birds, the sudden short scurries of brightly colored lizards and the quiet lethargic movements of grazing cattle. It is so completely bucolic, that in the warmth and the gentle smells of the soil, grasses forbs, and trees, I am distracted by some vague thought, I do not listen, I daydream.

An avioneta, that machine gun carrying spotter plane, comes out from behind some that lacy canopies of a fringe of trees, beyond the pastures, to the southwest. It sights and flies towards me. I do not hear it; perhaps the Piper has cut its motor. Perhaps, the wind, as it does sometimes in Cuba, must have blown the sound away.

Almost a century ago, almost directly south of here perhaps by 40 miles, Cuba’s first “President in Arms” died caught unaware because of such a quieting wind; and also, it is said, because of the distracting pleasures of female companion. Formal Cuban histories emphasize this wind effect and ignore the biological.

I do not have such a pleasant distraction, thus the formal histories must have a point. So now, the enemy plane is here almost above me; I see it. I am terrified for I have nowhere to go. I am in the open.

The avioneta makes one pass. If the avioneta gets its machinegun going, I am lost, there is no cover. My mind in its panic dissociates fear from fight; a strange focused calm comes over me.

I fire my accurate Springfield 30.06 that I had swapped for my San Cristóbal after Guisa. Effective range is the distance at which an average soldier this target 50% of the times. This Springfield rifle is a blessing for the San Cristóbal, which most other rebels of my group now carry, has a nominal effective range of 300-600 yards.

In the Guisa action I had found that the San Cristóbal was not really effective even on full automatic at such ranges. The Springfield has at least a 600 yard effective range and a maximum range of 3,500 yards. Uncle Calixto Leonel had taught me how to shoot; now was the time when his lessons really counted. The avioneta is a slow plane and a perfect target for a good shot using such a weapon.

Making my stand on short mowed grass in the slope of the highway ditch, I try to make every one of my slow firing rifle’s shots count. I must make every accurate, powerful round count, every shot absolutely, perfectly, aimed.

I think:

“I must! I must hit it! I cannot fail!”

The calm of absolute battle concentration descends like a smooth, plush, velvet curtain over my mind, blocking all other thoughts, all fear, everything but the immediate task at hand.

Uncle Calixto had taught calm by reciting verses from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.

“The sea was wet as wet could be,

The sands were dry as dry.

You could not see a cloud because

No cloud was in the sky:

No birds were flying overhead--

There were no birds to fly”

I fire at the empty space one plane length ahead of the avioneta, raising my careful aim by guesswork, not using the elevation mechanism of the rear sights, to compensate for the bullet’s drop.

It seems that Uncle Calixto Leonel taught me well. I fire once, twice, perhaps three times. I must have hit something, because the avioneta, breaks out from its run, and suddenly climbs high. Happy in my false triumph, I too am a fool; the spotter plane now knows that we rebels are near.

Time passes I return to the ambush. A man comes across the field he looked familiar, he walks easily bent slightly forward. He is of medium height and has been eating well, but is not fat. His broad shoulders, and his brown almost Asiatic face, eyes almost as slits, in a full face below curly black hair he seems readily recognizable. I look at his broad feet splayed like paddles in cloth, tire-soled, alpargata sandles, there was something there, but I was not sure. Then I realize who he is.

We stop him. He gives a cock and bull story about crossing the field. We do not believe him.

I say nothing not wanting to see him shot right there. Then somebody else recognizes him; he is Jacinto the barefoot spy who had escaped from Las Peñas. It is too late for him; spies are always executed. Mercifully, Jacinto is not shot there, he is taken to headquarters. His escape from Las Peñas has only given him six more months of life.

There are three crew gunners; nothing particular about the way they look comes to my memory now. They are just nondescript short, and brown. Their hairs is black and straight, their faces too young, or with too much Taíno, to grow a beard. They are just boys perhaps seventeen, yet they are charged with the machine gun. Why is never explained.

They, the machine gunners, sit on the rise south of the central highway, their red bandanas around their necks and set up their 30.06 air cooled, belt fed, Browning (probably a M1919A4) on its tripod. A black metal box, a heavy air-cooled barrel, sits on three wide spread low legs; it is set up right in the open.

I ask them about their red bandanas. They say it is to honor the African gods, I am not sure they tell the truth, for their skins are not dark enough for Africa. They are from Manzanillo, the first home of communists in Cuba. Does red mean red? I do not know.

Much to my horror, Captan Puerta tells a few of us, me included, that we are to give the machine-gunners rifle support. We the supporting riflemen are to share the hostile fire that the machine gunners stupidity and lack of stealth will surely bring. We do not like it, but say nothing, for the Captain has given this as an order.

We dig in even further; the machine gunners do not. I suggested as tactfully as I could that they should perhaps dig in. One of them replies when "you are going to die you are going to die" something that even then I recognize as a sophism of the worst sort. They, just boys, are obviously marked for death.

We watch the machine-gunners a while. In the heat of plains of the Cauto the midday waves of shimmering heated air ripple above the black perforate cooling jacket of the machine gun barrel. Even then without even being fired the metal of the machine gun is almost too hot to touch. The rippling air floats over the machine gunners heads, above their red bandanas. The hot air ripples are as if specters, as if Taíno hupía ghosts, laughing at a coming foolish death, laughing at fools ready to join them.

We again hope; the riflemen dig in more, the machine gunners do not. So then, to protect our lives, we the riflemen discretely and quietly move our positions as far away from them as possible and dig in even deeper.

We know violent death. We have been escopeteros. We know, from Braulio Coroneau’s death at Guisa that the machine gunners will be a magnet for enemy fire. If the enemy tries to force its way west on the Central high way we will fail, all because the machine gunners are not dug in.

The Casquitos have plenty of firepower; most have the San Cristóbal automatic assault rifle, many others carry longer range automatic weapons and 30.06 machine guns of their own. Soon after first contact, our machine gunners will be dead and with their deaths, we will lose the support of the machine gun.

The three fates measure the end of the machine gunners lives. Atropos the mother of atropine will soon widen their eyes. She Atropos, the giver of death prepares to snip the thread of their lives.

We ponder. The machine gunners lives are not only their business; the gunners’ stupidity affects us all. We know then that outflanked we will have to retreat across open country taking losses. “Those idiots are going to kill us all!”

We begin to break the mental bonds that hold us together; we hate those stupid machine gunners. That hate feels good, for if we hate them, their deaths will bother us less.

We hear firing to the east-northeast. We cannot see anything the overpass blocks the view. A runner comes up breathless giving orders to bring up the machine gun to the point of contact.

Fearing the contagion of the self-doomed machine gunners; I ask if that is an order for general support or just for the machine gun. The runner, to my great relief, says: “No just the machine gun.”

The Casquitos, the helmeted ones, the Batista soldiers, our enemies, make their move out of Jiguaní or Contramaestre. They are trying to cross the savannas of the plain beyond the swamp to the north of the Central Highway trying to reach the safety of their Bayamo base.

The Casquitos are moving west in the opposite direction on a similar route to that successfully taken by Spanish General Escario in 1898. In that ancient year, my ancestors hurt the Spanish but did not stop them. The Spanish took loses, were delayed for a few critical days, but kept on going east to try to relieve Santiago.

The Spanish are ancient history; our war is now. The firing to the east-northeast is intense. We can hear the individual rifle shots, and the deadly “Rhumpty! Rhumpty! Rhumpty!” rhythm of the massed fast automatic fire from the San Cristóbals.

The machine gunners follow the runner and are soon out of sight. Firing becames more, and more intense, the San Cristóbal fire burst become even more frequent grow together, with the M-1 rifle fire and the heavy beat of the machine guns. All that sound rises even louder and faster mixing the individual weapons sound to a now indistinguishable sustained deafening roar. Then the individual bursts are heard again, they slackened and become sporadic.

Later we find out that the self-doomed machine gunners had placed their weapon too close to the small, white, concrete block structure perhaps an irrigation pump house where the Casquitos were anchoring their positions.

Belt-fed machine guns usually out range fire from rifles of the same caliber, because their aim can be corrected by noting the hits and dust raised by their prior rounds near the enemy. These machine guns have a rated effective range of over 1000 yards.

However, when the machine gunner fires from one place for more than two minutes and from too near, enemy riflemen can locate the machine gun much more readily, than the gunner can see them. The tripods on which the guns were placed, raises the machine gun and the gunners’ bellies making the crew even more vulnerable.

Our machine gunners do not pulled back to find a position from which they could sustain killing fire. Instead the poor doomed boys, unwise to the end, lay too close to the enemy firing in the open field. Very soon two of them are dead, belly wounded somehow by ground grazing bullets. In the terror of fear of death, the third gunner pulls a “John Wayne.” He runs towards the enemy firing the machine gun, burning his hands on the overheated gun barrel, but surviving.

The idiocy of the machine gunners gives the Casquitos a chance. The Casquitos take it and flee. They are in trucks; we are on foot; they get away.

They are going west north of our ambush site. They are moving fast on the firm soil of the pastures north of the swamp. We cannot stop them.

The Casquitos now free from our machine gun’s fire continued to the west over plains towards the safety of their Bayamo City strong places. The self-doomed machine gunners die for nothing.

We all rise and go north across the highway in lost pursuit, in failed attempt to cut off the Casquitos. We hear the exchange of fire of the pursued and the pursuers. The Casquitos who killed our machine gunners are now moving fast further to the north of us. Then we hear the gunfire change direction as they try to escape to the northwest. We, are further west, and must try to cut the Batista forces off by crossing the Central Highway, and going due north.

One thing the Batista planes did well was to make us take cover. The first low whine of the armed spotter planes or the much heavier drone of the B-26s makes us seek shelter to hide; and thus the noise the planes were passing over was sufficient to immobilize us.

Our greatest terror now is to be caught in the middle of a great pasture far from trees or bushes. There, caught the feared open country, our only recourse is to stand straight up. Standing so very straight up, by the fences pretending to be a fence-post, or worse far from the fence to roll up in a ball and pretend to be a boulder, is the only way to avoid detection.

But we are no longer in the open, for moving to cut the Batista forces off, we have hit wet swampy ground. Here we have the great trees of the plains of Cuba to hide behind.

We cannot move forward because the planes begin to fire. The best we can do is take shelter. We are so lucky to be by such large trees. We in groups chose gigantic trees walking around to the bullet shade--the other side of the great, smooth, gray tree trunks-- as the planes circle and shoots at us.

It is a matter of honor not to push others out of the way, to avoid the error of making it a kind of potentially lethal game of musical chairs each vying and pushing to get the most protected spot. Such a game would have soon attracted the lethal attention of those keen eyed pilots and gunners selected for their excellent vision.

Airplane attacks always warn the Casquitos to be ready for us. In the immediate future at the sugar mill Central America this will allow the Batista soldiers, the "Casquitos, " to ambush us and cause us a number of casualties.

Here on plains of the Cauto near Santa Rita, the two B-26 strafing our group do not allow us to block the escape of a convoy the Casquitos. They do not kill us, but they do hold us in place.

As the pair of B-26 fighter-bombers delays us, we find their fire to be withering, They normally have eight 0.50 caliber machine guns. Rafaelito my cousin the pilot, will in the future tell me that the B-26s only had four machine guns. That is plenty. Now occupied by the shooting we do not count.

The bursts of .50 caliber fire boom like thunder. I spend time circling around a giant spreading tree, it was not a raintree, the rough barked algarrobo, for it has smooth bark, it must have been some kind of Ficus, some kind of great fig tree. What ever it was it is stopping 0.50 caliber bullets.

When we are both old, Rafaelito will tell me that at that time, because the U.S. had embargoed weapons supply to Batista worn machine gun barrels were not being replaced. That must have helped us.

We do not panic. We are safe, having expended their ammunition the planes leave their job done. We have been kept pinned down for a while. None of us are hit.

As our ears recover we hear the lessening drone of the planes going away returning to base. The sky is now quiet. But not so the ground, although I do not remember hearing them there are trucks moving to the north of us.

We continue to push north and try to cross a swampy area of head high cortadera, razor edged, saw-grass. Two others and I are sent ahead. We cannot not locate where the heavy incoming fire is coming from. It is all hitting around us, coming from the north chopping down the grass.

My two friends and I do not fire, for that would give our position away. We cannot stay there in the grass, for here the bullets will eventually find us. With some speed, we withdraw, report the situation and wait behind cover. There is nothing more we can do.

Later things calmed down, no more shooting. The Casquito’s trucks can no longer be heard to the west. We follow the tracks of the trucks, south of the endless fence line, gathering whatever ammunition the Casquitos have dropped.

We watched the bleeding, wounded, giant, white, Charolais cattle grazing. Thin streams of red blood spurts from their vast white sides yet they continue to graze heads bent to the ground.

At the end of some miles, I smell fire, not grass or timber burning, but the residue of an oily, smelly, fire. I look on the ground to find truck tire tracks turning a little south. We turn to our left, and go maybe a hundred yards south. There we find a broken-down flatbed truck, a pile of deliberately burnt, twisted rifles and the woman. I still see her in my dreams, and still don't know who she was, and why the Casquitos left her there.

She lies dead among the crush of the green-straw yellow nodes and stems, and green purple blades of the guinea grass, but she seems so young and unharmed. She is an ordinary woman not strikingly beautiful, nor ugly, her hair is dark, her face unlined.

Her body is slim; her breasts and hips normal, feminine, and quite usual. Her calf length dark dress, that covers her with modesty, is flared out as if she is running. One shoe, a city woman’s pump, has fallen off.

Who is she? Who was she? Was she a noncommissioned officer’s daughter, a soldier’s wife, a generous camp follower enjoying unrestrained the burning passions of ardent young soldiers. Was she an informer who must leave with the Casquitos or face death at the hands of the relatives of the betrayed? Was she a hard working prostitute servicing tens of soldiers a night? I do not know; it does not matter; she is dead.

I look closer and then see the bullet’s seemingly insignificant entry. Her wound is a mere red spot, and there is no blood spilled on the grass.

The bullet had penetrated through her left arm at shoulder level, a place left bare and vulnerable by the straps of her dress. There is no exit wound. The bullet must have spent its energies severing her arteries, ripping inside her chest, killing her. Her face shows no pain, the bullet’s shock her only necessary anesthesia, death must have come fast and merciful.

I look at the wigwam shaped pile of fire destroyed, twisted, old Springfield 30-06 rifles, no M-1s or San Cristóbals among them. Although the rifles appear intact, looking at the breaches; I see these, are empty grim slits, open like narrow steel lipped mean mouths, like hard used vaginas, the bolts are gone, the weapons are useless.

The Casquitos must have had time to set the weapons on fire and destroy them. Perhaps, our Miguel Angel Calvo, our armorer machinist from "El Sordo" could do something with them.

Larry Daley copyright@1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006.


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