Most people I knew in 1969 thought they would live for ever or die young and pretty. Consequences for bold acts were not important, although less for some than others. I, for example, could push things just so far. There were no lawyers in my family, no connections, no one to bail me out of a jam. Still, stealth and wit were free. And everything was possible. This is how people thought back then.
Given such a mood, going to Cuba in November was not that wild. Besides, what else was there to do? Like all restless people I thought life was better somewhere I was not. I wanted to check it out. Since the few-hundred-something dollars for airfare and lodgings were a gift from a benefactor, the trip fit nicely into my budget. True, travel to Cuba was not legal. But who on earth would make a public ass of himself by tossing me in jail for curiosity? So I left with the New York contingent of a larger group totaling two hundred sixteen, first to Montreal then to Mexico City. From there we took flight on a fat little plane headed for Havana.
The airstrip blazed white, the heat was fierce. My brain felt like burned marshmallows. In front of the hangar our hosts appeared to be dancing in welcome waving and grinning like they knew us already. They wore orange T-shirts and pressed khaki trousers, and they held banners that said “Welcome Venceremos Brigade” or ” Diez Milliones Van.”
We, two hundred sixteen of us, had a name: the Venceremos Brigade. We were in Cuba to participate in the 1970 harvest which was to top all others with a ten-million ton yield. It also had a name: the Zafra. In Cuba where they named years–1968 had been The Year of the Heroic Guerrilla–1970 was The Year of the Ten-Million Tons. As it turned out the year of the ten-million failed, but no one knew that yet. We were still in 1969. But time skipped ahead in Cuba. They were already in the future.
After lunch on Christmas Day I was outside the cafeteria, my straw hat tilted against the glare that seemed to flatten objects. I had a fresh pack of Fuertes, a filterless cigarette stronger than a Camel but not as foul as a Gauloise. The wrapper was pleasantly squared and substantial. I tore off a corner of the pack, plucked a Fuerte, and shoved it in the corner of my mouth. Striking a small wax match, I held tip to flame. I sucked smoke, rich and heavy with taste–residual cow shit perhaps–manure, mulch, the truth of leaves grown and harvested. Ah stench. Oh cloud of gas and keening lungs. Gravel crunched. Others were leaving the lunch tent; and behind them the clean-up sounds of clanking pans, silverware ringing against plates, the low buzz of dinner talk. My friend Joe waddled up rubbing his hands.
” He’s here.”
I blew a smoke ring.
“How do you know?”
For weeks there had been a rumor that Fidel would visit us on Christmas day as a special present. The gift of him was meant to compensate for the holiday festivities which had been canceled, not just for the Brigade but for the whole country because of the Zafra. I don’t think many of us cared as much as the Cubans about missing Christmas. Many of our group were Jews and thought little of Christmas. Of the black participants a few were Muslims of the Elijah Mohammed persuasion. Others–and I fell into this group–were content to skip Christmas, whatever the reason. But we liked that the Cubans thought of us, considered what might have been our feelings, made extra efforts to please.
Joe and I scurried across the encampment, batches of tidy white sleeping tent on one side; on the other, a road lined with cathedral palm trees; and beyond these, fields the color of blue-grass and alfalfa. On the border of a cane field, straight ahead, stood a low watch tower with armed guards we rarely noticed. We rustled through a path on either side of which bamboo-green cane grew taller than us. After more tramping we reached a clearing shaped like a box in the center of which we saw Fidel, machete in hand, under a mirage-like sky that shimmered in the high heat.
He was very tall wearing traditional army fatigues. I don’t remember if he had a hat, but I think he did have a straw hat like the ones we had been issued. Then again it could have been an olive-drab cap, or maybe he was hatless. He was pale as chalk, flushed at the cheekbones, and his hair was abundant, chestnut-black and very curly. He had a full beard,of course. Broad through the shoulders and chest, Fidel was heavy but not fat.
He was surrounded by Americans, all men, and he let them get very close–close as possible without kissing or hugging, I thought. Joe melted into this group and disappeared. Many of the men, also tall, were almost bashful in the presence of Fidel Castro. They flapped and bantered with ease, but their eyes shone and their mouths made delighted but reverential grins. There were questions and answers the gist of which I did not catch since I stood on the periphery out of earshot. I knew how easy it was to slide in a current of adulation–had done it before–and I kept distance when I felt the worshipful urge upon me. Malleable as play dough, I also knew how little I knew, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by showing it. Besides what do you say to a head of fucking state?
In addition to being tall and thus commanding a good view , Fidel had a certain bird-like quality. Interrupting talk he beady-eyed the whole gaggle of us, one by one, stragglers like me included. Perhaps he wanted to know what was not being said, who was not saying it, why. Perhaps he was looking at girls. But in a moment of fear and relief–similar to what school kids feel when they have not done homework and the teacher mercifully calls on someone else–in a moment like that I saw myself from the outside, sullen and suspicious. Why stand apart? I thought. Why so much holding back? I was attracted-repelled by Fidel, paralyzed, as if in a witches’ circle.
Gawking had its limits and I started to feel like a camp follower or as if at an Elvis sighting. It was time to leave. Joe stayed on, but I could not imagine why. He was small, pudgy, almost feminine, easy to talk to and just as easily shunted aside by the brawnier types. In appearance and style Joe was polar opposite to Fidel, and I could not fathom what they would have to say to each other. But then, Joe was a good socialist.
Later that evening at the big group meeting in the dining hall, Fidel was wearing a different hat–a broad-brimmed straw with the brim rolled and a black power symbol affixed to one side: a raised black fist on a red background. I believe this hat originally belonged to James-From-Chicago who hated white people. The hat must have been a gift, and there must have been a separate meeting, black only, in which the hat changed hands.
On a raised platform Fidel chatted and laughed with the camp officials flanked on either side. I say “officials”. There are officials and then there are officials. These officials were young, good-looking, of many and mixed ethnicities, in semi-military attire. They were groomed to the extreme of male vanity. They packed pistols. It would be a lie to say that Cuban machismo in this form was totally unattractive. In your basic middle-class leftist I would have found it horrible. But the Cubans wore it well.
Fidel was smoking a big Cuban cigar. With crumpled clothes and shirt untucked he was the messiest of the lot. His gestures exuded the bold sweep of the Sierra Maestra, or so went my romantic thoughts at the time. Leaning to the mike he flashed a sly smile. He said he liked cutting sugar cane. He liked it because it kept him from getting too bourgeois. The crowd went crazy, screaming cheering, clapping stamping. I went crazy with them.