Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Pilar

The first time I heard about the Pilar or actively spoke about it was in 1974 when I was living with my great-uncle Leicester in Miami Beach. If my father mentioned it I was either too young to understand what he was talking about or it was just another boat that he and his dad happened to be fishing on when he was a boy in Bimini in the 1930s. Leicester was much more descriptive and in his biography of his brother there was a passage where he sees Ernest sitting in the fighting chair of the Pilar at sunset in Key West taking swigs from a bottle of rum. My grandfather was a tall man, as tall as my great-uncle, 6 ft., and strongly built, and back then his hair was still black and he had a moustache. The white beard would come later and the potbelly too. He was lean and young and Leicester writes that that was the first time that he noticed all the shrapnel wounds in his legs from the Austrian shell that had nearly killed him during the First World War.

It was a powerful image and one that stuck with me as I moved from one house to another from Florida to Connecticut to Los Angeles and then finally to Europe as a man. I could easily see him sitting there and smell the salt water in the bay and feel the slight rocking of a heavily built wooden boat in the waves.

Eventually my father would also write about the Pilar and the Nazi U-Boat hunting expeditions that Ernest would organize with a few friends and his captain, Gregorio Fuentes. Packing everyone aboard the Pilar with supplies and a homemade bomb that they intended to drop into the conning tower of an unsuspecting German sub, they would set out from Cojimar in search of trouble. A slightly suicidal mission if there ever was one. How they ever thought that they might get close enough to the U-boat to pull it off before they were machine-gunned into the Gulf Stream is beyond me, but that was the plan.

Luckily they never found the Germans except for my grandfather’s fatal encounter with them at the end of his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream. They were never shot at, the boat survived and Ernest fished aboard her until he left Cuba in 1960.

Today the Pilar is in dry dock on the grounds of his house the Finca Vigía outside of Havana. It was painstakingly restored in 2007 and is kept under a steel awning that protects it somewhat from the elements. I say somewhat because when I saw it for the first time last Thursday I noticed that the varnish on the wood in the cabin had already started to chip and peel. What impressed me though was the size of the boat, something that photographs can never really convey. I could finally see it with my own eyes and imagine my grandfather standing on the flying bridge above the cabin because it was obvious now that it was strong enough to support someone as big as Ernest. Likewise I could see my Uncle Patrick as a young boy sitting in the fighting chair as he wrestled with a huge marlin for hours, just like the second son of the protagonist of Islands in the Stream does.

But the Pilar itself was an archive of dreams and past lives, which I could not avoid now in her presence. I could feel my father and my Uncle Leicester. I could sense their energy and their pathos and I knew that while they were gone and I missed them dearly that they would always be here in this place, with this boat.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ending the blockade

There is in fact an American blockade of Cuba, a somewhat surreal and Kafkaesque relic of the Cold War, but it isn’t total. Close to half a million Cuban-Americans visit the island every year, usually bringing gifts and/or money to their family and friends. I don’t know exactly how much is being brought over but I would imagine that it is a lot. Yet, from what I could see walking around the streets of Old Havana last week it is nowhere near enough.

In the capital city of this country the slow demise of its beautiful architecture could almost be defined as systemic, as it’s just about everywhere you look. Of course, Cuba isn’t the only place on the planet in urgent need of urban renewal. The United States also has its rough spots with cities in an advanced state of decay, Detroit for instance, but Havana takes that decay to a whole new level. I remember seeing some buildings and thinking that it was a miracle that they were still standing and that no one had died from a crumbling roof or balcony. Cuban friends of mine would then explain that it was much worse a decade ago before the government started to rebuild a few of the more historic plazas. But frankly it’s hard for me, a foreigner, to imagine how anything could be worse than this.

While I was born and raised in Miami I am not one of those who are in favor of maintaining the embargo for as long as the Castro brothers remain in power. At the same time I do not believe that the removal of the embargo will automatically solve all of Cuba’s cash flow problems. Especially because I do not think that the United States can be blamed for everything that needs fixing in Cuba.

My hope is that someday the Cubans themselves will rebuild Havana and for me, that includes the Cuban exiles in Miami. If the two governments on either side of the Florida straits will politely get out of the way and let the Cuban people do what needs to be done then Havana could easily become again one of the most beautiful cities in the world.