The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy’s Eyes — Cuba in 1941 (Pt. 3)

5 Dec

This is the last post by Neff’s father, Robert, on his time in Cuba in 1941.

Our two-car cavalcade pulled to a stop in front of a beautiful colonial building identified by a sign at its entrance as “Sevilla-Biltmore.” Inside there was a tree- and flower-festooned restaurant, which opened upward through the apartments on four sides. Ours was three stories above that patio, so I could look down into it at night when the music drifted upward – or I could watch strollers on the Prado from our shuttered front windows. It all seemed pretty glamorous to a ten-year-old boy. There were fluffy towels – fresh each day – and bougainvillea flowers in vases atop all the flat surfaces. Food was rushed up from the kitchens below whenever we called for it, and everything they prepared was new and different to me. My favorite was quickly identified as Picadillo a la Cubana (Cuban hash) which was ground beef laced heartily with peppers, onions, tomatoes and garlic. The aroma was stupefying! The taste was even better.

A few days after we had unpacked and gotten used to the apartment routine, the black Buick took us on a three-hour drive to the east – to a place called Veradero, which I learned was on a projection of land called the Hicacos Peninsula. The du Pont family from Delaware had a big house there, where we had dinner after walking on the whitest beach I had ever seen. All of the men smoked rich-smelling cigars after dinner, and when I asked where they came from they laughed and said that Cuba was home to the world’s finest cigar factories. I got to visit one of them later, and was amazed at the process. People at tables selected aromatic, long brown leaves to roll together, and they continually licked the leaves as they did so, to help them bind. After one experimental “lick” I was convinced it was a job I didn’t want! But my Dad became a devotee of Cuban cigars and I have always associated that aroma with his celebrations of special events.

That same black Buick came each weekend to take us to a succession of Cuban sites, from the great Bacardi Rummery to pineapple plantations to the wonderful colonial government buildings, including a white and gold-trimmed Presidential Palace where President Fulgencio Batista had his offices. During the week, we wandered down narrow streets, where activities were secreted behind walls which extended all the way to the curbside, making it difficult for cars and pedestrians to pass one another. We could peek inside at homes, tiendas and little bodegas, all hidden when their heavy wooden doors were closed at nightfall, but exposed and lively during the day. Of course, we got to visit the Morro Castle and many of the harbor buildings, and to listen to stories about Havana’s early history. One weekend was dedicated to the story of the Arawak Indians, who preceded Columbus’ discovery of Cuba and who were dispersed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

There was an American School in Havana, where I started classes a month or so after our arrival. Most of the students were the children of American businessmen or diplomats – and most of those were older than I. I preferred playing in the park or skating on the Prado with the Cubanos of my age who I met easily. From them I acquired a working knowledge of their language and a good sense of the area’s geography. Both helped me to take my parents to local restaurants and to decipher the menus. Soon we were comfortable in Havana and making plans to entertain my aunts at Christmas 1941.

Alas – that did not happen, nor did the refinery get built. On Sunday, December 7th, my Mom called me in from the Prado and told me to pack quickly. In answer to my question “Why?” I was told hurriedly that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. (I assumed that Pearl was one of the many visiting American ladies who had too many Cuba Libres at Sloppy Joe’s on Saturday nights, and couldn’t connect that to a need for me to pack on a beautiful Sunday.) Once I got a few answers, I understood that the wars in Europe and Asia had finally converged upon America, and my father was being rushed back to begin addressing the country’s need for lots of aviation fuel. We boarded a destroyer and sailed at high speed out into the open sea beyond Morro Castle. This time there were no gaping passengers on deck, but I took a last glance back at The Pearl of the Antilles.

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