MAXWELL: Castro: a recurring irritation

9/4/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


On a Saturday morning in October of 1962, three friends and I waited to cross U.S. Highway 17 and Main Street in Crescent City. The night before, our high school football team had won its biggest game ever, and we, all star players, were going downtown to dittybop, talk trash with boys and flirt with the girls.

A U.S. Army jeep pulled into the intersection. Two military policemen jumped out and stopped civilian traffic. In the distance, we heard the rumble. The earth shook beneath us. Dozens of locals appeared suddenly, gawking and pointing. One old man speculated that the “United States is going to bomb the hell out of that commie bastard in Cuba.”

For what seemed like hours, a convoy transporting machines and weapons thundered through our town of fewer than 1,000, about 35 minutes east of the Ocala National Forest. I was excited and scared as this spectacle _ a high point in the Cuban missile crisis _ snaked toward South Florida.

This was the first time that I and millions of other baby boomers _ who came of age during the height of Castro’s power _ would experience Castro’s ubiquity. Many of us, the lucky ones with TV sets in our homes, had vague images of this bearded, cigar-chomping revolutionary. We remembered blurred pictures of him in the Sierra Maestra battling Batista. Some of us, those with TVs, recalled the 1959 scene in which then-Vice President Richard Nixon emerged from his Washington office with his arm around Castro.

After the last truck passed and the MPs drove away, my friends and I crossed the highway. But nothing was the same. We no longer wanted to flirt with the girls.

Now, we listened to everyone who talked about the potential for a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, Cuba’s benefactor. We recalled the countless times we’d gone through atomic air raid exercises in elementary and junior high _ crawling beneath our desks and covering our heads with our notebooks or clothing. We recalled the many orderly marches to make-believe bomb shelters. More ominously, though, we’d actually been within arm’s reach of some of the weapons that could have helped plunge the nation into war.

My pals and I bought our usual chocolate-covered peanuts at the Ben Franklin Store. On that morning, however, we had no appetite. We felt doomed. President John F. Kennedy was on TV at Chuck’s Barber Shop announcing that he’d ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and that he’d warned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove his missiles from the island.

From that moment, until Khrushchev removed the missiles in November, I, a sensitive 17-year-old who’d seen too many Movietone newsreels of World War II and the Korean War, secretly lived with a sense of being annihilated because of Castro. Our social studies teacher lectured on the crisis; our English teacher made us write about it; our science teacher described the nuclear holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than 20 years earlier; our pastors spoke of the second coming and of baptism by fire. And word was that the draft board was updating its rosters because of this and other Cold War conflicts.

For me, like many in my generation, that winter’s experience would be the first of many with Castro. I’ve never met the dictator. But perhaps because I was born and reared mostly in South Florida, his influence has rarely been more than a tangible or symbolic stone’s throw away from my life.

In 1965, for example, I was a college student on summer vacation in Fort Lauderdale, my birthplace. President Kennedy had been dead almost two years, and Castro had re-emerged as the nemesis of Lyndon Johnson. Castro had given dissidents permission to leave the island nation. Before I returned to school that fall, more than 5,000 Cubans had sailed for the United States from the port of Camarioca. My relatives in Miami felt the influence of this new wave of immigrants immediately. During the next 10 years, 200,000 more refugees would find South Florida, forever changing its demographic face _ mostly for the better.

On the ugly side, however, I, my relatives and friends began to feel unwelcomed in many parts of Dade County where we’d previously gone without trouble. I’ve always resented this change _ being a stranger in the nation of my birth _ which has caused animosity between black and Cuban residents. And I’ve seen right-wing Cubans establish themselves as keepers of true American patriotism and values.

I was a teacher in Key West in 1980, during the Mariel boatlift when Castro let thousands of criminals, mental patients and people with other serious health problems come here. I can never forgive the financial and social burdens the Marielitos caused and are causing Florida’s government.

And now, 35 years after bedeviling his first U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower, Castro is making his eighth president, Bill Clinton, miserable by letting a new crop of refugees set sail for our shores.

And again, I’ve been personally touched. Two weeks ago, after Clinton reversed a 28-year-old immigration policy granting permanent residency to Cubans who reach this country, I went to a Cuban community in Tampa to buy two shirts. As I approached the store entrance, seven young Cuban males who were discussing the immigration policy blocked my path. One yelled, ordering me back into my car. Three of them moved toward me. An older gentleman came to my aid, escorting me around the young men. He told me that I’d come there at a bad time, when emotions were running high over Clinton’s policy. I’d visited the place before without trouble. When I exited the store, the seven malcontents were waiting.

“Stay out of our neighborhood,” one shouted.

I drove away, vowing never to return to the area. I thought of that October morning in 1962, when Castro and his Soviet allies may have brought the world perilously close to a nuclear war, when I could’ve been annihilated.

I thought about these young men’s resentment, their belief that Cubans have an absolute right to come to this country. Angry, I realized that all of my adult life, a two-bit, fatigue-clad dictator 90 miles off our shore has been a regular source of irritation in my life. I realized also that this is Castro’s second time causing President Clinton problems. Clinton _ a baby boomer who came of age during the Cuban missile crisis _ lost his re-election bid as governor in 1980, after Mariel refugees housed at Arkansas’ Fort Chaffee rioted and burned parts of the facility.

Wouldn’t poetic justice be well served if Castro falls while Bill Clinton, our baby-boomer president, is in office?

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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