Archive | Retrospects RSS feed for this section

Cuba 1949

13 Jan

My grandfather and grandmother visited Havana, Cuba in 1949. Dr. Buck sat down to share some of his memories of the trip with a little help from my grandmother, Dot, before I departed for my first trip to Cuba.

After visiting the country myself, it seems that Havana hasn’t changed much. Sloppy Joe’s nightclub is still around and is currently under renovation, taxis still drive too fast, and of course, rum is still the most popular liquor in Havana.

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.

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.

The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy’s Eyes – Cuba in 1941 (Pt. 1)

27 Nov


This is my first contribution to the Cuba blog and as such I knew that I had to set a precedence of excellence. The only problem is that my own writing abilities are, well…a little short of excellent. So I recruited the help of a ringer, my father and former Cuban resident, Robert Neff. What resulted was a beautiful account of pre-communist Cuba entitled The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy. Robert really knocked it out of the park with this one. The short narrative paints a beautiful picture of Cuba and definitely heightened my expectations for the trip.

So with out further adieu here is part one of The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy’s Eyes.
Continue reading


Cuba revisited coming soon!

26 Nov

Cuba revisited coming soon!

“Cuba Re-visted 1949” coming soon!