Told I Had to Go to Korea
When I got my marching orders for Korea in early 1951, I was told I'd have
two weeks to get from Fort Belvoir, Virginia to Camp Stoneman in San Francisco.
Two weeks. What was I going to do with two weeks? I had no family or
girlfriend waiting for me — so I decided to go to Cuba.
Why Cuba? Well, it's a strange story, much of which I've never really
understood about myself. But ever since I can remember, I've been intrigued
with Latin American music.
As a child in the early 40s, among my favorite songs were Artie Shaw's
Perfidia and Helen O'Connell's Green Eyes, along with ballads such as Yours,
You Are Always In My Heart, What A Difference A Day Made and You Belong To
I'd always assumed these were "American" songs and didn't learn till some
time later that they'd all originated south of the border.
Eventually, when I heard these songs sung in Spanish and saw how they were
danced to in those Xavier Cugat movies, I knew I had to learn Spanish and
had to learn to do the dances.
World's Worst Spanish Teacher
In junior high school I couldn't wait to sign up for Spanish 1. However, the fact that I did pretty well and got an A was something of a small miracle. If ever a Spanish teacher had been put on earth whose mission it was to discourage kids from wanting to learn the language, it had to be Mrs. Keefauver.
I don't know what part of the deep south she was from, but Mrs. Keefauver had a drawl that made her Spanish sound unlike anything I'd ever heard from the local Chicano population. The kids would spend more time exchanging jokes about her accent than they did studying.
This would invariably result in her shouting in desperation, "Y'all be kwot!" This only made the kids laugh more and look for additional ways to torment the poor woman.
I managed to do well in class mainly because of studying the text book diligently and practicing what I'd learned with a Spanish-speaking neighbor. By the time I dropped out of school in the 10th grade I'd learned enough Spanish to hold an elementary conversation, and have continued studying the language ever since.
Dance Lessons at Arthur Murray
Moving ahead in time to Fort Belvoir, I decided to take
dance lessons at an Arthur Murray studio
in Alexandria, Virginia. I had two reasons for doing
this: (1) I'd hoped that learning to dance would help get me over my shyness
with women, (2) well, I've already described my life-long fascination with Latin
American music and dancing.
I Just Had to Go to Cuba
When I was told about the two weeks furlough I'd have, I decided that if I
hitchhiked to San Francisco I'd have just about enough money to spend a
couple of days in Cuba.
Well, a combination of different rides got me to the Miami airport.
I'd done a little research and found the name of a small hotel in downtown
Havana whose rates were much lower than the fancy ones that catered to the
regular tourist trade. I was hoping to find a bus that would take me there
(it would be cheaper than a cab).
Urgently Needed a Restroom
But I didn't know which bus went where — and now I needed to use the bathroom.
I should have walked back to the
terminal, but I thought that if a taxi could get me to the hotel right away,
I'd be able to hold out till I found a restroom there.
A cab driver who seemed amused by my high school Spanish
told me he'd have me at the hotel in about 15 minutes.
Oh, oh — that would be too long. So I decided to ask the driver if he knew of a restroom we
could stop at along the way. But I wasn't sure of the word for
"restroom." A literal translation would have been "room for resting" and I
was sure that wasn't right. So I asked if he knew where there was
a "men's room" (which I literally translated to "un cuarto para hombres").
Taxista Would Show Me Where to Find Some Action
His face lit up as he said, "Ah, un cuarto para los hombres — con las
mujeres. Sí, sí. ¡Vámanos!"
Well, this was no good — I needed a bathroom and he thought I was looking
for a brothel. And I was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. I
thought of trying some sign language, but if I pointed to the part of my
anatomy that was bothering me, he'd be even more convinced that I was
looking for some "action."
Then I decided to try saying "bath" room instead of "men's" room. Well,
"baño" he understood immediately — but he seemed disappointed that all I
wanted was a toilet. Anyway, he stopped in front of a cantina, and pointed
me toward the men's room.
Couldn't Wait to See Havana
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the hotel, and all I wanted to do
was take a shower and hit the town. Heading out onto the street that night was something I'd been anxiously looking forward to. And I
This was pre-Castro Havana, and it was a whole other world. Being February,
it got dark early, but lights and music and throbbing activity were
everywhere. Most of the stores, cantinas and restaurants had open fronts,
with high retractable iron gates. No heating systems were needed, and
only the luxury hotels had air conditioning. Most other places depended on
the open architecture and ocean breezes for whatever cooling they could get.
Havana Had it All!
Music could be heard coming from inside every restaurant and cantina — and
small bands would be playing on the street corners and the little plazas
that were here and there. I saw couples on their way to somewhere stop and
dance for a while, and then move on.
The music, of course, was the popular Cuban dance music of the day, which
encompassed the varied rhythms of the rumba, the bolero, the guaracha, the
danzón and the guajira. I'm sure this music must have sounded foreign and
exotic to my fellow Americans back at the hotel, but this was the music I'd
come to hear and, hopefully, to dance to.
No Minimum Drinking Age
Judging from what I could see of the patrons in the various cantinas, there
was no minimum drinking age.
So I decided to stop and have a Cuba Libre
(rum and Coca Cola). It was a little sweeter than I would have liked, but
it was cold — and a shot of rum might help loosen up my inhibitions about
asking one of the natives to dance — which I hoped to be doing real soon.
In the cantina I noticed a gentleman at the other end of the bar looking my
way. He smiled and waved and then started to walk toward me. He appeared to
be an American, and was nicely dressed in a suit and tie and a Panama hat.
He appeared to be in his middle sixties. I could tell he was a tourist — but
something seemed different about him.
Adventurous Old Guy
"Hi," he said. "I couldn't help but notice you because you don't see any
other Americans in here. As you can probably tell, this is strictly a native
"Right," I agreed. "That's why I stopped here. I want to get to know the
He told me his name was Fred and that his wife had passed away a year earlier and that he had always wanted to come to Cuba. He went on to say he'd come with a tour group — but that he really didn't enjoy being herded around with a bunch of old fuddy-duddies by a tour guide. So he'd decided to just go out
on his own and take a walk — and this is where he ended up.
When he asked what I was doing in Havana, I said pretty much the same thing
he was. And when I told him I spoke a little Spanish and was hoping to find
a place where singles went to dance, he asked if he could tag along.
"Sure," I said. "Let's go."
Of course I didn't know where I was going — but with all this music and
dancing in the streets, I had no doubt that we'd soon find a place where
unattached women were just waiting to be asked to dance.
Well, we quickly found some waiting women — but dancing wasn't what they had
in mind. We happened to round this one corner, and before we had taken two
steps a tough-looking tomato in a tight blouse and slit skirt stepped out of
a doorway and grabbed Fred by the elbow.
She only said three words. The first was the four-letter F word, and the other
two were "five" and "dollars." Suddenly another woman
appeared at her side and said the same thing to me. I backed away before she
could grab my elbow and said, "Fred, I think we're on the wrong street."
Continued (Part 2)