The 57th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis has just passed, this is my version of the events.
Dad made Senior Chief back in ’58, he applied for LDO (Limited Duty Officer) soon afterwards. I was in the first grade at school. He wrangled a slot in Officer’s Candidate School in Quonset Point Rhode Island. He graduated and became an Ensign, an Officer and a Gentleman by an act of Congress.
He took his appointment serious, never wavering. Mom was proud of him. She had told him years earlier that she wouldn’t marry him unless he promised to work and strive for promotion. He didn’t disappoint her.
The military has a rule, that if an enlisted men gets promoted to an Officer’s status, he can’t serve with enlisted men that he shared a duty station with. Soon after, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. His duty slot was Assistant Administration Officer. It was a small base, his other duties included Discipline Officer, Barracks Officer, Naval Intelligence and the Postal Officer, many more.
He went ahead of the rest of the family to secure a housing berth and give Mom time to sell our house, put the cars in storage along with our household effects then get her, my brothers and I, the necessary shots required to go overseas.
At the time we left my favorite TV shows were Hop a Long Cassidy, Ozzie and Harriet and the Mickey Mouse Club. I remember that when we left, Annette was wearing pig tails, white blouses with a plaid skirt and black and white saddle oxfords. Jimmy? Oh yeah Jimmy, well he still had freckles. We returned to the U.S., Annette was wearing a bra and Jimmy was smoking stogies.
Growing up on Naval base in Cuba was a kid’s paradise. We ran wild, within limits, especially since we couldn’t go off the base. My two brothers and I, Gary and Duane never had any toys, there wasn’t any TV, so we entertained ourselves the best way we knew how. Most nights we listened to the radio. My favorite programs were Gunsmoke, the Phantom, Dagwood and Blondie and the Lone Ranger.
When we arrived on a MATS flight (Military Air Transport) to join Dad in September of 1960 at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Mom had one large suitcase. Half of it was her clothes and the other half were our clothes, no room for games or toys. I was just starting the 3rd grade, so I guess that made me about 8 years old, Gary was 6 and Duane was 5. If you needed anything of importance, you could usually go to Special Services and check it out, furniture, house wares, sporting goods, tools etc.
We got to play during recess at school with playground equipment, but at home it was pretty much what ever we could find to do on our own. We invented games involving throwing rocks because we lived on a gravel road. We got in trouble for throwing rocks at buildings and vehicles, so instead we made up games that involved throwing them at each other.
We found a bicycle in the gully at the bottom of a cliff. It was a godsend. It didn’t have a chain, so no brakes, it was missing the rubber tire on the back rim but we could still ride it, if we pointed it down the hill we lived on and hung on for dear life. At the bottom of the hill was Sherman Blvd. It was the main drag throughout the base with a fair amount of traffic. To stop the bike, to keep from running head on into oncoming vehicles we would put one foot down and try to lay the bike down on it’s side. Sometimes we would get scrapes and bruises, just rip the hide off of our knees and elbows. We ended up using a piece of rope for a rear tire.
My youngest brother Duane had Cerebral Palsy. He was crippled from birth. Mom wouldn’t allow us to baby him or favor him in any way. He did what we did or we weren’t allowed to do it. When it came time for Duane to point the bike downhill, he wasn’t able to lay it down to stop, most of the time he would just go straight across the highway, through oncoming traffic and the brush on the other side, down the ravine where we found the bike.
Since all vehicles had to be shipped in, the unwritten rule in effect was that you could buy a car from someone being transferred out, for a certain price and when you were transferred you sold the car to someone else for the same price. Most of the cars were mid ‘50’s vintage, black, dark green or gray.
The social caste of the base was arranged by color I think. No, not racial color, the color of the clothes people wore. The leisure uniform of the Officers was white and so was the working uniform of the Filipinos that served them, but they just wore tee shirts instead of a regular shirt. Unless the Officers were working, then they wore khakis. The non-coms (Chiefs) always wore khaki. The uniform of the day for Enlisted personnel was usually dungarees, except for Inspection, then it was dress whites. The service personnel that took care of the mundane duties, like groundskeepers and laundry workers, usually wore white T-shirts and khaki pants with straw hats. Military dependents could wear what they wanted to, but it was usually something white or light colored because of the heat. If someone was wearing bright colored clothes it was usually after dark or they had just recently arrived.
Dad was an Ensign when we invaded Guantanamo. We lived at 1 Radio Point, in the Officer’s housing area. The first house across from the BOQ, Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, where the unmarried Officers lived and visiting dignitaries. Behind the BOQ lived the Filipino servants. Behind our house and down the cliff, was Public Works. The shops for all of the maintenance gear on the base.
The Public Works yard (down the cliff below us) was cluttered up with ancient earth moving equipment from the construction of the Panama Canal. We played and climbed the old rusty dinosaur-like cranes and bulldozers almost everyday, almost like “Monkey Bars” at the park. Graffiti and initials covered the old equipment much like the hand prints in the sidewalk of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We would imagine that the old rusty stuff still worked and we were lifting debris and bulldozing roads.
Further out Radio Point, surrounding the giant Radio Tower that received the communications that kept the base informed, were more Officer’s quarters. The Captain and the Admiral lived at the very end of the point, (the point was covered on 3 sides by water). Down the cliffs were docks and at the end of the point were man made reefs constructed from sunken barges and piles of concrete debris that ran out about a quarter of a mile.
This area, was our Shangri-la. We played on the reefs at low tide every day, looking to spear fish in shallow pools, collect whatever goodies the tide brought up and do what boys do. We lifted every rock to see what was under it, clam shells, starfish, sea urchins any type of sea creature would we could capture to sell to the Filipinos.
The Filipinos believed in eating fresh killed meat. They liked to butcher it themselves in accordance with their religious rituals. We sometimes made a dollar a day, more if we went out on the reef and caught a moray eel or a stingray. We broaden our horizons by venturing out into the nearby jungles that were down in the valleys between each hill, to hunt for wild game.
Our first conquest were wild pigs, we later learned they are called “javelinas”. The Filipinos would give us five bucks for a young pig. We weren’t that scared of them because they weren’t that big, but they were aggressive so we treated them with caution. We knew where to look for them, they loved prickly cactus pears and at the bottom of every hill, there was a muddy puddle and a cactus patch. Leading up from the creek we would find a tree with overhanging branches and Gary and I would find a place to perch over the trail while Duane would start throwing rocks at a group of feeding pigs to get their attention.
Then he would turn and run as fast as he could up the trail toward me and Gary. The pigs would give chase after Duane but he would get to the tree line ahead of them in time for Gary and I to reach down and grab him and pull him up. Then, while the pigs were milling about we would use a forked tree branch to pin a young one to the ground and sometimes stabbing the momma pig so she would run off.
After we caught a pig and made our trade with the Filipinos we would watch them butcher the pig by hanging it upside down and cutting it’s throat, catching the blood in a large metal pan about three feet wide (much like a sugar cane boiling pot but smaller). They would use this blood to boil their rice in, yuck is what we thought, but we would take the money we made and go to the Navy Exchange and buy comic books, bubble gum and candy bars.
We didn’t just hunt pigs, the biggest item in demand by the Filipinos were hummingbirds. The old men would use them as aphrodisiacs. We built small bow and arrows out of palm fronds and tipped them with needles from Mom’s sewing machine case, wrapping thread around the base of the needle joining it to the tip of the arrow and putting clear paper glue over top. When we shot at them, we aimed just above them and pinned their wings to the tree and capture them alive.
.We also caught chameleons and iguanas with bolos that sailors showed us how to make and three foot long banana rats, tarantulas and snakes, mostly pythons. We got our ass tore up when Dad heard about us catching pythons and boas. We found a dried up pond where we could dig down through the cracked, dried cakes of mud and find frogs the size of a football. These frogs would fill their bellies with rain water and then hibernate until the rainy season came again.
As the years progressed we got to be pretty good hunters. At night we would sneak out of the house to go out on the reef with a kerosene lantern and turn over rocks with a potato rake and gig longoustinos. Longoustinos are like a lobster except they don’t have claws, we sometimes would get eels, octopi or coconut crabs. We would get spotted by the Base Police (sometimes MP’s and sometimes the Shore Patrol), they worked for Dad so we didn’t get in any trouble with them, they would just call Dad and tell him they saw us doing this or that, we’d get a beating yes, but the next night, we’d do it again.
Dad got to where he would rake the ground under our window, just to see if we left any footprints from the night before. After we learned this, we started to climb out on tree limbs, so we wouldn’t leave any tracks.
Tree climbing, before I forget, boys without toys love to climb trees. We had pathways in the many trees that filled our front yard and lined the street. We called it “hitchhiking”, when we would climb from one tree to the next without touching the ground. Our backyard had 28 mango trees. Oh how I hated mangoes, but that was the best place to catch tarantulas. I didn’t like to eat mangoes, though sometimes we did make a pretty good tasting mango ice cream out of them.
Our first Christmas, Dad had promised me a .22 rifle and my brothers and I, new bicycles. Every thing had to be ordered through the mail from Sears and Roebuck or JC Penny’s. Christmas came and went, no bicycles or rifle. I got two Bobbsey Twin books which I read cover to cover. Then I got my own library card and that opened a new world to me.
The library was just a few blocks away, even closer if I took the path behind the BOQ, down the ravine and up the next hill. I read every Bobbsey twin book and then read the Hardy Boy’s Mysteries. I think that’s where my thirst for adventure originated from.
Eventually we got our bikes, but I got sick of waiting for that rifle. Dad finally took me down to the Armory, he was in charge of that too, and he checked out a 1906 Springfield 30.06 bolt action with a 3 shot clip. He told me that if I completed a gun safety course at the rifle range, that I could use it until my rifle finally arrived.
Oh yeah, I was in my own world then. I completed the class and from then on every Saturday after I got my haircut. I would ride the bus with my 30.06 in it’s case to the rifle range and target shoot a box of shells. Sometimes I used my imagination and pretended that the targets were Cuban solders getting ready to shoot at me and Teddy Roosevelt while we were charging up San Juan Hill.
The .22 shells were $1.05 but the 30.06 shells were $6.00. That was a lot of money for a 9 year old, but the desire for money was in me and we hustled every dime we could. When the .22 finally came in the mail I was mad. I didn’t want that pea shooter. Dad had ordered my brothers rifles too. I think he was apprehensive about Castro invading the base and he wanted to make sure that we were able to defend ourselves.
Dad and I spent a lot of time at the Hobby Shop at night, building an eighteen foot Cabin Cruiser. We sculpted the keel and the hull, built the ribs and covered it with plywood, which we fastened to the frame with Weldwood glue and brass screws, using a brace and bit. That could be where I got my love for building stuff, it was something that my Dad and I accomplished together.
During the summers the base provided enrichment courses that kids could enroll in, depending on the interest. Our first year, Mom made sure we all enrolled in swimming classes. Then I took tennis lessons and Gary took golf lessons. The next year we all enrolled in a sailing course. We could go down to Special Services and check out a 14 foot Sunfish. We became adept sailors at a very young age. The object being to keep your destination between 10 o’clock and two o’clock, tack left to go right or steer to the right to go left.
Mom would walk down to the Captain’s house at the end of the point and use his binoculars that were mounted on a stand, to keep and eye on us. When it was time for supper or the tide was about to change she would ring the gong on the huge ship’s bell that was mounted next to it. We knew better than to ignore her, no matter how much fun we were having.
There wasn’t any TV to watch, no cartoons. Once a month the base would televise a World Series baseball game that they had on tape from three or four years before.
The third summer, we took diving lessons. We had instructors to teach us they “dos and don’ts”, even though Duane was crippled on land, he could swim like a fish in the water.
Baseball was our sport of choice. The diamond must have been an old grenade practice range and after many years of being baked in the sun, the infield was deadly. Our coaches were usually officers with sons that wanted to play ball. Once a month we would load up on a plane and fly to a base on another island to play against their team. I got to visit many places that most folks just dream about.
Our Dad was the Asst Admin Officer when we first arrived at the base, he was promoted to the Admin Officer and had many other duties. He was also the Postal Officer, Discipline Officer, Naval Intelligence Officer, the Barracks Officer in fact he had so many duties I don’t know how he kept track of them all.
Being the Discipline Officer his job was to dispense punishment for infractions to the Code of Military Justice. Sometimes men with minor infractions were invited to babysit my brothers and I to avoid a “Captain’s Mast,” while my parents went to the Officer’s Club.
These guys thought it was funny to teach us to cuss and fight hand to hand, we were shown how to disassemble and reassemble a Colt .45 blindfolded. It all starts and ends with the “barrel bushing.” Squatting with our knees folded under us and place the parts in front of us in the order we took them off, so they would be in order when we needed them to put it back together. We were taught hand to hand combat and staged mini fights in our living room, how to stab a guy from behind with a bayonet in the kidneys and twist the blade so the victim couldn’t holler out..
Some of the guys taught us semaphore, how to communicate with flags, morse code, tie knots and make Malatov cocktails. Soon afterwards, we were behind the Navy Exchange practicing with the Malatov Cocktails. Duane lit the rag and threw the bottle up against the dumpster. The dumpster caught on fire, then the Exchange caught fire. When the Fire Brigade got there, they started tossing out the flammables. When they started tossing out the ammunition, Gary and I were standing in the crowd of onlookers, we started grabbing boxes and cases and hid them in a culvert.
We ended up with cases and cases of shotgun, rifle and pistol shells. We came back the next night and hid them in our “fort”, a hideout we had built on the cliff below our house. We had been shown how to take the gunpowder from a shotgun shell and the BB’s, wrap them in tinfoil and make a little bomb. All we needed to do was throw it up against something solid and it would explode.
It wasn’t long after that, we started filling coconut shells with gunpowder, we made light able fuses out of shoestrings dipped in lighter fluid. When we had to gather all of the rotten mangoes out of our yard, we used a wheel barrow and dumped hem into the ocean. When the fish would gather to feed off of the rotted fruit, Duane would drop coconut bombs on them and watch them float belly up. We never got away with anything, we always got caught and we always got beat, by Dad or Mom, but it didn’t stop us.
Dad beat us with big branches and Mom preferred the supple willow branches, either one did the job.
The base was saturated with outdoor movie theaters, at least five. The Officer’s had their section, the enlisted had theirs and so did the civilians. I think there were 5 in all. We sat in lawn chairs outside when the weather was good.
One night when Dad was the OD (Officer of the Day), I accompanied him to the theatre by the PBY’s (sea planes). We were watching “Ole Yellar” and a guy hollered out “Somebody help him he can’t breathe”.
It was coming from right behind us in the civilian section, where the enlisted men would sit with civilian women that worked on the base as maids. There was a young sailor bent over choking and gagging, his buddies were slapping him on the back, trying to dislodge whatever he had caught in his throat.
I had been sitting next to my Dad as his guest in his designated seat as Officer of the Day. I had been whittling with the knife dad had bought for my birthday. As I stood staring at the crowd, Dad grabbed the knife out of my hand and flipped out the smallest blade. He went to the young sailor and had his friends hold him down on the ground, flat on his back. Dad gave me his flashlight to hold steady on the man’s throat and reached down and made an up and down incision above the breastbone in the small hollow spot on the man’s throat. Then he grabbed the straw out of the drink I had left in the chair, cut it to about four inches and placed it in the incision.
Just has soon as the straw was in place, you could hear his breath like a whistle coming through. He was going to be alright, hooray. The base Hospital was on the other end of the base, a corpsman that had been watching the movie rushed the guy to the emergency room.
I was amazed at my Dad. I asked him how did he know how to do that.? He told me that as an enlisted man back in WWII, his buddy had caught a piece of shrapnel in the throat from a Japanese Zero while they were mounting the anti-aircraft gun on a submarine deck while they were topside. He said he held the guy down while the corpsman operated. He said he never forgot it, stuff like that sticks with you.
I’ve been wanting to tell this story for more than 50 years and I don’t want to leave anything out. I might have to go back here and there to fill in some gaps, so bear with me.
I haven’t told y’all about the Bob Hope USO shows. Every Christmas, Mr.Bob would start his annual USO show in GTMO (Military acronym is GTMO, civilians use Gitmo, but it’s the same place).
His troupe would be there for two or three days depending on the weather. GTMO was his “shakedown cruise”. They stayed at the BOQ across the street from our house. Mom looked forward to it, she was an entertainer herself in her own way. She knew that the bar at the BOQ wasn’t completely stocked, they usually just had rum, the drink of the Caribbean. She stocked Vodka, Gin, Vermouth along with Bourbons from Kentucky, Scotch you name, she had it. Mom was a member of the Navy Wives Club and knew a thing or two about socializing. She liked to sing and dance. She told me that she had once sang backup with Little Jimmy Dickens on the radio in her early years, in the nearby town of Baxley, Ga.
At night after the USO show, Mom would send me over to the bar at the BOQ searching for olives for her “Martinis”. My job was to lollygag so she could come in search of me and she would introduce herself to the “stars”, and then invite them over for drinks.
One thing would lead to another and then there would be a crowd at the house. My brothers and I would peek out from our bedrooms to see Mom laughing it up with Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Perry Como and Dad dancing with Anita Bryant or Sandra Dee or a drunken ZaZa Gabor sprawled out on our couch.
Mr Bob liked to play golf and asked me if I knew how to caddie. I said “Sure Mr Hope” and he said “just call me Bob like every body else” and Mom told him “We’re from the south, and my boys better call you Mr. Bob”. I caddied for him twice. The second year he was drinking rum in the hot sun, a definite “no-no”. An iguana ran up to the hole after he dropped his putt in the hole and ran off with the ball in its mouth.
I had a set of bolos in the golf bag, because the golf course is where we hunted iguanas, I tossed the bolos before he got to the rocks and retrieved his ball. When I turned to give him back his ball, Mr Bob was stretched out on the green, passed out. I guess he fainted. The next year he didn’t want to play golf, we played tennis.
Mom had been one of the members of the Navy Wives Club to organize a “Carnivale” charity event to benefit enlisted personnel when they needed emergency funds. She was able to talk Ms. Gabor and Ms. Bryant to dance with her at the show, while the men did a “Limbo” routine.
Dad and Perry Como did a “Homer and Jethro” act. They smeared burnt cork on their faces and put black wax over their teeth to make them look like hillbillys. They wore straw hats and white deck pants and shirts. Dad played a number ten washtub with a broom stick sticking up out of it with a string tied from the top of the broom stick to the top of the overturned tub, it made a pretty god base fiddle and Mr. Perry played a banjo, made from a bed slat and a pie pan, strung with fishing line.
I can remember the song they sang. “Fancination, She’s too fat in the first place, you know it’s true. She’s too fat, in the second place too. Turn me loose, from your caboose blubber. Let me scat like a cat, away from you. She had nine buttons on her night gown, but could only fasten eight”. I guess you had to of been there. It was funny then and still is to me now, over 50 years later.
The base newspaper was named the GTMO Gazette, it came out three times a week. It ran important stories from the AP on the front page, listed events and promotions, the uniform of the day and on the back page listed the menu for the base Galley, where military personnel ate.
Sometimes the Officer’s Club would organize junkets to different islands in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados etc. My parents would go, sometimes bring back souvenirs, always brought back cases of rum from Puerto Rico, crafts from Haiti, etc. They would get a married couple to stay at the house with us boys. They would just be gone for about 48 hours. We were always in good hands.
My youngest brother Duane, the one with Cerebral Palsy was always getting into some unbelievable situation or another. When they were distributing Polio Vaccines at school, they brought out a tray of sugar cubes that had the Polio Vaccine squirted on top. I liked it better this way, the year before they gave us shots, I hated that. This year we were standing line to get our sugar cubes from the school nurse, Duane was at the head of the line. I guess because of his disability. Just before they started distributing the vaccines, the base artillery opened up for target practice, Boom! Boom! Boom! Kids being kids, we all ran to the window to see what we could see. This went on for about 15 minutes. After the shelling was over, we got back in line to get our medicine, only one problem. During the artillery display Duane had ate every single one of those sugar cubes. Two trays full. They took Duane to the Dispensary to pump out his stomach and the rest of us had to wait another month for another shipment of vaccines to come in.
We weren’t allowed to help Duane when he fell, which he did all the time. Mom wanted him to be independent. But, sometimes he used his disability to his advantage. Any place that had a stairway was a playground for Duane. If he saw a woman wearing a dress coming down the steps, he would fall or trip, just so he could pretend he was hurt but what he was really doing, was looking up her dress.
One day Duane called the base police and told them that Mom and Dad had gone to Jamaica on a junket and left him home alone, by himself. He told them that he hadn’t had anything to eat in a couple of days and could they please bring a couple slices of that pizza from the Galley that he had read about in the Gazette and hurry, because he was starving.
Mom had been in the backyard hanging up clothes on the clothesline. There weren’t any clothes dryers on base back then. When she came back into the house, there was Duane sitting at the table eating pizza with two Base Police, one on either side of him, babying him up. One pouring him some soda and the other getting him another slice of pizza. Duane could tote an ass whooping just as good as me and Gary, but he didn’t care, as long as he got some pizza.
While we were in Cuba, Duane received at least 6 operations on each leg and wore casts and braces for most of the 4 years we lived there. When he felt like he deserved some attention, he got it.
Once we finally got our bicycles we went everywhere, even the restricted areas were no one was allowed. Kittery Beach was for Officer’s and their families. Windmill Beach was for the enlisted personnel. Every weekend the Base Police were called out to settle an armed disturbance, I remember seeing blood every where, guys crawling up the face of the cliff shooting at the Shore Patrol.
Our favorite beach was in a restricted area, surrounded by a minefield. It was up against the fence that separated the base from Communist Cuba. Once in a while we would ride our bikes out there after we had swiped a pack of hotdogs from the fridge. We would throw a piece of hotdog out in the sand, known as “no-man’s land”. The stray dogs that would follow us out there would rush to eat it, we would mark their paw prints in the sand with sticks, so we would know where to step on the way back.
There we would find the best sea shells, swim naked and look for treasures washed in by the tides. You never knew what Duane was gonna do and sometimes he would beat the dogs to the hotdog and eat it. I would holler at him but he would say “I don’t care, I’m hungry”. Occasionally a dog would step on a mine and then blood and guts went every where. The explosion would garner unwanted attention and again we would suffer the same form of punishment.
One good thing did derive from our expeditions. This was the time in history leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Dad also worked for Naval Intelligence. They needed a means of communication with the freedom fighters to coordinate their efforts with military personnel. They started using the bodies from the dead dogs (what was left of them) like a Trojan Horse. They would hide communiques inside the dead bodies and throw them over the fence, to be retrieved by the revolutionaries.
I got a silver dollar every week for my allowance. It wasn’t given to me, I earned it. Dad would send me out with different labor parties to make sure that I knew what “hands on” meant.
Sometimes I helped to unload mail bags at the Post Office and sort mail because I could read about as good as most of the sailors that worked for Dad. Other times I would get sent out to help the Sea Bees build “Pill Boxes” that were scattered all over the base. Sometimes I worked at the Galley, washing dishes.
The trash crew was a group of Filipinos that formed the major labor force on the base. Filipinos from the Philippines were granted US citizen ship for them and their families after a 6 year enlistment. William Taft, then governor of the Philipines was assigned to replace Theodore Roosevelt as the governor of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt had been appointed to be Secretary of the Navy. Taft brought with him, to his new position, thousands of Filipino workers to help build the Panama Canal, these men formed “tongs” or gangs. (I think this was around 1911).
The thousands of workers were paid monthly in gold and silver coin. The military adjutant overseeing the military aspects of the construction was Marine General Upshur. One month the payroll was robbed and for over 50 years no one had a clue as to who or what happened to the money. One clue was the majority of the money was uncirculated 1901 Morgan Silver Dollars, encased in leather bags.
After the construction of the canal was completed, these men and their families, along with the construction equipment were scattered across the Caribbean to fill the needs of the many Naval Bases that were being constructed to protect the entrance of the Panama Canal in case of war. The barges that were used in the Canal zone eventually ended up in Guantanamo and were used to build a protective reef at the end of Radio Point that led up to the docks.
When ships pulled in to port at the docks, my brothers and I were always anxious to greet them. We would trade fresh mangoes and bananas for boxes of old comic books that sailors would take with them on a cruise to fight the boredom. Sometimes these boxes contained Playboy and Penthouse magazines. To us, these were like solid gold. The Filipinos weren’t allowed to buy magazines with naked white women at the Navy Exchange and they were willing to pay more than the cover price for these old magazines.
Since we were out on the reefs almost every day we knew every nook and cranny. The old barges had been sunken in place end to end, with slabs of concrete placed on top. Where the first barge had been placed, it blended in with the sandy beach landscape and had a large coconut tree leaning out over the top. Gary climb to the top of this tree one day to get some overhanging fruit, his weight and the erosion of the beach sand from around the base caused the tree to lean over even more, exposing the roots and making a large opening that led to a small cave inside of the barge.
Inside the barge, it was dark and stinking, Whew, I can still smell it, it was that bad. Looking inside we found stacks of leather bags, stacked about 4 feet high. When we tried to pick one up, it shredded scattering silver coins everywhere, all 1901 Morgan Silver Dollars. We knew we had found pirate treasure, but didn’t want to tell anybody. It was our secret.
Oh boy, more comic books, more shells for our rifles, more snicker bars and sodas. Just more, more, more. We use old palm fronds to cover the entrance, then went about our every day routines. Hunting, fishing, riding our bikes and going to the pool at the Officer’s Club.
We were little gangsters. We figured every body was fair game. We did deserve every ass whooping we ever got, and there were plenty. Looking back we had the attitude that we wanted to live like “Pirates”, we weren’t afraid of being punished. Arrrrh!
We were confident that we could live with the consequences once we got caught. It never was a question of were we gonna get away with it ‘cause our Dad was in charge and we knew we could handle his “ass whoopins”. The main reason we went to the pool besides the refreshing swim was to swipe money. Duane was doing his thing at the stairs, standing guard while Gary and I would go through the lockers where everyone kept there clothes after they changed into their swimsuits. We pilfered loose change, no not all of it. If there was $1.75 we would take 50 cents. A couple of lockers and we would have enough for some fries and a couple of vanilla milkshakes at the concession stand.
A couple weeks after our discovery of the silver dollars we were at the pool doing our thing and we found a 1901 Morgan Silver dollar. This was in the pants pocket of a young doctor that often swam in the lagoon near the reef. Well, we put the dollar back and made a mental note to keep an eye out for the guy when we were near the reefs. It wasn’t very long afterwards that the young doctor was found dead floating face down in the waters we swam in, nearly every single day. We were stunned and scared shitless. We thought that the Filipinos were behind it because they were always watching us.
It wasn’t too long after that, while sitting at the breakfast table, Dad saw me and Gary playing “football” with a silver dollar. It was one from our “stash” a 1901. I didn’t think he would notice one from another but he did. He said, “Hey where did you get this? This is a 1901 Morgan Silver dollar”. Then he told us and Mom about the rarity and the story about the unsolved robbery at the Panama Canal Zone fifty years before. Uh oh, “Damn Naval Intelligence”, I thought. Mom tried to take up for me, she told Dad that he was dreaming up shit, and that every week he gave us our allowance in silver dollars.
He chewed on it until Mom left the room and then he wanted to know the truth. We spilled the beans, mainly I think because we were afraid the Filipinos were at fault for the young officer’s death and they were gonna get us next. The amount of the money when it was loaded up and counted was staggering. I don’t remember exactly how much now, but the money that was counted didn’t match up with the money turned in. Dad was a straight arrow and when he found out about it, he skipped a couple rungs of the ladder in the chain of command and suffered the consequences.
His report to the way higher ups wasn’t received well. He made a grave error, never skip the chain of command. Even though he got a commendation letter from then President Kennedy for his handling of the dependent’s evacuation, his next duty station after we left Cuba was a Sub Tender out of Norfolk. Not exactly a desired duty station for a young officer looking for promotion. The good thing though, was we were able to skip the ass whooping this one time.
“NEGDEF” was held once a month, out came the fatigues and C-rations and K-rations getting every one prepared just in case Castro decided to invade. “Water Condition Bravo.” Do not wash your car, water your yard or waste any water. Castro would cut off the water supply to the base every couple of months, like after President Kennedy sent him a thousand tractors as a good will gesture (you never hear about that). These were all lemons, Ford 8N rejects. Castro was so pissed he had them painted up like Easter eggs and lined the fence with them on permanent display.
The Navy brought in large ships to make desalinated water for the base drinking supply. That was terrible stuff. If you bathed in it, it was so thin it wouldn’t rinse the soap out of your hair. We bathed in a rain barrel on the backside of the house. Lights in the homes were to be cut off after 10 o’clock. No movies, no traffic, stay indoors and the military would conduct training maneuvers across the base.
This was our cup of tea, so to speak. We had paths laid out in the tree branches were we could come and go unseen. We would pepper the MP’s with our little home made bombs when they drove by with their search lights mounted on the back of their jeeps. There usually was an SP (Shore Patrol driver) and a MP (Military Police) riding shotgun, drove by and we hit them with a couple of our little pop bombs, they would shine the search light on the tree branches searching for insurgents. It was us, they had to know, how could they not?
Duane dropped coconut bombs in the dumpster behind the BOQ, that was really good for an ass whooping. We had our little forts all over the cliffs by the house. We piled up real good throwing rocks, stored water in canteens and several boxes of C rations, just in case. We hid our bikes up in the tree branches just so they would be safe.
Dad could have let us know, but it was a secret. I’m sure he shared it with Mom after we went to bed. Dad might have been Naval Intelligence, but Mom was the brains of our outfit. Dad drafted a letter informing the residents of the base of the Evacuation Plan, it was sent up the chain of command, all the way to COMNAVAIRLANT and after it was approved, the plan for evacuation went into effect. Each family was hand delivered the letter telling us to pack up, what to pack and when to be ready for pickup.
Just like that. One day we’re getting ready to fight and the next day us kids and other dependents were being shipped out. Aw, we had just strung some barb wire, beneath the cliff beside of our house. They did a great job without us but we had another adventure to look forward to. The school buses arrived about 8 am, just like we were going to school but instead of going west to Victory Hill Elementary, they headed the east, the other way towards the docks where they kept the PBYs (Sea Planes).
There was berthed the USS Upshur, a ship named after the Marine General that was in charge of the military interest during the construction of the Panama Canal, when the payroll was robbed. This was too big of a coincidence for me. I wondered about it for the whole 3 days we were aboard ship. I kept wondering when the other shoe was gonna fall. The Upshur had a big old gaping hole for a door way in the bow, for loading and unloading since it was a troop transport ship the bow had doors built into it, so it could be easily loaded from either side.
We stood in line as we boarded, getting our names checked off of the Master List. Since I was 10 years old, I was sent to the stern in the ship’s company berthing area. The bunks were stacked to the ceiling and they were about 16 inches above each other. Mom, Gary and Duane were sent to a Stateroom located in the upper bow. Each Stateroom had about 20 people in it. They sat on the deck or were leaning against the bulkhead. Cotton mattresses were rolled up during the day and spread out at night for sleeping arrangements. This was our home for the next three days.
Our destination was unknown, military secret. Loose lips sink ships. We had life boat drills every morning, everyone one on topside was required to wear a life jacket.
Thinking that Mom had her hands full with Duane who had his legs in casts from a recent operation, I snuck up to her stateroom and commandeered Gary to go with me. We were all over that ship. The fact that our Dad was an Officer, didn’t cut any ice on board the USNS Upshur. If we got caught pulling our shenanigans (and we did) we suffered the consequences. We swabbed decks, helped peel potatoes, carried the Captain coffee, polished tarnished brass and even got to throw bags of waste products off of the fantail.
The inside of our berthing space was like a giant boys club. Pillow fights, fist fights, gang fights we had them and the sailors seem to encourage us. I had quite a bit of sea duty already from the many excursions that Dad sent me on that I was already familiar with what ever came next.
Gary and I knew semaphore, when we seen the American flag flying upside down, we knew there was something going on. On our leeward side were two Russian frigates following us about a 500 yards away.
Scary oh yeah, the Upsher was unarmed, a troop transport ship, carrying military dependents The crew carried handguns to ward off boarders but there wasn’t much more armament than that. Gary and I snuck into a lifeboat and had grabbed a couple of flare pistols but we only had two flares apiece, when Gary “accidentally” shot one towards the Russian ships that night, they were confiscated, taken away from us.
We would use our T shirts as “flags” and send rude messages to them. We knew the ships weren’t up to any good and the dark forbidding clouds that followed us didn’t help. I found a notebook full of paper on the third morning. We were up on deck with the guys on my baseball team. I got the idea to draw a cartoon of Kruschev bending over to kiss an American eagle on the ass, then made an airplane out if it and tossed it towards the Russians in an act of defiance. The other guys on deck wanted to follow suit, I gave out notebook paper until it was gone. Every one had their own idea on how to make the perfect airplane or make the most insulting cartoon we could imagine. Before we tossed the planes overboard into the wind, we all stood in a line with our backs to the Russians and we gave them a “Full Moon Salute”. We dropped our drawers and bent over, showing our ass. Then somebody hollered “Ready Two” and we stood up in unison, fastened our pants and then rushed to the hand rail to see who’s plane could make it the furthermost before it disappeared into the whitecaps. One by one the planes were swallowed up by the waves. When a sudden gust of wind would pick one of our planes up and give it new life, we would all give a cheer. One plane made it almost within a hundred yards, a slight groan arose when it finally succumbed to the depths, but it was soon replaced by a cheer.
A solid white Coast Guard cutter appeared coming out of the fog behind us, forging it’s way in the four foot seas between us and our evil looking dark gray Russian escorts. Who knows what was on their minds, we could only guess, but one thing we did know for sure, we were entering American waters and the Coast Guard had our backs.
The weather started getting colder and by the time we reached Newport News and disembarked in Norfolk, Va., it was downright chilly. October 22nd when we left, 3 days later must have been around the 24th or 25th. There was snow on the ground when I came down the gangway. I was wearing deck pants, a V- neck half sleeve beachcomber shirt and a pair of rubber flip flops. A photographer from AP took mine and my Mom’s picture and the next day it was plastered on the front page of every newspaper in the Unites States. A lady from The American Red Cross greeted me at the bottom of the gangway. She gave me a cup of hot chocolate and a red, second hand hoody sweatshirt. I didn’t care, if it was second hand, it kept me warm.
The Navy Band played Stars and Stripes, it made me feel like we were heroes. We had relatives there waiting on us, to greet us at the docks. It truly was a great moment in American history. I kept wondering about poor old Dad . Did he remember where I kept the shells to the 30.06? What about my dog Tippy? Did anyone feed him? My brothers and I had strung barb wire up and down the cliff behind the house and fastened beer cans with pebbles inside to make a noise, sort of like a burglar alarm. I wondered did our design work? Did the Cubans invade? Did any one find our forts?
That stuff was a thousand miles away now. We were on our way to Jacksonville, with my Aunt Alice. We lived in Jax. for about 3 months until it was deemed safe enough for use to go back. I was in the 5th grade at Arlington Elementary. I was proud of who I was and my family and what we had been doing for the last 3 years. I wanted to tell the world who I was and show off my skills, more importantly to brag on my Dad and the other men, husbands and fathers that stayed to fight if need be for our country and our rights.
Looking back now, I think my teacher at the time must have been a liberal because he didn’t want me to talk about it when my classmates expressed interest and in fact he punished me when I did. I remember my cousin Cindy was in the class across the hall and she cried when she saw me getting licks through the window in the door. I laughed because those three licks didn’t measure up to the lickings I was use to toting and after I laughed, I got three more.
Our return to Gitmo was kinda melodramatic. Not all of my friends returned. Our house had been used as a military barracks because it had 4 bedrooms and three baths. My dog Tippy acted strange almost like he didn’t remember us. We went to Protestant Church on every other Sunday and to the Catholic Church in between. I was told that Tippy attended service at the Catholic Church, almost like he was looking for us. The Catholic Church always kept the doors opened and he would walk in and sit at the foot of our pew when they started playing church hymns on the organ. Tippy used to follow the bus to school and sit under my desk during class. The teacher gave up on trying to stop him. It was too hot to shut the door and he didn’t cause any ruckus. I think every boy should have a dog like that.
Mom told me years later that she didn’t worry about us boys so much as long as we had Tippy with us. I know that the Filipinos hated him, he didn’t care much for them either. Several times a month we would wake up and Tippy would have all of the white uniforms that the Filipinos had washed and hung up on the line stacked up in a pile under my bedroom window. Almost like he was ready for us to come out and play. The last time I saw him, he was running down the gravel road as we were leaving to catch a plane, with a clothesline full of white uniforms in his mouth and strung out behind him, with two Filipinos chasing him with a machete. You wanna know something, I kinda felt sorry for those guys.