Eye-opening visit to Cuba

Country welcomed U.S. troops

Clark Zlotchew holds a guitar during a visit to Cuba in 1958.

Editor’s note: This is the first of four parts.


After years of guerrilla warfare, with their base in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range of Oriente Province, Castro’s victorious troops triumphantly marched into Havana on Jan. 8, 1959. On the eve of this historical event — during 1957 and 1958 — I had been in Cuba on four different occasions, twice as a civilian on vacation and on two other visits as a crewman on a destroyer-escort for training with the U.S. Naval Reserves. The experiences as a civilian were not the same as those with the Navy.

Naval reserve training

I had joined the Reserves in my senior year of high school. A friend and I had joined at the age of seventeen purely to experience adventure and to see something of the world outside Hudson County, N.J. and New York City. As a member of the U.S. Naval Reserves, I was obliged, and privileged, to take part in one two-week training cruise annually, as well as to attend weekly meetings at the Naval Reserves Station in Jersey City for instruction. I loved the training cruises because it was exciting to be on board a naval vessel on the high seas. Even better, I had the opportunity to visit places I had no possibility of seeing through my own financial resources in my youth.

Every training cruise brought me out of what was then a humdrum existence. Learning more and more of seamanship aboard a naval vessel provided a side of the work world I never would have experienced otherwise. Participating in the daily routine on board a naval vessel was a combination of drudgery (for example, chipping paint from the decks) and exciting activities. In the early years of my training, I was given the lookout duty as my watch. Whether day or night, this involved scanning the horizon with binoculars from an outdoor position on the bridge. We needed to report anything we saw and report our findings to the Officer of the Deck. In addition, we had General Quarters drills, practice for battle, at any time of the day or night, in which each man rushed to the specific battle station assigned to him. My first training cruise, in 1950, was to a naval base on the fogbound coast of Newfoundland and to St. John, a city in the Canadian Province of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. On that voyage, my General Quarters station was in the handling room of one of the six-inch guns.

Detectives, Ten-Cent Rum and the Den of Sin

One of my experiences ashore was entirely outside of my comfort zone. It also provided excitement, with the risk of danger, the possibility of violent action, as well as a series of learning episodes. Our port of call was Havana, capital of Cuba. For one hot day in January of 1957, I was assigned duty as Shore Patrol, which is Naval Police duty, in a combination bar/brothel. That day is memorable. Four pairs of sailors with SP duty were under the supervision of one Chief Petty Officer. We used local taxis, at the expense of the U.S. Navy, to arrive at our first destination: Havana Central Police Headquarters, where the American Navy had been assigned a desk. The U.S. government had an agreement with the Cuban government in which the U.S. Navy would police our own men. This arrangement freed the Cuban police from attending to any unlawful behavior on the part of our sailors and avoided having our men arrested and placed in local jails or being subjected to appearances before Cuban judges.

Some of our men could become involved in mayhem, especially when under the influence of alcohol. It was at our desk within the Havana Police Headquarters that we received our orders and instructions for the day.

Seeing the mustached Cuban detectives in their double-breasted suits reminded me of movies I had seen that took place in Latin America. Especially the film, “We Were Strangers” (1949), in which Pedro Armend’riz played the Havana police chief. In those days just about all American men, especially in the military, were clean-shaven, so that these Cubans with dark moustaches seemed somewhat sinister to me. This gave me a real charge and provided me with the feeling of truly being in an “exotic” locale. This was adventure, something I had craved since high school!

We were given the phone number of the American desk at Police Headquarters and told to call in every hour on the hour, using the wall phone behind the bar, so they would know that all was well. Of course, if there were some kind of emergency requiring backup, we would call them too. Our Chief Petty Officer had the addresses of four different bars only a block or two apart. He would place two of us at each location and check on each place once every hour. We went to the taxis awaiting us and got in. When I had been in Havana previously I noticed that Cuban taxi drivers bought only a little bit of gasoline at a time. Just about the amount they calculated was needed to arrive at the destination. They were pretty much working hand to mouth. So, it didn’t really surprise me when our taxi ran out of gas in the middle of a crowded street in route to our destination. The driver had miscalculated.

There we were: four American sailors in sparkling white uniforms, beige military leggings made of canvas hugging our calves, navy blue armbands proclaiming SP (Shore Patrol) in yellow letters on our right arm, billy club hanging from our canvass belts on one side, canteen of water (definitely not needed in Havana!) attached to the other side, pushing the taxi, with the seated Cuban driver steering, about a block and a half to the nearest gas station. It was quite a sight! Knots of Cubans on the sidewalks stopped to witness this ludicrous spectacle, obviously finding it highly amusing. It was somewhat embarrassing for us. After all, we were military men representing the most powerful, most influential, most affluent country in the world, reduced to pushing a taxi through the streets of the capital city of a third-world island nation. Curiously, my discomfort was blended with the desire to laugh. It must have looked as bizarre to the onlookers as would a man in white tie and tails sweeping refuse from the streets.

Americans, especially U.S. members of the military, are not well liked in many countries. In some countries we are frankly hated. But the Cubans who were entertained by our incongruous performance were not malicious. No one jeered. No one even laughed out loud. They were smiling with obvious good humor.

Why not? It was an unusual sight. And I believe the Cubans realized we Americans, members of the richest, mightiest nation on earth, were perfectly willing to pitch in physically to share the cabdriver’s task of bringing us to our destination. When I came to know Cubans better, I found a host of very positive traits in their character: in general, they had a wonderful, spontaneous sense of humor, they were open and welcoming to strangers, and were extremely gregarious. And the bonus: they liked Americans. This is not something one can count on all over the world.

I was paired with a regular Navy man who had a great deal of prior experience on Shore Patrol. I considered him an elderly man and therefore very wise; he was a year or two over 40. We were assigned to the Bar Victoria. The bar proper was in a narrow space at the front of the establishment, close to the swinging green doors. But we were led through another door beyond the bar that opened into a large room in which there were chairs and tables with black formica tops, a juke box and attractive young women in evening gowns. The walls were glossy black tile from the floor to the halfway point, and from there to the ceiling were plaster painted dark red. The gaudy juke box that stood against one wall was heavy, solid, brightly lighted, beaming forth warm light through glass panels of several colors: red, orange, yellow, green… It was the focus of social activities. It occurred to me that this jukebox in many ways was like the hearth, with its light and warmth, around which families gathered in old Christmas cards. But different. Very different. This establishment, on the corner of Pajarito and Penalver streets, is what provided much of the material for my short story, “The Smell of Land.”

We arrived at noon and our Chief reminded us to call in to our desk at Havana Central Police Station every hour on the hour to say all was well. Naturally, we were instructed to partake of no alcoholic beverages while on duty.

Alcohol was strictly off limits to us. Understandably so. My Shore Patrol partner and I went into the back room and sat at a table. A waiter from the bar approached us and very courteously asked us what we’d like to drink, on the house, of course. The reason the owners wanted to provide us with anything we might want from the bar was that they understood we were there to prevent damage to the premises. Ironically, any damage to this enterprise would most likely be caused by our Navy men who might have had too much of what the bar offered. From the management’s standpoint, we were insurance. Or protection. And that was true.

We dutifully told the waiter we could not have any alcoholic drink, and we each ordered a Coca Cola. After about five minutes the waiter returned with two frosty bottles of Coke, the caps already removed. We thanked him and took a couple of slugs of the refreshing drink. My fellow SP and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

I said to my partner, “Am I crazy or am I tasting rum?”

He chuckled and said, “Hell, yes.” He paused and added, “It’s what they call a Cuba Libre, a rum and coke.”

In Spanish I told the waiter, who was still standing at our table, “OK, we appreciate the drinks and we’ll drink this one. So, thank the management for us. But after this, when we say Coca Cola, make it a straight Coke, no rum or alcohol of any kind in it. Really. Understand?”

He nodded and went back to the bar. This was not a strange event when I considered that rum was a plentiful Cuban product, and that the price of a shot of rum in this establishment was only ten cents, but a bottle of Coke cost 12 cents. As I write this, 60 years after the fact, it occurs to me that perhaps we should have given the waiter a tip. How much, I wonder, might have been a reasonable tip for the man who brought us two mixed drinks worth a total of forty-four cents, but was supplied to us free of charge? What would 10% of zero add up to?

Our supervising Chief Petty Officer would make the rounds every hour at the different venues where pairs of Shore Patrol were stationed and would show up at the Bar Victoria once every hour. I worried that he might smell the alcohol on our breaths. It became obvious, extremely obvious, however, that there was no need to worry about that. Each time the Chief came to check on us he was increasingly inebriated. He reeked of alcohol, his attitude became more and more mellow, his speech more slurred, and his smile wider. He, no doubt, drank at each of the four bars for which he was responsible. Naturally, the drinks had the added advantage of being on the house. He was the grizzly bear guarding the honey pot.

Next week: Part two.

Clark Zlotchew is an author of fiction and non-fiction and a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish at the State University of New York at Fredonia.


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