Wartime diary

The small brown notebook, a diary I kept for only four months beginning in November 1958, has been with me for fifty-three years, faithfully traveling along with some family pictures and a gym tee-shirt from grammar school.

I wrote it when I had just turned eleven years old, but had never looked at it again.  I’m not sure why. Fear I would find some awful tidbits about my life? Embarrassment at the silly preoccupations that consume a child’s mind?

Indeed, a small but serious-looking warning on the cover says: “DO NOT OPEN. PRIVATE.”

I finally read it a few days ago; it took all of fifteen minutes. The entries are written in a labored, Palmer-method handwriting, supplemented occasionally with doodling, and even some artwork marking Castro’s triumph on New Year’s Day 1959.

The Jan. 1, 1959 entry in my diary, quite a cross-cultural creation
featuring a snow man and a Cuban flag, along with the headline,
“Year of the Liberation.”

There were no revelations I needed to worry about. 

It seems I was a rather lonesome kid who enjoyed rollerskating and flying kites my father helped me make, and hated going to Mass and conjured every possible excuse to avoid going to church.

I quarreled a lot with my mother and loved participating in my dad’s tinkerings with the family car.

One entry reported that a classmate had hit the teacher, a Marist Brother with a fearsome temper, on the back of the head with a balled-up piece of paper. I thought that was hilarious.

On Three Kings Day, when we received our Christmas gifts, I got an Erector set that even had a small battery-driven motor. It was a major hit.

But most interesting are the diary entries leading up to the battle of Santa Clara, marking Batista’s exit and Castro’s arrival. They read like reports from an aspiring war correspondent, albeit one with the naive and awe-struck perspective–and occasional lapses in chronology–of an eleven-year-old.

December 5, 1958: My dad holds an unsuccessful vigil by the short-wave radio, trying to tune in the guerrilla’s broadcasts, whose signal was weak and mercilessly jammed by the Batista government. The mere attempt to tune in the guerrillas, done hush-hush and late at night, is exciting even if most often barely one intelligible word comes through.

December 20: I gently remind my dad about my birthday on December 30.

December 23: My mom asks me to pray for peace in Cuba because she is scared. She’s heard some short-wave report that Batista’s air force had mustard gas bombs they are ready to use on the population and could cause a lot of damage.

December 24, Christmas Eve: The traditional Nochebuena dinner never happens. There is a general alarm among our neighbors, who are fleeing toward the center of the city for fear that the guerrillas, steadily creeping in from the countryside, might attract some fire from the army. [We lived a few miles outside of town]. There are troop movements along the Central Highway, a block from our house. A friend and I decide to go fly our kites anyway, which get all tangled and wrecked.

December 25 through 30: My family is living “de susto en susto,”–from one scare to the next–as the shooting escalates. A family who had stayed with us because our house was considered safer, leaves but then returns.

My eleventh birthday passes without any celebration though my parents promise me a gift even if it comes in August.

Sporadic shooting by Capiro Hill increases and turns into a major shoot-out. Early in the morning of December 27, government airplanes fly over our house and strafe targets on the road to the town of Camajuaní, behind Capiro Hill. [Che Guevara was leading this band of guerrillas].

Che Guevara Memorial: Contains his remains and
also memorializes, among other feats, his role
 in the battle of Santa Clara. 

Around midnight guerrillas knock on our back door and ask us to leave the house so they can get on the roof and target the highway patrol garrison about two blocks away. Our parents persuade them to use our neighbor’s house. The neighbors, including two small children, are now staying with us.

Around midnight, dad hears noises coming from a house under construction right behind us: Men are climbing over the cement wall. My parents go to their bedroom and leave me alone in mine, something which seems to scare the shit out of me. I have a terrible urge to cough (I suffered from chronic breathing problems) but don’t, for fear any noise might call attention.

The men jumping over the fence, whom my parents feared were government soldiers, turn out to be more guerrillas. I don’t get a chance to see the mythical guerrillas because I was in my bedroom lying down as I was told. But later reports from my parents indicate one of the guerrillas has long, wavy blonde hair, almost like a woman’s.

Deafening gun fire from all sides increases, some of it aimed in our direction, including blasts from a tank parked at the highway patrol garrison.  The guerrillas return to ask for some water, and we tell them we’d forgotten to mention that garrison had been abandoned. (I know, I know: There are some inconsistencies in my reporting, but what do you expect when you get your war news from an eleven-year-old?)

My parents ask the Red Cross to evacuate us to no avail. The Red Cross is swamped with such requests. Fortunately our immediate neighborhood is not bombed by government planes.

All utilities are cut off and things get hairier, when more planes arrive and we’re not sure what they’ll attack. We’re relieved when they direct their fire to Squadron 31 (not clear what that is).

We and the neighbors huddle in the bathroom, deemed to be a safe spot presumably because it has only one small window.

The army’s armored train at the foot of Capiro Hill is derailed by the guerrillas. English-made (?) planes flying overhead fire rocket-bombs that look like fireworks.

The last news report for 1958 just says that there is shooting and bombings coming from all directions, but mostly aimed at the city center.

January 2, 1959: I thank God that the evil dictator Batista had left the island. Mass desertions by government troops apparently sealed his fate. My dad takes me to see the derailed armored train and I report that everything around it seems to have been bombed and destroyed.

January 3: My dad drives me on a reconnoitering tour to examine the damage to houses and other buildings in town. I complain that people in Havana now are singing the praises of Castro even though all the fighting took place in the interior of the island.

January 4: We drive to my grandmother’s house in the southern port of Cienfuegos but the electricity goes out.

I soldiered on with my diary–by candlelight.


Next and last Cuba blog: A chat with the old guerrilla now living my former house in Santa Clara. 

For a slideshow of Havana, go here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alcuban/sets/72157630114503074/show/

6 thoughts on “Wartime diary

  1. Thanks for taking us on this journey to your youth. I wrote a journal during one of my European years — 1974. I took a look at it on one of my trips north thinking it might make for some good posts. I abandoned the idea when I discovered — well, not much. I may take another look at it when I am in Oregon in Nevada in August.


  2. Thanks for sharing this. Growing up in South Florida, we had so many Cuban friends and neighbors with such touching stories. One of our friends still has the American flag his father made out of plastic bags to carry with them on the over-loaded boat they used to get to Florida. So many stories, so many memories. Thank you again.


  3. Anonymous

    Thank you for writing this down for us. I really enjoy reading your story and look forward to more. Your focus, drive, and mental energy spent recording the details are impressive.Joan


  4. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing. Interesting to see that backing the gorillas was hope for freedom from an oppressing dictatorship, and then…Hindsight is definitely 20/20.


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