Going home to my memories

‘Going home’ is one of the most durable dramatic themes, going back to the Prodigal Son, and from there weaving its way through countless poems, stories, songs, TV shows and movies. Toni Morrison’s latest novel, “Home,” deals with an African-American veteran returning to Lotus, Georgia, the segregated hamlet where he grew up and which he regards as “the worst place in the world.”

The best-known vehicle for this theme, though, has to be Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again“: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

My own going home story about a month ago, to my childhood home in Santa Clara, actually was my second visit since leaving Cuba in 1962. I’d stopped at our family shrine in 1998 while in Cuba writing about John Paul II’s historic visit to the island

The elderly and frail pope’s supersonic schedule only allowed me two days in Santa Clara, barely enough time to meet the new occupants. Occupants, hell: They owned the place even though they didn’t buy it. In 1965, as a condition for getting their exit visas, my parents had to surrender the house and all its contents to the government.  

View of my hometown of Santa Clara, from atop the Capiro Hill.

That brief and tense visit rattled me deeply. I can’t remember much of it except I was nervous, stammering, as if I were stepping on alien ground, which in a sense I was. I didn’t know whether the new residents would answer the door or talk to me, or react with their own anxiety attack about my coming back, to perhaps attempt to reclaim the house where I grew up until age 14. Confronted with unknown scenarios I tend to focus on the direst. 

My late dad harbored bitter Cuban-exile fantasies of “going back to Cuba, machete in hand, to kill communists” and take back what was rightfully ours. I would react to his angry talk with a faint nod and an understanding smile. I understood his rage, futile though it was.

Fact is that even if the present regime were to flip over next week, a rewinding of the video to life before Castro, pre-1959, is not going to happen. Most the homes and small businesses are never going to reconnect with the previous owners; any attempt at wholesale evictions and repossessions would push the country into chaos. Though older generations of Cuban exiles in South Florida have not reconciled with that reality, after fifty-some years what is gone is indeed gone.  

Surely no one needs to worry about my wielding a machete, much less attempting to take back our former home, my dad’s printing shop and stationery store (also confiscated by the government and converted into a food distribution warehouse), or anything else in Cuba–except my memories.

The family I found in my former home in 1998 belonged to the Cuban military, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, which I’m sure is why they got the house, although I don’t know when or if someone had it before them.

The husband was an officer whose rank I don’t remember, but he must have done something notable enough to merit a free house. They were in their forties and at first reacted to me as one would to a frightful apparition. I explained haltingly that I was visiting from the U.S. and simply wanted to see my old home, just out of curiosity.

I was careful not to take any photos or notes inside, lest the new owners think I was taking an inventory of sorts, a prelude to eviction proceedings. They finally offered me a cup of coffee and we sat down, uneasily, on the homely furniture now decorating my living room. But the encounter never developed into any kind of heart-opening talk. I don’t remember much of what we chatted about.

The house, a very modest affair even in the best of times, was relatively well maintained except for a huge palm tree growing incongruously in the front yard and a clumsy, ten-foot addition at the rear of the garage. The addition truncated the short end of an L-shaped terrace around which the house was built and one of its most attractive features. On that space my mother had planted an almond tree, later the home of a cantankerous, foul-mouthed parrot that passed the time systematically snipping off the leaves right at the stem. The tree and the parrot were long gone by 1998.

A four-foot-tall wrought-iron fence that separated the house from the street had disappeared too.  Amazingly, a set of white, wrought-iron rocking chairs were still in place on the terrace, where my family had left them. I could imagine the chairs swaying rhythmically during Cuba’s hot, muggy evenings while discreetly monitoring the quotidian history of the house and its occupants. 

Though hardly a historic landmark, my house–there I go again with that possessive–witnessed key moments of revolutionary history. The final and decisive battle against dictator Fulgencio Batista by bearded guerrillas creeping down ant-like from the hills took place in Santa Clara during the last few days of 1958, and within sight, certainly earshot, of our home, where we huddled during the entire ordeal.

Monument atop Capiro Hill, commemorating the decisive
1958 battle against the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista
 by the rebel guerrillas.  That’s my partner Stew on the left. 

The Central Highway, which at that time traversed the entire length of the island, was about a block away. On the other side of the highway was an open field and about a half-mile beyond that a hillock called Loma del Capiro, with a railroad track running by the foot of it.

The gentle slopes of Capiro Hill made it ideal for the Cuban version of sledding, which called for long, curved pieces of the bark from the top of a palm tree, called yaguas, and on which we swooshed downhill. For a ten- or eleven-year old, it was the cheapest and headiest of thrills. I would race my bike too, down the many hillside dirt trails, which was far more dangerous and exciting and therefore more aggravating to my mom.

More important for an attacking force, Capiro Hill offered a panoramic view of the entire city of Santa Clara, at the time one of six provincial capitals and one of the few remaining dominoes keeping the rebels from reaching Havana.  

Also on the Central Highway, two blocks away, there was a garrison of the highway patrol, whose menacing, helmeted members rode huge, Harley-type motorcycles, and who to this day are called caballitos, or “little horses” by Cubans. 

As the rebels neared the city around Christmastime, the Batista army reinforced the garrison of caballitos with tanks and other heavy equipment to block a possible run by the guerrillas to Santa Clara’s heart. 

As the fighting intensified, Batista made a stupendous blunder, his last: He dispatched to Santa Clara an armored train filled with troops and ammunition to make one final stand. Rebel guerrillas, led by Ché Guevara, were now filtering down from the surrounding countryside in increasing numbers.

The train made it as far as the foot of Capiro Hill, where it was ambushed by the guerrillas using bulldozers to tear up the track. About 300 demoralized government soldiers aboard the train abjectly surrendered themselves and their load of armaments and ammunition. Within a day, Batista fled.

Cluster of apartment buildings on the outskirts of Santa Clara,
 designed in the soul-deadening nouveau Soviet style of architecture.
They reminded me of public housing projects in Chicago or New York. 

Our small but solid house, masonry all around, was strategically located at the cross point of the advancing guerrillas, the armored train and the reinforced highway patrol outpost. It became a shelter for a neighboring family and mine during three days of shooting and bombing.

The Battle of Santa Clara has been memorialized by Castro’s historians as an epochal event even though by the standards of warfare it was but a footnote skirmish. Involved were only a few hundred demoralized army soldiers and not even half as many guerrillas, and it was over in four days. Still, I remember the frightened adults in our house trembling, as if it were the end of the world.

I thought it was exciting as hell.


Next blog: The Battle of Santa Clara as related in my diary and the first years of the revolution.  

To view a slideshow of photos I took in Trinidad, a beautiful colonial town in central Cuba, click on: 

4 thoughts on “Going home to my memories

  1. Parents can be terrified and worried that their children will be traumatized for life and the kids think “It was exciting as hell”. Made me laugh out loud.I remember spending a scary night in our concrete block student apartment housing at LSU with three tikes. Rain was blowing through the walls. I was sure, even though we were on the second floor that imminent death would occur. Two kids slept through it and the other wanted to go out and see if there were lots of frogs. That made me laugh too.


  2. When I was in 3rd grade the government took our river front house because a dam was going in down stream. They built the dam and the water never came within miles of our old house site, it's a nature/hunting fishing area now. The government wanted the river front land and it took it. Today if you buy a federal topo map of the area, it shows a big lake there, it shows a mile wide lake where the waterway is no wider than a two lane road. I took my Mom and Dad to the old home site last weekend, there were a few what ifs.


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