It was almost New Year’s Eve and I was at the airport in Miami leaving for a short vacation. Destination: Havana, Cuba. Only a 45-minute flight away.
The Pan Am plane was totally booked and I was lucky to get the very last seat. The plane was loaded with excited tourists, all looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve in Havana. At that time, it was the place to be.
A shudder went through the large plane as the big engines popped then cranked up, gray smoke billowing out of their exhausts. The large propellers rotated slowly, then spun faster and faster as the captain throttled up. After a quick taxi and smooth takeoff, it wasn’t long before we were high over the Florida Keys on our way to Cuba.
Some of the passengers were in a joyous mood and chattering about New Year’s Eve 1959. As I settled back into my seat, the stewardess handed me a rum and Coke. Awe yes! Life was good.
On landing, I picked up my luggage and went through a very relaxed customs check. Relaxed, indeed. During the 1950s, Havana might as well have been a part of the United States. It was common knowledge that Meyer Lansky and the Mob owned Havana’s big hotels, nightclubs and gambling casinos. The Mob made sure it was easy for anyone to enter or leave Cuba.
I hailed a cab along with some people I’d met on the plane and, after a harrowing ride into town, checked into my hotel.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was very modern and catered mostly to wealthy American tourists. All the hotel staff spoke English. At times I felt I was still in Miami Beach but, after stepping out on my room’s balcony, I knew I was in Havana. The beautiful blue-green Caribbean Sea, the lazy waves of the bay lapping up onto Varadero Beach, the lush, green hills in the hazy distance, the bustling city below and the exotic Afro-Cuban music wafting up from the crowded streets – there was no mistaking it: it was old Havana all right.
Before leaving Miami, I’d read some newspaper articles about Cuba having some political unrest. A rebel group, hiding up in those hills, was talking about overthrowing the government of President Fulgencio Batista. Some bearded guy named Fidel and his friend Che were lecturing everyone that the government was corrupt. Fidel said that Batista was a puppet of the United States and the Mob and that the Cuban people needed to be saved from Yankee Imperialism. But, except for the more-than-usual amount of Cuban soldiers on the streets, some rumors and some political graffiti, everything seemed normal. As normal as all the other times I’d visited Cuba and as normal as any other country in the Caribbean.
From the looks of people on the streets, everyone was getting ready to party. This was a New Year and I was on a three-day vacation. What could possibly go wrong on this beautiful Caribbean island? I spent the afternoon at the hotel and wandered around the neighborhood a bit.
I read the newspaper and questioned theconcierge about the best entertainment available that evening. Later I had dinner with some people I’d met on the plane. We all ordered Cuban-style chicken, black beans and rice with a side of fried plantains. Delicious. Afterwards we all went to the Tropicana Night Club for cocktails and the floor show.
The Tropicana was the world’s most beautiful, exotic and unusual nightclub. Most of the club was open to the night sky with only a few areas roofed over. All the lush banyan trees, sea grapes and palms were lit with colored lights. People were lined up three deep at the many bars that dotted the club. The skillful waiters maneuvered easily through the crowds balancing trays above their heads holding exotic drinks in hollowed-out pineapples and coconuts. Some drinks even had small orchids and tiny colorful umbrellas and sparklers stuck in them. It was quite a spectacle and, to add to it all, the air seemed alive with little kisses. The Cuban custom of throwing little kisses at waiters to get their attention was unique and amusing and, it always worked.
But music was what the Tropicana Night Club was all about. There seemed to be a different band playing in every corner of the club. People of all colors and nationalities were deftly dancing the Tango, the Mambo, the Cha-cha-cha and dances I’d never seen before and hidden in the shadows were couples dirty dancing the Rumba. While the Rumba rhythms pulsated through everyone’s body, Cuban Jazz caressed their souls. It was all very sensuous and at times, quite erotic.
I savored the tropical and musical landscape while waiting for the floor show to begin. The stage was set under the canopy of a huge, old lit up banyan tree. The Tropicana was world famous for its extravagant floor shows and big name, international entertainers.
The floor show presented beautiful, long-legged female dancers dressed in colorful, scanty costumes. Some were covered with only feathers and sparkly jewelry, others reminded me of Carmen Miranda with exotic fruits and flowers flowing down from massive headdresses. Their perfect bodies and oiled skin added to the choreography and the tantalizing costumes gave them a certain mystique as they fandangoed across the stage. The Afro-Cuban music left the crowd swaying to the beat.
Everyone was still clapping when the master of ceremonies came on stage and announced the featured entertainer – the one and only, Nat King Cole.
After the crowd settled down, Nat King Cole and his trio opened with “Mona Lisa.” As the crowd swooned with loving adoration, his wonderful soft and relaxed and hypnotic voice serenaded everyone, as they sat mesmerized under the tropical, starry sky.
It was almost morning when I returned to my hotel. The sultry night air closed in on me as I stood on my balcony looking down over the city of Havana. Every now and then a balmy breeze blew by carrying the sounds of a Cha-cha-cha rhythm. I closed the balcony door but could still hear the lively band from the hotel’s outdoor cocktail lounge. I turned up the air-conditioning full blast to drown out the music.Everything was perfect on that Caribbean island as I slowly drifted off to sleep.
I slept late the next day then had lunch with the same group. I bought some film for my camera then stepped out of the cool hotel lobby into the heat of the street. I bought a pair of hand carved castanets from an old black man with a wonderful toothy smile I’II never forget.
The sidewalks were crawling with people. Street vendors were selling fruit-flavored ices and Cuban sandwiches. Other vendors were selling pastries and little paper cups of sweet, black and very strong Cuban coffee. I bought a double and could instantly feel the caffeine rush as it hit.
A street band, surrounded by tourists, was on the corner. One of the band members was trying to teach the Mambo. The crowd was cheering each other on as everyone began to pick up the steps. I crossed the street and joined in. The City of Havana was beginning to party up. It was New Year’s Eve and the countdown to midnight had already begun.
After a time, I broke from the crowd and set out to visit a friend who lived on the other side of town. As I hailed a cab I took a deep breath knowing the risk of taking a cab in Havana. Most streets in the colonial city were very narrow. The American cars of the late 1950s were big and could barely pass each other as they careened down the streets. There were few stop signs and even fewer traffic lights in old Havana. The theory was that whoever had the biggest car and the loudest horn would make it through the intersection first.
The theory didn’t always work. It was sublime chaos that New Year’s Eve on the streets of Havana.
The cab dropped me off on the boulevard and I walked the rest of the way up a narrow street to where my friend lived. The house was painted with a big, red front door, over which hung a sign reading, ‘’Casa Blanca” – White House. I knocked and soon a chubby woman wearing a big hat and a fancy velvet dress answered. She smiled as we exchanged greetings then waddled happily up the stairs. A few moments later my friend appeared and we hugged and wished each other happiness and good fortune for the coming New Year.
Later, we went to the backyard where we sat on a big yellow divan set under a huge old banyan tree. We languished in the shade and sipped rum and Coke as the hours meandered their way through the soft, warm afternoon. I was content that this visit to Cuba was the most pleasant yet.
Suddenly we heard explosions in the distance. Someone in the next backyard looked over the fence and said they were just fireworks and was excited that the New Year’s Eve celebration was starting early. Then, more explosions that sounded larger and closer. They didn’t sound like fireworks anymore! They sounded like large military guns up in those hazy green hills. Someone from another backyard began calling my friend andasking what was going on. There were more large explosions. You could hear people in the close knit neighborhood calling out to each other.
My friend and I ran through the house to the front door and out into the street. People were running around frantically while calling out the names of children and loved ones.
My friend stopped an old man holding an old rusted rifle and asked him what was going on. He held the rifle up over his head and yelled out, “Revolution! Revolution! I predicted it!” Soon everyone picked up his chant as the look on their faces turned to horror. I had come to Havana for a weekend of fun and now I was suddenly in the middle of a revolution!
I quickly said goodbye to my friend, explaining that I was going back to the safety of my hotel. I’ll never forget the terror I saw on my friend’s eyes as the chubby woman pulled the big red door shut behind her.
I quickly got my bearings then ran down the narrow street to the boulevard and nearly got run over by a truck loaded with bearded men in green fatigues carrying machine guns. They didn’t look official. They weren’t. They were rebels and hundreds of them were running out of the hills.
I began feeling uneasy because I didn’t look like a native. Every time a truckload of rebels drove by, they menacingly waved their guns at me. Every muscle in my body tightened and my stomach churned as I became more and more aware of my desperate situation. I ran down streets and through narrow alleys making my way back to the hotel. There was chaos everywhere. I ran around a corner and, out of nowhere, three rebels grabbed me and slammed me hard up against a wall. I had machine guns pointed at every part of my body. They emptied my pockets and ripped the camera from around my neck. Two rebels dragged me across the boulevard in a most painful way to where a group of foreigners were being rounded up. They were waving their guns at us, and calling us Yankee spies. Just then a tank rumbled down a side street. Gunfire began and as bullets whizzed around us the huddled group of foreign men and women began screaming and crying.
We were all loaded in a large flat bed truck and told to keep our heads down. The rebels demanded to know where we were staying. While machine guns were pointed at us the truck lumbered through town. Through squinted eyes I could see people disappearing into their houses and shuttering their windows. The only vehicles moving on the streets of Havana belonged to the rebels. I never saw an official Cuban military vehicle or soldier or policeman after the insurgency began.
I shut my eyes tight when I heard cries of desperation initiated by the cruel hostilities of armed conflict that were being waged against the innocent citizens of Havana.
We were taken, by gunpoint, into the hotel lobby. The rounded up guests and staff were milling around not knowing whatwas going to happen next. Some of the rebels were yelling and cursing at the guests and fights were breaking out as the rebels began mishandling the women. The rebels began firing their guns into the ceiling to try to get the attention of the unruly guests. It worked! Everyone backed away from the rebels as an uneasy calm spread across the room. You could feel the evil! Eventually I was taken to my room and my luggage searched. They collected my travel papers and locked the door. Telling me to “be very quiet,” or I “would die!”
The electricity, telephone and water services were shut off. My room became stifling without the air conditioner. There was no water either to drink or flush the toilet. I lay on my bed in a pool of sweat, listening for hours to the big guns in the hills, the sounds of tank treads on the street below, the constant crack of gunfire and an occasional scream. My mind anxious with thoughts about what was going to happen next. Sleep was sporadic that New Year’s Eve night. The next few days weren’t much better. We were all constantly terrorized but, ironically, applauded the rebels for turning the water back on since the hotel was beginning to smell like a sewer and some of the women guests were becoming sick.
Early one morning my door flew open and a couple of rebels rushed in and began questioning me about my connection with the CIA. I said I was in Cuba on New Year’s vacation and didn’t know anything more than that. The rebel asking the questions kept stroking his bearded chin as if he was deciding what was going to be my fate. Then he grunted some Cuban slang to his sidekick. They threw me back on my bed and left me alone again in my sweltering room. Plates of cold food were distributed by the rebels from time to time. This was the horrific routine during the next few days.
All night long I heard scuffles and screams in the hall outside my room and I tried to swallow my fear but I couldn’t. My saliva had dried up and my tears had been wrung out.
I lay on my bed thinking about my family back in Miami. I was sure they had heard the news about what was happening in Cuba and were worried about my fate since I should have been back in Miami days ago. I wondered if I would ever see my loved ones again. Was this how I was going to die at 18 years old? In front of a firing squad with a bullet to my heart?
After almost a week of harassed detention, I was motioned into the hall at the point of a gun. All the guests on my floor were rounded up, taken down to the hotel’s restaurant where we were fed cold rice and beans and warm Coca Cola.
One of the ranking rebels stood up and made an official announcement. We were told that the great revolutionary, Fidel Castro, was now el Presidente ofall Cuba, and that the island was shut down tight and the airport closed. We all sighed in desperation. After a long lecture about the great qualities of Fidel Castro, the Christ-like savior of Cuba, we were told that some of us would be allowed to leave. Names were read out and travel papers were given back to those allowed to leave. My name was one of those announced. My legs weakened in disbelief. That group was allowed to get their luggage and soon gathered together in the hotel lobby. Before long a bus pulled up and we were loaded by gunpoint onto the vehicle.
After a short trip we arrived at the airport. It was deserted except for armed groups of rebels seated in Jeeps. There were two Pan-Am planes on the runway with their engines running. We ran from the bus toward the waiting planes. How lucky I was to get a seat on one of the last two planes to leave Cuba before the island was shut down for many, many years.
There wasn’t a sound in the plane as we taxied out to the runway. I pushed aside my little window curtain and peeked out. I watched a rebel Jeep pull up to the front of the plane. I took a deep breath. In my mind I was yelling at the captain to take off. Damn it! Just take off! Then one of the rebels waved his arms at the captain and pointed toward the sky.
The captain wasted no time. In seconds the plane was rolling down the runway. The takeoff seemed to last forever. Everyone sat quietly in their seats staring forward with apprehension. As the wheels left the ground everyone pushed aside their window curtain and looked down at the tropical island in total bewilderment. I kept watching as the beautiful island of Cuba slowly disappeared into the hazy humidity of the Caribbean. I thought about my friend. I still can’t understand why I was one of those allowed to leave Cuba.
It wasn’t until we were well out over open water that a cheer went up and everyone breathed a final sigh of relief. I sank into my seat, emotionally and physically exhausted. Vivid scenes of my capture and detention paraded again and again through my exhausted mind.
Without any warning my liberty had been seized. Rights I had always taken for granted became trivial concepts as fragile as life itself. In spite of my desperate situation, I’d found an inner strength that has seen me through to this day, and a deep, emotional understanding of all people fleeing the hopelessness of tyranny.
Everyone looked out the windows as the captain announced, “Folks, up ahead is the coast of the United States of America. We’re home. We’re home.’’ The person sitting next to me said, “By the way, Happy New Year.” It sure was! I breathed out a big sigh of relief but I knew full well that life would never be the same for me again.
Stan Saran has been a glass artist, living on Marco Island, since 1988. This story is part of the memoir he has been writing about his extraordinary life.