Half of my dad’s friend’s house sat right over the water. The boys would have easy access to the Bay without being noticed by anyone by lifting the floor boards of the house. The plan was to stay in the house until the evening, hidden under the floor boards, until the sky was dark and the tide was high. And then they’d jump in the water and make a
run swim for it.
Their plan became a bit more complicated when when their friend’s father came home unexpectedly. They scrambled to hide under a bed waiting still and in silence until he left. I don’t know if they didn’t tell his father for fear of being told on to the neighborhood watch or just fear of being forbade to go. But like I said, you learned to keep your door closed tight and your mouth even tighter.
My father also hadn’t told, his mother, my grandmother. He knew she would fight him and he also knew there was no convincing him out of it. So he told Concha, his great aunt, with specific instructions:
I know how mami is. She’ll look for me and set the neighborhood on fire until she finds me and she can’t. People can’t wonder where I am. So before that happens, tell her I’m gone.
Like all people that left Cuba in this era, when you left, you left with a small suitcase and forever. No one knew for certain when – or if – they’d ever see anyone again.
I wonder if he thought about the conversation with his Tia Concha as waited to leave under the floor board. What did he think about? Was he sad that he’d never go back home? Scared to leave his mother? I’m 37 years old and still grow a lump in my throat whenever I think of leaving my mother… and I talk to her daily. Did he second guess his decision Think about not going? There was a fifth companion to the story that decided last minute not to go. My dad could have changed his mind at any time. I wonder if companion 5 ever regretted that decision? My mom shrugs it off to my father’s age.
“You do crazy things like that when you’re young porque when you get old…”
She’s probably right. Sixteen year old courage is on a level all its own. The world can’t touch you then and you have no idea what you could lose.
But I don’t know. Maybe he would have done it anyway. My dad not being a man of many words has always been a man of action. He doesn’t talk, he shouts – he doesn’t think, he does – he doesn’t argue, he reacts. And his 16-year old mind (as absent to consequence as it might have been) had enough sense to intelligently plan and escape Cuba. Armed with the knowledge he needed and the courage to follow through, he waited under the floor board til it was time.
* * *
As a kid that grew up in a fisherman village, he knew the ocean; he was born to it. He was a natural swimmer, a strong swimmer. I can’t count how many times he’d scare me as a kid and swim so far out into the ocean that I could barely see him. Or he’d fall asleep in a raft and let the ocean sweep him into the distance. And I’d yell at him from the sure to come back like I was his mother.
He was as much a fish as the ones the fishermen caught in Caimanera. And when you are from a fishing town, you know when the tide will be at its highest. You know when the Coast Guard was patrolling and where. You know at what time during high tide would have the right ebb and flow to make floating with only your face to the moon most possible. And swimming had to be minimal or you’d risk being seen and shot.
TO BE CONTINUED…