Under The Banyan Tree

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

September 4, 1994

A Boeing 727 sat at the gate. The crew was loading passengers. The Caribbean Sea stretched off to one side of the runway, and a dry dusty piece of land flanked the other side. It was eight o’clock in the morning, but it was already hot.

A line of men, women, and children stretched from the open door of the hangar, snaked its way across the tarmac, and on up the airstairs. They were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, and carried an assortment of belongings, such as dolls, game boys, purses overstuffed with papers, and  knapsacks serving as carry-on baggage.

As a family  reached the foot of the airstairs, they commenced with saying good-bye.  The man started with a hug and a kiss for each child, somewhat keeping his act together. Then he and his wife caressed, their heads fell, and they  buried their tears in each other’s shoulders, so maybe the kids wouldn’t see. But they did.  They reached for their children and drew them into their embrace that lasted but a moment.  There was not much time. They pulled themselves apart, and got the kids going up the stairs.  A young mother lifted her daughter onto her hip. The two-year-old child, looking over her mother’s shoulder, reached out her dimpled arm toward her father’s hand, her tiny fingers curling in good-bye.

The plane was finally loaded and the civilian pilot started the engines. The men in their T-shirts and shorts were watching from behind a chain link fence. One man stood alone on the tarmac, and he was wearing a  khaki-colored uniforms. As the plane began to taxi toward the runway, he faced the aircraft and came, smartly, to a full salute.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Spring  1994

In early spring of that same year, we  bought a Jeep  because we were moving to Cuba.  But we were not going to the lush semi-tropical Caribbean setting one might imagine; The Naval Base   my family was headed for  was on  45-square miles of the arid southeast tip of  the island.   The mountains to the northwest receive all the rain, leaving sandy, rock strewn hills and beaches  to the southeast-  a more natural habitat for iguanas and banana rats than the 6000 Americans living there. The roads were not very good, especially to the rocky beaches, which were washed out due to mud slides after the rare but tumultuous rain. A four wheel drive vehicle would come in handy.  The Jeep drank gas, but gas consumption was not a primary factor as it would have been for buying a car in  a sprawling city like Virginia Beach, where we had been living for several years.  After buying our red Wrangler, we realized that there are quite a few of them on the road.

We also bought a dog.   My husband, Bookie, had been given command of the base.  In layman’s terms, he would become the mayor of this isolated community with a population consisting of 4000 workers and 2000 women, children, and some Mr. Moms. I was moving to Small Town, USA, but this  town  has a gate, locked on both sides, and a fence flanked by  minefields – some Cuban and some American.  The fence is patrolled by the United States Marines and the Cuban Frontier Brigade – on their respective sides of the fence.   Here was the situation, as I saw it: My husband was to be mayor, and I couldn’t get out of  town. I was going to need a very good friend, so I gave my husband a dog for his birthday in June.  Kerry is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever – a living reminder of  home to bring along with me on my  journey.

The movers came in early August. This was one of many moves I had made, and the ritual was always the same.  For three days, my  house was  a workspace for a team of three or four people. They arrived early in the morning,  sucking the last drop  out of their 7/11 Big Gulps and depositing the empty cup on the first flat surface they came to.  The  leader quickly assigns a room to each member of the team.

“You got that one. I got this one.”

Once in their assigned locations with supplies at hand, they proceeded to pick up an article, wrap it in blank newsprint, and put it in a box.  They handled  my  things with a detachment that would bring a vulnerable person to tears.   Once the box was full, they taped it shut and wrote upon it, in magic marker, “Linens,” “Toys,” “Books.”

As they worked, they called to each other from their assigned room to chat, as one office worker might gossip with another at the next desk. Within the first hour I knew who ran the office back at the warehouse, who went where with  whom last night while who watched what on TV at home. At about 10 they started talking about lunch. Would it be Long John Silver, Burger King, KFC, or Hardee’s?  They glanced at me sideways, summing me up by their own standards.  The first couple of moves, which were always in the summertime, I  left the air conditioning on for them, even though they went in and out the front door at least 100 times) AND I bought them lunch. Now a veteran mover, I decided it would be one or the other. That day was the typical humid, hot, breezeless summer day in Tidewater – so I opted for the air conditioning and left them on their own for lunch.

I always felt sorry for the packer assigned to the dining room because I kept a close eye on  his or her work. My grandmother’s crystal, my m other’s silver, my father’s sweet sixteen gift of a small china basket – these were tangible things that served to link me with the only roots I knew no matter where the navy sent me. Once the packer was finished in there, I wandered around and watched the boxes of our stuff stack up in the various rooms of the house. On that day I tried to envision when I would lay my own hands on these things again. I embellished this fantast with as many good images of my family in Cuba as  I could find.  This was the only way I could endure watching these strangers pulling life, as I knew it, apart.  .

On the third day, another team arrived in a flatbed truck which holds twelve shabby plywood crates.  The boss of this team did not knock or ring the doorbell. He entered what used to be my home and began to fill out the inventory form.  On his clipboard, he listed each numbered box and piece of furniture, with a brief description of each item. He paused in the living room and looked over at me. He had numbered a piece of furniture, but he did not know what to call it.

“What’s that?”

He was pointing to a piece of furniture that we’d bought while stationed in England over twelve years ago. Victorians had used it to hide coal for their fires in their elaborate living rooms.   The piece had been restored, and within it I kept an old edition of Shakespeare bought while I was a student in England.  Pictures of my wedding were in the bottom compartment,  as well as the genealogical history of my mother’s family, which I had compiled at the National Archives while we were living in Washington, D.C.  A kimonoed Japanese figurine, a treasured gift from a former student, had always rested on top of this piece.  What’s that? It’s a piece of me. But I knew he was just trying to do his job, so I flatly answered “Book Cabinet.”

Once the inventory was done, they took everything we owned onto the front lawn and started packing it into the plywood crates. Once they were nailed shut with another piece of plywood, the  boss wrote “Boland” in black magic marker on the side of the crate.  The crates have all been used before, so other names were also sprawled in magic marker. As the truck’s engines roared  to a start,  I wondered how they would know at the warehouse which crates were part of which shipment? It’s been my personal experience that by the time I reached that point in the process of moving, I really didn’t care if I ever saw the stuff again.

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

August 23, 1994

Jim Newton was waiting for us at the foot of the airstairs. He was a big man, muscular, with very broad shoulders. His hands were enormous. In fact, mine was lost in his as we shook hands, and his powder blue eyes met my own eyes dead center. Shaking hands with Jim for the first time and simultaneously looking him in the eye, I could tell quite a lot.  I knew that I was meeting, for the first time, a very good friend.  He spoke easily with me, with the accent of someone who had grown up somewhere in the South. It must have been near water – perhaps in Carolina. He had the demeanor of a country boy, with a healthy dollop of the common sense and good manners that growing up  in the country  gives to some people. Wherever he had grown up, he had not forgotten what it was like to be a kid. He immediately got the names and ages of my sons – not as a matter of small talk, but in order to talk to them. He went on to chat with them about what a typical day  in Guantanamo Bay would be like for a ten-year old and a thirteen-year old. The boys listened intently. I relaxed. Jim, the Command Master Chief, was doing a good job of meeting us.

He walked us over to the shade of the hangar, as we waited for our luggage and Kerry to be  loaded off from the aircraft. About a half hour later,  we were standing at a ferry landing when the gig  appeared  to take us from the airport, which is on one side of the bay, across to the base itself,  on the opposite shore.  The gig, a graceful 40 foot wooden boat,  was manned by a  crew of three  young sailors  who stood  in the  cockpit, located  in the midsection.  There is a forward and aft cabin which are both configured with comfortable seating for about 20 people.

Jim was casually pointing out landmarks  to us as the boat made its way into the bay. On our right was what looked like a haphazard collection of structures which made up the town, as well as a working waterfront area complete with cranes, piers, ships, and shacks. On our left was a long stretch of flat land that eventually led to some low, rolling hills.

“Those hills, Jim, are not part of the base, are they?”

Jim explained that the “fence line” was between us and those hills. The fence itself wasn’t visible from where we were, but he helped me pick out a half dozen guard towers that were located right along the fence line.

“The black towers are American, Mrs. Boland, and the red ones are Cuban.”

I naively asked it there were guards in them right now, and he answered me, rather matter of factly:

“Yes,  ma’am. Matter a’ fact, they’re prob’ly watchin’  this gig cross this bay right now. There’s not much else for them to look at.”

The crew nodded knowingly in agreement. The boys and I took this in silently. What was matter of fact here was new to the three of us. A few minutes later, Jim put his hand on  Brendan’s shoulder, and directed his gaze straight ahead to a magnificent white house on the end of  a point of land, known as Deer Point, which stretched right into the middle of the bay.

Jim’s blue eyes were already laughing as he said to Brendan:

“That’s your house.”

Brendan, in disbelief, said “What?

Jim responded “That’s where you’re gonna live.”

“There?” as he pointed his finger up at the house.

“Yes. Right there.”

I could tell that the crew  was enjoying this too, as their faces were glued to Brendan’s to see how he would react to the terrific news. For a moment, I think they were all ten again and had slipped  into  his shoes.

Brendan really came through for them. He said “Holy shit.”

The crew tied the gig up at Flag Landing, the dock for  serving residents of the house.  The pier is T-shaped and stretched out toward the channel.  We tied up at the end of the pier, where it is roofed to block the sun.  Comfortable chairs and couches were neatly arranged in the shaded area. The boys and Jim collected our luggage, I held Kerry on her leash, and we began to walk down the pier toward the foot of a very long cement stairway that led up  the hill to the house.  Flag Landing, as well as the staircase, had recently been painted – gray planking and white trim – and it glistened in  the sun.

Brian was quietly taking all this is. He had a sense of wonder in his deep brown eyes that I had only seen once before, when his little league coach had told him what he was to do to score the winning run for the team which would give his team the pennant. He had left the coach’s side, but before he approached the plate, he made eye contact with me up in the stands.  All I could tell was that something wonderful was going to happen for him, and it did. Every parent in the stands leaped up with joy as Brian crossed home plate. This same sense of wonder -is this really happening to me? – was in his eyes now.

Brendan was more verbal with his sense of wonder.  I had managed to catch  his brown eyes and gave him a look so that he knew that if he said holy shit again I was going to kill him.  Now he was repeating and repeating and repeating, much to his brother’s annoyance, “I do not believe this,” “This place is great,” “Is this really mine?” “Can anyone else use this dock?”

I was lost in my own thoughts. How many other women had walked this pier for the first time with their children in tow? What kind of women were they when they arrived? When they left? What had Guantanamo done to them? What had they done to Guantanamo? And what would my story be – for I was sure that there would be some sort of story here.

I found out later that Mrs. Bulkeley brought her family here in December of 1963, some thirty years ago. It was just over  one year after  the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Castro still was not cashing, nor has he ever cashed,  the $4000  annual rent check for Guantanamo  that the U.S. sends to Havana. Each check is placed  in a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank,  while Castro maintains that the base is illegal. In 1963 there were routine death threats on the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo Bay. Her husband, Admiral Bulkeley, had two Marine sentries posted at the house to guard him, his wife, and their children – at all times. As their children played in the backyard, a marine manned a machine gun on the other side of the three foot high cemented rock fence that encircled the property. For a period of several weeks, Admiral Bulkeley stood watch on a hill overlooking the perimeter of the base for 12 to 18 hours a day, wearing his “Big Iron,” a .357 Colt magnum.  I couldn’t imagine the Bulkeley’s sitting at the end of Flag Landing, he after a day with Big Iron keeping watch, she after a day of telling the kids to stop jumping over the fence in the backyard.  However, it was very easy to visualize my husband, Bookie, and myself there. I knew, the minute my foot touched the clean gray planking, that we would pass many a sunset drinking a couple of cold beers on Flag Landing. In fact, I could pass the next two years right there on Flag Landing and be  happy.

The magnificent white house intimidated me. Bill McCamy, a colleague of my husband’s, had lived in that house with his wife four years ago when he was Commanding Officer (CO) of Guantanamo. When Bookie first got these orders, he called Bill to get the gouge on life in Guantanamo as the CO. Most of the conversation was professional, but towards the end he summed it  up by telling Bookie that  “Gitmo” was the kind of place that when your wife went to buy underwear at the exchange, everyone would  soon know about it.

During the summer I repeated this sentence to myself over and over again. I am a quiet person, and I treasure my privacy. When my colleagues would ask me what my life was going to be like down there, I would always include this remark. Finally, I poured myself a scotch and called my sister.  She suggested that I pack a wig, dark glasses, and some very tacky clothes. “Then, when you’ve really had it, Susie, you can put that outfit on and go for a walk.”  Bookie gave me a thumbs down. As his nickname suggests, he does everything by the book. So, as I drove my kids to and from summer day camps I mentally composed a five paragraph essay  that convinced me I had nothing to fear. It was very persuasive.  The thesis was a good one – everyone buys underwear someday, somewhere, so who cares?  However, I also made sure that I had a  healthy supply of bras in my luggage, because although I didn’t give a hoot if anyone knew I had bought panties last Thursday, I’d be damned if anyone was going to know my bra size.  I was fully prepared, in my own way, for my loss of anonymity.  But I was in no great rush to go up those stairs.

That first morning in Guantanamo the  doorbell rang at 10:30. A man and a woman from the Housing Department on the base had arrived to officially check me into the house. The woman had a clipboard which held a page for each room in the house. There were 13 pages -  lobby, living room, library, dining room, kitchen, pantry,  master suite on the first floor, garage, and upstairs four large bedrooms with an  adjoining family room, windowed from floor to ceiling on three walls and overlooking the bay.  As we entered each room she read off her list of furniture that the Navy had put into the rooms for our use until  those rickety plywood crates full of our stuff arrived in about six weeks. I signed the last sheet, which showed that I agreed with the inventory. The man then proceeded to walk me around the grounds, and familiarized me with the underground sprinkler system as well as the switches for all of the outdoor floodlights. When we were done, we chatted under the shade of the banyan tree in the backyard.  When I first walked into this shade I seemed to be in a grove of trees, but when I looked up I realized it was  just one tree.  A banyan tree is different in that as each branch stretches out, it sprouts a vine, which makes it way to the ground where it takes root and forms yet another supporting trunk.

About two hours later, they left me with some paperwork and four keys. I laid them, side by side, on the dining room table. I smiled because I would not need these keys. People in Guantanamo had no reason to lock their houses or take the car keys out of the ignition.  If you owned a personal weapon, you were told to leave it in storage in the States. There was  simply no crime in Guantanamo Bay. My children would have this experience for two of their most formative years.

I then walked through the house, doing  what any other woman would have done in my position.  I mentally went through the rooms of our house in Virginia Beach, as they had been,  and with each piece of furniture I came across in my mind, I decided where it would go in this house. I glanced at my watch, and I had to smile. At the same time, my husband was doing a walk through of our house in Virginia Beach for our new tenants, and would then hand two sets of keys over to them for two years.  I continued with my furniture arranging, and the boys ran around the house with Kerry yelping at their heels.  When they tired of playing with her, they would retreat into their rooms and close the doors so as to dream alone.   The day after tomorrow Dad would arrive and he would be with us every day for the next two years. We were each equally mesmerized by our new station in life, in this beautiful home, in which, from each of its 75 windows, all you could see was the blue water of Guantanamo Bay which led out to the Caribbean Sea. Surely this navy family had died and gone to heaven.

Later in the afternoon Brendan and I drove over to the stables.  As we drove along Sherman Avenue, we passed the Navy Campus, which was where people stationed in Guantanamo could pursue a college degree. The City College of Chicago held the contract to teach the 100 and 200 level courses, and Troy State University held the same for the 300 and 400 level courses. I had  been hired to teach  freshman composition for City College of Chicago and a survey course of Western Literature for Troy State.  I already knew some of the people who worked there, but only by phone or correspondence.  I was   anxious to get in there and have a look around and meet my new colleagues, but I knew I had to take care of the kids first. Monday would be soon enough, as then the boys would both be in school.

Brendan had read in some literature which we had received about Guantanamo that kids could rent a horse on a monthly basis.  The stable would provide the food and stalls, and the child was to provide the love and exercise. Brendan was most excited about this program, so we drove over to the stables and rented two horses for a couple of hours, and followed a trail which led us over some low rolling hills.  He was unusually quiet.  He rode ahead of me, and I was enjoying the view, as the back of Brendan’s head is exactly the same shape as his father’s.  His hair is the same light brown tinged with red. Inside that head was a ten-year old child, dreaming and scheming about horses, trails, and possible adventures he would have here.  Brian, his brown eyes set off by his light blond hair, had decided to walk into town to get a burger. He was doing an age-appropriate thirteen year old scout of the place to see what the other kids looked like.  We were all back at the house around five, and decided to take two cold sodas and one cold beer   down to Flag Landing.  The wind had changed and from the ripples on the water, you could see that a nice breeze was blowing.

We had been sitting there for about half an hour when Jerry Rea appeared at the foot of the stairs.  Jerry had stopped by the house the day before to introduce himself. He was the Executive Officer, commonly referred to as “XO.”  In the chain of command, Jerry was right under the CO, which meant that Jerry would be my husband’s right hand man. He was a little taller than Jim Newton, more slender, with a mid-west accent. Yesterday  he had arrived at the house around noon to introduce himself, and we chatted for a while. Then he told the boys to get into his white pick up truck, “cause we’re goin’ to MAAAC Donalds.”  When he returned with the boys, they were all laughing with delight,   and Jerry had left the truck with us to use until  our Jeep arrived, which would be in about two weeks.

Jerry sat down  on one of the couches and asked us what we had been up to.  We told him about  our day and then he said, ” I sure wish I was just here for a social visit. But I’m not.”  I had sensed that he had something to tell me, because  it was near  dinner time, and I knew his wife would be waiting for him.

Then he said it.

“I am here to inform you, Mrs. Boland, that an evacuation is imminent.”

Jerry, like Jim Newton, is good with kids. Their immediate question  “Whaddaya mean?”  resulted in an explanation that a 10 and 13 year old could comprehend.  I tried to focus on what he was saying …. some time next week it would begin. Three hundred dependents would leave  a day. What are dependents?  Well, mostly Moms and their children, some others. How will we leave? By plane. Where will they take us? We don’t know yet – Jacksonville or Norfolk. Details haven’t been worked out yet. Do we have to go to school next week? No. No school.  With this, Brendan ceased to ask questions because he no longer knew if he was supposed to be happy or sad. It was very quiet for a moment, and I looked at Jerry only to find that  he was looking  right at me. I knew he was searching for my response, but all I could manage was a deep breath, and on exhale, I said “Oh, boy.”

I paused in thought for minute and then I asked  “Why?”

“You are not safe here.”

We all said, in unison, “Huh?”

Jerry could see that this was very hard to believe, given our present surroundings, as well as the day we had just had.  He told us to get  on up those stairs  and into  his truck.  He was going to take us for a ride and show us why.

He took us down Sherman Avenue and made a right onto   a dirt road, which led completely around McCalla Airfield. The guards waved us by the security check as the XO’s truck was familiar to everyone.  McCalla Airfield had not served planes in over twenty years. The tarmac on our left was a sea of tents. They were in perfectly aligned rows – row upon row upon row.  The heat of the day was visibly rising off the tarmac. Thousands of Haitians were milling about in the afternoon’s heat. The gentle breeze at Flag Landing would be a gift from God over here. The one lane dirt road ran right alongside  the concertina wire that separated us from them.  The truck came close to a structure that looked like a large hot tub. From the activity around it, I could tell it was  a communal bathing area. One large woman was bare to her waist, and cupping water with her hand and splashing it over her body. She was smiling and laughing with some friends who were nearby. Brian and Brendan’s eyes were glued to her breasts.

Jerry stopped the truck and pointed to a spot where last week some Haitians

had thrown the cots from their tents across the concertina wire and ran for the  water. They had to run across the small housing area that was on our right before they could jump into the water and swim across the bay to someplace other than where they were. They did not realize that  the land  on the other side of the bay was the American base, too. A young navy wife had been making the beds when she saw them run past her window, and she had called security.

Jerry started the truck and got us back on Sherman Avenue.  He made a right on Kittery Beach Road and we drove through low, dry, dusty hills until we turned a corner and faced a fork in the  road. Right in front of us was a field with various pieces of equipment scattered recklessly about..  Jeeps were left here and there, wherever the driver had to stop and stacks of new lumber, spools of concertina wire, rows of portable latrines, and folding tables that held an array of papers and jugs of water  completed the landscape. Several hundred men in camouflage were hard at the task of transforming    the chaos of the field in front of us into the  now familiar sight of  the row by row pattern of tents which stretched as far as I could see to my right. These were the Cuban camps

Jerry made a right turn. Cubans were gathered near the concertina wire, which lined the dirt road, chatting with some of the men in camouflage. As we drove by they would peer into the truck. One nudged another, pointed in our direction, and laughed. Another was seated on the highest  piece of equipment near the road, and dramatically lit an imaginary cigarette as we passed. Jerry dismissed this with a wave of his hand, and explained that this was their way of asking for a cigarette. Then, Jerry announced that he would take us down to see Windmill Beach, which was at the end of this road.  He said that the kids and I might like to go out there one afternoon as it was such a nice beach. As he made his way down the  arrow dead end dirt road, there seemed to be more Cubans and more security guards, who were now also peering into the cab of the truck at the four of us. Flag Landing seemed very far away, indeed.

Jerry appeared oblivious. As he maneuvered the truck down the road and chatted about the great quality of life in Gitmo. He spoke in present tense, but from what I saw around me, he was living in the past.  The boys and I listened to his stories, but they only made it clear to us what could have been, should have been and would have been.    This ride was more to convince himself of the need to evacuate dependents than to convince us. It was perfectly obvious to me that we were not safe. The base had room for 45,000 refugees, but was told by Washington to plan for 65,000.

“Hey, Mom. Look at this beach.” Brian said this very softly. It was hard for Brian to leave home. He had grown to love Virginia Beach, spending countless hours with his friends surfing at the ocean. He had poured over maps of the base, looking at the location of the beaches, and wondering what the surf would be like there. As Windmill Beach came into view, I knew that before he left Cuba, I was going to have to drive, alone with the boys and Kerry, down this narrow dead end  dirt road lined on both sides with three foot high concertina fence which is supposed to retain some 20,000 Cubans for at least one of those promised  days at the beach. I owed Brian that much.

Jerry dropped us off at our own front door and we entered the dark, mahogany paneled lobby and felt the rush of  the cool air.  We silently walked through to the living room and each of us fell into a chair.  I closed my eyes, and could still see the endless line of Cubans and concertina wire.  They had left their homes with nothing, literally nothing, but the shirts on their backs. I sat in this comfortable air conditioned mansion, while they stood in the heat of the Caribbean summer. My heart held compassion for them, but my motherly instinct prevailed. I opened my eyes to look at my children, to read their faces. They sat in front of me, staring at me, waiting to know what we would do next.

I did not know.  I had problems to sort out first..  A few hours ago my biggest problem had been  how to arrange our pair of couches in this room. Cots thrown across concertina fences were on the top of my list – a rather long list- now. Couches are perhaps  one of the last things I remember about what the kids and I now refer to as Life B.G. (Before Gitmo) .   The ride around the base with Jerry was the beginning of a week dominated by thoughts of what should have been while at the same time trying to attend to the more immediate questions of when will we go, where will we go, and what will I do without Bookie. I could only hope that I would pop out the other side into something, as yet undefined, but to become Life A.G. (After Gitmo).

Brendan broke the silence with a question. “How many Cubans will they be able to fit in this room?” Brian, always ready to taunt his younger brother, said “Well, I guess they could fit three  of those tents right in this living room. That would be 60 Cubans, right Mom?” I told Brian to hush, and explained to Brendan that they would never put Cubans in this house.

“You mean Dad is going to live in this place all alone?”

“Yeah.”

Under The Banyan Tree appears in six parts in Shestories, beginning on August 17th, and continuing on August 23, 31 and September 2, 3 and 4 staying as close as possible to the original sequence of events as they happened in 1994. Under The Banyan Tree was published by The Virginia Pilot in May 1995.

The Florida Straits

31 August 1994

On August 31, the U.S Coast Guard Cutter Nantucket was on patrol in the Florida Straits.   Standing on her deck on August 31, the crew saw a line of rafts  some two miles in the distance. The rafts and the Cubans  on board,  known as rafters,  were still within the territorial waters of  Cuba.  Beyond the line of rafters the crew could make out the skyline of Havana. Between the rafters and that skyline they saw a Cuban gunboat cruising within her own territorial waters.

Allan Weisbecker, a writer from New York and on board the Nantucket that day, could also see that the ship’s crew of sixteen was having a busy day.  As the ship spotted rafts in international waters,  she pulled aside and boarded the rafters.  He had heard the story that ten days earlier the Nantucket had been in the process of boarding rafters in heavy seas. The raft had capsized, and three crew members had jumped into the rough water , near the jagged edges of the capsized raft,  and rescued the drowning people. In four months the Coast Guard had pulled 50,000 people out of these waters.  The Nantucket’s crew had saved 1,208 lives – “young women holding their infants, feeble, dehydrated  old men,  young men who claim to be political prisoners and insist on being taken to Florida instead of Guantanamo, and a wild-eyed young man who claims he is not Cuban at all, but a citizen of Russia.”

Once the refugees were aboard, the ship’s crew disposed of the raft so that it would not become a hazard to navigation. The crew poured diesel fuel over it and then set ablaze.  Most of the rafts encountered were no more than an inner tube with some framing of odd pieces of lumber. These were disposed of quite easily. However, this day Weisbecker watched they came across a vessel structured of metal piping filled with foam. This would never burn.  Two crewmembers boarded her with pickaxes and set about their task.    He then saw a rafter rise from the collection of Cubans sitting on the deck of the cutter and exclaim, “She not sink, never!”  The crew spent twenty minutes hacking away at the La NINA, her name having been inscribed on her stern.  The craft wallowed, but it would not sink.  The Captain finally ordered them to set  the vessel adrift.  As the crew members boarded the cutter, one made his way  over to the Cuban who had spoken .  He asked the Cuban if he is the one who built La NINA. As Weisbecker put it, “He fearfully nodded yes.  The crew member offered his hand in respect and admiration.  The Cuban,  having very little dignity left in his present situation, sat down, and unsuccessfully tried to hold back his tears.”

Once the Nantucket was filled to capacity, a Navy boat came alongside and ferried the rafters to a waiting Navy frigate.  The frigate then took the rafters to Guantanamo.

As the frigate entered the mouth of Guantanamo Bay,  the frigate passed  a place called Ferry Landing.   From here, residents of Guantanamo boarded the ferry to take them to the other side of the bay, where the airport is located. Under usual circumstances,   a flight came and  departed Gitmo only twice a week.  Ferry Landing was typically a  quiet place.

Ferry Landing

August 31, 1994

The morning of August 31 Ferry Landing was packed with men, women, and children.  This was day one of the evacuation, and the first 300 people were scheduled to depart the base at nine that morning.. A crew from the base radio station circulated among the crowd and reported live on what it was like down there.  A  large crowd assembled to see the first set of evacuees off. There was some expected chaos, last minute paperwork to be filled out, confusion about tickets, and a lot of talk about T-Shirts. Gitmo teenagers had gotten together and hand painted on basic white T-shirts: I am an American Refugee from Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  The people doing the radio show were asking a lot of questions about the welcome  that was  being planned in Norfolk, which was the destination of all evacuation aircraft. There were rumors of red carpets rolled out, police escorts, and free hotel rooms.

Those in the crowd at Ferry Landing who were leaving on that first day of the evacuation began to realize something. So did  I, on Deer Point, listening to the radio. We were actually leaving. The last seven days had been hectic, exciting, depressing, bewildering, and  rife with rumor. That first morning of the evacuation, this was not exciting anymore. This was not bewildering. This was certainly no rumor. Navy families knew that this was good-bye.

Around ten o’clock that morning I was walking past  a row of houses  on my way home after a short walk with Kerry.  George Gibson passed me in his car, and then turned into his driveway, which was about twenty feet in  ront  of me. I knew that George’s wife, Evelyn, had left on that morning’s plane.  George is well over six feet tall, and carries himself with confidence and authority. He got out of his car, and strode over to where I  had stopped walking. His hands were in the pockets of his khaki uniform. For the first few step toward me, his eyes were on the ground. Then, he looked me right in the eye as he came nearer.

“Did Evelyn get off OK?”

“Yeah, she got off all right.”

There was one of those awkward silences, and then he said, simply:

“You know, Susan, I was  just not ready for that. Not ready for that at all.”

I had met him for the first time only a couple of days ago. I did not know what to say, If I had known George all my life, I still would not have known what to say. We both knew good-byes too well; they are a part of navy life. But we both knew that did not make them any easier. In face, as the years go by, they get tougher. I simply said that none of us are ever ready for that and he nodded in agreement. He kept his eyes on the ground and his hands  were pushed deep into his pockets as he walked over to the front door and  into his house. There is no doubt in my mind that he, too, unsuccessfully kept back those tears.

Windmill Beach

At around three that afternoon the boys, myself, and Kerry were having that promised day at Windmill Beach.  The boys  snorkeled around a small lagoon,  Kerry was digging a hole, and I glanced every few minutes to where the road  rose from the beach and disappeared round the bend  to the Cuban camps.  I sat in my beach chair and silently pondered the situation I was in.

It was August 31. This was my ninth day in Cuba, and in four days - September 4 – the boys, Kerry, and myself would leave. Two years had quickly turned into two weeks.  I knew, best case, we would return to Cuba for Christmas. Worst case, we would not return before next summer.   I had decided to make plans based on the worst case scenario. Our shipment of  household goods was put on hold somewhere between Virginia Beach and Cuba,  but it didn’t matter much because by the rules for evacuation we would not have our stuff until we either returned to Cuba, or the Navy decided that dependents would never return to Cuba. Getting my cabinet back did not look good. All we could take with us would be in our allotted two suitcases each.  The tenants in our house in Virginia Beach held a signed contract for two years. There was no legal way I could break that contract.  I knew of one place where I could rent a furnished house at least until next Memorial Day, and that would be the north end of Virginia Beach.

Once I got the boys set up in school, which I decided was my first piece of business, I would look for a place at the beach.  I had no idea where I would stay in the interim. I did not want to go into a hotel, because then Kerry would have to go in a kennel. My instinct told me that Brian, Brendan, Kerry and I needed to be together somewhere quiet in that interim.  I had to get my kids out of what should have been and into what is. In my mind, the sooner I did that, the less damage to my children. They were my first priority. Bookie was making some phone calls that very afternoon, and  I was sure he would have come up with something by the time I saw him that night.

I called the boys out of the water so we could start back to the house.  Security guards stopped me twice along the rocky beach road.  My hand shook as I showed the first set of guards my ID card.

“Sorry, ma’am, but someone in a white truck like yours is making unauthorized videos of the camps.”

Two jeeps simultaneously peeled out of the dirt field beside us. I could only assume they were in pursuit of the other white truck like mine. But what if cots were thrown over the fence line somewhere in front of me on this long dirt road: I looked at Brian and Brendan next to me: I just wanted to get my children out of there. My hands were trembling, but I gripped the steering wheel and gave the truck plenty of gas.

When we got back to the house, I switched on the base radio station.  The announcer was reporting that as of  the next morning, Windmill Beach was no longer open due to security reasons.  Brian listened with me. He  made eye contact with me, turned,  and silently walked out of the  kitchen and climbed the stairs to his room. I was worried about  Brian.  He had dreamed of two years on a beach like Windmill. All he got was two hours. I was watching him closely in Cuba, and   he was being entirely too successful at  holding back those tears.

Change of Command

September 2, 1994

Bookie attended the United States Naval Academy from 1969 – 1973. I was at the University of London during the same time period.  He was a survivor of the rigorous academics in the lecture halls coupled with the character building strategies in the dormitories.   As an English Literature major in London, the lecture halls were pretty close to heaven for me.  However, the  lessons I remember most vividly are those I learned late night on the  streets of London, as by night I was an Underground Irish Rock and Roll Groupie.

We met at my sister’s wedding. I had graduated from college three days earlier, and he was serving on his first ship.   It was a standard receiving line introduction, but  Booke seized the moment to allow his brown eyes to scan me down to the very bottom of my soul in no more than ten seconds.  No man had ever done that before.  He liked what he saw. I liked the sensation.  Like turned into love, and eleven months later, to the day, we were married.

A journalist recently described Bookie as  “a determined, goal-oriented man with a keen sense of  humor that he deftly uses to diffuse tense situations.”  She got that right. When Bookie was no more than six or seven, he saw a navy ship gliding down the Hudson River, on whose banks he had grown up.  He turned to a complete stranger next to him and said: “One day, one of those ships is going to be mine.”  While on the USS Inchon for a six month deployment in 1990 , his career pattern demanded that he  get his Officer of the Deck Certificate.  Just as many of  my colleagues at  work needed to get published to get tenure,  he  needed this certificate to get command of that ship he’d talked about some 37 years ago.   Bookie Boland decided not to go for it.  Command of a ship would mean more deployments and that meant more time away from his family.   The night he came home from that last deployment, we lay in each other’s arms, and I cried those wonderfully warm tears of joy. The loneliness of six-month deployments was history.

On Friday, September 2, 1994, at 4:00 I stood, between  my two  sons, in the inner office of the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo Bay Cuba. Following tradition, Captain DeSpain read his orders from the Bureau of  Naval Personnel  which  directed him to leave his job as CO of  Guantanamo and report to Mayport Florida – his next duty station. Then,Bookie read his orders, which told him to leave the National War College and report to Guantanamo Bay to assume command.  This took all of five minutes.  They shook hands, the photographers took some more pictures, and  there was a little chit chat. Jerry Rea then escorted  the group of about ten who had  been invited to witness the change of  command to the door.  One woman kept looking over her shoulder at the boys and me standing there, and dabbing away her tears with  a handkerchief.  I, determinedly dry-eyed, moved to the door, thinking that the boys and I were supposed to leave as well. Jerry put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me.

“Oh no, Mrs. Boland.  Now, wouldn’t you and the boys like some time alone with our new Captain?”

I looked him square in the eye, and then I looked over at Bookie standing behind his new desk. There was a stack of papers in the in-basket.   I looked back at Jerry.

“Doesn’t he have something important to do?”

“No,  ma’am.  He’s all yours. Take as long as you like.”

Jerry closed the door on his way out.

This was Bookie’s third job as a CO.  The previous two commands had been helicopter squadrons, and the day of the change of command had always been very similar to a wedding.   A day or so before, lots of relatives arrived from out of town. The day itself  started with the ceremony, complete with a band, marching color guards,  all people attached to the command standing in ranks behind the seated guests,  my children and myself marched in (as the band plays something) on the arm of an immaculately uniformed young man, a speech by an Admiral, a speech by the outgoing CO, a speech by the incoming CO. Then a cake cutting ceremony. Then a party for a couple hundred people over at the Officer’s Club. Then another party back at the house.  By the third or fourth time, the CO’s wife almost went on remote. However,   I am always overwhelmed by two feelings at a Change of Command. I am sinfully proud of my husband and  I am also deeply grateful to have been born an American. Those night classes on the streets of London had taught me quite a lot.

The Change of Command on Friday, September 2, did not follow that pattern exactly. The ceremony was originally scheduled for eight in the morning on the Marine Parade Ground.  This is where the ceremony  in Guantanamo had always happened as it was large enough to hold the crowd.  On   September 2 the base would be three days into the six-day evacuation operation. The base  would hold 45,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees, and more were arriving each day.   Early in the week, it was decided that the ceremony would be changed to a much smaller one at  eight o’clock in the CO’s office.   On Wednesday no one was even sure if there would even be a change of command due to a major water leak in the main system for the whole base. Guantanamo had to make all of its own water with the desalinization plant, since Admiral Bulkeley had cut the water pipes to Cuba in 1964.   A water leak   was a major problem and Captain DeSpain would not turn the base over to the new CO until that problem was resolved. Bookie left the house on Friday morning having told me that he would call me when/if they found the water leak because then he might know  the time of the change of command. At about noon I got the message to be there around  a quarter to four.

From Bookie’s arrival the previous Saturday until the moment of his change of command on Friday, he had followed Captain DeSpain around for his “change-over.”  This is standard procedure in the Navy. In that amount of time, he was expected to learn how to do his new job.   Needless to say, the boys and I had not seen much of him. Cubans were arriving at a rate of 4000 a day, evacuees were leaving at 300 a day, and  there was a rumor that Haiti, just an hour’s  plane ride across the water,  was soon to be invaded by American troops.   Because of the emergency evacuation, Captain DeSpain went on the radio every night at seven to take questions over the phone from residents of the base. The evacuation itself was a very complex operation, and the questions revealed the confusion and the stress being experienced by the families. Captain DeSpain knew his people, and answered the questions with   the confidence of a leader well in control.  As I listened to him on the radio,  I  worried about  my husband. He would have to do the radio show once Captain DeSpain was gone, and I knew that he did not know all these details.  But the worst part was that he did not know these people, soon to be his people, and they did not know him.

It was a little awkward in his office with the door closed. What was there to celebrate?  What I had just seen was more like a funeral than a wedding.  Brendan explored  his father’s office, and asked questions about  some of the stuff he saw on the book shelves.  Brian listened.   I half listened.  I was trying to act interested but my heart was too heavy.  In a very short time I knew that we should go.  The boys walked out first, and on into the hallway where already there was a line  of people waiting to see the new “old man.”  I was backing out the door, and closing it as I left. Bookie, at this point, was sitting at his new desk.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” I asked, standing in the hallway  then, with just my head and shoulders inside the door.

“Yeah, I’m OK.   We’ll  go to the club for dinner when I get home. OK?”

“Yeah. OK, Book.”

Then, Bookie smiled his crazy man’s smile, and  he leaned far back in  his chair, raised his right hand in  the air and shaped  his fingers  into a pistol.  He moved it slowly to his left side, and with his raised left hand he pretended to roll the barrel in the gun.  He cocked the gun, moved it back to his right side, and then put it to his head and pulled the trigger.  As I closed the door, he was rolling the barrel again.

September 3. 1994

On that last Saturday evening in Cuba, the four of us felt lost in the magnificent white house.  I was packing up in my bedroom, and on my way downstairs I   heard Bookie’s voice behind the closed door of Brendan’s room.  They were saying their own good-byes to each other.  I stopped  near the door, yet far enough away so that I could only hear  the sound of their sentences.

Later that evening, I was in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner. From the kitchen window you  could see the blue water of the bay, but only through the numerous low lying branches  and trunks of the ever-rerooting banyan tree. The trunks of this  tree read like a history of  the white house  on Deer Point. Scores of folks, lovers and friends,  had carved dates and names into the bark of the trunks. Brian had shown me, earlier that afternoon, where he had done his own carving with his pocket knife. “Brian Boland Evacuated September 4 1994″ As I began to wash the dishes, I glanced out the kitchen window and saw Bookie and Brian standing under the banyan tree. They had their arms around each other.  I squinted to be sure. They were crying onto each other’s shoulders.  Brian was finally crying.  I surprised myself with the sigh of relief that followed.

Then I did it. The scream started deep down inside of me. Conceived very near that part of my soul that Bookie saw on the day we met, it developed within me. It snowballed with the strength of its own power and pain.  It was going to hurt as it passed through my vocal chords, but it was beyond my control at that point. It was like a labor pain, a contraction, only moving in the opposite direction.  There was no stopping it. The house was completely closed up and the air conditioners were all on high.  Good. No one would hear me. I squinted one more time at the scene under the banyan tree, and I screamed.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS!

Pounding the kitchen counter with my fists, I cursed Castro, I cursed Clinton. I cursed every Cuban in every cursed tent on this cursed base. I cursed every room of that cursed house I was standing in, the house my children were supposed to fill with their friends. I cursed my own stupidity to have believed for one minute that life was meant to be anything but a struggle. I pounded and cursed and pounded and cursed until tears flowed freely down my face. I got down on my knees, slouched, and covered my wet face with my hands. I knelt there crying, until I heard the kitchen door creak.  Oh God, please, not one of the kids. Not like this. Then I heard a familiar click of a claw on the linoleum floor and felt Kerry’s warm velvety tongue licking my hands.  Her tongue discovered my salty tears, and she kept licking my hands, palms and knuckles,  as I lowered them to my lap.

September 4, 1994

The gig picked us up at Flag Landing around 7:30 that morning and took us across the bay, back to the airport.  At 8:30 the boys and I boarded the plane first, and found  our seats. We sat down, and waited for regular boarding to begin.  Brendan took the window seat, I was in the middle, and Brian was on my right.  There was a young blonde stewardess, Candy, tall and slender, so Brian was trying to be very cool. I decided it would be best if I left him alone, so I snuggled up to Brendan – as best you can snuggle with an arm rest between you. I followed his gaze out the window of the aircraft.

The hangar door was opened and a line of people stretched from the door  of the hangar to the airstairs. It was a line of families just like my family. As each one approached the stairway, the scene would repeat itself.  The man would start with kissing each of his children and trying to smile. He would stand before his wife, and they would embrace, and start to cry.  They didn’t want the kids to see their tears, either. But the kids saw.  The parents would reach out their arms for their children, and draw them into their embrace.  As this scene repeated itself over and over again, Brendan and I held  onto each other, fighting back those tears.  I didn’t want to watch  this. It was too painful. Yet,  for reasons not clear to me at the time,  I didn’t want to forget it either. I can still  see a  two- year-old child  being carried up the steps, and the child looking over her mother’s shoulder at her father standing at the bottom of the steps, and the child’s dimpled little arm reaching out for her father’s hand and  her tiny fingers curling in good-bye.

Once the passengers were all boarded, the door was closed and the airstairs were rolled away. The tarmac was cleared of all personnel.  The civilian pilot started up the engines. The men in T-shirts and shorts were waving good-bye from behind a chain link fence. Bookie appeared on the tarmac in his khaki uniform.   He stood by himself, with his arms folded on his chest.  I watched him, surprised to see him there. I assumed he had already left since he had never been able to weather drawn-out good-byes.  The plane jerked into movement as we began our taxi to the runway.  As the plane began to move past him, he dropped his arms to his side, squared his shoulders, and came, ever so smartly, to a full salute.

That was my best friend down there.  It was his second day on the job and he was facing the biggest challenge of his life.  We ached for each other.  His salute was a sign of respect. Respect yields the dividend of strength.   I firmly held onto every ounce of strength his salute sent in my direction. I was going to need it in the days that lay ahead of me.

Epilogue

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Spring 1995

Three days after our arrival to Norfolk, the boys  returned to the  schools they had been attending  in  “Life B.G.”   I spent the next day house hunting and on September 15 the boys, Kerry, and myself moved from  a cottage on Fort Story into our rented  house at the North End  section of the beach. I met some of our neighbors in the first few days, but only one or two seemed to know what had happened in Guantanamo.  I have since met a lot of people who remember having  seen “something about that” in the paper.

On October 6 President Clinton visited at the Naval Base in Norfolk.  He came to speak with sailors on board one of the carriers, but he also requested to meet with some of the family members who had been affected by the operations in the Caribbean.  I was introduced to him as the wife of the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He told me that he understood how painful the evacuation must have been for us. I asked him the question I wanted an answer to, as well as the 800 other families evacuated with me. When will we go back to Guantanamo?  He answered that he wanted those families returned to Guantanamo before Christmas. From what I knew at that time of the situation in Cuba, I doubted that he could do that. But who was I to question the President of the United States? To be perfectly honest, I wanted to believe him.  This was exactly what I wanted to hear. So I drove back to the beach house, with hope in my heart, assured that the President knew something I didn’t. He returned to Washington in Air Force One, and his administration did everything that it could do to insure  that I never lay my eyes  on Guantanamo Bay again. I never did.

Christmas came and went. That winter I wrote letters to our elected officials: Sam Nunn,  Strom Thurmond,  Bill Bradley,  John Warner,  Owen Pickett,  Jesse Helms,   and President Clinton. To their credit, each of my letters was answered – except the President’s.   Some  told me how “concerned” they were. Others told me that they would “look into it.”  One official visited Guantanamo shortly after I wrote to him.  Before he left Guantanamo he gave my husband some freebies, one being a key ring for me.  I wrote and wrote and wrote in search of help, and all I have to show for it is a key ring.

I stopped writing letters when the Navy was ordered to transfer the 8500 Cubans being held in  refugee camps in Panama to Guantanamo. At the same time, the Navy was also ordered to start upgrading the tent cities with permanent structures, forming communities with recreation centers, post offices, child care centers, and a sewage system. The Cubans in the camps must be allowed visits from family members who are already living and voting in the United States, mainly Florida – a key state in the Electoral College. However, I could  not go to Cuba to see Bookie.

Finally, in the spring I was told that my husband would finish his tour in Guantanamo and return to us in Virginia Beach by the fall of 1995. There are three things which I distinctly remember from those last six months waiting for him to come home. When driving the boys back and forth to baseball practice, I inevitably saw a red Jeep Wrangler.  Our Jeep made it to Cuba, and Bookie drove it to and from work each day. The other sight I often confronted driving around Tidewater was a flatbed truck with some of those shabby plywood crates which have names scrawled across them in magic marker.  I wouldn’t lay my hands on any of my things until Bookie was home. Those were the rules of evacuation.  On Sunday afternoons, after a long  walk with Kerry  through Seashore State Park , I collapsed, exhausted, on the couch.  I worked pretty hard on the weekends to exhaust myself, so I wouldn’t miss the Book so much.

That was the only time I allowed myself to seriously  daydream about what should have been. In my mind, the couch was a hammock strung up on Flag Landing. Bookie was sitting close by, reading yet another historical novel, his feet resting on a cooler.  I could hear only  two sounds. One was the water lapping at the pilings under the dock. The other was the sound of children’s laughter coming from the magnificent white house on Deer Point.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>