The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy’s Eyes – Cuba in 1941 (Pt. 2)

3 Dec

This is the second post as told from the perspective of Neff’s father, Robert, who was in Cuba in 1941 as a youngster.

A month earlier, my father had returned home at the end of his work day in a large petroleum products’ refinery on the banks of the Delaware River and told us we would soon be spending time in Cuba. He was the general manager of that nearby refinery, and I figured that he was pretty good at his work because I had heard him speak for the US oil industry at the Petroleum Building of the New York World’s Fair. He had explained that the war in Europe was disrupting the international flow of petroleum products, as the Germans’ submarines were sinking many tankers and freighters. Now he was telling my Mom and me that President Roosevelt was proposing the construction of a new refinery in Cuba, from which product could be moved to many points in the USA without chancing hostile submarines in the Atlantic shipping lanes. He was to research the refinery project – and we were going along to Cuba while he worked there.

Initially, I was a bit miffed by the changed family plans, because at age 10, I was entering the highest grade in Billingsport Elementary School, and now I’d be missing the chance that sixth-graders always got to be the big shots there. However, as our ship cozied up to its dock, I could already hear music in the distance and see bright flowering vines climbing trellises everywhere. Those kids diving for coins were replaced by others offering to show us the sights of Havana or playing stringed instruments and singing in a language which was new to me. There was enthusiasm everywhere, and I decided this was going to be a great adventure. Maybe even better than the sixth grade at Billingsport School.

My Dad was already talking with a gentleman whose black Buick – with a driver – had come right down to the dock. A porter was putting our luggage into another car, and my sightseeing was interrupted as I was asked to say hello to Mr. George Messerschmitt. Well – that’s what I thought his name was. It was easy to remember because Messerschmitts were the deadly German planes we saw in newsreels. About the third time I said his name wrong, my Mother corrected me softly – “It is Ambassador Messersmith, Bobby. He works for our government here and he’s taking us to our apartment to get us settled in.” We piled into the second car and headed into Havana. The cities I knew were Philadelphia and New York – but this was different!

For one thing, the traffic was chaotic. Cars moved aggressively through knots of pedestrians, horse-drawn wagons, unsteady bicycles and hawking vendors. Police on little stands wearing crisp uniforms directed the traffic grandly and no one seemed to pay any attention to them. After a few minutes our car turned onto Paseo el Prado, which I learned later marked the division between “Old Havana” and “Centro Havana.” The Prado, as it was called, had a broad, tree-lined walkway running between the opposite directions of traffic. The walkway was inlaid with tiles in intricate patterns, and handsome marble benches outlined its route. Well-dressed people walked under the trees or read newspapers on the benches, but kids on rollerskates darted through the strollers, taking advantage of the acceleration which the Prado’s downward slope provided. This was to become one of my favorite pastimes in Havana – skimming down the Prado’s length and hopping over the curbs with Hector Comacho, who taught me well.

We passed the Parque Central – not quite so large as New York’s Central Park, but filled with beautiful palm trees – and then the driver stopped at the intersection with Zuletta Street and pointed to a low building with arches along the sidewalk. “Sloppy Joe’s Bar,” he said with a sly smile to my parents, who nodded knowingly. It was the gathering place for most adventurous foreigners visiting Havana, all hoping to catch a glimpse of Ernest Hemmingway sipping a Cuba Libre (Bacardi Rum plus Coca Cola and a sliced lime.) Lots happened at Sloppy Joe’s, but it was not for ten-year-olds. Neither were the gaming casinos and teeming nightclubs which were attracting so many Americans to Havana in 1941. My new home was the “IN” place for tourism.

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