John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Message from Camilo Feb. 7 2018

February 7th, 2018

At my 86th birthday party yesterday we all gathered in the patio behind the house, with it’s two token coffee trees and many flowers still in bloom. It’s the midst of the dry season, but we’re living in the perfect climate. Pura vida, indeed.

I could do without a birthday every year. What’s there to celebrate? That my knees feel like someone’s taken a wood rasp to them? That I forget, for ten whole minutes, the first name of one of my great-granddaughters? Well, I covered that up pretty well, and back it came when she ran up to me and told me she’d started break dance classes. Instead of ballet, break dancing! Somehow that pulled her name out from some cave in my brain, and I said “That’s great, Maria Sarfrela.”

This getting old, as they say, is not for the timid.

I cover it up, but I keep wondering about Fidelito, shown above in the Plaza de la Revolución. Not the nine-year-old boy, but the grown man, still called Fidelito. It’s obsessive, I should forget about it—but I want to know how he died. Raúl’s not going to tell us. No one’s going to tell us. But did he throw himself off some building? Did he shoot himself? Did he gather up some pills? These aren’t so easy to come by in Havana, or so I’ve heard.

What a different path the two of us took. Okay, he was just a kid when I knew him. But while I was tossed aside from the Revolution, Fidelito knuckled down inside it. Well, he spent some years in Russia, he had a Russian wife—but in the end he came back and lived in El Caballo’s shadow. That’s what everyone did, for decades. If I’d stayed that’s surely what I’d have had to do. It was a huge shadow, so there was plenty of room.

Not for all, though. Huber Matos couldn’t stand it. He tried to step aside, and for that he did twenty years in prison. Would there have come a time when I’d have stood up, stood out, made trouble? I think there would have. And once you came out against Fidel, in any way, you either went to jail or you humbled yourself. And once humbled you were done. One day you’d get fired, the way Fidelito was fired from his nuclear projects job. The way my brother got fired from the Politburo, and then from the Ministry of Tourism. The way Fidel took the army away from me and gave it to Raúl.

I couldn’t have lived Fidelito’s life. I didn’t want a life in the shadows. No wonder he wound up depressed.

One good thing: I’m never depressed. I wake up each day to Clare’s drooping old lovely smile. I have a granddaughter who’s a break dancer! Coño, I wish my knees would let me do that.

Message from Camilo 8

February 2nd, 2018

What a sad day this is. I’ve just heard that Fidelito has killed himself, after suffering from depression. Of course it was depression, that’s the killer. The civilian killer. And of course no one ever heard that he was suffering, that isn’t the kind of thing people talk about. Not in Cuba, not in the U.S., not here in Costa Rica.

But it levels me. There he is in the photo, between me and Fidel, nine years old on the day we rolled into Havana, the 8th of January, 1959. That handsome young boy. His mother was a famous beauty, but she and Fidel were finished. She was living with Fidelito in New York, in Queens, and why she brought him down to Havana where his father could grab him and keep him, I don’t know. That was it for Mirta—she rarely saw her son again.

He was such a tender boy that day, dressed in a little army shirt and cap. He was the age of some of my grandchildren now. Of course he grew up. He went to Russia and became a nuclear physicist, and was a loyal Cuban for decades. But I only knew the young Fidelito, the boy who’d been separated from his mother, the one who rode in the truck with us into Havana, trying to keep his chin up. I don’t know any more about depression than any other doctor of internal medicine, and even the experts can only guess about it. But hearing the news today, I can’t help thinking about that fateful day.

On my desk I have a copy of the manuscript John Thorndike, an American writer, has written about my life. And there, a third of the way in, is a description of that monumental day. It makes me ache now to think of Fidelito as depressed, as dead. He had three children himself, and what has become of them? Little Russians, they were. Anyway, here’s how Sr. Thorndike (el compadre Torndique, we call him around here) describes the day I met Fidelito:

Havana, by ten in the morning, was noisy with anticipation. Fidel’s caravan was approaching the city, though no one knew when it would arrive. Cars honked, church bells rang, sirens and fog horns blared from ships in the harbor. Camilo, following a call from Fidel, had his men drive him out to Cotorro, east of the capital.

There, inside the town’s municipal building, he found Fidelito, Fidel’s nine-year-old son who’d flown down from New York with his mother the day before. Alone now, he sat at a wooden table in the courtyard. As Camilo watched from the entrance, a soldier brought him a glass of juice. It looked like mamey, which was delicious to adults but not always to children.

Fidelito took a single taste, then pushed it aside.

Camilo walked up, set his Thompson on a chair and sat down across from the boy. “Would you like something else?” he asked in Spanish. “Some other drink?”

Fidelito hesitated, then asked, “¿Habrá una Coca-Cola?”

Camilo relayed the order, and in less than a minute a frosted bottle appeared from a nearby restaurant, the cap removed. No money was asked for, and Camilo still had none.

Outside, visible through the entrance, people had gathered in the square. There were women on rooftops, men in the trees, families by the curb with baskets of fruit and candied peanuts to offer the rebels when they came. Camilo by now was used to the hubbub, but Fidelito looked wary.

“How’s your English?” Camilo asked, in English.

Immediately the boy perked up. “All my friends speak English.”

“You live in New York, right?”

“In Queens.”

“I lived in New York. I worked there in a famous hotel, the Waldorf Astoria. Do you know it?”

The boy shook his head. Why, Camilo wondered, was he sitting here alone? Fidelito sipped his Coca-Cola. He wore blue jeans and what looked like a little army shirt. He stared out past a couple of soldiers on guard at the vaulted opening and the crowd beyond. Then he glanced at Camilo and asked, “Where is this?”

“You mean this town? It’s Cotorro.”

Fidelito just looked at him. Camilo searched through his pockets, found an envelope and unfolded it, then pulled his chair around and sat down next to the boy. Using a pen, he drew a primitive map of Cuba, putting Santiago in the east, then Camagüey and Santa Clara in the middle, then Havana and Cotorro, a half inch apart. “Right here,” he said.

The boy studied the little map. It lay on the table in front of him. He sat up straight on his chair and glanced around the room. He didn’t look happy.

“Is your mother here?”


“She didn’t bring you?”

The boy shook his head. “I didn’t see her today.” He sounded sad and unsure.

“How did you get here?”

“Some soldiers. I don’t know them.”

Camilo hunched his chair closer. “Pretty soon your father will come. I know he’ll be happy to see you, because he is talking about you all the time.”

Fidel had only mentioned his son a few times in the Sierra, and always in anger at Mirta, the boy’s mother. Still, Camilo’s small lie seemed to work, and Fidelito looked less worried.

“We’re going to have a good time,” Camilo said. “We’ll all get on a truck, or even on top of a tank, and we’ll drive from here to Havana. You see all those people outside? They’re waiting for your papá.”

“I know.”

Fidelito drank more of his Coca-Cola. He looked around the high-ceilinged room, more observant now, his brown eyes as long-lashed as a girl’s. He was a good-looking kid, and his mother a famous beauty. He asked, “Is there a bathroom here?”

“I’m sure there is. Let’s go find it.”

Camilo stood outside while the boy used the room. It took a long time, so long that Camilo called out, “Are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” came the answer. His English was pure yanqui.

“You don’t need any help?”

No response. Of course he didn’t need any help, he was nine years old. Then the sound of the toilet flushing, and Fidelito came out with his hands wet, drying them on his shirt. “I’ll be all right,” he said.

This made Camilo even sadder. Where was Mirta, anyway?

Fidel jumped out of his jeep, overjoyed at the sight of his son. He snatched him up, hugged and kissed him, put him on his shoulders and carried him up to a balcony above the plaza, where the people cheered the two of them wildly. With Fidelito at his side he gave a twenty-minute speech in which he mentioned the boy’s name a half dozen times.

Finally they were ready to go. Fidel sat his son in the back of an oversized jeep along with some soldiers, and told him he’d be safe there. He stood above the cab and called Camilo and Huber Matos to ride beside him, their guns at the ready.

“And Fidelito?” Camilo said after a few kilometers. “Don’t you want to let him ride up here with us?”

“Too dangerous,” Fidel said. He did not look back, had not glanced around since they left Cotorro. “Of all the times someone could shoot me, this would be the day. Plenty of people want to, you know. We will soon find out how many enemies we have. Just stay alert—and if anyone points a gun at me, shoot him. You hear that, Huber? Both of you, keep your eyes open.”

Message From Camilo 7

January 8th, 2017


Here it is again, January 8th, the day of Fidel’s victory celebration in 1959. I wonder if I might be the last surviving barbudo who came down from the Sierra, slogged across most of Cuba, and joined Fidel’s caravan as it entered Havana. Raul wasn’t with us, he was back in Santiago. Huber Matos was with us, on Fidel’s left, as you can see in the photo—but Huber is dead, and now Fidel is dead. Juan Almeida is dead. There’s some sailor in the photo as well, but he had never set foot in the Sierra. Unless William Galvez is still around, it’s likely that I’m the last of us.

It’s crazy to think that after all this time, Cubans are still abandoning their country. Last year over 45,000 of them entered the U.S. through an official Port of Entry, hoping to become citizens, or at least residents. What pains me is that for so many Cubans, their agonizing choice has remained the same all these decades: do they stay in Cuba or try to get out? Of course for me it has been just the opposite. My choice has been, Should I go back, or not?

Lately I’ve been thinking that my choice not to go is a form of cowardice. Camilo the Coward! The joke is that my fame has always been just the opposite. I was always El Señor de la Vanguardia, meaning that in battle I was always at the front of every column. I’ve never liked that pompous phrase, because El Señor can mean either Mr. Big, or the Lord. I came from a plain family, and was always closer to obrero than patrón, more worker than boss. And if anyone confused me with El Señor in the clouds, that would really be a joke. It seems to me that if I were truly daring, I’d be in the vanguard of those returning to Cuba. Instead, the ones going back are investment tycoons like Alfonso Fanjul, or writers like Raúl Ramos y Sanchez, who gets to visit with relatives he hasn’t seen in half a century, while I sit here under the coffee trees, fighting off retirement.

My excuse is Clare, who doesn’t want me to go. She’s happy with our family here in Costa Rica, which now includes children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. But then, Clare was never Cuban. She loved Cuba, but after Fidel threw her out of the country she never forgave him for anything. He was too powerful, too full of himself. She respected what he’d done to change the great injustices of Cuba in the 1950s—but much of the same was accomplished here in Costa Rica by Pepe Figueres, within a social democracy. No, she fears for me if I ever set foot on Cuban soil.

Maybe I fear it myself. But that’s not supposed to be me. I’m supposed to be brave. Nowadays, being brave is going over to my granddaughter Elena’s house and looking after her three young ones for a long afternoon. Now that’s enough to completely exhaust an old man, to make him think a random push might topple him into the grave. These are the tyrants I deal with now, two girls and a boy, all under seven. But such darling tyrants! For hours on end, they make me forget about my choices.

Message from Camilo 6

November 27th, 2016


I’m glad I’m not in Miami. All that cheering and banging on pots and pans and dancing around in the street. My heart couldn’t take it, because no matter what they say, they’re cheering for Fidel’s death.

At the same time, I wouldn’t care to be in Havana now either, headed for nine days of mourning. Raúl, please, we could use a little pura vida here. A whole lot of political blather is what we’ll get, without a word from those Cubans who’ve been secretly fed up with Fidel for years. Official speeches and mourning for nine days! I suppose Fidel might appreciate it, wherever he is now—but don’t ask my opinion about that kind of thing.

It’s the opposite of all this posturing that I loved about our years in the Sierra: the rawness of it, the simplicity and violence. I know I’m not supposed to like war, with people getting killed all the time. But people were getting killed all the time before the Revolution started, murdered by Batista’s secret service and his Guardia Rural. Celia Sánchez had it right when she said we were better at war than domestic life, that we didn’t know what do do with husbands and wives and children, or with tranquility of any kind. And politics, to me, was more difficult than domestic life!

I do wish I’d been there when el jefe was dying. Not so I could take a side, but to be close to him in his last minutes, and remember him the way we all knew him at the start, as the great light of Cuba. Many who came to hate him, started out by loving him.

Living here in Costa Rica, I have some distance on all of it. And what I think about now is that anyone who cheers, either for Fidel or against him, is bound to be cheering against members of their own family. Because inside every Cuban family—every one, if you spread the net wide enough—is someone who loves Fidel, and someone else who’s glad that he’s finally dead.

Coño, I could make some trouble. All I’d have to do would be to go back to Havana, let them know it was me, and start telling the truth as I see it. I’m just about the only Cuban that both sides love, so I’m sure they’d listen. But Raúl would also listen, and after I’d talked about him for a while, I’d probably be back in jail.

The next thing that will actually happen, of course, is that Clare will read this and jump on me for ever imagining that I could put myself in that danger. But that’s how it goes with Fidel: even beyond the grave, he stirs everyone up.

Message from Camilo 5

October 29th, 2016


Yesterday, on the anniversary of my disappearance, I had a surprising visit here in Costa Rica. An American writer named John Thorndike has been putting a book together about my life, and came to see me, unannounced. Of course I was glad to see him–how could I resist someone who’s fascinated by my story and wants to write a book about it? Who has written a book about it. Who says he might have a publisher, and wants to ask me a few more questions.

We’ve talked before, here on the Villamano family farm. I don’t know how he tracked me down the first time, but he was most respectful. He was going to write a book, but he wouldn’t expose me, wouldn’t use my Costa Rican name (it’s not Villamano, that’s a pseudonym), wouldn’t disrupt my life. I don’t know why I trusted him, but I did. I guess I had to, since he’d already figured everything out. It’s a novel he’s writing, anyway, so when he wants to change a few details, he does. When he tells the story of my flight out of Cuba, for example, he includes my pilot, Luciano Fariña, but omits my escort, Félix Rodriguez. I felt this was disrespectful, but listened to the writer’s explanation about the demands of fiction. Well, okay.

I’ve read a draft of the manuscript, and he got most everything right. Some of the scenes with me and Clare in bed are kind of embarrassing–but at the same time I love thinking back to that time in our lives. What passion! And this Thorndike has a grip on the dilemma I felt in those days, when I was caught between my passion for the beautiful Clare, and my passion for the Revolution. I don’t know if I’d ever have resolved that if someone hadn’t put a bomb on my plane and banished me from my country.

We sat last night under the coffee trees in back, the yanqui writer and Clare and I, talking late into the night. He has brought the latest draft of his book, and I’ll be reading it soon. None of us could get over the fact that my flight out of Camagûey–and Clare’s from Havana, a year and a half later–happened almost sixty years ago. At the same time, everything we talked about fed into a debate that’s gotten stronger in my household: Why should I go on hiding my past? Why not tell the truth and let people live with it? Let me live with it.

So much discussion these days–these decades, actually–about the failures of the Revolution. And life isn’t easy for Cubans, I understand. Of course, I see it from the position of an almost-retired physician in a most civilized country. But I won’t ever forget the poverty and injustice, the disgrace that was Cuba in the nineteen-fifties. People can criticize Fidel for plenty of bad decisions, because he’s made them. But his basic changes for Cuba were long overdue, and admirable. Socialism, Communism, I don’t care what you call it, we had to pay more attention to the poor of our country, and that’s what Fidel devoted his life to.

Ah, I can still go off on a rant. I went off on one last night, with Clare listening quietly and that writer, Thorndike, taking notes. Then Clare went off herself, all about the retrograde health system of the great U.S.A., and in the end we broke out some mangos and started laughing as we ate them, because it’s always such a mess.

A novel about my life! And Clare’s life, too. I have to say, I look forward to seeing it in print.

Message From Camilo 4

October 28th, 2015

Back in February, I wrote about my birthday. Today it’s a different story: my deathday.

Every sentient soul in Cuba—and almost no one anywhere else—knows the story. At 6:01 on the evening of October 28th, 1959, I climbed into my two-engined Cessna and took off, with my pilot, on a flight-over-land from Camagüey to Havana. I’ve never seen Cuba again, and the disappearance of my plane—never a trace of it found—led to elaborate explanations from Fidel about how I’d been swept off course by a mythical storm, as well as to the conviction of most Florida Cubans that El Caballo had me assassinated.

Nope. I’m living still in Costa Rica, which that little Cessna reached before crashing into some trees on the coast. I’m here with my beautiful wife Clare—well, that’s what we say, my beautiful wife, though the truth is that Clare looks pretty craggy these days. Almost as craggy and wrinkled as I am. We are, after all, 83 and 84. Beautiful to me, I should say, and to hell with what any mirror shows—here with Clare and our kids and grandkids, living the Costa Rican dream, pura vida and all that.


I see on the Huffington Post that the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez put up a post about me and my disappearance. At the end she says,

“The mystery has collapsed. Not because we found answers, but because we got tired of waiting for them. Right now, nothing would change because we know that Camilo Cienfuegos is alive somewhere – with his graying beard – unless it is scientifically proven that the official version is true. Nor would there be a great commotion on finding out his death was an assassination order by his own compañeros from the Sierra Maestra.

“Time, implacable, has ended up burying Camilo.”

What did I expect? Well, what I didn’t expect is that technology would allow me to read, almost instantaneously, reports of how school kids in Cuba are still throwing flowers into the sea in my memory, every October 28th. Inland, they throw the flowers into rivers. It’s such a lovely image that I almost have to agree with Clare, who doubts my idea of going back to Cuba. Do I want to return and tell the truth, and put an end to this lovely custom?

I don’t know. But I do know that I read about Cuba all the time now, and some pressure is building in me to go back—to go home, I almost wrote—and look around, and talk to people and crack some jokes (they’d expect that of me), and try to figure out for myself what so many have tried to understand over the last 55 years: Was there some worth to that Revolution? I did give my life to it, after all. My first life, before this second one took over.

–From Camilo, in Costa Rica

Message From Camilo 3

March 5th, 2015

naty revuelta


Naty Revuelta has died, at the age of 89. You get to be my age, 83, and everyone you know starts dropping off. Well, not everyone. Fidel is still with us, and Raúl, too. But Huber Matos died last year, and Carlos Franqui a few years before that. Oh, what the hell, they were old, or old enough. It’s not like when we were fighting in the mountains and men were dying all over the place in their twenties or even their teens. Women, too. That Revolution was no game.

Up in the Sierra I heard rumors about Natalia Revuelta, how back in the Moncada days she’d thrown her husband over for Fidel and his cause. Also, how she and Fidel had a child—though Fidel was never much of a father to that girl. The truth is, he never had much time for his kids. He had so much else to do! Of course, Clare will tell you that I wasn’t all that good myself after I first found out about Alameda.

I didn’ t meet Naty until after we rolled into Havana in January, 1959—and she was a beauty, just as everyone said. A beauty, and devoted to the Revolution. She wanted Fidel back, that was clear, but by then Fidel had the pick of any woman he wanted, and in addition to Celia Sánchez there were a half dozen others. None of that held Naty back. She wanted to work for the Revolution, and Fidel gave her a job at INRA, the agrarian reform institute. That’s where everything was decided in those days, and where Fidel and Che and Raúl and Ramiro Valdés met to talk. I was often there myself. And Naty was a force in that office, I tell you. She was passionate about agrarian reform, about health care and literacy and a dozen other things.

Coño, how can she be dead? I’ve never understood it, no matter how many have died around me. How can someone be alive among us, then not? She was a tiny woman, and lively. She drove a little blue Volkswagen with a canvas opening in the top and sometimes, if I saw her stopped at a streetlight, she’d fold back the roof, stand up on her seat and give me a wave.

I heard that toward the end of her life her great love was a granddaughter in Miami, a girl she saw too rarely. The Castros, the Revueltas, the Diaz-Balarts, the Matos—even the Cienfuegos: there’s not a family on that damn island that isn’t split and divided and tortured. No family is whole, there’s always someone who lives in Miami or Madrid or Caracas or somewhere most Cubans can’t get to. Naty, you were a great revolutionary when it wasn’t easy. I haven’t seen you in fifty-five years, but I wish you were still here on earth with us.

–From Camilo in Costa Rica

Message From Camilo 2

February 6th, 2015


Letter from Camilo:

It’s my birthday, February 6th. The whole family came: Alameda and Ernesto and Clarisa, along with their husbands, wives, kids and grandkids. They were trying to surprise me, but I read all the signs. Eighty-two years old, going on twenty-two. Well, perhaps not quite. I can’t remember what I felt like at twenty-two. I hadn’t met Clare, I wasn’t burned, I didn’t have any kids. Okay, thirty-two.

I pulled a little stunt after Clare brought in the cake. I pretended as if I didn’t have the wind to blow out the candles. And then, as if my mind were going, I started to speak in the most exaggerated Cuban accent, making it almost impossible to understand. The grandkids looked at me like I had a sudden attack of Alzheimer’s. I could tell Clare wasn’t too happy about it, because I was kind of giving away the Big Secret, and we agreed long ago that we weren’t going to do that. So I clowned around with it, and the littlest kids loved it, they thought it was some kind of game. Oia ‘oño, ’o sabe ’nde se ’ompra lo ‘uego pa lo niño en ete ’ueblo, ’orque esos niño nesitan lo ’uegos ma que yo.

In Tico you’d say it nice and clear: Oiga, coño-—only you wouldn’t say coño here, it’s not a good word for kids-—no sabe donde se compra los juegos para los niños en este pueblo, porque estos niños necesitan los juegos mas que yo. Which of course the kids liked when I let them figure it out, that they were the ones who ought to be getting the presents.

After everyone went home, Clare jumped right on me. If I went on talking Cuban like that, the family was going to figure something out. And of course, Clare had me figured out almost before I did—-because I’d started to wonder if enough damn time hasn’t gone by.

I haven’t cared for decades if I ever saw Cuba again. But recently, with all this talk about the U.S. and Cuba normalizing relations, I thought, We could go back for a visit. We could see what’s happened to that country.

“Yes, we could start with that,” Clare said. “And then maybe you’d want to tell everybody the whole story.”

I wasn’t quite ready for that—but I had been thinking it over. It’s because of Obama and Raúl lining up to talk to each other. They’re going to “normalize relations”. Of course that’s a joke. In a hundred and fifty years there’s never been anything normal about how the U.S. and Cuba have gotten along, so normal is not what’s coming. But driving home from the clinic the other day, I had a kind of dream, or a vision: how normal it would be for me and Clare, and maybe our kids, and maybe some of their kids, to go look at the world I grew up in.

After I said that, Clare and I sat around for awhile listening to the night, just thinking about the idea.

My Mother and Camilo

January 25th, 2014


This is my mother, Virginia, at the age of 16, standing behind her house at 822 North High Street in Columbus, OH. These days North High is the heart of the city’s hip Short North, but in 1931 it was all family homes and backyard gardens. Standing next to my mother is her dorky boyfriend, with his arm around her waist and his right hand looking like some prehistoric claw. With his round glasses and high waist, I don’t think he had any idea of what he had a hold of, and I doubt that he lasted long.

My mother wanted more, but wasn’t sure know how to get it. Only three years later, after a single year of college, she married a truck driver named Larry Tidball, who moved her to Beaumont, Texas. Things did not go well with Larry, and in 1937 she left him and moved to New York, where her father had found a job at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

And here’s a man I thought my mother would have liked to meet:
camiloCienfuegos-300 wide_cr


It may seem odd, so many years after the fact, that I’d be matchmaking for my mother. After all, a year after she moved to New York she met my father and soon married him. But I’m afraid that my father, in her hidden heart, was not the kind of man she wanted. Though far from dorky, and truly an admirable guy, he was still somewhat tame: not commanding enough.

Both my parents are now dead—my father died in 2005, my mother in 1972—and I feel free not only to explore their histories but to play around with their lives. That’s what led to my notion of a fictional romance between two actual people: my mother, and the Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos.

What first triggered the idea was reading, some dozen years ago, that Camilo—a hero and martyr whose giant neon sculpture now faces Che Guevara’s in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución—once worked as a dishwasher at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Actually, I think his job was at some small restaurant out on Long Island, but in my mind I long ago moved the scene to Manhattan. That was where a young-woman-something-like-my-mother might have run across a Cuban dishwasher—a guy who only three years later would be appointed by Fidel as head of the Cuban Army.

And that’s how a novel might get started: a couple of photos, a single surprising bit of history, and a writer’s basic obsession.

Finally, here’s a photo by Korda, the Cuban ex-fashion photographer who took the iconic picture of Che in his beret.
Camilo and Fidel


That’s Fidel on the right and Camilo, with his Thompson submachine gun, on the left, on the day of their triumphant entry into Havana. That was in January, 1959, and only ten months later Camilo took off from a provincial Cuban airport in a twin-engined Cessna, and disappeared without a trace.


55 Years Ago Today

January 2nd, 2014


55 years ago today, Camilo Cienfuegos and 300 men from his column drove into Havana, where the remaining generals of the Cuban Army handed over their control to the rebel army.

Only a day before, the dictator Fulgencio Batista had given his usual New Year’s party. Then, at two in the morning, he and his family, along with a few of his generals and some 300 million dollars, climbed into a plane and flew to the Dominican Republic, yielding his rule to Fidel Castro. But the first of the rebels to reach Havana was not Fidel, who was in Santiago at the eastern end of the island, nor Che Guevara, who arrived a day later and took over a lesser post at the El Morro castle. It was Camilo Cienfuegos, the Cuban Revolutionary hero most Americans have never heard of.

Every Cuban (and almost every Cuban-American) knows Camilo well. In early 1959, aside from Fidel, he was the most-respected and most-loved of the revolutionaries. His column had been fighting in the town of Yaguajay in Santa Clara province, and almost at the same hour that Batista abandoned the country, the army chief of the Yaguajay barracks signed a surrender to Camilo and his rebel troops. Camilo and the general shared some champagne (I admit to imagining a few of the minor details of this scene), Camilo went to bed at four in the morning, and at five he was woken by a phone call from Fidel, telling him to get on the road to Havana.

Here was the triumph of Fidel’s two-year fight to take over the country from Batista. Here was the culmination of the Americas’ most dramatic revolution, in which 82 men boarded a cabin cruiser in the Mexican port of Tuxpan, met with almost complete disaster after landing in Cuba (only 15 of the 82 managed to make their way into the Sierra Maestra)—yet only two years later were able to rout a powerful and corrupt dictator supported by the U.S. government.

Today Cuba can look like a shambles. The record of Castro’s idealistic political and social changes is bleak in many ways. But in January of 1959 many of the families that wound up in Miami (and Tampa and New York and Union City, New Jersey) were cheering wildly for Fidel and his soldiers. For many, that enthusiasm later faded—but on the day Camilo Cienfuegos took over Camp Columbia in Havana, the city was on the edge of delirium

55 years ago I was a boy of 17, buried in my junior year of high school. I knew nothing of any revolution in Cuba. Yet Camilo’s story has gripped me for decades now, and here I am on another January 2nd, remembering his first dramatic days as head of the Cuban Army. What glory he enjoyed over the next ten months, at which point he disappears from Cuban history—but not from the novel I’m writing.