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Archive for January, 2014

My Mother and Camilo

Saturday, 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.


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55 Years Ago Today

Thursday, 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.

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