Cuban Breeze

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

April 17, 1961 - Playa Giron, Cuba

Frogmen came ashore at 2:00AM. Their objective was to set up lights to show where the main assault force could land. At 2:30AM, approximately 1,300 CIA-supported counter-revolutionaries stormed the beaches of Cuba. Their goal was to rid the island nation of its new President, Fidel Castro, and restore democracy. But the military loyal to Castro were lying in wait. Many of the invaders were captured or killed in the ensuing battle. Some escaped into the hills. The beach assault became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Eisenhower administration had orchestrated it in 1960, but in January of 1961, a scant three months prior to the invasion, a new administration inherited it with the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The invasion was a total failure; and Fidel Castro became very fearful of his American friends just 150 kilometres to the north. Castro asked the Russians for military help. Kennedy told the Russians they couldn't do that. The Russians ignored the U.S. President and began secretly installing missiles in Cuba. In October of 1962, there was a face-off between President Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and we all damn near got blown to kingdom come.

In October of 1962, I was 10 years old. I lived above my parent's grocery store in a small town 60 kilometres north of Toronto. Once, at 4:00AM, while everyone but I slept, a tractor trailer roared through town at perhaps 100 kilometres an hour. I scrambled to the window with tears running down my face looking for the mushroom cloud that I expected to accompany the rumbling noise, only to see the back end of the truck. In the evenings, while I played football with my friends, a red sky in the west surely meant that Chicago, or perhaps Los Angeles, had been hit. My friends all seemed oblivious to our imminent vaporization. On October 28th Khrushchev backed down and started removing the missiles from Cuba. A huge weight was lifted from the shoulders of my tiny 10 year-old frame.

It's forty-four years later. I'm on the Cuban island of Cayo Largo about 80 kilometres off the main island almost directly south of the Bay of Pigs. Cayo Largo is just a dot on the map - a sliver of sandy beach and the bluest of blue seas. I came here many times in the 1980's - cognitive therapy, to heal myself of pants peeing and the nervous twitch I'd developed in October of 1962. In the 80's, when the Cubans were still comrades of the Iron Curtain communists, the tourists were all Russian, East German, Czech, and oddly, Canadian. Military spotter planes would fly the beaches looking for naked sun worshippers who they could haul off and throw in jail. Tipping for service was forbidden. For every bartender, restaurant waiter, or maid deserving of a small gratuity there seemed to be at least one KGB type off to the side watching to make sure it didn't happen. Now, in 2006 it's all changed. Tips are welcomed and almost everyone walks naked on the beach. The eastern Europeans are no longer here. Instead it's Italians. Not the ones from Woodbridge, north of Toronto, but real European Italians, all the way from Italy. One day as I lay back on a rock, private parts exposed to nature, I thought back to the last time I was in Cayo Largo in 1992. I'd come down to the dining area for breakfast one morning to find two men I hadn't seen before sitting at my table. I could tell by the accent that they were American. One was talkative, the other silent. Their names were Mutt and Jeff ... or something like that. Mutt was the larger and older of the two, standing at about 6'1" and weighing maybe 210 lbs. He was about 35 years old. Jeff, his brother, perhaps in his late 20's was shorter at about 5' 8". He was more solidly built though, probably weighing about the same as Mutt. Their hair was closely cropped and they were both clean shaven. They wore multi-coloured Hawaiian shirts and short pants. Mutt immediately befriended me, asking questions about Canada and the Toronto Blue Jays. When he found out that I'd been to Cayo Largo on many occasions he asked me questions about the island. How had it changed over the years - or from one visit to the next? Did there seem to be more or less aircraft at the airport now than before? How did the people seem? Were they happy? Sad? The questions were peculiar. Mutt asked them in a way that made me feel subversive - like I was being debriefed.

I asked Mutt why he and Jeff were there. American citizens weren't supposed to visit Cuba I thought. He told me that Jeff and he had come in from the Cayman Islands, via Puerto Rico, and that they were there to investigate the possibility of land purchase. He said that the Castro regime wouldn't last forever and that they wanted to be the first to start making real estate offers. By now we'd been sitting at the dining table for about twenty minutes. Aside from initial introductions Jeff hadn't spoken a word. He sat calm, yet alert, watching. With us, but not with us his quick eyes scanned the area like a cat. One after the other he snapped one-handed shots at breast level without ever looking through the viewfinder of his ultra-compact 35mm camera. Every couple of minutes the back of the camera would open. The spent roll of film would pop out and a new one would be quickly installed.

Once I noticed him slyly motion to Mutt when he saw a sub-machinegun toting security guard walk through some bushes. After breakfast I bid farewell to this odd pair. I was off to do a wreck dive.

When I returned just after noon Mutt and Jeff were sitting at the same table. I relaxed, or perhaps felt a little disillusioned, that they'd probably spent the morning pounding back Cuban rum. But they hadn't been idle. They'd rented a car and driven the entire island and then later rented a helicopter to get the view and undoubtedly hundreds of photos from the sky. I sat at the table and began removing some articles I'd taken from a wreck on the sea bottom. 'Silent Jeff' passed the camera to Mutt and immediately became my new best friend. He asked me questions about my treasure. He photographed each piece with a macro lens then asked if I would take him to the dive shop. While Jeff talked to me Mutt assumed Jeff's role. He sat, sort of, but not really facing us, scanning the landscape in silence. Mutt and Jeff had done a complete role reversal. Jeff and I jumped into a cab and headed for the dive shop. On the way there he went through three more rolls of film, not once looking through the viewfinder. It was now after 1:00PM and a brisk wind had picked up. Jeff spoke to the Dive Shop operators in fast, clear Spanish. The Cubans seemed to be intrigued by him. Jeff sighed, then told me that the boat could not go back out in the afternoon because of a bad weather report. He pleaded with them and even offered five times the usual amount of money to take us out. I was all for it. Jeff was paying. But nada, it wasn't to be. We would have to wait until the following morning. Jeff was somehow able to get an exact location from them as to where I had dived. Instead of taking a cab back to our hotel we jumped into a slower, but more pleasant water taxi. This time Jeff went through five rolls of film using his point-from-the-arm-pit-and-shoot style.

I had dinner with Mutt and Jeff that evening and discussed the plan to do the wreck dive first thing in the morning. At 7:30AM, our pre-planned meeting time, I hurried down to the dining area, dive gear over my shoulder and asked the waiter if my two American amigos had been down for breakfast yet.
"Oh yes,Seņor. They ate their breakfast at 6:00AM, and then took a taxi to the airport."
"Did they say where they were going? When they'd be back?
"I do not think they will return Seņor. They had their luggage and the only flight that left Cayo Largo this morning was at 6:30AM to the Cayman Islands."

Mutt and Jeff had arrived on the incoming flight from the Cayman Islands the previous morning. They spent exactly 24 hours on Cayo Largo. They flew it, drove it, boated it and extracted as much information from as many people as they could - all the while taking hundreds, perhaps thousands of photos. Now they were gone. I shook my head and wondered if I'd dreamt it all.

Four months later, back in Toronto, I received a large brown envelope with a return address from Florida. Inside was the nautical chart that pin-pointed the dive site where I had found my treasure. Jeff wrote that with the information he received from the dive operators and his ability to access certain naval documents he was able to give me a description of the ship and my find. The ship was an early 19th century British slaving vessel and certain bracelets that I had taken from the sea bottom were used for trading. One bracelet equaled one slave. I wrote back to Jeff asking for more information. A month later my letter was returned as undeliverable. The following year, while in Miami, I tried to find Jeff at the address he'd given me. The street was there, but the street number didn't exist.

Mutt and Jeff needed to be able to slide back into a crevice; to do whatever needed to be done somewhere else in the world. Maybe they were off to help depose an unfriendly Head of State or perhaps assist in the acceleration of a Middle Eastern war. I sometimes wonder if they think of me as they go about in their quest for peace and democracy everywhere.

Over the past forty-five years there have been nine U.S. Presidents. Fidel Castro still rules Cuba and Cayo Largo. Only God and the CIA know how many Mutts and Jeffs there are.

Afterword: On February 19th, 2008 Fidel Castro announced he would not seek nor accept a new term as President. He remains First Secretary of the Communist Party.
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